29. The Death of Orpheus

Lashed by the tempest, the forests of oak trees roared on the slopes of Mount Kaoukaion; the thunder rolled with all its might upon the bare rocks, making the temple of Jupiter shake to its very foundations. The priests of Zeus were assembled in a vaulted crypt of the sanctuary. Seated upon their bronze seats, they formed a semi-circle. Orpheus was standing in their midst, like one accused. He was paler than usual, but a deep flame appeared in his calm eyes.

The eldest of the priests raised his voice, grave as that of a judge:

"Orpheus, you whom they call son of Apollo, we have named you pontiff and king; we have given you the mystic staff of the sons of God; you rule over Thrace with a priestly and royal skill. You raised up the temples of Jupiter and Apollo in this country, and you made the divine Sun of Dionysus shine in the night of the Mysteries. But do you know what really threatens us? You who know the dread secrets, you who more than once have foretold the future, and who spoke to your disciples from a distance by appearing to them in a dream, you do not know what is taking place around you! In your absence, the savage Bacchantes, the accursed priestesses, have assembled in the valley of Hecate. Led by Aglaonice, the sorceress of Thessalia, they have persuaded the leaders on the banks of the Ebre to re-establish the cult of dark Hecate, and threaten to destroy the temples of the male gods and all the altars of the Most High. Agitated by their burning tongues, led by their flaming torches, a thousand Thracian warriors are encamped at the foot of this mountain. Tomorrow they will attack our temple, incited by the breath of these women clothed in panther skins, greedy for the blood of males. Aglaonice, high-priestess of sinister Hecate, leads them; she is the most fearful of sorceresses, implacable and fierce as a Fury. You must know her! What have you to say?"

"I knew all this," said Orpheus, "and all this had to be."

"Then why have you done nothing to defend us? Aglaonice has sworn to slay us on our altars before the living Heaven which we worship! But what is to become of this temple, its treasures, your wisdom, and Zeus himself if you abandon it?"

"Am I not with you?" asked Orpheus gently.

"You have come, but too late," said the old man. "Aglaonice is leading the Bacchantes, and the Bacchantes are leading the Thracians. Will you repel them with the thunder of Jupiter and the arrows of Apollo? Why do you not call into this enclosure the Thracian leaders who are faithful to Zeus, in order to crush the revolt?"

"It is not by arms, but by the Word that one defends the gods. It is not the leaders whom you must strike, but the Bacchantes. I shall go: I alone. Fear not. No profane person will enter this enclosure. Tomorrow the reign of the bloody priestess will end. And mark well, you who tremble before the horde of Hecate, the celestial and solar gods will be victorious! To you, old man who doubted me, I leave the staff of pontiff and the crown of hierophant."

"What are you going to do?" asked the old man, frightened.

"I am going to rejoin the gods . . . To all of you . . . Farewell ..."

Orpheus went out, leaving the priests sitting dumb in their seats. In the temple he found the disciple of Delphi, and taking his hand firmly, said,

"I am going to the camp of the Thracians. Follow me."

They walked under the oak trees; the storm was far away. Between the thick branches shone the stars.

"For me the supreme hour has come," said Orpheus. "Others have understood me; you have loved me. Eros is the oldest of the gods, say the initiates; he holds the key to all beings. I have caused you to penetrate to the depth of the Mysteries; the gods have spoken to you, you have seen them. Now, far from men at the hour of his death, Orpheus must leave his beloved disciple the explanation of his destiny, the immortal heritage, the pure flame of his soul."

"Master, I am listening, and I shall obey," said the disciple of Delphi.

"Let us walk along this descending path," said Orpheus. "The hour is near. I wish to surprise my enemies. Follow me. Listen and engrave my words in your memory, but keep them secret."

"They will be imprinted in letters of fire upon my heart; centuries will not erase them!"

"You know now that the soul is the daughter of Heaven. You have beheld your origin and your end, and you are beginning to recollect. When the soul descends into the flesh, it continues to receive the influx from above. And it is through our mothers that this powerful breath first reaches us. The milk of their breasts nourishes our bodies, but it is from their souls that our being is nourished, anguished by the stifling prison of the body. My mother was a priestess of Apollo; my first memories are those of a sacred grove, a solemn temple, a woman carrying me in her arms, enveloping me with her soft hair like warm clothing. Terrestrial objects, human faces, overwhelmed me with a dreadful terror. But immediately my mother embraced me in her arms, I met her glance and it flooded me with a divine recollection of Heaven. But this ray died in the dark gloom of earth. One day my mother disappeared; she was dead. Deprived of her gaze, cut off from her caresses, I was terrified in my solitude. Having seen the blood of sacrifice flow, I held the temple in horror and descended to the dark valleys.

"The Bacchantes were astounded at my youth. From that time Aglaonice has ruled over these voluptuous, savage women. Men and women, -- everyone feared her. She breathed dark desire and struck others with terror. This Thessalian sorceress exercised a fatal attraction over all who came near her. Through the skill of infernal Hecate she lured young girls into her haunted valley and instructed them in her cult. Meanwhile, Aglaonice had cast her eyes upon Eurydice. She was overcome with a perverse desire, an unbridled evil lust for this virgin. She wanted to draw this young girl into the cult of the Bacchantes, to subdue her, and give her over to infernal genii after having despoiled her youth. Already she surrounded her with seductive promises, with her nocturnal incantations.

"Drawn into the valley of Hecate by some unknown impulse, one day I was walking through the high grasses of a field covered with poisonous plants. Everything around me breathed the horror of the dark forests haunted by the Bacchantes. Perfumes passed by me in gusts like the warm breath of desire. I saw Eurydice. She was walking slowly toward a grotto as though drawn by an invisible charm. Sometimes from the forest came a faint laugh of the Bacchantes, sometimes a strange sigh. Eurydice would stop, trembling, uncertain, and then continue walking as though drawn by a magic power. Her golden curls flowed over her white shoulders, her narcissus eyes swam with intoxication as she walked toward the mouth of Hell. But I had seen Heaven asleep in her glance. 'Eurydice!' I cried out, seizing her hand, 'where are you going?'

"As though awakened from a dream, she uttered a cry of horror and deliverance at once, and then fell upon me. At that instant the divine Eros subdued us, and with a single look, Eurydice and Orpheus were husband and wife forever.

"Meanwhile Eurydice, who clung to me in her fright, pointed toward the grotto with a gesture of terror. I went nearer and saw a woman sitting within. It was Aglaonice. Near her was a small statue of Hecate in wax, painted red, white and black, and holding a whip. She muttered words of a spell while turning her magic spinning wheel; her eyes, staring into emptiness, seemed to devour her prey. I broke the wheel, trod Hecate underfoot, and looking at the sorceress with a severe glance, cried out, 'By Jupiter! I forbid you to think of Eurydice, under penalty of death! For indeed the sons of Apollo do not fear you!'

"Aglaonice, stupefied, writhed like a serpent and disappeared into her den, casting a look of mortal hatred at me.

"I led Eurydice to the door of my temple. The virgins of Ebre, crowned with hyacinth, sang 'Hymen, Hymeneus!' around us; I knew happiness.

"The moon had changed only three times when a Bacchant, directed by the Thessalian sorceress, presented a cup of wine to Eurydice which would give her, said she, the knowledge of philters and magic herbs. Curious, Eurydice drank it and fell lifeless. The cup contained a fatal poison.

"When I saw the pyre consume Eurydice, when I saw the tomb swallow her ashes, when the last trace of her living form had disappeared, I cried out, 'Where is her soul?' In despair I wandered over all Greece. I asked the priests of Samothrace for her evocation; I looked for her in the bowels of the earth, on Cape Tenarus, but in vain. Finally I came to the Cave of Trophonius. There certain priests lead courageous visitors through a crevice to the lakes of fire which boil in the interior of the earth, letting them see what is happening there. As one walks along the way, one goes into ecstasy and second sight opens. One hardly can breathe, the voice becomes choked, and one can no longer speak except by signs. Some retreat half-way, others persist and die of suffocation; the majority of those who leave the fissure alive become insane. Having seen what no lips must repeat, I climbed into the grotto again and fell into a profound lethargy. During this sleep of death, Eurydice appeared to me. She was floating in a nimbus, pale as a lunar ray, and said to me, 'For my sake you have braved Hell; you have sought me among the dead. Here I am; I come at your call. I do not dwell in the heart of the earth, but the region of Erebus, the place of shadows between earth and the moon. I whirl in this limbo, sorrowing like yourself. If you wish to free me, save Greece by giving her light. Then I myself, finding wings again, shall climb to the stars and you will find me in the light of the gods. Until then I must wander in the troubled and painful sphere . . .' Three times I tried to seize her, three times she vanished from my arms like a phantom. I heard only the sound of a string that is broken. Then a weak voice, like a gentle breath, sad like a farewell kiss, murmured: 'Orpheus!'

"At this voice I awakened. This name, uttered by a soul, had changed my being. I felt the sacred tremor of an overwhelming desire and the power of a superhuman love pass through me. Eurydice alive would have given me the delirium of happiness; Eurydice dead made me find truth. It was with love that I put on the robe of linen, dedicating myself to the Great Initiation and to the ascetic life; it was through love that I entered into magic and sought divine knowledge; it was through love that I crossed the caverns of Samothrace, climbed the walls of the pyramids and entered the tombs of Egypt. I searched death to find life; and beyond life I saw the limbus, the souls, the transparent spheres and the ether of the gods. Earth opened her abysses, the sky, its flaming temples. The priests of Isis and Osiris gave their secrets to me. They had only those gods; I had Eros! Through him I spoke, sang and conquered! Through him I spelled the word of Hermes and the word of Zoroaster; through him I pronounced the word of Jupiter and Apollo!

"But the hour for confirming my mission by my death is come. Once more I must descend into Hell to ascend into Heaven. Listen, dearest child, to my word: You will bear my doctrine to the temple of Delphi and my law to the Council of the Amphyctions. Dionysus is the Sun of the initiates; Apollo will be the Light of Greece; the Amphyctions, guardians of his justice."

The hierophant and his disciple had reached the edge of the valley. Before them spread a clearing, surrounded by great masses of dark forest. Men were encamped at the edge of the forest, sleeping beside dying fires and flickering torches. Orpheus walked calmly into the midst of the sleeping Thracians, who were exhausted from a nocturnal orgy. A sentinel, still keeping watch, asked him his name.

"I am a messenger from Jupiter. Call your leaders!" replied Orpheus.

"A priest of the temple!" This cry of the sentinel spreads like an alarm over the whole camp. The men arm themselves; they call one another, swords shine. Astonished, the leaders surround the pontiff.

"Who are you? What have you come to do?"

"I am a representative of the temple. All of you, -- kings, leaders, warriors of Thrace, -- give up fighting with the Sons of Light and recognize the divinity of Jupiter and Apollo! The gods from above speak to you through me. I come as a friend if you listen to me, as a judge if you refuse to hear me."

"Speak!" cried the leaders.

Standing beneath a tall elm tree, Orpheus spoke. He spoke of the good deeds of the gods, of the glory of celestial light, of that pure life which he led up there with his fellow-initiates under the Eye of the great Ouranus, and which he wished to communicate to all men, promising to lessen their strife, to heal their sick and to teach them of the seeds which produce the divine fruits of life: joy, love, beauty. And as he spoke, his serious, gentle voice vibrated like the strings of a lyre and went deeper and deeper into the hearts of the wavering Thracians.

From the heart of the forest the curious Bacchantes, torches in their hands, had also come, attracted by the music of a human voice. Scantily clothed in panther skins, they came to display their brown breasts and superb bodies. In the light of their torches, their eyes shone with vice and cruelty. But, calmed by the voice of Orpheus, they gathered around him or sat at his feet like tamed beasts. Some, seized with remorse, stared mournfully at the ground; others listened as though enraptured. And the Thracians, deeply moved, murmured among themselves, "A god is speaking; Apollo himself is charming the Bacchantes!"

Meanwhile at the edge of the forest, Aglaonice was watching. The high priestess of Hecate, seeing the Thracians motionless and the Bacchantes controlled by a magic more powerful than hers, sensed the victory of Heaven over Hell, and saw her diabolical power crumbling into the darkness whence it had come, before the speech of the divine charmer. She threw herself before Orpheus violently, screaming,

"A god, you say? Well I say he is Orpheus, a man like yourselves, a magician who is deceiving you, a tyrant who is usurping a crown for himself! A god, you say? The son of Apollo? Him? The priest? The proud pontiff? Throw yourselves upon him! If he is a god, let him defend himself . . . And if I lie, let me be destroyed!"

Aglaonice was followed by a few leaders who were incited by her sorcery and inflamed with her hate. They threw themselves upon the hierophant. Orpheus uttered a great cry and fell, pierced by their swords. He raised his hand to his disciple, and said,

"I die, but the gods live!"

Then he breathed his last. Leaning over his body, the sorceress of Thessalia, whose face now resembled Tisiphone's, gazed with savage joy upon the last breath of the prophet, and prepared to draw an oracle from her victim. But great was the terror of the Thessalians upon seeing his corpse-like head revive in the flickering torchlight. A redness spread over the face of the dead man. His eyes opened wide, and a deep, gentle, terrible gaze fixed itself upon her . . . Meanwhile, a strange voice  -- the voice of Orpheus -- once more came from those quivering lips, distinctly pronouncing the melodious and revengeful syllables,


Before that stare and that voice, the terror-stricken priestess drew back, crying out, "He is not dead! They are going to pursue me forever! Orpheus! Eurydice!" Uttering these words, Aglaonice disappeared as though scourged by a hundred Furies. The bewitched Bacchantes and Thracians, seized with the horror of their crime, fled into the night, uttering cries of distress.

The disciple remained alone beside the body of his master. When a sinister ray of Hecate came to light up the bloodstained linen and pale face of the great initiator, it seemed to him that the valley, river, mountains and deep forests groaned like a great lyre.

Orpheus' body was burned by his priests, and his ashes were carried into the distant sanctuary of Apollo where they were venerated with a reverence given to the god himself. None of the rebels dared ascend to the temple of Kaoukaion. The tradition of Orpheus, his knowledge and his Mysteries were perpetuated there and spread to all the temples of Jupiter and Apollo. The Greek poets said that Apollo had become jealous of Orpheus because he was invoked more often than he. The truth is that when the poets sang of Apollo, the great initiates called upon the soul of Orpheus, savior and master of divination.

Later the Thracians, converted to the religion of Orpheus, related that he had descended into Hell to search for the soul of his wife, and that the Bacchantes, jealous of his eternal love, had torn him to pieces. But the Thracians said that his head, cast into Ebre and carried away by its storm-tossed waves, still calls, "Eurydice, Eurydice!"

Thus the Thracians honored as a prophet the one whom they had killed as a criminal, and who had converted them by his death. Thus the Orphic Word filtered mysteriously into the veins of Hellas by the hidden ways of the sanctuaries of initiation. The gods were harmonized by his voice like a temple chorus of initiates at the sounds of an invisible Lyre -- and the soul of Orpheus became the soul of Greece.


PYTHAGORAS: The Mysteries of Delphi

The Great Initiates