THE ORPHIC FRAGMENTS

OF OTTO KERN


TRANSLATOR'S COMMENTS ON

MAGICAL AND ASTROLOGICAL

TEXTS ASCRIBED TO ORPHEUS

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For links to many more fragments: The Orphic Fragments of Otto Kern.


It would seem that the general consensus of contemporary scholars is that Orpheus is an entirely fictional character of mythology. Of course in ancient times, this would not have been the consensus opinion, as people believed that Orpheus was a historical person. This author believes that it is plausible that Orpheus did exist, but that he lived so far back in antiquity that knowledge of his life survives only in mythology. There are many books and poems attributed to Orpheus, but most of these have been lost with the exception of fragments. The Souda (Σοῦδα) lists many of them (see Adler No. Omicron 654 which can be found in Orphic Critical Testimony 223); of these, the following were possibly magical texts:

Cosmic Invocations (Κλήσεις κοσμικαί)

Oracles (Χρησμοὶ), which are ascribed to Onomákritos (Ὀνομάκριτος)

Of Stones (Divination by Eggs (ᾨοθυτικὰ or Ὠιοσκοπικά) in Heroic verse *): and among these is a book Of Stones (Λιθικά*): and among these is a book about the carving of stones, which is entitled Eighty-stone (Ὀγδοηκοντάλιθος)

Divination by Sand (Ἀμμοσκοπία)

Divination by Eggs (ᾨοθυτικὰ or Ὠιοσκοπικά) in Heroic verse

Whether these books were actually about magic is, for the most part, impossible to know, since they are lost (with the exception of the Lithiká); I am basing this appraisal purely on their titles, hardly a reliable method of research.

The classical philologist Otto Kern in his Orphicorum fragmenta of 1922 provides fragments from the following astrological texts ascribed to Orpheus:

A cycle of twelve years (Δωδεκαετηρίδες) Orphic fragments 249-270.

Journal (Ἐφημερίδες) O. frr. 271-279.

Agriculture (Γεωργία) O. frr. 280-283

On runaways (Περὶ δραπετῶν) O. fr. 284.

On earthquakes (Περὶ σεισμῶν) O. fr. 285.

On the commencement of dominant periods (χρονοκρατορία) (Περὶ ἐπεμβάσεων) O. frr. 286-287

On the forecasts of undertakings (Περὶ καταρχῶν) O. fr. 288.

The purpose of this essay is to comment on the authorship of these particular poems and books.

It has been thought for a very long time that various Orphic texts were composed by people other than Orpheus. The most famous example is, of course, Onomákritos (Ὀνομάκριτος), who was accused of forging some of the writings of Mousaios, although the 18th century classical scholar Johann Matthias Gesner believed that he merely changed the dialect they were written in. But many works attributed to Orpheus were said to have been actually written by other known authors. For instance, the poem Deliverance (Σωτήρια) was said to have been written by Timoklís the Syracusan (Τιμοκλῆς ὁ Συρακόσιος) or Pærsínos (Περσῖνος) the Milesian, and Enthronements of the Mother and the Vakkhic Rites (Θρονισμοὶ Μητρώιοι καὶ Βακχικά) was said to have been written by Nikías of Ælǽa (Νικίας τοῦ Ἐλέα), and there were other books with other attributions as well.

In reality, logic demands that one must admit that unless the compositions attributed to Orpheus were committed to memory by bards, none of the books associated with the name Orpheus could possibly have been written by him, if what was believed about Orpheus is true. Why can this be confidently stated? Because Orpheus was said to be from the age of the Heroes, from a generation long before the classical era, long before even Homer and Hesiod. This fact is critically important in discerning whether Orpheus wrote any of the texts for which fragments survive, or even texts for which we only have titles, for, if Orpheus did exist, he lived before the Greek Dark Age. During this period, from 1100 BCE to 750 BCE, the art of writing was lost. Therefore, any books by Orpheus were also lost, and could only have been preserved by memorization.

Another possibility is that ideas and practices associated with Orpheus were passed on through initiation and retained in the memories of religious people, and when the art of writing was reinvented, various mystics were inspired to create new books, but not be so bold as to claim authorship of the ideas. So perhaps they formed a tradition of putting the words into the mouth of Orpheus, at least, this is an idea that makes sense to the author of this essay.

Of course, this creates a problem: how can we determine the validity of texts attributed to Orpheus? Could not there have been unscrupulous people who had ideas they wished to promote, who would attach his name to their writing so as to have their ideas linked to the great Orpheus? On the other hand, surely there were very sincere and pious mystics who wished to simply promote the teachings of the great theologian. How can we tell the difference?

The so-called “Orphic” Lithiká (Λιθικά) is a text which has survived, and it is a poem on the magical properties of stones ... a magical text ... but we have an informed opinion from the highly regarded philologist and classical scholar M. L. West:

“However, it (ed. the Lithiká) does not really deserve a place in a discussion of Orphic literature, since it says nothing about Orpheus and makes no pretence of being by him. His name had become attached to it by the time of Tzetzes." (The Orphic Poems by M. L. West, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford & New York, 1983, p. 36)

Professor West has a commonsense view on judging Orphic texts, in my opinion. If we can find trusted sources from antiquity on what ideas are “Orphic,” then we can compare a text in question and determine if that text is in harmony with those ideas. From the Theology of Plato, we have the affirmation of Proclus:

ἅπασα γὰρ ἡ παρ’ Ἕλλησι θεολογία τῆς Ὀρφικῆς ἐστὶ μυσταγωγίας ἔκγονος, πρώτου μὲν Πυθαγόρου παρὰ Ἀγλαοφήμου τὰ περὶ θεῶν ὄργια διδαχθέντος, δευτέρου δὲ Πλάτωνος ὑποδεξαμένου τὴν παντελῆ περὶ τούτων ἐπιστήμην ἔκ τε τῶν Πυθαγορείων καὶ τῶν Ὀρφικῶν γραμμάτων. (Περὶ τῆς κατὰ Πλάτωνα θεολογίας Πρόκλου 1.5)

“For all the Grecian theology is the progeny of the mystic tradition of Orpheus; Pythagoras first of all learning from Aglaophemus the orgies of the Gods, but Plato in the second place receiving an all-perfect science of the divinities from the Pythagoric and Orphic writings.”

(trans. Thomas Taylor, 1816)

Proclus was the head of the Platonic school in Athens and is regarded by many as the greatest of all the Neoplatonic philosophers, so his opinion should not be taken lightly, and this quotation indicates that there is something about the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato that reflect the true teachings of Orpheus. It is well acknowledged that many of the most famous ideas found in the dialogues of Plato are actually from Orpheus: ideas such as the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, the benefits of initiation into the Mysteries, the formation of the universe, and others . It is logical that a text which has been attributed to Orpheus, and which promotes such ideas can be viewed as Orphic, perhaps not literally composed by Orpheus, but expressing his theology. Likewise, it is logical to be suspicious of any text which is devoid of ideas commonly associated with Orpheus.

Another interesting way to investigate this is to consider the views on Orpheus of the Christian church-fathers. Many of the Orphic fragments which have been preserved are quoted in Christian writings, and these authors are trying to attack Orpheus. Although they attacked other individuals, why would they so frequently single out Orpheus? Well, it is because, as we have just previously quoted from Proclus that “all the Grecian theology is the progeny of the mystic tradition of Orpheus.” They intuitively knew that these teachings are the heart of the old religion; therefore, if you wish to destroy a perceived enemy, “go for the jugular,” as they say. And of which texts do they aim their venom? They are quoting from theogonies and mythological poems, works which conceal mysteries in mythic language. They are attacking texts which say the same things which are discussed in Platonic texts. Perhaps such texts deserve special consideration since the Christians seemed to find them threatening and viewed them as particularly representing the Orphic doctrine. But there is a whole group of texts which they largely ignored: the magical and astrological texts. This is a curious fact because magic in particular was viewed very negatively by all parties in antiquity. If Orpheus was practicing magic, this would be the perfect focal point for them to aim their attacks, but they did not. Why? Perhaps because these texts were not really associated with Orpheus until a later period. I contend that the Christians quoted Orpheus because they knew that the people were familiar with these quotations and this would give confidence that the Christians writers knew the Orphic texts well and that they knew what they were talking about, but they did not do so with these magical and astrological texts.

Having translated many of the fragments from the astrological texts attributed to Orpheus, I can affirm that there is no theology in them at all: they are simply astrological texts. Some of them will claim that Orpheus said this or that, but that is about the extent of it, as in this example:

καὶ ταῦτα μὲν ὁ Δωρόθεος· λέγει δὲ καὶ Ὀρφεὺς περὶ ἐπεμβάσεων ταῦτα·

“And these things Dorotheus (ed. Δωρόθεος Σιδώνιος) (said); but Orpheus also says these things on the commencement of dominant periods.”*

(trans. by the author)

The text goes on for many verses describing pure astrology (see Orphic fragment 286); it would seem that the mention of the name Orpheus is meant to strenghthen the credibility of the text. Another example would be the poem Περὶ ἐπεμβάσεων “On foundations” which Josef Heeg in Die Angeblichen Orphischen Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι p. 60 ascribes to the Alexandrian or Imperial age (see Orphicorum Fragmenta of Otto Kern, p. 287 VI. Περὶ ἐπεμβάσεων); thus the poem was composed later than even the Classical period, and, therefore, impossible to have been written by Orpheus, as is almost certainly the case with all the astrological texts, nor does it contain any ideas usually associated with the great theologian. These and other similar books are simply manuals on astrology. Read the fragments yourself and make your own judgement, but I do not see any reason to believe that these books were written by Orpheus other than the fact that there is a claim to that. On the other hand, it would be absurd to think that none of those who followed the teachings of Orpheus had ever practiced astrology or consulted an astrologer; I am merely saying that there does not seem to be anything in these astrological texts which would indicate that they were actually written by Orpheus himself.

Likewise, I have read the Lithiká and I see no theology; it is a magical text that does not even mention his name once, nor does it mention the name of Mousaios. As in the above example, I must remind the reader again of the power of the name of Orpheus; to have that name attached to a book gives it great credibility, so for someone who practices these things it would be a tremendous boon to say that your magic-book was written by Orpheus, and when many of these attributions were being made, the old religion had been well suppressed and there was no one able to protect his name.

On the other hand, there are indeed legitimate texts from antiquity that refer to Orpheus as a type of magician. Why? ...because the mythology says that his singing was so mesmerizing that animals, trees and even rocks would follow him...but I think this is just poetry; quite honestly, I am sure of that. Some people are so charismatic that they are thought of as a type of magician, and I think it is the same with Orpheus. It is like when someone says, “Pavarotti’s voice is magic!” They do not mean that Pavarotti was a magician, although, poetically I guess he was.

One must consider that the idea of Orpheus writing books on magic is a rather serious accusation and also it is an idea which contradicts certain things we know, in particular, the relationship between Orpheus and the Mysteries. There are many references which prove that it was believed that Orpheus promulgated Mystery religion. Here is a typical example from the Βιβλιοθήκη ἱστορικὴ Διοδώρου Σικελιώτου 4.25.1:

"But when Heracles had made the circuit of the Adriatic, and had journeyed around the gulf on foot, he came to Epirus, whence he made his way to Peloponnesus. And now that he had performed the tenth Labour he received a Command from Eurystheus to bring Cerberus up from Hades to the light of day. And assuming that it would be to his advantage for the accomplishment of this Labour, he went to Athens and took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, Musaeus, the son of Orpheus, being at that time in charge of the initiatory rites."

(trans. C. H. Oldfather, 1935)

And another from Βάτραχοι Ἀριστοφάνους 1032:

Ὀρφεὺς μὲν γὰρ τελετάς θ᾽ ἡμῖν κατέδειξε φόνων τ᾽ ἀπέχεσθαι,

Μουσαῖος δ᾽ ἐξακέσεις τε νόσων καὶ χρησμούς.

“Orpheus taught us the mystic rites and the horrid nature of murder; Musæus, the healing of ailments and the oracles.”

(trans. The Athenian Society [anonymous but possibly Oscar Wilde], 1912)

And there are many more examples, but there is a contradiction for those who believe that any magical texts are Orphic, for in Φιλοστράτου Τὰ ἐς τὸν Τυανέα Ἀπολλώνιον 4.18 when the Pythagorean sage Apollonios of Tyana went to Eleusis to be initiated:

“But the hierophant was not disposed to admit him to the rites, for he said that he would never initiate a wizard and charlatan, nor open the Eleusinian rite to a man who dabbled in impure rites.”

(trans. F. C. Conybeare, 1912)

Later in the story we discover that Apollonios’ name was cleared and he received initiation, but this is a powerful example showing that those who dabbled in magic were not permitted into the Eleusinian Mysteries. So I ask you, if the Mysteries taught by Orpheus did not allow such practices, how is it plausible that Orpheus composed books of magic? I say that it is not plausible and that these attributions are not credible. Of course, similar to astrology, there were undoubtedly many people in antiquity who believed in various magical practices who were taken advantage of by charlatans using the name of Orpheus for various texts they utilized (See Πολιτεία Πλάτωνος 2.364b-c and 2.364e-365a).

In any case, Orpheus never needed magic; his teaching stands on a solid foundation; it is powerful and compelling and has transformed the souls of many good people, people who also do not need magic. And his influence extends forever, if for the writings of Plato alone, and this power is based on nature, not magic.

*Kern Orphic fragment 286. Codices Venetos Marcianus 334 (6) f. 168 s. μζʹ (47). μηʹ (48) (A, described by Wilhelm Kroll) and Venetos Marcianus 335 (7) f. 137 ρϛβʹ (B, described by Alessandro Olivieri) = Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum graecorum II 1900, 198, 24 (compare in the same text on p. 35).


The story of the birth of the Gods: Orphic Theogony.

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