"For all things are from you, who unites the cosmos,
You will the three-fold fates, you bring forth all things,
Whatever is in the heavens, and in the much fruitful earth and the deep sea"
Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite.1
This is a quotation from a collection of about eighty short poems of praise to various divinities. They are known collectively as the "Orphic Hymns", taking their name from the famous and probably legendary poet and musician, Orpheus, to whom is attributed also one of the major religions of the Hellenistic world - the Orphic religion. While their date is unclear, it is accepted that that they were used in ritual and sacred practice from at least 300 BCE to 500 CE, nearly 1000 years, and the material in them comes from earlier sources. It has been conjectured that it is of the same area - the world of Thrace, Phrygia, Anatolia and the rest of what we now call Asia Minor, as well as the Greek mainland and islands. That is the world of the religion of the Great Mother.
The hymns have the name of Orpheus attached to them. That there is some connection with the Orphic religion will be discussed later. But it is clear that to call them Orphic is to take part in the androcentric tradition. His name in fact represents an honoured male source of poetry and religion. In fact, the poems while invoking certain male deities, in the main are focussed on the female; even in those honouring the gods, the goddesses are praised and invoked usually as the greater divinities. This seems to be yet another example of the denial to women and to goddesses of their proper due and celebration.
-The Orphic Hymns-
It is known 2 that the hymns were chanted by groups in sacred circles as a means of invoking particular deities. Each of the hymns is headed by a short description of the herbs or substances used as a means of calling on the deity. "To Juno" starts with "the fumigation of aromatics". She is hailed as:
"Mother of clouds and winds"
and it is
"she alone who produces all things".
"Universal sway is hers alone."
Invoked to join the celebrants she is addressed:
"Come blessed Goddess, Famed almighty queen, with aspect kind, rejoicing and serene".3
Another hymn is addressed to the "Mother of the Gods". For her there is a "fumigation of a variety of odoriferous substances". She is
"Mother of the Gods, great nurse of all".
Described as "Divinely honoured" she is seen
"Throned in a car, by lions drawn along".
This definitely places her as Cybele, Great Mother of the Gods, of whom we have a large number of drawings and reliefs, from many sources, showing her in a chariot drawn by lions.
One of the longest hymns is to Nature, for whom is used "the fumigation from aromatics". She is
"all - parent, ancient and divine",
"Untamed, all-taming, all-ruling, honoured supremely bright, immortal, ever still the same";
"nocturnal, starry, shining... to all things common and in all things known."
A very interesting part of the poem deals with her self-generation without the need for a male. She is called also
"Father of all, great nurse, Mother kind... eternal all sagacious queen"
but from her
"all spermatic mind come fertile seeds".
It seems that the writers were having to come to terms with the Great Mother who needs no male, and were celebrating her as the one who contains the all - a description much later applied to the Gnostic divinity who herself created without male assistance. Nature also is
"justice supreme in might... sweet to the good, bitter to the bad"
which indicates that she takes part in human affairs as well as being the creator goddess and immanent in the natural world.
Another aspect of the Great Mother is apparent in the Hymn to the Goddess Rhea. Invoked by a "fumigation from aromatics" she also rides in a holy car drawn by fierce lions, and she is
"drum beating frantic, of a splendid mien, brass sounding."
She rejoices in mountains and in tumultuous fight" and also is "majestic, mighty and liberating"
"Mother of the gods and humans, the earth, the winds and sea; all proceed from her".
To make the aspects complete, we have Proserpina (Persephone) who is called to the rites without incense. She is addressed as "monogones" which is usually translated as "only begotten" and is also applied to her mother Demeter (Ceres). It is a title of enormous power in the ancient world. Generally held actually to mean "unique in kind" it was taken over by the Christians and applied to Jesus (the "only begotten son of God"). The Mysteries of Persephone and Demeter, both unique in kind, both mother and daughter, and identical, are not to be described here; but it is important to bear in them in mind, and possibly to read the Homeric Hymns and the work that feminists have done on the Persephone story which holds immense importance for us women.
In the Orphic hymn, Persephone is called
"venerable Goddess, source of life".
She is referred to as living underground in "earth's profundities"; she becomes the
"many formed parent of the vine"
"her holy form, budding fruits we view",
and she knows the secrets of life and death because she moves from one to the other.
Ceres herself is addressed as "universal mother" and source of wealth"... she is
"goddess of seeds...Harvest and threshing are her constant care".
There is a hymn to Semele the moon goddess
"who visits mortals from the realms of night";
"constantly attends the sacred rites".
So we can deduce that many of these rituals were held at night by moonlight.
The various aspects of the Great Mother come through the different poems. They are well summed up by Vermaseren 4 who says. "The Goddess who is the mother of gods, men (humans) beasts and plants also became the queen of the realm of darkness, the Underworld, out of which the light of life is to spring forth again in an ever rotating cycle.... at all times and everywhere it is recognised that essentially one divine feminine power controls the present world as well as the one to come". Add to this the invocation to Demeter from a Greek writer who himself no doubt celebrated the "Orphic" rites:
"Hail Goddess and save this people in harmony and prosperity. In the fields bring us all pleasant things. Feed our kine, bring us flocks, bring us the corn ear, bring us the harvest! And nurse peace that those who sow may reap. Be gracious thrice prayed for, Great Queen of Goddesses" 5
It is important for me to stress what is said in the Hymn to Rhea. Here she is tumultuous, Mistress of the Mountains, of the winds, of anger and of cleansing. Another invocation along the sane lines is to Hestia.
"Go to the feast, O Lofty One, delighting in drums, tamer of all,... the old one, life giving frenzy-loving joyful One, gratified by acts of piety." 6
This aspect is also celebrated in the Homeric Hymns where she is depicted as surrounded by howling wolves and roaring lions. 7
I feel the importance so strongly of this aspect as it is the one that has so long been denied us, and when it emerges, it is so often distorted, turned against ourselves or others who do not deserve it whom we truly do not wish to hurt.
In part 2 of this account I hope to explore the Orphic Mysteries where "frenzied" women, the Bacchantes, or Maenads, worked through what have been called "purificatory or expiatory" rites, also known as "orgies"
It is possible we shall find or dream up explanations other than those usually presented to us.
1. M.J.Vermaseren. Cybele and Attis. The Myth and the Cult. Thames & Hudson, London 1977 p.186.
2. See W.K.C.Guthrie. Orpheus and the Greek Religion. Methuen, London, 1935/52. p. 257ff.
3. The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Thomas Taylor and collected in "Thomas Taylor the Platonist", edited by Kathleen Raine and G.M. Harper, RKP, London, 1969. It is from this source that all quotations are taken unless otherwise described. There is apparently no modern English source of these hymns. (Taylor lived 1758-1835) If anyone knows of one I would be very grateful to hear of it.
4. Vermaseren as above p.10
5. ,, ,, p. 11 quoting Callimachus Hymn to Demeter, ed E. Cohen.
6. ,, ,, P. 10
}7. Apostolos N. Athanassakis. The Homeric Hymns, John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore & London. 1976.
© Asphodel P. Long (Arachne 9, 1989)