DIONYSIANISM AND ORPHISM

CONTENTS

GO TOThe Ancient Worship of Dionysus--or Bacchus

GO TOThe Story of Dionysus--or Bacchus

GO TOOrphism:  A Dionysian Reform

GO TOThe Importance of Dionysian Worship


THE ANCIENT WORSHIP OF DIONYSUS--OR BACCHUS 

Dionysus (or Bacchus) who often appeared as a man or a bull or some combination, was originally a Thracian god of wine and drunkenness--a fertility god for an agricultural people.

In its early form, Dionysianism was a religion of considerable debauchery: beer was brewed and drunk to give honor to Dionysus/Bacchus and was followed up (while under the influence of this intoxicant) with the tearing apart and eating raw of wild animals.  This was a playing out of a sense that this god had entered them in this fit of a passion or "enthusiasm." (Women played a co-equal role with men in the intoxicating celebrations.)

This rather wild religion continued to appeal to the baser instincts of the Greeks as they became more civilized and thus supposedly more constrained in their thinking and actions.


THE STORY OF DIONYSUS--OR BACCHUS 

The Thracian story of Dionysus/Bacchus seems to have developed many versions over the centuries--especially as the story was assimilated into Greek theology.

One of the major versions tells us that Dionysus/Bacchus (called also Zagreus) was the "illegitimate" son of the god Zeus and the goddess Persephone. He was torn to pieces and eaten as a boy by the Titans--set up in their fury by a jealous Hera, the wife of Zeus. The Titans then themselves took on divinity from such a grisly meal. But in turn, the Titans were struck by lightning--and turned to ashes.

But from the ashes of the Titans grew the human race: which is thus part divine (Zagreus) and part evil (the Titans)!

But also: Bacchus' heart was not eaten but given to Zeus, who used it to bring Bacchus back to life. Some versions of the story tell that this happened as Zeus swallowed the heart himself.  Other versions tell that this happened when the heart was given to Semele--who swallowed it and gave birth to Dionysus.

Another version of the story tells us that Dionysus was reputedly the son of Zeus and Semele (Phrygian goddess of the "earth" or "Earth Mother").  By mysterious circumstances, Semele was destroyed by Zeus' power of lightning--along with the boy.  But Zeus rescued the boy from the ashes, taking him up and encasing him in his thigh--from which he was reborn later in his maturity.

According to most accounts, Dionysus traveled the world to teach the cultivation of grapes (and to spread his worship among men).

According to several different accounts, Dionysus was killed by either a group of crazed women--or by his own his own mother--in a frenzy of the very worship which he introduced to the people.

Thus the tearing and eating of raw flesh of a sacrificial animal (symbol of Bacchus) was understood to impart divinity to the devotee--as it did the Titans.


ORPHISM:  A DIONYSIAN REFORM 

Was Orpheus an actual historical figure? Was he possibly an ancient philosopher or religious reformer?  Was he possibly a king or from a line of kings from Thrace who were viewed as Dionysian incarnations--perhaps ritualistically killed by Dionysian worshippers?  Or was he only a mythological personage (from Cretan or Egyptian mythology?)  We don't know--though there is good possibility that Orphism did indeed have its beginnings with some important religious reformer, perhaps the name "Orpheus" (the name itself is derived from the Greek orphnei meaning "darkness" and may be a derivative name from his association with the underworld.)

The Myth of Orpheus

The common story was that he was the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus (or some Thracian god) and a Muse.  From his mother's side he inherited great musical talents.  From his father's side he inherited his love of adventure.

As an adventurer, he took part in the Argonaut expedition of Jason--where he played a key role with his music making.

Later stories have him as a wandering philosopher in search of knowledge.

He married Eurydice, who was bitten by a serpent and died.  Being inconsolable over this loss, Orpheus went down to Hades to get her back.  He wooed her from the gods with his beautiful music--who let her go.  But they did so on the promise that she would not look back on her way out of Hades.  But she failed in this important stipulation--and was returned to Hades as a ghost.

As a result, Orpheus vowed to have nothing more to do with women. But the Thracian women (or frenzied Maenads?), during a Dionysian orgy, tore him apart--the same fate that met Dionysus. (Beware of Thracian women!)

Theologically Reformed Orphism

Ultimately Orphism developed into a theological refinement of the Bacchic religion.  At first it was strongly persecuted by Bacchic priests.  But eventually it became established within the Bacchic system.

Orphic teachings that began to come forth over time had much in common with Hinduism and Buddhism (perhaps from mutual Aryan roots).  Orphism held a sense of dualism about human existence: 1) the earthly or physical existence (derived from the Titans) and 2) the heavenly or spiritual existence (derived from Zagreus or Bacchus or Dionysius).

Within Orphism, earthly life was seen only as a merciless round of pain and trouble (product of evil).  Though we humans belong to the heavens, to the stars (as semi-gods), we are also bound to life by a cycle of death and rebirth.  The goal of life: escape from earthly existence and release to eternal life.

But the fate for most folks was really not escape--but rather a period of death (and torment) and then rebirth--according to the merit of one's earthly deeds.

Thus Orphism held much concern about the after-life.  It included instructions on how to enter the after-world.  Likewise, it sought to reform Bacchic or Dionysian worship in order to increase one's spiritual nature--and diminish the portion of one's physical being so as to become one with Bacchus (or Dionysus).  As with Aryan Hinduism (or its offspring Buddhism), Orphism was designed to attain release of the devotee from the cycle of rebirths.

Orphism, as a worship or religious form also had various kinds of purity rituals designed to help the devotee avoid certain types of contaminating influences.  Thus the most rigorous practitioner avoided animal food (as with the Hindus) except for sacrificial rituals.  Further, despite its connection with wild Dionysianism, the Orphic devotee took wine only as a sacramental act--as a symbol indicative of the mystical enthusiasm of one who sought union with the god Bacchus--or Eros!


THE IMPORTANCE OF DIONYSIAN WORSHIP 

The mathematician Pythagoras was an Orphic devotee--whose served to introduce Bacchic mysticism to the respectable Greek classes. Pythagoras strongly influenced the Greek intellectuals and gentry--such as (much later) Plato.

These Dionysian-Bacchalian-Orphic rites became central to Greek culture. Indeed, the Dionysian or Bacchanalian rites formed the basis for Greek tragedy (religious drama) that we so treasure today.

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  Copyright 1999 by Miles H. Hodges.  All Rights Reserved.