W. K. C. Guthrie (1906 – 1981), Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952): Guthrie, a Cambridge classicist, regards Orphism – taking its name from the legendary prophet-singer Orpheus – as the first religion to emphasize cosmogony and eschatology. For Guthrie, Orphism counts also as the first thematically moral religion. Guthrie argues that Hesiod adhered to the Orphic faith and he cites details of the Theogony to prove his case. Even more boldly Guthrie presents the thesis that cosmology, as distinct from cosmogony, derives from Orphic lore; he sees Plato’s Timaeus, for example, as an item in the genre of Orphic discourse. Indeed, Guthrie sees Plato as an Orphist. In Plato’s philosophy, after all, the seeker of wisdom wanders like an orphan in this punishing world. By dint of intellectual and moral askesis the wanderer might fulfill his obscure desire to go home. One of the etymologies would have it that the name Orpheus stems from orphanos, which English borrows from Greek via Latin, a derivation fitting itself rather closely with Guthrie’s thesis. Some stories tell that Orpheus hailed from Thrace, but Guthrie affirms his Hellenism. The Thracian connection seems to Guthrie a metaphor. Orphism differed so much from the reigning theologies of the archaic period that it struck people as having a distant provenance – in some accounts, a Hyperborean one. Orphism stands in tension with the Dionysus cult; and in the myth preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the Maenads murder Orpheus in a classic sparagmos. In the Imperial centuries, however, Orpheus and Dionysus seem to have merged, with the former’s irenic quality overwhelming the whole. Orpheus’ expertise on the lyre affiliates him with Apollo. Through that affiliation, Orpheus maintains his status as the first lyric poet and the first musician.
If Orphism belonged to the then-innovative category of moral religion, it also participated in the long-standing mystery-genus. Guthrie distinguishes Orphism, however, from the Mystery Cults per se. What was the difference? Guthrie points to a mechanical causality in the Cult of Eleusis, the paradigmatic Mystery Cult: “Perform the correct ritual, see the correct sights and say the correct words, and you are assured of the protection of the great goddesses, carrying with it the certainty of a blessed life after death.” Orphism downplayed ritual and emphasized moral conduct as supervised by conscience. To avoid the punishments of Hades, as portrayed in the Platonic dialogues, the Orphic subject must oblige himself twofold: “First initiation, and second the living of life according to the Orphic canons of purity.” Since Orphism abhorred the consumption of meat, it eschewed sacrifice. If the Orphic made an offering to the gods, he would gift the altar with honey and cakes, not with the flesh of a victim. Guthrie observes the limitation in Orphic morality that, while it aims at “the saving of one’s own soul,” it lacks nevertheless a charitable impulse, at least in its surviving documents. The other guy’s soul is not a relevant topic. Yet Orphism emphasized the individual apart from the community or state. Guthrie judges this development as significant in the history of religious ideas. Orphism’s meaning in this sense appears in one of the salient myths of the cult’s eclectic lore: The murder of the infant Dionysus, whose babyish innocence the narrative underlines. Orphism has a glimmering, at least, that victims might be innocent – a rare thing before the Gospel.
Guthrie devotes his final chapter to a discussion of possible continuities between the Orphic religion and emergent Christianity. Images of Orpheus appear in early Christian-syncretic art. “There is no doubt,” Guthrie writes, “that the early Christians, like all men from Classical Greece down to the present day, were profoundly impressed by the personality and legends of Orpheus.” A number of murals in the Roman catacombs depict Orpheus as “the Good Shepherd,” a theme that assimilates him with Christ. Other images show Orpheus as the Crucified One, another Christic assimilation. Guthrie remarks that the Crucifixion only entered Christian iconography until the Fifth or Sixth Century. The Crucifixion needed, of course, to surmount “tremendous prejudice… the historical founder of a new religion depicted as a common malefactor on the gallows.” Perhaps something already present in Orphism entered into Christianity as that religion solidified its position in the Imperium after Constantine. While stipulating the parallelisms – “both Christ and [the Orphic] Dionysus were sons of God, and both suffered, died, and were resurrected” – Guthrie prefers to qualify them as “commonplaces of the gods of the decline of paganism.” Guthrie hints at a roundabout influence of Orphism on Christianity. Remarking that “almost all the paganism of the world into which Jesus was born… crept back into his religion,” Guthrie attributes the origin of this “process” to Paul, “whose Hellenism no doubt contributed to his success.” Paul, according to Guthrie, “did not minimize the individuality of the central Christian message, nor did he seek to gain an easy assent”; and yet “he was particularly well fitted to put his teaching in the form in which the Greeks might most easily understand it.” Guthrie hints at the Orphic style of Paul’s evangelism.
Michel Tardieu (born 1938), Manichaeism (translated from the French by M. B. DeBevoise, 1997 – original French publication, 1981): The word “Manichaean” has lately come back into usage although its users tend to employ it with obliviousness as to its origin. Most of its users adhere to a conservative worldview and apply “Manichaean” to the dualistic judgments of Leftwing political correctness. It would likely come as a surprise to most of those who invoke it that the adjective “Manichaean” stems eponymously from the proper name of an actual person, Mani, whose two syllables sound slightly silly to the modern American ear. (One wants to add Mo and Jack to Mani in order to establish the full set of Pep Boys.) Mani was born to Elchasaite parents in Babylonia under the Parthian Empire in 216 A.D. The Elchasaites, a more or less Jewish-Christian Baptismal sect, lived by a code of Deuteronomic strictness that Mani came to regard as arbitrary and intolerable. Instead of transferring his fidelity to another sect (and these proliferated in the Near East at the time) Mani decided to found a new religion that would replace all existing creedal professions. Or, as Mani, himself, narrates, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him, with the news that God had chosen him as the Final Prophet to announce the new, universal religion that would envelope the globe. Mani modeled his evangelism on that of Thomas the Apostle, who took the Word of Christ to Eastern realms. Mani’s new faith, entirely eclectic, would borrow from the New Testament, the apocryphal Gospels, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Tardieu writes: “The originality of Manichaeism is not dualism as a dogmatic construction – this was to be the achievement of [Man’s] disciples – but the fact that it elaborated an ecclesiology based on a universalist prophetology.” The creed spread as far in the East as China, dominated Central Asia for several centuries, and reappeared as Catharism in the European Middle Ages.
Tardieu calls Mani “a poet and visionary,” who “worked out his ideas about the nature of things, about their causes and modalities, within the literary framework of an account of legends, the Pragmateia.” Tardieu’s description is more formal than substantial. Not that Mani plagiarized, but he built a literary jigsaw puzzle from bits and pieces of the theological books in circulation in his day. The picture, when assembled, might justify the attribution of an idiosyncratic bricolage, but none of the elements sprang from their author’s primary imagination. In addition to the Pragmateia, Mani wrote numerous other books and tracts. Like his Gnostic contemporaries, from whom he appropriated a medley of cosmo-theological minutiae, Mani wrote prolifically and inspired his disciples to do much pamphleteering. What of Mani’s cosmo-theology? In Tardieu’s summation, “before the existence of the heavens and of the earth… there were two natures… the one good, the other bad.” The two natures immediately warred, with the good nature, or Light, sending his creation, Primal Man with his five sons, against the bad nature, or Darkness. Bad nature defeats Primal Man and consumes him, but the meal proves toxic to Darkness, who falls ill and must take a time-out. The cosmos appears, but its material component stems from Darkness, and “the sons of the Living Spirit” find themselves imprisoned in substantiality. The story complicates itself baroquely, defying any summary of its mass of details. Mani, who in youth rebelled against Puritanism, concocts a doctrine whose faithful must collaborate in purifying the universe of its ubiquitous taint. The battle goes on and on. It divides the human race into stark categories – the deplorables, who vote for Trump, and the valorous, who struggle to cleanse the world of carbon emissions.
There will have been three Mother-of-all-Battles ‘twixt Light and Dark. Two had already occurred when Mani, the Last Prophet, advened in the earthly milieu. The “Seal of the Prophets,” as Tardieu translates from a Syriac version of one of Mani’s many self-declarations, heralded the End-Times, including a Last Judgment borrowed from St. John’s Apocalypse. History would soon arrive at its finale. As in the boastings of Mohammed – or, for that matter, as in the speculations of G. W. F. Hegel – no further cosmic annunciators would be required and all previous ones would be superseded. Tardieu quotes Mani’s Gospel: “I, Mani, apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God the Father of Truth.” Tardieu then paraphrases Mani’s agenda, which, as he phrases it, “consists in revealing to the world – that is, declaring before the false religions and pagan nations – the secrets [apporeta] that were confided to him by means of revelations.” The dualism that Tardieu minimizes inheres in the hostile dichotomy of truth and falsehood. More impressive, however, and more essential, is the colossal egotism, the towering righteousness, of the promulgation. Did Islam inherit its righteousness from Manichaeism? The timing is right. Manichaeism was a presence in North Africa and Arabia. In its jigsaw of a scripture, the Koran, Islam indeed resembles Manichaeism, at least literarily, but mostly in its overbearing righteousness. What about the contemporary Left in Europe and North America? A direct descent seems unlikely. On the other hand, a fanatically Puritan outlook will inevitably express itself as moral dualism and it will just as inevitably advertise itself in the phraseology of extreme moral conceit. Despite the unlikelihood of direct descent, consider in this regard the Münster Anabaptists. A fanatical Puritanism will also produce a myth of Light and Darkness. Look on my works, Ye Rednecks, and despair!
Walter Burkert (1931 – 2015), Ancient Mystery Cults (1987): “Shshshshshsh! – Never tell of this.” That is the Romantic idea of the ancient mystery cults, in which the Great Secret threatens vengeance on its potential betrayer. Burkert, and more than merely in a manner of speaking, devotes his four chapters to taking the mystery out of the Mysteries. The reader comes away from Burkert’s study with the view that the ancient cults of Demeter, as at Eleusis, or of Dionysus, or of Mithras, or of Isis rarely if ever sent their adherents on any kind of psychedelic journey to confront the sublime and experience its awe, but functioned rather as the ancient equivalents of the Brotherly Philanthropic Order of Moose or the Daughters of Job, social clubs, in other words, vaguely pious but in other respects adhering to the routine order of family and business. Burkert calls attention to the votive aspect of the mysteries. At mystery shrines all over the classical world, archaeology discovers masses of votive offerings, in the form of statuettes and ornaments, left on site. These small gifts to the gods bear inscriptions that tell of the giver’s purpose. Almost always this has to do with hoped-for recovery from illness or prophylaxis against risk in an endeavor known for the severity of its bad luck, when bad luck befell it. Say, a sea voyage. Other inscriptions thank the gods for delivering on their promises. It never undermines the principle of do ut des however that the mystery cults promised a closer and more personal relationship to the deity than the worshiper might obtain in the civic cults. And that personal relation had on the afterlife a bearing that extrapolated from the boon of recovery or a prosperous voyage. It raised the likelihood that, after death, the initiate might find himself feasting among the blessed in the Elysian Fields rather than hovering among the shadows in Hades. As early manifestations of personal religion, Burkert finds the mysteries significant.
One of the “catchwords” associated with Eleusis, according to Burkert, is “blessedness,” which “is taken to refer to the afterlife more than anything else.” In return for devotion, “Demeter, besides the bringing of grain, [gives] promise of a privileged life beyond the grave for those who have ‘seen’ the mysteries.” Burkert quotes Cicero to the effect the Demeter cult teaches, above all, how to live joyfully to old age and to face death with good hope rather than fear or resignation. Nowhere in the mysteries, on the other hand, does Burkert find evidence for a belief in resurrection, which, contrary-wise, Guthrie finds in the Orpheus Cult. (The name of Orpheus crops up only two or three times in Burkert’s text.) “Seen in contrast to Christianity,” Burkert writes, “mysteries appear both more fragile and more human.” Although devotion to one of the mystery gods might increase one’s chances in life, no absolute guarantee figures in the transaction. “There is no Credo” to be pronounced in the mystery cults and neither thus is there a dogma. Association with a mystery cult seems usually to have been transient. Whereas “thousands of mystai and epoptai meet for blessed visions in the mystery night at Eleusis”; nevertheless, “festive togetherness of this kind does not outlast the festival.” As Burkert concludes, “The unity of the group has been in action and experience, not in faith.” The researcher, if he stuck closely to the evidence, would find it difficult to link religious identity to the mystery cults. A Christian may utter the phrase Christianus sum, but such a profession “is dependent on constructions of metaphysical meaning alone in Christianity.” Burkert insists that no metaphysics attaches to the cultic experience.
Burkert provides an exegesis of one of the outstanding mystery-cult artifacts, the series of murals decorating the four walls of an inner sanctum in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii. These murals, vivid in quality, depict an initiation ceremony among a group of women devoted to Dionysus-Bacchus. The illustrations of the Villa of the Mysteries indicate that, while the mystery cults were usually sexually mixed, they also existed as sex-segregated collaborations. The Mithras cult seems, for example, to have inducted males exclusively. As in myth, the followers of Dionysus often took shape as female-only associations. The Villa murals, illustrate the stages of initiation. The novice enters the room; she is questioned by guardians who have previously undergone initiation; and, as in a carnival “fun-house,” she must face a few demonic surprises. Finally, she must confront “a huge erect phallus in a winnowing basket, liknon, covered by a cloth.” In the Villa, the revealer is a kneeling woman, but in similar depictions it is a Silenus. In the Villa murals, Sileni are present. Viewers see the shock on the initiate’s face when the kneeling woman whips away a cloth covering from the phallus. It is possible to interpret the Villa scenes allegorically, and many have. Burkert prefers a commonplace interpretation: The initiate as depicted is a young woman, of marriageable age; the actual initiate was probably a younger female, just coming into adolescence. The play-acting was an elaborate way of presenting to the girl the facts of life, no doubt with a party afterward to ameliorate the embarrassment. Burkert alludes to the myth of Psyche and Eros as possibly furnishing a plot for the image-sequence.
Ray Cummings, The War Nymphs of Venus – the Complete Planet Stories Tales (Compilation issued 2016): Enough scholarship! Genre beckons, genre offers escape from the annoyances and frustrations of a recalcitrant world. Perhaps the great surge of genre literature in the first half of the Twentieth Century, when Americans could still read, constituted a healthy protest against the trends of propaganda and ideology, and the rapidly increasing blandness of consumer society. That the “pulps,” the vehicles of genre, disappeared after 1945, with the advent of television, would support the thesis. According to a number of authors – one might name E. D. Hirsch and Neil Postman – 1950 marked the apogee of American literacy. Then the public schools shifted from phonics, implicit in the alphabet, to so-called sight-reading, and the great decline into sub-literacy, and finally into post-literacy, began. It proceeded apace. First-year college students in 2020 have never read a book, from which it follows that college graduates in 2020 have never read a book, except maybe a “textbook” whose pages they skimmed in a panic before the final exam. It is not simply that recent generations of Americans have emancipated themselves from the written word; they have also disconnected with the Oral Tradition from which classical narrative, especially heroic narrative, sprang. Raymond King Cummings (1887 – 1957) was a popular contributor to the genre periodicals from 1919 until the mid-1940s. He helped to form the sub-genre that would become known as science fiction. Like his elder Edgar Rice Burroughs, Cummings adapted the devices of ancient epic and medieval romance to his genre productions. Cummings usually ends his stories with a marriage, as in The Girl in the Golden Atom (1919), Tama, Princess of Mercury (1931), and The War-Nymphs of Venus (1941). The latter gives its title to the Cummings compendium edited by Gene Christie, with an Introduction by Tom Roberts, and issued by Black Dog Books four years ago.
A pretty girl, Nereid, comes to Earth. Her rocket-pod crashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and a resourceful young man, Kent Fanning, who is on vacation, fishing for tarpon, rescues her. She is half-Earthling, half-Venusian, but the Venusians are sufficiently human that Kent can fall in love, immediately, with Nereid, and she with him. Nereid’s father, an Earthman-scientist long ago kidnapped by one of the Venusian factions, has sent her to the third planet to plead for assistance, and to facilitate it by bringing with her the secret of space travel. Cummings gives his readers a thumbnail history of the human race on Venus. A millennium ago, Venusian humanity split into two nations, the Arones and the Gorts, analogues of the Athenians and the Spartans in the Classical Age on Earth. “In former ages,” Fanning recounts, “there had been millions of humans on this, Earth’s sister planet.” The single civilization rose “to great heights of science, with all the planet’s surface mastered by man.” Then, “decadence had come.” The Arones contented themselves with philosophy and the arts; they ignored science and technical advancement because “men and women should live for human happiness.” The Gorts, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction. Under their Führer Tollgamo they have transformed themselves “into machines.” They cannot bear the existence of anything not themselves and have undertaken to conquer and exterminate the Arones. Nereid’s father contrived to escape the Gorts and works now on behalf of the Arones, who have at last acknowledged the reality principle. “Gort” is an interesting word – the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is named Gort. One of Cummings’ Gorts is named “Borgg,” anticipating the bio-robotic assimilators of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Tollgamo shows up on Earth shortly after Nereid arrives. He kidnaps Fanning, his friend Jack Allen, who has joined the fishing expedition, and Nereid so as to return them to Venus. Other “Planetary Romance” writers rise above Cummings in the richness of their prose – Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, and Catherine L. Moore, to name a few prominent examples. Cummings nevertheless proves himself a journeyman storyteller and not a hack. He sustains the tension throughout even while punctuating the story with moments of comic relief. Readers will stick with the unfolding plot even though they know in advance that the story must end happily, with the black-hats defeated and Fanning and Nereid looking forward to a life together. The details are unimportant, but the title, with its “War-Nymphs,” provides a hint of the young, svelte piscine interceptor force that foils Tollgamo’s ambition and then immediately reverts to being young and svelte. It turns out that Nereid’s real name is Midge Peters. She might be a girls’ swim-team champion at a Midwestern high-school in the 1930s. Cummings’ Venusian tale reminds its readers of the charming fact that, before the 1960s, planetology held to the theory that Venus, eternally veiled by clouds, probably resembled Earth in the Jurassic Period: Hot, largely oceanic, and inhabited by some dinosaurian parallelism. Writers, of course, wanted to people the Morning Star, which Burroughs did, and Brackett, and Moore. And there is usually a nymph-princess in distress. In Burroughs she reacts haughtily, at first, to her Earthman rescuer. Nereid lacks all conceit. She is enthusiastic, pert, and dutiful in respect of her people. In an odd way, to immerse oneself in a tale of Venus, say, or Mars is to participate vicariously in a ritual drama. Could pulp fiction have been the Mystery Cult of the last century? Pulp fiction is, for yours truly, a personal religion.