The role of contraries in the “Orphic life”

  Rangos, Spyridon. 2023. “The role of contraries in the 'Orphic life'.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.

I. Introduction

In his famous Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh in 1901–1902 under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes the following about how mystics, the world over, have described their new vision of the universe provided by illumination: [1]

It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself.

The aim of this paper is to show that James’ pertinent observation applies not only to mystics but to the ideal participants of ancient mystery cults as well. The goal of initiation, as Aristotle (fr. 15 Rose3 = Ross Fragmenta. Selecta p. 84) perceived, was an intimately felt experience (pathein), rather than a doctrine for intellectual cognition (mathein), which would make the initiate be disposed of (diatethenai) in a certain way. In other words, initiation aimed at sealing the initiand’s mind with a permanent affective state that would ideally change his/her entire outlook on things. [2] A μανία or, in modern parlance, an altered state of consciousness induced by a variety of means (ritual enactment, music, dancing, intoxication, mythical imagery, or even a near-death experience) should have been at the centre of initiation. [3] Although I think that a more general case can be made, in the present paper I will confine myself to Orphic-Bacchic mysteries as a case study.

My title speaks of an “Orphic life.” This is in accordance with Plato’s Laws (782c), where reference is made to “Orphic lives” (in the plural) characterized by a strictly vegetarian diet as opposed to the normal diet which included the consumption of meat, especially during religious festivals. To abstain from meat would have quite significant social consequences in ancient Greece. I know that there has been a long controversy about the legitimacy of using the label “Orphic” as a designation of religious identity in classical antiquity. I cannot enter into the heated debate now. To my understanding, an “Orphic life” is a life, quite distinct from the conduct of people in mainstream religiosity, which, vegetarianism apart, is based on sacred discourses (theogonies, hymns, etc.) of a revelatory character that were supposed to have been handed down to humans by the divinely inspired poet Orpheus and were preserved in written texts. Through initiation and particular religious observances in the course of the present life, the participants of this kind of life aspired to a better fate of the soul in the hereafter.
It should be stressed that the Orphic life I have in mind is a kind of ideal type, in Weber’s sense of the term, a paradigmatic stance meant to stand apart from, and even in opposition to, the normal valuation of things in mainstream Greek culture. I do not doubt the presence of what Weber would have called the “routinization” of this kind of life in the majority of those initiated. My intention is to show how the few real bacchoi, as opposed to the many “thyrsus-bearers,” according to Plato’s famous distinction (Phaedo 69d), should have experienced initiation and its results. It is no accident that Plato’s Socrates ascribes the distinction between the few real bacchoi and the many “thyrsus-bearers” to the experts of initiation (ὡς οἱ περὶ τὰς τελετὰς λέγουσι). The experts seem to have been aware of the difference between the psychic experience as inner core of initiation and the paraphernalia as its outer shell.
I will suggest that, although in different ritual contexts the verbal formulations and the mythical imagery differed considerably, the underlying message was, for the most part, the same. And this message, I will further argue, was captured by Heraclitus in his doctrine of the unity of opposites. The bone tablets of Olbia allude to this message in a very dense manner. The gold leaves testify to the ways in which this message was moulded into mythical (and presumably ritual) symbolism in order to appeal to a wider audience of prospective Orphics. As for the Orphic character of those leaves, I resist the extreme scepticism of Edmonds (2004, 2015) and subscribe to the arguments and overall interpretations provided by Bernabé and Jiménez San Cristóbal (2008, 2011).
Figure 1. Map showing Ancient Greek colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea, c. 450 BCE. From World History Encyclopedia. Original image by MapMapster. The copyright holder has published this content under the GNU Free Documentation License.

II. Scyles in Olbia

Let us start our journey from a far-away place and a foreign hero. Olbia was one of Miletus’ colonies founded around 600 BCE. [4] Situated at the northern side of the Black Sea, near the mouth of the river Bug (Hypanis) and within reach of the estuary of Dnieper (Borysthenes) (Figure 1), the city was surrounded by foreigners, primarily Scythians. One of them was Scyles (floruit ca. 460 BCE) whose life story is narrated by Herodotus. [5] Scyles was the son of Ariapeithes, king of the Scythians, and a Greek wife. Through his mother Scyles learnt to speak and write Greek. He eventually became so fond of Greek culture that, when he succeeded his father in the throne, he had a luxurious private house built in Olbia and spent there his holidays in utmost secrecy. Scyles used to guide his troops to the outskirts of the city and to leave them there for quite a while to pasture cattle. As soon as he entered the city walls, he changed his Scythian trousers with a Greek attire and adopted Greek manners throughout, including worship of Greek deities. At one point, he felt a strong desire to get initiated into the cult of Dionysus. As he was about to do so, the god hurled a thunderbolt which utterly destroyed his house. The sign was ambiguous. It could indicate either divine wrath or approval and sanctification. Scyles presumably took it in the second sense and proceeded with the initiation. Although he knew perfectly well that his compatriots ridiculed the Greek belief in god-possession and ritual trance and were very strict in defending their ancestral customs against foreign influences, he took the risk of becoming fully Hellenized.
Scyles ended up badly. A Greek citizen of Olbia informed the Scythians about their king’s behavior. He also showed them the way to a tower from the top of which they could see, behind the city walls, Scyles as a member of a Dionysian club (thiasos) in a state of Bacchic trance. The scandalous revelation resulted in Scyles’ loss of regality as the Scythians suspended allegiance to him in favor of his paternal half-brother. Scyles was soon to suffer decapitation at the hands of the new king.
Scyles’ involvement in Bacchic ceremonies was, no doubt, motivated by his widespread admiration for all things Greek. But there was also something like a personal call in his decision. Scyles not only “felt a desire to be initiated into the cult of Bacchic Dionysus” (ἐπεθύμησε Διονύσῳ Βακχείῳ τελεσθῆναι, IV.79.1), as Herodotus writes, but insisted on proceeding with the initiation despite the destruction of his house through thunderbolt. In Euripides’ Hippolytus (953–954), Theseus, furious with his son and eager to castigate a single-minded devotion to Artemis and the ostentatious purity that comes with it, reprimands Hippolytus for being a vegetarian and for “acting in a Bacchic-like frenzy, having Orpheus as a master and honoring the smoke of many letters” (Ὀρφέα τ’ ἄνακτ’ ἔχων / βάκχευε πολλῶν γραμμάτων τιμῶν καπνούς). As a matter of fact, Hippolytus’ conduct had nothing to do with Orphic practices. But in fifth century Athens, personal devotion to a deity and adherence to dietary or ritual purity were considered, along with an unusual reliance on written documents, to be the traits par excellence of Orphic initiates. Festugière [6] finds in Hippolytus’ case the clearest early example of “a personal religion among the Greeks.” It is not unlikely that Scyles celebrated the Dionysian mysteries through a personal call aroused from instruction by an itinerant Orphic priest and/or the reading of relevant texts. It is perhaps not an accident that Scyles was literate in Greek.
For Herodotus the story was a clear example of Scythian abhorrence for foreign customs. It is to the same end that the historian narrates the story of Anacharsis (IV.76–77), another Scythian fond of Greek telestic practices who ended up badly. The story of Scyles can also be read as a case of unsuccessful psychic integration. Scyles, the son of a Scythian father and a Greek mother, wanted to unite the two distinct sources of his parental origin by alternating between the public persona of a traditional Scythian ruler and the private engagement with some Greek, quite literally, holidays. This kind of attempted unification, based as it was on the merely temporal and spatial distinction between a public and a private life (i.e. the allotment of fundamentally different activities to different times and different places) proved catastrophic. What he should have done, instead, is indicated, or rather cryptically implied, in some inscribed bone tablets of Orphic provenance that were found in Olbia during excavations conducted in the early 1950s.

III. Orphic bone tablets

Three such tablets, dated to the earlier part of the fifth century BCE, are definitely of Orphic origin. [7] They are contemporary with Scyles. A fourth one, found on the nearby isle Berezan (a peninsula in classical times), mentions Leto and Apollo, and clearly ascribes some mystical power to the number 7 and its decimal multiples. It has also been, though tentatively, traced to an Orphic religious context. [8]

Figure 2. Hand-drawings of the recto side of three inscribed bone tablets found in Olbia in 1951 (OTF 463–465), 5.1 X 4.1 cm., 4.7 X 3.1 cm., 4.8 X 3.5 cm, 5th century BCE. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. From Dubois 1996, no. 94a–c.


All three Orphic tablets refer to Dionysus and all three mention contraries (Figure 2). The first one (OTF 463), [9] in which besides ΔΙΟ(νυσος) ΟΡΦΙΚΟΙ is clearly inscribed, mentions βίος–θάνατος–βίος and then ἀλήθεια. The second (OTF 464), in which ΔΙΟΝ(υσος) appears again, mentions εἰρήνη–πόλεμος and ἀλήθεια–ψεῦδος, while the third one (OTF 465) may have contained, besides ΔΙΟΝ(υσος) and ἀλήθεια which are clearly visible, also the pair σῶμα–ψυχή: ψυχή is clearly visible while σῶμα has been plausibly conjectured from two remaining letters. Besides the three inscribed tablets, many more of similar shape and polish but without any graffiti on their sides have been discovered. There can be no doubt that the tablets themselves were symbola (tokens of recognition and identity) of Orphic initiates. They were certainly meant to enhance Orphic convictions and identity, and they may also have been endowed with a prophylactic value. Moreover, all inscribed words and symbols (perhaps a ritual stool, a thunderbolt, and a 7-slot ritual box on the verso sides of two of them) obviously alluded to initiation. Especially the pairs of contraries must have been cryptic and laconic references to a secret doctrine.
Scholars generally agree that the triptych “life–death–life” implies post-mortem survival and possibly transmigration. [10] The majority think that the “death” meant is the actual death that awaits us in the end, which is preceded and followed by (present and hoped for) life; one could alternatively suppose [11] that “death” here signifies embodied existence as opposed to the discarnate “life” of the pure soul before and after embodiment (as in Plato’s Phaedo). In any case, the triptych points to a kind of knowledge that the Orphic mystes possesses and the uninitiated many ignore. The emphatic truth of this knowledge is indicated by the word ἀλήθεια in the same table, which in this context should be taken to have the overtones of a profound revelation. Along similar lines, the “truth” and “peace” of the other tablets are commonly taken to refer to Orphic knowledge and praxis, and their contraries, “falsity” and “war,” to the beliefs and practices of the common folk. [12] Although the affinity of the Olbian tablets with Heraclitus’ doctrine of opposites has been duly and repeatedly noticed, it remains an open question whether all relevant conclusions have been drawn.

IV: Heraclitus of Ephesus

Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 6.2.27) thinks that Heraclitus borrowed most of his doctrines from Orpheus. The bone tablets of far-away Olbia, with their distinctly Heraclitean view of opposites, show that some doctrinal affinity is present. Had the self-identified Orphics of the Black Sea read Heraclitus’ book, or were they and Heraclitus all drawing on a common source of mystery cult? We do not know. Although I believe with Seaford [13] that “the influence is from the mystery cult rather than vice versa,” what is important for my purpose is the doctrinal affinity itself, not the way in which it should be historically explained.
Heraclitus’ stance vis-à-vis Greek mysteries is a highly debatable issue. That he castigated his contemporaries for impiety in the way they practiced mystery initiation is undeniable. Fragment B 14 DK (= 87 Marc.) says τὰ νομιζόμενα κατ᾽ ἀνθρώπους μυστήρια ἀνιερωστὶ μυεῦνται, “initiation into the mysteries as customarily practiced among humans is conducted in an unholy manner.” The precise formulation implies that it is not mysteries themselves that are unholy or impious but the human attitude towards them. [14] And in the famous fragment about phallic rites (B 15 DK = 50 Marc.), Heraclitus seems to account for the ritual use of phalloi by pointing to the (hidden and, as it were, unacknowledged) identity of Dionysus with Hades-Death. We may suppose that Heraclitus regards the identity of the traditional god of wild nature, exuberant life, and collective frenzy with the traditional god of destruction and death as the reason, not properly noticed or understood by his contemporaries, [15] that explains why phallic rites are not, really, indecent or unholy, as they might appear at first sight. To honor Dionysus with phallic processions and sexual rituals is the appropriate human attitude to the pervasive power of Death. In Heraclitus’ identification of Dionysus with Hades what is at stake is the mystical coincidence of life and death.
By definition, contraries seem to exclude each other—although they may open up a range of indefinite variation. Something or someone cannot be both cold and hot, wet, and dry, mortal and immortal, alive and dead at the same time and in the same respect. To be sure, in early Greek philosophy and later speculation, e.g. in Plato’s Phaedo, contraries were considered to generate one another by way of alternation. But the fact that opposites implicate one another does not mean that they are one and the same thing. Quite the opposite. Now consider, by way of contrast, Heraclitus’ belief that ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή, “the way up and the way down is one and the same” (B 60 DK = 33 Marc.). Here it is not succession or alternation that is meant but contemporaneous identity pure and simple. [16] The road that links Athens to Piraeus is one and the same thing with the road that links Piraeus to Athens, no matter whether one walks upwards from the sea to the inland or the other way round. Opposition emerges as a result of a limited perspective and subjective involvement. In the real nature of things, there is no such thing as an upward or a downward direction: there is just one thing, and this is the road. Most Heraclitean fragments stress the simultaneous presence of the opposites, and this is what gives them their distinctive sting. With a pun on BΙΟΣ (which according to the accent may mean both “life” and “bow”), Heraclitus says that “the name of the bow is life, but its work is death” (B 48 DK = 39 Marc.). Here again it is one and the same object, the bow, that is singled out as an appropriate symbol for the unity of opposites. And in much the same spirit, the tension of the strings of a lyre, a musical instrument made for peaceful enjoyment, is shown to be parallel to the tension of the cord of a bow, a weapon made for war and destruction: both are what they are and function appropriately if and only if there is a tension, i.e. a contrariety of opposite forces, built into them (B 51 DK = 27 Marc.). This tension and intrinsic opposition that is part and parcel of the very nature of things Heraclitus provocatively, if solemnly, calls “War, father of all” (B 53 DK = 29 Marc.; cf. B 80 DK = 28 Marc.). It is, I submit, this seldom-realized and for the most part concealed identity of opposites that Heraclitus meant to bring to the foreground of human awareness.
The polemical tone of many a Heraclitean fragment cannot be missed. Homer is castigated for having Achilles wish for the extinction of strife (A 22 DK = 28 c 2–6 Marc.); Hesiod is blamed for not realizing the oneness of day and night (B 57 DK = 43 Marc.). All in all, “god is: day-night, winter-summer, war-peace, satiety-hunger” (B 67 = 77 Marc.) and “to god all things are beautiful and just but humans regard some things as unjust and others as just” (B 102 DK = 91 Marc.). Notice the asyndeton in the pairs of opposites. What appears in (and as) temporal alternation is, deep down, a unity of aspects, the two opposite sides of the same process. Notice also that the opposites are not approached in terms of presence and absence, being and not-being. Night is not just absence of light, nor peace just absence of war. Last but not least, notice that god is said to be all things at once, and this all-encompassing whole is intrinsically beautiful and just although it contains things which humans tend to blame as unjust. Heraclitus’ wisdom testifies to an experience very much akin to William James’s pointed formulation. In such a global perspective, Life (perhaps with this capital L) is the overriding genus of which life and death are mere species or aspects. Similarly, War (with a capital W) and Truth (with a capital T) are the overriding genera of which war and peace, truth and falsity are, respectively, mere species or aspects. [17]
Figure 3. Gold tablet from Hipponion, Italy (OTF 474), 5.9/4.9 X 3.2 cm., 5th century BCE. Museo Archeologico Statale di Vibo Valentia. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 4. Gold tablet from Thessaly, Greece (OTF 484), 3.7 X 2.2 cm, 4th century BCE. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. Photographs from Wikimedia Commons and Pugliese Carratelli 2001.


Figure 5. Gold tablet from Thurii, Italy (OTF 488), 5.1 X 3.6 cm, 4th century BCE. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photograph from Pugliese Carratelli 2001.

V. Gold leaves

Symbolic contrariety is also present in the famous gold lamellae (Figures 3–5). Before examining two such specimens (Heaven-Earth, Memory-Forgetfulness), let us look at three expressions, numbered (i)–(iii) below, that allude to a profound experience or/and an altered state of consciousness meant ideally to accompany the initiate for the rest of his/her life.

  1. In the long and unintelligible Orphic lamella from Thurii (L12 = OTF 492 = C1), [18] which has been rightly brought into comparison with the text of the Derveni papyrus, [19] we find the phrase φάος ἐς φρένα, “light to the mind” (line 9). This phrase seems to indicate the sudden illumination that the Orphic mystes is expected to receive during initiation.
  2. In one of the other tablets from Thurii (L8 = OTF 487 = A4), a voice greets the initiate with the following words: χαῖρε παθὼν τὸ πάθημα τὸ δ᾽ οὔπω πρόσθ᾽ {ε} ἐπεπόνθεις· / θεὸς ἐγένου ἐξ ἀνθρώπου, “hail, you having had an experience such as you never had before: from a human being you have become a god” (lines 3–4). As Bernabé and Jiménez [20] rightly stress, “this is not just any experience […:] it is ‘the’ experience.” And this quite unique experience is, at one and the same time, the experience of initiation and the (symbolic) death that is experienced in it, whereby the mystes turns into a god. For the first verse of the same text reads: ἀλλ᾽ ὁπόταν ψυχὴ προλίπῃ φάος ἀελίοιο, “but when the soul leaves the light of the sun,” an expression which obviously means death. The primacy of a death experience in Orphic initiation [21] —and, ideally, the permanency of the effects of a near-death experience [22] —is shown by the two lamellae from Pelinna (L7A–B = OTF 485–486 = D1–2). They begin with words meant to be pronounced at the climax of initiation and also at the actual burial [23] of the initiate: Νῦν ἔθανες καὶ νῦν ἐγένου, τρισόλβιε, ἄματι τῷδε, “now you have died and now you have been born, thrice happy one, on this very day.” Here birth and death are approached as the two sides of a single extraordinary event: to die as a human being is to be born as a god. Notice the emphatic repetition of the temporal indications “now” (νῦν, twice) and “on this very day,” which indicate that death and birth are not successive but simultaneous occurrences.
  3. In the same leaves, we find the initiate to be triumphantly addressed with the following words: οἶνον ἔχεις εὐδαίμονα τιμήν, “you have wine as your blissful honor.” [24] The “wine” mentioned here is obviously a symbol of Dionysian drunkenness (cf. Βάκχιος in line 2). And this kind of drunkenness, although intimately connected to ordinary wine-intoxication, also alludes to an extraordinary state of consciousness, in which, I will subsequently suggest, the unity of opposites is intimately experienced. In Burkert’s words, [25] “the new horizons of consciousness attained by βακχεύειν might well appear to overcome the factual banality of death.”
In the gold leaves, memory is implicitly juxtaposed to forgetfulness, purity to impurity, initiated to uninitiated, darkness to light, death to life, exit to entrance, right to left and cold to warm. Explicit is the contrariety between a human being and a god in several tablets (e.g. L8.4 = A4.4, L9.9 = A1.9), as we have already seen. But the most pervasive opposition, at least in numerical terms of occurrences, is that between the Heaven and the Earth. It occurs unexceptionally in all tablets of the so-called B group, and we may ask, once again, [26] about the symbolism contained in the initiate’s reply: “I am the child of Earth and starry Heaven.”
Let us briefly recall the context (in Edmonds’ 2011a translation). An anonymous but obviously authoritative voice addresses the initiate/dead in the second person singular and announces to him/her that in Hades s/he will find “a spring on the left and standing by it a glowing white cypress tree.” The voice warns: “do not approach this spring at all.” There is obviously a danger here. It is here where the souls of the (uninitiated) dead refresh themselves. But this is what causes their doom. For, as becomes obvious in the sequence, the unnamed spring is the spring of Forgetfulness, to which Plato (Republic 621a, Phaedrus 248c, 250a, Gorgias 493c) also alludes. The voice continues: “you will find another, from the lake of Memory / refreshing water flowing forth. But guardians are nearby.” The Hipponion (Figure 3) and Entella texts explain (L1.8–9 = OTF 474.8–9 = B10.8–9, L2.10–11 = OTF 475.10–11 = B11.10–11): “They will ask you, with sharp minds, what you are seeking in the shadowy gloom of Hades.” The other texts continue immediately: “Say: ‘I am the child of Earth and starry Heaven’.” Upon hearing this formula, the guardians will allow the thirsty soul to drink cold water from the divine spring/lake of Memory. Then the soul’s postmortem bliss is forever secured.
It has repeatedly been suggested that the Orphic initiate who is asked to “tell the whole truth,” πᾶσαν ἀληθείην καταλέξαι (L4.7 = OTF 477.7 = B2.7) to the netherworld guardians acknowledges through this reply descent from the Titans, children of Gaia and Ouranos, according to mainstream Greek mythology (as recorded for instance in Hesiod’s Theogony 132–138), but s/he alludes also to their hideous crime against the young Dionysus, according to specifically Orphic mythology, their punishment by Zeus and, ultimately, the descent of the human race from the Titans’ soot. According to this interpretation, the Orphic initiate assumes responsibility for a primordial crime, a pervasive element of aggression and disobedience that constitutes “the so-called old Titanic nature” (τὴν λεγομένην παλαιὰν Τιτανικὴν φύσιν) of which Plato speaks in the Laws (701c). There has been a heated controversy about the composition date of this anthropogony ascribed to Orpheus by the late Neoplatonist Olympiodorus. [27] Although I believe that the myth is indeed ancient, rather than a late concoction from disparate elements, i.e. a kind of bricolage—there are various allusions or piecemeal references to it in authors such as Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria—I shall not bring this myth to bear on the significance of the initiate’s reply.
There can be no doubt that the initiate’s reply is a password that establishes his/her identity and convinces the guardians to let him/her drink from the fountain/lake of Memory. Once his/her thirst is satisfied, the initiate is led to the place of eternal bliss where other liberated souls rejoice in a blessed existence perhaps comparable to a perpetual banquet. What is problematic is the precise content of the initiate’s identity that the password is supposed to establish. What does, in other words, mean that the initiate identifies him/herself as the child of Heaven and Earth? And why in some tablets does s/he proceed to add, as an essential part of his/her identity, that his/her “race is, nonetheless, heavenly”?
In Greek religious and poetic imagination, the earth stands for mortality and transitoriness. Humans are the sort of beings who feed on earth (οἵ γαίης πολυφόρβου καρπὸν ἕδοντες, Homeric Hymn to Apollo 365), who live, work, and pass away on the surface of the earth. Their toilsome existence is intimately connected to the soil on which they walk and stand. The heaven, by contrast, is the abode of the gods (οἳ οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ναίουσιν), hence the realm of immortality and divine permanence. By solemnly proclaiming to be the child of both the Heaven and the Earth the initiate admits a dual nature, a twofold origin, earthly as well as heavenly. [28] But the opposition between mortality and immortality implicit in the Earth-Heaven dualism is not a simple contrariety: it is a contradiction. Nothing can be at one and the same time and in the same respect both mortal and immortal. There is a tension in the dual origin of the initiate. [29] In the majority of the shorter texts the tension remains unresolved but it is optimistically resolved in those texts in which the initiate continues (L2.15 = OTF 475.15 = B11.15, L3.7 = OTF 476.7 = B1.7, L6.4 = OTF 484.4 = B9.5): αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ γένος οὐράνιον, “But my race is heavenly!” or, what amounts to the same, Ἀστέριος ὄνομα, “my name is the Starry One!” (L4.9 = OTF 477.9 = B2.9). The exclamation mark at the end of those utterances is meant to underline a triumphant achievement. If that is what the initiate asserts, then s/he must somehow have already transcended the realm of duality and opposition.

Let us recall William James’ formulation: [30]

It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself.

The description fits perfectly well the initiate’s reply. By claiming to be the child of Heaven and Earth, the initiate claims to have gone beyond the world of our common experience where duality, contradictoriness, and conflict prevail. As in James’s quotation, the coincidence of opposites achieved through initiation does not amount to an abolition of all distinctions but, rather, to the absorption of the baser species of the original genus of contraries (Earth, mortality) into the nobler and better species (Heaven, immortality), which ipso facto becomes one and the same with the genus itself. We may assume that implicit in the proclamation of the dual origin in all such tablets, including the abbreviated texts from Crete (Tzifopoulos 2010) and elsewhere (Figure 4), was the overcoming of the tension by means of the absorption of the earthly element into the higher element stemming from Heaven.

In a similar vein, the initiates of the so-called A-tablets (Figure 5) addressing the underworld gods boast that they, too, belong to the “blessed race” of the addressees (καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼν ὑμῶν γένος ὄλβιον εὔχομαι εἶμεν), although they have been subdued by Fate and Zeus’ thunderbolt (L9.3–4 = OTF 488.3–4 = Α1.3–4, L10A.3–5 = OTF 489.3–5 = A2.3–5, L10B.3–5 = OTF 490.3–5 = A3.3–5). The new vision of the universe provided by initiation approached mortality not as contradictory of immortality but rather as its lower and subdued or subsumed species. In such a vision, death becomes an integral part of life, rather than its denial or absence. In James’ words, Immortality is the overriding genus which soaks up and absorbs its opposite (i.e. mortality) into itself.
In the gold lamellae, the reported unity of Heaven and Earth under the overriding genus of Heaven is one mythical image of transcended contrariety pointing to an underlying unity of opposites. Another is the implicit opposition between memory and forgetfulness. It should be noted that in the traditional Greek imagination of the underworld, a plane of Forgetfulness is indeed included (e.g. Aristophanes’ Frogs 186, Plato’s Republic 651a), but nothing corresponds to a lake of Memory. [31] Outside Orphism the only known reference to a river and water of Mnemosyne is rather late and it occurs in the context of the oracular cave of Trophonius in Lebadeia (Paus. IX.37.7). The lake, spring, and cold waters of Memory seem then to be specifically Orphic innovations. As it is widely admitted, the memory supposedly secured for the initiate through his/her drinking of the cold water of the spring of Memory consisted in remembrance of initiation, i.e. recollection of divine descent. [32] What has not been duly stressed is the fact that embedded in such a memory as an essential part of it was oblivion of relatives, friends, fond activities, and all past life on earth. For it is only on condition that the initiate forgets his/her earthly ties that bliss can be achieved in the afterlife. Already in Hesiod’s Theogony (55), the Muses, daughters of Memory though they are, can still be collectively characterised as λησμοσύνην τε κακῶν ἄμπαυμά τε μεριμνάων, “forgetfulness of ills and rest from cares.” If follows that the memory firmly granted to the initiate under the symbolic act of drinking fresh water contains within it elements of its opposite, forgetfulness or oblivion, and it was thus, again, an overriding unity of contraries. This is most evident in a unique verse which directly alludes to the transmigration of the souls.
In the first lamella of so-called group A, there is a verse that does not appear in any other leaf of whatever group. It runs: “I flew out of the circle of wearying heavy grief” (L9.5 = OTF 488.5 = A1.5, in Edmonds’ translation). The flight away from the circle, which the initiate triumphally celebrates, can only be, I assume with Burkert, [33] liberation from the cycle of reincarnations. Whether originally Pythagorean or Orphic, the doctrine of transmigration was invented as a way to assuage the fear of death and to account for earthly injustice. But if that is so, one might want to know why reincarnation was not considered to be the ultimate solution. For, as the evidence indicates, higher than the wish for the attainment of a happy and prosperous future incarnation was the desire to exit the cycle of transmigrations altogether. Although I cannot argue the point here, my view is that since transmigration is a temporal and local alternation of discarnate and embodied life, it remains something limited. The ultimate transcendence of the opposition of life and death is a higher mental synthesis in which Life is not the opposite of death but its overriding genus.

V. Mysteries

Let us now take a broader view. Contrary to, but obviously based on, the human tendency to see death as a bad or even evil thing, the mysteries imparted to initiates the idea that, as a late inscription puts it (IG II/III2 3661.6), Ἦ καλὸν ἐκ μακάρων μυστήριον, οὐ μόνον εἶναι / τὸν θάνατον θνητοῖς οὐ κακόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀγαθόν, “In truth, a nice secret revealed from the blessed ones: not only is death not evil for mortals, but it is good.” The inscription, dating from around 200 CE, is dedicated to Eleusis, the sacred place par excellence of Greek mysteries, by a hierophant named Glaucos.
We possess plenty of evidence which shows that the central event in mystery cults was, as Seaford succinctly put it, a “rehearsal for death.” [34] Combining the testimonies of Plato and Plutarch (fr. 157 Sandbach) we come to see that the initiand in the Eleusinian mysteries passed through stages of ritual darkness followed by an encounter with unexpected light. Centuries after Plato, Apuleius is very explicit when he says that (Metamorphoses XI.21) “the act of initiation was performed in the manner of voluntary death and salvation obtained by favor.” Two chapters later (XI.23), he describes his mystical experience in the first person. “I came,” he writes, “to the boundary of death and, having trodden the threshold of Proserpina, I traveled through all the elements and returned. In the middle of night, I saw the sun flashing with bright light”―nocte media vidi solem candido coruscantem lumine.
Figure 6. Map by the author showing the cities where the major inscribed gold tablets of the Classical and Hellenistic eras have been found. Only a few minor specimens with just the names of the initiates/dedicators come from mainland Greece (three from Aigeion, Achaia, and two from Elis). If not accidental, this absence may indicate the sphere of influence of the Eleusinian mysteries. A late gold tablet dated to the 3rd century CE has also been discovered in Rome (OTF 491).
A rehearsal of death was at the centre of Orphic initiation as well. A descent to the underworld and the events inscribed in the gold lamellae were perhaps enacted in the actual ritual of initiation. The imagery and the mythology of Orphic mysteries certainly differed from the λεγόμενα, δρώμενα, and δεικνύμενα at Eleusis. But, differences apart, the mystical experience was meant to be the same. That is perhaps the reason why, as Burkert [35] has suggested, Orphic gold tablets have been found only in the periphery of the Greek world, [36] in territories (such as Crete, Sicily, South Italy, Thessaly, and Macedonia) that were quite removed from the most renowned Panhellenic centre of initiation, i.e. Eleusis (Figure 6). To be initiated by an itinerant priest of Orphic persuasion was considered to be second best only to being initiated in a well-established sanctuary where mysteries were annually performed. The complaints of the Derveni author [37] about the extensive ignorance of people initiated either “in the cities” or by “someone who makes a profession of the rites” show that, for his part, he considered initiation in a mystery centre equivalent to initiation by an itinerant priest, although he believes that a professional expert should be able to instruct his initiands also by word of mouth. The Derveni author bears also witness to the fact that most initiates, unable to understand what happened to them in initiation, remained as ignorant about the core message of the ritual after initiation as they had been before. The experience did not open their “doors of perception.” This is an indication of what was supposed ideally to occur in the soul of a real bacchant as opposed to a mere thyrsus-bearer.

VI. Conclusions

To come back to the bone tablets from Olbia, the catchwords “life–death–life,” rather than referring to transmigration, might indicate that death is an integral part of life: surrounded—and (as it were) protected—by ζωή on both sides of the triptych, θάνατος is not the Other of life but its lower aspect, its child, as it were. The coincidence of opposites is not achieved by a negation and denial of individual death but rather by its wholehearted espousal as an integral part of what is, on the whole, nothing but immortal Life. It is such a realization, I submit, that constituted the core of Orphic initiation which was supposed to leave an indelible mark on the initiate’s subsequent life.
Moreover, on this interpretation, the Olbian tablets do not necessarily contrast the life granted to the Orphic initiate with the death awaiting the uninitiated many, nor the truth of his/her mystical knowledge with the falsity of the beliefs of the common run of people, nor, finally, the “peace” perhaps implied in a vegetarian diet and in post-mortem bliss of the soul to the “war” implied in blooded sacrifices, creophagous pleasures, and post-mortem punishments. The tablets’ polarities were verbal symbols meant to indicate the intimate realization, achieved in and through initiation, of the unity of life and death under the superordinate genus of Life, the unity of truth and falsity under the superordinate genus of Truth, and the unity of peace and war under the superordinate genus of Peace or War—it depends on how far you want to go along the lines of a specifically Heraclitean interpretation.
According to standard Greek valuation, polarities, depending on the context, contain a positive and a negative term that are clearly distinct from and even opposed to one another. The effect of Orphic initiation was the transcendence of ordinary value-judgements and the unification of the contraries of each pair under the overriding supremacy of the positive pole of them. Scyles’ downfall, if he had been an Orphic initiate, would seem to stem from his attempt to achieve such a unity along temporal and local rather than mental lines: his failure would consist in his vain effort to unite the opposite duties of a Scythian king and a Dionysian initiate as an alternation between serious work and pleasant holidays rather than as the constituent elements of a well-blended psychic integration supervised by Bacchic Dionysus.

Let me finish with a more general claim. Speaking of the magic of Orpheus’ poetical voice Charles Segal [38] writes:

Underlying all these antimonies is the intimation of a fundamental unity, a mythic vision of the unity between life and death as the inseparable poles of a single reality. It is this unity that enables the Orphic voice to cross from the living to the dead, to move both men and stones. […] This sense of the wondrous and fearful unity of being is one of the gifts bestowed by language when intensified by the “magic” of Orpheus’ power.

What I have tried to suggest is that a similar “unity of being” transpires also through the evidence we possess about Orphic initiates and Orphic initiation. The two fundamental aspects of Orpheus’ myth, i.e. the legendary poet endowed with a unique power to tame wild beasts and to seduce the whole of nature under his magical spell and the religious instructor who brought mankind salvation from death through the institution of mysteries and ritual initiation, can thus be shown to belong essentially together. [39]


Bernabé, A. 2002. “La toile de Pénélope: a-t-il existé un mythe orphique sur Dionysus et les Titans?” Revue de l’histoire des religions 219:401–433.
———. 2004–2007. Poetae Epici Graeci: Testomonia et Fragmenta, pars II: Orphicorum et Orphicis Similium Testimonia et Fragmenta [= OTF], 3 vols. Münich (vols. 1&2), Berlin (vol. 3).
Bernabé, A., and A. I. Jiménez San Cristóbal. 2008. Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets, trans. M. Chase. Leiden.
———. 2011. “Are the “Orphic” Leaves Orphic?” Ιn Edmonds 2011a:68–101.
Betz, H. D. 2011. “‘A Child of Earth am I and of Starry Heaven’: Concerning the Anthropology of the Orphic Gold Tablets.” In Edmonds 2011a:102–119. Cambridge.
Braund, D., and S. D. Kryzhitskly, eds. 2007. Classical Olbia and the Scythian World from the Sixth Century BC to the Second Century AD. Proceedings of the British Academy 142. Oxford.
Burkert, W. 1977. “Orphism and Bacchic Mysteries: New Evidence and Old Problems of Interpretation.” In Protocol of the Colloquy for the Center of Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture: Colloquy 28, 13 March 1977, ed. W. H. Wuellner, 1–10. Berkeley.
———. 1987. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA.
———. 1999. Da Omera ai Magi: La tradizione orientale nella cultura greca, ed. C. Antonelli. Venice.
Detienne, M. 2007. Les dieux d’Orphée. Paris.
Dubois, L. 1996. Inscriptions grecques dialectales d’Olbia du Pont. Geneva.
Edmonds, R. G. 1999. “Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin.” Classical Antiquity 18:1–24.
———. 2004. Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the “Orphic” Gold Tablets. Cambridge.
———. 2009. “A Curious Concoction: Tradition and Innovation in Olympiodorus’ Creation of Mankind.” American Journal of Philology 130:511–532.
———, ed. 2011a. The “Orphic” Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further Along the Path. Cambridge.
———. 2011b. “The “Orphic” Gold Tablets: Texts and Translations with Critical Apparatus and Tables.” In Edmonds 2011a:15–50.
———. 2013. Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion. Cambridge.
Ferrari, F. 2016. “Orphics at Olbia?” In Submerged Literature in Ancient Greek Culture: Case Studies, ed. G. Colesanti and L. Lulli 177-186. Berlin.
Festugière, A.-J. 1954. Personal Religion among the Greeks. Berkeley.
Graf, F., and S. I. Johnston. 2007. Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. London.
James, W. 1958. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York.
Janko, R. 2016. “Going Beyond Multitexts: The Archetype of the Orphic Gold Leaves.” Classical Quarterly 66:100–127.
Kouremenos, Th., G. M. Parásoglou, and K. Tsantsanoglou. 2006. The Derveni Papurus. Florence.
Lévêque, P. 2001. “Apollon et l’orphisme à Olbia du Pont.” In Tra Orfeo e Pitagora: origini e incontri di culture nell’antichità, ed. M. Tortorelli Ghidini, A. Storchi Marino, A. Visconti, 81–90. Naples.
Marcovich, M. 2001. Heraclitus: Greek Text with a Short Commentary. 2nd ed. Sankt Augustin.
Pugliese Carratelli, G. 2001. Le lamine d’oro orfiche, 2nd ed. Milan.
Riedweg, Ch. 2011. “Initiation – Death – Underworld: Narrative and Ritual in the Gold Leaves.” In Edmonds 2011a:219–256. Cambridge.
Seaford, R. 1981. “Dionysiac Drama and Dionysiac Mysteries.” Classical Quarterly 31:252–275.
———. 2003. “Aeschylus and the Unity of Opposites.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 123:141–163.
———. 2018. “Mystic Initiation and the Near-Death Experience.” In Psychology and the Classics: A Dialogue of Disciplines, J. Lauwers, H. Schwall, and J. Opsomer, 255–261. Berlin.
Segal, Ch. 1989. Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet. Baltimore.
Tzifopoulos, Y. 2010. “Paradise” Earned: The Bacchic-Orphic Gold Lamellae of Crete. Hellenic Studies 23. Washington, DC.
———. 2011. “Center, Periphery, or Peripheral Center: A Cretan Connection for the Gold Lamellae from Crete.” In Edmonds 2011a:165–199. Cambridge.
Ustinova, Y. 2013. “To Live in Joy and Die with Hope: Experiential Aspects of Ancient Greek Mystery Rites.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 56:110–123.
———. 2018. Divine Mania: Alteration of Consciousness in Ancient Greece. London.
West, M. L. 1982. “The Orphics of Olbia.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 45:17–29.
———. 1983. The Orphic Poems. Oxford.
West, S. 2007. “Herodotus and Olbia.” Proceedings of the British Academy 142:79–92.
Zhmud, L. 1992. “Orphism and Grafitti from Olbia.” Hermes 120:159–168.


[ back ] 1. James 1958:298; italics in the original.
[ back ] 2. Ustinova 2013:108.
[ back ] 3. Ustinova 2018:113–144, Seaford 2018.
[ back ] 4. Braund and Kryzhitskly 2007.
[ back ] 5. IV.78–80; cf. S. West 2007, cf. Detienne 2007:21–30.
[ back ] 6. 1954:1–18.
[ back ] 7. West 1982, West 1983:17–19, Dubois 1996:154–155, Burkert 1999:70–71.
[ back ] 8. Dubois 1996:146–154, Lévêque 2001.
[ back ] 9. OTF abbreviates Bernabé 2004–2007.
[ back ] 10. West 1982:18–19, Zhmud 1992:168.
[ back ] 11. Seaford 2003:146.
[ back ] 12. West 1982:20, Bernabé and Jiménez 2008:39, Ferrari 2016:179180.
[ back ] 13. 2003:145.
[ back ] 14. Contra Marcovich 2001:468.
[ back ] 15. Contra Marcovich 2001:254.
[ back ] 16. Marcovich 2001:171.
[ back ] 17. I might have added those fragments which Bernabé, with good reason, has included in his OTF (i.e. B 88 DK = 41 Marc. = OTF 454, B 62 DK = 47 Marc. = OTF 455, B 63 DK = 73 Marc. = OTF 456). If I have refrained from doing so, it is because, first, these fragments do not explicitly bear on the Olbian tablets which interest me now and, second, because they indicate successive, rather than simultaneous, coincidence of opposites.
[ back ] 18. L+Arabic number refers to the edition of the lamellae in Bernabé and Jiménez 2008, A, B, C, D + Arabic number to the edition of Edmonds 2011b:15–50.
[ back ] 19. Betegh 2004:332–337.
[ back ] 20. 2008:97.
[ back ] 21. Riedweg 2011.
[ back ] 22. Seaford 2018:257.
[ back ] 23. Graf in Graf and Johnston 2007:137–164.
[ back ] 24. With τιμήν being a predicate, as in Edmonds 2011b:36, rather than an apposition, “you have wine, a happy privilege,” as in Bernabé and Jiménez 2008:62.
[ back ] 25. 1977:4.
[ back ] 26. Betz 2011.
[ back ] 27. Edmonds 1999; Bernabé 2002; Edmonds 2009, 2013:296–391.
[ back ] 28. Bernabé and Jiménez 2008:42.
[ back ] 29. Betz 2011:119.
[ back ] 30. James 1958:298.
[ back ] 31. Johnston in Graf and Johnston 2007:117.
[ back ] 32. Bernabé and Jiménez 2008:32–33.
[ back ] 33. 1999:68.
[ back ] 34. Seaford 2018:255, cf. Seaford 2003:146, Burkert 1987:99.
[ back ] 35. 1999:64.
[ back ] 36. Cf. Tzifopoulos 2011.
[ back ] 37. Col. XX, Kouremenos et al. 2006:101, 136, 233–242.
[ back ] 38. 1989:35.
[ back ] 39. I would like to thank the organizers of the Patras conference and editors of Γέρα: Studies in honor of M. Christopoulos for their initiative and professional support as well as the participants for their pertinent comments. Andreas Antonopoulos, Anton Bierl, and Athina Papachrysostomou deserve to be mentioned ὀνομαστί.