Sunday, July 29, 2012

Orpheus the ancient source

One view of Orpheus makes him out to be more than a poet or thinker, but a culture hero in the mold of Erichthonius of Athens. Here's one form such a view can take:
"...Orphefs [sic] 'by his playing and singing won over the Greeks, changed the hearts of barbarians and tamed wild beasts.' He made men give up cannibalistic feasts, an achievement which in Graeco-Roman times was attributed to many Gods without much discrimination; but for Orpheus it can be traced back to the fifth century. He taught men also the arts of agriculture and in this way inclined their natures towards peace and gentleness." (Orpheus)
I've found a few online sources for Orpheus, including translations of his hymns, rhapsodies, and a kind of Theogony like that of Hesiod. Below are some relevant links.

Here's a useful intro to the Orphic hymns, which are considered to be of great antiquity:
THE ORPHIC HYMNS (Gr. Ορφικοί Ύμνοι, ὈΡΦΙΚΟῚ ὝΜΝΟΙ) are a collection of eighty-seven hymns to the Gods which have been used in the rituals of Hellenismos. The poems are attributed to Orpheus, but the actual authorship is unclear. The date of composition of the hymns is also a matter of dispute. There are those in the Orphic tradition who believe they are 10,000 years old, based on certain clues found in the text itself. Some scholars claim a time period ranging anywhere from the sixth century BCE to the fourth century CE, most believing they were composed in the later period, but it is curious, and has been noted, that there is no evidence of any Christian influence in the poems, leaving one to suspect a more ancient date of creation. G.R.S. Mead, in his book Orpheus, argues for a date of great antiquity, citing a number of ancient authors (Diodorus Siculus and Iamblichus) and scholars (Clavier, Thomas Taylor, and J.F. Gail) who hold that opinion: "the poems of Orpheus date back to Pelasgic Greece, to the days of legend, to pre-historic times." 

Hymns of Orpheus - The Taylor Translation of 1792 is problematic, but it's the one used by Theoi. It can be downloaded from the above intro site, or accessed online here.

A recent translation (1988) that is said to be accurate and well done, but which is overpriced, is The Orphic Hymns by Apostolos N. Athanassakis.

The ancient view of Orpheus as teacher, rather than as poet, is sketched out here.

The basis for the notion of Orpheus as thinker/teacher is the fragments knows as the Sacred Logos in 24 Rhapsodies. Also some make much of the Orphic mysteries  as key to Greek religious practices.

If nothing else, the "vatic" style of this passage, found on a gold tablet (known as the Petelia Tablet) in southern Italy, suggests why Orpheus became the font of a long esoteric tradition (which we touched on here) combining religious, metaphysical, scientific and poetic lore. (If of interest, more here.)
"Thou shalt find to the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white 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 my race is of Ouranos. This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish. 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..."
Gold lamella prayer tablet

Here's the Hymn to Adonis via Taylor's translation of 87 such hymns:
Much-nam'd, and best of dæmons, hear my pray'r, the desart-loving, deck'd with tender hair;
Joy to diffuse, by all desir'd is thine, much form'd, Eubouleos; aliment divine
Female and Male, all charming to the sight, Adonis ever flourishing and bright;
At stated periods doom'd to set and rise, with splendid lamp, the glory of the skies.
Two-horn'd and lovely, reverenc'd with tears, of beauteous form, adorn'd with copious hairs.
Rejoicing in the chace, all-graceful pow'r, sweet plant of Aphrodite, Eros' delightful flow'r:
Descended from the secret bed divine, of lovely-hair'd, infernal Proserpine.
'Tis thine to fink in Tartarus profound, and shine again thro' heav'ns illustrious round,
With beauteous temp'ral orb restor'd to sight; come, with earth's fruits, and in these flames delight.

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