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Orphic Authorship

There are at least two ways to inquire about a possible specificity of the Orphic poetic tradition in Greece. The first way consists in analyzing the structure of the Orphic authorship : what does to be composed by Orpheus mean for the ancient Greeks and for us ? Is the re-enacting process lead by the rhapsode the same as in the Homeric tradition ? Is there the same attitude towards oral variation while some verses may be used in a ritual context ? Why did Orphics write books ? What is a hieros logos ? And so on. The other way consists in looking for a specific content in the Orphic poetic tradition or, at least, specific interpretation of a common content.
While I followed the second way in my presentation at the CHS about the Orphic mètis (10.29.2010), I shall now follow the first way.
I suppose that the structuralism of authorship in the Orphic tradition was not the same as the structuralism of authorship in the Homeric tradition, and that this difference may be the main one between both traditions, more important than the difference in content.
For example, in the Derveni Papyrus, col. XXVI, 4, several quasi Homeric verses are ascribed to Orpheus :

δηλοῖ δὲ καὶ ἐν τοῖσδε τοῖς ἔπεσ̣ιν
____ ὅτι ἀγαθὴν σημαίνει·
____ “ Ἑρμῆ Μαιάδος υἱὲ διάκτορε δῶτορ ἐά̣ων”.
5 ____ δηλοῖ δὲ καὶ ἐν τ[ῶ]ιδε·
“δοιοὶ γάρ τε πίθοι κατακήαται ἐν Διὸς οὔδει
____ δώρων, οἷα διδοῦσι, κακῶν, ἕτερος δέ τ’ ἐάων” .

For the first verse, we may compare with Homer, Odyssey VIII, 335 (the second part of the verse occurs also in the Homeric Hymn to Hermès, 18.12) :

Ἑρμῆν δὲ προσέειπεν ἄναξ Διὸς υἱὸς Ἀπόλλων·
“Ἑρμεία Διὸς υἱέ, διάκτορε, δῶτορ ἑάων,
ἦ ῥά κεν ἐν δεσμοῖσ’ ἐθέλοις κρατεροῖσι πιεσθεὶς
εὕδειν ἐν λέκτροισι παρὰ χρυσῇ Ἀφροδίτῃ;”
τὸν δ’ ἠμείβετ’ ἔπειτα διάκτορος Ἀργεϊφόντης·

This verse, which is common to both Orphic and Homeric traditions, contains a very old Indo-European formula, which means « giver of goods » :

yó no dāt’aa vásūnām índraṃ táṃ hūmahe vayám / (RV VIII, 51, 5a, about Indra)
He who is a giver of goods for us, we invoke him.

Therefore it is not necessary to suppose that one of the Greek traditions has borrowed the common υἱέ, διάκτορε, δῶτορ ἑάων from the other. It may be a common Indo-European inheritance, so that the similarity of some items in both traditions may be an essential feature of both.
According to me, the main differences between the Orphic and Homeric authorships lie in the following points, which imply each other:
1) There is no historical family tradition in Orphism. There are no Orphēidai like the Homēridai of Chios. Ascend in the Orphic tradition is only ritual and a matter of initiation. One self’s connection with Orpheus depends on will and undertaking of a re-birth ritual, not on blood. The whole humanity is potentially in connection with Orpheus just like the Orphic Zeus contains everything and is contained by everything. Moreover, the cultural and symbolic ascend from Orpheus makes the initiate as a real « son of Earth and starry Sky », i.e., as an immortal god (Cf. gold tablet from Hipponion, 10). For example, it is not very clear if Musaeus was Orpheus’s son, disciple or erōmenos (see Hermias, fr. 22 Bernabé). And Pythagoras was re-enacting Orpheus although he was not a natural descendant of Orpheus (cf. Nagy’s Homer the Preclassic, E§116).
2) In Orphism, the self-identification of the rhapsode with the mythical proto-poet occurs during the whole life, and not only during the oral performance. This is why there is a real Orphic “way of life” (vegetarian food, non violence…; see Plato, Leges, 782 c-d), and not only an Orphic way of singing. Moreover, since the Orphic poems were written quite early and thus became protected against oral variation, the initiate couldn’t identify himself with Orpheus as a creative poet. The very process of improvisation during an oral performance was forbidden to him. Thus the ritual and ethic behavior, or the rationalizing interpretation of Orphic poems just like in the Derveni Papyrus, became the only way of re-enacting Orpheus. On one hand Orpheus’s powerful living voice was admitted as definitely remote in the past, but on the other hand the inner and spiritual life became the most important factor of continuity in the Orphic tradition.
3) Therefore, in Orphism, the self-identification with the proto-poet is so deep that it is impossible to acknowledge him as your biological ancestor. Knowledge is not yet inherited but discovered inside one self’s mind. True learning is anamnèsis. Moreover self- knowledge is the very wisdom. For example, Empedocles’ silence about Orpheus is not a sign of rivalry with Orpheus, but of an achieved self-identification. I don’t share Radcliff Edmond III’s interpretation about this point.

These different kinds of authorship may be found also in the Vedic tradition, so that the Indo-European comparativism might furnish a paradigm in order to understand the unity of the many Greek poetic traditions without denying their specificities.
The Homēridai are to be compared with a brahmanical gotra linked to a proto-Seer. The family Maṇḍalas in the Rig-Veda contains several hymns that have not the same author according to the Anukramaṇī, but these hymns are stylistically kindred and are ascribed to father and son. For example, in RV IV, the triṣṭubh hymns ending with the formula dhiy’aa syāma rathyàḥ sadāsáḥ // are ascribed to Vāmadeva Gautama (hymns 16, and 17), or to the primeval .rṣi Vāmadeva himself (19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24: triṣṭubh or anuṣṭubh). Through some old evidences we know that the Rig-Vedic hymns were at the beginning the secret property of single families:

Les .rṣi ne voyaient pas Indra face à face. Vasiṣṭha eut un désir : « Comment faire pour que je voie Indra face à face ? » Il vit cette formule incantatoire (nihava), et alors il vit Indra face à face. Indra lui dit : « Je vais te dire la science rituelle (brāhmaṇa), de sorte que les générations des Bharatas t’auront pour prêtre ; mais ne me révèle pas aux autres .rṣi ! » Il lui dit alors le rite en question, et les générations des Bharatas eurent pour prêtre Vasiṣṭha (Tāṇḍya-Mahā-Brāhmaṇa XV, 5, 24).

In contradistinction to the family books of the RV, the transmission of knowledge and wisdom in the Upaniṣads doesn’t occur inside the biological family. There is even a hard contestation about the religious privileges of the Brāhmaṇa families: indeed someone born from kṣatriya parents may also obtain the salvation knowledge of the ātman-brahman. The varṇa-system was deeply shuttered at the time of Vedānta. For example, in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (IV, 4), a young boy, whose name is Satyakāma (« Seeking-the-Truth ») and who ignores the name of its own father, leaves his mother in order to find a master able to teach him the knowledge of ātman (guru). Each part of Nature, including animals and sacrificial fire, will teach him a part of the great secret and his human master, Hāridrumata, will teach him, at the end, only how he can unit these parts. And the young brahman Śvetaketu Āruṇeya, although he believed having been correctly taught by his own father, had to learn from a king (rājan, a kṣatriya), Pravāhaṇa Jaivali (ChU V, 3, 1) the real hierarchy between the path of Gods (devayāna) and the path of Fathers (pit.ryāṇa) : the first path, based on ascetics and meditation in the wild, leads to brahman, the final emancipation (mokṣa), while the second one, based on sacrificial practice inside the family, leads to reincarnation (saṃsāra). Interesting also is the fact that this criticism against familial transmission and familial practice occurred in a time when the mantras of the Rig-Veda and of other metrical Saṃhitā were fully fixed, so that poetic innovation in the sacred field was forbidden. The only space for creativity stood in the esoteric interpretation of the old hymns and rituals, just like for the commentator of the Derveni Papyrus.
Thus, that which was a diachronic difference in the Vedic tradition might be a synchronic difference in Greece between the Homeric poetic tradition and the Orphic poetic tradition. Nevertheless, for a more precise comparaison, we would need to overcome the problem of the literary gender: the Homēridai of Chios were more concerned with epic than with sacred hymns, while the family books of the Rig-Veda are exclusively concerned with sacrificial hymns.

2 Responses to Orphic Authorship

  1. It occurs to me that there is evidence you might not know about that expands your claim possibly beyond Indo-European culture. A work known as the “Book of Thoth”, written in Demotic probably in the 3rd Century CE, has recently received a critical edition by Richard Jasnow and Karl-Th. Zauzich (see Van Bladel’s BMCR review: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2006/2006-05-19.html). This text presents a dialogue in which Thoth speaks with a younger figure known as “the-one-who-loves-knowledge”, i.e., a philosopher. We might, in the light of this text, recall the various “dialogues” between Egyptian Theuth and others in the Greek tradition, especially that staged by Plato in the Phaedrus (274c5-275b2). It’s not clear to me whether this Demotic text can be considered evidence for pre-4th Century BCE philosophical dialogues in Egypt; I think it more likely that the Egyptians of the ‘second sophistic’ were reading Plato and fabricating these sorts of dialogues. But there remains the possibility that this Demotic text preserves a much older literary tradition in Egypt.

    • Very interesting. Thanks. I like the comparison between the Indian Satya-kaama and the Egyptian “The-one-who-loves-knowledge”. Indeed the alternative explanation of the similarities between Greece and India, beyond the Indo-European inheritance, might deal with Gnosticism. And for this second explanation, it is necessary to consider the mediation of Egypt. That’s why this Book of Thoth reinforces the explanation through Gnosticism.

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