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Baseline Research - From Orphism to Gnosticism

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  • George
    I stumbled across this article which asserts a number of ideas and historical developments in the emergence of Gnosticism. I ll post the first portion of it.
    Message 1 of 1 , May 7, 2003
      I stumbled across this article which asserts a number
      of ideas and historical developments in the emergence
      of Gnosticism.

      I'll post the first portion of it.

      Naturally, I can't swear to its accuracy, but it
      presents a level of detail, and an interest in even-handedness
      that is impressive.

      Using this article as a "baseline", it will be much easier
      to "refute and refine" a working scenario.

      Naturally, I'll provide the URL as well, for those
      who want to read the whole article:




      The Orphic Mysteries separated from the Dionysian at around the 6th
      cent BC, according to most scholars, though some think the schism
      occurred in the previous century, which is supported by our own
      researches. Prior to this it was probably an evolving school within
      the Dionysian Mysteries.

      Orphism was a rationally speculative form of Dionysianism favoured by
      philosophers. It was also male dominated, reacting against the alleged
      feminist 'bias' of traditional Dionysianism.

      Its basic tenets were that the material world was illusory and 'evil',
      behind which existed a real world of spirit from which we ultimately
      originated (their mythic representation of which being the ineffable
      Orphic God, Phanes (son of Chaos), dually manifest to us as Dionysos
      and Apollo). Their mystical task was thus one of transcendence and
      return to their otherworldly origins.

      Where these ideas came from is uncertain. Originally the Mysteries
      had no dogma, it being part of the initiatory process to interpret
      the rites, along with your personal experiences in them, as freely as
      possible. Thus like modern Freemasonry (itself a relic of Orphism),
      the Dionysian Mysteries probably contained many inclinations and
      schools of thought (G.R.S Mead writes of other obscure sects, two of
      which he calls the Thiasi and the Orgeones, which emerged amongst the

      Most Dionysian initiates interpreted their mythos in a very
      traditional way, following an ancient worldview inherited from the
      Bronze Age. According to this view Primal Nature was 'chaotic',
      paradoxical and mysterious, out of which arose a coherent world that
      was largely a conceptual creation - though not necessarily ours (of
      course this is a modern interpretation, but for us their theology can
      best be understood in this way).

      The key point being that for them there was one Cosmos, rather than
      the "Heaven & Earth" duality of the Orphics, and it was a pantheistic
      one. Thus their basic ideas were the same as the Orphics, but there
      was no denigration of, and separation from, the material world and
      the body. Their esoteric tasks involved working with this ineffable
      spiritual reality behind the everyday world - the source of life - as
      magicians and healers, rather than transcendence, in the mystical

      The Orphic 'heresy' seems to have arisen from this in a number of
      stages. Firstly, from what Joseph Campbell called the Great
      Reversal, a psychological shift occurring in the late Bronze Age, a
      period of catastrophe, war and famine (associated in the Aegean with
      the collapse of Minoan Civilisation, and subsequent mutual
      destruction of Troy and Mycenae, between 1400 and 1150 BC. See the
      article 'Enclosure and Catastrophe' for a likely cause of these

      After two centuries of such suffering earthly existence was seen no
      longer seen as such a positive place and a tradition of lament arose.
      For many this would be a sobering experience- finding later
      expression in Greek Tragedy - but did not cut them off from life. For
      others however the world became very dark and a negative tradition of
      transcendence emerged. The embodied world became something apart from
      our original existence, rather than a partial manifestation of it.

      Many myths thus became inward looking, unworldly and mystical rather
      than connected to a positive, productive reality. Fortunately this
      trend did not gain much ground in the Aegean, though certain mystical
      sects did begin to emerge there (particularly, it appears, amongst
      fallen aristocracies, who lost most in this period).

      [THE EAST:]
      The Orient however was initially far more effected by the Great
      Reversal and here various influential schools of Mysticism gradually
      emerged. The Ancient Greeks wrote of several travelling mystics from
      India (as far as we can tell these were mostly Jains, with possibly
      some 'proto-Buddhist' Nastika, and perhaps a few ascetic Shivaics)
      who allegedly made Greek converts. Oriental material was probably
      also received 'second hand' via eclectic sources in Asia Minor. A
      mystical melting pot probably developed at this stage. Oriental
      concepts in some of the developing Greek mystical sects confirm this.

      The Orphic school represents the influence of such Greek Mysticism on
      the Dionysian Mysteries. It probably emerged within the seed bed of
      the rational and moralistic cult of Dionysos Athenaios which greatly
      influenced Orphics. An ethico-metaphysical doctrine of Orphism
      gradually evolved, and eventually separated from the 'lower'
      Dionysian Mysteries, becoming the centre of Greek Mysticism. Orphics
      considering themselves higher initiates of Dionysos (and

      The first Orphic was traditionally Orpheus (hence their name), the
      poet-enchanter son of Oeagrus, a King of Thrace [Thrace is
      north of Macedonia and/or parts of it].

      Orpheus appears to be an initiatory name taken from a heroic hunter
      in Thracian myth (considered a form of Dionysos). Though it is not
      known if the historical figure really existed or was just a myth of
      origin. Orpheus is mentioned in some older Dionysian texts and does
      not seem to have been exclusively Orphic. But later these fabled
      personas would become merged in Orphic mythology.

      The poems and writings attributed to Orpheus (though having more than
      one author according to experts) became the sacred texts of Orphism.
      It is curious that the founder of a mystical movement would come from
      the most primitively pagan of all places in the Aegean, perhaps a
      case of extremes mutating to their opposites? (another theory points
      to the fact that the Thracians practice a form of Northern Shamanism,
      with its very ascetic initiation procedures, perhaps sowing the seeds
      for later Orphism.) Orpheus, whether real or mythic, was said to have
      been the founder of the alphabet, greatest poet - musician - artist,
      and father of all the Mysteries, in general combining features of
      Hermes and Dionysos. Later he was said to be the son (and high
      priest) of Apollo.

      Less ostentatiously, he was the revealer of the 'truths'
      of the Mysteries, which he recorded on tablets of stone at Mount
      Haimos. Thus Orpheus fixed what before was free.

      [VEGETARIAN - "Orpheotelestai"]
      Early Orphism tended to have few physical schools (perhaps only one)
      and to be represented by individual travelling initiators,
      Orpheotelestai, with no fixed ties to any place or community. They
      rejected animal sacrifices and were vegetarian, shunning any contact
      with flesh or blood. To 'lower people' they acted as healers, but
      tended to be aloof from them. Later Orphic religious communities
      began to emerge, with their ranks of Musaei, or teaching initiates.
      It's Mysteries were not overtly different from the orthodox Dionysian
      Mysteries. It retained it's method of initiation and tradition of
      orgiasm, but their practical purpose became one of transcendence, as
      in Buddhist Tantra.

      [MINOAN - I.E. CRETAN]
      In the once secret Orphic version of the Dionysian Myth, mankind was
      seen as arising from the charred fragments of the Titans (a title of
      the Minoan Kings, linked to the old gods) who were struck down by the
      patriarchal Zeus for their rebellion, in particular their murderous
      dismemberment and cannibalization of his son (or aspect) Dionysos
      Zagreus. These fragments contained both Titanic (material and
      bestial) and Dionysian (spiritual and ensouled) essence. The Titans
      thus replaced the Maenads as the slayers of Dionysos (though they
      would be preserved as the ultimate killers of Orpheus). Thus
      ambiguous female 'forces of nature' were replaced by 'evil',
      masculine powers.

      The Orphic mission was to free the constantly reincarnating soul from
      the 'wheel of rebirth', and use the teachings of Orpheus to separate
      the Dionysian spirit from gross matter reuniting the fragments of
      Dionysos in a heavenly paradise. Their motto being Soma Sema, "the
      body, a tomb".

      Both Minoan and Thracian traditions lurked behind this mythos, as
      well as Oriental concepts. It would appear that whoever wrote it
      blamed the Bronze Age chaos on Thracian and Minoan a rulers (the
      incarnations of their gods, the Titans) and their 'degenerate' Pagan
      practises. But as only the aristocracy and the conformist classes of
      the time fully accepted the identity of the their rulers and the
      gods, this would identify the 'heresy' as a predominantly upper class
      one within Dionysianism, rather than a grass roots one. Though it
      shows an ethical rebelliousness which previously did not exist in the

      The specific Orphic Myth however was that of Orpheus and Eurydice.
      Here Orpheus's bride, following a fatal dalliance with a thinly
      disguised Lord of the Animals, descends into the underworld. Orpheus
      (as the hunter son of Apollo and Urania) follows in an attempt to
      rescue her. He escapes himself but does not succeed in his quest.
      Afterwards he becomes an ascetic rejecting all women and is finally
      torn apart by the Maenads. This is obviously a reworking of a pagan
      fertility myth, but Orphics interpreted the underworld as the
      material one and the world above it as heaven. Some have seen
      references to an, at best, homoerotic or, at worst, a puritanical
      misogynistic aspect of Orphism in this myth.

      The Orphics also developed a complex cosmology. Recorded in their
      Orphic Theogony and Argonautics. Here the cosmos was originally non
      material void. A divine power, the eggborn Eros (identified with
      Dionysos Phanes, God of Light), a golden winged hermaphrodite with
      four heads (Human, Bull, Serpent and Ram), emerged spontaneously from
      the void and began to create our universe via an act of will and
      imagination. At some stage, after various dualistic and triadic
      generations involved in this creation, an imbalance occurred from
      which emerged Strife. Following which the cosmos became imperfect and
      our everyday world emerged from it.

      Many later details were added involving complex hierarchies and
      aspects similar to those found in the Qabbalah (See Mead's Orphism
      for details). Though ultimately Dionysos Phanes united everything as
      one within his being. Much of this complexity today seem excessive
      and unnecessary, and was probably a ploy for creating an elite class
      of theological experts within Orphism.

      A significant change occurs to the Orphic Mysteries in the early 6th
      Century. Here the ruler of Athens, Hipparchos, commissions a
      committee to collate and redact all the works of Orpheus, creating an
      official canon. The task is taken so seriously that when one member's
      contribution displeases Hipparchos he has him permanently banished
      from Athens. From then on Orphism is not only standardized but
      politically correct, and patronized by the Athenian establishment.

      The Orphic works of this period reveal that it had developed a strong
      philosophical base and collected the most advanced scientific belief
      of the time. Apollo is emphasized more than in orthodox Dionysianism
      of the period, and there is talk of an orderly cosmos and
      scientifically discoverable 'Laws of Nature'. Their astronomy is the
      most advanced of its period, describing a spherical, spinning earth
      within a heliocentric solar system, with records going back to
      1000BC. However they were not merely narrow scientific
      materialists and sought to combine science with art and the spiritual.

      Thus their texts were written in a literary style and the Law of
      Nature was described as the manifestation of Eros, the power of
      creation, attraction and harmony. They also matched their
      astronomical skills with a great knowledge of astrology. Zodiacal
      Astrology in the form we know it today is largely an Orphic
      invention. Stars were, for them, spiritual essences entering the
      world, each star being a ray of Dionysos Phanes, the Being of
      Light, and the ultimate source and destiny of a reincarnating soul.

      This classic, or Orphean, Orphism was soon modified by the reforms of
      Pythagoras in the late 6th cent. Pythagoras, an Orphic initiate,
      turned his Orphism into a form of Logical Mysticism, involving the
      Mysteries of the Lyre of Orpheus. Here the Orphic theories of Cosmic
      Law, Harmony and Sympathy were given centre stage and greatly
      developed. The Apollonian side of Orphism gained the ascendant and
      Dionysos begins to mutate into a very different form. This movement
      also saw a moderation in ecstatic techniques and a rise in discipline
      and ascetic practices. Pythagoreanism proper remained a fringe sect
      of Orphism, and was later suppressed, but it would greatly influence
      the movement as a whole and the traditional Orpheans would
      soon become the 'ancients' of the tradition.

      Judging from the life of Empedocles, an Orphic Philosopher of this
      period, they may also have held concepts similar to that of the
      Tantric Bodhisattva (conscious incarnation of the illuminated).
      Empedocles declared himself to have passed through successive
      incarnations, from fish to man, and to now be a living god. He taught
      a rationalised form of Orphism involving cyclic time. To prove his
      immortality he throw himself into Mount Etna, alas never to be seen

      The final stage of Orphism was the Platonic. While Plato wasn't an
      Orphic or Pythagorean, he certainly admired them and developed many
      of their ideas (he was also influenced via Socrates, by the older
      Minoan mysteries of Diotima). In the 4th cent BC an elite school of
      Orphics adopted Platonic ideals and practised both moderate hedonic
      techniques and severe ascetic ones. These would become
      the 'Establishment' of late Orphism.

      By this time Dionysianism and Orphism in their most extreme Forms were
      diametrically opposed. The former being earthily spiritual,
      passionate and libertarian, the latter, unworldly mystical, logical
      and paternally authoritarian. But then Orphism was also intelligent,
      ethical and progressive, where as more ancient forms of Dionysianism
      were instinctive, amoral and sometimes regressive. Fortunately
      exchanges between the two, rooted in the same soil, would continue
      and the more open schools in both camps would exchange some of their
      more positive attributes.

      In particular what little is known about the metaphysics of the late
      Dionysian cult appears to have owed much to Orphism, but without
      adopting its negative mysticism. Records of this phase, dating from
      about the 2nd Cent BC, reveal an eclectic cult of universalist
      inclinations (traditionally Dionysians, unlike Orphics, had been very
      regional and local culture orientated). In particular two Dionysoi
      were portrayed, an old and a young, often in the same scene, one of
      whom was identified with a Hellenized Sabazius.

      Towards the end of the Millennium the Mystery cults became the sport
      of the aristocracy and many Thiasoi became corrupt. The Dionysian
      Mysteries in particular may have lost much of its plebeian membership
      following the crushing of the Sparticans. Even the purist schools of
      Orphism were said to have gone into decline.

      This was one of the factors that led to the rise of the modern
      Judeo-Christian current, and the other purist religions of this
      period, as people reacted against 'degenerate' paganism, particular
      as found within the Roman Empire. Many of these trends took an
      earlier Orphism as their model.

      Orphism would be the last of the 'Pagan' Mysteries to survive in the
      West (until the late 5th cent AD, at least), along with Mithracism,
      Iseanism, Serapeanism and other mystery cults. In an age of hypocrisy
      and "holiness" Classical Dionysianism would gradually die out (in all
      but the most remote locations), or be driven underground, along with
      other earthier Paganism.

      The last historical evidence of the cult of Dionysos dates to the
      early 5th Cent AD (in the writings of Nonnos). However adaptive
      Dionysian schools appear to have survived for a little longer within
      the Orphean wing of Orphism. Thus making Orphism an unwitting vessel
      of Dionysian survival. This can be seen in the preservation of
      allegedly Orphic texts which sound strangely 'primitive' and quite
      non-Orphic. Dionysians could pay lip service to Orphic ideas, alien
      to their inclinations, in order to survive as part of an organised
      network, just as later Pagans would do the same in more liberal
      Christian Churches (from the Celtic to the Latin American).

      [text truncated here - rapid movement into more recent periods...]


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