Alberto Bernabé has compared the scholarship on Orphism in the past century to the web of Penelope, a succession of cunning weavings of the threads followed by unravelings, in which any apparent progress in formulating a coherent picture of Orphism by one wave of scholars is undone by the next group of critics. Orphism is defined as a religious movement that can be identified, not by social structures like an Orphic church, but rather by a set of doctrines about the origin and fate of the soul. The doctrines of the soul's immortality and its transmigration from body to body are founded, in this hypothesis, on a particular narrative of the origin of human beings within the cosmos. Scholars since Comparetti in 1879 have woven together four strands into this central mythic narrative: the dismemberment of Dionysos Zagreus by the Titans, the punishment of the Titans by Zeus, the generation of human beings from the ashes of the lightning-blasted Titans, and the burden of guilt that human beings inherited from their Titanic ancestors because of this original sin. I argue to the contrary that this Zagreus myth is a modern fabrication and that the coherent picture of Orphism Bernabé and other scholars have so cleverly woven must be unraveled, so that all of the strands of evidence may be recycled, put back into their proper contexts within ancient Greek religion.
The four strands of the myth never appear all bound together in any of the extant evidence, but scholars have defended the reconstruction of this Zagreus myth as the only way to explain the appearance in the evidence of all four strands in various contexts and combinations. In response to recent critiques, Bernabé tries to weave the pieces together into one coherent tale to sustain the idea of an Orphic religion that persisted over the centuries, defined by its essential nucleus of doctrines despite the shifting cultural milieux in the Mediterranean between the 6th century BCE and the 6th CE. Bernabé presents as clear a case as may be made about the most crucial pieces of evidence for each of these strands belonging to a single fabric, but his arguments nevertheless fail to prove even that such a Zagreus myth ever existed before its formulation in modern scholarship. While it is ultimately impossible to prove that such a myth never did exist, that all four elements were not ever at any point woven together, I shall show that none of the evidence combines all four elements, that some of the evidence that Bernabé and others have claimed combines several strands does not in fact weave together the elements in such a way, and that some of the evidence that attests to the presence of one element in fact precludes the presence of some of the other elements. Moreover, despite the claim that the evidence can be explained in no other way, I shall show that each of these threads can easily be explained within the wider context of Greek religion and mythology. The result is not a single, tightly woven myth like the one Bernabé and others have fabricated but rather an assortment of shreds and patches that nevertheless provides a better understanding of the nature and variations of ancient Greek religion.
Bernabé provides a set of 37 testimonies (selected from the more than one thousand Orphic Fragments in his new edition) to make his argument for the existence of the Zagreus myth and its centrality to Orphic doctrine from the 6th century BCE to the 6th century CE. He arranges these texts into six basic categories: the early testimony of Pindar to inherited guilt, the references in Plato to inherited guilt and the punishment of the Titans, the allusions to the dismemberment in Plutarch's De Esu Carnium, the evidence for rituals connected with the dismemberment, references to the generation of the human race from the blood of the Titans, and Neoplatonic texts (from Proclus and Damascius to Olympiodorus' crucial passage). I shall treat each of these categories in turn, showing that the evidence does not support the hypothesis of a Zagreus myth combining the strands of dismemberment, punishment of Titans, anthropogony, and inherited guilt. On the contrary, the evidence associated with the dismemberment of Dionysos attests to a variety of myths and rituals, which had different meanings in their assorted contexts. Although Persephone and Dionysos are indeed both associated in some evidence with relief from divine anger, this function is not directly associated with the dismemberment myth but belongs to other aspects of their cults. Nor is the Dionysos who is dismembered always the child of Persephone; at times he is born from Semele or even Demeter. So too, the Titans were punished in myth both after their dismemberment of Dionysos and after their rebellion against the gods, but, except in the 6th century CE innovation of Olympiodorus, the generation of human beings only follows the Titanomachy. Without the support of these pieces of evidence, we must conclude that the Zagreus myth is a modern fabrication, an ingenious creation that nevertheless must be unravelled so that the ancient evidence can be better understood.
At stake in the recycling of this evidence is not merely the validity of the Zagreus myth, but a variety of other issues in ancient Greek religion, as each text replaced in context enhances our understanding both of the particular facet and of the broader dynamics of the tradition. For example, in my treatment of the anthropogonic myths that relate mankind's origin from a previous race, I show that the Orphic evidence is indeed part of a broader tradition of such tales, even if the scattered and mostly local evidence for such myths is too often overshadowed by the Hesiodic tales. My rereading of Pindar fr. 133 raises important questions about the relation of Persephone cult (especially perhaps in Magna Grecia) to the myth of her abduction, touching on that perennial problem in the study of Greek religion – the relation of myth to ritual. If the cult honors paid to her are in some sense a recompense for her abduction, we can gain a better understanding of Persephone's role as kourotrophos and patron of marriage, as well as a better sense of the ideas of women and marriage that structure the societies that related the myths and celebrated the cults. So too, the evidence for rituals involving the dismemberment of Dionysos provides insight into the whole range of ways in which the god was significant for the Greeks in different times and different places. More importantly, understanding that the dismemberment myth did not have a single meaning helps us to see the underlying dynamic of the Greek religious tradition, the ceaseless change and contestation within the relatively stable and coherent tradition. The workings of this fluid and dynamic tradition are also explored in my treatment of Plato's references in the Laws, as well as the allegorical readings of Plutarch and the Neoplatonists Proclus, Damascius, and Olympiodorus. Plato is continually struggling with the balance between innovation and tradition as he formulates rules for a new society in the Laws, and the passages I treat are only a small part of his manipulation of traditional religious ideas in the service of his philosophic ideals. Moreover, Plato's use of myths does not differ so greatly from the later thinkers who follow in the Platonic philosophic tradition. By treating the interpretations of Plutarch and Olympiodorus as a real part of the Greek mythic and religious tradition, rather than an excresence that needs to be wiped away for the "original" meaning to shine through, my analysis presents a broader view of the ways the Greeks dealt with their myths. Plutarch provides the viewpoint of an educated religious thinker of the early Imperial period, while Olympiodorus and the other Neoplatonists show the ways in which the religious tradition continued to be significant, even as Greek paganism faced the challenges of Christianity. Recycling this material, removing it from its artificial frame and replacing it in its original contexts, helps us better to understand the ancient evidence and religious traditions from which it comes.
The resulting picture may not be as neat and tidy, nor as familiar as an Orphism constructed in the image of a Protestant sect, but this messy and incomplete picture nevertheless offers a less distorted view of ancient Greek religion and the place of Orphism within it. Moreover, much of the work done by scholars using older models surely need not be abandoned, but merely adapted and recycled; their insights can contribute to our understanding of the evidence from new perspectives. The disjointed and fragmentary pieces of evidence we have are not the relics of secret canonical doctrines and scripture, but the productions of countless bricoleurs in competition with one another for religious authority. Rather than trying to define the doctrines and scriptures crucial to a secret sect, we must try to reconstruct the dynamics of this competition, the specialists and clients who were involved, and the traditional elements they used in their texts and rituals. To abuse Bernabé's metaphor, we must indeed unravel the weaving of Penelope, for the threads of evidence belong not in a single Puritan Christian funeral shroud but in a complex patchwork of Greek religious practices, whose brilliance and intricacy we can at best only hope to recover in part.