The Orphic Mysteries

But thou shalt find another, from the Lake of Memory
Cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it.
Say, ‘I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven; But my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves.
But I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.’
Plate from Petelia, South Italy, fourth-third century B.C.E


Although I do not follow the Orphic Mysteries directly my practices have been heavily influenced by them indirectly one way or another. The Covenant of Hekate’s public rituals make oblique reference to them with some of the ritual movements and the wider Pagan concept of ‘As above, So below’ also finds it’s origin in Orphism.

Just how much Orphism has influenced western religion is actually surprising if you’ve never deeply considered it. I’ve decided that, in addition to how I have incorporated the Orphic Oath as described in the Petelia Plate into my daily practice, I would give an over view of the Mysteries themselves and the impact they have had on Christianity to help explain just how my balancing ritual fits within this.

Who is Orpheus
Orpheus is the legendary musician, poet and prophet of ancient Greece,  famous for his descent into Hades to retrieve his wife Eurydice. Son of the Thracian King Oeagrus and the muse of epic poetry Calliope, at least according to Apollodorus and Pindar, Orpheus was a man of many talents. As well as processing the gifts of music, poetry and prophecy he is credited with bringing medicine, writing and agriculture to mankind,  as well as having indepth knowledge of astrology.

One of his earliest adventures appears in the Argonautica as he aids Jason in escaping the clutches of the Sirens.  Where as Odysseys has his crew stop up their ears whilst he satisfies his curiosity lashed tight to the mast Jason, on advice from Chiron, has Orpheus drown out the song of the Sirens with his own song and poetry. In his own classical epic Orpheus does what only Herakles (Hercules) has done before him and enters the realms of the Dead to entreat the Gods of Hades to release his wife Eurydice from death. Orpheus was nearly sucessful, but before they could emerge he did the one thing he had been warned not to.  He looked backwards at Eurydice. For the second and finally time Eurydice was pulled into the underworld, never to return.

In despair Orpheus took to wandering the wilds of Thrace, proclaiming his grief in verse and song, until he was set upon by the maenads who, in their Bacchic frenzy, tear him to pieces and cast his head and lyre into the river from where the muses placed the lyre amongst the stars and head transported to Lesbos where it was placed in a shrine from where it continued to utter prophecy.

The attack of the maenads is commonly given three explanations.  Firstly that in their divinely inspired madness the maenads were unable to hear the sweet tones of Orpheus and therefore were able to carry out the will of Dionysus, whom Orpheus had once held as his patron deity but in later life had rejected along with all the other Gods of heaven. Secondly that the maenads were acting on heir own initiative and punishing him for his rejection of female lovers in favour of men. Finally, as a priest of Dionysus and founder of an essential Dionysian cult, his death at the hands of the gods female worshipers echoes the death of Dionysus-Zagreus at the hands of the Titans.

The Orphic Mysteries
The Orphic Mysteries came to prominence in the 6th BCE and was transported from Orpheus native Thrace by his pupil Musaeus. The Orphic Creation myths stem from the World Egg, from which the God Protogonus (Phanes) was born. Down a succession of deities including the Titans and Olympians we reach Dionysus-Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone. Dionysus-Zagreus was proclaimed by Zeus as the future ruler of the universe but through the macinations of Hera the Titans ripped him to peices and consume him. The reason for her envy was Zeus favouring Dionysus-Zagreus above any other, allowing the child to handle his thunderbolt and sit upon his throne. Neoplatonists believed him to be the reincarnation of Protogonus/Phanes and gave this as the reason Zeus names Dionysus-Zagreus as his successor as ruler of the universe.

In avenging his eaten son Zeus turns this thunderbolt upon those Titans who had consumed Dionysus-Zagreus. Zeus swallowed his sons heart, taken from the ashes, and caused the mortal Semele to fall pregnant with Dionysus-Baccus but Hera, still offended, took action. She persuaded Semele to demand a boon from her immortal love, which lead to her incineration upon viewing his full divine presence. Zeus saved his unborn son and carried him in his thigh until he was full term and was born as Dionysus-Baccus.

At the same moment that the Titans are destroyed mankind emerges from the ashes. It is from this that the Orphic concept of the divinity of man and the need to redeem the soul come from. The Orphics believe that once the Titans had consumed the flesh of Dionysus-Zagreus their own flesh absorbs the divine nature of the consumed god which in turn was passed on to mankind when they emerged from the ashes. This gives man a duality in his nature, containing both the inherent ‘good’ of the Gods and ‘evil’ of the Titans.

This concept is brought more into focus when you consider that Orphism is heavily influenced by eastern concepts such as reincarnation and sin. Without mitigating sin, which the human soul is danger of courting due to his origin with the Titans, the dead are unable to reach Elysium. Elysium is the Greek/Roman version of the Isles of Blessed or Heaven, an eternal paradise which can only be achieved by living a blameless life of austerity and virtue. May Orphics are celibate, teetotal and vegetarian in order to achieve one of the three virtuous lives necessary to achieve release from the endless cycles of rebirth and reach Elysium. This is the complete polar opposite of the rest of the Dionysiac cults. Once the initiate died they would enter the underworld and undergo the same process of spiritual purification that all souls experienced before reincarnation.  However if they were found by all the judges, including the queen of the underworld Persephone, to have escaped their Titanic nature eternal peace was their reward.

It is this concept that takes us forward into the spiritual offspring of Orphism, Gnosticism and Christianity.

Orphism and Christianity
Orphism is one of the longest surviving Ancient Mysteries, surviving as far as 5th century CE along with Mithraic cults whilst other Dionysian cults faded or were driven underground with other less popular cults. The last written reference is found in the writings of Nonnos. One of the reasons for this is because Orphism underwent regular revision by people such as the Neoplatonists and Pythagoras another is because some of the concepts and mythology of Orphism has survived down in Christianity.

Parallels between Jesue and Dionysus can be drawn in some of the parables, notably the turning of water to wine and his crucifixion and resurrection and in motifs such as healing the sick, raising the dead and being associated with fishermen. However it is only the motifs that survive, clad in clothing of peace and pacifism. Gnosticism provided much more fertile ground for the seeds of Orphism, most noticeable the idea that the soul is trapped by the physical body and through austerity and remaining free from sin the soul can achieve release from repeated reincarnation and return them to the divine Zoé, the divine force at the centre of creation. Zoé is also a term used to describe an orphic Dionysus and represents a divine female archetype,  similar to the Jewish Shekinah. Gnostics are notoriously feminist and the gender reassignment may he simply an extension of this, or alternatively it was see as a way to create a distinction between them and Orphics and other devotees of Dionysus, who were being increasingly being considered as corrupt.

Orphism certainly didn’t retreat in to the mists of time without leaving it’s mark on those who came after.  Certainly incorporating Orphic concepts into modern paganism shows that much of its teachings are still relevant today. Whether it is direct and conscious usage through word and deed or unconscious, by following concepts such as “As Above, So Below”, we are touched by Orpheus and his prophetic muse.

Orphism and Eggs and the Hekate Supper
How then does Orphic Mysteries affect the Heketean devotee? The most obvious link lies within the egg of the Hekate Supper at the dark moon.

For a number of years I read that the egg was a common offering to Hekate but the why often escaped me. Beyond responses along the lines of ‘because it is said and so it is’ I struggled to get much further forward, which really frustrated my inner toddler who must know the reason why for things (any parent whoes experienced the whole ‘but why?’ conversation will know the conversations I mean).

Through coincidence a friend was pondering this issue as I was researching this post and her musings on Facebook lead to a series of useful connections. Firstly to an article by S I Johnson called Crossroads,  appearing in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. It is avalible to read in English at Jstor although you will need an account (which is also free). Secondly it lead to Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Ellen Harrison, particularly chapter 12 on the Orphic Cosmology.

For the Orphics ‘everything’ begins with the egg
In the beginning of Things, black-winged Night
Into the bosom of Erebos dark and deep
Laid a wind-born egg, and,  as the seasons rolled
Forth sprang Love (Eros) gleaming with wings of gold
The Birds of Aristophanes

This is purely Orphic, where as Homer has no interest in these moments before the existence of man and Hesiod who, whilst clearly influenced by the Orphic mysteries, was more bothered by the appearance of Eros into the cosmos.

The egg is directly attributed to Orpheus, having said “what time great Chronos fashioned in holy aether; a silver – gleaming egg” (Damascius, Inquiery Concerning the First Principles)

The  doctrine of the egg was something taught to all initiates and may have evolved into a taboo object. Plutarch, for example,  abstained from eating eggs with the explination that he had been ‘ infected by Orohic and Pathagorean notions, and was refusing to eat eggs eggs just as certain people refuse to eat the heart and brains, because he held an egg to be taboo as being the principal of life.’ In other words not only did Plutarch count eating the egg as taboo as eating the flesh of the bird the Orphics, as he goes on to explain, have the answer to the age old riddle of the chicken and the egg, the egg is not only ancient in comparison to the bird but is the carrier of all life in potential and therefore more important. Plutarch causes the commentator to speculate on the importance of the egg in ritual;“And therefore it is not inappropriate that in the orgiastic ceremonies in honour of Dionysus an egg is amongst the sacred offerings, as being the symbol of what gives birth to all things, and in itself contains all things.” Precisely how the egg was used is unclear how it’s function was twofold, being used in the purification of a person or space as well as an offering to the dead.

Here is where Hekate comes in. The Hekate Supper is a collection of refuse and detritus gathered together after the purification of the ritual space. The egg becomes a means of purifying the space although the mechanism is not clearly explained. One could ponder that as an object of pure creative forces the egg attracts and absorbs the negativity that might have gathered around the sacred space. The act of physically cleansing deals with the dust and detritus whilst the egg deals with the build up of spiritual gunk that is drawn to sacred spaces.

The idea that eggs serve this function isn’t exactly new. Eggs are acknowledged as being able to absorb the smells and flavours of food around them. Storing eggs in the fridge, outside of their container, allows the egg to absorb any nasty smells and eggs have historically bern used to cleanse and nourish hair. Magically speaking eggs are often used in Witchbottles and Spirit Traps, with the raw egg trapping the negative spirit.

There are many traditions around the world which make use of eggs to cleanse, protect and heal. From holding the egg in the hand or on/over an infected area and visualising the negative energy being absorbed to washing in the mixed white and/or yolk, there are common themes.  Firstly it is always a raw egg, this goes for making egg chalk powder from the shells too. Once the egg is cooked the life giving potential is destroyed and so the energy lost. Secondly it should ideally be a fertilised egg, again so the potential within is much greater. Some America, North and South,  state that only eggs of a certain breed of chicken, or fertilised by a cock of a certain colour, should be used. Thirdly the egg should be carried far from the home to be destroyed and the contents released. Some traditions would have it that this can take place in any nature setting far from the home of the person or area being cleansed, Mexican traditions say that in healing the egg should be broken into running water that flows away from the home and I found a new age site suggesting cracking it down a flushing toilet (it is running water).

Obviously for the Heketean it is the crossroad that is preeminent. The reason for this is explored by Johnson in Crossroads. It is difficult to know if Hekate became associated with crossroads, an ‘uncanny place’, because she is a goddess of ‘uncanny place’ or if crossroads were considered an ‘uncanny place’ because Hekate dwelt there. Regardless they are a space between places, neither road A, B or C, and this concept ties into less ‘uncanny’ epitaphs such as Propolos; She Who Leads, Guide, Companion, Propylaia; One before the Gate, Prothyraea; Before the Gate and Psychopompe; Soul-Guide.

The egg is take to the liminal crossroad and is encountered by Hekate but why give the goddess a now impure offering considered acceptable? One of her Epitaphs from the PGM IV 1390-1495 is Borborophorba, Eater of Filth. Within this spell, a love spell of attraction performed with the help of heroes or gladiators or those who have died a violent death, Hekate is reffered to as the eater of filth a number of times and the caster draws her and the restless dead to eat the food offering in return for their rousing the lust of the target of the spell. In this setting the filth is a welcomed offering both to Hekate and the dead, when accepted results in a transaction between practitioner and force invoked.

Returning to the egg, Hekate consumes the egg as part of the offering, disposing of the captured negative energy on the behalf of Her devotee even as they have disposed of the physical detritus. It is also here that the egg is encountered by the restless dead that follow in Hekate’s wake. The unclean elements trapped within the egg are taken into Hekate and/or her cavalcade and out of the mortal/material world, to be cleansed and put to some future use, remembering that energy can never be destroyed, only changed.

Orpheus and I
Well after all that I felt much clearer as to the why eggs are included in the Hekate Supper, enough at least to fill the gaps with personal gnosis. However the original thrust of my post was to share how incorporate the Orphic concept of the divine origins of man. The opening quote was a section of the Petelia Plate, dated to the fourth-third century B.C.E. Of all the Orphic inspired Plates it best outlines the Orphic Oath and the central concept of my (almost) daily balancing ritual. The phrase ‘I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven; But my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves…’ speaks to how man emerged from the ashes of the mingled flesh of the Titans and Dionysus-Zagreus and contains the divine spark of the heavens within their own flesh and I have encorprated the words in an adapted form into my ritual. They provide a moments meditation on  number of subjects, particularly when combined with ritual movement introduced by the Rites of Her Sacred Fires.

I am a child of the heavens above
Born uniting stars and stones
© Victoria Newton

As I stand with my hands raised, palms to the sky in a recieving gesture, not only do I have the opportunity to draw down golden energy from the universe I can ponder upon the divine energy inherent within me as well as my patrons. Once I have acknowledged these divine forces and origins I then balance this by recognising that I am mortal, living upon a mortal planet. By adopting a different pose, submissive hand still raised to the sky and dominant hand now down by my side palm facing the ground, not only do I stand physically uniting the stars and stones (Heaven and Earth) but I am allowing energy to flow from the Earth into my being, as well as mingling it with the heavenly energy also within me. Once balance is achieved I revert to the original stance,  closing down the flow of energy and recognising the balance within me. As a final act I ground myself by placing both hands against the floor.

This is probably more simple than I make it sound. It can be incorporated into a larger ritual or form the basis of its own short one. You can perform it for 5 minuets or 50 (though it would take stronger arms than mine to hold the pose for that length of time), the point is to feel that sense of balance within yourself and give yourself the time needed to achieve it.

I hope this post has achieved my original aim without digressing too far into the origins of the egg in the Hekate Suppers. If I have majorly digressed blame Homer, I’ve been reading his epics and can only assume his style has rubbed off on me a little.

Links and References
Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, [1929] Chapter IV Orphic Reform, at
Orphic Egg by ClarusConstat

About knotmagick

Weaving Magick and Crochet in the madhouse I call home. I am a devotee of Hekate and a follower of Pan.
This entry was posted in Hekate, History, Magick, Pagan Blog Project, Witchcraft and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Orphic Mysteries

  1. wow, super comprehensive! thanks for paying such great attention to detail, and thanks for sharing!

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