Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bernabe on Plato on the Orpheotelests

Eros and Dionysos
Because that's not a mouthful or anything.
“The locus classicus for Orphic τελεταί* is a famous passage in Plato:
They adduce a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, descendants, as they say, of the Moon and of 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 those which they indeed call “initiations,” which free us from the evils of the Beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices.
The passage mentions books of Musaeus and Orpheus, that is, written literature supposedly used in initiations intended to liberate the soul from its sins. Those who are charged with carrying out these rituals, obviously the same as those whom other sources call Orpheotelests (italix mine), depend on the holiness of the written word; in other words, it is the possession and control of Orphic writings that confers on them their authority.

We are also told that initiations could be applied to individuals and to entire cities, which implies their value was recognized and was not exclusive to one sect: the seers and reciters of oracles were specialists that could be hired by whoever needed them. The practices of the Orpheotelests were not secret, and to Plato they seemed to be a game, and therefore contemptible for a serious person.

We must interpret the expression “both in life and once we are dead”, in the sense that these rites claimed to project their validity to the Beyond.” (Bernable, 91.)

I found this passage to be especially interesting, as it's included in the author's discussion on the inclusion of sacramental wine and the blessed state of happiness it can incur in the individual. This 'state' of happiness was reciprocal of both life and death, and the 'happy' state is something that Plato took pains to mock. This state is, without a doubt, the state of intoxication. He writes: “Here, wine drinking was no simple pastime or pleasure, but a solemn sacrament, in the course of which the wine was converted into a liquor of immortality... In a sense, drinking wine entails drinking the god: thus, Cicero does not consider it an exaggeration that some should believe they are drinking the god when they brought the cup to their lips, given that the wine was called Liber...” (p.85)

This recalls the earlier comments I pulled from Otto's Dionysus Myth and Cult: “Folklore has given us much evidence for believing that the pleasure man takes in the fruits and flowers of the earth, the enjoyment he has in her intoxicating liquids – in fact, that gaiety, in general, can be linked with those moments when man salutes his dead...”

In this sense, the presence of the God (and his attendant sensation of intoxication), is linked with the increasing perception of the Beyond. To cull a last set of comments from Instructions for the Netherworld: “Outside of Greece, we find parallels for the initiatory use of wine and the belief that access to spiritual intoxication, that causes forgetfulness of the self and engenders true knowledge, begins with physical intoxication. The Irish Samain think they get closer to the world of the gods by means of intoxication.” (p.86)


*Teletai – referring, I believe, to the ability to perform divination, and skill in the rites of priestcraft, e.g. purificatory rituals and sacrificial rituals – JF

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