Sunday, May 19, 2013

I'm Obsessed with Orphism!

I have been working very long hours the last few months, and my brain is feeling a little overheated. That may be why I've become obsessed with Orphism! When the spirits come calling they need to be acknowledged, hence this post. Maybe it will help my brain cool down.

Orpheus by Karoly Ferenczy, 1894

Orphism was a strain of Greek religious philosophy supposedly founded by Orpheus, the mythical bard. Orpheus was considered an expert on all things religious because he had descended to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, and learned the secrets of life, death and the universe while he was down there. After failing to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living Orpheus founded an all male religious movement in Thrace. This outraged the Thracian woman, who wanted their men back, and they tore Orpheus into small pieces. His head continued to sing and prophesy after death, however, until it was finally buried by the Lesbian (and lesbian) poetess Sappho. As if this all doesn't make Orpheus sound queer enough, he also supposedly was the lover of Calais, the winged son of the North Wind.

My recent obsession with Orphism started when I was poking around the Web for information about Hercules. I've been interested in Herc ever since I was a child. He's most familiar to us by his Roman name, but the Greeks called him Herakles or Heracles, and he's appeared in many forms. He's a mortal hero who gained immortality, he's a constellation, he's a god on Mount Olympus, he's a shamanic figure (according to scholar Walter Burkert), he's syncretized with the Phoenician god Melqart, and he's one of the Daktyls, the divine helpers of the great mother goddess Rhea Cybele.

And, according to some Orphic texts described by a writer named Damascius, he was also a primal god who gave birth to the universe. According to these texts, in the beginning of time there existed only water and dirt. These two mingled to produce slime, and from the slime was born unaging Herakles, also known as Time. This version of Herc was a giant snake with three heads, those of a bull, a lion, and a god. Some accounts also give him a pair of wings growing from his shoulders. Nice!

Lou Ferrigno as Hercules, with egg, in one of the 1980s Luigi Cozzi Hercules films.

This primordial Herakles is described as bisexual, or hermaphroditic. He's a big musclebound snake deity, so naturally he makes love to himself. Be honest - wouldn't you do the same it you were the only being in the universe? This act of divine self-love produces a gigantic cosmic egg, which is filled with so much Herculean super-cosmic love power that it explodes into two halves. The upper half becomes the sky, or Ouranos (Uranus to the Romans) and the lower half becomes Gaia, the earth.

The Orphic creation myths then continue in a vein similar to the standard mythic creation described by Hesiod. Ouranos and Gaia make love and give birth to the Titans, including Rhea and Kronos. Kronos eventually castrates Ouranos and declares himself king of the universe. To prevent his children from castrating him, he eats them as soon as his wife Rhea gives birth. Rhea is not too happy about this, and tricks him into eating a stone rather than her last child Zeus, who she raises secretly in a cave. Zeus defeats Kronos and the Titans, and kicks them down into the deep underworld of Tartarus. And then....

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1823

And then, the Orphic creation myths deviate from the standard Greek myth. In a big way. According to a recently discovered parchment called the Derveni papyrus, Zeus is aware of prophecies that he too will someday be overthrown by a son. But he figures out a way to avoid this fate! The giant severed phallus of Ouranos, "the phallus who had first ejaculated the brilliance of heaven," is still flying around in the atmosphere. Zeus grasps it and swallows it down. By this act of cannibalistic oral sex he absorbs the universe's generative power into himself and becomes the supreme god.You see, Kronos was simply eating his divine offspring, but Zeus actually eats the generative source of all the gods and goddesses. He's not just going to be another player in history - he's going to be history itself.

Well, my brain feels a little cooler after getting some of this down in writing. I think you can see why Orphism is interesting to me as a gay man. It was founded by someone who loved men, and the original lesbian has a role to play as well. A giant, hermaphroditic, serpentine version of one of my favorite deities creates the world through some self-pleasure. And Zeus absorbs the power of the universe through oral sex. It's a fantastically queer view of religion and the universe, and I can understand why it was so popular in the ancient world.

Underneath the somewhat lurid mythology, Orphism also has things to say about the nature of the human soul and how we should all act in the world. Hopefully I'll get to write about those aspects of it soon.