ORPHICA.

Mandelstam is leading me into uncharted waters; thanks to Victor Terras’s “The Black Sun: Orphic Imagery in the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam” (see my Further Addenda to this post for details and quotes), I learn that Orphic imagery was floating around in early-20th-century Russia and used by Mandelstam, so—being utterly ignorant of Orphism (in fact, basically unaware of its existence, although I’m sure I’ve seen the word)—I went to my standard references on Greek thought, The Presocratic Philosophers by Kirk and Raven and Greek Religion by Walter Burkert. The early evidence is scanty and disputed; Kirk and Raven come to the conclusion that “there was no exclusively Orphic body of belief in the archaic period” and “the corpus of individual sectarian literature… cannot for the most part be traced back earlier than the Hellenistic period,” while Burkert seems to think it goes back considerably earlier, referring to “the books of Orpheus” that were honored in the time of Euripides (who refers to them). But what struck me was the following paragraph (Burkert, p. 297):

The characteristic appeal to books is indicative of a revolution: with the Orphica literacy takes hold in a field that had previously been dominated by the immediacy of ritual and the spoken word of myth. The new form of transmission introduces a new form of authority to which the individual, provided that he can read, has direct access without collective mediation. The emancipation of the individual and the appearance of books go together in religion as elsewhere.

Probably old hat to those who study the historical effects of literacy, but not something I’d thought about.

Comments

  1. When I was reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” I researched Orpheus on the internet, and I couldn’t find even mention of any extensive Ur-texts about Orpheus himself, but just scattered fragments and themes here and there (often elaborated on by Orphists) which could be summed up in 500 words or less. Either a lot of the original Orpheus myths were destroyed, or he was one of those legendary figures whose relics are few but very widely scattered (as befits his death story) and frequently seen.
    On my site I posted this, mostly for my own use. People may find some of my assertions a bit much, but, you know. I welcome correction! (In my surly way.
    The little review of Rilke I link to pretty well epitomizes my philosophy of literary and music criticism and literary theory.

  2. When I was reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” I researched Orpheus on the internet, and I couldn’t find even mention of any extensive Ur-texts about Orpheus himself, but just scattered fragments and themes here and there (often elaborated on by Orphists) which could be summed up in 500 words or less. Either a lot of the original Orpheus myths were destroyed, or he was one of those legendary figures whose relics are few but very widely scattered (as befits his death story) and frequently seen.
    On my site I posted this, mostly for my own use. People may find some of my assertions a bit much, but, you know. I welcome correction! (In my surly way.
    The little review of Rilke I link to pretty well epitomizes my philosophy of literary and music criticism and literary theory.

  3. On the relation of literacy to thought in ancient Greece, have you come across the work of Eric Havelock?

  4. That and Jack Goody. And Ong wrote a book which I haven’t read.

  5. That and Jack Goody. And Ong wrote a book which I haven’t read.

  6. I have come across Eric Havelock but not actually read him. I suppose I should remedy that.

  7. “Preface to Plato” was fantastic. His book on the alphabet, much less so IMNSHO.

  8. “Preface to Plato” was fantastic. His book on the alphabet, much less so IMNSHO.

  9. Orphism is a huge topic, with a lot of recent discoveries about which I know little. The Wikipedia articles on Orphism, Totenpass, and the Derveni Papyrus (discovered in 1962, not published until 2004!) have some useful links to get you started.
    Of course, what Orphism meant in Russia a century ago must have been quite different. For that up-to-date authorities on ancient Orphism are the last thing you need. Would the 1911 Britannica help?

  10. Good suggestion; I’ll check that and Brockhaus & Efron (the Russian equivalent).

  11. In that same spirit, Müller and Anthon.

  12. Thanks, and check out the winky in the first line of this page!

  13. check out the winky in the first line of this page

    Starting from this post, I’ve been dragging the net for the last 2 hours – Orpheus, naulum, psychopomp, Totenpass, Empedocles, rhizome …
    Is a “winky” something that an editor overlooks? Do you mean the word “theologers”? It ain’t a winky. I first thought it was a slip-up coming from “Theologen”. But the OED says:

    One who studies or busies himself with theology; = theologian (but now with less implication of scholarship).
       a. In reference to Christianity or other monotheistic religion.
       b. In reference to pagan religions.
          1876 Blackie Lang. & Lit. Highl. Scotl. ii. 79 The ‘Works and Days’ of the old Bœotian theologer [Hesiod].

    The 1847 book by Müller was not finished at his death. It had been commissioned by the publishers “The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge”. The translator writes in his preface: “Before the publication of the present work, no history of Greek Literature had been published in the English language”. Müller designed it to be accessible to young readers (search for the paragraph with “Protektorat” here).

  14. Am I right in my conclusion that the Orpheus myth now exists only as a few scattered details endlessly elaborated on by poets, etc.? And if I am right, is this the result of the original secrecy of the Orpheus myth, the destruction of its literature by Christians and others, or that the myth never had a full poetic development, but always resided in contexts where it was being used as a starting point for something else, like a legendary figure about whom very little is known, but who is immortal because he has been taken up into philosophical discourse, the way Enoch from the Bible was.
    My son has talked about writing a Book of Gomer and Nimrod, for example, based on their bare mentions in the Bible.

  15. Am I right in my conclusion that the Orpheus myth now exists only as a few scattered details endlessly elaborated on by poets, etc.? And if I am right, is this the result of the original secrecy of the Orpheus myth, the destruction of its literature by Christians and others, or that the myth never had a full poetic development, but always resided in contexts where it was being used as a starting point for something else, like a legendary figure about whom very little is known, but who is immortal because he has been taken up into philosophical discourse, the way Enoch from the Bible was.
    My son has talked about writing a Book of Gomer and Nimrod, for example, based on their bare mentions in the Bible.

  16. Is a “winky” something that an editor overlooks? Do you mean the word “theologers”?
    Alas, Grumbly Stu, your cultural knowledge is exemplary but your internet savvy has been lamentably neglected. The “winky” is that smirking typographical variant on the smiley: 😉
    is this the result of the original secrecy of the Orpheus myth, the destruction of its literature by Christians and others
    That’s my impression, but I am not an initiate, merely a curious onlooker like yourself.

  17. Grumbly Stu says:

    I don’t hold with emoticons, so it’s not surprising I didn’t know what a winky is. I suspect even the word emoticon dates me.

    legendary figure about whom very little is known, but who is immortal because he has been taken up into philosophical discourse, the way Enoch from the Bible was

    Enoch in philosophical discourse?

  18. Grumbly Stu says:

    Am I right in my conclusion that the Orpheus myth now exists only as a few scattered details endlessly elaborated on by poets, etc.?

    Is there any Greek or Roman myth of which this is not now true?

  19. Enoch is in apocalyptic, metaphysical, and occult discourse, I think. “Philosophical” was the wrong word.

  20. Enoch is in apocalyptic, metaphysical, and occult discourse, I think. “Philosophical” was the wrong word.

  21. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Not that you’re alone, Grumbly Stu, (I seem to remember Language doesn’t like them much), but disliking emoticons is a conservative, old-farty attitude. More than once they have helped me to see that what I might have taken to be a nasty comment was intended benignly. Notice that all the smart, well brought-up young people like David Marjanovic use them.
    Has anyone else noticed how popular the word ‘icon’ has become recently? It’s hard to get through a newscast on tv now without something or someone being described as iconic. Twenty or so years ago, icon was a fairly unusual word.

  22. Grumbly Stu says:

    disliking emoticons is a conservative, old-farty attitude. More than once they have helped me to see that what I might have taken to be a nasty comment was intended benignly

    Yeah, I know, but I am an old fart, so that’s alright then. I also often encounter smileys taking the potential sting, for me, out of a comment by someone else. But the smiley is useful only to the many people who are losing, or have lost, or have never acquired, an ability to express themselves clearly and à propos. Thoughtless brevity and an attentuated vocabulary, all encouraged by emailing, are the breeding ground of smileys. They are weeds on the remains of civilization as we knew it, a pox on the face of amenity.

  23. Grumbly Stu says:

    “Iconic” is a word I never use in that way, and never will. Has Hat ever had a blog on words which one refuses to use, or at least to use as they are currently used? I could contribute several dozen examples, all roasted on the white heat of stylistic, semantic etc. outrage.

  24. I seem to remember Language doesn’t like them much
    Quite correct, but somehow I am much more amused by inadvertent ones from 1847 than by current ones.

  25. The exotic Marpessa Dawn, star of the Franco-Brazilian film “Black Orpheus”, was born in Pittsburgh, PA., as was the exotic Rita Gam, star of the B-movie Saadia I saw when I was ten years old. Their real names were Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor and Rita Gam. This is important to you because a.) Marpessa starred in a movie version of the Orpheus myth b.) Saadia, like Eurydice, was cursed, and c.) I had crushes on both of them in my tender years.

  26. The exotic Marpessa Dawn, star of the Franco-Brazilian film “Black Orpheus”, was born in Pittsburgh, PA., as was the exotic Rita Gam, star of the B-movie Saadia I saw when I was ten years old. Their real names were Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor and Rita Gam. This is important to you because a.) Marpessa starred in a movie version of the Orpheus myth b.) Saadia, like Eurydice, was cursed, and c.) I had crushes on both of them in my tender years.

  27. Grumbly Stu says:

    Is that evidence against your own claim that “the Orpheus myth now exists only as a few scattered details”? Black Orpheus is perhaps only an instance of “endless elaboration”, this time by filmmakers instead of poets.
    Up to the 19th century, I would hazard, Greek and Roman myths, and reworkings of them, were all over the place in literature, theater, art. Perhaps their decline thereafter was due to the proliferation of increased interest in “current affairs” and “our times”.
    I feel my own interest level drop immediately when I encounter even a name like “Polyeucte” in my reading.

  28. Is that evidence against your own claim that “the Orpheus myth now exists only as a few scattered details”?
    It’s important to distinguish between the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth, which has been a basic part of Western culture for millennia, and the Orphism being discussed here, in which Eurydice played little or no part—it was all about death and rebirth and Dionysus and leading a pure life.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    There was an earlier French film before Black Orpheus, the 1949 surrealistic Orphée by the poet, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. I saw it when I was about 12 years old and did not understand it at all. What I remember best are the beautiful horse-headed humans.

  30. The parents of Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE) first met at a celebration of the Mysteries at Samothrace.

  31. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Did anyone read that book ‘Black Athena’, by Martin Bernal, that came out in the late Eighties? I thought it was interesting at the time, but I had and have no way of knowing how whacky it was. It says in Wiki it was named the worst book of the 20th century by some US conservative group (“the Intercollegiate Studies Institute”), so it can’t be that bad — but maybe that’s what they want me to think.

  32. It was completely whacky. I wouldn’t call it the worst book of the 20th century, but it misled an awful lot of people. (Bernal had a good point about the nationalism and racism endemic to a lot of 19th-century scholarship, but he knew nothing about the methods of historical linguistics and got all that stuff laughably wrong.)

  33. Grumbly Stu says:

    There was a cool-headed piece in the TLS last year on the tough times of a Wellesley professor, Mary Lefkowitz, who reviewed Black Athena in 1991. Uproar, accusations of anti-semitism and Jewishness, the whole lot.

  34. Yeah, the Orphism is one thing and presumably quite voluminous (like the Enoch literature I mentioned). But the classical Orpheus and Eurydice myth seems to exist almost entirely as a multitude of references to and takeoffs from a single brief story, rather being than one of those stories that has multiple developed epic, lyric, and tragic developments, conflicting versions, and tantalizing traces of something much richer.
    Looking at Ovid, I find four pages translated by Congreve which seems basically to be a puffing up of the slender story I already knew.
    Perhaps I can compare it again to one of those Tin Pan Alley tunes (Body and Soul, How High the Moon) that are intrinsically rather slight, but which give musicians interesting stuff to work from.
    That is, the original mythic storytelling material was small but was infinitely suggestive for people working in other genres entirely.

  35. Yeah, the Orphism is one thing and presumably quite voluminous (like the Enoch literature I mentioned). But the classical Orpheus and Eurydice myth seems to exist almost entirely as a multitude of references to and takeoffs from a single brief story, rather being than one of those stories that has multiple developed epic, lyric, and tragic developments, conflicting versions, and tantalizing traces of something much richer.
    Looking at Ovid, I find four pages translated by Congreve which seems basically to be a puffing up of the slender story I already knew.
    Perhaps I can compare it again to one of those Tin Pan Alley tunes (Body and Soul, How High the Moon) that are intrinsically rather slight, but which give musicians interesting stuff to work from.
    That is, the original mythic storytelling material was small but was infinitely suggestive for people working in other genres entirely.

  36. Grumbly Stu says:

    one of those stories that has multiple developed epic, lyric, and tragic developments, conflicting versions, and tantalizing traces of something much richer.

    I suppose you mean something like the Kennedy assassination? <pauses in doubt – was it John Emerson who once mentioned he had never gotten over that? If so, you’re going to be in hot water, dude.> Maybe Adams will write a prequel to Nixon in China.
    Actually, John, your mention of the Sonette an Orpheus has drawn me into Rilke. Last night, arriving back at the Cologne train station, I picked my way through the drunken masses to the bookstore, where I got a 15 Euro complete edition of Rilke’s (German) poems. I’ve never been able to get on with poetry in any language but English, with few exceptions. Rilke seems to be one of the exceptions – although there is an occasional whiff of Stefan George-ism that makes me fidget. I must conquer this “pleasure now!” expectation that I bring to poetry, but to very little else (in printed form).

  37. JE:And if I am right, is this the result of the original secrecy of the Orpheus myth, the destruction of its literature by Christians and others,
    I don’t think so. It just wasn’t written about. Herodotus was one of the few. The Old Testament never hesitated to condemn religious rivals and mention their practices in passing–Sophia, Baal, Leviathon, sacred groves.
    Burkert (from the above post): The new form of transmission introduces a new form of authority to which the individual, provided that he can read, has direct access without collective mediation. The emancipation of the individual and the appearance of books go together in religion as elsewhere.
    I’m not quite sure where this thought is going, but it seems there was already a method of remembering material long before it was written down. Books just tranferred the remembering process to written tradition instead of oral tradition. Religion was still very much in the hands of the elites, and in fact the “magical” nature of the written word probably serve to solidify power in the hands of the elites rather than decentralize it. There were all kinds of new practices associate with the written word. The proof of the Koran is said to be not in miracles, as some consider the proof of the authority of Jesus, but in the magicalness of being given “a book”. In early wars, the newly converted Islamic solders taped Korans onto their swords as they rushed into battle. For something more recent, look at Kipling’s Kim where the traveling priest is called on to make magic potions consisting of words written in ink that is washed off into a cup of water and drunk to get the effect of the magic.

  38. From Rilke I have developed a rule for poetry-reading, which applies at least to me. If you’re not fluent in a language, read its difficult poets. They’re intrinsically difficult, even for native speakers, but the labor is rewarded.
    By contrast, “deceptively simple” poems by authors like Heine, Brecht, Machado in Spanish, and others I can’t call to mind are much harder to read, because their value comes in part from contrasts both with more strenuous, more grandiose, more elaborately worked poems, and with other simple poems that are less absolutely perfect and not as good. And for native readers, these contrasts are evident, whereas for someone like me, they’re inaccessible (especially the second kind).

  39. From Rilke I have developed a rule for poetry-reading, which applies at least to me. If you’re not fluent in a language, read its difficult poets. They’re intrinsically difficult, even for native speakers, but the labor is rewarded.
    By contrast, “deceptively simple” poems by authors like Heine, Brecht, Machado in Spanish, and others I can’t call to mind are much harder to read, because their value comes in part from contrasts both with more strenuous, more grandiose, more elaborately worked poems, and with other simple poems that are less absolutely perfect and not as good. And for native readers, these contrasts are evident, whereas for someone like me, they’re inaccessible (especially the second kind).

  40. When Marpessa Dawn died last summer, the NYT needed two corrections to get (also recently deceased) costar Breno Mello’s name right. Marcel Camus’ film is based on the play Orfeu da Conceição, by Vinicius de Moraes, with music by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The Clube do Tom has several pages on it (including a cool ’50s Odeon LP cover). When first staged at the Rio Municipal Theater, the sets were by Oscar Niemeyer. The Instituto ACJ has scans of the program (note all the little ads for jeweler Haroldo Burle Marx, brother of Roberto and Walter).

  41. Vinicius wrote a funny poem about a crocodile who never wept human tears. He was quite a guy.

  42. Vinicius wrote a funny poem about a crocodile who never wept human tears. He was quite a guy.

  43. Re: the Orpheus myth, Virgil is the earliest surviving source for the sad ending (i.e. his failure to recover Eurydice), and it has been suggested that earlier versions of the story made Orpheus successful — which would fit better with the Orpheus of Orphism, who knows the secrets of the underworld and can promise some sort of afterlife. So yes, while Orpheus the singer is mentioned fairly frequently in ancient literature, and depicted in art, the full story is only known to us from relatively late sources.

  44. By coincidence, the morning news wrapup points out that Unidos de Vila Isabel‘s theme this year is “Theatro Municipal – a Centenária Maravilha.”

  45. Virgil is the earliest surviving source for the sad ending (i.e. his failure to recover Eurydice), and it has been suggested that earlier versions of the story made Orpheus successful — which would fit better with the Orpheus of Orphism, who knows the secrets of the underworld and can promise some sort of afterlife.
    An excellent point, and I hadn’t realized Virgil was the earliest source.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    That he was the earliest source does not mean that he invented it.
    There are many other traditions where someone tries to rescue a person from an impossible situation and is defeated by a derogation to strict instructions about what to do – usually caused by a human failing such as succumbing to hunger or impatience.

  47. Oh, of course there’s no proof at all that Virgil invented it — and the broken prohibition is a common folktale motif, so it could certainly have been in the ‘original’ (whatever that means) version — but there’s also no proof that it existed before him, and there are a few things about the story and the 4th Georgic in general that suggest he was innovating (which he certainly felt free to do with the Aeneas story later, for instance). Still, the main point is simply that we don’t have good early sources for the continuous narrative.

  48. Didn’t Gilgamesh travel to the underworld trying unsuccessfully to get his dead friend back? Wasn’t Osiris chopped into pieces and his wife Isis looked for him and put him back together–whereupon Osiris became lord of the afterlife West of the Nile and inspired all of those Egyptian mummies?

  49. Yeah, dismemberment and reassembly were more common in the old days, though the reassembly didn’t always work.

  50. Yeah, dismemberment and reassembly were more common in the old days, though the reassembly didn’t always work.

  51. A.J.P. Crown says:

    (Bernal had a good point about the nationalism and racism endemic to a lot of 19th-century scholarship, but he knew nothing about the methods of historical linguistics and got all that stuff laughably wrong.)
    Thank you for this, Language. I found the racism and nationalism stuff interesting, I remember.

  52. Yeah, somebody needed to say it; too bad it couldn’t have been someone more knowledgeable and sensible than Bernal.

  53. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Although, thanks to Wiki, I see that Bernal is no dummy in other areas and came from an interesting old-time lefty background. His mother had a house in Downshire Hill in Hampstead, one of the most beautiful streets in London. I always wanted to live there myself. His father, a scientist who had resigned from the CPGB already by 1933, devised an enormous (I think donut-shaped) machine for people to live in in outer space. –I’d give the links, but it’s dinner time.

  54. dismemberment and reassembly were more common in the old days, though the reassembly didn’t always work.
    Osisris was put back together only missing one part (yes, it’s the one you were thinking of). The dismemberment part at least he has in common with Orpheus.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    But the smiley is useful only to the many people who are losing, or have lost, or have never acquired, an ability to express themselves clearly and à propos.

    Nope, it replaces the mimics and intonation that aren’t otherwise written down but very often serve to distinguish meanings. A blog comment or forum post (let alone a chat) is not an essay. It’s like spoken language, not like written language.
    If you want to find out what it looks like when I write a long, coherent text, find me in Google Scholar… :-}

  56. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Go, Dave. You tell ’em. They’re old farts, both of them, but their day is over. They’re heading towards the dustbin of history (how is ‘dustbin of history’ rendered in American, by the way?).

  57. 🙁

  58. but disliking emoticons is a conservative, old-farty attitude. More than once they have helped me to see that what I might have taken to be a nasty comment was intended benignly.
    Yeah, right. The usual practice is for some troll to make a bunch of insulting comments and wherever they seem the most snarky, sprinkle in a few smilies so the person they just insulted won’t let loose with a crippling retort. Example: You are totally wrong, wrong, wrong. :~) but what else could anyone expect from such a dweeb. :~) The person this is directed at will not read it as an insult. They will see it replaces and mimics intonation and changes the meaning altogether. :~)

  59. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Yeah, Language!
    Nij:
    Always look on the bright side of life, di do, di do, di do, di do …

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