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instructions for his conduct in the world below, exhortations to the
soul, formularies to be repeated, confessions of faith and of ritual
performed, and the like. They belong to the domain of ritual
rather than of literature, and therefore offer evidence the more
vmimpeachable ; but, though defective in style and often regardless
of metre, they are touched with a certain ecstasy of conviction
that lifts them sometimes to a high level of poetry.

The Orphic tablets have frequently been discussed', but their
full importance as documents for the history of Greek religion has
perhaps as yet not been fully realized. Their interpretation
presents exceptional difficulties ; the shining surface and creased
condition of the gold-leaf on which they are written make them
difficult to photograph and irksome to decipher; moreover the
text, even when deciphered, is in some cases obviously fragmentary.
It has been thought best to reserve all textual difficulties for
separate discussion -.

1 See especially A. Dieterich, Nekuia, pjD. 84 ff., and De Hymnis Orphicis,
pp. 31 ff. Other references are given in the notes and Appendix.

2 In the Appendix kindly written for me by Mr Gilbert Murray.


Orphic Eschatology


The series of tablets or scrolls is as follows :
I. The Petelia tablet' (fig. 162).

C —

H/^PA^ A A YTH /AEY (tH^tlTH K Y; AfJIvVPA C lHo^ ^

E^ VPH£ £ >£4.E:r£:PAHrHiA\NH^oi.YH H^^HoA //7J//1I

^«IN AHA-'/;

Fig. 162.

'Thou shalt find on the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring,
And by the side thereof standing a \yhite cypress.
To this Well-spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another by the Lake of Memory,
Cold water flowing forth, and there are Guardians before it.
Say : " I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven ;
But mj'' race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I i^eriah. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory."
And of themselves they will give thee to drink from the holy Well-spring,
And thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship....'

The text breaks ofif at this point. The scattered words that
remain make no consecutive sense. Of the last line, written from
bottom to top of the right edge of the tablet, the two last words
only are legible, 'darkness enfolding' {aK6To<; dfi(f)LKa\v-\lra<i).

1 Brit. Mus. Gold Ornament Room, Table-Case H. Kaibel, CIGIS, No. 641.
The tablet had been rolled up and placed in a hexagonal cylinder hanging from a
delicate gold chain and doubtless worn by the dead person as an amulet. The
facsimile reproduced here and first published J. U.S. in. p. 112 was verified for
Prof. Comparetti by Mr Cecil Smith and supersedes Kaibel's publication. As the
letters in the original are small and in places not easily legible, Mr Smith'3
reading is given below:

Ei'ipTjo-ffetj 5' 'A/5ao 56/xwi' ctt' dpicTTepa. Kprjvijv

Trap 5' avTTJi \evKr]v ecrTrjKviav Kvwdpicrffov

ravTTjs rrjs Kp-qvrjs /j.T]5i axi^bf i/xTreXacreiat.

livpr](T(ii 5' iripav r-ijj 'MvT^p.oavvy)^ dirb \i)ivr]S

ypvxpbu liowp irpopiov (pv\aKes 5' (Triirpocrdei' iaaiv.

Yiiirdv 7^5 Traij elixl Kal ot'pavov affTepdevTOs,

avrdp e/jLoi y^fos ovpaviov rdde 6' icrre Kal avToi'

Si\f/r]i 8' fi/jil aCiy] Kai a.ir6Wvp.aL ' dWa 56t' at\pa

^pvxpbv ijdup irpopiov r^s '^\v7}p.0(Tvvr)S dirb Xifwrjs'

Kav[TOL <To]i dJjaovai iruii' Ofirii d7r[6 Kprii']ris

Kal t6t' ^TTfir' a[XXot(n p-ed^] ijpi^effaiv d;'d^€i[s]

irjs rbde davf'l[(T]6ai

To6' iypa\l/[€i> ?]...

(TKbros dp.<l>iKa\i>ypas.

xi] Mnemosyne and Lethe 575

As sequel to this tablet comes a second found in Crete :
II. , The Eleutliernae tablets

' I am parched with thirst and I j^erish. — Nay, drink of Me,
The well-spring flowing for ever on the Right, where the Cypress is.

Who art thou 'l

Whence art thou? — I am 'son of Earth and of Starry Heaven.'

The soul itself speaks to the Well of Mnemosyne and the Well
makes answer.

Both tablets contain the same two elements, the Well of
Remembrance, and the avowal of origin. The avowal of origin
constitutes in each the claim to drink of the Well.

The origin claimed is divine. Hesiod - uses exactly the same

words in describing the parentage of the gods. He bids the


' Sing the holy race of Immortals ever existing,
Who from Earth were born and born from Starry Heaven.'

We have in the avowal of the soul the clearest possible state-
ment of the cardinal doctrine of Orphic faith — immortality is
possible only in virtue of the divinity of humanity. The sacrament
of this immortality is the drinking of a divine well.

The Well of Mnemosyne.

On the first tablet the soul is bidden to avoid a well on the
left hand. This well is left nameless, but contrasted as it is wi^h
the Well of Mnemosyne or Remembrance, we may safely conclude
that the forbidden well is Lethe, Forgetfulness.

The notion that in death we forget, forget the sorrows of this
troublesome world, forget the toilsome journey to the next, is not
Orphic, not even specially Greek ; it is elemental, human, and may
occur anywhere.

The Fiji islanders^ have their ' Path of the Shades ' beset with
perils and their Wai-na-dula, a well from which the dead man
drinks and forgets sorrow. 'He passed the twin goddesses Nino

1 Joubin, Bidl. de Con: Hell. xvii. 1893, p. 122. This tablet, with two others
which are duplicates of the one here given, are now in the National Museum at
Athens. For fac-similes and discussion of text see Appendix.

- Hes. Theoij. 135.

3 Basil Thomson, 'The Kalou-Vu ' {Journal Anthrop. Inst. May 1895, p. 349).
I am indebted for this reference to Mr Andrew Lang's Homeric Hymns p. 91.

576 Orphic Eschatology [ch.

who peered at him and gnashed their terrible teeth, fled up the
path and came to a spring and stopped and drank, and, as soon as
he tasted the water, he ceased weeping, and his friends also ceased
weeping in his home, for they straightway forgot their sorrows
and were consoled. Therefore this spring is called the Wai-na-
dula, Water of Solace.' After many other perils, including the
escape from two savage Dictynnas who seek to catch him in their
nets, the soul at last is allowed to pass into the dancing grounds
where the young gods dance and sing.

This Fiji parallel is worth noting because it is so different.
The Fiji soul drinks of forgetfulness, and why? Because his friends
and relations must put a term to their irksome mourning, and till
the soul sets the example and himself forgets they must remember.
His confession of faith is also somewhat different. Before he can
be admitted to his Happy Land he must j)rove that he has died
a violent death, otherwise he must go back to the upper air and
die respectably, i.e. violently.

I have noted the Lethe of the Fiji islands to shew that I am
not unaware that savage parallels exist, that a well may be drunk
on the 'Path of the Shades' in any land, and that there is no need
to suppose that the Greeks borrowed theii' well either from Fiji or
from Egypt ; and yet in this particular case it can, I believe, be
shewn that the Orphic well came from Egypt \ came I believe to
Crete, and passed with Orpheus from Crete by the islands to
Thrace and to Athens, and thence to Magna Graecia.

Osiris in Egypt had a 'cold' well or water of which he gave
the souls to drink. On tombs of Roman date^ the formulary
appears : ' May Osiris give thee the cold water.' Sometimes it
is Aidoneus sometimes Osiris who is invoked, for by that time

1 Mr Lang, op. cit. p. 81, examines 'the alleged Egyptian origins' of the
Elensinian mysteries and decides against M. Foucart's theory in toto. Mr Ijung
certainly succeeds in showing that for all Greek mysteries a satisfactory savage
analogy can be found ; but this surely does not pi-eclude the possibility of occasional
borrowing. Crete has shown conclusively that 'Mycenaean' art borrowed from
Egypt: why not 'Mvcenaean' religion? See Clantticnl lieview, Feb. 1903, p. 84.

•- Kaibel, CIGIs''l8-i2 :

\l/v\pbv i'ldcjp Soir] aoi dvai; (vipwv 'Ai5a)i'ei'X,
w MAac rjjirii yap croi OTruiXero (plXrarov dvdos
and 1488 0(eois) KiaraxOovloii). (vxpvxo-t t^i'pia, Kai SoF <Toi 6 "Oaipis to ^f/vxp^v i'Sup.
For tlie analogy of the Christian iefii<ieriiuii see Mr J. A. Stewart's interesting
note in the Claimirdl ]h-vieiv for Marcli 11103, p. 117, published since tlie above
was written. See Dieterich, Ni'lniia p. {)!), and Foucart, lieclicrclies sur VOriiiiiie
et la Ndtiirc dfH Mystcren (V Kleunis, Paris 18'.l,j, p. (58.

xi] 3Ineniosf/ne and Lethe 577

the two were not clearly distinguished. In so far as Osiris was
a sun-god the well became a well of light, in which the sun-god
Ra was wont to wash his face. In one of the magical papyri^ the
line occurs

' Hail to the water white and the tree with the leaves high hanging,'

which seems to echo vaguely the white cypress and the forbidden
well. The well of Osiris, whatever the precise significance of its
Egyptian name, would easily to the Greeks become of double
significance ; yjrvxpov would suggest '^v^^rj, and the well would be
both cool and fresh and life-giymg ; by it the soul would revive
{ava'^vx^tv), it would become 'a living water, springing up into
everlasting life.'

A ' living water ' given by Osiris to the thirsty soul was part of
the eschatology of Egypt, but, so far as we know, Egypt had
neither Lethe nor Mnemosyne. In the Book of the Dead there
occurs indeed the Chapter of making a man possess memory in the
underworld (No. xxv.), but the process has no connection with
the drinking from a well. The Chapter of drinking water in the
underworld (No. LXii.) is quite distinct. Lethe and Mnemosyne
are, I think, Greek developments from the nexxtvoX fonds of Egypt,
and developments due to the influence of Orpheus.

Lethe as a person is as old as Hesiod"''. She is bad from the

beginning :

'Next hateful Strife gave birth to grievous Toil,
Forgetfulness and Famine, tearful Woes,
Contests and Slaughters.'

By the time of Aristophanes the 'plain of Lethe' is part of the
stock furniture of Hades. In the Frogs ^ Charon oa the look-out
for passengers asks :

' Who's for the plain of Lethe ? Who's for the Donkey-shearings ?
Who's for the Cerberus folk ? or Taeuarus ? Who's for the Eookeries V

The mystic comic Hades of Aristophanes is thoroughly Orphic.
He mentions no well, but he knows of a Stone of Parching^, where
it may be the thirsty soul sat down to rest.

1 Dieterich, Abraxas, p. 97 :

Xcii'pe 5e XevKOV vSoop Kal Sivdpeov iitpiTrerriXov .
It is perhaps worth noting that in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Vignette to
Chapter lxiii. A.) the dead man receives water from a goddess in a tree growing
out of a pool of water.

'^ Hes. Theog. 227. ^ Ar. Ran. 186. * lb. 194 Trapa rbv Avaivov Xidov.

H. 37

578 Orphic Eschatology [ch.

Lethe as a water, a river, first appears in the Republic of Plato*
and in such fashion that it seems as though it was by that time
proverbial. ' Our story,' says Socrates, ' has been saved and has
not perished, and it will save us if we are obedient to it, and we
shall make a good passage of the river of Lethe and shall not be
defiled in our souls.' It is noticeable that to Plato Lethe is of
death and pollution. Just before, Socrates has recounted the myth
of Er, a myth steeped in Orphic eschatology of metempsychosis
and retribution. The souls have been forced to pass each one into
the plain of Lethe through scorching suffocating heat, for the plain
of Lethe was devoid of trees and of plants that spring from the
earth. Towards evening they took shelter b}- the river of Unmind-
fulness whose water no vessel can hold I Of this all were compelled
to drink a certain measure, and those who were not safe-guarded
by wisdom drank more than the measure, and each one as he
drank forgot all things. The river Ameles, Unraindfulness, is of
course Lethe : Plato likes to borrow a popular notion and slightly
rechristen it. Just so he takes Mnemosyne, Remembrance, and
makes of her Anamnesis, Remembering-again. It was not the
fashion of his day to give chapter and verse for your borrowings,
and Plato so detested the lower side of Orphic rites that perhaps he
only half realized the extent of his debts. It is a human and rather
malicious touch, that in the order of those who remember again,
the man who lives the 'initiated life' comes onl}" fifth, side by side
with the seer, below the philosopher and the lover and the righteous
king and the warrior, below even the economist and the man of
business ; but after all he cannot much complain, for low though
he is, he is above the poet and the artist. Moreover Plato would
take as clearly and vividly known to the initiated all that through
lapse of time has become dim to us, and his constant use of the
technical terms of initiation is adequate acknowledgement. He
tells^ of the uninitiate {d/Mvr]TO<;), the partly initiate (aTiX.ea-TO'i),
the newly initiate (i^eoreX,?;?), wholly initiate (apTtreX,?;?), of the
man rapt by the divine {evOovaui^wv), whom the vulgar deem
distraught, of how before we were caught in the prison of the body
we celebrated (oDpytd^ofiev) a most blessed rite, being initiated to

1 Plat. Rep. X. 621.

2 A reminiscence of Styx, see Pausanias viii. 18. 5 and Dr Frazei's commeutaiy.

3 Plat. Fhaedr. 249 fif.

xi] Mnemosyne and Lethe 579

behold dimly and see perfectly {fxvov fjuevot koI iiroTrTevovTe^) appa-
ritions complete, simple, quiet and happy, shining in a clear light.

For Mnemosyne and Lethe in Greek religion we are not however
dependent on the myths and philosophy of Plato. We have definite
evidence in local ritual. Mnemosyne herself takes us straight to
the North, the land of Eumolpos and the Muses, to Pangaion, to
Pieria, to Helicon. If Orpheus found in Egypt, or as is more
probable in Crete, a well of living water, that well was I think name-
less, or at least did not bear the name of Mnemosyne. It may of
course be accidental, but in the tablet from Crete the well, though
obviously the same as that in the Petelia tablet, is unnamed. The
name Mnemosyne was found for the well when Orpheus took it
with him to the land of the Muses, where he himself got his magic
lyre. Not ten miles away from the slopes of Helicon, at the
sanctuary of Trophonios at Lebadeia, we find a well not only of
Mnemosyne but also of Lethe, and we find the worshipper is made
to drink of these wells not in the imagined kingdom of the dead,
but in the actual ritual of the living. Man makes the next world
in the image of this present.

Pausanias^ has left us a detailed account of the ritual of the
oracle of Trophonios of which only the essential points can be
noted here. Before the Avorshipper can actually descend into the
oracular chasm, he must spend some days in a house that is a
sanctuary of the Agathos Daimon and of Tyche; then he is
purified and eats sacrificial flesh. After omens have been taken
and a black ram sacrificed into a trench, the inquirer is washed
and anointed and led by the priests to certain ' springs of water
which are very near to one another, and then he must drink of
the water called Forgetfuluess (A?;^?;?), that there may be forget-
fulness of everything that he has hitherto had in his mind, and
after that he drinks of yet another water called Memory (Mi/77/ao-
(Tvv7)<i), by which he remembers what he has seen when he goes
down below.' He is then shown an image which Daedalus made,
i.e. a very ancient xoanon, and one which was only shown to those
who are going to visit Trophonios ; this he worships and prays to,
and then, clad in a linen tunic — another Orphic touch — and girt
with taeniae and shod with boots of the country he goes to the

1 P. IX. 39. 5—14.


580 Orpliic Eschatology [ch.

oracle. The ritual that follows is of course a descent into the
underworld, the man goes down into the oven-shaped cavity, an
elaborate artificial chasm, enters a hole, is dragged through by the
feet, swirled away, hears and sees ' the things that are to be ' {ra
ixeWovra), he comes up feet foremost and then the priests set him
on the seat, called the seat of Memory, which is near the shrine.
They question him and, when they have learnt all they can, give
him over to his friends, who carry him possessed by fear and
unconscious to the house of Agathe Tyche and Agathos Daimon
where he lodged before. Then he comes to himself and, one is
relieved to bear, is able to laugh again. Pausanias says expressly
that he had been through the performance himself and is not
writing from hearsay.

The Orphic notes in this description are many. To those
already discussed we may add that Demeter at Lebadeia was
known as Europa, a name which points to Crete. Another
Cretan link indicates that the worship of Trophonios was, as
we should expect if it is Dionysiac, of orgiastic character.
Plutarch ^ in a passage that has not received the attention it
deserves, classes together certain daemons who 'do not always stay
in the moon, but descend here below to have the supervision of
onicular shrines, and they are present at and celebrate the orgies
of the most sublime rites. They are punishers of evil deeds
and watchers over such.' The word watchers {(f>v\aK€^) is the same
as that used in the tablet of the guardians of Mnemosyne's well.
If in the performance of their office they themselves do wrong
either through fear or favour, they themselves suffer for it, and in
characteristically Orphic fashion they are thrust down again and
tied to human bodies. Then comes this notable statement. 'Those
of the age of Kronos said that they themselves were of the better
sort of these daemons, and the Idaean Daktyls who were formerly
in Crete, and the Koi-ybantes who were in Phrygia, and the
Trophoniads in Lebadeia, and thousands of others throughout the
world whose titles, sanctuaries and honours remain to this day.'
The rites of Daktyls, Korybants and Trophoniads are all the same
and all are orgiastic and of the nature of initiation, all deal with

' Pint. (If fdc. ill orb. lull. XXX. aWd xpvcTrjpluv devpo Karlaaiv iinfie\T]<'oi Kal
Tois avwrcLTU (Tvixirdptiai. koi avvopyiA^ovai tGsv reXeribv. KoXacral re yivovraL Kal
<f>ij\aK€i d5iKriiJ,drui'.

xi] Mnemosyne and Lethe 581

purgation and the emergence of the divine. All have rites that
tell of ' things to be ' and prepare the soul to meet them.

Pausanias of course understands 'things to be' {ra fMeWovra) as
merely the future, his attention is fixed on what is merely oracular
and prophetic. The action of Lethe is to prepare a blank sheet
for the reception of the oracle of Mnemosyne, to make the utter-
ance of the oracle indelible. In point of fact, no doubt, the
Trophoniads, the Orphics, found when the}' came to Lebadeia
an ancient hero-oracle. That is clear from the sacrifice of the
ram in the trench, a sacrifice made, be it observed, not to Tro-
phonios but to Agamedes, the old hero. That the revelation at
Lebadeia of ' things to be ' was to the Orphic a vision of and
a preparation for the other world (ra iKel) is clear from the
experiences recounted by Timarchos^ as having occurred to him
in the chasm of Trophonios. Socrates, it is said, was angry that
no one told him about it while Timarchos was alive, for he Avould
have liked to hear about it at first hand. What Timarchos saw
was a vision of heaven and hell after the fashion of a Platonic
myth, and his guide instructed him as to the meaning of things and
how the soul shakes off the impurities of the body. The whole
ecstatic mystic account beginning with the sensation of a blow on
the head and the sense of the soul escaping, reads like a trance-
experience or like the revelation experienced under an anaesthetic.
It may be, and probably is, an invention from beginning to end.
The important point is that this vision of things invisible is con-
sidered an appropriate experience to a man performing the rites
of Trophonios.

The worshipper initiated at Lebadeia drank of Lethe ; there
was evil still to forget. The Orphic who, after a life spent in
purification, passed into Hades, had done Avith forgetting ; his soul
drinks only of Remembrance. It is curious to note that in the
contrast between Lethe and Mnemosyne we have what seems
to be an Orphic protest against the lower, the sensuous side of the
religion of Dionysos. To Mnemosyne, it will be remembered
(p. 509), as to the Muses, the Sun and the Moon and the other
primitive potencies affected by the Orphics, the Athenians offered
only wineless offerings, but 'ancestral tradition,' Plutarch^ tells us,

^ Plut. de Gen. Soc. xxi. ff. 2 pj^t. Sijvip. Proem, and vii. 5. 3.

582 Orjyhic Eschatology [ch.

' consecrated to Dionysos, Lethe, together with the narthex.' It
is this ancestral tradition that Teiresias^ remembers when he tells
of the blessings brought by the god, and how

' He rests man's spirit dim
From gi-ieving, when the vine exalteth him.
He giveth sleep to sink the fretful day
In cool forgetting. Is there any way
With man's sore heart save only to forget?'

To man entangled in the flesh, man to whom sleep for the
body, death for the soul was the only outlook, Lethe became
a Queen of the Shades, Assessor of Hades^. Orestes^ outworn
with madness, cries

magic of sweet sleep, healer of pain,

1 need thee and how sweetly art thou come.
holy Lethe, wise physician thou,
Goddess invoked of miserable men.'

Orpheus found for 'miserable men' another way, not by the
vine-god, but through the wiueless ecstasy of Mnemosyne. The
Orphic hymu^ to the goddess ends with the prayer

' And in thy mystics waken memory
Of the holy rite, and Lethe drive afar.'

Lethe is to the Orphic as to Hesiod wholly bad, a thing from
which he must purge himself. Plato^ is thoroughly Orphic when
he says in the Phaedrus that the soul sinks to earth ' full of
forgetfulness and vice.' The doctrine as to future punishment
which Plutarch" expounds in his treatise ' On Living Hidden '
touches the high water mark of Orphic eschatology. The extreme
penalty of the wicked in Erebos is not torture but unconsciousness
(dyvoia). Pindar's 'sluggish streams of murky night,' he says,
receive the guilty, and hide them in unconsciousness and forget-
fulness. He denies emphatically the orthodox punishments, the
gnawing vulture, the wearisome labours; the body cannot suffer
torment or bear its marks, for the body is rotted away or consumed
by fire; 'the one and only instrument of punishment is uncon-
sciousness and obscurity, utter disappearance, carrying a man into

1 Eur. Bacch. 280.

2 Apollod. Epit. Vat. 6. 3. =' Eur. Or. 211.
•* Oiyh. Hymn, i.xxvii. '' Plat. Phacdr. p. 248 c.
" I'lut. (Ic occult, viv. sub fin. Sexi^MfOi xai dTroKpi'TrTovTes dyi'oi'ji aal X^f'j? toDs

Ko\aiOfji.ivovs...ii> Ko\affTripiov...a.5o^ia Kal aYi/oia Kai Trai'TfXuJs d<pavij/x6i atpuf f*s rbv
afxeidij iroraixov dirb rris \i)dr)s.

xi] Lethe and Eunoe in Dante 583

the smileless river that flows from Lethe, sinking him into an
abyss and yawning gulf, bringing in its train all obscurity and all

The Orphic well of Mnemosyne lives on not only in the
philosophy of Plato, but also, it would seem, in the inspired vision of
Dante. At the close of the Purgatoi^io, when Dante ^ is wandering
through the ancient wood, his steps are stayed by a little stream
so pure that it hid nothing, and beside it all other waters seemed
to have in them some admixture. The lady gathering flowers on
the further bank tells him he is now in the Earthly Paradise :
the Highest Good made man good and for goodness and gave him
this place as earnest of eternal peace. Man fell away,

'changed to toil and weeping
His honest laughter and sweet mirth.'

Then she tells of the virtue of the little stream. It does not rise,
like an earthly water, from a vein restored by evaporation, losing
and gaining force in turn, but issues from a fountain sure and
safe, ever receiving again by the will of God as much as on two
sides it pours forth.

' On this side down it flows and with a virtue

That takes away from man of sin the memory,
On that the memory of good deeds it bringeth.
Lethe its name on tliis side and Eunoe

On that, nor does it work its work save only
Tf first on this side then on that thou taste it.'

Dante hears a voice unspeakable say Asperges me, and is
bathed in Lethe, and thereafter cannot wholly remember what
made him to sin. Beatrice says to him smiling,

' And now bethink thee thou hast drunk of Lethe ;
And if from smoke the flame of fire he argued,

Online LibraryJane Ellen HarrisonProlegomena to the study of Greek religion → online text (page 53 of 62)