Whereas the ancient Greeks anthropomorphised their gods, the Thracians wanted to become them. Warriors identified with the ‘Hero-rider’, lord of the Sun and the Underworld, who appears on funerary steles across northern Greece. The Thracian Great Gods, the Kabeiri, ‘Earth and Sky’, offered a mystic communion with divinity on Samothráki which attracted initiates from across the Greek world. Most Greeks, however, drew the line at the most fundamental of all Thracian beliefs: that they were immortal and after death would go to paradise with their god-prophet Zalmoxis.
Yet the idea of achieving divinity in this life, for a moment if not for eternity, came to Greece in that most revolutionary of all Thracian religious imports, Dionysos, the god of wine, and secondly by following the teachings of another Thracian, Orpheus. During his orgiastic rites, Dionysos’ followers, most famously the Maenads, were intoxicated with an enthusiasm that made them one with the god, capable of inhuman tenderness or inhuman cruelty, nursing wild fawns at their breasts or sinking their teeth into their raw flesh. Their rite of Omophagia, the eating of raw flesh, was a primitive version of communion with the godhead.
Several myths attest to the arrival of Dionysos’ cult in Greece, warning, too, of the terrifying consequences of denying his power. The ‘rational’ Greeks did their best to tame him. The idea of impersonating the god led to the impersonations of the stage and invention of theatre, the god as ‘art’.
On the religious side, poet/prophet/shaman/religious reformer Orpheus invented the ‘Mysteries of Dionysos’, in which spiritual ecstasy was achieved, not through drunkenness, but by Apolline purification, symbolised by his music; in early Greek art, he plays his lyre not to tame wild beasts but to enchant uncouth Thracian tribesmen. But like Huckleberry Finn, something in the nature of Dionysos refused to be ‘civilised’, and Orpheus was a martyr to his own reforms; Maenads on Mount Pangaíon (or others say the women of Piería) tore him to pieces after he shunned their advances. He became the patron of the Orphics, who in their ‘secret logoi’ codified rules of living with the goal of attaining divine rapture in this life as well as the next. By Classical times, Orphism existed alongside Dionysian revels, sometimes in competition, sometimes intertwined, both subtly undermining the resolutely non-mystic pile that was Olympus.
References to the lost ‘secret logoi’ survive in Euripides and Plato (who were steeped in Orphism) and in the golden Orphic inscriptions discovered in southern Italy, and in the recently translated Dervéni papyrus in the Archaeology Museum in Thessaloniki. The early Church identified Christ with Orpheus, and since then Orphism Archaeology Museum in Thessaloniki. The early Church identified Christ with Orpheus, and since then Orphism has led to some surprising destinations, not least Renaissance Florence when Orphic ‘natural magic’ was revived by Marsilio Ficino, who translated Plato for the Medici and inspired the allegorical paintings of Sandro Botticelli. But such magic is a fragile thing, as Jane Ellen Harrison wrote in her 1908 classic, Prolegomena:
The religion of Orpheus is religious in the sense that it is the worship of the real mysteries of life, of potencies rather than personal gods; it is the worship of life itself in its supreme mysteries of ecstasy and love. It is these real gods, this life itself, that the Greeks, like most men, were inwardly afraid to recognise and face, afraid even to worship. Now and again a philosopher or a poet, in the very spirit of Orpheus, proclaims these true gods, and asks in wonder why to their shrines is brought no sacrifice.
© Dana Facaros