The Orphic Great Hunter

Any time that the Ukraine is mentioned I think of Olbia and the bone tablets found there. Specifically SEG 28.659:

βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος
Life. Death. Life. Truth. Zagreus. Dionysos.

This cryptic sequence is capped off by a fragment often omitted from translations, though it has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate: Ὀρφίκ-. Some believe that the final word is missing an α (which would make it Orphika, a reference to a class of literature and ceremonies which circulated under the name of the famous Thrakian musician) or if it’s supposed to end in -οι (giving us Orphikoi, a community organized around such material.) These days the existence of Orphic thiasoi is hotly contested though previous generations spoke of a kind of proto-Protestant Orphic “church.” I suspect, as with most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. There was no universal Orphic ekklesia, but there were itinerant religious specialists and the communities they served who drew inspiration from “Orphic” ideas and practices — and if the -οι party is correct, the bone tablets would be among the earliest evidence of their existence.

I sometimes wonder if the Ὀρφίκ- was a modifier however, as in “Orphic Dionysos” (though I’ve no idea if that’s plausible considering the spacing of the letters on the tablet, etc.) Was the author then commenting on the identity of Zagreus as the Dionysos associated with Orphika? While it’s unlikely that Zagreus as the child who suffers σπαραγμός and ὠμοφαγία at the hands of the Titans is intended since the name means “Great Hunter” and the earliest myths associated with it all suggest a potent, savage adult (or at least ἔφηβος) and only late authors such as Nonnos and Olympiodoros project it back (and Olympiodoros alone provides the anthropogony where man has a dualistic nature since we are sprung from an admixture of the blood of Dionysos and the ashy remnants of the Titans who were obliterated by Zeus’ lightning, which should be evident since his preserved heart is fed to Semele who was not among the first generation of humans and Dionysos when grown to manhood travels the inhabited world introducing wine and viticulture and his other mysteries and blessings to careworn mortalkind who have developed into separate races and civilizations, with numerous thriving cities.) But a different sort of Zagreus as the Orphic Dionysos … that has potential. 

And, although there are few traces of him left in the literary record (let alone the archaeological) I’ve long suspected that one is hiding in plain sight in Euripides’ Bakchai. At 1191 Agave hails Dionysos as κυναγέτας σοφός (“knowledgeable hunter”) to which the chorus of Mainades replies ὁ γὰρ ἄναξ ἀγρευς (“Our Lord is a hunter!”) Run those last two words together and you get ἄναξἀγρευς or ἄν- Ξἀγρευς which might sound to certain ears so inclined to hear it like Ζαγρεύς (especially since there was often dialectical confusion between Xi, Zeta and Sigma in the Archaic and Classical periods.) I’m not saying that was his intention, though Euripides did write the play during his residence at the Makedonian court, which we know from Plutarch was a hotbed of Bacchic Orphism, at least during the reign of Queen Olympias:

All the women of Makedonia were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysos from very ancient times (being called Klodones and Mimallones), and imitated in many ways the practices of the Edonian women and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom, as it would seem, the word threskeuein came to be applied to the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing baskets, or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men. (Life of Alexander 2.5-6)

And both before and after her plenty of the Argeádai or Temenid dynasty were devotees of Dionysos, whom they counted amongst their ancestral Gods and further considered the progenitor of their line (except when they wanted to be Heraklids.)