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Orphic Theogony: Thanes and the Great Cosmic Egg

While Hesiod’ Theogony remains the standard, orthodox version of theogony (i.e. the story of the origin and genealogy of the gods) to the ancient Greeks, there exists an alternate tradition attributed to pseudo-historical and somewhat mythical figure of Orpheus, a character whose life is shrouded in mystery and tales of great heroic journeys.  According to some legends and tales surrounding his life he is the son of the Muse Calliope and the god Apollo, the patron deity of the city of Delphi where the famed temple of the Oracle at Delphi was kept.  Orpheus was a famed poet of the lyre who supposedly gained his lyre from a chance meeting with Apollo in the forest one day in his youth, Apollo having been greatly charmed by the boy’s voice.  It was there supposedly that Apollo initiated him into the great “mysteries” to which many of the practices and rites of the esoteric “mystery cults”  of ancient Greece were associated.

While it’s fairly well established that the Greeks borrowed extensively from their neighbors, at least with respect to their theological or religious beliefs, it is interesting to look at the account of the first and foremost ancient Greek historian in this regard.  To this end Herodotus in fact actually points to a very direct relationship, and ultimate source, of at least some of the Greek pantheon directly from Egypt.  From his Histories, we find a passage that speaks directly to the type of theological synthesis and adoption that occurred in the Mediterranean, at least for the Greeks in particular in this context, where he places much emphasis on the origins of much of their mythos, their gods and related tales and stories, from both the Egyptians as well as the Pelasgians, the latter term being used to denote the precursor Hellenic populations that lived in the area of ancient Greece in the time before the Trojan War or so, circa 1200 or 1300 BCE:


Moreover the naming of almost all the gods has come to Hellas from Egypt: for that it has come from the Barbarians I find by inquiry is true, and I am of opinion that most probably it has come from Egypt, because, except in the case of Poseidon and the Dioscuroi (in accordance with that which I have said before), and also of Hera and Hestia and Themis and the Charites and Nereïds, the Egyptians have had the names of all the other gods in their country for all time. What I say here is that which the Egyptians think themselves: but as for the gods whose names they profess that they do not know, these I think received their naming from the Pelasgians, except Poseidon; but about this god the Hellenes learnt from the Libyans, for no people except the Libyans have had the name of Poseidon from the first and have paid honour to this god always. Nor, it may be added, have the Egyptians any custom of worshipping heroes.[1]


From Herodotus’s perspective then, there was clearly some cultural borrowing that had taken place between the Greek and Egyptian cultures, as well as from their predecessors as well as one might imagine, that clearly grew more integrated and synthesized as time passed and the Greek and Egyptian (and Later Roman and Byzantine) cultures became more closely tied and interwoven.

Over the centuries, particularly in the last half of the first millennium BCE into the Common Era when Egypt came under Greek and then Roman rule, its mythos and pantheon become merged and synthesized with their Greek and Roman counterparts, perhaps best exemplified in the Greco-Egyptian god who came to be known in the Roman era and into the Middle Ages as Hermes Trismegistus, a pseudo-mythical figure to whom the fairly popular and inherently mystical and esoteric doctrine of Hermeticism was attributed to – a characteristically Greco-Egyptian figure/deity who emerged in Ptolemaic Egypt as a synthesis of the traditions surrounding the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.

In the historical account of prehistorical antiquity in the Mediterranean by Herodotus in fact, Dionysus is associated with Osiris, who is killed by Seth and cut to pieces but is brought back to life by his mother Isis, who is identified with the Greek goddess Demeter.  Interestingly he does not refer to Dionysus by name but at the same time alludes to the fact that it would not be right to call out the name of the god in question, giving us some insight into the veil of secrecy surrounding the cult of Dionysus in ancient Greece, a cult that had very close ties to the traditions surrounding the life the pseudo-historical/mythical figure Orpheus[2]  Notably however, Orpheus is not mentioned by Hesiod or Homer, speaking no doubt to an alternative, parallel, and perhaps much older, more mystical or shamanistic, tradition from prehistorical times.

Orpheus is perhaps best known for his lyrical voice and the poetry which bears his name, i.e. the Rhapsodies, a voice and music was known to tame even the most savage of beasts.  He is perhaps best known not only for his role in the tale of the Golden Fleece as the poet who tames the Sirens on their epic journey, but also his great love for the nymph Eurydice for whom he travels to the realm of the dead to save, only to have her lost forever when he turns his head to look back to her to make sure she is following him.[3]

With respect to the life of Orpheus, what we know comes to us down as legend and tales of old that speak of a child who is singing in the forests one day in Thrace who is found by Apollo who is charmed by his sweet voice.  As the legend goes, Orpheus was taught music (the lyre) by Apollo himself and was ultimately initiated into the “cult of the mysteries”, or divine knowledge, by him.  After a life of singing and divine inspiration, he fell in love and married the nymph Eurydice, who was his ceaseless companion and close confidante.  She, after being pursued through the woods by the god Aristaios, a deity also associated with Dionysus and Zeus, was killed by a poisonous snake and killed.  Orpheus was grief stricken, and with the assistance of the gods who empathized with his plight, travelled to the underworld to try and save his beloved.  He journeyed through the land of the dead and reached the throne of Pluto (Hades) and Persephone and begged them to let Eurydice live again.

Again his true love and plight was empathized with and they granted his wish, but under one condition.  He was not to look back at his beloved until they had completely left the realm of the dead, a test of faith as it were.  Orpheus, in one of the great tragedies of Greek mythos, looks back to be sure his beloved is behind him before leaving the land of the dead and so she is lost to him forever.  Orpheus is then said to have wandered the woods by himself and only sang to men after that, singing always about his lost love for Eurydice. There are different tales of his death but one story has him slain by Thracian women, (Mainádæs), women associated with the cult of Dionysus again, for luring their men away with his sweet music.  Orpheus is also associated with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (the Golden Fleece) and is said to have saved the crew from the deadly Sirens on their journey with the charm of his music.

The religious practices and rites surrounding Orphism are closely associated with the life and legend of the mythical figure Dionysus, or Dionysus Bacchius or Zagreus as he was sometimes referred to.  Dionysus in mythical lore was the son of Zeus and Persephone, or sometimes Demeter or Semele depending upon the mythical variant.  As the legend goes he was murdered as a small child at the behest of Zeus’s jealous wife Hera.  His heart however was saved by Athena before he could be killed forever, and through this act of kindness and empathy he is born again.  This notion of rebirth and salvation was a main theme surrounding the worship of Dionysus and most certainly echoes themes we find much later in the life and teaching of Jesus.

The god, or cult, of Dionysus in ancient Greece – and through Roman times as well where he was worshipped as Bacchus – is closely associated with death and rebirth and divine ecstasy, which in turn was closely associated with wine, which in turn was associated with fertility and the spring, again rebirth.  Hence his, and less directly Orpheus’s, association with not only Persephone, the goddess of the underworld (death and rebirth), but also the goddess of the harvest and the spring, Demeter.  The close affiliation to the “divine mysteries”, to which the worship of Dionysus is closely associated with in antiquity, and to which Orphism in turn is also closely associated with, is evidenced by the many parallels and intertwined myths surrounding the two figures – Orpheus’s trip to the underworld and back to save his love Eurydice and Dionysus journey to the underworld to save his mother Semele for example.


What we know of the life of Orpheus as a historical figure, if in fact he did exist as an actual historical figure, is not much.  However, he is closely associated with the region of Thrace, both from stories around his birth and death, a region which lies just to the North of classical Greece and the Near East, lying in modern day Bulgaria which would explain why the stories and poems of his life were not integrated into classical Greece mythology until after Homer and Hesiod.  In many respects, one can look at the historical figure of Orpheus just as one looks at the historicity of the Hebrew Moses.  In fact, the two traditions surrounding these two “prophets”, if we may call them that, come from basically the same period in ancient history albeit from two different, but closely related, regions. Moses from ancient Palestine/Middle East and Orpheus from Thrace/Greece/Near East.

Little is known about the life of this pseudo-mythical figure other than it believed by modern and ancient scholars alike that he was in fact an historical figure, the notable exception being Aristotle, who – depending upon how you interpret the quotations from later authors from whom Aristotle’s opinion is summarized – doubted not only his existence but also his authorship of the poems, the Rhapsodies, that bear his name.  Aristotle however, given his reputation as a scholar and the access he must have had to historical records and accounts from Greek antiquity is worth mentioning as a skeptic but having said that he was skeptical of the old mythical tradition from antiquity in general so perhaps it is not surprising.

According to later authors who are by all accounts are likely quoting from the same passages in Aristotle’s lost work De Philosophia, it seems likely that Aristotle believed at least that the compilation of hymns that bear the name of Orpheus was done by an Onomakritos, a scribe and counselor from the court of Pesistratos from the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE who ruled Athens from 561 to 527 BCE.  As the story is related by Herodotus (who does not mention Orpheus specifically but indirectly as it related to the poems of the Muses) he tells us, consistent with Aristotle in fact (or perhaps Aristotle’s reference is from Herodotus) that these poems of the Muses (Musaios) were actually the works of Onomakritos, who inserted his own “forgeries” into the poems themselves and was therefore banished from Athens by the son of Pesistratos, Hipparchos.  After the family of Pesistratos was banished to Persia, Herodotus tells us that is by using the works Onomakritos that the great Persian king Xerxes I was convinced to lead an invasion into Greece.[4]

The earliest literary reference to Orpheus in the historical record is a two-word fragment of the sixth-century BC poet Ibycus who simply refers to Orpheus as “the famous Orpheus”.  We also however find references and attestations to not only Orpheus himself but also the traditions surrounding the mystery cults or aspects of worship and initiation which were such an integral part of the tradition surrounding Orpheus from Herodotus as well as the tragic Greek playwright Euripides (The Bacchae), as well as Plato among others.  Plato in particular in one quotation from the Apology places Orpheus in the same category as Hesiod and Homer, as well as the Muses themselves, as having knowledge of divine mysteries as well as being objects of reverence.[5]  Having said that, with respect to what can be known about the historical figure of Orpheus if he did indeed exist, it is perhaps worth quoting a modern day scholar (and arguably a modern day “devotee”) on the subject, whose words sum up the situation quote nicely:


This alone may be depended on, from general assent, that there formerly lived a person named Orpheus, whose father was Œagrus, who lived in Thrace, and who was the son of a king, who was the founder of theology, among the Greeks; the institutor of their life and morals; the first of prophets, and the prince of poets; himself the offspring of a Muse; who taught the Greeks their sacred rites and mysteries, and from whose wisdom, as from a perpetual and abundant fountain, the divine muse of Homer, and the philosophy of Pythagoras, and Plato, flowed; and, lastly, who by the melody of his lyre, drew rocks, woods, and wild beasts, stopped the rivers in their course, and ever, moved the inexorable king of hell; as every page, and all the writings of antiquity sufficiently evince. Since thus much then may be collected from universal testimony, let us, pursue the matter a little farther, by investigating more accurately the history of the original Orpheus; with that of the great men who have, at different periods, flourished under this venerable name.[6]


Leaving aside the obvious questionable attribution of the inspiration and source of the works of Homer, Pythagoras and Plato being from Orpheus himself, this quite eloquent view of the figure of Orpheus does represent the view of the “inner circle” of Orphic believers in antiquity however, reflecting not only the great influence that his life and works were believed to have had, but also the “secret” nature of the mystery cults and rites that were so closely associated to the figure himself.  What we do however know for certain is that there existed a theology and mystery cult tradition surrounding the pseudo-mythical figure of Orpheus that was very influential on the development of not just theogony but also in turn philosophy in classical Greece.

An interesting etymological clue into the attributes and characteristics of the rites and rituals associated with the so-called “Orphic” traditions is the word katharos or katharoi which was used by many ancient authors to describe those who were associated with these practices and communities.  The Greek word katharos (καθαρός), from which of course comes our English word “catharsis”, means literally in the Greek “pure” or “unmixed”, intimating a sense of unity and experiential “oneness” with the divine which was undoubtedly the goal of not only the belief system surrounding the tradition itself but also undoubtedly the objective of the secret rites and rituals of the Orphic communities which drew their inspiration from Orpheus.[7]

Etymological parallels for the Greek katharoi and the root term of the name of perhaps the oldest and most well-known Upanishad, the Katha Upanishad a teaching related from the lord of death himself, Yama, to the pupil Nachiketa who in his devotion travels to the realm of death to learn the teachings of the great mysteries of the universe perhaps belie some glimpse into what the Orphic belief systems truly were, behind the myth and poetry which survives in his name.  The parallels here between the material of the Katha Upanishad and the Orphic tradition surrounding death, the underworld, and in turn rebirth (as would be required from returning from the realm of the dead) no doubt point to a closer connection between the ancient rites and practices of these seemingly geographically disconnected peoples than is typically alluded to in the modern academic scholarship, relationships that could perhaps give us a better understanding of the rites, rituals and beliefs of both theological belief systems in antiquity.[8]

While we have no historical account of the actual rites, rituals and practices of these so-called “mystery cults” in ancient Greece, we do know however that the communities existed and that their practices and beliefs were kept as closely guarded secrets – again most likely due to how shrouded in mystery they were and how sacrilegious it was thought of to mention such things[9].  We do know however that these communities existed and were revered in classical Hellenic antiquity, and that they were associated with experiences of divine ecstasy and song, and of course the drinking of wine and altered states of consciousness to which of course Dionysus himself was very much associated with as the deity through which divine ecstasy could be experienced.

Our primary textual evidence of the theo-philosophical tradition surrounding Orpheus is from not only from the hymns which bear his name which survive for the most part intact, having in all likelihood been compiled in the last few centuries BCE, but also from references to the practices and rites surrounding Orphism in Herodotus as well as Plato and Aristotle (despite the latter’s noted skepticism regarding Orpheus as an historical figure) and prominently in the more recently discovered  by the Derveni Papyrus.  All of these point to a tradition that was not only widely known and practiced in classical Greece, but also one that was on par, albeit independent, from the Homeric and Hesiodic poetic/historical traditions which represented more “orthodox” Hellenic theological and mythological beliefs.  Notably however, Orpheus is not mentioned in either the works of Homer or Hesiod, speaking to an independent theological tradition, at least in the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE after which it was clearly integrated and synthesized into Hellenic mythological and cultural lore.

The Derveni Papyrus was discovered in 1962 and is believed to have been compiled in the 5th century BCE.  While it’s a fairly damaged papyrus scroll, the bulk of the text has been recovered after much painstaking research and it consists of a running commentary on Orphic theogony, giving us insight and corroborating evidence of Orphic theogony proper, but also of a fairly early tradition of theo-philosophical interpretations of theogony in general, this one most likely coming from a school associated with Anaxagoras given the prominent role of Mind throughput the text.

The papyrus was discovered in a burial site from the 3rd century BCE around the time of the reign of Phillip II of Macedon around the area of Thrace/Macedon, a region closely associated with the stories surrounding the life of Orpheus.  This archaeological find allows us to date Orphic theogonical and cosmological narratives more or less, and in turn the beliefs and practices associated with the tradition to at least the time of classical Greece.  This material and belief systems reflected in the papyrus however, are undoubtedly representative of a theological and mystical tradition that is of much deeper antiquity, a tradition which bears many similarities and resemblances to what we know of ritual and theological traditions of Egypt, as well as those spoken of in the earliest Vedas and the Avesta, and one which was clearly of interest to the early Greek philosophers.[10]

Orpheus was believed to be the founder and prophet of the “Orphic mysteries”, as well as credited with the authorship of the so called Orphic hymns, a somewhat late Hellenic compilation of poems addressed to the various gods and goddesses that were pre-eminent in the Orphic theogony, a somewhat alternative representation of the divine order of the universe than presented by Hesiod.  The Orphic hymns include poems and commemorations to the gods and goddesses of Night, Heaven, Fire, and unique to the Orphic mythological tradition to the protogenital human, or Protogonus (Phanes).  Within this poetic compilation we also find verses dedicated to major naturalistic concepts that played an important role in early Hellenic philosophy such as Law, Justice, Equity, Health, etc. no doubt speaking to the interplay and interchangeability of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology and the principals or ideas which they represented.[11]

Regardless of whether or not he existed as an actual person in history however, the life of Orpheus is not only very closely embedded in and related to classical Greek mythos, but also very closely associated with the so called “mystery cults” of ancient Greece.  These cults were closely affiliated with the with rites of initiation and rituals and the worship of Dionysus, worshipped as the “savior” of mankind through which the mysteries of divine union could be realized.  While these practices were shrouded in mystery and closely guarded within the “Orphic” community as it were, the Derveni Papyrus in particular reveals some insights into how these mythological narratives were interpreted by those within the tradition itself, a tradition which the author of the Derveni Papyrus was clearly intimately familiar.

Given Orpheus’s close connection with mystery cults and divine ecstasy which was closely aligned to the cults of Dionysus (not just in classical Greece but also in Roman times under the name of Bacchus) by studying Orphic theogony we can get a glimpse perhaps into a more archaic and alternative theological and shamanic tradition than the more structured and literary version presented by Hesiod.  For the Orphic theogony by definition carries not just a much more esoteric and secret meaning, but one which perhaps points to much more ancient origins given its close affiliation with ancient rites and rituals and initiation, very much reminiscent to the practices and rituals that are laid out in more detail in the Avesta and Vedas assuredly.


The Neo-Platonic authors, in their quest to provide the teachings of Plato on par with Christianity and who lean on Orphic theogony and myth to bolster their case as it were, also provide us with an important allegorical interpretation of the theogony itself from antiquity, from schools of philosophy that had greater access to Orphic thought and texts than we do in modern times.  While of course they view these Orphic hymns and theogonic accounts through the lens of the One, the Intellect and the Soul -the classic tripartite principles within which Plato’s doctrines were interpreted in the Neo-Platonic tradition in later antiquity.

In Proclus commentary on the Timaeus, we find many references to Orpheus and the theogonical account of creation that is attributed to him.  In this (fairly lengthy) passage in particular, a clear alignment between Phanes in the Orphic theogony and the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus is drawn, as well as an allegorical interpretation of the theogony itself – Jupiter/Jove in this translation being the Romanized names for Zeus:


Existing, therefore, as the producer of intellect, he very properly has an intellectual order.  Hence also he is said by Plato to be both maker and father, and neither father alone, nor maker alone, nor again father and maker. For the extremes indeed, are father and maker; the former possessing the summit of intelligibles, and being prior to the royal series [i.e. to Phanes, Night, Heaven, Saturn, Jupiter, and Bacchus]; but the latter possessing the end of the [intellectual] order.  And the former being the monad of paternal deity; but the latter being allotted a producing power in the universe.  Between both these, however, are father and at the same time maker, and maker and at the same time father.  For each of these is not the same; but in one order the paternal, and in another the effective has dominion.

The paternal, however, is more excellent than the effective.  Hence in the media, though both are in each, yet the former is more father than maker.  For it is the boundary of the paternal depth, and the fountain of intellectual.  But the second is more maker than father.  For it is the monad, of total fabrication.  Hence I think the former is called Metis, but the latter Metietes.  And the former indeed is seen, but the latter sees.  The former also is absorbed, but the latter is replete with the power of the former.  And what the former is in intelligibles, that the latter is in intellectuals.  For the former is the boundary of the intelligible, but the latter of the intellectual Gods.

Concerning the former likewise, Orpheus says, “In a dark cavern these the father made”.  But concerning the latter Plato says, “Of whom I am the Demiurgus and father of works.  ” In the Politicus likewise, he makes mention of the doctrine of the Demiurgus and father; because with the former [i.e. with Phanes] the paternal is more predominant, but with the latter [i.e. with Jupiter] the demiurgic.  Each of the Gods however is denominated from his peculiarity, though each is comprehensive of all things.  And he indeed who is alone maker, is the cause of mundane natures.  He who is maker and father, is the cause of supermundane and mundane natures.  He who is father and maker, is the cause of intellectual, supermundane, and mundane natures.  But he who is alone father, is the cause of intelligibles, of intellectuals, of supermundane and mundane natures.  Plato, therefore, admitting a Demiurgus of this kind, suffers him to be ineffable and without a name, as having an arrangement prior to wholes in the portion of The Good.  For in every order of the Gods, there is that which is analogous to The One.  Such therefore is the monad in each world.

But Orpheus gives a name to the Demiurgus, in consequence of being moved [i.e. inspired] from thence; whom Plato himself likewise elsewhere follows.  For the Jupiter with him, who is prior to the three sons of Saturn, is the Demiurgus of wholes.  After the absorption therefore of Phanes, the ideas of all things shone forth in him, as the theologist says:

Hence with the universe great Jove contains,
Extended aether, heav’n’s exalted plains;
The barren restless deep, and earth renown’d,
Ocean immense, and Tartarus profound;
Fountains and rivers, and the boundless main,
With all that nature’s ample realms contain;
And Gods and Goddesses of each degree;
All that is past, and all that e’er shall be,
Occultly, and in fair connection lies,

In Jove’s wide belly, ruler of the skies.

Jupiter however, being full of ideas, through these comprehends in himself wholes: which the theologist also indicating adds:

Jove is the first, and last, high-thundering king,
Middle and head, from Jove all beings spring.
Jove the foundation of the earth contains,
And the deep splendour of the starry plains.
Jove is a king by no restraint confin’d,
And all things flow from Jove’s prolific mind.
One mighty principle which never fails,
One power, one daemon, over all prevails.
For in Jove’s royal body all things lie,
Fire, night and day, earth, water, and the sky. [Orph. fr. 123]

Jupiter therefore, comprehending in himself wholes, produces in conjunction with Night all things monadically and intellectually, according to her oracles, and likewise all mundane natures, Gods, and the parts of the universe.  Night therefore says to him asking, how all things will be a certain one, and yet each be separate and apart from the rest:

All things receive inclosed on ev’ry side,
In aether’s wide ineffable embrace:
Then in the midst of aether place the heav’n;
In which let earth of infinite extent,
The sea, and stars, the crown of heav’n, be fixt.

But after she has laid down rules respecting all other productions, she adds:

And when your power around the whole has spread
A strong coercive bond, a golden chain
Suspend from aether.

This bond which is derived from nature, soul and intellect, being perfectly strong and indissoluble.  For Plato also says, that animals were generated, bound with animated bonds.  Orpheus, likewise, Homerically calls the divine orders which are above the world, a golden chain; which Plato emulating says, “That the Demiurgus placing intellect in soul, but soul in body, fabricated the universe;” and that he gave subsistence to the junior Gods, through whom also he adorns the parts of the universe.  If therefore, it is Jupiter who possesses the one power, who absorbs Phanes, in whom the intelligible causes of wholes first subsist, who produces all things, according to the counsels of Night, and who gives authority both to the other Gods, and to the three sons of Saturn, he is the one and whole Demiurgus of all the world, and has the fifth order among the kings, [i.e. among the Gods of the royal series,] as it is divinely demonstrated by our preceptor in his Orphic Conferences.  Jupiter likewise, is coordinate with Heaven and Phanes, and on this account he is both maker and father, and each of these totally.[12]


In this passage from Proclus we see virtual the full account of Orphic theogony laid out within a Platonic, Demiurgic perspective.  Jupiter/Jove (Zeus) is explained as the One, the ultimate Monad, who is “named” by Orpheus, who swallows Phanes and conquers his father with the counsel of Night (Nyx) to become the fifth ruler over the dominion of immortals in the series of 6 that the Orphic theogony is known for:[13]

  1. first Phanes/Protogonus from the cosmic egg (aka Dionysus, Eros),
  2. then Night (Nyx), the daughter/lover of Phanes from which Ouranos and Gaia (Heaven and Earth) come forth,
  3. Ouranos taking over the reins from his father as the third ruler of the immortals,
  4. then Chronos who overthrows his father in gruesome fashion, castrating him and casting his seed into the sea from which Aphrodite is born.
  5. Then Chronos and his sister/wife Rhea (aka Demeter) bear the final generation of the gods, of which Zeus, assisted by Night, overthrows his father in similar gruesome fashion after Chronos had tried to kill all his children having known by prophecy that one was to overthrow him.  After overthrowing Chronos, Zeus imbibes and swallows Phanes and takes over the reign of the heaven and earth.
  6. The last of the six Orphic generation of gods is Dionysus, who is worshipped by the followers of Orpheus and is considered by them to be the king of all mystery cults and rights.  Dionysus is born of the seed of Zeus and Persephone, his daughter, and Rhea (Demeter) is jealous and has him killed and dismembered with the assistance of the Titans, the great first generation of immortals.  Zeus conquers them, and with the assistance of Athena who saves Dionysus’s heart, he is reborn.

It is from this full account of Orphic theogony from which the epithet of Dionysus being “thrice born” originates – once as Phanes, once as Dionysus himself and then again reborn after being dismembered by the Titans through the grace of Athena who saved his heart.


One of the other key sources of at least the initial part of this lost Orphic Theogony is from excerpts of a work on first principles (De principiis) from Damaskios (or Damascius, c. 458-538 CE), who was the last head of the Academy in Athens and is considered to be the last of the Neo-Platonists.  He is known to have studied extensively in Alexandria in his youth before taking over the leadership of the Academy in Athens in the latter part of the 6th century CE, before being exiled to Persia (c. 530 CE) after persecution by the Roman/Byzantine Emperor Justinian I after which the thousand-year-old philosophical institution of the Academy founded by Plato was officially shut down.

Damaskios wrote commentaries on the dialogues and teachings of Plato as well as the work on the Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles (De principiis) from which we gather not only important corroborating evidence for Orphic theogony, but also important information regarding some of the alternative Orphic theogonic accounts from Hellenic antiquity which fell under the more broad heading of “Orphism” but were not part of the Orphic Rhapsodic Theogony proper.  There are three accounts which he describes in various levels of detail, all of which he refers to as Orphic, and all of which differ in many key respects to the orthodox version narrated by Hesiod.

The first and foremost of these he speaks to is from the Rhapsodies, the second is from an account he attributes to Hieronymus and/or Hellanicus and the third is from the Peripatetic philosopher who was a student of Aristotle’s, Eudemus (of Rhodes).  He provides these accounts, as well as an account of the Chaldean Oracles, within the context of the “allegorical” interpretation of these various “pagan” mythical traditions and their consistent perspective on theogony and cosmogony with respect to Neo-Platonic philosophy, again all in the name of defending Neo-Platonism from the impending onslaught and persecution of alternative theological belief systems by the Christian Church and the Roman/Byzantine Empires which at the time was rapidly spreading throughout the Mediterranean.[14]

Damaskios describes the Rhapsodic account with Chronos (Time) as the initial primordial being/concept/material from which Aither and Chasma (Chaos) are born.  In this account, Chronos then embeds/places an cosmic egg (also referred to as a white tunic or cloud) within Aither, from which the primordial first immortal being Phanes (Protogonus) emerges as the first king of the gods.  Phanes is describes as a great winged hermaphroditic creature with four heads – that of a ram, a bull, a serpent and a lion.  In this account Phanes is also called Metis, who although is typically described as one of the Titans, i.e. a second-generation god, but in this context probably connotes the more root etymological meaning of the Greek word mῆτις, meaning “wisdom”, “skill” or “craft”.[15]

In Damaskios’s account of the Orphic theogony of Hieronymus/Hellanicus, the first primordial substance is a watery, chaotic abyss from which matter and earth are formed, and from which a great winged serpent is born which had the head of a bull and a lion and in the middle the face of a god.  This account refers to this great being as “Unageing Time” and “Heracles”, who is united with Ananke (from the Greek word Ἀνάγκη meaning “force”, “constraint”, “necessity”), as well as Adrastea (aka Amalthea) – the latter of whom is put in charge of the protection of Zeus from his father Chronos in a secret cave beyond Chronos’s watchful by Rhea, the mother of Zeus and wife of Chronos.  From this great creature, Aither, Chaos and Erebos (darkness/shadow) are born, as well as the great cosmic egg, a mythological motif that we find in the ancient Egyptian, Indo-Aryan and (albeit a little later in the historical record) from the Far East as well in the myth of Pángǔ.

The last version that Damaskios relates within the Orphic milieu is the one of Eudemus and while it is only a small passage, it is worth mentioning because a) Eudemus is a well renowned student of Aristotle from the 4th century BCE so is a fairly early and presumably reliable source, and b) because Damaskios tells us that in Eudemus’s Orphic theogony account Night (Nyx) is the first primordial deity/principle, following the classical Homeric tradition[16].

This fairly late (again Damaskios writes in the 6th century CE) summary of Orphic theogony then gives us some sense as to the inherent uncertainties and difficulties in trying to reconstruct Orphic theogony, if there ever was such a thing.  Although even to the Neo-Platonists apparently, the Rhapsodies attributed to Orpheus, whether or not they were authored by him or not, were considered to be the primary source of Orphic mythos.  But it is also notable that even far after classical Hellenic antiquity within which the tradition of “Orphism” was no doubt alive and well, there still was some uncertainty surrounding the tradition as a whole and what was to be ascribed truly “Orphic”.  The Orphic Theogony as it were is not being fully extant in any complete account by any ancient author, clearly leaves some for interpretation as to the specific theological genealogy therein, the classical Greek authors (mid to late first millennium BCE) making only vague and indirect references to the secret rites and rituals which were practiced by Orphic communities such as rites of initiation and “cleansing” (katharoi), which the Orphic initiates had to pass through to be “born again”.

While we don’t have a fully extant version of the theogony of Orpheus (if there ever was one) it is possible to piece together the main story line and characters/mythemes from these sources and others, and in particular how it differs from the tradition of Hesiod.  The details come primarily from the testimonies of later authors – mainly Neo-Platonists – and from the many poems to the gods and archaic natural principles that have survived that carry his name that were compiled towards the very end of the first millennium BCE and which are attributed to Orpheus himself which are most likely the same Orphic hymns alluded to by Aristotle.

This Orphic Theogony, embedded within the poetry attributed to Orpheus referred to by some as the Orphic Rhapsodies does provide some significant and important differences from the theogony of Hesiod, differences that reveal not only the existence of alternate theogonies from Hellenic antiquity other than the “orthodox” account given by Hesiod, but also reveal the external theological and cultural influences on Greek mythological narratives from Egypt and the Near East in particular.

So from these fragments and allusions by later authors, corroborated by the information we can glean from the Derveni Papyrus and the Orphic poems which are extant, we can not only piece together the mythological and cosmological narrative associated with “Orphism”, the so-called Rhapsodic Theogony, but also we can see not only the unique characteristics of the Orphic theogony as well as its interpretation as seen through the eyes of the first philosophers, or at least the Neo-Platonic philosophers.


[1] Excerpt from THE HISTORY OF HERODOTUS, translated into English by G. C. MACAULAY, M.A. from an edition dated 1890, published by MacMillan and Co., London and New York.  Volume I Book II, verses 50-53.

[2]See the paper Dionysus and Heracles in Scythia by George Hinge 2003, a transcription of which can be found at http://herodot.glossa.dk/orph.html#_ftn3.

[3] Parallels to the story of Orpheus looking back upon his love as they leave the land of Hades can be drawn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where the city of Sodom is destroyed by the Lord for its wickedness but Lot’s wife looked back at the destruction of the city and was reduced to a pillar of salt.  Genesis 19.

[4] See Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.  Paus. 1.22.7 and Herodotus Histories Book VII Chapter 6 from Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D22%3Asection%3D7 and http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0126:book=7:chapter=6&highlight=onomacritus respectively for references to the account of Onomakritos in the court of Pesistratos and See Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie, Princeton University Press 1993, pages 13-14 for the story of Onomakritos in Herodotus and pgs. 57-59 for his analysis and conclusions regarding the beliefs of Aristotle regarding Orpheus as interpreted from the excerpts of the (much later) Greco-Roman authors.

[5] While Aristotle reflects a more skeptic view of the Orphic tradition as well as the historicity of its founder, Orpheus, we find from Plato’s Apology the following quotation speaking to the high regard at least Plato had for the pseudo-mythical figure.  “Or again, what would any of you give to meet with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?” Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  Apology, verse 41a from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D41a

[6] The Hymns of Orpheus, translation and Introduction by Thomas Taylor, 1792.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hoo/.

[7] Catharsis in modern English parlance means something along the lines of “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions” but carries with it religious or theological “cleansing” or “purification” connotations, just as it did to the ancient Greeks.  We find for example the Greek word katharos mentioned in the New Testament 22 times, speaking to its continued usage as a word that is closely identified with religious “believers” in early Christianity.  See http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/katharos.html for a listing of the references of the Greek word in the Bible.

[8] See the chapter on “Orpheus, The Katha Upanishad, and the Secret Way Beyond Death” from The View from Delphi Rhapsodies on Hellenic Wisdom & An Ecstatic Appreciation of Western History by Frank Marrero, Enelysios.  At http://www.frankmarrero.com/ViewfromDelphi/Orpheus,_The_Katha_Upanishad,_and_the_Secret_Way_Beyond_Death.html.

[9] For an interesting account of a veiled reference to the cult of Dionysus, and therefore early Orphic practices, by Herodotus, see http://herodot.glossa.dk/orph.html, section 2 Orphic mythology and Herodotus’ vow of silence

[10] The analysis of the Derveni Papyrus text is fascinating and revealing into not only Orphic beliefs from the period of classical Greece but also an early commentary on mystery cult mythological and esoteric beliefs in and of themselves.  See The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmogony, Theology and Interpretation by Gábor Betegh.  Cambridge University Press 2004 for a very detailed overview of the archeological find, a translation of the scroll (what can be recovered), a good summary of the analysis of the conclusions that can be drawn from the text itself as well as a reconstructed (Orphic) theogony which is embedded in the scroll.  Why it was buried with what appears to be a great and well-respected warrior and aristocrat remains a mystery.

[11] For a complete translation of the ancient text/fragments, see Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hoo/.

[12] THE COMMENTARIES OF PROCLUS ON THE TIMAEUS OF PLATO.  Book II, pages 261-265.  Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.  London 1820.  From http://www.masseiana.org/proclus_timaeus.htm#BOOK_II_.

[13] “But with the sixth generation,” says Orpheus, “cease the rhythmic song.” It seems that our discussion, too, is likely to cease with the sixth decision.”.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  Plat. Philebus 66c.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DPhileb.%3Asection%3D66c

[14] For a detailed account of the various sources and textual material around Orphic Theogony from antiquity, a very good detailed overview can be found in The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmogony, Theology and Interpretation by Gábor Betegh.  Cambridge University Press 2004.  Pages 140-153.

[15] See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Metis (mythology)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 August 2016, 12:10 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Metis_(mythology)&oldid=736426961> [accessed 5 September 2016].  Also of note is that Phanes is called “Erikepaios” in this account by Damaskios as well, and in other Orphic Theogonic traditions Phanes is associated with Eros, Zeus, as well as Dionysus, the latter term being the derivation of Dionysus’s epithet of “thrice born”, as is illustrated in the later genealogy and mythology of the gods of which Dionysus plays such an important role in Orphic circles after being the progeny of Zeus, then murdered by the Titans and subsequently brought back to life.  Erikepaios interestingly is a Greek word specific to the Orphic tradition which is of unknown origin but speculated by some to have near-eastern, or even Hebrew roots – see Wikipedia contributors, ‘Erikepaios’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 November 2013, 04:01 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Erikepaios&oldid=583337485> [accessed 5 September 2016].

[16] These three accounts of Damaskios are drawn out in much further detail in The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmogony, Theology and Interpretation by Gábor Betegh.  Cambridge University Press 2004.  See the chapter on the different versions of Orphic theogony, pages 140-146.

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