The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXV

Orphism as a Blend of Dionysian and Apollonian Religion…

Orpheus as Fisher of Men

His Dismemberment…

And Osiris’…

The myth of Orpheus’ death as the priestly representative of Dionysus, who paradoxically dies because of his devotion to Apollo, seems to imply the possibility (as W.K.C. Guthrie has argued) that Orphism was an attempt at the Apollonian reformation of Dionysian religion. I have already alluded to the merely transient state of ecstasis and divine possession offered by participation in the Dionysian mysteries. For the Orphic, by contrast, the belief in the essential and abiding divinity and immortality of the human soul was axiomatic.

But the Orphics found the Dionysian mysteries unsatisfying in another regard: the Orphic initiate might believe in possession by the god and mystical communion with him as a means of attaining salvation, but he did not regard them as spiritually sufficient. Rather, Orphism placed great emphasis on moral purity, which was necessary not only on solemn occasions (as at Eleusis), but as a way of life.

The Orphic became an immortal god because he lived the Orphic life: the life of one who was aware of the celestial origins and essentially divine nature of his soul, an entity that therefore utterly transcended the mortal world. Such an awareness imposed upon him an elaborate system of rules and practices, both ascetical and penitential.


These two central tenets, then — first, a belief in the essential divinity and immortality of the soul, and second, the need for a constant ritual purity — , give us the clue both to the meaning of Orpheus’ myth and the reason why it was so congenial to the Orphic movement. The first of these tenets was of course to be found in the religion of the Thracian Dionysus, the second in that of the Delphic Apollo. The curious myth of Orpheus as apostle of Apollo to the Thracians thus throws a clear light on the Orphic religion as a blend of Dionsyian belief in immortality with Apollonian ideas of catharsis. From the former, Orphism took the possibility of union with the divine through ecstasy and enthusiasm; from the latter, its atmosphere of legal rigorism and ritual punctilio.


Ultimately, of course, Orpheus’ myth must be interpreted in a much broader context than that of either Dionysian or Apollonian religion, as the universal motive of his death and dismemberment suggests. The floating of Orpheus’ head down the Hebrus River and the collection of his body parts by the Muses cannot help but summon to mind a multitude of mythological parallels.

It would be impossible here to explore the vast universal significance of water in this context, although I might mention Dionysus’ power over that element as expressed by the dolphins who are amongst his sacred animals, and the colourful story, recorded in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, of his magical power over the pirate ship in which he is both captive and captor. Jesus’ power over water is well-known, and not only is the fish sacred to him, but he is called in the Gospels a “Fisher of Men”. Significantly, Orpheus’ name means, etymologically, the same thing. It is Orpheus, that is, who rescues human souls from the infernal waters of sin (from a drowning death in the body and the world); and by reminding them of their celestial origins and nature, confers upon them new life.

But the closest analogue to Orpheus’ dismemberment, watery interment, and revivification comes from the myth of another redeemer-god of seasonal and spiritual rebirth, the Egyptian Osiris, inventor of agriculture, year-god, and lord of the underworld, whose Egyptian mysteries were notably identified with those of Dionysus by the brilliant late-first-century A.D. philosopher and antiquarian Plutarch.

Osiris, like Sargon of Akkad, Perseus, and Dionysus (not to mention the biblical Noah, Moses, and Jonah) was shut up in a boat or ark (i.e., a funereal casket which is both tomb and womb) and floated down the Nile. At one point in his journey, his corpse was removed from the casket and cut up into fourteen pieces by his mortal enemy, Set, the god of wintry sterility and death. Osiris’ consort, the earth-goddess Isis, was bereft, and like Demeter, she wandered the earth (which she blighted in her anger and grief) until she collected Osiris’ scattered members and performed a magical ceremony over them, whence Osiris was reborn.

I mention these resonances without further comment to demonstrate what should already be clear: the practical ubiquity, that is, of this type of ancient mystery religion, to which Orphism evidently also belongs.

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