Orpheus and the Golden Chain: Or, those Renaissance philosophers, magicians, and mystics were totally crazy, dawg. (P. 1)


The Astrologer (Orpheus and Time). Attributed to Giorgione (but probably just from his school).

“Moreover, so much of music as is adapted to the sound of the voice and to the sense of hearing is granted to us for the sake of harmony; and harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed to be the purpose of it in our day, but as meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself; and rhythm too was given by them for the same reason, on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.”
– Plato, Timaeus.

Nothing is Lost.

Robert Cochrane once posited that “nothing is ever lost,” and that ideas return again, wearing new guises. At the heart of the Enlightenment project, while the Renaissance was getting underway, this is precisely what occurred amongst some of the philosophers, magicians and mystics that made up part of the motley crew who would inspire the later magical revival of the Victorian period.

And at the heart of it all, at the moment between the pulse of that brilliant heart-beat, sits the ghost of Orpheus, wearing a new outfit and continuing to inspire those individuals long after the collapse of the Greek and Roman empires of antiquity.

Amongst such a diverse cast is Marsilio Ficino, writing in a letter (dated September, 1462 CE) to Cosimo de’ Medici out of gratitude for his patronage:

“A few days ago I was celebrating [the hymn to the Cosmos] in an Orphic ritual,when my father brought me some letters, in which the wise Cosimo de’ Medici, most health-giving doctor of my life, said he would reflect on my studies, kindly provide for me, generously favour me, and hospitably and piously welcome me into his sacred dwelling. So it happened that not only your magnificence, but also the ancient prophecy of Orpheus evoked in me the most immense wonder. For he seemed to be directing to you the hymn that he consecrated to the Cosmos, and indeed to be asking on my behalf that which he asked with the sure aim of the hymn. You, meanwhile, through a heavenly incitement seemed to have heard a certain divine breath at the very time that I was singing the hymn and asking for the same thing that the prayer earnestly requests.” (Source.)

Angela Voss notes (in Father Time and Orpheus, linked above) that Ficino is playing with words – the similarity between Cosimo de’ Medici’s first name and the word “cosmos.” For individuals such as Ficino – and his unlikely ally Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – such combinations of events were deeply meaningful. They displayed the ways in which events seem to come together, and divine inspiration can lope out of the past and into the present. The Orpheus they sought to understand, and perhaps even venerate in their own ways, was different from the mythic shaman that sits at the heart of the Argonautica; he was suddenly a new type of theologian, a monist figure preserving a golden chain backwards into the past that had helped set down the rules by which civilization could prosper and progress could be achieved.

Hiding behind all new developments, all the new potentials, was a thread which reached into the heart of the labyrinth of the past. Of course, the minotaur still stalked that dreaded realm, and they were perhaps at times playing with fire. It was a dangerous game which could – if one wishes to invoke the specter of Giordano Bruno – end at with the fiery stake or with the hang-man’s noose.

The Song Never Ended!
If we are to parse these themes, we must first at least encounter the myths that surround the figure of Orpheus. This will undoubtedly be preaching to the choir in the case of polytheists, but it might help outsiders trying to make sense of what they are seeing. Orpheus was considered one of the great sages – and even heroes – of antiquity. One of the seven heroes who gather together in the Argonautica to aid Jason in his quest to recover the Golden Fleece and take his place as the rightful king of Iolcos. There was even, evidently, a version called the “Argonautica Orphica” (based on the text of Apollonius Rhodius) in which Orpheus takes center-stage.

Regarded as a wonder-worker from Thrace in some sources, Orpheus was the perfect musician. In his hands the lyre became a mystical instrument, capable of calming the souls of men, of animals, and even rocks, streams, and the whole of material reality.

So great was his mastery of the instrument that when his wife died at his wedding, he played and sang a song so sad that even the Chthonic Gods, Hades and Persephone, were stirred to allow him an attempt to retrieve her soul from Hades. Orpheus descended into the Underworld with one rule set upon him: that after taking her by the hand, he not look back as he left. This he did until they had almost escaped, when his anxiety overwhelmed him and he looked back. To his horror, his wife faded away and he was unable to complete the task. Broken and beaten by the event, he returned to the mortal world a stricken soul. When he came across Maenads – who begged him to play the lyre for them to dance to – he was too melancholy to play, and the Maenads ripped (probably repeating the patterns inherent in the myths of Dionysos) him limb from limb. His head and lyre were flung into the Hebrus, where the current carried them away still singing mournful songs.

Songs that would, in a sense, stretch out of the realm of myth and into the world again thousands of years later, when the young men of the Renaissance would recover the Orphic Hymns and begin singing them anew.

Orpheus Returns.
Between late antiquity – when the strands of culture begin “snapping” and stories threaten to be lost – and the Renaissance the figure of Orpheus is transformed into that of another, referred to earlier as being akin to a theologian. Fr. Alexander J. Broquet writes in Orpheus Remembered: The Rediscovery of Orpheus During the Renaissance that:

“The myth of Orpheus became absorbed into the emerging Christian tradition as seen in Roman funerary art and theological comparisons of Orpheus with David and Moses. In the early Christian tradition, Orpheus was re-envisioned as a pagan prophet who prefigured the arrival of Christ.

As Augustine later wrote, Orpheus was said to have “predicted or spoken truth of the Son of God or the Father.” What Orpheus began, Christ completed. Later in the Middle Ages, the myth of Orpheus would be re-told in the form of moral allegories. During this period, written knowledge of the sacred, mystical, and theological teachings of the Orphic tradition was lost.

During the third to sixth centuries, Orphic motifs blended with depictions of Christ in funerary art as seen in the Roman catacombs. Funerary artists looking for established models to serve the new Christian faith’s need for images of Christ as a leader of souls through the underworld could use the figure of Orpheus. In these early Christian catacomb frescoes, Orpheus, the peaceful tamer of wild animals, is depicted as a symbol of Christ. Over time, the image of Orpheus, the tamer of animals,and Christ, the Good Shepherd, would merge into each other.”

This obviously a very different conceptualization of Orpheus from that of a Thracian wonder-worker, a shamanic hero whose very death has echoes of that of the deity he is often most associated with (Dionysos). Later, he makes another note which is most interesting:

“This interpretation continues today as Umberto Utro, head of the Vatican Museum’s Department of Early Christian Art, explains: ‘Many Christian sarcophagi contain pagan elements and references to Greek and Roman gods and goddesses . . . . In the Gospel, Jesus said ‘I am the Good Shepherd who will lay down my life for the sheep.’ The early Christians easily recognized Christ in (the pagan shepherd) image and invested it with new meaning. Artists also saw Christ in Orpheus, the son of the god of music, Apollo. Just as Orpheus tamed wild beasts with his music, his image became the image of Christ who, with his words, transformed the lives of sinners.‘ […]”

In the fifteenth century, Cosimo de’ Medici, a Florentine ruler, re-founded the Platonic Academy. It set itself upon studying the work of Neo-Platonic philosophers, and to translated newly recovered works by Plato, Porphyry, Plotinus, Iamblichus, the Corpus Hermeticum, and even the Orphic Hymns. It is here that Orpheus, now mingled with a Christian gloss, re-emerges from the previously severed threads of history and begins inspiring the neo-Platonic theurgists, mystics, and magicians of the era.

Broquet writes:

“Lorenzo de Medici in his poem Altercazionesays of Ficino: “I thought that Orpheus had returned to the world.” […]”

And so he had. Out of the margins of history, Orpheus reappears, the lyre by his side, and promptly enters into all manner of Renaissance artwork, poetic references, Operas, and ballads. So strong would be the binding Golden Chain of the past that even in the Early Modern Period, Scottish peasants would sing Orpheus ballads… Ballads in which Orpheus’s wife was stolen by the King of the Fairies, and he won her back from that place. Orpheus wouldn’t just return; he would become a victorious figure, capable of entering the Other World and recovering the one thing that antiquity had denied to him: his stolen lover.

[When we return to my next entry on this matter, we will encounter the figure of Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola and his thoughts on the Orphic hymns, the Pythagorean “Music of the Spheres,” and the alchemical goal to write music so perfect that it transcends time and space and enlightens both the audience and the player – in a nod to that most perfect of lyre players who is the central character of this series.]

Jack Faust is a polytheist magician, practitioner of witchcraft, and lover of the subject of Goetia that occasionally writes blog entries on the Dionysian Atavism blog. When not ranting about how important the dead are conceptually to the practice of magic, he spends his time researching and reading, or driving himself half-insane with archaic rituals that “no one” supposedly uses anymore.

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