Orpheus. Orpheus was a great musician. He was awesome. Like many great musicians—who can name me a great musician that died young? Yes? Poser? Who? Okay. Who else? Okay, who else was a great musician? Poser


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Lecture 15

Good morning and welcome to class. It figures, now that we’re all happy and smiley, I have to start out with a really depressing myth. But it carries on with the theme of music. The greatest musician of antiquity was this fellow named Orpheus. Orpheus was a great musician. He was awesome. Like many great musicians—who can name me a great musician that died young? Yes? Poser? Who? Okay. Who else? Okay, who else was a great musician? Poser. I’m saying that to irritate people. I don’t approve of anybody dying young. But you see the paradigm. Jimi Hendrix, right? Jim Morrison, except for he’s not dead. Elvis. Well, here’s what they did with Orpheus. They made him the star of a philosophical religion. The old story begins with the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice. The story is told to us by Ovid. When Ovid tells a story you can count on one thing; you’re going to react to it. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you ill. This one, you can hear the world’s smallest violin off in the background playing the world’s saddest song as Ovid launches into the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. They got married one day and they had a big wedding party and all of that. Just as they were about to break up the festival and go and do what married people do, a snake sneaked up and bit Eurydice on the ankle, right by her Guns and Roses tattoo. She died. I pause for a question.

Since Orpheus was such a great musician, and since he loved his wife so much, and out of extreme frustration, he went down to the underworld with his lyre—the ancient equivalent of a guitar—to, hopefully, to ask to allow his wife to come back to him. Orpheus went down to the underworld with his lyre. He played for Hades and Persephone. He played “I Want My Baby Back,” and stuff like that. Moved by the beauty of Orpheus’s music, Hades allowed Orpheus to bring back his dead bride, Eurydice. Okay? That’s what a wonderful musician Orpheus was. There is only one condition. Orpheus, while bringing his wife, Eurydice, back to the world of human beings, must not look back at her until they come back to the real world, if you will. Okay, you know the drill folks. The temptation to look back at his beloved wife was awesome. He could hear her footsteps. He could hear her musical voice. He could only think of how beautiful she looked right before she died of the snakebite. They were just about there. “Eurydice, my true love, can it really be you?” Just before they make it all the way back, he looks back. He sees Eurydice waving bye-bye to him.

Ovid tells us that he, Ovid, wouldn’t blame Eurydice for feeling angry. “Couldn’t you wait just two more minutes, you bum?” But Ovid tells us that Eurydice was really just touched and moved by the whole thing, that he loved her so much that he couldn’t help from looking back at her. I don’t know about that last one. The bottom line is Eurydice is dead, dead, dead, gone and Orpheus is stuck alone. Lonely. So lonely, in fact, that he supposedly invents something called pederasty, which is the love of little boys. Huh. Yeah. Now, allow me, if you will for a second, to debunk a couple of lies. Number one, the ancient Greeks were not all gay. They couldn’t be. How would we get modern Greeks? Also, the ancient Greeks didn’t encourage bisexuality, necessarily. They were more tolerant of homosexuality and bisexuality than is our society today. That said, the ancient Greeks still made jokes about gay people, the same way they made jokes about foreign people, the same way they made jokes about women, or whoever wasn’t from their little town. Okay? We’ll get into this later when we talk about the goddess of beauty and love. Please keep in mind. as a general rule, homosexuality, bisexuality, gay folks in general were tolerated. It would be most accurate to say they were tolerated a lot more than they are here and now. Orpheus’s invention of pederasty didn’t really impress a lot of people. One particular group of people who weren’t impressed were women. The local women were all taken by poor, suffering musician Orpheus. They besieged him with various offers to do unspeakable things with him. He was into the pederasty thing. He was not interested. He literally wanted no part of the women. So, one day a group of Bacchic women came up, dressed in their skintight purple leopard skin things, and they tore him to bits.

They tried to kill him by throwing rocks at him, but he played the lyre. The rocks would stop in mid-air. They would shoot arrows at him. The arrows would fall hopelessly to the ground. They wheeled up a 155 millimeter Howitzer and shot it at him point blank. So they tore him to bits. No, although, because it’s Ovid telling us the story, we get lots of gory details like they tore his head off but the tongue was still singing. The fingers of the severed hand were still playing the lyre in the dust and stuff like that. That’s Ovid, that’s Ovid, pure Ovid. What this is, folks, is a good old-fashioned Bacchic, Dionysian sparigmos. These Bacchic women tore the late Orpheus into shreds. Just like Pentheus’s mom and his aunts tore Pentheus into shreds at the end of the Bacchae. Orpheus was so famous that he spawned a quote/unquote mystery religion. Before you guffaw at this, I don’t think I’m dating myself or anyone else when I say to this day I see college students wearing tee-shirts with pictures of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison on them. These are people who were born five, six years after Hendrix and Morrison were dead. I’m sure that there will be kids, fifteen years from now, wearing Kurt Cobain tee-shirts and stuff, because this idea of a star who died young, a musical entertainment star who died young—a musical entertainment star who died young, preferably through a life of excess—exerts a pull on humans. For some reason I don’t really understand, Elvis is everywhere, isn’t he? He’s everything. He’s still alive, isn’t he? He is still the King, absolutely. People go to Graceland every year, right? On the anniversary of his birth or death. To do what? My mom and dad went down there this year to go and pay homage to Elvis. I mean, my dad, I don’t think, even likes Elvis. Why? Who knows. But, for better or worse, the so-called teachings of Orpheus were collected, put together into something called the Orphic Bible. Now, on these grounds alone, you see that we’re veering off from the concept of a mystery religion, because a bible—not the Bible—not to all Christian denominations, but certainly to very many of them is like God’s handbook for how to live. Just so, the so-called Orphic Bible supposedly contained the teachings of Orpheus, and how Orpheus wanted people to live. They were almost certainly not written by Orpheus.

For what it’s worth, the Orphic Bible instructed its devotees, the people who read it and stuff like that, to do certain things, to live a certain lifestyle. It didn’t have any ritual. It didn’t have any great emotional satisfaction. It did have a birth, rebirth myth. Orpheus comes back, dies, comes back, and re-dies. It has a katabasis story. But alone among the mystery religions, the Orphic religion, the Orphic religion, told people how to live. For example, you’re not supposed to lie. You are not supposed to eat meat. You are not supposed to drink wine. You are not supposed to eat beans. You know, Mark, every time you make the wise-butt remarks, then you follow it up with something so brilliant I want to make you stand behind here and teach the class. Yeah, we have two diametrically opposed value systems at work here. The Bacchics, the Dionysian worshipper, here is saying when the elevator gets you down, go crazy. Experience enthousiasmos: having the god inside you. Experience ekstasis; stand out of your body. Experience sparagmos, rip it to shreds. Experience homophagia, eat it, just eat it. As opposed to Orpheus who seems to be directing his followers to get a grip. Okay? Don’t slip the rails. Don’t eat these foods. Don’t behave this way. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t and you just might be revived. Yeah. No wonder the Bacchic women tore poor old Orpheus apart. That was brilliant. Thank you for that brilliant question, Mark. Okay, other questions? Mediocre questions? Well, that one was a hard one to follow. I couldn’t even figure out a question to ask after that one. I would make that case that Orphism became, in effect, more of a philosophy than a religion. It had a big, guidebook, the Orphic Bible. Okay, it did tell you what to do, what not to do. It did not have much ritual. Jeez, I’m still reeling from that brilliant question.

Back in the ancient Greek mind and probably in the minds of all of us according to one Friedrich Neitzsch, the fellow who said God is dead. I don’t know whether God is dead or not, really, but I know for a fact that Neitzsch is dead. So will we all be. Neitzsch tried to set everything up, the Greek mind and our minds, too, up in the conflict between Dionysus and Apollo, the god who commands you to get a grip. Dionysus the god who commands you to just get crazy. Okay. Apollo says, Reverence the god, you shmuck, or die. Dionysus says, “Have the god inside you and party down.” Two flipped sides that each of us has operating, two sides of our psyche. “Go for it. Party. Yeah. Yeah. Feel the breeze.” Or, “Why Joseph, you will be very, very sad and sorry if you do that.” Mark, what you’re looking at here, Orpheus versus Dionysus, is another manifestation of that. Dionysus versus Pentheus in the Bacchae is a manifestation of that. That fine Rush album, Hemispheres, is an extension expressly of the conflict between Dionysus and Apollo. Finally Geddie Lee changes into this creature named Signus and brings balance to them all, if you’ve ever listened to that fine album. Are there questions up to this point or arguments or something like that? If not.... yes Mark? Just in their weltanschauung, get a grip. Oh yeah, Apollo was a musician and stuff like that, but he’s the sort of guy who thinks that music should be socially redeeming. He’d play, This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land, or, It’s a Small World After All, or, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. He probably would not play, you know, a Nirvana thing or he probably wouldn’t cover songs by Frank Zapa. Ray? Yes, I think the Moody Blues found it right after they found the lost chord. Enough said, enough said. The Moody Blues.

Okay, let me begin—we’ve got a couple minutes left—by saying the goddess on a mountaintop, shining like a silver flame. The goddess of beauty of love and Venus was her name. What was her name in ancient Greek? Aphrodite, you got it. Yeah, baby you got it. Another song that I remember from second grade. Then, in the year of our Lord 1986, no fooling, I was sitting on the Spanish steps in beautiful downtown Rome at about three o’clock in the morning just watching the interesting people. This guy started playing it. You know, You Got It, that song about Venus? Apparently it had made a comeback by a fine group called Bananarama, one of the culminating musical achievements of the 1980s. I think one of them got married to that guy from the Eurhythmics. I want briefly cause I’ve only got five minutes. I don’t have enough time to say anything that fits in the outline. I want to ask you—and I’m sure the answer is yes in all of these cases. Have you ever been in love? I don’t ask for a show of hands. I’ve been in love. I am in love with my wife. She’s wonderful. She doesn’t make me do stupid stuff that much anymore. You are perhaps familiar with somebody you knew, maybe, who used to be a rational human being and, all of a sudden, they fell in love. They lost their brains. You couldn’t talk to them anymore. They just started doing stupid things, like walking after midnight, hoping that somewhere they may be somewhere they’re walking or stuff like that. Or maybe it was you doing all sorts of pathetic things to let the object of your affection. The worst thing I ever did was leave one of my cigarettes in this chic’s bicycle basket at three o’clock in the morning. I mean, oh, oh, oh, she didn’t love me! I’m glad she didn’t love me now. I could have been married to her, and that’s really scary. I mean she turned me into an idiot. She turned me into this pathetic goop. I got better.

Have you ever seen that or caught yourself feeling that way? Has someone who’s fallen in love with you doing all sorts of pathetic wimpy things. I know it happens to you all the time, Snakehead. I know how that goes. You know, like, “Hi. I was just calling you up to let you know I was wondering what you are thinking right now.” “You caught me on the toilet, honey.” You say to yourself, “Oh no, what has happened to this person?” To this day not even the greatest psychologist or psychiatrist can define what love is. Neither can that woman who draws those horrible cartoons with those fat ass kids. “Love is when she fries you three pounds of bacon.” She doesn’t know the answer, either. Randy Newman doesn’t know what the answer is, but the ancient Greeks said it obviously must be a form of possession by a goddess. Why not a god? Obviously, to the Greeks, men were irrational, but women were even less rational than men because you have wombs and give birth to kids and all that. So the deity who makes people fall in love and do these weird things is, obviously, a goddess. Moreover, she is also a very promiscuous goddess and can get away with it, because, I mean, really, who would believe a goddess of love who dressed up, you know, in dress suits all the time, with power skirts, and wore pince-nez glasses, and carried a little briefcase and made people fall in love. Like in that Jackson Brown video, Lawyers in Love, right? It doesn’t happen. We’re going to find out that the goddess of love, Aphrodite, is very promiscuous. We’re going to find out that she does it with guys all the time. She does it with a lot of guys, constantly. She has to; she’s the goddess of love. If I ever ask you who’s the most powerful deity in the ancient Greek pantheon, the answer is Aphrodite. You know why? You think Zeus is powerful? Let me ask you who made Zeus change himself into a swan? Who made Zeus change Io into a cow? Who made Zeus change himself into an eagle? I rest my case. You’ve been a good class. I’ll see you next time.
Supplemental: State & Religion in Ancient Greece

Now that we’ve encountered the ancient Greeks’ earliest attested views of the afterlife, that is to say the Homeric afterlife, in which Odysseus goes down into the underworld and finds out just how depressing the afterlife is. We’ve encountered that. And, now that we’ve encountered the various reactions to it— the mystery religions, the philosophical beliefs, the philosophical sects—it’s time to focus on something a little bit perhaps nearer and dearer to our own situation, that is to say, the role of state and religion in ancient Greece. I realize the concept of state and religion in ancient Greece is a pretty big one. Books have been and will continue to be published on the topic. But what I hope to open up to you in these few remarks is to offer you the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and the Bacchic mysteries of Dionysus as an avenue, as a vehicle, perhaps toward examining your own attitudes to the relationship of the state and the religion.

We’ve read the stories. I’ll give you a little bit more, perhaps, of the ancient Greek context and, hopefully, it will inform your own inquires as to, well, what is the relationship of religion and the state? Do we really need one nation, under God and the pledge of allegiance? Do we need to have “In God We Trust” on our currency? Is God a part of the state? Is God not a part of the state? The ancient Greeks wrestled with these questions as well. To start from the beginning, at the time that the Odyssey was trying to represent, 1200 BC, the time the Odyssey was written down—750 or 700 BC—the ancient Greek civilization had not progressed an awful lot. Life was still nasty, brutish and short. People were ruled by kings—pretty much exclusively—who could do whatever they wanted because they were, darn it, the king, and Zeus wanted them to be king. But after the Greeks’ rediscovery of literacy right around 750 BC, 700 BC, things started happening. The ancient Greeks made quantum leaps into discovering more about the workings of the universe from 700 BC on. Life became easier due to bettered agricultural techniques and interesting new experiments in government—tyranny, oligarchy, (our favorite) democracy—and, as life became more developed, as the life expectancy grew longer, as government became more responsive in some sense to public needs, as urban centers redeveloped in ancient Greece, you can bet that the weltanschauung changed, that the world view changed. We’ve already, as I suggested, examined in great detail the ancient Greeks’ attempts, by way of mystery religions, by way of philosophy, to address—not explain, necessarily—but to address the shear, just scads of depressing details, the no-god-cares-about-you component of the afterlife. We have talked about how the Homeric view of the afterlife compelled nobody to lead a good life, for example. There was no punishment for sin, no reward for good.

This changed. We’ve talked about how it changed. We’ve talked a bit about why it changed, how it addressed the Greeks’ deep-seated emotional and intellectual needs. I would like to talk today about how it related to the needs, the requisites of citizenship in the governments of their cities. We can start out by more or less dismissing the Orphic mysteries—not dismissing them entirely. But the Orphic mysteries, as you will recall, laid a strong emphasis on personal morality, following the quote/unquote the Orphic Bible, doing no wrong to other people and what not. Great stuff, but not very emotionally compelling. Therefore it never did have mass appeal to most ancient Greeks. Moreover, it was almost too intellectually compelling. It was not easily accessible to your average Bubacus or Jethra in the street, even if you are not too inclined to say, “I don’t really need to jump up yelling ‘amen.’ I don’t need to feel my religion.” It’s still a tough haul. The Orphic mysteries survive in the work of political thinkers, all right, such as Plato, the fellow who gave us the Myth of Er in his Republic. The Myth of Er is believed to draw very heavily on Orphic beliefs about the afterlife, punishment and reward. We’re going to find the Orphic mysteries reflected even in the works of Vergil. Political thinkers such as Sir Thomas More, who wrote the Utopia. Philosophers and utopians were naturals for the Orphic mysteries.

The two other mystery religions are, of course, the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone and the Bacchic mysteries of Dionysus. Remember, I don’t want you to write down that the Bacchic mysteries are basically a go-with-the-flow party religion, because, I promise you, you are going to fry if you do that. What I do want to focus on here is that the Eleusinian mystery religion was warmly embraced, even supported, by the government of the Greek city-state of Athens, whereas the Bacchic mysteries tended to be persecuted, eradicated, squashed out, everywhere they were encountered. You will recall the play, the Bacchae, or the Bacchic Women of Euripides, the sad tale of law-and-order King Pentheus, who thinks that he’s going to keep that perverted religion out of his town, and winds up paying for his mistake with his own life. Again, by way of contrast, we have the Eleusinian mystery religion which was headquartered near the city of Athens. All Athenian citizens are encouraged to belong—men, women, slaves, Greeks, barbarians, free people, you name it. Why was the Eleusinian mystery religion so popular? You know, we know part of that answer. Okay? It did offer hope for a happier afterlife. It did supply its believers with the belief that there was a goddess—Demeter—who cared for them. But why was it so beloved of states? For one reason, the Eleusinian religion was not perceived as a threat to already-existing religious beliefs. I believe that I’ve stressed this in my remarks earlier that one could be—and often was—initiated into the Eleusinian mystery religion. It didn’t mean you couldn’t sacrifice to Zeus. It did not mean that Hera would not listen to your prayers any more. It was not threatening.

Moreover, the Eleusinian mystery religion was viewed—I’m sure, somewhat cynically—but still viewed by the Athenian government—and the Athenians had kings, the Athenians had tyrants, the Athenians had dictators and elected governments. Just about any government you can think of in the world, the Athenians had it at one time or another—but the one constant through all of the changes of government was the sense of community that came from all Athenians being able to say, “I am initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.” And just about all of them were. If you think about the differences that exist in American society today, if you think about the Democrats and the Republicans, the liberals and the conservatives, the straights and the gays, the fundamentalists and the atheists and the whatnot, and try to imagine if there were one force, one ritual that didn’t threaten what you, yourself, happened to believe at home, but built a sense of community that we are all Americans in this together. This would tend to be valued by the community at large, and no matter what happened to the Athenian government, no matter who happened to rule Athens, the Eleusinian mysteries survived, in large part, because it was a club that made you feel good to feel Athenian. It reinforced the feeling of a wide number of different people that we are all Athenians in this together. As the centuries rolled on and Rome took over the Mediterranean world, by about 147 BC, I believe, Rome was in control for good of just about the entire Greek world.

This idea of Athens, per se, Athens, the city, Athens, the government, became less important. Athens, the government, was basically a part of a Roman province, a kind of sleepy university town where Romans like the future Augustus Caesar would come to study and drink and write letters to their dad for more money. The Eleusinian mysteries still retained their importance in the Roman world as, again, a comforting ritual. Even people who didn’t believe in the Eleusinian mysteries were wont to become initiated into the mysteries because of the sense of intellectual community, the sort of philosophical and spiritual community it built among its initiates. It wasn’t until the fourth century AD that the Christian emperor, Theodosius shut it down, shut down the Eleusinian mysteries for good, oddly enough, on the grounds that the Eleusinian mysteries were subversive to the state religion of Christianity. Now, I want to hold off on that note. I want to hold off on the Eleusinian mysteries, and in the remaining few minutes I want to address this wonderfully subversive religion known as the Bacchic mysteries. I can’t help but point out that Christianity, too, was considered wildly subversive by the ancient Romans at one point in their history, more about which in a second.

The Bacchic mystery religion was, obviously, against everything that most versions of good government in ancient Greece were for. Remember that the god Dionysus stands for the power of the alcohol within you. When the elevator gets you down, you are supposed to go crazy. But very realistically, the play, the Bacchae, while, sure, it’s very sensationalized, it’s very amped up, if you will, it still represents what was probably the reaction to places where the worship of Dionysus was introduced. “Not in my town. Not this fruity—looking little purple god who is drunk and hangs around with satyrs all the time. Not in my back yard.” This reaction is also attested by the Roman, Livy, who writes in the years 187 and 186 BC, there was a nasty outbreak of the Bacchic religion in ancient Rome, one of these perversions that the ancient Greeks had introduced to win ancient Rome back. That’s the way they presented it. I don’t want to get into the particulars of it, because we have very little time, but basically, the Romans empowered their chief executive officers, the consuls, to do whatever they had to do, whatever they felt necessary, gave them a blank check to do whatever it takes to stamp this religion out. The things and the claims that the Romans made about the Bacchic religion—that it’s a big orgy, there’s massive drinking going on, it corrodes the moral fiber of Roman society, people are having human sacrifices and drinking raw blood—these are all charges that the Romans were later to make against the Christians.

Most of these charges were made at various times against the Jews. What was, perhaps, the main problem of the Romans with the Bacchic mystery religion is the same as it was with the Christians and with the Jews. Lack of understanding was a big part of it, but, again, the perception that the beliefs of these people did threaten to tear apart our lovingly constructed society. For what it’s worth, the Romans did successfully stamp out the Bacchic mysteries. People were put to death for believing in the Bacchic mysteries, for having been proven to worship in the Bacchic mysteries. Long after the Bacchic mysteries had been stamped out—oh, let’s say right around the year 33BC, 33AD—the Romans began wrestling with another peculiar mystery religion, that of a renegade group of Jews known as the Christians, the followers of Christ. It’s not my place to talk about the growth of Christianity here. I just want to end my remarks by pointing out that it is hard to keep a really good mystery religion down, that Christianity, once thought of by the ancient Romans, by the Emperor Nero—the Roman emperors used to organize persecutions of the Christians much as poor Pentheus organized the persecution of the god Bacchus in his play, the Bacchae—but the Christians wound up on top. Once the Christians had institutionalized their religion, all of a sudden the Eleusinian mysteries, which, for more than a millennium, had been considered the most politically friendly religion of all time, found itself shut down. It’s a strange world. Thank you.
: josephhughes -> myth -> TranscriptsWord
TranscriptsWord -> Good afternoon and welcome to llt121. My name is Dr. Pauline Nugent
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology. We resume with the career of Theseus, the greatest hero of the city of Athens
TranscriptsWord -> Let me give you a little bit of background. The quote/unquote
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology. In our last class, we were examining the concept of the Ages of Humankind. Hesiod was the first to write it down, circa 750 bc
TranscriptsWord -> Sit right back and you’ll hear the tale, the tale of a faithful myth that started one fine Theban day when Zeus stole a fleeting kiss. It proceeded past a kiss, Zeus being the incredible fertile god that he is
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology. I fought the temptation, at the beginning of this class, of saying, Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology. When last we left off, we were considering the Eleusinian mystery religion, the mysteries of Demeter and her search for her lost daughter, Persephone
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology, in which we resume our adventures in the city of Thebes, the city that the gods seem to love to hate. The original founder turns into a snake
TranscriptsWord -> Good morning and welcome to llt121 Classical Mythology


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