Jane Ellen Harrison.

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1 Herod, ii. 81 6fj.o\oyeov(n 8^ ravra toIctl 'OpcpLKoTai. KaXevfx^voiai Kal BaKx^Ko^cri,
eovat. 5e AlyvTrrioLai Kai llvdayopeiotcn.
- Eur. Hijjp. 954

'Optpea r' dvaKT ^x'^''
3 Apollod. I. 3. 2, 3. , I


456 Orpheus [ch.

understood through the doctrine of Orpheus, and the doctrine
of Orpheus apart from the rehgion of Dionysos is a dead letter.

And yet, clearly linked though they are, the most superficial
survey reveals differences so striking as to amount to a spiritual
antagonism. Orpheus reflects Dionysos, yet at almost every point
/seems to contradict him. The sober gentle musician, the precise
almost pedantic theologist, is no mere echo, no reincarnation
of the maddened, maddening wine-god. Diodorus expresses a
truth that must have struck every thinker among the Greeks,
that this real and close resemblance veiled an inner, intimate
discrepancy. He says\ in telling the story of Lycurgus, 'Charops,
grandfather of Orpheus, gave help to the god, and Dionysos in
gratitude instructed him in the orgies of his rites ; Charops handed
them down to his son Oiagros, and Oiagros to his son Orpheus.'
Then follow the significant words : ' Orpheus, being a man gifted
by nature and highly trained above all others, made many
modifications in the orgiastic rites : hence they call the rites that
took their rise from Dionysos, Orphic' Diodorus seems to have
put his finger on the secret of Orpheus. He comes later than
Dionysos, he is a man not a god, and his work is to modify the
rites of the god he worshipped.

It is necessary at the outset to emphasize the humanity of
Orpheus. About his legend has gathered much that is miraculous
and a theory- has been started and supported with much learning
and ability, a theory which sees in Orpheus an underworld god,
the chthonic counterpart of Dionysos, and that derives his name
from chthonic darkness {op(f>vr}). This is to my mind to mis-
conceive the whole relation between the two.

Orpheus as Magical Musician.

Like the god he served, Orpheus is at one part of his career a
Thracian, imlike him a magical musician. Dionysos, as has been
seen (p. 452), played upon the lyre, but music was never of his

In the matter of Thracian music we are happily on firm

^ Diod. III. 65 TToXXa /xeraOeTvai twv if tois dpyloii.

- E. Maass, Orpheus. To Dr Maass's learned book I owe much, but I am
reluctantly compelled to differ from his main contention.

ix] Orplieus a TJtradan 457

ground. The magical musician, whose figure to the modern mind
has almost effaced the theologist, comes as would be expected
from the home of music, the North. Conon^ in his life of
Orpheus says expressly, 'the stock of the Thracians and Mace-
donians is music-loving.' Strabo^ too is explicit on this point.
In the passage already quoted (p. 415), on the strange musical
instruments used in the orgies of Dionysos, he says : ' Similar to
these (i.e. the rites of Dionysos) are the Kotyttia and Bendideia
practised among the Thracians. and with them also Orphic rites
had their beginning.' A little further he goes on to say that the
Thracian origin of the worship of the Muses is clear from the
places sacred to their cult. ' For Pieria and Olympus and Pimplea
and Leibethra were of old Thracian mountains and districts, but
are now held by the Macedonians, and the Thracians who colonized
Boeotia consecrated Helicon to the Muses and also the cave of the
Nymphs called Leibethriades. And those who practised ancient
music are said to have been Thracians, Orpheus and Musaeus and
Thamyris, and the name Eumolpus comes from Thrace.'

The statement of Strabo is noticeable. As Diodorus places
Orpheus two generations later than Dionysos, so the cult of the
Muses with which Orpheus is associated seems chiefly to prevail
in Lesbos and among the Cicones of Lower Thrace and Mace-
donia. We' do not hear of Orpheus among the remote inland
Bessi. This may point to a somewhat later date of development
when the Thracians were moving southwards. That there were
primitive and barbarous tribes living far north who practised
music we know again from Strabo. He tells ^ of an Illyrian tribe,
the Dardanii, who were wholly savage and lived in caves they
dug under dung-heaps, but all the same they were very musical
and played a great deal on pipes and stringed instruments. The
practice of music alone does not even now-a-days necessarily mark
a high level of culture, and the magic of Orpheus was, as will
later be seen, much more than the making of sweet sounds.

Orpheus, unlike Dionysos, remained consistently a Northerner.
We have no universal spread of his name, no fabulous jpirth stories
everywhere, no mystic Nysa ; he does not take whole nations by
storm, he is always known to be an immigrant and is always of the

1 Conon, Narr. xiv. (pikhfiovaov to Opq.Kuif Kal MaKeSdvcav yivos.

2 Strabo x. 3 § 722. =* Strabo vii. 7 § 315.

458 Orpheus [ch.

few. At Thebes we hear of magical singers Zethus and Amphion,
but not of Orpheus. In Asia he seems never to have prevailed ;
the orgies of Dionysos and the Mother remained in Asia in their
primitive Thracian savagery. It is in Athens that he mainly

To the modem mind the music of Orpheus has become mainly
fabulous, a magic constraint over the wild things of nature.

' Orpheus with his lute made trees
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing.'

This notion of the fabulous music was already current in
antiquity. The Maenads in the Bacchae'^ call to their Lord to
come from Parnassos,

' Or where stern Olympus stands
In the elm woods or the oaken,

There where Orpheus harped of old,
And the trees awoke and knew him,
And the wild things gathered to him,
As he sang among the broken
Glens his music manifold,'

and again in the lovely song of the Alcestis'-, the chorus sing to

Apollo who is but another Orpheus :

'And the spotted lynxes for joy of thy song
Were as sheep in the fold, and a tawny throng
Of lions trooped down from Othrys' lawn.
And her light foot lifting, a dappled fawn
Left the shade of the high-tressed pine.
And danced for joy to that lyre of thine.'

In Pompeian wall-paintings and Graeco-Roman sarcophagi it
is as magical musician, with power over all wild untamed things
in nature, that Orpheus appears. This conception naturally passed
into Christian art and it is interesting to watch the magical
musician transformed gradually into the Good Shepherd. The
bad wild beasts, the lions and lynxes, are weeded out one by one,
and we are left, as in the wonderful Ravenna" mosaic, with only a
congregation of mild patient sheep.

It is the more interesting to find that on black and red-figured
vase-paintings, spite of this literary tradition, the power of the
magical nnisician is quite ditfercntly conceived. Orpheus does

1 Eur. Bacch. 5G0. 2 Eur. AJc. 57i).

* In the Church of S. Apollinare in Classe. See Kurtli, Mosaiken von ihr
christlich. Era, Taf. xxvii.


Orpheus as Magical Musician


not appear at all on black-figured vases — again a note of his late
coming — and on red-figured vases never with the attendant wild

On a vase found at Gela and now in the Berlin Museum ^
reproduced in fig. 142, we have Orpheus as musician. He wears
Greek dress and sits playing on his lyre with up-turned head,
utterly aloof, absorbed. And round him are not wild beasts but

Fig. 142.

wild men, Thracians, They wear uniformly the characteristic
Thracian dress, the fox-skin cap and the long embroidered cloak,
of both of which Herodotus^ makes mention as characteristic.
The Thracians who joined the Persian expedition, he says, 'wore
fox-skins on their heads and were clothed with various-coloured
cloaks.' These wild Thracians in the vase-painting are all intent
on the music ; the one to the right looks suspicious of this new
magic, the one immediately facing Orjjheus is determined to
enquire into it, the one just behind has gone under completely;
his eyes are shut, his head falling, he is mesmerized, drunken but
not with wine.

This beautiful picture brings to our minds very forcibly one

1 Berlin Mus. Cat. 3172; Progr. Winckebnannsfeste, Berlin, No. 50, Taf. ii.;
Eoscher, Lexicon, vol. in. p. 1179.
^ Herod, vii. 75.

460 Orpheus [ch.

note of Orpheus, as contrasted with Dionysos, his extraordinary
quiet. Orpheus never plays the flute ' that rouses to madness '
nor clangs the deafening cymbals ; he plays always pn the quiet
lyre, and he is never disturbed or distraught by his own music.
He is the very mirror of that ' orderliness and grave earnestness '
(ra^fc? KoX a-TTovBrj) which, as we have seen (p. 441), Plutarch took
to be the note of Apollo. Small wonder that Apollo was imaged
as Orpheus.

Orpheus, before the dawn of history, had made his home in
Thrace. His music is all of the North, but after all, though
mythology always emphasizes this musia, it was not the whole
secret of his influence. He was more priest than musician. More-
over, though Orpheus has certain Apolline touches, the two figures
are not reall}^ the least like. About Apollo there is no atmosphere
of mysticism, nothing mysterious and ineffable ; he is all sweet
reasonableness and lucidity. Orpheus came to Thrace and thence
to Thessaly, but he came, I believe, from the South. It will later
be seen that his religion in its most primitive form is best studied
in Crete. In Crete and perhaps there only is found that strange
blend of Egyptian and primitive Pelasgian which found its ex-
pression in Orphic ritfs. Diodorus^ says Orpheus went to Egypt
to learn his ritual and theology, but in reality there was no need
to leave his native island. From Crete by the old island route-
he passed northwards, leaving his mystic rites as he passed at
Paros, at Samos, at Samothrace, at Lesbos. At Maroneia among
the Cicones he met the vine-god, among the Thracians he learnt
his music. All this is by anticipation. That Crete was the home
of Orphism will best be seen after examination of the mysteries of
Orpheus (p. 565). For the present we must be content to examine
his mythology.

The contrast between Orpheus and Dionysos is yet more
vividly emphasized in the vase-painting' next to be considered
(fig. 143), from a red-figured hydria of rather late style. Again
Orpheus is the central figure, and again a Thracian in his long
embroidered cloak and fox-skin cap is listening awe-struck. It is

1 Dioil. IV. 2.5.

* These wanderings by sea may iierhaps be reflected in the voyage of the

■* Koscher, Lexicon, vol. m. p. 1181, tig. 5, The vase was formerly in the
Dutuit collection.


The Death of Orpheus


noticeable that in this and all red-figured vases of the fine period
Orpheus is dressed as a Greek ; he has been wholly assimilated,
nothing in hjs dress marks him from Apollo. It is not till a very-
late date, and chiefly in Lower Italy, that the vase-painter shows
himself an archaeologist and dresses Orpheus as a Thracian priest.
Not only a Thracian but a Satyr looks and listens entranced.

Fig. 143.

But this time Orpheus will not work his magic will. He may
tame the actual Thracian, he may tame the primitive population
of Thrace mythologically conceived of as Satyrs, but the real
worshipper of Dionysos is untameable as yet. Up from behind in
hot haste comes a Maenad armed with a gre^t club, and we foresee
the pitiful end.

The Death of Orpheus.

The story of the slaying of Orpheus by the Thracian women,
the Maenads, the Bassarids, is of cardinal importance. It was the
subject of a lost play by Aeschylus, but vases of the severe red-
figured style remain our earliest extant source. Manifold reasons,
to suit the taste of various ages, were of course invented to account
for the myth. Some said Orpheus was slain by Zeus because
Prometheus-like he revealed mysteries to man. When love came
into fashion he suffers for his supposed sin against the Love-God.
Plato ^ made him be done to death by the Maenads, because,
instead of dying for love of Eurydice, he went down alive into
Hades. But serious tradition always connected his death somehow

1 Plat. Symp. 179 c. Phanocles (ap. Stob. serm. lxiv.) makes Orpheus suffer for
his introduction of paiderastia, the introduction of which is attributed by Aristotle
{Pol. II. 10) to the Cretan Minos.

462 Orpheus [ch.

with the cult of Dionysos. According to one account he died
the death of Dionysos himself. Proklos^ in his commentary on
Plato says : ' Orpheus, because he was the leader in the rites of
Dionysos, is said to have suffered the like fate to his god.' It
will later be shown in discussing Orphic mysteries (p. 484) that
an important feature in Dionysiac religion was the rending and
death of the god, and no doubt to the faithful it seemed matter of
edification that Orpheus, the priest of his mysteries, should suffer
the like passion.

But in the myth of the death by the hands of the Maenads
there is another element, possibly with some historical kernel, the
element of hostility between the two cults, the intimate and
bitter hostility of things near akin. The Maenads tear Orpheus
to pieces, not because he is an incarnation of their god, but
because he despises them and they hate him. This seems to
have been the form of the legend followed by Aeschylus. It is
recorded for us by Eratosthenes'^. ' He (Orpheus) did not honour
Dionysos but accounted Helios the greatest of the gods, whom
also he called Apollo. And rising up early in the morning he
climbed the mountain called Pangaion and waited for the rising of
the sun that he might first catch sight of it. Therefore Dionysos
was enraged and sent against him his Bassarids, as Aeschylus
the poet says. And they tore him to pieces and cast his limbs
asunder. But the Muses gathered them together and buried
them in the place called Leibethra.' Orpheus was a reformer,
a protestant ; there is always about him a touch of the reformer's
priggishness ; it is impossible not to sympathize a little with the
determined looking Maenad who is coming up behind to put a
stop to all this sun-watching and lyre-playing.

The devotion of Orpheus to Helios is noted also in the
hypothesis to the Orphic Lit]iika'\ Orpheus was on his way up
a mountain to perform an annual sacrifice in company with some

^ Prokl. ad Plat. Polit. p. 398 'Op^euj are twv Aiovocrov TeXerwi/ iyyffiuiv yevdnevoi
rh Sfioia, wadiiv X^yerai n^ acptripif} d((^.

- Eratosth. Catast. xxiv. Since the above was written M. Salomon Reinach's
interesting paper 'La Mort d'Orphee (Rer. Arch. 1902, p. 2-12) has appeared. He
sees in Orpheus a fox-totem of the Bassarids. But the traits of Orpheus re-
corded by tradition seem to me exclusively human. I am more inclined to see in
his dismemberment the echo of some tradition of 'secondary burial,' such as is
known to have been practised in primitive Egypt and, significantly, in Crete, at
Palaiokastro. See J. H. S. 1902, p. 380.

•' Ilypoth. ad (hyh. Lith.

ix] Orpheus and Helios 463

friends when he met Theiodamas. He tells Theiodamas the

origin of the custom. When Orpheus was a child he was nearly

killed by a snake and he took refuge in a neighbouring sanctuary

of Helios. The father of Orpheus instituted the sacrifice and

when his father left the country Orpheus kept it up, Theiodamas

waits till the ceremony is over, and then follows the discourse on

precious stones.

That there was a Thracian cult of the Sun-god later fused

with that of Apollo is certain. Sophocles^ in the T evens made

some one say :

'0 Helios, name
To Thracian horsemen dear, eldest flame ! '

Helios was a favourite of monotheism, as we learn from another
fragment of Sophocles^ :

' Helios, have pity on me,
Thou whom the wise men call the sire of gods
And father of all things.'

The ' wise men ' here as in many other passages^ may actually
be Orphic teachers, anyhow they are specialists in theology.
Helios, as all-father, has- the air of late speculation, but such
speculations are often only the revival in another and modified
form of a primitive faith. By the time of Homer, Helios had
sunk to a mere impersonation of natural fact, but he may
originally have been a potent sky god akin to Kei'aunios and to
Ouranos, who was himself effaced by Zeus. Orpheus was, as will
later be seen, a teacher of monotheism, and it v,^as quite in his
manner to attempt the revival of an ancient and possibly purer

Be this as it may, it is quite certain that ancient tradition '
made him the foe of Dionysos and the victim of the god's wor-
shippers. His death at their hands is depicted on numerous
vase-paintings of which a typical instance is given in fig. 144. The
design is from a red-figured stamnos in the Museo Gregoriano of
the Vatican'*. The scheme is usually much the same; we have
the onset of the Thracian women bearing clubs or double axes

1 Soph. frg. 523.

" Soph. frg. 1017. The attribution to Sophocles is doubtful.
3 Evidence of the use of ol <ro(f>oi to indicate the Orphics has been collected
by Dr J. Adam in his edition of the Republic, Vol. ii. p. 378.

■* Museo Gregoriano ii. 60. 1 ; Eoscher, Lexicon in. p. 1187, fig. 12.





Fig. 144.

or great rocks for weapons. Usually they are on foot, but on the
Vatican stamnos one Maenad appears mounted, Amazon fashion.
Before this fierce onset the beau-
tiful musician falls helpless, his
only weapon of defence the in-
nocent lyre. On a cylix^ with
white ground about the date of
Euphronios, the Thracian Maenad
who slays Orpheus is tattooed ;
on the upper part of her right
arm is clearly marked a little
stag. Popular aetiology connected
this tattooing -with the death of
Orpheus. The husbands of the
wicked women tattooed them as
a punishment for their crime,
and all husbands continued the
practice down to the time of
Plutarch. Plutarch ^ says he

'cannot praise them,' as long protracted punishment is 'the prero-
gative of the Deity.' Prof Ridgeway^ has shown that the practice
of tattooing was in use among the primitive Pelasgian population
but never adopted by the Achaeans.
The Maenads triumphed for a time.

'What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?'

The dismal savage tale comes to a gentle close. The head of
Orpheus, singing always, is found by the Muses, and buried in
the sanctuary at Lesbos. Who are the Muses ? Who but the
Maenads repentant, clothed and in their right minds.

1 ,7. //. S. 1888, pi. I. On another vase in the British Museum {Cat. e 301)
a Maenad pursuing Orpheus is tattooed on the right arm and both insteps with
a ladder-like pattern.

- Plut. de ser. num. vind. xii. ovde yap Op^^as ^Traivov/xei' 6ti o-rij'oi'crii' axp' vOv
TLfxuipovvres 'Op(pel rai avruv yvvaiKas, and Pbanocles ap. Stob. Floriletj. p. 399
V. I'd says:

iroivas 5' ^Op<pijl' KTa/n^vifi ffrl^ovai 7i'far».'os
et's ^Ti vuv Keivrjs tivenfv d/j-irXaKirji.
^ Early Age of Greece, vol. i. p. 398.

ix] Hero-shrine of Orpheus 465

That Maenads and Muses, widely diverse though they seem
to us, were not by classical writers sharply sundered is seen in the
variant versions of the story of Lycurgus. Dionysos in Homer is
attended by his nurses (TlOrjvac) and these, as has already been
shown (p. 402), are Maenads, but, when we come to Sophocles,
these same nurses, these ' god-inspired ' women, are not Maenads,
but Muses. The chorus in the Antigone^ sings of Lycurgus ;
how he

' Set his hand
To stay the god-inspired woman-band.
To quell his Women and his joyous tire,
And rouse the fluting Muses into ire.'

Nor is it poetry only that bears witness. In the introduction
Co the eighth book of his Syniposiacs Plutarch^ is urging the
importance of mingling improving conversation with the drinking
of wine. ' It is a good custom,' he says, ' that our women have,
who in the festival of the Agrionia seek for Dionysos as though he
had run away, and then they give up seeking and say that he has
taken refuge with the Muses and is lurking with them, and after
some time when they have finished their feast they ask each
other riddles and conundrums {alvi'yfiara koI jpicpov^;). And this

mystery teaches us ' In some secret Bacchic ceremonial extant

in the days of Plutarch and carried on by women only, Dionysos
was supposed to be in the hands of his women attendants, but
they were known as Muses not as Maenads. The shift of Maenad
to Muse is like the change of Bacchic rites to Orphic ; it is the
informing of savage rites with the spirit of music, order and peace.

The Hero-shrine of Orpheus.

Tradition says that Orpheus was buried by the Muses,
and fortunately of his burial-place we know some definite par-
ticulars. It is a general principle in mythology that the re-
puted death-place of a god or hero is of more significance than
his birth-place, because, among a people like the Greeks, who
practised hero-worship, it is about the death-place and the tomb
that cultus is set up. The birth-place may have a mythical

1 Soph. Ant. 962. ^ Plut. Syvij). viii. Proem.

H. 30

466 Orpheus [ch.

sanctity, but it is at the death-place that we can best study
ritual practice.

Pliilostratos^ in the Heroicus says: 'After the outrage of the
women the head of Orpheus reached Lesbos and dwelt in a cleft
of the island and gave oracles in the hollow earth.' It is clear
that we have here some form of Nekyomanteion, oracle of the dead.
Of such there were many scattered all over Greece ; in fact, as has
already been seen (p. 341), the tomb of almost any hero might
become oracular. The oracular tomb of Orpheus became of wide
repute. Inquirers, Philostratos^ tells us, came to it even from
far-off Babylon. It was from the shrine of Orpheus in Lesbos
that in old days there came to Cyrus the brief, famous utterance :
' Mine, O Cyrus, are thine.'

Lucian'' adds an important statement. In telling the story of
the head and the lyre he says: 'The head they buried at the
place where now they have a sanctuary of Bacchus. The lyre on
the other hand was dedicated in a sanctuary of Apollo.' The
statemeot carries conviction. It would have been so easy to bury
head and lyre together. The truth probably was that the lyre
was a later decorative addition to an old head-oracle story; the
head was buried in the shrine of the god whose religion Orpheus

Antigonus^ in his ' History of Wonderful Things ' records a
lovely tradition. He quotes as his authority Myrtilos, who wrote
a treatise on Lesbian matters. Myrtilos said that, according to
the local tradition, the tomb of the head of Orpheus was shown at
Antissaia, and that the nightingales sang there more sweetly than
elsewhere. In those wonder-loving days a bird had but to perch
upon a tomb and her song became a miracle.

The oracle shrine of Orpheus is depicted for us on a some-
what late red-figured cylix of which the obverse^ is reproduced in
fig. 145. It is our earliest definite source for his cult. The head
of Orpheus is prophesying with parted lips. We are reniinded of

^ Philostr. Her. v. § 704 t) KetpaKif) yap fiera to tlov yvvaiKusv ^pyov f j Aiff^ov
KaTdcxoi'ca pfjyfJ.a ttjs Kic^ov t^Kiae Kai iv KoiXrj rrj yrj €Xpv<^/^<i>Sfi-

'^ Philostr. Her. v. § 704. ^ Luciau adi\ indoct. 11.

•* Antiq. Hist. Mir. v.

'■ Minervini, Bull. Arch. Nap. vol. vi. 1857, Tav. iv.; Roscher, Lexicon in.
p. 1178, fif;. 3. The vase was last seen by Prof. FurtwiinKler in the Barone
collection ; where it now is I am unable to say. On the reverse of the viise (not
figured here) a Muse is handing a lyre to a woman.


Hero-shrine of Orplieus


the vase-painting in fig. 10, where the head of Teiresias emerges
bodily from the sacrificial trench near which Odysseus is seated.
A youth has come to consult the oracle and holds in his hands a
tablet and style. Whether he is putting down his own question

Fig. 145.

or the god's answer is uncertain. We know from Plutarch^ that
at the oracle shrine of another hero, Mopsos, questions were some-
times sent in on sealed tablets". In the case cited by Plutarch a
test question was set and the oracle proved equal to the occasion.
The vase-painting calls to mind the lines in the Alcestis of
Euripides where the chorus sings ^:

'Thougli to high heaven I fly,
Borne on the Muses' wing,
Thinking great thoughts, yet do I find no thing

Online LibraryJane Ellen HarrisonProlegomena to the study of Greek religion → online text (page 42 of 62)