From Mortals Become Gods
Commentary on the Sayings of Orpheus, Part One
By Robin Artisson
Copyright © 2007
* * *
Sons and daughters of the earth and starry sky!
Escape from the Spindle of Necessity and
the sorrowful, weary round upon the Wheel of Birth.
Enter the wreath of heaven
from mortals become Gods."
The Ancient Greeks believed that only the pure could be in the company of the pure. This was a layered religious idea; it had to do with decorum in cult and religious rites, but it also had to do with initiation and with the mysteries of the afterlife. Before any sort of religious rite, a participant had to be purified. This could be accomplished simply by the washing of the hands before gathering around an altar for the sacrifice of an animal, to the ritual baths taken in the sea by the Mystai or Candidates for Initiation at Eleusis. Roman writers make mention of barbarian peoples bathing in sacred springs or using water to purify themselves before their own religious rituals. Water and washing was done by the Romans for the same reason.
In Greece, many things were considered able to purify a person in some manner- fasts, diet, sacrifices, ordeals, washing with lustral water, and doubtless other things. Various religious groups and cults probably had their own methods of purifying their followers and candidates, though it seems likely that washing with water was common to most, if not all. The Rites at Eleusis were rooted in the earliest of times, and the use of sea water to cleanse resonates with a very primal sort of religious logic. The Cult of Mithras, in common with other temples and cults, kept a vat of water at the door of its holy places, for people to annoint, which is a distant root for the Catholic custom.
Initiation, an experience which amounted to a "new beginning" in every real sense of the word, was a purification of types- it was a release from the previous influences and facts of life, and a birth into a new set of spiritual, mental, and sometimes physical realities. To cleanse oneself before an initiation rite was to prepare oneself mentally by physically transforming one's state from impure to pure. Real purification, of course, extends to every level of the being- but the outward washing of the body is the "grounded" reality in which the mind sees a clear demonstration of what is to follow, on a deeper level.
This can be likened to the Christian ritual of Baptism, which simulates precisely what the name means- a "burial", by covering the candidate in water instead of earth, and then bringing them out of their watery grave, into a new life. In this ritual, the water cleanses the candidate simultaneously. The baptism ritual has clung tenaciously to the psyche of the western world because it is a simple but effective symbolic activity; the idea of going below and rising back above into a new life is deeply rooted in the mind and soul of humankind, and represents the primordial transformation-initiation embodied in the Shaman's journey to the Underworld, and re-emergence.
Of course, a mere symbolic performance may have the power to affect the deep mind, but the purpose of spiritual operations and mystical rites of initiation is to bring the forces needed to transform the candidate into the conscious mind and experience. This may be the downfall of Christianity- mystery rites such as the "death/rebirth" ritual cannot be effectively "packaged" as a dunking in water and a few prayers.
As I said before, the mere act will have a deep-seated effect on the human being who comprehends the symbolism, but it will not normally be sufficient to bring about the conscious, dramatic "rebirth" that Christians go on about constantly. Baptism today, when done on adults, is normally a very surface-level affair, not so much a "rite" of passage as a "rote" of passage, marking the person's entry into the community of the Christian faithful, after which they can officially and formally participate in Christianity's vicious cycle of spiritual exclusivity.
Death, the end of mortal life and the beginning of a mortal's existence in the Afterlife, is an initiation as well; it is the second natural initiation, after birth, that every living person can be certain they will attain. But not every person will be prepared for what death has to reveal, and thus, the function of the Mysteries: to impart to initiates the Principles of Life and give them insight into reality, which will give them a chance to die lucidly and with better hope, prepared to do what must be done at the crucial times following death to solidify and enjoy the deathless state. This state is possible to all human beings, and all beings, because the Mysteries tell us that we have a Godly nature which is not vulnerable, ultimately, to death. The Mysteries and their Initiations confer purity and instruction concerning what we must do to actualize our divine birthright.
To die was to cross the ultimate boundary: the boundary between the living and the dead, as well as between the mortal and the immortal. It was the boundary between what was seen and unseen; what could be spoken of, and the unspeakable. To violate those boundaries was the ultimate sacrilege, and only the greatest of Heros, such as Aeneas and Herakles, could hope to cross such a border and return. Of course, blessed Parmenides likewise crossed that boundary and returned to communicate his tale, and indeed, his tale, his sacred revelation directly from the Queen of the Underworld herself, is more important to the causes of the Mysteries in the modern day than any other text extant.
In the grave, the line between mortal and immortal vanished. But, only the pure could go among the pure- the Gods, eternally living and pure, could not be approached by mortals who were tainted by the miasmas and other powers that tainted men and women. To go among the Gods as one of their number, a mortal had to be purified. To die without understanding what death meant to human beings, as well as the nature and imprisoning effect of the impurities that beset all mortals, assured that an uninitiated mortal would not be able to apprehend, understand, and accept the vision of death. That most powerful and unspeakable experience in which the line between mortal and immortal faded would come and go, and a chance to enter into a deathless state would be missed. This is why the Orphic grave-tablets call out with an almost desperate, urgent plea to the powers of the Underworld to free them from the dangers of the death-transition, and give them remembrance.
Death, as said before, was its own sort of initiation and a purification- it took away the flesh, blood, sexual fluids and humors that so characterized the mortal frame, and which were the source of so much mortal suffering and near-sightedness. Free of the restraints of the body, the soul could wander into the very home of the Underworld Gods to find a new life, or, initiated, purified and triumphant enough over the powers and confusions that restrained him or her, could rise to Olympos to take a seat among the deathless.
The keys to such an ascension are found in several myths, chiefly those of Herakles and Dionysos. Herakles' final purification in fire allows his kouros, the immortal youthful power that was his true self, to rise to the Gods and take a place among them; Dionysos, through his own power, was able to carry Semele, his mother, to the Gods and place the crown of Thyone- inspiration- on her head, and thus give her a place among the immortals. It is interesting that both Herakles' labors and the wanderings and passions of Dionysos both represent, in metaphor, the sufferings of each human being, who is, like these mythical figures, part mortal and part divine- and the divine is struggling to achieve its goal of purification and ascension/reunion.
It is telling that Dionysos was able to give Semele "Thyone"- inspiration- and by so doing, make her immortal; his rituals, wild orgiastic rites, dealt with using intoxication and dancing, singing, chanting, and the like, to work a mortal up into mantic, sacred inspiration or illumination, laying bare the immortal that wandered below the mortal surface. The religion of Orpheus, himself a reformer of the ancient and primordial Dionysian mystical tradition, brought a drop of Apollonian temperance to the wildness, and created an "Orphic Dionysian" tradition which was far more reserved, contemplative, and ascetic. But the core idea was the same.
Inspiration- the illumination of the mind by realizing the divine nature- led a human being to become a God, or should I say, led the forgetful God who learned to call him or herself "human" to wake up to the truth, and escape from the mists of death and forgetfulness, which are both seen to be nothing more than functions of a sleep-like delusion that had fallen over him or her.
The Poet addresses us as "Pure Friends" to remind us of our innate purity. Perhaps these words were once only spoken to initiates after they had been purified; who can say? It is likely, in my estimation, that he was talking to everyone, for all people, whether purified or not, possess a divine nature which is wandering in the midst of confusion. The fact that miasma may be present, or the fact that a person may be confused and forgetful, doesn't interrupt the truth that they are still just confused divine beings.
Sons and Daughters of Earth and Sky
This line from Orpheus catapults us back to the first beginning of beginnings, captured in myths by Hesiod and others- the emergence of the first two Gods, Gaia and Ouranos, Mother Earth the All-bearer, and Father Sky the All-embracing. The Earth Mother, from the dawn of time to the end of Antiquity, was called "Mother of Gods and Men" for the simple reason that from her womb came all the Titans, all the Gods, and finally, human beings. Some myths have humans springing up directly from the ground, others have humans coming from trees born from the ground, and others have the Gods creating humans from natural materials in the ground; either way, the connection is made.
The "Children of Earth and Sky" statement reminds us that we are born from two sources; we are not only earth, but also something more. This isn't to say that earth is dirty or second-rate; Earth is sacred and indeed, a sacred Goddess. But many myths, especially from the Orphic side of the mythological house, have human beings arising from a mingling of a pure God and impure Titans, who were the first children of the earth.
Two substances are seen to be mixed in each human being, a Godly one and a Titanic one. The first is immortal and noble, the second, while perhaps being immortal, isn't as noble; it tends towards destruction and chaos. This dualistic notion gave the Orphics a model for understanding and sublimating the less-than-desirable urges in themselves. We are, as Byron said, "Half dust and half deity."
We may be indebted to the earth for these good, beautiful, and strong bodies, but the flesh must die and return to the earth. It is the divine spirit of us that the Mysteries turned their hopes to, and some even declared:
"I am a child of earth and starry heaven
But my race is of heaven alone."
In other words, we may be Gods who have come to be mixed into the elements, and given over to forgetfulness and blind passions, but we are still Gods, and our true "home" (condition of being) is one of clarity and freedom, not one that is hopelessly mixed and confused.
We are all children of Earth and Starry Heaven; this is an unavoidable fact. To call us this, the Poet is reminding us that we belong to the same family tree as the Great Gods.
The Spindle of Necessity and the Sorrowful Wheel of Birth
At the heart of the Poet's passage here, he exhorts us to "escape from the Spindle of Necessity and the sorrowful, weary round upon the Wheel of Birth."
This is grand advice; indeed, it's what we all most deeply want, no matter how much we may not realize it- it is the secret desire of our hearts. All people suffer, and all want to escape from suffering; all want lasting peace and happiness. This is why Hesiod says that the best prayer a man can offer the Gods is that they may be at peace, continually, with themselves. Could there be a greater boon?
What are we doing on a "sorrowful wheel of birth"? The answer lies in the statement Orpheus made- he tells us to escape not just the "wheel of birth", nor does he even mention it first, but to escape also "the spindle of Necessity". He mentions Necessity first because Necessity is how this all got started.
Necessity put us here. Necessity is another name for Fate, for the power that even the Gods cannot disobey or violate. Necessity is what Has To Be. What has become of us, we forgetful Gods who stumble about in the dark of the mortal world, causing more and more tears to flow, had to happen.
The power of Hard Fate pulled us into this cycle. The Fate-weaver, who holds the Spindle of Necessity, wove this for us. She didn't do it because she hated us; we weren't punished for some grand failing. None of the suffering in the world is ultimately here because of the "fault" of those who suffer. People suffer because suffering is needful. It's Fated; It's the way of things.
Like all things in the round cycle of the world, suffering has an opposite: there is pleasure, peace, and love. Some would say that these things more than make up for the existence of suffering; that it is worthwhile to suffer because in return, we can know love and joy. Others would disagree, citing the fact that these things never last, suffering always manages to return, and death takes away the things and people that we enjoy and love.
Whatever you may think, you aren't in this world because you are being punished. You are here because you had to be here. Necessity wove you here. Compared to the pure, deathless state of the Gods, this world can seem quite a torment, and indeed, throughout human history, many myths have been created describing how mankind descended to such a sorrowful state.
Almost all of those myths put the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of mankind, such as in the myth of Adam and Eve. But older, wiser myths point out what the ancients always knew: life is bigger than us. We cannot shoulder the blame for the way the cosmos works; that we godly beings had to know life as humans, and know the meaning of suffering, is not a punishment nor a sign of failure on our part. It's the way the cosmos works. Our lives are in the hands of greater powers, and absolute laws.
Our task isn't to shoulder some false blame, but to realize authentic wisdom regarding our condition, at which time we will find ourselves free of suffering and death. Perhaps that's what Necessity intended all along; each stage of our existence may be necessary to the growth and blossoming of a Godly being. Without these stages and experiences, perhaps there is no possibility of Gods, at all.
In many myths, mortals suffer unfairly from the acts of the Gods- and these sorts of myths are direct realizations, on the parts of human beings in ancient times, that our sufferings are not ultimately "self-inflicted". Our sufferings arise because we aren't alone in reality. All beings, elements, and forces affect all the others in the system of reality, whether we want them to or not, whether for good or ill. We aren't supposed to blame and feel miserable and sorry; we are supposed to accept and to learn, and grow thereby. The great tension that Necessity exerts on all things forces them to grow, without fail or end.
People love to ask "why". People like to sob it and scream it in rage. We are here because we have to be here; we are here because the great forces of reality combined, worked, interacted, and because of them, we came to be here. That's it. There's no "why" beyond that. People hate to hear such answers, but then, short of some outrageous, ego-soaking fiction (as are peddled by most mainstream religions) there is no authentic answer that they will allow themselves to hear or accept.
People are eager to look anywhere for the answers they want to hear, but the real answer is nowhere to be found. This is because the real "answer" isn't an answer; it's a sober realization that everything that comes to pass had to happen, and our task isn't to tie ourselves up in some fantastic drama about how we "fell from grace" and how "flawed" we are, and how hard we must work now to overcome the well-deserved troubles we face. Our task is to stay here and now and open our eyes to reality, to gain understanding, and to stop worrying about the foolish desires that lead us to think that we're somehow larger than the force of Necessity and Fate which is the true author of creation's story.
As nice as it might be to think it, the cosmos isn't as vulnerable to the supposed misdeeds of mortals as certain myths say- The sins of some primal ancestor didn't spoil the garden of peace and wonder that existed originally; we aren't born into a corrupt world; we are born into the wheel of birth and death, because we have forgotten the purity that is the deepest truth about us. It was needful that we forget- for things to be as they must be, we had to forget, and we did. Hard Fate drew us into the forgetful mixture of things, and until we accept this, and stop the "blame game", we'll stay right where we are, enjoying fantasies. As pleasing as it may be to some, the "blame game" cuts off any chance at authentic insight or wisdom.
We may not be as important to the cosmos as some believe we are, yet paradoxically, from the perspective of true completion, each part of the cosmos is just as important as any other, and we forgetful Gods are a part of this reality, inseparable from it. So in a way, our losses and triumphs are losses and triumphs of the cosmos, as well. In that sense, we are quite important. But to forget about our unimportance is just as devastating as forgetting about our importance, as modern religions have shown us.
The Wheel of Birth is all around you- you were born, you're living, and one day you'll die. Necessity will constrain you after that, to whatever new Fated destination you will wander. Pythagoras and Orpheus might have believed that a human being could be reborn into the wheel of life in a new way, even as an animal or another person. Traditional beliefs have people taking a new life in the vast reaches of the Underworld, in one form or fasion. But for now, you're here, in the green world of men and beasts, ruled over by Gods, threatened by Titanic forces inside you and outside you. Behind it all the strange law of Necessity and Fate brings things to their inexorable conclusion, through countless bewildering combinations of event, joy, and tragedy. Men and Women are born everyday, and die everyday, and are reborn in some world or another.
Animals are suffering much the same; trees and plants are seeding and dropping seed, being cut down or harvested, rising again. Twisting through the entire panopoly is the power of desire, pulling us together, sharing its joy and sadness, and engendering new life. Arching over that is strife, driving men against one another, driving the elements away from one another, and disquieting the hearts and minds of humans.
Sound grim? It's not all grim. It's realistic. It's the kaleidescope of mortal existence as we now experience it, at various levels of consciousness. It's the unquiet dream-state of countless Gods, asleep in mortality. And Orpheus, the man who is also a God awake in this world, calls for us to remember and wake up from it, too.
And awakening is, fortunately for us, a part of Necessity, every bit as much a part of it as falling asleep was. The Man has a birth and a death, but so does the God. Lucius, the initiate in Apuleius' work "The Golden Ass", is told by the Priest of Isis that blind Necessity had victimized him and tossed him about, a wretched plaything, but now it had inexplicably tossed him to fortune- to the altar of freedom, and his initiation that led him to no longer live his life as though he were a victim of Fate. A deeper vision- that of his participation in the family of the deathless Gods- was revealed to him, and he was no longer tossed on the sea of Fate without direction or relief. He knew the purpose of things, and was at peace. But his road to get there was a long, hard one... and a necessary one.
People opposed to the natural and normal "wise fatalism" that is built into the Mysteries often try (in their panic to hold on to their life-fictions) to belittle the idea of Fate. They say "If my choices aren't the ultimate reason for why I do things, then why should we do anything at all?"
It's a silly question, when you think about it; the answer is obvious. The reason why you will do (or fail to do) whatever you do is Necessity or Fate. And only you can know what "you will do"- are you the kind of person who is motivated and driven to find the answers to the mysteries of life? Are you motivated to love, to help others, to fight for a cause? Then you will, necessarily, because who you are, what you feel, what you think, and what you do are all part of the same Necessary unfolding of reality. The self-centered pride in us that wants to feel that we are ultimately the authors of our own lives and deeds also necessarily arises in everyone's life, but wisdom- if we attain it- neutralizes it.
The Wreath of Heaven
Dionysos put a crown on Semele's head, a crown of leaves- a wreath? Or maybe there's something more to this- wreathes are round. Is the Wreath of Heaven a circle? This is quite a profound symbol and statement- on a circle, the End is in the Beginning, no matter where you look for it. It is a natural symbol of eternity and perpetuity. It is a symbol of the Gods, but also of the Wheel of the world and birth- the immortal and mortal simultaneously expressed together. As Kingsley has said "The mortal life is the divine life unlived". But they are certainly being lived in the same place- the perfect circle of reality, without beginning or end.
Orpheus says: "Enter the wreath of heaven; from mortals become gods." Enter the circle. Realize the eternity that you are a part of, and cannot be counted as separate from. This realization is inspiration; this realization puts you, a pure one, from the house of mortality into the house of the deathless Gods.
Few people can sum up all I've said here better than Ovid. In his Fasti, he writes:
"I am telling you the truth, but some will say that I made it up because most people doubt the existence of the deities and the spirits. A god, a goddess resides within each of us. When the spirit arouses us, we radiate with an inner glow- an aura. It is this sacred spirit that plants the seeds of all we are and all we do. This sacred spirit is our inspiration."
It should be noted, gently, that auras are round. They are the true "wreath of heaven" in us all.
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