Friday, May 31, 2019


Dwayne A. Meisner, Orphic Tradition and the Birth of Gods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 318. ISBN 9780190663520. $85.00.

Reviewed by Luc Brisson, Centre Jean Pépin (UMR 8230, CNRS-ENS Paris-PSL) (

Version at BMCR home site


As is indicated by its subtitle, this book deals with theogony, that is, the origin of the gods, in Orphism. The task is complicated: there are several versions of this theogony, which were composed at various dates, and contain three kinds of elements: mythical, allegorical, and ritual.

The first chapter is entitled, quite naturally, "Introducing Orphic Theogonies"; the second, "The Derveni papyrus"; the third, "The Eudemian Theogony and Early Orphic Poetry"; the fourth, "The Hieronyman Theogony"; the fifth, "The Rhapsodies", and the last "Dionysus in the Rhapsodies", a subject on which the author had completed a Master's thesis (Dionysus' mysteries).

This work is impeccable from the viewpoint of erudition, with regard both to primary sources and to secondary literature. Radcliffe Edmonds has, moreover, reviewed the manuscript. Since Dwayne A. Meisner seldom takes sides and contents himself with setting forth the positions of various scholars, it is hard to challenge any given point in his exposition. I will therefore merely emphasize a few controversial questions that I consider essential.

The debate on Orphism has changed over the last decades as a result of important discoveries: that of the Derveni Papyrus in 1962, of the bone tablets from Olbia (1978), and of gold leaves that have been found in the Mediterranean basin since the 19th century. In fact, the only one that can, without the shadow of a doubt, be described as "Orphic" is the Derveni Papyrus. This papyrus contains a philosophical commentary, of great allegorical virtuosity, on a poem attributed to Orpheus that takes up and severely criticizes Hesiod's Theogony. However, scholars have sought to identify influences foreign to the Greek world in this commentary. Basing himself on the discovery of the Hurrian-Hittite Song of Kumarbi in 1946, M. L. West, the editor of Hesiod's Theogony, detected an influence of this text and of the Babylonian myth of creation Enûma Eliš on the Hesiodic myth. He then applied this method of interpretation to Greek philosophy,1 and to the Derveni Papyrus, where he was followed by Burkert, Betegh and Bernabé.2 In addition to invoking the influence of other mythologies of the Near East, Faraone and Teeter have supposed that an Egyptian influence also played a role. I lack the necessary competence to discuss the reality of these influences, but I would like to express my disagreement on a specific point.

The partisans of Hittite influence, taking as their model Kumarbi, who swallows the genitals of An, will translate:

αἰδοῖογ κα[τ]έπινεν, ὃς αἰθέρα ἔχθορε πρῶτος. (DP XIII, 4).
He swallowed the phallus of … which ejaculates in the ether first (…)
πρωτογόνου βασιλέως αἰδοίου, (DP XVI, 3)
… the phallus of the first born
According to this translation, Zeus (5th generation) swallows the phallus of Ouranos (3rd generation) which has been amputated by Kronos (4th generation).

This translation considers αἰδοῖον as a noun = phallus. In this case, one fails to understand why Zeus would have waited for a generation to swallow the phallus of Ouranos. Yet if one considers that αἰδοῖον is an adjective meaning "reverend", and if it is attached to a masculine singular noun, θεόν or δαιμόνα, which would have been in the preceding verse that is not quoted in the Derveni Papyrus but can be assumed on the basis of the Rhapsodies, one obtains a clear, simple translation:

He (= Zeus) swallowed down the reverend one (Phanes), who was the first to leap forth into ether [and not: "which ejaculated in the ether"]
… of the first-born king (Phanes), the reverend one.
The point is not to deny all Oriental influence on ancient Greece, but to have recourse to this type of interpretation only when it is based on indisputable textual and archaeological bases, on pain of lapsing into a speculative trend.

The religion of Mithra and the influence of Egyptian mythology are good examples of this. In both cases, however, it should be noted that this influence implies a considerable reinterpretation whether of the god Zurvan or of the religion of Isis (see Plutarch's magnificent De Iside et Osiride). Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Orphism was a part of that nebula of beliefs and votive rituals that developed on the margins of the civic cults: its goal was no longer the welfare of the city, but the salvation of the individual. One can therefore not speak of a specific church or sect, but of persons similar to the "preachers" or North America who, starting out from a religious trend, develop an independent interpretative and cultic movement.

The interest of the Derveni Papyrus resides in the fact that a few verses of a theogonic poem of the Hesiodic type, corresponding to a Hymn to Zeus, are accompanied by an allegorical commentary and associated with a cult. While that commentary refers to Heraclitus, it does not seem to be prior to Plato or to Aristotle; rather it belongs to a Stoic milieu in which Heraclitus is no longer the proponent of universal flux (as in Plato and Aristotle), but instead the philosopher of the Logos.

Subsequently, we find ourselves in a Neoplatonic context, since our information depends on the testimony of Damascius. After enumerating the principles and orders that play a role in the procession of the philosophical system he defends, Damascius seeks the points of agreement with various theologies among others, Orphic (The Rhapsodies, Hieronymus and Hellanicus, Eudemus).

Here is what Damascius says about the version of Eudemus:

The theology that is recorded with the Peripatetic Eudemus as being by Orpheus is silent about the entire intelligible world, since it is completely ineffable and unknowable by means of discursive thinking or through narrative. Eudemus begins with the principle of Night, from which Homer too begins …. (De principiis, §124, transl. S. Ahbel-Rappe modified)
It seems that this is the oldest version of the Orphic theogony: the one that is commented upon in the Derveni Papyrus, the one mentioned by Aristophanes in the Birds, and the one that must have been know to Plato and to Aristotle, although there seem to be have been several of these versions that began with Night.

We then move on what the author calls the Hieronyman theogony, which Damascius presents as follows:

The theology according to Hieronymus or Hellanicus, even if the latter is not the same personage, is as follows.

It is impossible to identify Hieronymus and Hellanicus, and even to know whether they are the same person. The author in question might even be Jerome the Greek (and hence may be a pagan). Yet it is better not to take sides. It remains curious to observe that Chapter 4 is entitled The Hieronyman Theogony, without any explanation. It should be noted that Athenagoras attributes a similar theology to Orpheus. It seems, moreover, that the beginning of this theogony results from an attempt to establish agreement between several theogonies:

In the beginning, he says, there were water and matter, from which earth was coagulated, and these he establishes as the first two principles, water and earth, the latter as capable of dispersion, and the former as providing coherence and connection for earth. He omits the single principle before the two, since the fact that it not even mentioned shows its ineffable nature. (De principiis, §123bis, transl. S. Ahbel-Rappe modified)
This first part of the theogony might well be a mere adaptation of the allegorical exegesis of Zeno of Citium: "Zeno also says that, in Hesiod, chaos is water, out of which mud is formed by condensation; and out of this mud the solid earth is formed by concretion" (SVF I.104, p. 29.17-19 = Schol. ad Apoll. Rhod. I.498). By placing water at the origin, this theogony makes "Orpheus" agree with Homer (cf. Aristotle, Metaph. N.4, 1091b4 ff.), while by interpreting chaos as water, it reconciles "Orpheus" and Homer with Hesiod.

From this mixture comes Chronos (Time), who is described in these terms:

… and it is a serpent with the heads of a lion and a bull grown upon it, and in the middle the countenance of a god and it has wings on its shoulders, and the same god is called "Ageless Time (Chronos)" and Heracles. And Necessity is united with it, which is Nature that is Adrasteia, stretching the arms of its bimorph body throughout the entire cosmos, touching he very boundaries of it. I think that this is said to be the third principle that functions as their substance, except that they represent is as male-female in order to show that it is the generating cause of all things. (De principiis, §123bis, transl. S. Ahbel-Rappe modified)
This description of Chronos seems to be inspired by the Mithraic personage Zurvan akanara, represented, in the guise of Aion, on a relief from Modena. This personage plays a primordial role in the pantheon of pre-Zoroastrian Iran and in Mithraism. Mithraism was introduced into the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian era. It underwent a large-scale expansion during the 2nd and 3rd centuries of our era, before disappearing from the 4th century. Now, since the testimonies concerning the theogonies of Hieronymus and Hellanicus and the Rhapsodies never go back beyond the second half of the second century, the renewal of Orphism, attested by these two theogonies, can be dated to the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd century BCE. I would be inclined to think that the beginning of this version was added to the Sacred Discourse in 24 Rhapsodies, although the author does not seem to share this view. Except for this initial episode, the version of the theogony reported by Athenagoras roughly corresponds to that of the Rhapsodies.

The theogony of the Rhapsodies constitutes the most important testimony on Orphism that has come down to us. It has been handed down by Neoplatonists, who wished to establish an agreement between the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plato, which they identified with what can be found in Homer, Hesiod, and more fundamentally in Orphism and the Chaldaean Oracles. One can, of course, debate the anachronism of the Neoplatonic interpretation; nevertheless, this interpretation is extremely rich, insofar as it provides an idea of the process by which the various divinities originated in a theology inspired by a previous interpretative trend of Platonism, namely Middle Platonism.

This concordist effort raises an important problem for the Neoplatonists, who nevertheless agree in acknowledging three Nights and three Ouranoi. One should note, moreover, the incredible interpretation of castration as the limit between the intelligible and the sensible.

The book ends with Dionysos in the Rhapsodies. Reference is made to the attack on Dionysos by the Titans, who cut him into pieces and eat him by chewing him up, and are reduced to ashes by Zeus; human beings are born from these ashes. We are here in the context of an allegory that explains the appearance of the body of the world, the seven planets, and the body of human beings. It should be noted, moreover, that as far as mankind is concerned, this myth leads to the prohibition of suicide, and hence of the destruction of his body by mankind, since this body has as its origin the subliming vapor (αἰθάλη) that rises from the body of the Titans, who were thunderstruck by Zeus after having eaten the body of Dionysos. Whatever one says, the term αἰθάλη is a technical term proper to the alchemists, among whom Olympiodorus probably belonged.

It will be understood that despite these few critical remarks, I consider that this book is an excellent introduction to the various versions of the Orphic cosmogony.


1.   West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (Oxford , 1971); criticized by G. S Kirk, 'Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient', Classical Review 21 (1974), 82-6.
2.   W. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age. English tr. by M. E. Pinder and W. Burkert (Cambridge, MA, 1992), and Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2004); G. Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (Cambridge, 2004); A. Bernabé, 'The Derveni Theogony: Many Questions and Some Answers', Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 103 (2007), 99-133.

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