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The Theology of Orpheus

G.R.S. Mead
From Orpheus (1896)1

n the late nineteenth and early twentieth To him the Greeks confessed they owed

I centuries, long before the discovery of religion, the arts, the sciences both sacred
the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag and profane; and, therefore, in dealing with
Hammadi Library, George Robert Stowe the subject I have proposed to myself in this
Mead (1863-1933) used all of the exist- essay, it will be necessary to treat of a theol-
ing materials available to him ogy which was first mystically
to provide one of the best pic- and symbolically promulgated
tures of ancient esoteric roots in by Orpheus, afterwards dissemi
his day. His interests and work nated enigmatically through
included studies in Gnosticism, images by Pythagoras, and
Hermetism, and great mystic in the last place scientifically
figures of antiquity, such as unfolded by Plato and his
Simon Magus, Apollonius of genuine disciples2; or to use
Tyana, and Orpheus. He served the words of Proclus, the last
as Madame Blavatskys private great master of Neoplatonism,
secretary from 1889 until her G.R.S. Mead (1863-1933) all the theology of the Greeks
death in 1891. Combining the (Photo by Elliott & Fry, 1916). comes from Orphic mystagogy,
skills of scholar and esoteric that is to say, initiation into the
practitioner, Mead brought vigor and illu- mysteries.3 Not only did the learned of the
mination to all of the subjects he dealt with. Pagan world ascribe the sacred science to
In this introduction to the vast subject of the same source, but also the instructed of
Orpheus and Orphism, he reminds us that the Christian fathers.4
there is much in Orpheus beyond the tragic
tale of his loss of Eurydice. Taking the some- The Science of Divine Things
times complex and confusing fragments of It must not however, be supposed that
the various Orphic Theogonies that have Orpheus was regarded as the inventor
come down to us, he translates this evolu- of theology, but rather as the transmitter
tion of the Gods and Goddesses into a form of the science of divine things to the
that is easier for the modern day person to Grecian world, or even as the reformer
understand. of an existing cult that, even in the early
times before the legendary Trojan era,
Who has not heard the romantic
had already fallen into decay. The well-
legend of Orpheus and Eurydice? The
informed among the ancients recognized a
polished verse of Virgil, in his Georgics
common basis in the inner rites of the then
(4:452-527), has immortalized the story,
existing religions, and even the least mys-
told by Caerulean Proteus. But few know
tical of writers admit a common bond of
the importance that mythical Orpheus
discipline, as, for instance, Lobeck, who
plays in Grecian legends, nor the many
demonstrates that the ideas of the Egyptians,
arts and sciences attributed to him by fond
Chaldaens, Orphics, and Pythagoreans were
posterity. Orpheus was the father of the
derived from a common source.5
pan-hellenic faith, the great theologer, the
Rosicrucian man who brought to Greece the sacred rites [Thomas] Taylor says that the Grecian
Digest theology was first mystically and symboli-
No. 1
of secret worship and taught the mysteries
2008 of nature and of God. cally promulgated by Orpheus, and so at
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once goes to the root of the whole matter. To wisdom-lovers exposed their doctrines and
understand that theology, therefore, we must teachings in poetical fictions, as, for exam-
treat it from the point of view of mysticism ple, Orpheus and Hesiod and Parmenides9;
and symbolism, for no other method is capa- and Julian, the so-called apostate,
ble of extracting its meaning. Moreover, in many of the philosophers and theologists
this we only follow the methods and opinions were myth-makers, as Orpheus,10 etc.
of its own adepts, for, as Proclus says: The In the same Oration, he continues, con-
whole theology of the Greeks is the child of cerning the myths of the Mysteries which
Orphic mystagogy; Pythagoras being first Orpheus handed down to us, in the very
taught the orgies of the gods [orgies signi- things which in these myths are most
fying burstings forth, or emanations, from incongruous, he drew nearest the truth.
orgao] by Aglaophemus, and next Plato receiv- For just in proportion as the enigma is
ing the perfect science concerning such things more paradoxical and wonderful, so does
from the Pythagorean and Orphic writings.6 he warn us to distrust the appearance, and
These symbolical Orphic fables have for seek for the hidden meaning.11
ages baffled the intelligence of rationalis- Philostratus also asserts that, in read-
tic literalists, and shocked the prudery of ing the disputes among the Gods in the
ecclesiastics who, erroneously regarding the Iliad, we must remember that the poet
Jewish myths as actual realities, have fallen was philosophizing in the Orphic man-
into the same error with regard to the fables ner12; and Plutarch tells us that, the most
of Orpheus. ancient philosophers have covered up their
Nonnus states the simple fact in saying: teachings in a lattice-work of fables and
Orpheus describes the series of powers, symbols, especially instancing the Orphic
and the modes, energizings and powers writings and the Phrygian mythsthat
of being, by means of fabulous symbols; ancient natural science both among the
and these fables he composes not with- Greeks and foreigners was for the most
out shameful obscenity.7 This shameful part hidden in mythsan occult and
obscenity, refers to the stories of rape, mysterious theology containing an enig-
incest, dismemberment, etc., of the Gods, matical and hidden meaningis clear
so familiar to us in Grecian mythology; all from the Orphic poems and the Egyptian
of which things would be highly improper, and Phrygian treatises.13
if recited of men or anthropomorphic
entities, but which are at once removed The Monadology of Orpheus
from such a gross interpretation, when Another important point to bear in
understood as symbolical representations mind in studying the Orphic theology, is
of the emanations of divine and lesser that the whole system is fundamentally a
powers, and the interactions of occult monadology, and if this is not clearly seized,
natures. It is contrary to the most elemen- much difficulty will be experienced in
tary ideas of justice to ascribe thoughts fitting the parts into the whole. The first
and intentions to the ancient makers of writer who drew attention to this impor-
these myths, which only exist in the tant tenet in modern times was Thomas
prurient minds and ignorant misconcep- Taylor, and so far as I know, no scholar
tions of posterity. has added to his researches. I shall there-
Thus we find Proclus writing, fore append here the most important
the Orphic method aimed at revealing passages in his books on this subject,
divine things by means of symbols, a meth- advising my readers to carefully think out
od common to all writers of divine lore what he says, and this not in a material
(theomythias)8; and Plutarch, formerly the but in a mystic manner.
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Another and still more appropriate cause spheres, and only differ from each other by
may be assigned of each of the celestial Gods having a predominance of the characteristic
being called by the appellation of so many of any particular sphere.
other deities, which is this, that, according As Taylor says: From this sublime theory
to the Orphic theology, each of the planets it follows that every sphere contains a Jupiter,
is fixed in a luminous ethereal sphere called Neptune, Vulcan, Vesta, Minerva, Mars,
a holotes, or wholeness.14 Ceres, Juno, Diana, Mercury, Venus, Apollo,
In consequence of this analogy, each of in short every deity, each sphere conferring
these planetary spheres contains a multitude on these Gods the peculiar characteristic of
of Gods, who are the satellites of the leading its nature; so that, for instance, in the Sun
divinity of the sphere, and subsist conform- they all possess a solar property, in the Moon
ably to his characteristics.15 a lunar one, and so of the rest.17
These wholenesses, therefore, are And so in his explanation of terms pre-
something totally different from the physical fixed to his translation of Proclus On the
planets, which are simply their symbols in Theology of Plato18 he defines the monad in
the starry vault. Their hierarchies have each divine natures as that which contains dis-
their appropriate dominant colour, and also tinct, but at the same time profoundly-united
their sub-colours contained in the dominant. multitude, and which produces a multitude
The whole has to do with the radiant egg exquisitely united to itself. But in the sensible
or envelope of the mystic universe, which universe, the first monad is the world itself,
has its correspondence in man. This is the which comprehends in itself all the multi-
basis of real astrology, the knowledge of tude of which it is the cause (in conjunction
which has been lost. with the cause of all). The second monad is
And again: the inerratic sphere. In the third place, the
spheres of the planets succeed, each of which
In each of the celestial spheres, the whole is also a monad, comprehending an appro-
sphere has the relation of a monad, but the priate multitude. And in the fourth and
cosmocrators (or planets) are the leaders of last place are the spheres of the elements,
the multitude in each. For in each a number which are in a similar manner monads. All
analogous to the choir of the fixed stars these monads likewise are denominated whole
subsists with appropriate circulations.16 nesses, and have a perpetual subsistence.
Here we have the idea of every monad Taylor reproduces this passage from a
being a mirror of every other monad in note in his Theoretic Arithmetic,19 printed
the universe, and having the power of giving four years previously to his translation of
to and receiving from every other monad. Proclus on The Theology of Plato. He bases
The monad, as monad, is the same, or his definition principally on Proclus and
Self; the cosmocrators, or planets, in Damascius. Seeing also that man is a mirror
each are characterized as the other. The of the universe, man contains all these powers
perfect number is ten. The triad contains in himself potentially. If it were not so, the
the intellectual hypostases; the hebdomad possibility of the attainment of wisdom
the formative or demiurgic powers. and final union with the Divine would be
From this it follows that each of these an empty dream. What these powers are
planets, or spheres, contains its appropri- may be seen from the following outline of
ate powers, which are the same in the various Orphic Theogony.
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Endnotes
1 G.R.S. Mead, Orpheus (London: Theosophical Publishing 10 Julian II, Emperor, Oration, 7, 215b.
Society, 1896), 9-10, 55-60. 11 Julian II, 217
2 Thomas Taylors translation of Procluss On the Theology of 12 Philostratus, Heroicus 2, 693.
Plato, Introduction (London: Printed for the Author, 1816), l. 13 Plutarch, On Daedalus, Fragment 9, 1, 754.
3 C.A. Lobeck, Aglaophamus (Regimontii Prussorum: Brothers 14 Each of these spheres is called a wholeness, because it contains a
Borntraeger, 1829), 723.
multitude of partial animals co-ordinate with it, because it is
4 Ibid., 466. a part with a total subsistence, and is analogous to the sphere of the
5 Ibid., 946. fixed stars. cf. Cicero, Somnium Scipionis, with Macrobiuss
6 Quoted by Lobeck, 723, who unfortunately gives no reference, Commentaries.
and so far I have not been able to discover the passage in Proclus. 15 Thomas Taylor, The Hymns of Orpheus (London: Printed for
Ed. Note: The passage is in Proclus, Theologia Platonica, i, 6 the Author, 1792), xxviii.
(Testamenta. 250 in Otto Kern, ed., Orphicorum Fragmenta [Berlin: 16 See Proclus, On Timaeus, 2, 270, where the theory is much
Weidmann, 1922 {1963}]). further developed.
7 Nonnus, Exposition of a Second Invective, 100:18, 526 (4th-5th 17 Taylor, Hymns of Orpheus, xxxii.
centuries CE). 18 Taylor, On the Theology of Plato, 1xxx.
8 Proclus, Theology of Plato, 1:4, 9. 19 Thomas Taylor, The Theoretic Arithmetic of the Pythagoreans
9 Plutarch, On the Pythian Oracle, 18. (London: Printed for the Author, 1816), 5.

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Orphic Gold Tablet found at Cecelia Secundina

Orpheus Petitions before Hades, 1591, illustration for


aphorisms, prayers, and instructions for the Ovids Metamorphoses, from Ovid Illustrated.
departed such as: I am a child of Earth and
starry Sky, but my race is heavenly. You makes Orpheus a disciple of Moses, who
yourselves know this. I am parched with thirst would eventually recant his paganism and
and am dying; but quickly grand me cold adhere to the Mosaic God on his deathbed.
water flowing from the Lake of Memory.5 This would be used by Jewish and Christian
apologists in later years.
Circa 340 BCE: During the reign of
Philip II of Macedon, a Greek theologian 1st Century BCE1st Century CE
writes a commentary on the Protogonos The classic version of the Myth of
Theogony, showing very early evidence of Orpheus and Eurydice was written by Virgil
textual analysis and sophisticated theological in his Georgics (29 BCE). In this now famil-
discussion, previously thought not to have iar story Eurydice is pursued by Aristeus, and
existed before the Neoplatonists beginning is killed while fleeing him. Orpheus journeys
in the third century CE. The papyrus scroll to Hades to beg for her release. His art is so
was burned as part of a funeral ritual, at touching that permission is given, so long as
Derveni in Macedonia, northern Greece. he does not look back at her until they are
out of Hades. At the last moment, he doubts,
3rd1st Centuries BCE and turns to see her fade from his grasp.
Hieronyman Theogony (third century) Ovids version of Orpheus and Eurydice
composed, harmonizing Orphic themes from is published in his Metamorphoses (8 CE).
the Protogonos Theogony with Stoicism and
Hellenistic thought, showing Water to be the 2nd 6th Centuries CE
original element. Pausanias (second century CE) says of
The Testament of Orpheus (third-first Orpheus: In my opinion Orpheus excelled
centuries BCE), a Greek poem probably his predecessors in the beauty of his verse,
from the Jewish community in Alexandria, and reached a high degree of power because
he was believed to have discovered mysteries,
purification from sins, cures of diseases and
means of averting divine wrath.6
Building the
Argo for the
Voyage to the
Golden Fleece.
From the J.
Hatzigeorgiou
Collection.

Orpheus in a Roman Era


Mosaic panel in Jerusalem.

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