contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Orpheus

ORPHIC HYMN TO NEMESIS

This Orphic hymn to the goddess Nemesis comes from a collection likely to have been compiled in the third century CE, and offers a glimpse of Greek-inspired pagan religion in what turned out to be its last phase.

ORPHIC HYMN TO NEMESIS

Nemesis, I call upon you,

O goddess, O great queen,

Your all-seeing eye looks upon

The lives of man’s many races.

Eternal and revered,

You alone rejoice in the just,

You change and vary,

You shift your word.

All who bear the yoke

Of mortality fear you,

You care about the thoughts of all;

The arrogant soul,

The reckless one,

Finds no escape.

You see all, you hear all,

You arbitrate all.

O sublime deity,

In whom dwells justice for men,

Come, blessed and pure one,

Ever helpful to the initiates,

Grant nobility of mind,

Put an end to repulsive thoughts,

Thoughts unholy,

Fickle and haughty.

From The Orphic Hymns: translation, introduction and notes by Apostolos N. Athanasskis and Benjamin M. Wolkow Baltimore: Maryland, USA: The John Hopkins Press, 2013.

In his introduction to this collection, Apostolos Athanassakis talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Christian Orthodox upbringing. The hymns are beautiful to read – though it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laded atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

In the ancient Greek and Greek-influenced world, Nemesis was primarily seen as the goddess of retribution against hubris, arrogance before the gods. She was also called Adrasteia (the inescapable) and at times attracted the epithet Erinys (implacable). In early times she was thought of as the distributor of fortune, and Aphrodite was sometimes called Aphrodite Nemesis. Later she appears as a maiden goddess of proportion and avenger of crime, equipped with measuring rod, bridle, scales, sword and scourge.

The Orphic hymns probably date from the third century CE, a time of philosophical and religious change in the Roman Empire. They were popular for as long as it was possible to maintain a syncretistic religion forged of traditional pagan elements in those parts of the world (chiefly the Eastern Roman sphere) where it was practised. The hymns name specific pagan deities, yet appeal to universal spiritual powers. In this instance Nemesis seems to be seen as a goddess, or personification, of something akin to karma. Devotees are not praying directly for a change in their fate, but in their own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that the energy of the goddess may assist them.

BOOK REVIEW: STALKING THE GODDESS

jhp4ec2908d688eb_9781780991733_Stalking%20The%20Goddess_72Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely.  He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.

What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?

Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land.  He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.

Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond.  These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent.  The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.

Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries.  In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.

I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.

And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so.  When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”.  So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.

ORPHEUS, HERMES, EURYDICE, DEATH

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” in 1904. It broke new ground in shifting the focus from Orpheus to Eurydice. The English translation below is by Stephen Mitchell.

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.

Like veins of silver ore, they silently

moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up

among the roots, on its way to the world of men,

and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.

Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,

and forests made of mist. There were bridges

spanning the void, and that great blind lake

which hung above its distant bottom

like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.

And through the gentle, unresisting meadows

one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak –

mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.

In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk

devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,

tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,

no longer conscious of the delicate lyre

which had grown into his left arm, like a slip

of roses grafted on to an olive tree.

His senses felt as though they were split in two:

his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,

stop, come back, then rushing off again

would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, –

but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.

Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached

back to the footsteps of those other two

who were to follow him, up the long path home.

But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,

or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.

He said to himself, they had to be behind him;

said it aloud and heard it fade away.

They had to be behind them, but their steps

were ominously soft. If only he could

turn around, just once (but looking back

would ruin this entire work, so near

completion), then could not fail to see them,

those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,

a traveller’s hood above his shining eyes,

his slender staff held out in front of him,

and little wings fluttering at his ankles;

and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came

more lament than from all lamenting women;

that a whole world of lament arose, in which

all nature reappeared: forest and valley,

road and valleys, field and stream and animal;

and that around this lament-world, even as

around the other earth, a sun revolved

and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-

heaven, with its own disfigured stars -:

So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,

her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,

uncertain, gentle and without impatience.

She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy

with child, and did not see the man in front

or the path ascending steeply into life.

Deep within herself. Being dead

filled her beyond fulfilment. Like a fruit

suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,

she was filled with her own vast death, which was so new,

she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity

and was untouchable; her sex had closed

like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands

had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s

infinitely gentle touch of guidance

hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes

who had once echoed through the poet’s songs,

no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,

and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,

poured out like fallen rain,

shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,

the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,

with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around – ,

she could not understand, and softly answered,

Who?

Far away,

dark before the shining exit-gates,

someone or other stood, whose features were

unrecognizable. He stood and saw

how, on the strip of road among the meadows,

with a mournful look, the god of messages

silently turned to follow the small figure

already walking back along the path,

her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,

uncertain, gentle and without impatience.

THE WOODCHESTER ORPHEUS

I went on a walk this morning, a two mile autumn stroll, mellow sunlight, leaves now turning, to Woodchester. I wanted to visit the old churchyard there. There is no church now, but an extensive walled graveyard and a significant history.

To get into it I stumbled, rather than walked, down a short set of crumbling steps, my eyes on fallen yew berries, lush red against the pale green grass, and absolutely not for eating. Raising my eyes I saw the oddly squat and almost bristling avenue of yews that leads to a stone arch now free of any building. Brambles are still producing blackberries, and together with ivy they cover some of the substantial stone tombs in the graveyard, whilst leaving others alone. These others are weathered and mossy, their eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century inscriptions now almost illegible. Most of the tombs are heavy and rectangular, though one sports a pyramid resting on a circular block mounted on a hexagonal one. The whole place is pleasingly unkempt, and removed from the demands of the everyday world. Yet I wouldn’t call it tranquil – certainly that’s not its gift to me.

My special interest, on this walk, was in a large and largely empty declivity within the graveyard. I walked to the centre, where there was a scattering of small, sad, bird feathers, mostly white and brown. I took a sample and discussed it later with my partner Elaine and we think they perhaps came from a young owl. Some way beneath my feet was Woodchester’s Orpheus mosaic, originally covering the main reception room of a Roman Villa. It was made in around AD 325 (1) by a dedicated mosaic shop in Corinium (Cirencester) that specialised in Orphic themes. The Villa estate had easy access to the benefits of a relatively urbanised culture, with Cirencester and Glevum (Gloucester) each less than 15 miles away and Aquae Sulis (Bath) less than 30.  Corinium was the largest city in Roman Britain apart from Londinium (London) and capital of the then province of Britannia Prima, which covered Wales and South West England (2). It boasted stone carvers, glass makers and goldsmiths as well as the bakers and blacksmiths you would hope to find in any town. Orphic themes were popular throughout the Roman Empire of the day and there is no surprise in finding him popular with the Romano-British aristocracy. What was there not to like about the archetypal Bard whose music charmed animals, caused trees to dance and energised the very stones; a walker between the worlds, destined ultimately to become a talking head speaking prophesies?

The centre of the Woodchester mosaic (damaged over the last 300 years by gravediggers and antiquaries)* is likely to have featured a small fountain fed by water from local springs. This was likely placed within a central octagon with a star radiating out from the fountain, surrounded by fishes. Next out is a circle of birds including pheasants, peacocks and doves, also incorporating Orpheus, his lyre and his hunting dog. Around it is a band of laurel leaves circled by a guilloche or plait. Then comes the animal circle, combining those then common in Britain – bear, stag, horse and boar – with exotic ones only seen in the amphitheatre – leopard, elephant, tiger and lion. There is also a mythological beast, a gryphon.

In the outermost group, towards the edge of the mosaic, we find the face of Neptune god of the sea. Flowing from him on either side in a complete circle is a beautiful acanthus roll which symbolises the restless movement of the waves. The whole circle is squared by four pairs of water nymphs, placed in the spandrels. A blue background represents their watery environment, also emphasised by water weeds.

This water theme is the imagery that draws me most. I link it to Orpheus’ role as the non-warrior Argonaut, whose job it was to work with the seas, negotiating passage with them.  For “the Argo was the first craft built to sail the deep, untraveled sea” (3) instead of hugging the coast and going from port to port. “Nothing like her had been seen or imagined before. Her hull timbers came from oaks and pines that Orpheus had charmed from the woods; they carried his liberating life in them and she leapt in the sea, like a deer”.  The deep sea was as new to him as to everyone else, a vastness that boiled and foamed, white on blue, like a whirlpool, the ‘end of the earth, the beginning of all’, an abyssos much like chaos before creation came.  In the Hymns conventionally attributed to Orpheus, the depths of the ocean “‘glossy’ and ‘black’ like Night herself, writhed with potential and with new forms swimming into life”. Roped fast in the pitching, heaving bow, Orpheus would fling out his hymns to the mounting walls of the waves. “Note by note he would urge them lower, resist them, coax them, until his music streamed down in foam and they deflated, slowly, to a cradling quiet. His spirit lay on the sea then, pressing it level like a band of light.”

I don’t know this aspect of the story particularly well. I grew up with Jason and the Argonauts. I’ve known a certain amount about Orpheus, especially the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. But not this. Certainly this is what took me to Woodchester today. To stand close to a resonant piece of ancestral craftsmanship, local in place and time yet also universal and timeless in reference, there in its original location, which I experience as an odd and slightly otherworldly place on any terms.  And I think about what Joseph Campbell, also with Orpheus in mind, says in his Creative Mythology, where the role of creative mythology is to renew “the act of experience itself … restoring to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known … as it is in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out”. (4)

  1. Cull, Reverend John (2000) Woodchester: its villa and mosaic Andover, Hampshire, UK: Pitkin Unichrome (Pitkin Guides)
  2. White, Roger (2007) Britannia Prima: Britain’s last Roman province Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus Publishing
  3. Roe, Ann (2011) Orpheus the song of life London: Jonathan Cape
  4. Campbell, Joseph (1968) The masks of God: creative mythology Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

*The mosaic hasn’t done well out of its 12 exposures in the last 300 years or so and was reburied in 1973 for an indefinite period. A replica exists, though no longer for public display, and the mosaic has been very well drawn and photographed.

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