The Bloody Heart of Our Mysteries: Sparagmos and Omophagia
Wikipedia describes what many people consider to be the central myth of the Orphics:
Zeus had intended Zagreus to be his heir, but a jealous Hera persuaded the Titans to kill the child. Like the infant Zeus in Cretan myth, the child Zagreus was entrusted to the Titans who distracted him with toys. While he gazed into a mirror they tried to seize him and he fled, changing into various animal forms in his attempt to escape. Finally he took the form of a bull, and in that form they caught him, tore him to pieces, and devoured him. Zeus, discovering the crime, hurled a thunderbolt at the Titans, turning them to ashes, but Persephone (or in some accounts Athena, Rhea, or Hermes) managed to recover Zagreus’ heart. From the ashes of the Titans, mixed with the divine flesh they had eaten, came humankind; this explains the mix of good and evil in humans, the story goes, for humans possess both a trace of divinity as well as the Titans’ maliciousness.
Lovely story, isn’t it?
Problem is, that is not the Orphic myth – technically speaking it’s not even an Orphic myth. What you’re reading is a modern reconstruction that combines two originally separate mythic threads and is based entirely on a single source, a complex alchemical analogy made by the Alexandrian philosopher Olympiodoros in the 6th century CE:
And the mythical argument is as such: four reigns are told of in the Orphic tradition. The first is that of Ouranos, to which Kronos succeeds after cutting off the genitals of his father. After Kronos, Zeus becomes king, having hurled his father down into Tartaros. Then Dionysos succeeds Zeus. Through the scheme of Hera, they say, his retainers, the Titans, tear him to pieces and eat his flesh. Zeus, angered by the deed, blasts them with his thunderbolts, and from the sublimate of the vapors that rise from them comes the matter from which men are created. Therefore we must not kill ourselves, not because, as the text appears to say, we are in the body as a kind of shackle, for that is obvious, and Socrates would not call this a mystery; but we must not kill ourselves because our bodies are Dionysiac; we are, in fact, a part of him, if indeed we come about from the sublimate of the Titans who ate his flesh. (Commentary on the Phaedrus 1.3)
Up until his time there was a myth about the dismemberment of Dionysos Zagreus (often, though not always, as part of the succession of divine kingship) and there was a myth that mankind had sprung from the blood of the Titans or Giants spilled in their battle with the Gods, but in no way were these two events connected.
Consider the following:
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Gaia received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Gigantes with gleaming armor, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphai whom they call Meliai all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew the maiden Aphrodite. (Hesiod, Theogony 147–187)
There they lay, grim broken bodies crushed in huge collapse, and Terra, drenched in her children’s weltering blood, gave life to that warm gore; and to preserve memorial of her sons refashioned it in human form. But that new stock no less despised the Gods and relished cruelty, bloodshed and outrage – born beyond doubt of blood. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.151)
Zeus the father made a third age of mortals, this time of bronze, not at all like the silver one. Fashioned from ash trees, they were dreadful and mighty and bent on the harsh deeds of war and violence; they ate no bread and their hearts were strong as adamant. (Hesiod, Works and Days 143–147)
The Pelasgians who drew the root of their race from the blood of the Sithonian Giants. (Lycophron, Alexandra 1358)
All mankind, we are all from the blood of the Titans. Thus, because they were the enemies of the Gods and fought against them, we are not beloved by the Gods either, but we are punished by them and we are born into retribution, being in custody in this life for a certain time as long as we each live … This harsh and foul-aired prison, which we call the cosmos, has been prepared by the Gods. (Dio Chrysostom, Oration 30, 10–11)
Not a mention of Dionysos Zagreus anywhere.
Likewise when we read accounts of his dismemberment there’s nothing about mankind’s generation from blood or ash:
The stories told of Dionysos by the people of Patrai, that he was reared in Mesatis in Achaia and incurred there all sorts of perils through the plots of the Titanes. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 7.19.4)
This god was born in Crete, men say, of Zeus and Persephone, and Orpheus has handed down the tradition in the initiatory rites that he was torn in pieces by the Titanes. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 5.75.4)
To soften the transports of their tyrant’s rage, the Cretans made the day of the death into a religious festival, and founded a yearly rite with a triennial dedication, performing in order all that the child in his death both did and suffered. They tore a live bull with their teeth, recalling the cruel feast in their annual commemoration, and by uttering dissonant cries through the depths of the forest they imitated the ravings of an unbalanced mind, in order that it might be believed that the awful crime was committed not by guile but in madness. Before them was borne the chest in which the sister secretly stole away the heart, and with the sound of flutes and the clashing of cymbals they imitated the rattles with which the boy was deceived. Thus to do honor to a tyrant an obsequious rabble has made a God out of one who was not able to find burial. (Firmicus Maternus, The Error of Pagan Religion 6.5)
According to Terpander of Lesbos, Dionysos, who is sometimes called Sabazios, was nursed by Nysa; he was the son of Zeus and Persephone and was eventually torn in pieces by the Titans. (Johannes Lydus, On the Months 72)
The mysteries of Dionysos are wholly inhuman; for while still a child, and the Curetes danced around his cradle clashing their weapons, and the Titans having come upon them by stealth, and having beguiled him with childish toys, these very Titans tore him limb from limb when but a child, as the bard of this mystery, the Thracian Orpheus, says: “Cone, and spinning-top, and limb-moving doll, and fair golden apples from the clear-toned Hesperides.” And the useless symbols of this mystic rite it will not be useless to exhibit for condemnation. These are dice, ball, hoop, apples, top, looking-glass, tuft of wool. Athene, to resume our account, having abstracted the heart of Dionysos received the name Pallas from its palpitating (pallein). And the Titans who had torn him limb from limb, setting a caldron on a tripod, and throwing into it the members of Dionysos, first boiled them down, and then fixing them on spits, “held them over the fire.” But Zeus having appeared, since he was a God, having speedily perceived the savor of the pieces of flesh that were being cooked, that savor which your Gods agree to have assigned to them as their perquisite, assails the Titans with his thunderbolt, and consigns the members of Dionysos to his son Apollo to be interred. And he – for he did not disobey Zeus – bore the dismembered corpse to Parnassus, and there deposited it. (Clement of Alexandria, Book Two of Exhortation to the Greeks)
Dionysos was deceived by the Titans, and fell (ἐκπίπτοντος) from the throne of Zeus, and was torn in pieces by them, and his remains being afterwards put together again, he returned as it were to life, and ascended into heaven? (Origen, Contra Celsum 4.17)
A significant number of sources on his dismemberment make it clear that Zagreus was not always envisioned as a child when this terrible event took place:
The one who greatly hunts, as the writer of the Alcmeonis said “Mistress Earth, and Zagreus highest of all the Gods.” That is, Dionysos. (Etymologicum Gudianum s.v. Zagreus)
Some writers of myth, however, relate that there was a second Dionysos who was much earlier in time than the one we have just mentioned. For according to them there was born of Zeus and Persephone a Dionysos who is called by some Sabazios and whose birth and sacrifices and honors are celebrated at night and in secret, because of the disgraceful conduct which is a consequence of the gatherings. They state also that he excelled in sagacity and was the first to attempt the yoking of oxen and by their aid to effect the sowing of the seed, this being the reason why they also represent him as wearing a horn. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.4.1)
After Juno observed that his son, ignoble and born of a concubine, ruled such a great kingdom, she saw to it that he should be killed while hunting, and encouraged the Titans to drive his father Jove from the kingdom and restore it to Saturn. When they tried to mount to heaven, Jove with the help of Minerva, Apollo, and Diana, cast them headlong into Tartarus. On Atlas, who had been their leader, he put the vault of the sky; even now he is said to hold up the sky on his shoulders. (Hyginus, Fabulae 150)
Furthermore, so that we might seem to go more deeply, the story says that the Giants found Bacchus inebriated. After they tore him to pieces limb by limb, they buried the bits, and a little while later he arose alive and whole. We read that the disciples of Orpheus interpreted this fiction philosophically and that they represent this story in his sacred rites. (The Third Vatican Mythographer 12.5)
In one variant tradition Dionysos actually defeated the Titans in battle and became their king:
The struggle having proved sharp and many having fallen on both sides, Kronos finally was wounded and victory lay with Dionysos, who had distinguished himself in the battle. Thereupon the Titans fled to the regions which had once been possessed by Ammon, and Dionysos gathered up a multitude of captives and returned to Nysa. Here, drawing up his force in arms about the prisoners, he brought a formal accusation against the Titans and gave them every reason to suspect that he was going to execute the captives. But when he got them free from the charges and allowed them to make their choice either to join him in his campaign or to go scot free, they all chose to join him, and because their lives had been spared contrary to their expectation they venerated him like a God. Dionysos, then, taking the captives singly and giving them a libation of wine, required of all of them an oath that they would join in the campaign without treachery and fight manfully until death. (Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 3.71.4–6)
A clue that the generation of man from the residue of the Titans and the dismemberment of Zagreus cannot be linked in this way is made clear by the tradition that Zeus used the preserved heart of his first son to create his second by impregnating Semele with it:
Liber, son of Jove and Proserpina, was dismembered by the Titans, and Jove gave his heart, torn to bits, to Semele in a drink. When she was made pregnant by this, Juno changing herself to look like Semele’s nurse, Beroe, said to her, “Daughter, ask Jove to come to you as he comes to Juno, so you may know what pleasure it is to sleep with a God.” At her suggestion Semele made this request of Jove, and was smitten by a thunderbolt. (Hyginus, Fabulae 167)
When did Semele live? Not at the infancy of man – her father was a Phoenician immigrant who settled in Thebes and became king there. Chronologically, Herodotos (Histories 2.145.1) places Agenor the father of Kadmos circa 2000 BCE, so people had already been around for quite some time at that point.
But the real reason that it’s important to disentangle this thread of myth is because it obscures the true function of Dionysos within Orphism, which can be summed up by this quote from the Orationes of Aelius Aristides:
Nothing can be so firmly bound, by illness, by wrath or by fortune, that cannot be released by the Lord Dionysos.
The aition for this function is found in the story of Melinoë. You see, the Goddess Melinoë was conceived when Zeus disguised himself as Haides and violently raped his daughter Persephone, mangling her flesh in the process. The wound grew into rage and that rage became personified as Melinoë who was transformed from a wrathful Fury into a gentle Goddess when Dionysos Eubouleos was willing to sit and listen to her tell her story, as he had listened and thereby soothed the vengeful anger of Hephaistos when no one else would. Subsequently Melinoë became a fierce protector of his initiates as well as the rejected and forgotten dead – and that lies at the heart of Dionysos’ role within Orphism.
And yet that is not to say that the dismemberment of Dionysos is unimportant within our tradition – for me it has been hugely important and has had far-reaching implications in my personal life. As just one instance, because of it I am no longer a vegetarian. How can one be a Bacchic Orphic and not be a vegetarian, you may be asking? Pretty easily, as it turns out.
If you read accounts of Orphism by the likes of Thomas Taylor, Jane Ellen Harrison and W. K. Guthrie, it seems like they were a reformist Protestant sect that espoused pacifism, celibacy, teetotalism, vegetarianism and an escape from metempsychosis (transmigration of souls) through spiritual enlightenment. But if you pick up any decent contemporary study on Orphism you’ll find at least one chapter devoted to the shifting trends within Orphic studies. Jesus, have people come to some wild conclusions about these guys, most of which radically contradict each other. It’s quite amusing, really – plus we can all use periodic reminders that the mere fact that someone in academia has said something does not make it true.
The reason that there’s so much confusion, I believe, is because there was never an ancient Orphic church, a set of universal doctrines or myth, or even really an Orphic movement for that matter. What we’ve got are a lot of individuals, and sometimes small, isolated groups, who attach authority to the name of Orpheus, many of whom attributed their own writings and rituals to him. This process began around the 6th century BCE and continued more or less until the closing of the Platonic Academy by Justinian. (There was also some Christian and Renaissance pseudoepigraphica though this is quite outside the bounds of any discernibly Orphic tradition. Little can be said with certainty about the historical Thracian arch-poet and founder of mysteries, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that Orpheus was not a crypto-monotheist who prophesied the coming of Jesus.)
Although we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the ancient Orphics you still find a lot of people holding on to these outdated notions, especially with regard to their supposed vegetarianism. There are some issues (interpretation of the “hard and grievous circle” and how much of the Zagreus myth was known, and when) where cases can be made in a variety of ways, but I simply do not believe that we can ascribe vegetarianism to them across the board.
To begin with, out of the wealth of material we have on Orpheus and the Orphics (over four hundred pages’ worth in the latest collection) there are only a handful of allusions to this, most of which can be explained away by more sensible and straightforward interpretations. (For instance “not to stain one’s hands with blood” most likely means “don’t commit homicide,” especially when you consider the frequent Orphic concern for the removal of pollution associated with murder.)
Furthermore, of the handful of passages which are commonly cited in support of this claim two of them are part of mythological plays, and in those plays context is everything.
The first is a fragment likely contrasting the purity of the chorus with the savage bloodthirstiness of king Minos and his bull, and notably comes after the chorus of initiates discuss their own participation in the Dionysian sacrament of sparagmós and omophagia (the tearing apart of a live animal and consumption of its raw and still bloody flesh) – so clearly there were times when even these fictive initiates broke their taboo.
Son of the Phoenician princess, child of Tyrian Europa and great Zeus, ruler over hundred-fortressed Crete — here am I, come from the sanctity of temples roofed with cut beam of our native wood, its true joints of cypress welded together with Chalybean axe and cement from the bull. Pure has my life been since the day when I became an initiate of Idaean Zeus. Where midnight Zagreus roves, I rove; I have endured his thunder-cry; fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts; held the Great Mother’s mountain flame; I am set free and named by name a Bakchos of the Mailed Priests. Having all-white garments, I flee the birth of mortals and, not nearing the place of corpses, I guard myself against the eating of ensouled flesh. (Euripides, Cretans fragment 472)
And in the second play, also by Euripides, Theseus is trying to smear his son Hippolytos (whom he suspects of committing incest) by accusing him of being an overly sensitive, bookish prig who is merely feigning his Orphic piety:
Are you, then, the companion of the Gods, as a man beyond the common? Are you the chaste one, untouched by evil? I will never be persuaded by your vauntings, never be so unintelligent as to impute folly to the Gods. Continue then your confident boasting, take up a diet of greens and play the showman with your food, make Orpheus your lord and engage in mystic rites, holding the vaporings of many books in honor. For you have been found out. To all I give the warning: avoid men like this. For they make you their prey with their high-holy-sounding words while they contrive deeds of shame. (Euripides, Hippolytos 948–957)
Of course what people seem to forget is that none of what Theseus says is accurate – that’s the whole point, since he’s trying to goad Hippolytos into confessing the role he played in his mother’s suicide. Hipploytos, after all, was basically a big dumb jock who got into trouble by spurning the Goddess Aphrodite so that he could spend all of his time out in the woods hunting with Artemis.
The paucity of information on this is rather telling in light of the fact that there are a bunch of sources written by people who identified themselves as Orphics but didn’t say anything at all about such a prohibition. In fact there are a couple lists of wild and domesticated animals, aquatic creatures and vegetables that were denied them on religious grounds which makes you wonder why they’d bother with such specificity if they were to avoid ensouled foods altogether. If this was such a widespread feature it’s equally curious that the Orphics aren’t mentioned more often in the numerous treatises by philosophers against meat-eating. Likewise, why are some of the most notable Orphics – including the soldier who was cremated with the Derveni papyrus, Queen Olympias and her Makedonian court, a Roman senator, a slave and a gladiator – all known to have consumed flesh? Plus a ton of sources mention Orphics performing sacrifice, including the slaughter of hekatombs and offerings to the ancestors and underworld powers. Old dead things ain’t gonna accept animal crackers in substitution!
That’s not to say that all Orphics did consume flesh. There was a lot of crossover between the Orphic and Pythagorean communities in Magna Graecia and we know that a number of the latter wrote books under Orpheus’ name, especially when their political plans fell apart and the neighboring communities began a systematic purge; indeed they may have thought that such duplicity was the only means of preserving their master’s teachings. (Though, ironically, it is sometimes claimed that Pythagoras was the first author of Orphika.) By and large the Pythagoreans were adherents of metempsychosis and vegetarianism (except in the case of soldiers, athletes and others who required a more robust diet; Pythagoras is even said to have sacrificed an ox after making an important mathematical discovery) so when we do see a rare instance of this ascribed to Orpheus and his followers in all probability it’s coming from a Pythagorean source who’s trying to pass or at least an Orphic who was influenced by the Samian’s teachings.
But what really changed my stance on this was my own brush with sparagmós and omophagia.
So there I was, huddled in a corner, covered in fear sweat and laughing maniacally while tripping balls from eating an heroically large dose of amanita muscaria. That’s what someone outside my head would have seen; inside, I was running through the shadowy, winding passages of a labyrinth while terrifying inky creatures with faces bright white from the ash they’d smeared themselves with chased after me. What had me laughing so insanely was that I felt like Dionysos. I could feel the weight of his spirit within me and I had this weird overlay of his thoughts coupled with my own in my head. And yet Dionysos was the one leading the monsters, who were getting closer and closer with every panting breath. Eventually they caught me, tore me apart and consumed my flesh beginning with my still-beating heart. Then, once they were finished, Dionysos restored me, stitching my body back together like Frankenstein’s monster, except the heart was missing. My chest was an empty cavern, a dry krater. Into this he stuffed his own heart – a clump of ivy with black-green leaves like you find on Apulian vases. Except they were alive, throbbing with vitality and consciousness. Different from our own – older, slower, collective – but real nonetheless. I knew with rock-solid certainty that (among the many other things that act entailed) my God had shown me what life for the ivy, and by extension all plants, was like – a life that he partook of as equally as he did human and animal life. Dionysos is the God of life in all its myriad forms – and he was simultaneously the God of death as well. It was all this elaborate interplay, this sacred dance that blurred the boundaries and in which we both lose and discover ourselves.
Shortly afterwards I stopped being a vegetarian. It was hard; I’d been one since my early teens and it was a huge part of my identity. I always felt a smug superiority to meat-eaters even if I wasn’t one of those obnoxious vegetarians who went around giving unsolicited lectures on ethics and the cruelty and wastefulness of feasting on flesh. I quietly ate with people, hoping they would take notice of my pure food and be shamed into adopting a more evolved diet.
What I realized is that I was a hypocrite trying to escape a necessary part of embodied existence, trying to avoid any debt or consequences for my actions. And I did this by willfully ignoring the simple and inescapable fact that I was alive because I was consuming other forms of life.
We’re good at weaving excuses to justify our actions and avoid having to examine too deeply beliefs whose implications make us uncomfortable.
It’s animal life that matters; they are the only ones who are developed enough to have a nervous system and intelligence enough to suffer and be aware of their suffering. An animal will try to flee in order to escape that suffering and preserve itself – but a plant just sits there, hell some actually want to be eaten so that they can disperse their seed through our poo. Why, we’re doing them a favor by eating them!
What arrogance! What presumption!
Even if that was true on a species level, how was I to know what an individual plant may have felt about their role in the process? Just because it didn’t have the means for fleeing doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t want to. And besides, as a poster on reddit said:
In general, all animals eat living entities. Plants are the only true innocents to do no harm by requiring only soil, air, and sunlight. This means vegans consciously choose to prey on the only living entities to have never harmed another.
If I truly wanted to avoid harming conscious and living entities I wouldn’t differentiate between types of consciousness, favoring only those closest to my own – I simply wouldn’t eat. Except that would end up harming me and I wasn’t yet prepared to die. I had work still to do for my God and for my community. I wanted to serve them, to help ease their suffering and bring joy to them in whatever capacity I could. To do that, I had to put myself first – decide that the preservation of my own life, which enabled me to do good in the world, was important enough that it warranted taking in other life in order to make that happen.
It’s as Celsus in the Alethes Logos says:
If in obedience to the traditions of their fathers they abstain from such victims, they must also abstain from all animal food, in accordance with the opinions of Pythagoras, who thus showed his respect for the soul and its bodily organs. But if, as they say, they abstain that they may not eat along with daimones, I admire their wisdom, in having at length discovered, that whenever they eat they eat with daimones, although they only refuse to do so when they are looking upon a slain victim; for when they eat bread, or drink wine, or taste fruits, do they not receive these things, as well as the water they drink and the air they breathe, from certain daimones, to whom have been assigned these different provinces of nature? We must either not live, and indeed not come into this life at all, or we must do so on condition that we give thanks and first-fruits and prayers to daimones, who have been set over the things of this world: and that we must do as long as we live, that they may prove good and kind. They must make their choice between two alternatives. If they refuse to render due service to the Gods, and to respect those who are set over this service, let them not come to manhood, or marry wives, or have children, or indeed take any share in the affairs of life; but let them depart hence with all speed, and leave no posterity behind them, that such a race may become extinct from the face of the earth. Or, on the other hand, if they will take wives, and bring up children, and taste of the fruits of the earth, and partake of all the blessings of life, and bear its appointed sorrows (for nature herself hath allotted sorrows to all men; for sorrows must exist, and earth is the only place for them), then must they discharge the duties of life until they are released from its bonds, and render due honour to those beings who control the affairs of this life, if they would not show themselves ungrateful to them. For it would be unjust in them, after receiving the good things which they dispense, to pay them no tribute in return.
Of course, that carried with it a profound obligation: I had to be worthy of my food. If it was paying the price to keep me alive, then damn it, I needed to make sure that that meant something, that I wasn’t just sitting on my ass passing the time, merely existing as opposed to truly living. Every day I would take more and use that to do more. I’m not sure it mattered all that much to my food – their life and experiences on this mortal plane were over and would be just as over whether they ended up on my plate or stuck to the tire of a car. But it mattered to me and in the end that’s all I’m responsible for. Myself. My feelings. My thoughts. My actions. In all the world, that’s the only thing I could truly control – and that is made possible only through the food I eat.
It’s a choice we all must make, and I don’t fault anyone for how they choose. But we need to do it with our eyes open, knowing what it is we’re doing and why. If nothing else, sacrifice forces us to do so, to confront all of our unexamined assumptions and sacrifice is the core of this tradition, as you shall discover over the coming weeks.