The Center for Sophiological Studies

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  • Michael Martin


JESUS THE IMAGINATION, VOL 3: CHRIST-ORPHEUS features, among others, the work of Emi Shigeno, Daniel Joseph Polikoff, Jim Stoner, Devan Meade DeCicco, translation by Jonathan Monroe Geltner, and an extensive interview with harpist, composer, and founder of music thanatology, Therese Schroeder-Sheker. The following is the introduction to the volume.


In his fascinating discussion of the myth of Dionysos (Orpheus being a permutation of the god of wine), the twentieth-century Hungarian mythologist Carl Kerényi contemplates the importance of honey in Dionysian ritual. Dionysos, he writes,

was said to have invented honey, and the ground on which his handmaidens, the maenads, danced was said to have flowed with milk, wine, and the “nectar of bees.” It was also said that honey dripped from the thyrsus staffs that the maenads carried. Before the feeding of the infant Dionysos, a privilege of his non-animal, sacred nurses, his lips were sprinkled with honey.1

Honey, a natural preservative, symbolizes the zoë (indestructible life) Kerényi holds to be the preeminent quality of Dionysos. C.G. Jung, working similar terrain, relates the story of the Roman writer and rhetorician Aelian (AD 175–235) who preserved the head of his deceased friend Archonides in a jar of honey for use as an oracle—a practice also said to have been employed with the head of Orpheus following his tragic encounter with the maenads.2 Honey, to borrow a notion from Goethe’s Mephistopheles, is a very special fluid.

The resonances of this mythos with the Judeo-Christian tradition are easy to detect. The Israelites left the desolation of Egypt for a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17), and there is evidence that milk and honey also figured into early Christian sacramental life.3 John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, was beheaded at the bequest of an Israelite maenad; and Christ tells us that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (zoë), a life indestructible.

Other resemblances abound. Orpheus, according to the myth, descended into Hades to retrieve his wife Eurydice (her name means “wide-ruling”) from the realm of Death. Christ, too, descended into Hell: from which he rescued humanity. And, even more than Dionysos, Christ is the god of wine: for his blood is drink, indeed, and unless we drink it and eat his flesh we have no life (zoë) in us (John 6:53).

But there’s more. As W.K.C. Guthrie observes, Orpheus “civilized” the often bloody religion of Dionysos through a kind of reform, combining it with more of the propriety characteristic of Apollonian worship. Christ, the true Lamb of God, offered himself as the final and eternal sacrifice, obviating the need for blood offerings. Unlike most heroes of the Classical age, Orpheus “was always on the side of civilization and the arts of peace” and—very much like Christ— his “outstanding quality is a gentleness amounting at times to softness.”4 He was an important figure in farming and husbandry: for culture as well as cultus is unthinkable apart from agriculture. I have often thought that the further Christianity has strayed from the agricultural cycle it has simultaneously strayed from Christ—and into politics.

The synergy between Christ and Orpheus is no new discovery. Images of Orpheus are found in the catacombs, often in the guise of a shepherd: a cipher for Christ. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Western artists, poets, and composers—among others Apollinaire, Cocteau, Delville, Stravinsky, and Rilke (included in this volume)—revisited the constellation of images around Orpheus in response to the horrors they beheld as the violence unleashed through the massive powers of technology wreaked havoc on any conception of truth, beauty, or goodness. They invoked Orpheus, both prophet and emblem, as the Western world grew more and more intoxicated with the dark gifts of industrialization. To these these we could add modernity’s unholy and diabolical innovations in agriculture which have done so much harm to life on earth, and nowhere so devastatingly as in apiculture. Orpheus was a poet; and the evils of the twentieth century did much to destroy all the poetry embedded in the world, a tragedy that gradually metamorphosed in the twenty-first century to indifference. Orpheus torn apart, these forces subsequently focused their energies on destroying Christ.

But, as I said earlier, Christ is the keeper of zoë, which is indestructible. Poetry, true poetry (by which I mean all the arts, including agriculture) participates, if only as an echo, in this indestructibility. As Rainer Maria Rilke so eloquently articulates it, here in Daniel Joseph Polikoff’s sublime translation,

Furious, mad for vengeance, they tore you apart;

yet your voice echoes on in birds and in trees,

in lions and stones. There you sing still.5

Sing on.

1 Carl Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, trans. Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Series LXV, 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 31.

2 C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East, trans. R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series XX, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 244.

3 See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy (Grand Rapids, 2009), 20.

4 W.C.K. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement (1952; reprt., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 40.

5 From Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Daniel Joseph Polikoff (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 1.26, lines 9–11.