Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth:

A Few Disparaging Remarks On Orphism and Original Sin

Pure I come from the pure, Queen of those below the earth, and Eukles and Eubouleus and the other gods and daimons; For I boast that I am of your blessed race. I have paid the penalty on account of deeds not just; Either Fate mastered me or the Thunderer, striking with his lightning. Now I come, a suppliant, to holy Phersephoneia, that she, gracious, may send me to the seats of the blessed.

So proclaims the deceased woman of Thurii on the gold tablet buried in her tomb in Timpone Piccolo. This enigmatic statement, similar to the proclamations on the gold tablets found in the other two tombs in the mound, has piqued the interest of scholars ever since its discovery in 1879. Despite the protests of Wilamovitz, Linforth, Zuntz, and, most recently, Luc Brisson, scholars continue, for the most part, to interpret these tablets in terms of what is known as the Orphic myth of Zagreus. Read in the light of this Zagreus myth, the tablets' message seems clear. The deceased claims kinship with the gods by virtue of her descent from the Titans. Like the Titans, she claims to have perished by the lightning bolt of Zeus. In her life as an Orphic, she has paid the penalty for the ancestral crime of the Titans through purificatory rituals. Now, purified of the taint of this original sin, she asks Persephone for favorable treatment in the afterlife by virtue of her divine descent from the flesh of Dionysos eaten by the Titans.

Although the myth of Zagreus provides a seductively simple and neat explanation of the cryptic gold tablets, it is unfortunately a modern creation that could not have been known to the 'Orphics' of Timpone Piccolo. Indeed, I shall demonstrate that this Zagreus myth is, in fact, a modern fabrication dependent upon Christian models that reconstruct the fragmentary evidence in terms of a unified 'Orphic' church, an almost Christian religion with dogma based on a central myth - specifically, salvation from original sin through the death and resurrection of the suffering god. If the evidence is viewed without these assumptions, it can be put back together quite differently. The pieces of the Zagreus myth reveal, not a single canonical story providing crucial dogma for the 'Orphic Church', but rather a multitude of tales told about the death of Dionysos and the punishment of the Titans, each with its own meaning woven out of the differing combinations of the traditional motifs.

In this paper, I distinguish between the ancient tales relating to the dismemberment or sparagmos of Dionysos and the modern fabrication which I call the 'Zagreus myth'. This myth is put together from a number of elements: 1) the dismemberment of Dionysos; 2) the punishment of the Titans; 3) the creation of mankind from the Titans; and 4) the inheritance humans receive from the first three parts the burden of guilt from the Titans' crime and the divine spark from the remains of Dionysos. I refer to the entire story as the 'Zagreus myth' to reflect the use of the name Zagreus for the Orphic Dionysos by the scholars who fabricated this myth.

Building upon Linforth's critical review, I first examine the pieces of evidence out of which the Zagreus myth has been assembled, demonstrating that the few pieces of evidence used to construct the myth fail to support, not only the centrality and early date of the myth (as Linforth has argued), but even the existence of such a story before the modern era. While ancient sources provide testimony to the first three components of the myth, the final component - the resulting original sin - is an addition of modern scholars. I next show that, viewed without the framework of the Zagreus myth, the pieces of evidence provide testimony to a variety of tellings of the dismemberment myth, which was not the exclusive property of the 'Orphics' but rather a well-known element in the Greek mythic tradition. I then explore the Christian models of religion within which the myth was mistakenly reconstructed, noting the role this reconstruction of Orphism played in the turn-of-the-century debates surrounding the nature of the early Church. Finally, I conclude that the gold tablets and their religious contexts have been misunderstood because these texts have been interpreted in terms of a modern fabrication dependent on Christian models, the Zagreus myth. The 'Orphic' gold tablets themselves have nothing to do with the stories of sparagmos and anthropogony, but instead supply important evidence for the study of Greek eschatological beliefs.