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Oracles and Mysteries

By Thomas Taylor

ISBN 978-1898910-060


The Dionysiacal sacred rites instituted by Orpheus depended on the following arcane narration, part of which has been already related in the preceding section, and the rest may be found in a variety of authors. "Dionysius, or Bacchus, while he was yet a boy, was engaged by the Titans, through the stratagems of Juno, in a variety of sports, with which that period of life is so vehemently allured; and among the rest, he was particularly captivated with beholding his image in a mirror; during his admiration of which, he was miserably torn in pieces by the Titans; who, not content with this cruelty, first boiled his members in water, and afterwards roasted them by the fire. But while they were tasting his flesh thus dressed, Jupiter, excited by the steam, and perceiving the cruelty of the deed, hurled his thunder at the Titans; but committed his members to Apollo, the brother of Bacchus, that they might be properly interred. And this being performed, Dionysius, (whose heart during his laceration was snatched away by Pallas and preserved,) by a new regeneration, again emerged, and being restored to his pristine life and integrity, he afterwards filled up the number of the gods. But in the mean time, from the exhalations formed from the ashes of the burning bodies of the Titans, mankind were produced." Now, in order to understand properly the secret meaning of this narration, it is necessary to repeat the observation already made in the preceding section, that "all fables belonging to mystic ceremonies are of the mixed kind": and consequently the present fable, as well as that of Proserpine, must in one part have reference to the gods, and in the other to the human soul, as the following exposition will abundantly evince.

In the first place, then, by Dionysius, or Bacchus, according to the highest establishment of this deity, we must understand the intellect of the mundane soul; for there are various processions of this god, or Bacchuses, derived from his essence. But by the Titans we must understand the mundane gods, of whom Bacchus is the summit: by Jupiter, the Demiurgus, or artificer of the universe: by Apollo, the deity of the Sun, who has both a mundane and super-mundane establishment, and by whom the universe is bound in symmetry and consent, through splendid reasons and harmonizing power: and, lastly, by Minerva we must understand that fontal, intellectual, imperatorial, and providential deity, who guards and preserves all middle lives in an immutable condition, through intelligence and a self-energizing life, and by this means sustains them from the depredations of matter. Again, by the puerile state of Bacchus at the period of his laceration, the flourishing condition of an intellectual nature is implied; since, according to the Orphic theology, souls, while under the government of Saturn, who is pure intellect, instead of proceeding, as now, from youth to age, advance in a retrograde progression from age to youth. The arts employed by the Titans, in order to ensnare Dionysius, are symbolical of those apparent and divisible energies of the mundane gods, through which the participated intellect of Bacchus becomes, as it were, torn in pieces: and by the mirror we must understand, in the language of Proclus, the inaptitude of the universe to receive the plenitude of intellectual perfection; but the symbolical meaning of his laceration, through the stratagems of Juno, and the consequent punishment of the Titans, is thus beautifully unfolded by Olympiodorus, in his MS. Commentary on the Phaedo of Plato: "The form," says he, "of that which is universal is pluckt off, torn in pieces, and scattered into generation; and Dionysius is the monad of the Titans. But his laceration is said to take place through the stratagems of Juno, because this goddess is the inspective guardian of motion and progression; and on this account, in the Iliad, she perpetually rouses and excites Jupiter to providential energies about secondary concerns: and, in another respect, Dionysius is the inspective guardian of generation, because he presides over life and death; for he is the guardian of life because of generation, but of death because wine produces an enthusiastic energy: and we become more enthusiastic at the period of dissolution, as Proclus evinces agreeable to Homer; for he became prophetic at the time of his death. They likewise assert, that tragedy and comedy are referred to Dionysius: comedy, indeed, because this is the play or joke of life; but tragedy on account of the passions and death, which it represents. Comedians, therefore, do not properly denominate tragedians, as if they were not Dionysiacal; asserting, at the same time, that nothing tragical belongs to Dionysius. But Jupiter hurled his thunder at the Titans; the thunder signifying a conversion on high: for fire naturally ascends; and hence Jupiter, by this means, converts the Titans to himself. But by the members of Dionysius being first boiled in water by the Titans, and afterwards roasted by the fire, the procession or distribution of intellect into matter, and its subsequent conversion from thence, is evidently implied: for water was considered by the Egyptians, as we have already observed, as the symbol of matter; and fire is the natural symbol of ascent. The heart of Dionysius too, is, with the greatest propriety, said to be preserved by Minerva; for this goddess is the guardian of life, of which the heart is a symbol. So that this part of the fable plainly signifies, that while intellectual life is distributed into the universe, its principle is preserved entire by the guardian power and providence of unpolluted intelligence. And as Apollo is the source of all union and harmony, and as he is called by Proclus, in his elegant hymn to the Sun, "the key-keeper of the fountain of life," the reason is obvious why the members of Dionysius, which were buried by this deity, by a new generation again emerged, and were restored to their pristine integrity and life. But let it here be carefully observed, that renovation, when applied to the gods, is to be considered as secretly implying the rising of their proper light, and its consequent appearance to subordinate natures. And that punishment, when considered as taking place about beings more excellent than mankind, signifies nothing more than a secondary providence of such beings which is of a punishing characteristic, and which subsists about apostatizing souls. Hence, then, from what has been said, we may easily collect the ultimate design of the first part of this mystic fable; for it appears to be no other than to represent the manner in which the form of the mundane intellect is distributed into the universe;- that such an intellect (and every one which is total) remains entire during its participations, and that the participations themselves are continually converted to their source, with which they become finally united. So that intellectual illumination, while it proceeds into the dark and rebounding receptacle of matter, and invests its obscurity with the supervening ornaments of deific light, returns at the same time without intermission to the principle of its descent.

Let us now consider the latter part of the fable, in which it is said that our souls were formed from the vapours produced by the ashes of the burning bodies of the Titans; at the same time connecting it with the former part of the fable, which is also applicable in a certain degree to the condition of a partial intellect like ours. In the first place, then, we are composed from fragments, (says Olympiodorus), because, through falling into generation, our life has proceeded into the most distant and extreme division; but from Titannic fragments, because the Titans are the ultimate artificers of things, and the most proximate to their fabrications. But farther, our irrational life is Titannic, under which the rational life is torn in pieces. And hence, when we disperse the Dionysius, or intellect contained in the secret recesses of our nature, breaking in pieces the kindred and divine form of our essence, and which communicates, as it were, both with things subordinate and supreme, then we become Titans; but when we establish ourselves in union with this Dionysiacal or kindred form, then we become Bacchuses, or perfect guardians of our irrational life: for Dionysius, whom in this respect we resemble, is himself a guardian deity, dissolving at his pleasure the bonds by which the soul is united to the body, since he is the cause of a partial life. But it is necessary that the passive nature of our irrational part, through which we are bound in body, and which is nothing more than the resounding echo, as it were, of soul, should suffer the punishment incurred by descent; for when the soul casts aside the peculiarity of her nature, she requires a certain proper, but at the same time multiform body, that she may again become indigent of a common form, which she has lost through Titannic dispersion into matter.

But in order to see the perfect and beautiful resemblance between the manner in which our souls descend and the participation of intellect by mundane natures, let the reader attend to the following admirable citation from the MS. Commentary of Olympiodorus on the Phaedo of Plato:- "In order," says he, "to the soul's descent, it is necessary that she should first establish an animating image of herself in the body; and in the second place, that she should sympathize with the image, according to a similitude of form: for every form passes into a sameness with itself, through naturally verging to itself. In the third place, being situated in a divisible nature, it is necessary that she should be lacerated and scattered together with such a nature, and that she should fall into an ultimate distribution, till, through the energies of a cathartic life, she raises herself from the extreme dispersion, and loosens the bond of sympathy through which she is united with body; and till, at the same time, energizing without the image, she becomes established according to her primary life. And we may behold a resemblance of all this in the fable respecting Bacchus, the exemplar of our intellect. For it is said that Dionysius, establishing his image in a mirror, pursued it, and thus became distributed into the universe. But Apollo excited and elevated Bacchus; this god being a cathartic deity, and the true saviour of Dionysius; and on this account he is celebrated as Dionysites." Hence, as the same author beautifully observes, the soul revolves according to a mystic and mundane circulation: for flying from an indivisible and Dionysiacal life, and energizing according to a Titannic and revolting energy, she becomes bound in body as in a prison. Hence, too, she abides in punishment and takes care of her partial concerns; and being purified from Titannic defilements, and collected into one, she becomes a Bacchus; that is, she passes into the proper integrity of her nature according to the Dionysius who abides on high. From all which it evidently follows, that he who lives Dionysiacally rests from labours and is freed from his bonds; that he leaves his prison, or rather his apostatizing life; and that he who does this is a cathartic philosopher. But farther from this account of Dionysius, we may perceive the truth of Plato's observation that "the design of the mysteries is to lead us back to the perfection from which, as a principle, we first made our descent." For in this perfection Dionysius himself subsists, establishing perfect souls in the throne of his proper father; that is, in the whole of a life according to Jupiter. So that he who is perfect necessarily resides with the gods, according to the design of those deities, who are the sources of consummate perfection to the soul. And lastly, the Thyrsus itself, which was used in the Bacchic procession, as it was a reed full of knots, is an apt symbol of the distribution of an intellectual nature into the sensible world. And agreeable to this, Olympiodorus on the Phaedo observes that "the Thyrsus is a symbol of material and partial fabrication from its dissipated continuity; and that on this account it is a Titannic plant. This it was customary to extend before Bacchus instead of his paternal sceptre; and through this they called him down into a partial nature. And, indeed, the Titans are Thyrsus-bearers; and Prometheus concealed fire in a Thyrsus or reed; whether he is considered as deducing celestial light into generation; or producing soul into body; or calling forth divine illumination (the whole of which is without generation) into generation. Hence Socrates calls the multitude Orphically Thyrsus-bearers, because they live according to a Titannic life."

And thus much for the secret meaning of the fable, which formed a principal part of these mystic rites. Let us now proceed to consider the signification of the symbols, which, according to Clemens Alexandrinus, belonged to the Bacchic ceremonies; and which are comprehended in the following Orphic verses:

A wheel, a pine-nut, and the wanton plays,
Which move and bend the limbs in various ways:
With these th'Hesperian golden-fruit combine,
Which beauteous nymphs defend of voice divine.

To all which Clemens adds a mirror, a fleece of wool, and the ankle-bone. In the first place, then, with respect to the wheel, since Dionysius, as we have already explained, is the mundane intellect, and intellect is of a reductorial, or convertive nature, nothing can be a more apt symbol of intellectual energy than a wheel or sphere: besides, as the laceration of Dionysius signifies the procession of intellectual illumination into matter, and its conversion at the same time to its source, this too will be aptly symbolized by a wheel. In the second place, a pine-nut, from its conical shape, is a perspicuous symbol of the manner in which intellectual illumination proceeds from its principle into a material nature. "For the soul," says Macrobius, "proceeding from a round figure, which is the only divine form, is produced into a cone by its defluxion." And the same is true symbolically of intellect. And as to the wanton sports which bend the limbs, this evidently alludes to the Titannic arts, by which Dionysius was allured, and occultly signifies the energies of the mundane intellect, considered as subsisting according to an apparent and divisible condition. But the Hesperian golden-apples, signify the pure and incorruptible nature of that intellect, or Dionysius, which is participated by the world; for a golden apple, according to the philosopher Sallust, is a symbol of the world; and this doubtless, both on account of its external figure, and the incorruptible intellect which it contains, and with the illuminations of which it is externally adorned; since gold, on account of its never being subject to rust, aptly denotes an incorruptible and immaterial nature. The mirror, which is the next symbol, we have already explained. And as to the fleece of wool, this is a symbol of the laceration, or distribution of intellect, or Dionysius, into matter; for the verb `dilanio', which is used in the relation of the Bacchic discerption, signifies to tear in pieces like wool: and hence Isidorus derives the Latin word lana, wool, from laniando, as vellus a vellendo. Nor must it pass unobserved, that `lenos', in Greek, signifies wool, and `lenos', a wine-press. And, indeed, the pressing of grapes is as evident a symbol of dispersion as the tearing of wool; and this circumstance was doubtless one principal reason why grapes were consecrated to Bacchus: for a grape, previous to its pressure, aptly represents that which is collected into one; and when it is pressed into juice, it no less aptly represents the diffusion of that which was before collected and entire. And lastly, the `ankle-bone', as it is principally subservient to the progressive motion of animals, so it belongs, with great propriety, to the mystic symbols of Bacchus; since it doubtless signifies the progressions of that deity into the regions of nature: for nature, or that divisible life which subsists about body, and which is productive of seeds, immediately depends on Bacchus. And hence we are informed by Proclus, in Tim. p 184, that the genital parts of this god are denominated by theologists, Diana, who, says he, presides over the whole of the generation in nature, leads forth into light all natural reasons, and extends a prolific power from on high even to the subterranean realms. And hence we may perceive the reason why, in the Orphic hymn to Nature, that goddess is described as, "turning round silent traces with the ankle-bones of her feet." And it is highly worthy our observation that in this verse of the hymn Nature is celebrated as Fortune, according to that description of the goddess in which she is represented as standing with her feet on a wheel, which she continually turns round with a progressive motion; as the following verse from the same hymn abundantly confirms: "moving with rapid motion on an eternal wheel." Nor ought it to seem wonderful that Nature should be celebrated as Fortune; for Fortune in the Orphic hymn to that deity is invoked as Diana: and the moon, as we have observed in the preceding section, is `the self-conspicuous image of Nature'; and indeed the apparent inconstancy of Fortune has an evident agreement with the fluctuating condition in which the dominions of nature are perpetually involved.

It only now remains that we explain the secret meaning of the sacred dress with which the initiated in the Dionysiacal mysteries were invested, in order to the `thronismos' taking place; or sitting in a solemn manner on a throne, about which it was customary for the other mystics to dance. But the particulars of this habit are thus described in the Orphic verses preserved by Macrobius in the first book of his Saturnalia, cap. 18
He who desires in pomp of sacred dress
The sun's resplendent body to express,
Should first a veil assume of purple bright,
Like fair white beams combin'd with fiery light.
On his right shoulder, next, a mule's broad hide,
Widely diversify'd with spotted pride
Should hang, an image of the pole divine,
And daedal stars, whose orbs eternal shine.
A golden splendid zone, then, o'er the vest
He next should throw, and bind it round his breast;
In mighty token, how with golden light,
The rising sun, from earth's last bounds and night
Sudden emerges, and, with matchless force,
Darts through old Ocean's billows in his course.
A boundless splendor hence, enshrin'd in dew,
Plays on his whirlpools, glorious to the view;
While his circumfluent waters spread abroad,
Full in the presence of the radiant god:
But Ocean's circle, like a zone of light,
The sun's wide bosom girds, and charms the wond'ring sight.

In the first place, then, let us consider why this mystic dress belonging to Bacchus is to represent the sun. Now the reason of this will be evident from the following observations: according to the Orphic theology, the intellect of every planet is denominated a Bacchus, who is characterized in each by a different appellation; so that the intellect of the solar deity is called Trietericus Bacchus. And in the second place, since the divinity of the sun, according to the arcana of the ancient theology, has a supermundane as well as mundane establishment, and is wholly of a reductorial or intellectual nature; hence considered as supermundane, he must both produce and contain the mundane intellect, or Dionysius, in his essence; for all the mundane are contained in the super-mundane deities, by whom also they are produced. Hence Proclus, in his elegant hymn to the sun, says, "they celebrate thee in hymns as the illustrious parent of Dionysius." And thirdly, it is through the subsistence of Dionysius in the sun that that luminary derives its circular progression, as is evident from the following Orphic verse, in which, speaking of the sun, it is said of him, that "he is called Dionysius, because he is carried with a circular motion through the immensely-extended heavens." And this with the greatest propriety, since intellect, as we have already observed, is entirely of a convertive and reductorial nature: so that from all this, it is sufficiently evident why the dress of Dionysius is represented as belonging to the sun. In the second place, the veil, resembling a mixture of fiery light, is an obvious image of the solar fire. And as to the spotted mule-skin, which is to represent the starry heavens, this is nothing more than an image of the moon; this luminary, according to Proclus on Hesiod, resembling the mixed nature of a mule; "becoming dark through her participation of earth, and deriving her proper light from the sun." So that the spotted hyde of the mule signifies the moon attended with a multitude of stars: and hence, in the Orphic hymn to the moon, that deity is celebrated "as shining surrounded with beautiful stars" and is likewise called "queen of the stars".

In the next place, the golden zone is the circle of the Ocean, as the last verses plainly evince. But, you will ask, what has the rising of the sun through the ocean, from the boundaries of earth and night, to do with the adventures of Bacchus? I answer, that it is impossible to devise a symbol more beautifully accommodated to the purpose: for, in the first place, is not the ocean a proper emblem of a material nature, whirling and stormy, and perpetually rolling without admitting any periods of repose? And is not the sun emerging from its boisterous deeps a perspicuous symbol of an intellectual nature, apparently rising from the dark and fluctuating receptacle of matter, and conferring form and beauty on the sensible universe through its light? I say apparently rising, for though intellect always diffuses its splendor with invariable energy, yet it is not always perceived by the subjects of its illuminations; besides, as sensible natures can only receive partially and successively the benefits of divine irradiation, hence fables regarding this temporal participation transfer, for the purpose of concealment and in conformity to the phaenomena, the imperfection of subordinate natures to such as are supreme. This description, therefore, of the rising sun is a most beautiful symbol of the renovation of Bacchus, which, as we have already observed, implies nothing more than the rising of intellectual light, and its consequent appearance to subordinate forms.
And thus much for the mysteries of Bacchus, which, as well as those of Ceres, relate in one part to the descent of a partial intellect into matter, and its condition while united with the dark tenement of body: but there appears to be this difference between the two, that in the fable of Ceres and Proserpine, the descent of the whole rational soul is considered; and in that of Bacchus, the distribution and procession of that supreme part alone of our nature which we properly characterize by the appellation of intellect. In the composition of each we may discern the same traces of exalted wisdom and recondite theology; of a theology the most venerable of all others for its antiquity, and the most admirable for its excellence and reality: in each we may easily perceive the ignorance and malevolence of Christian priests, from the most early fathers to the most modern retailers of hypocrisy and cant; and in each every intelligent reader must be alternately excited to grief and indignation, to pity and contempt, at the barbarous mythological systems of the moderns: for in these we meet with nothing but folly and delusion; opinions founded either on fanaticism or atheism, inconceivably absurd and inextricably obscure, ridiculously vain and monstrously deformed, stupidly dull and contemptibly zealous, Apostolically delirious, or historically dry; and, in one word, such only as arrogance and ignorance could conceive, impiety propagate, and the vapid spirit of the moderns be induced to admit.

I shall therefore conclude this treatise by presenting the reader with a valuable and most elegant hymn of Proclus to Minerva, which I have discovered in the British Museum; and the existence of which appears to have been hitherto utterly unknown. This hymn is to be found among the Harleian MSS., in a volume containing several of the Orphic hymns, with which, through the ignorance of the transcriber, it is indiscriminately ranked, as well as the other four hymns of Proclus, already printed in the Bibliotheca Graeca of Fabricius. Unfortunately too, it is transcribed in a character so obscure, and with such great inaccuracy, that, notwithstanding the pains I have taken to restore the text to its original purity, I have been obliged to omit two lines, and part of a third, as beyond my abilities to read or amend; however, the greatest, and doubtless the most important part, is fortunately intelligible, which I now present to the reader's inspection, accompanied with some corrections, and an English paraphrased translation. The original is highly elegant and pious, and contains one mythological particular which is no where else to be found. It has likewise an evident connection with the preceding fable of Bacchus, as will be obvious from the perusal; and on this account principally it was inserted in the present discourse.

Daughter of aegis-bearing Jove, divine,
Propitious to thy vot'ries prayer incline;
From thy great father's fount supremely bright,
Like fire resounding, leaping into light.
Shield-bearing goddess, hear, to whom belong
A manly mind, and power to tame the strong!
Oh, sprung from matchless might, with joyful mind
Accept this hymn; benevolent and kind!
The holy gates of wisdom by thy hand
Are wide unfolded; and the daring band
Of earth-born giants, that in impious fight
Strove with thy sire, were vanquish'd by thy might.
Once by thy care, as sacred poets sing,
The heart of Bacchus, swiftly-slaughter'd king,
Was sav'd in aether, when, with fury fir'd,
The Titans fell against his life conspir'd;
And with relentless rage and thirst for gore,
Their hands his members into fragments tore:
But ever watchful of thy father's will,
Thy pow'r preserv'd him from succeeding ill,
Till from the secret counsels of his sire,
And born from Semele through heav'nly fire,
Great Dionysius to the world at length
Again appear'd with renovated strength.
Once, too, thy warlike axe, with matchless sway,
Lopp'd from their savage necks the heads away
Of furious beasts, and thus the pests destroy'd
Which long all-seeing Hecate annoy'd.
By thee benevolent great Juno's might
Was rous'd, to furnish mortals with delight:
And through life's wide and various range 'tis thine
Each part to beautify with arts divine:
Invigorated hence by thee, we find
A demiurgic impulse in the mind.
Towers proudly rais'd, and for protection strong,
To thee, dread guardian, deity belong,
As proper symbols of th'exalted height
Thy series claims amidst the courts of light.
Lands are belov'd by thee to learning prone,
And Athens, O Athena, is thy own!
Great goddess, hear! and on my dark'ned mind
Pour thy pure light in measure unconfin'd; -
That sacred light, O all-protecting queen,
Which beams eternal from thy face serene:
My soul, while wand'ring on the earth, inspire
With thy own blessed and impulsive fire;
And from thy fables, mystic and divine,
Give all her powers with holy light to shine.
Give love, give wisdom, and a power to love,
Incessant tending to the realms above;
Such as, unconscious of base earth's control,
Gently attracts the vice-subduing soul;
From night's dark region aids her to retire,
And once more gain the palace of her sire:
And if on me some just misfortune press,
Remove th'affliction, and thy suppliant bless.
All-Saving goddess, to my prayer incline!
Nor let those horrid punishments be mine
Which guilty souls in Tartarus confine,
With fetters fast'ned to its brazen floors,
And lock'd by hell's tremendous iron doors.
Hear me, and save (for power is all thy own)
A soul desirous to be thine alone.

It is very remarkable in this hymn, that the exploits of Minerva relative to her cutting off the heads of wild beasts with an axe, &c., is mentioned by no writer whatever; nor can I find the least trace of a circumstance either in the history of Minerva or Hecate to which it alludes. And from hence, I think, we may reasonably conclude that it belonged to the arcane Orphic narrations concerning these goddesses, which were consequently but rarely mentioned, and this but by a few, whose works, which might afford us some clearer information, are unfortunately lost.


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