Dark Minded Thoughts
According to Wikipedia:
Melinoë is the daughter of Persephone, who was visited by Zeus disguised as her husband Plouton (Pluto). Although the wording of the hymn is unclear at this point, Pluto (or perhaps Zeus) becomes angry upon learning of the pregnancy and rends her flesh. The figure called Zeus Chthonios in the Orphic Hymns is either another name for Pluto, or Zeus in a chthonic aspect. Melinoë is born at the mouth of the Cocytus, one of the rivers of the underworld, where Hermes in his underworld aspect as psychopomp was stationed. In the Orphic tradition, the Cocytus is one of four underworld rivers. Melinoë’s connections to Hecate and Hermes suggest that she exercised her power in the realm of the soul’s passage, and in that function may be compared to the torchbearer Eubouleos in the mysteries. According to the hymn, she brings night terrors to mortals by manifesting in strange forms, “now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness,” and can drive mortals insane. The purpose of the hymn is to placate her by showing that the Orphic initiate understands and respects her nature, thereby averting the harm she has the capacity for causing. The translation of Thomas Taylor (1887) has given rise to a conception of Melinoë as half-black, half-white, representing the duality of the heavenly Zeus and the infernal Pluto. This had been the interpretation of Gottfried Hermann in his annotated text of the hymns in 1805. This duality may be implicit, like the explanation offered by Servius for why the poplar leaf has a light and dark side to represent Leuke (“White”), a nymph loved by Pluto. The Orphic text poses interpretational challenges for translators in this passage. Melinoë appears on a bronze tablet for use in the kind of private ritual usually known as “magic”. The style of Greek letters on the tablet, which was discovered at Pergamon, dates it to the first half of the 3rd century AD. The use of bronze was probably intended to drive away malevolent spirits and to protect the practitioner. The construction of the tablet suggests that it was used for divination. It is triangular in shape, with a hole in the center, presumably for suspending it over a surface. The content of the triangular tablet reiterates triplicity. It depicts three crowned goddesses, each with her head pointing into an angle and her feet pointing toward the center. The name of the goddess appears above her head: Dione (ΔΙΟΝΗ), Phoebe (ΦΟΙΒΙΗ), and the obscure Nyche (ΝΥΧΙΗ). Amibousa, a word referring to the phases of the moon, is written under each goddess’s feet. Densely inscribed spells frame each goddess: the inscriptions around Dione and Nyche are voces magicae, incantatory syllables (“magic words”) that are mostly untranslatable. Melinoë appears in a triple invocation that is part of the inscription around Phoebe: O Persephone, O Melinoë, O Leucophryne. Esoteric symbols are inscribed on the edges of the triangle.
Which got me thinking, what if Melinoë is the ancient grief of Persephone?
What if Persephone felt such anger and pain and sorrow that it fractured her mind – and the part that broke loose became sentient, almost a goddess in her own right?
I say almost because Melinoë doesn’t really have any powers or functions or attributes of her own. They are all borrowed either from Persephone herself or the female divinities her mother was picking flowers with when she was abducted.
Not only does Melinoë lack distinctiveness, but there’s a pronounced instability to her. One of her epithets is Amibousa (the changeable one) and Melinoë can be interpreted as Dark Mind (melas noos) and she:
drives mortals to madness with her airy phantoms,
as she appears in weird shapes and forms,
now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness,
and all this in hostile encounters in the gloom of night.
This interpretation does clear up some fundamental problems within Orphism. For instance there’s the oft-quoted line of Pindar’s:
Those from whom Persephone receives the recompense for the ancient grief (fr. 133)
Why would Persephone still be grieved after all this time? Especially since the body of myths and the accounts of her ancient devotees portray her in a variety of different moods. So perhaps the goddess got over her grief – but that grief now exists independent of her and requires appeasement. (Remember, the hymn speaks of Persephone’s flesh being mangled or rent, a lesser version of the sparagmos suffered by her son.)
If true, I believe that Dionysos was instrumental in soothing this grief and that the methods by which he did so are the basis for Orphic ritual. This is why the initiate is instructed:
Tell Persephone that Bakcheios himself has freed you.
And Damascius, in his commentary on the Phaedrus (1.11) explains:
Dionysos is the cause of release, whence the god is also called the Releaser (Lyseus). And Orpheus says: “Men performing rituals will send hekatombs in every season throughout the year and celebrate festivals, seeking release from lawless ancestors. You, having power over them, whomever you wish you will release from harsh toil and the unending goad.”
Perhaps the Zagreus myth wasn’t the heart of Orphism after all. Although numerous sources from antiquity allude to the dismemberment and also man’s generation from the blood of the Titans none of them contain all of the details familiar to us from the “reconstruction” of this myth by modern scholars. Indeed, the closest we get is Olympiodoros who made it into a complex alchemical allegory and also, I might add, wrote close to a thousand years after we first start encountering Orphic material.
After all, if Dionysos is Zagreus redivivus and he’s hanging out and talking to Persephone below, why is she still so upset that she’s in need of appeasement? If she’s pining for his original form and its lost potential, then I don’t think emphasizing one’s association with Dionysos is going to prove all that beneficial to the initiate.
But if the grief is over something else – her deception and rape, according to the Orphic Hymn to Melinoë – then it makes sense that Dionysos would be able to step in and assist with that. It’s kind of his specialty, after all.
A young girl suffers something horrible and is either murdered or takes her own life. Disease, drought, violent madness and other forms of devastation befall the community (usually with an element of compulsive imitation involved) until Dionysos or one of his votaries arrives on the scene and provides purification and release through ritual and dance. Afterwards a festival is instituted in remembrance of the girl.
Right there you’ve got the plot of two-thirds of his myths – more if you include the stories about tragic young men. And Dionysos is uniquely skilled in this work because he of all the gods is most acquainted with suffering and madness. Horrible, horrible things happened to him yet he made it through and can show each of us the way through our own personal labyrinth More than that he can help unbind and heal the ancestral trauma that we carry with us and which often works itself out in our lives, consciously or unconsciously.
And that is what Orphism is about, as Plato himself made perfectly clear:
Next, madness can provide relief from the greatest plagues of trouble that beset certain families because of their guilt for ancient crimes: it turns up among those who need a way out; it gives prophecies and takes refuge in prayers to the gods and in worship, discovering mystic rites and purifications that bring the man it touches through to safety for this and all time to come. So it is that the right sort of madness finds relief from present hardships for a man it has possessed. (Phaedrus 244de)
But the most astounding of all these arguments concerns what they have to say about the gods and virtue. They say that the gods, too, assign misfortune and a bad life to many good people, and the opposite fate to their opposites. Begging priests and prophets frequent the doors of the rich and persuade them that they possess a god-given power founded on sacrifices and incantations. If the rich person or any of his ancestors has committed an injustice, they can fix it with pleasant things and feasts. Moreover, if he wishes to injure some enemy, then, at little expense, he’ll be able to harm just and unjust alike, for by means of spells and enchantments they can persuade the gods to serve them. And they present a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, offspring as they say of Selene and the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Republic 2.364a–365b)
Interestingly, some derive Melinoë’s name from meilia noos meaning Propitiating Mind.
The word meilia was often used to describe propitiatory offerings made to the spirits of the dead, such as those prescribed by the commentator of the Derveni Papyrus:
… prayers and sacrifices appease the souls, and the enchanting song of the magician is able to remove the daimones when they impede. Impeding daimones are revenging souls. This is why the magicians perform the sacrifice as if they were paying a penalty. On the offerings they pour water and milk, from which they make the libations, too. They sacrifice innumerable and many-knobbed cakes, because the souls, too, are innumerable. (col.6.1-11)
According to Liddell & Scott:
meilia soothing things, esp. of gifts, of a bridal dowry and of playthings. Also propitiations, offerings to the dead and rarely a charm against storms. Related to meilichios soothing speech, with gentle words and later of persons who are mild and gracious; used of many gods including Dionysus and Zeus M. the protector of those who invoked him with propitiatory offerings at Athens. Propitiatory offerings were so called because of the honey mixed in the drink-offerings.
And it forms the basis of the Dionysian epithet Meilichios:
Sosibos the Lakedaimonian, by way of proving that the fig-tree is a discovery of Dionysos, says that for that reason the Lakedaimonians even worship Dionysos Sykites (of the Fig). And the Naxians, according to Andriskos and again Aglaosthenes, record that Dionysos is called Meilichios (Gentle) because he bestowed the fruit of the fig. For this reason, also, among the Naxians the face of the god called Dionysos Bakcheos is made of the vine, whereas that of Dionysos Meilichios is of fig-wood. For, they say, figs are called meilicha (mild fruit). (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 3.78a)
It’s interesting to note that other sources mention that these two masks were in opposition to each other. The Bakcheos mask filled everyone who looked upon it (and it was kept locked in a chest except once a year when it was brought out during his festival) with a savage frenzy while the Meilichios mask was brought in to loosen and soothe that frenzy.
Meilichios also has chthonic associations (Zeus Meilichios received hero-offerings and appeared in the form of a snake, for instance) as does Eubouleos, with whom Melinoë is sometimes partnered. Eubouleos means “he of good counsel” and refers to Dionysos’ role as advocate or speaker on behalf of the dead:
I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld and Eukles and Eubouleus, noble child of Zeus! And I have this gift of Memory, prized by men!
Caecilia Secundina, come forth, made divine by the Law!
(Gold lamella from Rome)
I think that Dionysos took this broken fragment of Persephone, healed it and integrated it as part of his retinue and that Melinoë now serves to assist people in getting right with their dead.