The Enigma of the Thracians and the Orpheus Myth – Part 2
The Orphic Mysteries
(Part 1) The Thracians worshiped Ares, the god of war, Sabazios, the sky father god, and had faith in the Sun, son of the goddess Bendis, the incarnation of perfection and immortality. The most popular cults were the Dionysian mysteries, which surely came to Greece from Thrace, along with the cult of Orpheus and the Orphic mysteries.
Following Orpheus’ footsteps, I ascended to the top of a mountain to the ruins of an abandoned place called Perperikon in southern Bulgaria. It is a real city-temple, which can still be seen in the stone altars, which were part of a temple dedicated to the god of wine and sexual ecstasy known by the Greeks as Dionysus, and Bacchus by the Romans. It is the most sacred and important place dedicated to the Dionysian cult, which consisted of sexual orgies and sacrifices. But Orpheus, who according to legend had been a disciple of Dionysus, argued against these practices in the name of Apollo, the god of reason. According to ancient legend, this act of defiance resulted in his conviction and murder at the hands of the maenads, the female followers of Dionysus.
The ancient site of Perperikon, Bulgaria. Photo source.
Some archaeologists maintain that the Thracian’s musician god could have been a real character who resided in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains, and would have been a Dionysian priest who had access to hidden knowledge of Egyptian and oriental sages. His cult proclaimed asceticism, was against sacrifice, and taught the transmigration of souls and mankind’s capacity to experience the divine, although they had to be initiated in order to learn to break free and rise in a state of "happy immortality". Without being initiated, one could not experience happiness in the afterlife.
The Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos wrote a poem referring to a woman who died without having access to the Orphic mysteries: "After you die, you will lie without anyone remembering or missing you with sorrow, because you did not enjoy the roses of Pieria. You will be ignored, as well, in the house of Hades, floating wandering among the dark deceased”. Was Sappho a follower of the Orphic mysteries? Possibly yes.
Candidates had to be accepted into the Orphic mysteries, which were esoteric and only disclosed to those who managed to be initiated. The initiates were required to then save and protect the knowledge they were taught. Sappho’s poems speak of reverence to the Orphic religion on more than one occasion, for instance, in one she speaks of rising over the affliction of death, considering it a sin to lament at the Muses’ Home, because as she said: "I’d rather die listening to this song (Orpheus with his lyre)…”.
According to mythology, Orpheus descended into the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, and did so through the Devil’s Throat, a cave in the Rhodope Mountains, south-eastern Bulgaria. I went there looking for answers.
The Devil’s Throat Cave. Credit: Mado Martinez
In the ancient legend, the Devil’s Throat is Hades’ domain, and it was because of this journey into the domain of death that Orpheus was transformed. Before that, he had only been a great musician, but he returned as a prophet and brought all the knowledge to the Thracians, centuries before Christ. When the Christians came to the Thracian lands they wanted to establish their faith and in doing so, they adopted some figures of the Orphic local mythology.
Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld. Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) Source: Wikipedia
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church follows doctrines explained by the ancient creeds of the apostles, where it is described the moment in which Christ had to descend into hell to defeat the devil and release the righteous. Here, we see some parallels in the accounts of both Orpheus and Jesus. Both had to go down to the depths of hell, to "die" and to come back to life transformed. They both preached that humans have souls that would be judged at the moment of death and would pay for their actions. They both practiced ceremonies that included rituals such as turning water into wine. Furthermore, the brutal murder of Orpheus was considered a sacrifice to redeem mankind for its sins. The similarities are interesting to say the least.
Featured image: Orpheus surrounded by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic, from Palermo, now in the. Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo. Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto. Source: Wikipedia
* This article was originally written in Spanish and has been translated.