You become what you eat

The Orphic prohibition on eating certain animals isn’t vegetarianism (though it was sometimes mistaken for such in antiquity) nor is it driven by sentimentality – it is straight up a taboo in the Frazerian sense. The concern wasn’t for the preservation of life (which is why they had no problem participating in animal sacrifice) but rather the effect that consuming the animal’s soul would have on the individual – since that was actually part of the telete.

This is made clear in the original Greek – in the rare instances when you find Orphics mentioned in conjunction with abstention from meat (and that rarity should tell us something, since vegetarians wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to enshroud their beliefs in the authority of a figure like Orpheus if they could) what they are avoiding is flesh that is empsuchos “ensouled” not “alive” zōntes or something similar. Notably, in Homer, psuchai are something we possess only in death, a sort of spiritual double that’s produced when the body ceases to respirate and is sent down to the house of Haides. This concept changed drastically under the Presocratics until it came to have its contemporary psychological associations – but Orphism was self-consciously Homeric and pre-Homeric in its orientation. (Most Orphic literature, even in the late period, was produced in strict dactylic hexameters and there are strong, and rather ironic, borrowings from Homer in the gold lamellae.) So I think Orphics were drawing on primitive (one might even say shamanic considering the region where the tradition originated) notions of the soul as a repository of qualities and consciousness that could migrate from one body to another. Thus by eating an animal one would take on the soul of that animal, including its powers, personality and behaviors. So, for instance, when we find prohibitions such as these:

Those who are mages (magoi) and purifiers (kathartai) and beggar-priests (agurtai) and vagrant-charlatans (alazones) purport to be extremely reverent of the gods and to know something more than the rest of us. They use the divine to hide behind and to cloak the fact that they have nothing to apply to disease that will bring relief. So that their ignorance should not become manifest, they promoted the belief that disease was sacred. They added further appropriate arguments to render their method of healing safe for themselves. They applied purifications (katharmoi) and incantations (epaoidai) and told people to refrain from bathing and many foods unsuitable for the sick to eat: among fish they banned red mullet, black-tail, grey mullet, and eel (for these are the most hazardous); among meats goat, venison, pork and dog (for these are the meats that upset the stomach most); among poultry cock, pigeon, the otis-bird and all those birds considered to be least indigestible; among vegetables mint, garlic, and onions (their sharpness is deleterious for a sick man). They also forbade the wearing of a black cloak (for black is deathly), the lying on or wearing of goatskin, the placing of foot upon foot or hand upon hand (for this is shackling). (Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease 1.11–18)

We can see the laws of sympatheia and contagion at work here. These specific animals are singled out for what they represent which was situationally undesirable, particularly since the recommendations are being made for a client who is suffering from illness. In other contexts one might actually want to become a goat or a bull and thus would consume their flesh in order to draw the animals’ souls into them. Seen in this light several Orphic texts suddenly take on a whole new meaning:

Where midnight Zagreus roves, I rove; I have endured his thunder-cry; fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts; held the Great Mother’s mountain flame; I am set free and named by name a Bakchos of the Mailed Priests. Having all-white garments, I flee the birth of mortals and, not nearing the place of corpses, I guard myself against the eating of ensouled flesh. (Euripides, Cretans fragment 472)

Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this very day. Say to Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you. A bull you rushed to milk. Quickly, you rushed to milk. A ram you fell into milk. You have wine as your fortunate honor. And rites await you beneath the earth, just as the other blessed ones. (Gold tablet from Pelinna)

Accept ye my great offering as the payment for my lawless fathers.
Save me, great Brimo …
and Demeter and Rhea …
and the armed Kouretes: let us … and we will make fine sacrifices.
A ram and a he-goat … boundless gifts.
… and by the law of the river …
Taking of the goat … let him eat the rest of the meat …
Let no uninitiated look on!
(The Gurôb Papyrus)

So there may have been a taboo not just on eating certain animals – but on eating them outside of ritual or before rituals where a different sort of energy was required. 

And a mythic prototype of this would naturally have been the metamorphoses described by Nonnos in the sixth book of his Dionysiaka:

He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

As well as the vision of Platonic revenant Er who described a musical orgy during which Orpheus was transformed into a swan and Thamyras a nightingale and a bird became a man in a “strange, pitiful ridiculous spectacle.” (Republic 10.620a)

The profound identification of eater with eaten which lies at the heart of omophagia was too much for certain sensitive individuals such as Empedokles:

Will ye not cease from this ill-sounding slaughter? See ye not that ye are devouring one another in the thoughtlessness of your hearts? […] And the father lifts up his own son in a changed form and slays him with a prayer. Infatuated fool! And they run up to the sacrificers, begging mercy, while he, deaf to their cries, slaughters them in his halls and gets ready the evil feast. In like manner does the son seize his father, and children their mother, tear out their life and eat the kindred flesh. […] Draining their life with bronze. […] Ah, woe is me that the pitiless day of death did not destroy me ere ever I wrought evil deeds of devouring with my lips! (fragments 136-39)

And like someone reeling from a bad acid trip who swears off all drugs, he rejected the core sacrament of Orphism after going through it. This sarcophobic strain enters Pythagoreanism in the second or third generation and gives rise to the soma-sema tag “the body is a tomb” which dominates Neo-Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism and certain branches of Orphism (such as the ones that emphasize Apollon or Zeus above Dionysos and Persephone) to the end of antiquity. But death as a transition from one state of life to another and sacramental theriomorphism remained hallmarks of Bacchic Orphism and related Dionysiac traditions.

Like tarantism, which seems to be the process in reverse. Instead of becoming what you bite, you become what bites you.

Gilbert Rouget writes in Music and Trance: A theory of the relations between music and possession:

One of the dance figures of the tarantulees – the best known – consists, as we know, in imitating the spider’s movements: back to the ground, body arched to a great or lesser degree, the tarantulee moves about like a spider on all fours. One can see this very clearly in D. Carpitella’s film, and the sight is striking […] Despite appearances, the divinity responsible for the possession is not the one that is excorcised. On the contrary, it is the divinity concerned who, by allowing the possessing person to identify with him or her, provides the means of ecxorcising the illness – real or imagined – from which the person is suffering.

Elaborating on this, blogger quotidian banality writes:

The spider which was held responsible for tarantism was a mythical creature which did not correspond to any arachnid of modern zoology. Instead, the taranta assembled the characteristics of several different species of spider into a mythical whole. Different colours were attributed to the spiders – principally red, green and black – and the ‘bite’ of each respective spider caused different behaviour in the victim. Those bit by red spiders displayed martial, heroic behaviour; those bit by green spiders displayed eroticised behaviour; and those bitten by black spiders were fascinated by funerary paraphernalia. Furthermore, each colour spider had its own repertoire of musical figures and dances: for example, those bitten by a green spider would only dance to a tarantella tune associated with the green spider. Finally, the victims of the spider’s bite were fascinated by pieces of cloth with the appropriate colour. Thus, during the course of an exorcism different Tarantella tunes were played and different colours of clothes were given to the victim in order to determine which spider possesses her. Only the appropriate tarantella tune, the appropriate colour and the appropriate dance would cure the victim – at least for the time being, until the affliction reoccured a year later. Music serves at once as diagnosis and therapy.

Which hearkens back to what I was saying about sympatheia and contagion earlier. 

And circles make me think of labyrinths which makes me wonder – if eating animals makes us bestial, by eating human flesh did Asterion become more man-like?


For Mysterium magnum is nothing else than the hiddenness of the Deity, together with the Being of all beings, from which one mysterium proceeds after another, and each mysterium is the mirror and model of the other. And it is the great wonder of eternity, wherein all is included, and from eternity has been seen in the mirror of wisdom. And nothing comes to pass that has not from eternity been known in the mirror of wisdom. But you must understand this according to the properties of the mirror, according to all the forms of Nature, viz. according to light and darkness, according to comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, according to love and wrath, or according to fire and light, as has been set forth elsewhere. The Magician has power in this Mystery to act according to his will, and can do what he pleases. But he must be armed in that element wherein he would create; else he will be cast out as a stranger, and given into the power of the spirits thereof, to deal with him according to their desire. Of which in this place no more is to be said, because of the turba.

OK Böhmer.

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The Christian heresiarch Carpocrates (whom I posted about here and here) was born in 2nd century Egypt and ended his days in Asia Minor, which had a pronounced Bacchic presence. Around this time there were even small circles of Orphikoi in the area, such as the community that produced the collection of hymns that has come down to us under their master’s name. I strongly suspect that these groups intersected and that there was substantial mutual inspiration between them.

Consider what Livy relates about the Bacchanalia and the Bacchic Martyrs of Southern Italy, as well as stories that circulated elsewhere. Hell, even back in the days of Plato we Bacchic Orphics had a pretty sketchy reputation.

But it isn’t just their marginal status and antinomian beliefs that causes me to intuit a connection between these groups, as Clement of Alexandria makes clear in book 3, chapter 2 of the Miscellanies:

6. This is what he says, then, in the book Concerning Righteousness: “The righteousness of God is a kind of universal fairness and equality. There is equality in the heaven which is stretched out in all directions and contains the entire earth in its circle. The night reveals equally all the stars. The light of the sun, which is the cause of the daytime and the father of light, God pours out from above upon the earth in equal measure on all who have power to see. For all see alike. There is no distinction between rich and poor, people and governor, stupid and clever, female and male, free men and slaves. Even the irrational animals are not accorded any different treatment; but in just the same way God pours out from above sunlight equally upon all the animals. He establishes his righteousness to both good and bad by seeing that none is able to get more than his share and to deprive his neighbour, so that he has twice the light his neighbour has. The sun causes food to grow for all living beings alike; the universal righteousness is given to all equally. In this respect there is no difference between the entire species of oxen and any individual oxen, between the species of pigs and particular pigs, between the species of sheep and particular sheep, and so on with all the rest. In them the universality of God’s fairness is manifest. Furthermore all plants of whatever sort are sown equally in the earth. Common nourishment grows for all beasts which feed on the earth’s produce; to all it is alike. It is regulated by no law, but rather is harmoniously available to all through the gift of him who gives it and makes it to grow.

7. “And for birth there is no written law (for otherwise it would have been transcribed). All beings beget and give birth alike, having received by God’s righteousness an innate equality. The Creator and Father of all with his own righteousness appointed this, just as he gave equally the eye to all to enable them to see. He did not make a distinction between female and male, rational and irrational, nor between anything and anything else at all; rather he shared out sight equally and universally. It was given to all alike by a single command. As the laws (he says) could not punish men who were ignorant of them, they taught men that they were transgressors. But the laws, by pre-supposing the existence of private property, cut up and destroyed the universal equality decreed by the divine law.” As he does not understand the words of the apostle where he says “Through the law I knew sin,” he says that the idea of Mine and Thine came into existence through the laws so that the earth and money were no longer put to common use. And so also with marriage. “For God has made vines for all to use in common, since they are not protected against sparrows and a thief; and similarly corn and the other fruits. But the abolition, contrary to divine law, of community of use and equality begat the thief of domestic animals and fruits.

8. He brought female to be with male and in the same way united all animals. He thus showed righteousness to be a universal fairness and equality .But those who have been born in this way have denied the universality which is the corollary of their birth and say, ‘Let him who has taken one woman keep her,’ whereas all alike can have her, just as the other animals do.” After this, which is quoted word for word, he again continues in the same spirit as follows: “With a view to the permanence of the race, he has implanted in males a strong and ardent desire which neither law nor custom nor any other restraint is able to destroy. For it is God’s decree.”

And how can this man still be reckoned among our number when he openly abolishes both law and gospel by these words. The one says: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The other says: “Everyone who looks lustfully has already committed adultery.” The saying in the law, “Thou shalt not covet,” lt shows that one God is proclaimed by law, prophets, and gospel; for it says: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” But for a Jew the “neighbour” is not a Jew, for he is a brother and has the same spirit. Therefore it remains that “neighbour” means one of another race. But how can he not be a neighbour who is able to share in the same spirit? For Abraham is father not only of the Hebrews, but also of the Gentiles.

9. If the adulteress and he who committed fornication with her are punished with death, clearly the command which says “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” speaks of the Gentiles, in order that anyone who, as the law directs, abstains from his neighbour’s wife and from his sister may hear clearly from the Lord, “But I say unto you, Thou shalt not lust.” The addition of the word “I,” however, shows the stricter force of the commandment, and that Carpocrates fights against God, and Epiphanes likewise. The latter in the same notorious book, I mean Concerning Righteousness, writes in one passage as follows: “Consequently one must understand the saying ‘Thou shalt not covet’ as if the lawgiver was making a jest, to which he added the even more comic words ‘thy neighbour’s goods’. For he himself who gave the desire to sustain the race orders that it is to be suppressed, though he removes it from no other animals. And by the words ‘thy neighbour’s wife’ he says something even more ludicrous, since he forces what should be common property to be treated as a private possession.”

These then are the doctrines of the excellent Carpocratians. These, so they say, and certain other enthusiasts for the same wickednesses, gather together for feasts (I would not call their meeting an Agape), men and women together. After they have sated their appetites (“on repletion Cypris, the Goddess of love, enters,” as it is said), then they overturn the lamps and so extinguish the light that the shame of their adulterous “righteousness” is hidden, and they have intercourse where they will and with whom they will. After they have practiced community of use in this love-feast, they demand by daylight of whatever women they wish that they will be obedient to the law of Carpocrates-it would not be right to say the law of God. Such, I think, is the law that Carpocrates must have given for the copulations of dogs and pigs and goats. He seems to me to have misunderstood the saying of Plato in the Republic that the women of all are to be common. Plato means that the unmarried are common for those who wish to ask them, as also the theatre is open to the public for all who wish to see, but that when each one has chosen his wife, then the married woman is no longer common to all.

II. In his book entitled Magica Xanthus says: “The Magi think it permissible to have sexual intercourse with mothers and daughters and sisters, and that wives are to be held in common, not by force and in secret, but both parties may agree when one man wishes to marry another’s wife. “Of these and other similar sects Jude, I think, spoke prophetically in his letter- “In the same way also these dreamers” (for they do not seek to find the truth in the light of day) as far as the words “and their mouth speaks arrogant things.”

A lot of this cosmology is downright Empedoclean and Herakleitian.

And this strain of utopian Bacchic communitarianism interests me a great deal, as it’s something that we see resurface (again and again) with the Germanic, Scandinavian and Russian Romantic poets and even much earlier with François Rabelais and his Abbey of Thélème. (Not to mention here in America too.)

But even more relevant is the hero-cultus that developed around Epiphanes, the son of Carpocrates:

6. But the followers of Carpocrates and Epiphanes think that wives should be common property. Through them the worst calumny has become current against the Christian name. This fellow Epiphanes, whose writings I have at hand, was a son of Carpocrates and his mother was named Alexandria. On his father’s side he was an Alexandrine, on his mother’s a Cephallenian. He lived in all only seventeen years, and at Same in Cephallenia was honoured as a God. There a temple of vast blocks of stone was erected and dedicated to him, with altars, sacred precincts, and a “museum.” The Cephallenians gather at the temple every new moon and celebrate with sacrifices the day when Epiphanes became a God as his birthday; they pour libations to him, feast in his honour, and sing his praises. He was educated by his father in the general education and in Platonism, and he was instructed in the knowledge of the Monad, which is the root-origin of the Carpocratians’ heresy.

So much to be unpacked here, that I hesitate to introduce the following – but it does show that Gnostics and Orphics rubbed shoulders, even if these selections from the fifth book of Hippolytus Romanus’ Philosophoumena are concerning a different denomination:

Worshipping, however, Kyllenios with special distinction, they style him Logios. For Hermes is the Word who being interpreter and fabricator of the things that have been made simultaneously and that are being produced and that will exist, stands honoured among them, fashioned into the form of the phallos of a man, having an impulsive power from the parts below towards those above. And that this deity is a conjurer of the dead and a guide of departed spirits and an originator of souls has not escaped the notice of the poets.

This is the Christ who, he says, in all that have been generated, is the portrayed Son of Man from the unportrayable Logos. This, he says, is the great and unspeakable mystery of the Eleusinian rites, Hye, Kye! (“Rain, conceive!”) And he affirms that all things have been subjected unto him, and this is that which has been spoken, Their sound is gone forth unto all the earth just as it agrees with the expression, Hermes waving his wand, guides the souls, but they twittering follow. The poet means the disembodied spirits follow continuously in such a way as by his imagery he delineates:

And as when in the magic cave’s recess
Bats humming fly, and when one drops from ridge of rock,
and each to other closely clings.

These are, he says, what are by all called the secret mysteries which also we speak, not in words taught of human wisdom, but in those taught of the spirit, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receives not the things of God’s spirt for they are foolishness unto him.

And again, he says, the savior has declared the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you.

Jeremiah himself remarked He is a man, and who shall know him?

These, he says, are the inferior mysteries, those appertaining to carnal generation. Now, those men who are initiated into these inferior mysteries ought to pause, and then be admitted into the great and heavenly ones. For they, he says, who obtain their shares in this mystery, receive greater portions. For this, he says, is the gate of heaven; and this a house of God, where the Good Deity dwells alone. And into this gate, he says, no unclean person shall enter, nor one that is natural or carnal; but it is reserved for the spiritual only. And those who come hither ought to cast off their garments, and become all of them bridegrooms.

Concerning these, it is said, the Savior has expressly declared that straight and narrow is the way that leads unto life, and few there are that enter upon it; whereas broad and spacious is the way that leads unto destruction, and many there are that pass through it.

The entire system of their doctrine, however, is derived from the ancient theologians Mousaios, Linos and Orpheus, who elucidates especially the ceremonies of initiation, as well as the mysteries themselves. For their doctrine concerning the womb is also the tenet of Orpheus; and the idea of the navel, which is harmony, is to be found with the same symbolism attached to it in the Bacchanalian orgies of Orpheus. But prior to the observance of the mystic rites of Keleos and Triptolemos and Demeter and Bakchos in Eleusis, these orgies have been celebrated and handed down to men in Phliom of Attica.

And in the greater number of these books is also drawn the representation of a certain aged man, grey-haired, winged, having his penis erect, pursuing a retreating woman of azure color. And over the aged man is the inscription phaos ruentes, and over the woman peree. But phaos ruentes appears to be the light which exists, according to the doctrine of the Sethians, and phicola the darkish water; while the space in the midst of these seems to be a harmony constituted from the spirit that is placed between. The name, however, of phaos ruentes manifests, as they allege, the flow from above of the light downwards. Wherefore one may reasonably assert that the Sethians celebrate rites among themselves, very closely bordering upon those orgies of the Great Mother which are observed among the Phliasians. And the poet likewise seems to bear his testimony to this triple division, when he remarks:

And all things have been triply divided, and everything obtains its proper distinction

 That is, each member of the threefold division has obtained a particular capacity. But now, as regards the tenet that the subjacent water below, which is dark, ought, because the light has set over it, to convey upwards and receive the spark borne down from the light itself is the assertion of this tenet. I say the all-wise Sethians appear to derive their opinion from Homer

By earth I swore, and yon broad Heaven above,
And Stygian stream beneath, the weightiest oath
Of solemn power, to bind the blessed Gods.

 Therefore, he says, when, on the people assembling in the theatres, any one enters clad in a remarkable robe, carrying a harp and playing a tune upon it, accompanying it with a song of the great mysteries, he speaks as follows, not knowing what he says:

 Whether you are the race of Kronos or blessed Zeus, or mighty Rheia, Hail, Attis, gloomy mutilation of Rheia. Assyrians style you thrice-longed-for Adonis, and the whole of Egypt calls you Osiris, celestial horn of the moon; Greeks denominate you Wisdom; Samothracians, venerable Adam; Haemonians, Korybas; and the Phrygians name you at one time Papa, at another time Corpse, or God, or Fruitless, or Aipolos, or Green Ear of Corn that has been reaped, or whom the very fertile Amygdalos produced— a man, a musician.

 This, he says, is multiform Attis, whom while they celebrate in a hymn, they utter these words:

I will hymn Attis, son of Rheia, not with the buzzing sounds of trumpets, or of Idaean pipers, which accord with the voices of Kouretes; but I will mingle my song with Apollon’s music of harps, “evohe, euan,” inasmuch as you are Pan, as you are Bakchos, as you are shepherd of brilliant stars.


‘Tis the Season: More like ewwwcharist

Thomas said: “We have heard that there are some on the earth who take the male seed and the female monthly blood, and make it into a lentil porridge and eat it, saying: ‘We have faith in Esau and Jacob.’ Is this then seemly or not?”

Jesus was wroth with the world in that hour and said unto Thomas: “Amēn, I say: This sin is more heinous than all sins and iniquities. Such men will straightway be taken into the outer darkness and not be cast back anew into the sphere, but they shall perish, be destroyed in the outer darkness in a region where there is neither pity nor light, but howling and grinding of teeth. And all the souls which shall be brought into the outer darkness, will not be cast back anew, but will be destroyed and dissolved.”

– The Pistis Sophia, translated by G. R. S. Mead