Death, for the Orphics, Was Like a Really Intense Drug Trip
Once the soul is separated from the body it wanders around in a strange and dark place – exhausted, hungry, thirsty and steadily losing its mind. It is surrounded by indistinct phantoms that ceaselessly change their shapes and faint, gibbering voices in the distance endlessly lamenting the things they suffered, the wrong choices they made. Over and over again they tell their sad stories until the beguiling words seep into the soul, ensnaring it in filth and misery – unless it has the strength of will to press on. But with each step the soul’s memories continue to decay until it is in danger of forgetting who it is entirely.
Then, within the murky gloom the soul spies a radiantly white tree with a dark stream flowing beside it.
Most souls rush right to it to appease their savage thirst, like moths drawn to a flame. For to drink from the waters of Lethe spells a second death for the soul, the eternal death of forgetfulness – and what’s worse, of being forgotten.
The soul of the initiate knows what that tree represents and so avoids it; the soul has been this way before, has drunk from the well of Memory while in the ritual frenzy of the dance.
When the soul reaches the other tree the guardian of the lake asks, “Who are you? Why are you here?”
And the soul of the initiate is reminded by these words of when it was thunderstruck with wine, when it flew from the wearying circle as a bull of stars, when the snake passed through the bosom and the twining ivy kept off the flames, the embrace in the dark and the heavenly crown.
The soul remembers who it is and knows that it lived life fearlessly and to the fullest, regardless of how things turned out.
It regrets nothing.
Smiling, the soul of the initiate says to the guardian in the tree, “Tell Persephone that Bakcheios himself has set me free.”
And then you are bid to drink, refreshing yourself for the arduous journey that remains.
You don’t think you go to the halls of feasting straight from the tree, do you?
The Orphic gold lamellae allude to much that happens after – but it’s the interrogation scene that they’re all so careful to lay out for you, o thrice-blessed dead person. Once you have remembered who you are, what made you and what led you here – well, then you get to act out your very own fairy tale.
Will you make it to the castle at the heart of the labyrinth?
For they have all the best parties there, and wine that flows forever.