The past two posts — the one about how Strawberry Shortcake got me thinking about depictions of Hêlios and Zeus I encountered as a child and the other about motivations and actions — both included some discussion of (and reaction to) Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods, which I am reading through right now.
Since I need to screenshot something for a WordPress customer support ticket and have to make a post to show them what I mean, I’m going ahead with pulling out a few things that I find interesting.
I have not actually read many Orphic fragments outside of in situ (read: quoted in commentaries) now (and I’m still not that far along in reading) or encountering things over a decade ago — when I was 20, I read a translation of the Derveni papyrus and the translated gold tablets in Graf and Johnston’s Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. I do, however, read/use the Athanassakis translation of the Orphic Hymns quite a lot.
On to some fun quotations.
Neoplatonic allegory was not simply a matter of randomly mapping correspondences between genealogical and metaphysical charts, but a matter of finding substantial correlations between poetic texts that they considered sacred and metaphysical concepts that they found to be reflected in particular episodes. Neither did they separate myth from philosophy in their on way of thinking to the degree that modern scholars do: the statement that Zeus swallows Phanes and the statement that the Demiurge contains the Paradigm were, according to the Neoplatonists, exactly the same statement. This might be confusing when viewed through the lens of our own modern systems of categorization, but what it actually means is that the poetic episode is the clearest and most vivid way to understand the philosophical concept. [Zeus’ specific cutting/swallowing actions in the Orphic succession myth as written the Rhapsodies] is the perfect illustration of the relationship between these two centerpieces of the Neoplatonic universe, and consequently it is the best preserved episode in the Orphic Rhapsodies, especially if we consider the Orphic Hymn to Zeus to be a part of it. (p. 229, bold emphasis mine)
I find this very soothing considering the number of times I wrote out things in the margins while reading Proclus’ Parmenides commentary to give myself allegorical shortcuts. It’s nice to know that that’s not objectively a wrong/incorrect thing to do.
Zeus absorbs the old creation, and then “brings forth” (32) the new creation from “inside his mighty body” (10). Whether the hymn is a separate poem in the Rhapsodic collection or a digression in the Rhapsodic narrative, it does not present a pantheistic vision in which Zeus is eternally equated with the cosmos, but one in which the cosmos is inside the belly of Zeus for a brief moment in time. Neither does the hymn present a monotheistic vision in which Zeus is consistently the only god, as Clement reads it, but again a brief moment in which Zeus is the only god in existence. This moment does not last, because the last two lines make clear that “he intended” or “he was about to” (μέλλεν, 32) re-create the cosmos and the other gods. (p. 234-235, emphasis mine)
This is neither pantheism nor monotheism. It’s …… polytheism. 🤭
Also, the imagery that Meisner mentions here is catastrophically beautiful. I mean catastrophically when I say that. Contextually, the quotation comes from an area where Meisner is articulating what the poet was probably intending with this section versus its role in the Platonists and Christian apologists’ writings about it.
From Orpheus: / Zeus the beginning of everything, Zeus the middle, Zeus the end; / Zeus the highest, Zeus is both of the earth and of the sea, / Zeus male, Zeus female / again / and Zeus all things, / shining on all things in a circle, Zeus the beginning, middle, end; / and Zeus has power over everything. Zeus himself holds everything in himself.
The scholiast of Galen uses τελεῖται (“is accomplished,” “brought to an end”) instead of τέτυκται (“are made”), which comes closer to the idea contained in the papyrus version’s τελευτή (“end”). The words “Zeus male, Zeus female” emphasize the unusual hermaphroditic nature of Zeus that appears in the hymns, and this phrase bears a similar meaning to line 4 in the Classical version and line 3 in the Rhapsodic version: “Zeus was born male, Zeus has become the immortal/imperishable bride.” The next line after this — “Zeus the foundation of earth and starry sky” — presents Zeus as being everywhere in the cosmos, and line 6 of the Classical version says, “Zeus the root of the sea, Zeus the sun and the moon.” (p. 107)
I wasn’t expecting this imagery. LABRYS’ household ritual book mentions during the purification ritual that a form of Zeus’ name is feminine in one section of the poem, with a note in brackets about Zeus in feminine form; it had been my only encounter with such things before embarking on reading Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods.
In contemporary conversations about Gods, it’s interesting how there are still only a few people talking about how the procreative sexual role and gender performance is actually allegorical; the Gods are beyond sex and gender, and we’ve traditionally used those things to describe the ineffably brilliant things about them that are reflected in the beauty of the myths. I use beauty in a broad sense here, as I am the kind of person who will voluntarily watch simulation videos of galaxy collisions and violent supernovae, which are also very beautiful.
Zeus was born male, Zeus has become the immortal bride,
Zeus the breath of all, Zeus the impulse of untiring fire,
Zeus the root of the sea, Zeus the sun and the moon,
Zeus the king, Zeus, god of the bright bolt, ruler of everything,
for he has brought everything hidden back up into the delightful light
out of his pure heart, doing baneful things. (p. 103)
This section reminds me of the new release of Peter Gabriel’s Flotsam and Jetsam, where there is a new version of “Sky Blue” called “Sky Blue – Martyn Bennett Remix” with string action that is absolutely ethereal and unifying. The entire musical piece is like something contracting into one thing, or something being swallowed, and it comes into unity just like the poetic section above.
The verses themselves remind me of some things I’m working on in the type of speculative fiction I write. Sacrifice and the idea of the parthenos at the precipice and as the fulcrum between before and after and actuality and possibility are themes I like exploring. There are a few poems where I do use bride-like imagery to describe some types of union; it’s fun to juxtapose that against this.
As we have seen, the prophetess Night performs here a role that she has played since the Derveni poem, as a prophetess with whom Zeus consults. Zeus has just finished obtaining royal power, and he asks Night how he might secure this power. In the Rhapsodies, Night advises him to pull the entire universe together with a golden chain, which means that he must contain the universe within a finite space surrounded by aither. Zeus takes this advice to mean that he must swallow his ancestor Phanes, for in doing so he takes the entire creation into his own stomach. Having become momentarily equated with the entire universe, Zeus brings it back again out of his stomach and re-creates the universe, and in doing so he becomes the first, greatest, and most powerful of the gods. This episode is best understood as one of the means by which Zeus secures his power as king. It is a supporting narrative that the Orphic poet has added to the base structure of the traditional succession myth that is known from Hesiod. In its simplest terms, the poet considers how it is that Zeus can be the king of the gods when he is not the first of the gods, and the answer is that Zeus swallows Phanes and re-creates the gods. (p. 223)
This passage neatly contextualizes some of the above things, but also talks about Nyx as the catalyst for that kind of action.
Anyway, I’m not done reading, and I’m having the kind of fun that a poet who is also a bookworm weirdo of her heart’s heart would have while poring over a monograph like this.