name-famous Orpheus

The founder of our tradition enters the written record in the 6th century before the common era through the Magna Graecian poet Ibykos of Rhegion: Onomaklyton Orphēn, he wrote, “name-famous Orpheus.”

His famous name tells you everything about him; it comes from the PIE root *orbh-, “to put asunder, separate” and is related to orphne, “darkness” and orphanos, “parentless.” This is not a happy name. Noel Cobb finds it semantically connected to goao, “to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell thus uniting his seemingly disparate roles as disappointed lover, transgressive musician and mystery-priest into a single lexical whole.”

The myths that Orpheus sang into being were full of loss and suffering:

When driven by the goad of Kings Bakchos and Apollon, I described their terrible shafts, and likewise I disclosed the cure for feeble mortal bodies and the Great Rites to initiates. Truly, above all I disclosed the stern inevitability of ancient Chaos, and Time, who in his boundless coils, produced Aether, and the twofold, beautiful, and noble Eros, whom the younger men call Phanes, celebrated parent of eternal Night, because he himself first manifested. Then, I sang of the race of powerful Brimo, and the destructive acts of the giants, who spilled their gloomy seed from the sky begetting the men of old, whence came forth mortal stock, which resides throughout the boundless world. And I sang of the service of Zeus, and of the cult of the Mother and how wandering in the Cybelean mountains she conceived the girl Persephone by the unconquerable son of Kronos, and of the renowned tearing of Kasmilos by Herakles, and of the sacred oath of Idaios, and of the immense oak of the Korybantes, and of the wanderings of Demeter, her great sorrow for Persephone, and her lawgiving. And also I sang of the splendid gift of the Kabeiroi, and the silent oracles of Night about Lord Bakchos, and of the sea of Samothrace and of Cyprus, and of the love of Aphrodite for Adonis. And I sang of the rites of Praxidike and the mountain nights of Athela, and of the lamentations of Egypt, and of the holy offerings to Osiris. And also I taught the multitudinous ways prophesying: from the motion of wild birds and from the positions of entrails; how to receive the prophetic dreams that pierce the mind in sleep, and the interpretation of signs and omens and what the motion of the stars means. I taught atonement that brings great happiness for mortals; and how to supplicate the gods and give offerings to the dead. And I described that which I gained by sight and thought when on the dark way of entering Haides via Taenaron, relying on my cithara, through the love of my wife. And I described the sacred test of the Egyptians in Memphis that is used to convey prophesy, and the sacred city of Apis, which is surrounded by the river Nile. (Proem of the Orphic Argonautika)

The universe in which these myths play out is a fundamentally tragic one – even the gods experience vicissitudes, so man has no hope of escaping them. Rather, we must use the strife we will inevitably face to perfect ourselves and ennoble our spirits. We must pass through grief into joy, letting it burn away all that is false and useless within us – you cannot reach the one but through the other. We must find the divine in the monstrous, the profane in the holy, we must be destroyed in order to know the full measure of life – only when we are on the edge, with nothing left to lose and no thought for what we might gain, are we truly free, truly alive. Heroic philosophy is what Orpheus taught the Greeks; how to suffer well and look forward to death.

The Spartan king Leotychidas wished to be initiated into the mysteries until Philip the Orpheotelest came to oversee the rites. The man was gaunt, half-mad eyes red from tears, hair unkempt, smeared with ashes and wearing a simple white linen garment. “Your appearance,” the king said, “makes me wonder if these ceremonies you’re peddling bring any benefit at all.” Philip proceeded to explain the pleasures that awaited initiates on the other side, growing ever more florid and rapturous as he went on. Finally Leotychidas interjected, “You fool! If such abundant riches are yours why don’t you speedily kill yourself instead of prolonging your misery here?” Philip laughed and said, “What would you think of a feast where the host set before you a table containing only olives?” And Leotychidas replied, “Such fare would be too simple even by Spartan standards.” Philip answered him, “I have not yet had my fill of this world’s delicacies.”

This parable, which appears slightly modified in the Apophthegmata Laconica and recurs in several forms at various places in Plutarch’s corpus, reminds me of these passages from The Apocryphon of James:

Then Peter answered: “Lord, three times you have said to us ‘Become full’, but we are full.” The Lord answered and said: “Therefore I say unto you, become full, in order that you may not be diminished. Those who are diminished, however, will not be saved. For fullness is good and diminution is bad.


Do you not desire, then, to be filled? And is your heart drunk? Be ashamed should you desire to be sober! And now, waking or sleeping, remember that you have seen the Son of Man. Woe to those who have seen the Son of Man! Blessed are those who have not seen the Man, and who have not consorted with him, and who have not spoken with him, and who have not listened to anything from him. Yours is life! Know, therefore, that the Son of Man healed you when you were ill, in order that you might reign. Yours is the Kingdom of God! Therefore I say to you, become full and leave no place within you empty, since the Coming One is able to mock you.


Do you dare to spare the flesh, you for whom the spirit is an encircling wall? If you contemplate the world, how long it is before you and also how long it is after you, you will find that your life is one single day and your sufferings, one single hour. Scorn death, therefore, and take concern for life. Remember my cross and my death and you will live.

And I answered and said to him: “Lord, do not mention to us the cross and the death, for they are far from you.” The Lord answered and said: “Truly I say to you, none will be saved unless they believe in my cross. But those who have believed in my cross, theirs is the Kingdom of God. Therefore, become seekers for death, just as the dead who seek for life, for that which they seek is revealed to them. And what is there to concern them? When you turn yourselves towards death, it will make known to you election. In truth I say to you, none of those who are afraid of death will be saved. For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who have put themselves to death. Become better than I; make yourselves like the son of the Holy Spirit.”

Then I questioned him: “Lord how may we prophesy to those who ask us to prophesy to them? For there are many who ask us and who look to us to hear an oracle from us.”

The Lord answered and said: “Do you not know that the head of prophecy was cut off?”

And I said: “Lord, it is not possible to remove the head of prophecy, is it?”

The Lord said to me: “When you come to know what ‘head’ is, and that prophecy issues from the head, then understand what is the meaning of ‘Its head was removed’. I first spoke with you in parables, and you did not understand. Now, in turn, I speak with you openly, and you do not perceive. But it is you who were to me a parable in parables.

Or as the Olbian prophets of Orpheus once put it: βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Διόνυσος. Life. Death. Life. Truth [Loss of Forgetfulness]. Dionysos.

There is also a strong parallelism between the gold lamellae and this fragment from the Gospel of Philip:

The Lord has shown me that my soul must say on its ascent to heaven, and how it must answer each of the powers on high. I have recognized myself, it says, and gathered myself from every quarter, and have sown no children for the archon. But I have pulled up his roots, and gathered my scattered members, and I know who you are. For I, it saith, am of those on high. And so, they say, it is set free.