25. Prehistoric Greece  -- The Bacchantes  -- Appearance of Orpheus


In the sanctuaries of Apollo which possessed the Orphic tradition, a mysterious festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. This was the time when the narcissus bloomed again near the fountain of Castalia. The tripods and the lyres of the temple vibrated of their own accord, and the invisible god was said to return to the country of the Hyperboreans in a chariot drawn by swans. Then the great priestess, dressed as a Muse and crowned with laurel, her forehead bound with sacred bands, sang before the initiates The Birth of Orpheus, the son of Apollo and of a priestess of god. The Muse called upon the soul of Orpheus, father of mystics, musical savior of men. She sang of sovereign Orpheus, immortal and thrice-crowned, in hell, on earth and in heaven, a star upon his forehead, walking among the constellations and the gods.

The mystical chant of the priestess of Delphi referred to one of the many secrets kept by the priests of Apollo, unknown to the masses. Orpheus was the animating genius of sacred Greece, the quickener of its divine soul. His seven-stringed lyre embraces the universe. Each string corresponds to a mood of the human soul and contains the law of a science and an art. We have lost the key to its full harmony, but the different modes have not ceased vibrating in our ears. The theurgic and Dionysian impulse which Orpheus knew how to communicate to Greece, was transmitted by Greece to all Europe. Our age no longer believes in the beauty of life. However, if in spite of all, it maintains a deep recollection, a secret, invincible hope, it owes the latter to this divine, inspired one. Let us hail him as the great initiator of Greece, the ancestor of poetry and music, conceived as revealers of eternal truth.

But before reconstructing the story of Orpheus out of the very heart of the tradition of the sanctuaries, let us describe Greece at the time of his appearance.

The latter took place in the age of Moses, five centuries before Homer, thirteen centuries before Christ. India was sinking into its Kali-Yuga, into its age of darkness, and manifested no more than a shadow of its former splendor. Through the tyranny of Babylon, Assyria had unleashed upon the world the scourge of anarchy and now continued to tread Asia underfoot. By means of the science of her priests and the strength of her Pharaohs, Egypt might have resisted this universal collapse, but her activities stopped at the Euphrates and the Mediterranean. In the desert Israel was to raise the principle of the male God and of divine unity through the thundering voice of Moses. But earth had not yet heard its reverberations.

Greece was deeply divided by religion and politics.

The mountainous peninsula, extending its arms into the Mediterranean and garlanded by islands, was populated for thousands of years by a branch of the white race akin to the Getes, the Scythians and the primitive Celts. This race had mingled with and experienced the changes of all previous civilizations. Colonies from India, Egypt and Phoenicia had established themselves upon its shores, covering its promontories and valleys with people, activities and manifold divinities. With sails unfurled, fleets passed beneath the legs of the Colossus of Rhodes, astride the two piers of its port. The Cycladic Sea, where on clear days the navigator always sees some isle or shore against the horizon, was furrowed by the red prows of the Phoenicians and the black hulls of the pirates of Lydia. These vessels carried the riches of Asia and Africa: ivory, decorated pottery, cloth from Syria, golden vases, velvet and pearls, and often women, snatched from some wild coast.

Through these mixtures of races was formed a flowing and harmonious language, a mixture of primitive Celtic, Zend, Sanskrit and Phoenician. This language which painted the majesty of the ocean under the name of Poseidon, and the serenity of the sky under that of Ouranos, imitated all the voices of nature, from the chirping of birds to the roar of the storm. It was multi-colored, like its deep blue sea, with changing skies; it was of many sounds, like the waves which murmur in its gulfs or dash themselves upon its innumerable reefs -- poluphlosboïo Thalassa, as Homer says.

Accompanying these merchants or pirates were often priests, who directed and commanded them as masters. In their boats they jealously hid a wooden image of a god. Doubtless the image was crudely carved, and the sailors of that time had the same fetishism for it that many of our mariners have for their Madonna. But their priests, nevertheless, were in possession of certain sciences, and the divinity they carried from their temple into a foreign land represented for them a concept of nature, a group of laws, a civil and religious organization. For in those days, all spiritual life stemmed from the temples. Juno was worshipped at Argos, Artemis in Arcadia; in Paphos and Corinth the Phoenician Astarte had become Aphrodite, born out of the foam of the waves. Several initiators had appeared in Attica. An Egyptian colony had brought to Eleusis the cult of Isis in the form of Demeter, Ceres, mother of the gods. Between the Hymettian mountain and the Pentelicus, Erechteus had established the cult of a virgin goddess, daughter of the blue sky, friend of the olive tree and of wisdom. During the invasions, at the first sound of alarm, the population took refuge on the Acropolis, pressing about the goddess as about a living victory.

A few male cosmogonic gods ruled over the local divinities. But, consigned to the high mountains and eclipsed by the brilliant procession of feminine divinities, they had little influence. The solar god, the Delphic Apollo,45 already existed, but as yet he played only an obscure role. There were priests of Zeus, the Most High, at the foot of the snowy summits of Ida, on the heights of Arcadia and beneath the oaks of Dodona. But the people preferred the goddesses who represented the power of nature, whether seductive or terrible, rather than the mysterious, universal god.

The underground rivers of Arcadia, the mountain caverns, descending into the very bowels of the earth, the volcanic eruptions in the isles of the Aegean Sea, had brought the Greeks to the cult of mysterious earth forces. Thus, in the heights and in the depths, nature was felt, feared and venerated. But since all these divinities had neither a social center nor a religious synthesis, they engaged in desperate wars among themselves. The enemy temples, the rival cities, the people divided by ritual, by the ambition of priests and kings, hated each other, were jealous of each other, fighting each other in bloody battles.

But beyond Greece was wild, rugged Thrace. To the north, chains of mountains, covered with giant oaks and topped with rocks, followed behind each other in waves, spread out in enormous circles, or entangled in knotty massifs. The winds from the south beat upon their grassy sides and often storm clouds swept over their summits.

Shepherds of the valleys and warriors of the plains belonged to this strong white race, to the great stock of the Dorians of Greece. This male race par excellence is evidenced in the beauty of its sharpness of features and strength of character. Its ugliness appears in the frightfulness and impressive quality that is found in the head of the Medusa and the ancient Gorgons.

Like Egypt, Israel, Etrurua and all those ancient peoples who received their organization from the Mysteries, Greece had its sacred geography, in which each area became the symbol of a purely spiritual and supraterrestrial region of the soul. Why was Thrace46 always considered by the Greeks as the holy land par excellence, the land of light, the real homeland of the Muses? It is because these high mountains bore the oldest sanctuaries of Kronos, of Zeus and of Ouranos. From them had descended in Eumolpic rhythms, poetry, laws and sacred art. The legendary poets of Thrace give evidence of this. The names Thamyris, Linos and Amphion correspond, perhaps, to real people, but above all they personify, according to the language of the temples, so many kinds of poetry. Each of them celebrates the victory of one theology over another. In the temples of that time history was written only allegorically. The individual was nothing, the doctrine and the work, everything. Thamyris, who sang of the war of the Titans and was blinded by the Muses, announces the defeat of cosmogonic poetry by new modes. Linos, who introduced the melancholy songs of Asia into Greece and was killed by Hercules, reveals the invasion into Thrace by a moving, sad, sensuous poetry which the virile mind of the Dorians of the north at first rejected. At the same time this means the victory of a lunar over a solar cult. On the other hand, Amphion, who, according to allegorical legend put the stones in movement with his songs and built temples with the sounds of his lyre, represents the plastic force that solar doctrine and orthodox Dorian poetry exercised upon the arts of Greece and upon all Hellenic civilization.47

How different is the light with which Orpheus shines! He beams across the ages with the personal light of a creative genius, whose masculine soul vibrated with love for the Eternal Feminine, and in its lowest depths that Eternal Feminine, who lives and throbs in a triple form in nature, humanity and Heaven, responded. The worship of the sanctuaries, the tradition of the initiates, the cry of the poets, the voice of the philosophers, -- and more than all the others, his work, an organic Greece, testify to his living reality!

In those times, Thrace was involved in an intense and heated struggle. The solar and lunar cults were fighting for supremacy. This war between the worshippers of the sun and moon was not, as one might believe, a vain battle between two superstitions. These two cults represented two theologies, two cosmogonies, two religions and two absolutely opposite social organizations. The Ouranian and solar cults had their temples in lofty and mountainous places, with priests and strict laws. The lunar cults held sway in the forests and the deep valleys; they had women as priestesses, with voluptuous rites, a chaotic practice of occult arts and a love of orgiastic excitement. It was a war to the death between the priests of the sun and the priestesses of the moon. It was a battle of the sexes, an ancient, inevitable battle, open or secret, but eternally waged between the male and female principles, between man and woman. Just as the perfect fusion of masculine and feminine constitutes the very essence and mystery of divinity, so the balance of these two principles alone can produce great civilizations.

Everywhere in Thrace as in Greece, the male gods, cosmogonic and solar, had been consigned to the high mountains and desert places. The people preferred the enticing procession of female divinities, who called forth dangerous passions and the blind forces of nature. These cults attributed the feminine sex to the supreme divinity.

Terrible abuses began to result from this. Among the Thracians the priestesses of the moon or of the threefold Hecate had proved their supremacy in appropriating the old cult of Bacchus and in giving him a bloody and dreadful character. As a sign of their victory they had taken the name Bacchantes, as if to mark their mastery, the supreme reign of woman, her domination of man.

Magicians, seducers and bloody sacrificers of human victims, they had their sanctuaries in wild and remote valleys. By what dark attraction, what burning curiosity, were men and women attracted to these solitudes of luxurious vegetation? Naked figures, lascivious dances in the depth of the forest . . . then laughter, a great outcry . . . and a hundred Bacchantes threw themselves upon the stranger and subdued him. He had to swear submission to them and give himself to their rituals, or perish. The Bacchantes tamed panthers and lions, which they displayed in their festivals. At night, their arms entwined with serpents, they knelt before the threefold Hecate; then, in frenzied dances they invoked Bacchus underground, the double-sexed one with a bull's face.48 But woe to the stranger, woe to the priest of Jupiter or of Apollo, who came to spy on them! He was torn to pieces.

The primitive Bacchantes were the Druidesses of Greece. Many Thracian leaders remained faithful to the old male cults. But the Bacchantes had found their way to some of the Thracian kings, who added their barbaric customs to the luxury and refinements of Asia. The Bacchantes had seduced them with voluptuousness and conquered them with terror. Thus the gods had divided Thrace into two enemy camps. But the priests of Jupiter and Apollo, on their lonely summits, haunted by thunder, found themselves powerless against Hecate, who was gaining strength in the burning valleys and who began to threaten the very altars of the sons of light.

At that time a young man of royal race and wondrous appeal had appeared in Thrace. He was said to be the son of a priestess of Apollo. His melodious voice had a strange charm. He spoke of the gods in a new rhythm, and seemed inspired. His blond hair, pride of the Dorians, fell in golden waves over his shoulders and the music which flowed from his lips lent a gentle, sad contour to the corners of his mouth. His deep blue eyes shone with power, sweetness and magic. The fierce Thracians fled before his glance, but the women versed in the art of charms said that his blue eyes combined the arrows of the sun and the kisses of the moon. Even the Bacchantes, curious about his beauty, often slunk around him like panthers in love, proud of their dark skins, and smiled at his incomprehensible words.

Suddenly this young man, who was called the son of Apollo, disappeared. He was said to be dead, to have descended into hell. However, he had secretly fled to Samothrace, then to Egypt, where he asked shelter from the priests of Memphis. Having gone through their Mysteries, he returned at the end of twenty years, bearing an initiation-name which he had acquired as a result of his ordeals, and had received from his teachers as a sign of his mission. He was now called Orpheus of Arpha,49 which means the one who heals with light.

The oldest sanctuary of Jupiter then arose on Mount Kaoukaion. Once its hierophants had been great pontiffs. From the top of this mountain, protected from unexpected attacks, they had reigned over all of Thrace. But since the lower divinities had achieved supremacy, their followers were few and their temple was almost abandoned. The priests of Mount Kaoukaion welcomed the initiate from Egypt as a savior. With his knowledge and his enthusiasm, Orpheus assumed the leadership of the majority of the Thracians, completely changed the cult of Bacchus and subdued the Bacchantes. Soon his influence penetrated into all the sanctuaries of Greece. It was he who established the supremacy of Zeus in Thrace and that of Apollo in Delphi, where he laid the foundations of the council of the Amphyctions, which became the social unit of Greece. Finally, through the creation of the Mysteries, he formed the religious soul of his country. For from the height of initiation, he blended the religion of Zeus with that of Dionysus in a universal concept. The initiates received the pure light of sublime truth through his teachings, and this same light reached the people in a more tempered, but no less beneficial form under the veil of poetry and enchanting festivals.

In this way Orpheus became pontiff of Thrace, high-priest of the Olympian Zeus, and the revelator of the heavenly Dionysus to the initiates.


Notes for this chapter:

45. According to the ancient tradition of the Thracians, poetry had been invented by Olen. This name means Universal Being in Phoenician. Apollo has the same root: Ap Olen or Ap Wholen means Universal Father. Originally, in Delphi the Universal Being was worshipped under the name Olen. The cult of Apollo was introduced by a reforming priest under the impetus of the doctrine of the solar Word, which then was spreading through all the sanctuaries of India and Egypt. This reformer identified the Universal Father with his double manifestation, hyperphysical light and the visible sun. But this reform was scarcely known outside the walls of the sanctuary. It was Orpheus who gave new power to the solar Word of Apollo by reviving it and vitalizing it with the Mysteries of Dionysius. (See Fabre d'Olivet, Golden Verses of Pythagoras, trnsl. by Redfield, Putnam's N.Y. 1925.)

46. TRAKIA, according to Fabre d'Olivet is derived from the Phoenician Rakhiwe, meaning ethereal space or firmament. For the poets and initiates of Greece like Pindar, Aeschylus or Plato, the name Thrace had a symbolic sense and meant the land of pure doctrine and sacred poetry which stems from it. This word therefore had a philosophical and historical meaning for them. Philosophically it designated an intellectual sphere, the group of doctrines and traditions which trace the origin of the world from a divine intelligence. Historically this name recalled the country and people where Dorian doctrine and poetry, that vigorous offshoot of the ancient Ayran spirit had first developed to flowering in Greece through the sanctuary of Apollo. The use of this kind of symbolism is proved by subsequent history. At Delphi was a group of Thracian priests who were the guardians of the high doctrine. The Council of the Amphyctions was formerly defended by a Thracian guard, that is, a guard of initiate warriors. The tyranny of Sparta suppressed this incorruptible army and replaced it with mercenaries of brute force. Later the verb "to thracize" was applied ironically to those faithful to the former doctrine.

47. Strabo confirms positively that ancient poetry was only the language of allegory. Denys of Halicarnassus confirms this, stating that the mysteries of nature and the most sublime concepts of morality have been hidden beneath a veil. Therefore it is not at all a mere metaphor when ancient poetry was called the Language of the Gods. This secret magic meaning which makes for its power and charm is contained in its very name. The majority of linguists have derived the word poetry from the Greek verb poiein, to make, to create. This is simple etymology, and is very natural on the surface, but hardly conforms with the sacred language of the temples, from which primitive poetry came. It is more logical to recognize with Fabre d'Olivet that Poiesis comes from the Phoenician phohe (mouth, voice, language, speech) and from ish (superior being, originating being, figuratively: God). The Etruscan Aes or Aesar, Gallic Aes, Scandinavian Ase, Copit Os (Lord), Egyptian Osiris have the same root. (See also, Wadler, Arnold: One Language, Source of All Tongues, New York, 1948 -- Ed.)

48. Bacchus with a bull's face is found in the 29th Orphic Hymn. It is a recollection of a former cult which in no way belongs to the pure tradition of Orpheus. For the latter completely purified and transfigured the popular Bacchus into the celestial Dionysius, the symbol of the divine Spirit which evolves throughout the kingdoms of nature. We again find the infernal Bacchus of the sorceress Bacchantes in the figure of Satan with a bull's face which the witches of the Middle Ages invoked and worshipped in their nocturnal revels. This is the celebrated Baphomet, of which the Church accused the Knights Templars of being a sect, in order to discredit them. (See Henry Milman: History of Latin Christianity, on the Knights Templars.  -- Ed.)

49. A Phoenician word, composed of aur, light, and rophae, healing.


26. The Temple of Jupiter

The Great Initiates