Good and bad polytheists (part 3): Homer and Orpheus

HOMER

homer

Although there is little that we can be certain of regarding the life of this man, his immense influence on the Hellenic people by means of his epic poems is the essence of what ought to be considered. It is generally thought that he was a blind poet who flourished in the 9th or 8th century BCE. Like others of his profession, he composed poems orally and travelled to recite them for pay, especially at festivals or in the houses of nobles. Sometime after his death, his epic poems, the famous Illiad and Odyssey, were written and preserved for posterity. They concerned a remarkable time in Greek history, when, 400 years before, during the Bronze Age, a great war broke out between several Greek states and the city of Troy, which afterwards spread further; the first poem relates the events of the war, and the second the return of the king Odysseus home, after the siege of Troy. After they were written, the poems rose to such fame and admiration for many centuries, that they actually inspired and educated the Greek peoples more than any author before, and hence were almost considered as a sacred authority to learn from.

The value of Homer is derived not only from the glorious style and imagination of his poetry, but also the genuine Greek spirit, character and life that he embellishes and preserves in it, from which many lessons can be taken. He tells a great story of a war in which both Gods and men took part, some acting cunningly and others heroically to gain more power and achieve some sort of influence. We see causes and consequences to actions, we see the descriptions of actions, we see the performers of the actions, and then we become aware of many important truths in life that were pertinent to ancient Greeks, such as honor, fame, comfort, glory, revenge, power, wealth, influence, home, security, purpose, etc. Homer paints life and mythology together in suitable and significant colors, in such a way that would move his Greek listeners and readers to enjoyment, reflection, and learning about themselves, their lives and their time. His songs are interwoven with his own ethnic culture; he celebrates his ethnic people by his epic poems, as he does his ethnic Gods by his hymns. Because he performed in both so well, he is justifiably remembered and his works are gladly preserved.

 

ORPHEUS

300px-DSC00355_-_Orfeo_(epoca_romana)_-_Foto_G._Dall'OrtoThe fame that Homer’s poems achieved inspired many imitations, some of which were honest and sincere, but others were deceitful and selfish. The practices of Orpheus are of the latter kind. Some believe him to have never existed (for example, Aristotle), as a few do also of Homer, but it is possible to gather pieces from history to construct the story of his life, as well as understand his motives, from what is known of the inventions he left behind. Since he is not mentioned in Homer or Hesiod, we know that he lived after their time, and here a suspicion arises as to how he appears in several places in Greek mythology. One story puts him as the first man who was taught the lyre by Apollo or even as the son of Apollo, another as a companion of the Argonauts, and a third as someone who descends into the underworld to recover his wife (a nymph) after death by playing music to Hades and Persephone that softened their hearts. This all looks suspicious when an important point is considered: Orpheus is known as the founder of mystery religions modelled to the very ancient Eleusinian mysteries, one is known as the Orphic mysteries and the other as the Dionysian mysteries. Since these mystery religions can be dated, because they appear at a certain point in history (6-5th century BCE), the character of Orpheus is certainly real and historical, but it was his followers who inserted him into mythology at a position so unjustly near the Gods themselves.

The truth is, Orpheus belonged to a profession, just like Homer; he was a sort of prophet or magician who travelled to purify, teach or bless places or people for pay. Of this number, several are known to have existed in the 6th century or before, such as Musaeus and Epimenides. He differs from them, however, because he established his own religion, which corrupted and challenged the cosmogony and principles that the Greeks had accepted till that time. In the Orphic mysteries, the universe begins with Eros rather than Chaos, and Zeus fathers all the Gods after him, sometimes by raping, and thus Zeus is both a single God and many Gods at the same time. The Derveni Papyrus, a text of Orphic theology, presents these as allegories, but this must be an excuse to avoid impiety, because these corruptions are extremely bold and contradictory of the Hellenic religion. Another falsehood in this invented religion is that Zeus granted Dionysus (his son in the story) the succession to his throne as king of the universe, and then Dionysus is murdered by Hera out of jealousy that he was the son of Persephone and not hers, and from his torn flesh, sinful mankind is born and forced to suffer in cycles of rebirth. These tales are blasphemies of the grossest kind. In the mystery religion of Dionysus, the invention is carried on further: Dionysus is reborn by the ritual of eating bread and drinking wine (representing his flesh and blood) and he returns to govern the world after Zeus in a new cycle of history. Perhaps it can be seen already how much these corruptions resemble Christianity, which, few know, was actually influenced more by these two mystery religions than by Judaism. Eros was reinterpreted as Love, Dionysus as Jesus, Zeus as the Father, and what is stranger than all, the bread and the wine, as well as original sin, are exactly the same. To some degree, one could say that Orpheus himself was reinterpreted as Paul of Tarsus: Just as Paul travelled preaching and was executed in Rome for causing disturbances with his new religion, so was Orpheus, after his own travels, torn to pieces by the priestesses of Dionysus in one account, or according to another, struck by a thunderbolt of Zeus, as a punishment for his impiety.

2 thoughts on “Good and bad polytheists (part 3): Homer and Orpheus

    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      You’re always welcome. As soon as I first read of orphism, it looked strange and suspicious. With further reading and reflection, I reached the conclusions above. One thing I left out was the influence orphism had on what I call religious philosophy, beginning with Pythagoras and Parmenides and then growing with Plato.

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