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The Astrology Podcast

Ep. 443 Transcript: The Orphic Mysteries and Ancient Astrology

The Astrology Podcast

Transcript of Episode 443, titled:

The Orphic Mysteries and Ancient Astrology

With Chris Brennan, Kristin Mathis, and Drew Levanti

Episode originally released on April 14, 2024


Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: theastrologypodcast@gmail.com

Transcribed by Teresa “Peri” Lardo

Transcription released April 29, 2024

Copyright © 2024 TheAstrologyPodcast.com

CHRIS BRENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode, I’m gonna be talking with historian of ancient astrology and magic, Kristin Mathis, and astrologer Drew Levanti about the ancient mystical tradition known as Orphism and how it influenced the development and practice of ancient astrology. So hey, Kristin and Drew, welcome to the show.

KRISTIN MATHIS: Hey. Thank you so much for having me here.

DREW LEVANTI: Same here.

CB: Yeah, thanks for joining me today. I’m excited about this episode. So we’ve got a lot to talk about. Let me give just a quick overview of some of the topics we’re gonna be touching on and an overview of this topic and then we’ll sort of welcome you more formally and expand on things as we go.

So Orphism is an ancient Greek mystery cult supposedly founded by a legendary figure named Orpheus. Orpheus was a legendary poet, musician, and mystical figure. Members of the cult had to be initiated and were swore to secrecy with oaths, and they believed that the soul was immortal and subject to reincarnation. Part of the goal was to help ensure a better life in the future, and there was an emphasis on remembering one’s divine origin. There was also a special emphasis on poetry and music as ways of accessing the divine, and Orpheus is listed as one of the legendary founders of Hellenistic astrology by people like Firmicus Maternus. So Vettius Valens in the 2nd century even cites some passages from Orpheus on the immortality of the soul. So recent research has connected the astrologer Critodemus with Orphism, and even Plato and other philosophers may have been influenced by Orphic ideas. So within this context it’s important to understand Orphism as a major influence on Hellenistic astrology, and I know that’s something that the two of you have been focused on and specializing in for the past several years, right?

KM: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, the contribution of the Orphics to Hellenistic astrology and actually Greek philosophy in general, I think, really can’t be overstated. And I’ve been really fortunate to be working with Drew, who’s such a great practical astrologer to help bring this all to life.

CB: Well, tell me a little bit about your background, Kristin. So you’re a Greek translator and an independent scholar and you have a background in studying ancient texts and classics going back to the 1990s, right?

KM: Yeah. I started out as a religious studies major at Brown, and I was able to study with David Pingree there when he was still alive and teaching. And I did my thesis on Pliny the Elder’s conceptions of magic in his Natural History. And then I went to Princeton to study the history of ancient Mediterranean magic and religion, and I worked with Elaine Pagels, who was there at the time, John Gager, who was a historian of Christian magic, and it just so happened while I was there in ‘94 there was a giant symposium on ancient magic happening at the Institute for Advanced Study, and I was one of three grad students invited to participate in that. So that’s when I got a chance to meet Hans Dieter Betz and many, many other scholars of ancient magic and religion.

So that was really where I earned my chops as it were, and then like Rip van Winkle, I went to sleep for a long time, was a mom, working out in the world, and sort of during the pandemic woke up a little bit to the fact that these very niche subjects that I had studied in my youth were now being discussed on podcasts like yours, Chris, and it blew my mind to think that there was a whole world out there of people who knew who Thrasyllus was and were interested in Hellenistic astrology.

CB: Yeah. I mean, things have really grown and developed in the past 30 years, but that’s an amazing pedigree and like, set of connections that you had because David Pingree was one of the most influential scholars of ancient astrology in the 20th century and then Elaine Pagels, of course, being very well-known for her work in gnosticism, and Hans Dieter Betz for his work on the Greek magic papyri, so that puts you in like, a unique position or almost sort of lineage in terms of some —

KM: Yeah.

CB: — of that material.

KM: Yeah. And I’m so privileged to have studied with them. And at the same time, part of the reason why I wound up leaving academia was because there was this great divide between the people who studied it and the people who had a spiritual or a deeper interest in it. And the conflict there was profound, especially at the time even more so than there is now.

CB: Yeah. That’s actually – I’m interviewing Nick Campion and Patrick Curry later this month about that very topic of astrology and academia and how much that’s changed over the course of the past 30 years. So that’s actually a really interesting topic.

Drew, you have also an interesting and unique and important background as an astrologer, as somebody who focuses on the ancient magical traditions, and as somebody who specializes in electional astrology and the role and interface between electional astrology and magic in ancient times, right?

DL: Yeah, that’s right. I think through astrological magic, you know, that came relatively early in my studies of astrology and so did ancient astrology. And we were actually talking about this the other day on a Q&A for your Hellenistic course, Chris, how I’m one of the astrologers who didn’t learn modern first, but I kind of learned modern in tandem with Hellenistic, and so that journey for me started around 2017 right around the time that I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. I was studying anthropology, just really interested in religious thought and, you know, why people do the things that they do, why they believe the things that they believe, and eventually I realized that I needed to stop being a nonbeliever and to kind of return to, you know, a sense of an animate cosmos and a world that listens if we listen to it.

So I really love Kristin’s work especially in the way that it retrieves some of these ancient ways of thinking about the cosmos as alive, and it was in 2021 that I was exposed to Kristin’s work and quickly kind of joined in collaborating with Kristin. Previously, I’d been working with other translations of the Orphic hymns in my own magical practice, and I found just the synchronicities that I had already been having with the Orphic hymns really accelerated and it was a sign to me that working with Kristin was the way to go, and so here we are. We’ve taught a class so far on the Orphic hymns, and we’re continuing this research, and it’s really exciting.

CB: Awesome. Yeah, that’s really exciting. You’ve both been doing really exciting work on the Orphic hymns, so maybe that should be our access point since I know that’s been your primary focus over the past few years. What are the Orphic hymns? And maybe let’s start by introducing our audience to that as a topic as one of your main points of focus.

KM: Yeah, so do you wanna start with the hymns first rather than Orphism as a whole?

CB: I mean, we could go into the whole shebang with Orphism; I just wasn’t sure if you wanted to —

KM: Yeah.

CB: — mention that really briefly in terms of that —

KM: Sure.

CB: — probably being your main focus and part of the main focus of the conversation that we’ll eventually circle back around to.

KM: Okay. Yeah. So very probably the briefest way to say it is the Orphic hymns are a collection of 87 hymns. They’re poetic. In the ancient world, poetry was sung, and so that means they’re not only poems – they’re songs. And these 87 hymns are addressed to different figures and forces of the natural world. They include everything from the heavens in general to specific deities associated with planets. There are hymns to the winds, to different forces on earth and the underworld. And they would have been used as part of the Orphic mystery cults, about which we’ll say more later.

CB: Okay. Brilliant. So yeah, and we’ll share some of those hymns and talk about that. And that those become an interesting point of interconnection with astrology because of their connection with the gods and with some of the figures that we see astrologers working with or invoking as well.

KM: Yeah. I mean, I know one area that Drew is really interested in is the cardinal directions, the elements, the winds. All those come up in the Orphic hymns and in later Hellenistic astrology.

CB: All right. Brilliant. All right. So let’s orient people and let’s talk about Orphism and the Orphic tradition as a setup before we get into the hymns and talk more in detail about what those are. So who is Orpheus and what is Orphism?

KM: Yeah, so who is Orpheus? Orpheus is, in Greek myth, the first poet. And there are many different myths related to Orpheus. Like most Greek myths, there’s not just one version of his story. And the main way that today most people know Orpheus, if they know of him, is through the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. That’s where Orpheus is in love with a young maiden or a nymph sometimes named Eurydice, and she dies while she’s in the forest, and her soul is taken down to Hades. Orpheus needs to go rescue her from Hades, and he goes down there, sings and enchants Persephone and Hades, convinces them to let Eurydice go, and they agree, but on the condition that when she comes – as she’s journeying back towards the earth, he may not – sorry, Orpheus may not – turn around and look at her. They want him to trust that she’s there. And as he is stepping out from the underworld, he turns around and reaches back to grab her hand and pull her out, and in doing so undoes the spell, and she is taken by Hermes back down to the underworld. So he loses her.

Now, this is the hymn that most people know Orpheus for today because it was popularized during the Roman period by the Roman poet Ovid. That is one aspect of Orpheus’s myth that would have been familiar to most people in the ancient world, but the – or the ancient Mediterranean world, rather – but there are other aspects of his myth that were just as if not more important in pre-Roman times. And specifically, one of the main things that he was known for was his ability to enchant not just gods but also monsters and aspects of the natural world. So he could enchant and speak to the stars, the plants, the animals.

And he also is famous for having journeyed with Jason and the Argonauts on the voyage to get the Golden Fleece. And we are told that his role on this journey was sort of threefold: one was that his singing and lyre set the beat for the rowing of the ores. And the second thing is that he was able to enchant various dangerous creatures that they passed. So when they sailed past the sirens, the same sirens that Odysseus had to sail past in Homer’s book The Odyssey – when Jason and the Argonauts sailed past them, Orpheus sang. And his songs were so enchanting that they out-enchanted the sirens who were famous for luring sailors to their deaths. So he was on the boat to set the pace, but also to help them navigate monsters and danger. And then the third thing that he did on that journey that was widely known is that he established the mysteries. Not much is said about what that entailed, but he apparently stopped on an island and dedicated it to the mysteries and taught humans the rites and the words necessary to achieve a certain type of immortality. So those three aspects of Orpheus’s myths were actually the predominant ones until we get to a later point when Ovid picks up this story of Eurydice and brings that forward.

CB: Okay, so —

KM: It’s not – yeah, it’s not so much that the Eurydice myth didn’t exist as much as it just was like, which aspects of the myth are more forward and more receding.

CB: Sure. The three sort of primary things and touchstones that’s sort of universal is that he was a poet, he was a musician, and that he also had this association of being like, a spiritual teacher or a founder of the hidden mystery traditions.

KM: Yeah. Exactly. And Drew, I know you wanted to say something about the connection —

DL: Right.

KM: — with Orpheus.

DL: Right, yeah. And I think what the Argonaut story shows about Orpheus is his connection to navigation and his special skills in being able to assist in navigation through various trials. And so this role of Orpheus as a guide and as a navigator is very much connected with the context of navigation of the seas. And so when we think about the Mediterranean world where all of these myths and these legends take place, it’s an incredibly nautical world. And so we see this in the astrological tradition, certainly, with the prominence of the nautical metaphor, for example, where listeners of the podcast will probably be familiar with the idea of the Ascendant or the rising sign as the helm of the ship, and so the entire birth chart tends to be conceived in the ancient world as a ship, and the soul or the individual navigates their life as if steering a ship. What I think is important about this relative to Orpheus as a psychopomp figure, one who traverses the overworld and the underworld or the world of the living and the dead, is that Orpheus is not only a guide of souls through life, but also of souls in death. So one way that we can see the influence of – or see the roots of Orphic thinking in Hellenistic astrology is through the nautical metaphor, but one way we can grow our understanding through the role of Orpheus as a psychopomp figure is that the birth chart wasn’t necessarily only conceived in terms of life but also in terms of the soul as an entity that goes into the afterlife and has potentially an immortal journey there or a journey to immortality.

CB: Right. When I was reading a lot of this recently, it was reminding me a lot of many of the features that we associate with Hermes or with Hermes Trismegistus and that it seems like there’s some overlap between Orpheus and Hermes in different ways.

KM: Yeah. I think, you know, there certainly is historically. The Hermetic material is definitely influenced by Orphic thought and practice. And I think conceptually, there are some significant differences, but they are also some similarities, and the similarities I would say are that they both partake of a universe that is interconnected in ways that I wanna say are more complex than our current modern notions of causality, right? So that for instance in both Hermetic texts and in Orphic texts, to speak of a deity – let’s say like, Aphrodite – is also to speak about a planet and also to speak about the particular stones and smells, incenses, herbs that are related to Aphrodite. And it’s not really possible to separate it all out and say, “Oh, here we mean the herb and here we mean the planet and here we mean the goddess.” There’s an overlaying – I call it a fractality, a fractal-ness. Some people have used the word “holographic” in the sense that it’s the same image repeated at different scales. But there’s a sense of multiplicity and non-duality, not needing to choose either/or that pervades both of those different traditions, the Hermetic and the Orphic.

CB: Sure. Yeah. And even before getting to there, though, I was just thinking broadly in terms of the myths associated with Orpheus and the myths associated with Hermes that there’s a little bit of overlap between. For example, one of the most famous myths, at least later myths, of Hermes was the myth about the turtle and like, creating a lyre and then also the idea of Hermes being a psychopomp and being one of the only gods as the messenger of the gods that can travel back and forth between the underworld. It seems like at least broadly maybe there’s —

KM: Yeah.

CB: — some sort of influence there between those two or at least similarities or overlaps.

KM: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s interesting because of course Hermes has a special relationship to memory, and Orphic, as we’ll see, the Orphic mysteries were very concerned with memory and remembering who we really are, remembering who our cosmic family is. And so I think you’re absolutely right, Chris; it’s not an accident that both of these figures are connected with the lyre, with poetry, which of course was used in a very practical way as a mnemonic device in a society that where even the literate usually memorized texts for reference. So yeah, there’s a lot there to explore.

CB: For sure.

DL: And I think another way that we can see that parallel between Hermes and Orpheus is through their connection to Apollo, and that gets to your point, Chris, about the myth associated with the first lyre or the birth of music, which is about – I think Demetra talked about this on the podcast recently, actually – where the lyre that Mercury creates soothes Apollo. And similarly, you know, connected Apollo and Mercury both to music, Orpheus is also like the legendary figure associated with music and is sometimes said to be the son of Apollo. So that mythic connection or those parallels between Mercury or Hermes and Orpheus are pretty striking, and it does get to what Kristin’s talking about, this sort of non-dual way of seeing the world where just because something is one thing, it doesn’t mean it’s not another. So just because Orpheus, you know, is the psychopomp or Mercury is the psychopomp, we have multiple psychopomps. We have different ways of accessing this notion of the psychopomp. In some ways, the Sun is also a psychopomp. The Sun goes into the underworld and comes back into the light of day. So that’s a very important piece of this tradition is this non-dual way of seeing the world, and so when we talk about the different gods as they’re discussed in the Orphic hymns or in Orphism in general, it’s often the case that rather than thinking about the gods as distinct in ruling over distinct phenomena, it’s more often the case that the gods are singular entry points that are not actually singular at all, but that all of the gods give us entry points into the divine. And so there’s this preoccupation with the all and the totality of the divine that each god, each hymn, each figure, each divine force allows us access into this greater whole.

CB: That’s really – that seems important because maybe that’s a good thing to expand upon in terms of my general approach of not taking anything for granted, but we’re talking about ancient Greek religion and different approaches to and orientation towards religion, and part of that is polytheism as opposed to the dominant sort of monotheism of CHristianity and the West over the past 2,000 years. So maybe that’s a partial way to orient people as well as we’re talking about Greek religion from like, a thousand years, the period of several hundred years before Christianity.

KM: Yeah. And I think you’re really wise to focus on that, Chris, because I think one of the defining aspects of Greek religion in general is polycentrism. Edward Butler is a scholar who’s talked a lot about this as it relates to ancient polytheism. But polycentrism is the operating assumption, always. It’s not until much later that we see a preoccupation with really trying to pin down one narrative that is the correct narrative. And even early Christianity and forms of other monotheistic religions like Judaism had multiple narratives at the time we’re talking about when we’re talking, you know, roughly let’s say 500 BCE to the year zero, let’s just, you know, say within there. Within that span, it’s a dominant assumption that there’s no one story.

CB: Got it. Okay. So and this is connected with – so we’re talking about polytheism, but there’s also a strong in Orphism pantheistic component and the notion of the existence of an animate, divine cosmos. And that’s something I talked about a lot recently in the episodes on Plato and Platonism as well as it’s present in Stoicism, the notion that the universe itself is like a living, sentient being or creature or even a god in and of itself. And in Orphism, we have some similar conceptualizations, right?

KM: Yeah. They – I think that one of the really, you know, personally for me fascinating things about Orphism is that it presupposes a cosmos that is totalizing. There’s not – at least in the Orphic hymns – there’s not something outside of the cosmos. The cosmos is alive and divine, and it is the all. And the all – insofar as we can talk about the all – we can only conceive of it within the cosmos. This is a very pre-Socratic way – pre-Socratic meaning before Plato, Greek philosophy before Plato – this very pre-Socratic way of thinking about the cosmos.

DL: And I would add that when we’re talking about the all, you know, it sounds like this very esoteric concept. I think to ground it, you can think about the patterns that we see in nature, and this is what Kristin was alluding to in mentioning fractals is that, you know, we have this idea of parts making up a whole, right? So, you know, the various gods composing each of them a part of the cosmos as a whole. But what we find, I think, in Orphism is this sense not of the whole being composed of parts but rather parts being composed of wholes. And this is an idea that I encountered from the scholar Terry Marks-Tarlow, who I highly recommend checking out, because it’s a really different way of seeing the world that, you know, when you see a lightning bolt, you see a tree root. Or when you encounter any natural phenomenon, when you feel the wind against your face, these are all expressions of the whole. It’s not that the wind, the waves of the wind or the fluctuations of the air are different from the shape of a lightning bolt or the shape of a tree root; it’s that these patterns are always recurring and yet never repeating exactly. There is unity and there is differentiation. There is always a signet or an impression of the all in everything natural phenomenon that we encounter in the cosmos.

CB: That makes sense. And that’s tied in with – I mean, I’m familiar with some of that from like, later Stoic thinking and the idea that there can be, you can have like, the organ like, the heart or something within a body but it’s part of a larger collective, or its functioning – even though it has some independent function, it’s tied in with the rest of the larger system of the body as a whole and that the universe in a pantheistic sense was sometimes conceptualized in a similar way, that there can be pieces of something but they’re part of a larger body.

DL: It’s not even just that the pieces are part of a larger body, it’s that each piece is the whole. That we see the whole in each part. And it’s —

KM: Or — oh, go ahead.

DL: You can jump off that.

KM: Well, I was just gonna say this is where I have a favorite analogy to use here, which is like a gaming die – you know, one of those 20-sided D&D die – where it doesn’t even make sense to talk about a face of that die apart from the die as a whole. Right? So each face is – you can talk about it distinctly. You can say, “Oh, that is number one, that’s number two, that’s number three.” But is number one the die? No, but it’s also not not the die, if that makes sense. Right? And we see that type of logic in some other pre-Socratic philosophers like Parmenides is one of the most famous where they’re very preoccupied with what is the all, and is it even possible to think about something that’s not the all? And as soon as we say the all, are we positing something that’s not the all, and if we are, how could that be? And then you quickly arrive at a state of what Plato would call aporia or not knowing, not being able to locate yourself in space because it’s so contradictory. And that state of sort of productive, creative being that is beyond either/or – that’s the sweet spot for the Oprhics and for some other pre-Socratic philosophers as well. And I think that even Plato works with that. I think he tends to, at least in some of Plato’s dialogues, he wants to land a little more firmly maybe than the pre-Socratics did. But for the Orphics, there’s no question. They’re all about the both/and.

CB: That makes me think of last month, Drew, you and I did a commentary and a live reading as part of my Hellenistic course of Plato’s Timaeus, and one of the concepts that came up that I was kind of surprised was already there that early by, you know, not long after 400 BCE, was the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm and the idea that it’s like, there is the cosmos itself in its totality, but then each of us is also like a small cosmos in and of itself that kind of mirrors the similar dynamics of the totality of the larger cosmos.

DL: Yes, like, each one of us is a whole and we bear the entire divinity of the entire cosmos within each of us. We are a part, and we are whole. And that gets to the point that Kristin’s making about it being very much a tradition of both/and. And one way that we see this expressed in the hymns that – I’m not sure if the examples that we have later will fully illustrate this, so I think it bears mentioning now – is that when we talk about an astronomical body like the Sun, throughout many of the Orphic hymns to many different deities, we see references to the Sun and to fire. And that is striking, because we have the Orphic hymn to Helios, we have the Orphic hymn to Apollo, who are very canonically solar figures, but we also have references to the Sun in the Orphic hymn to Hephaistos and even the same epithets might appear in the Orphic hymn to Eros, the embodiment of love. And so across the hymns, we see that these wholes are within each part of the cosmos.

KM: Just like the faces of the die. Right? YOu can sort of rotate it and look at it from different angles. And just to return to our earlier point about nautical imagery and its relationship to astrology, there’s a great example in the Orphic hymn of Aphrodite that relates to this idea of multiple levels of – or multiple sort of cosmic… Sorry, let me think about how to phrase this. It illustrates the type of microcosm/macrocosm that you’re talking about, Chris. And that is there’s a work in Greek – népodes – which literally means, “no feet.” Like, footless ones. And it’s used in everyday Greek to mean “baby” or something like, an infant, sometimes even a soul, right, because a soul is a being that doesn’t yet have feet. But it’s also used to talk about fish and to talk about stars, because they also are moving bodies that don’t have feet. And so when in the Orphic hymn to Aphrodite, it talks about Aphrodite being surrounded by népodes, that can mean, you know, it can mean that Aphrodite is surrounded by infant possibly souls. It can mean that she’s surrounded in her chariot on the ocean by dolphins and fish and other little footless creatures swimming with her, or it can mean Aphrodite the planet is surrounded by orbiting stars. So that’s a great example of how all those things are true at the same time, and it’s what makes translating the hymns very very difficult, because it’s often referring to many, many levels of micro and macrocosm at the same time.

CB: I think that’s a really great point and it’ll provide a nice transition because that interpretive element of where you’re translating texts that are sometimes encoded as part of a mystery tradition and it contain many different subtle levels of interpretation and different things that could be implied from different perspectives leads us into needing to talk about what is Orphism as a mystery cult and what were different other types of mystery cults and what differentiated Orphism as one in the ancient world.

KM: Yeah. Well, mystery cults are maybe appropriately difficult to describe, but I’d say usually how I talk about them is as practices that used myth, ritual, dance, song and other types of sensory experiences – incense, food probably, sacrifice – and the mystery cults used these sensory experiences to help reconfigure an initiate, a human, a person who was coming for the purpose of being transformed. Being reborn. So it used these sensory experiences to make the initiate into a different type of being. So you entered as Kristin Mathis, but after having gone through these rituals and this process of sensory experience, I would emerge maybe superficially looking the same, but inside, I’ve changed.

CB: Right.

DL: I just wanted to let you all know that I’m next to a bathroom and the shower just – my roommate’s taking a shower, so I just wanted to make sure it’s not coming through. Okay good. So I’m gonna make a point off of Kristin now.

So I think that what Kristin’s saying about the initiate coming in one kind of being and through initiation becoming a different kind of being or somehow changing in a core way is something that we can relate to today as students of astrology, where for many of us – I can speak for myself in particular – learning astrology and seeing the way that the world around me behaves astrologically in response to these archetypes and their shifting around the sky, that makes me a different kind of being now because I encounter the world in a different way. And so I think that is a really easy way for us to grasp what it might have been like to be initiated is that there is this body of knowledge that, as Kristin’s saying, is transmitted not only as knowledge or as a sort of intellectual phenomenon, but also as through sensory experiences.

KM: Yeah. And we know from other types of mystery cults – in particular, the Elusynian mysteries, which we have a little more documentation on and archaeological evidence for – we know that initiates were often had to undergo special fasting and prayer beforehand to prepare, that there were folks who had already been initiated who would help lead them or guide them through the initiation rituals. We know that in some of the mysteries, there were different grades of initiates, so you might undertake it – the ritual process – more than one time. And we know that there was often, there were different roles; there were people who led the ritual element of the mystery rituals, and then there were others whose role it was to explain what was happening, and there might have been periods of study that you had to undergo either before or after undergoing the actual ritual itself. So we’re not… You know, they kept these secrets very well. So it’s not like we have a manual for how to do the mysteries from the ancient world. If anything, honestly, these hymns themselves are probably the closest thing we have to such a manual because it’s possible to read these 87 hymns as a liturgical or ritual script for what was maybe a night or a day and a night of mystery ritual.

CB: Right —

DL: And I think that —

KM: And —

DL: I think that’s an important thing to point out, Kristin, that these hymns were meant to be done in sequence, to be performed in sequence as like, what you were saying, a liturgy or as a script, which is different from how we usually encounter the Orphic hymns in the practice of astrological magic today where we kind of take one or take a couple that are resonant with the forces that we’re working with. But in that context it was definitely meant to be all 87 of the hymns, and it would take a very long time because the initiation ritual is a laborious task.

KM: Yeah! And maybe – we don’t know, but – it’s also possible that having undergone this initiation, perhaps people did work with one or a couple of the hymns here and there to strengthen a practice or to gain greater relationship with a particular deity. So we don’t know whether they used them individually or not, but we do know that they used them in community.

CB: Right. And all of this is important as a backdrop for the astrological tradition because one of the things that always stood out to me that I thought was really striking when I first started studying ancient astrology and reading some of the astrological texts is that some of the ancient authors, ancient astrologers, actually, ask you to swear an oath and refer to the student of astrology and of their works as an initiate as if it’s part of a mystery tradition that some of the ancient astrologers were a part of. And that’s very prominent in Vettius Valens and in Firmicus Maternus where, for example, I have this quote from Valens of one of the oaths – there’s three different oaths that Valens makes you swear, but one of them he says,

“Concerning this book, then, I must before all prescribe an oath for those who happen to encounter it that they may keep watch over what is written and withhold it in a manner appropriate to the mysteries. I adjure them by the sacred cycle of the Sun and the irregular courses of the Moon and by the powers of the remaining stars and the circle of the 12 zodiacal signs to keep these things secret and not impart them to the unlearned or the uninitiated and to give a portion of honor and remembrance to him who introduced them to this discipline. May it go well for those who keep this oath, and may their aforementioned gods be in accord with their wishes, but may the opposite be the case for those who forswear this oath.”

And Firmicus actually has a similar oath. So in the astrological tradition, this idea of like, oaths and mystery traditions and being initiated into something is very directly relevant in terms of the practice of ancient astrology, but that’s where Orphism is really interesting, because we can then understand this backdrop of other ancient mystery religious traditions that extended back hundreds of years before Hellenistic astrology and probably gave some of the context for mystery traditions and oaths like this.

KM: Yeah. And I think that Orphism is really interesting because it’s a Greek – it’s a place where we can see Greek mystery traditions intersecting with what we know about other evenmore ancient astral – let’s call them astral temple traditions, whether we’re talking about Mesopotamia or Egypt or Phoenician temple traditions, all of which combined astral observation with functions of the priesthood and to a certain degree, to one degree or another, with different types of divination. And so we have, you know, these very ancient temple traditions that we’ll talk a little bit more about this later, but they really come together in the milieu of ancient Mediterranean trade routes and different colonies that interact with each other. And then the Orphics – it’s like, in these Orphic hymns, we see the Greek philosophical and religious tradition adopting and changing and molding those ancient temple traditions into something new and definitely Greek.

CB: Right. But part of that with some of the priestly traditions is that the knowledge and the information is not open to everybody, but there are some things that are like closed practices.

KM: Exactly. And in all of the mystery traditions, there’s this idea of not being able to speak of what has happened within the ceremony, and they mean that in two ways, right? The word in Greek is arretos, which literally means unspeakable, and it is unspeakable in two senses – one in that it should not be spoken. Right? You should not speak of these things because they’re sacred. But there’s a second meaning, which is that it’s unable to be spoken; you can’t capture in regular everyday language, which is why poetry and dance and art and these embodied practices are important. But even if you were to blurt out the deepest mystery, which you shouldn’t because you’re not supposed to speak it, but if you were to, you would somehow still not be able to capture it because at bottom, at the most fundamental level, these teachings go beyond the ability of human speech to capture.

CB: Right. I was reading a book recently or listening to an interview about a scholar of Hermeticism who said that part of the purpose of Hermeticism was to guide the initiate through a series of levels until eventually they have almost like a revelation about the nature of the cosmos, and that this is like a stepped – there’s like, tiers and steps in that process that lead to something, but it’s partially an experiential and not purely intellectual sort of experience.

DL: And Chris, since you brought up Timaeus, I just wanted to mention that this idea of the unspeakable – I’m not sure how it appears in the Greek there, but Plato similarly says that even – when he’s speculating on like, who the creator is where all of this comes from, he says that even if we knew who the creator was, we wouldn’t be able to tell other people about him. Right? There’s something about the divine that cannot be communicated once you know it; it has to be accessed through experience.

CB: Right. And that kind of ties in with that other idea of like, the archetypes and Plato’s whole theory of ideas and whether – how you know what an archetype is and if that’s accessible to the mind or yeah, how to access the realm of that which is beyond the physical realm that we’re living in.

KM: And I think here’s, there’s a connection, too, to very ancient I’m gonna say European, but actually also just Mediterranean ideas of how to access the spirit realm. So we have evidence that some of the earliest Greek rituals involved ecstatic states, and we know that those – as did rituals in Egypt and the Near East – and in those states, you were given special access to the divine. Sometimes that was imagined as being possessed by the divine, and sometimes it was imagined as an epiphany, right? Something that you see that appears to you. But that these ecstatic worship states were guarded as important ways of accessing fundamental truths about the cosmos.

And I feel like I should just mention this because I always get this question – well, were they taking shrooms? You know? Were psychedelics involved? And I’m not gonna speculate on all of ancient Mediterranean religion. I will say that in the Orphic hymns, what we do see is they were definitely using certain substances. We have very explicit references to different forms of incense that were used. And when we’re talking incense, we’re not talking a tiny little stick; we’re talking about big handfuls thrown on cauldrons and blazing, you know, smoke coming up in your face. And so we know that they used incense. There’s also wordplay in a lot of the hymns that mention specific stones, specific herbs and plants, and other types of materia that may have been used at different points in the rituals. There’s nothing there that’s like, psilocybin mushrooms, you know? There are some herbs that have slight alterative properties. Like, Hellebore is – there’s a reference to Hellebore in the myth to Apollo. But I think more importantly, there’s definite references to dance and to song. And we know, anybody who’s ever been to a rave, even if you don’t imbibe the substances offers, knows that dance in and of itself can be – and song and chanting – can provide altered states that might lead someone to have revelations or to feel that they’ve come to know the divine and the cosmos more fully.

CB: Right, and to have a sort of transformative experience as a result of all your different senses being engaged and having this intense experience. But music potentially be like, a strong part of that in the context of Orphism and Orpheus being, you know, primarily like, a musician and poet.

KM: Yeah.

DL: And so these were collective acts primarily, right? Like, you know, it’s a group ritual; it’s not necessarily something that you would think of as Hermetic or behind closed doors. Even if it is a mystery and secret.

CB: Okay. So let’s see, ecstatic states. The Delphic oracle was tied in with ecstatic states potentially or at least a notion of inspired divination being relevant there of the idea of being directly inspired somehow by a god in terms of having some insight into not just the nature of the universe but potentially the future as well.

KM: Yeah. In these states, when you are brought into a point that exists I want to say at the limits of space and time, right, I mean, as bodies – as embodied beings – we can’t exit spacetime completely. Right? We’re always within – the Orphics would say, I think, that we’re always within the body of Cronus. We’re always within the body of spacetime, operating within the state of embodiment. But we can approach the outer limits of what it is to be embodied, and when we reach that state, time and space dissolve or they act in ways that we don’t usually experience. And again, you know, many of us have had these experiences in our everyday lives whether it’s in dream states or in different sort of strange experiences we’ve had where deja vu or I think of you and you think of me at exactly the same moment and we call each other. These moments of watching spacetime bend slightly were actively sought after by people in the ancient Mediterranean world. And the oracles were individuals who for various reasons – sometimes lineage but sometimes being chosen by the god randomly – you were believed to sort of be able to access this bendiness of time and speak out of a place that has access to the future and the past.

CB: Okay. That’s really important and that idea of being able to stand outside of time. You know, and in the later tradition, of course, and the astrological tradition and the Hermetic tradition, the material world was associated with the planetary spheres and us being subject to that once we’re born on earth, but that there was these attempts sometimes to transcend that and to get outside of that, which would also involve transcending time and space.

KM: Yeah, and you see this in the Orphic hymns with their notion of fate, of the Moirai, where the way the hymns are structured and particularly the hymn to the Moirai specifically, you see them leading the initiate through a series of rituals that sort of one of them peak points in the series of hymns is in the hymn to the Moirai when you’re being asked to be released from fate. And Orpheus speaks; it’s the only time when he speaks in a hymn. Like, he says, “I, Orpheus,” da-da-da-dah. I think that – this is speculative right now, right? This is part of my ongoing research. But one of my operating ideas right now is that the hymns maybe were designed to lead initiates through a process where they could disentangle themselves from a certain type of fate or from one state of being and then emerge at the end of these rituals as someone who was not bound to the fate of rebirth in the same way that a non-initiate was bound to the cycle of birth and death and rebirth.

CB: Brilliant. All right. So I’d like to talk a little bit and transition at this point to talking about… We’ve talked about mystery cults in general, but I’d like to then talk about what distinguishes the Orphic mysteries from other types of mysteries as well as some of the doctrines of reincarnation that were associated with that group as a potentially distinguishing factor.

KM: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, we have lots of attestations, lots of evidence, from the ancient world that the Orphics were known for being particularly interested in what happens to the soul after death and in particular this idea that our soul returns and is reborn. We know for sure the Pythagoreans believed that metempsychosis or the reincarnation of souls happened. There’s references that they may even have believed that you could be reborn in the body of an animal, for instance. We don’t have such definitive proof for the Orphics, but I think it’s safe to say that they definitely believed that the soul’s journey took place over more than one life on earth, and that they were interested in figuring out how souls, humans, could find a way to cut through the seeming division that happens between us when we overly identify with our bodies in this particular incarnation and achieve a unity with the all, with the whole.

CB: Okay.

KM: And that they placed the optimal point for doing that, for being able to let go of the belief that we’re separate, and remember that we’re actually all in the all. They placed the location of the optimal moment to do that in the afterlife. So that the mysteries are essentially a practice run for what’s going to happen in the afterlife. In the mysteries, we’re given the information we’re going to need to use in the afterlife, not in order to unite with the all – because the Orphics believed that we were never really separate from the all in the first place – but we are going to remember that we’re connected to the all in the afterlife.

DL: And I would add to that that the… It is what Kristin’s saying that all roads lead to the all, whether we have the information of the initiates or not. In my research on the soul in pre-Socratic thought, particularly the work of Heraclitus, my sense is he was likely either an Orphic initiate or influenced them or was influenced by them in some way, but we can’t be sure. My sense of at least one version of the soul journey is that in the afterlife, the soul either joins the heavenly family, returns to the stars, returns to the all, something like that, or it gets put back into the totality of soul, and the implication of this is that when “the soul” is reincarnated – I’m putting that in scare quotes for people on audio – when the soul reincarnates, it is no longer the same soul that it was in the previous life. It is somehow an amalgam or a composite of all of the other souls that not being initiated did not achieve that kind of immortality. So this is ongoing research over here, but I wanted to point out that this is not necessarily the same kind of Platonic reincarnation that we might be familiar with where the soul as an ontological entity unto itself is immortal, but rather than soul is immortal as a totality, and each individual soul can become immortal, but that immortality does not go between lives necessarily. And Kristin, if you wanted to…

KM: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting place to do further research. What I think we know is that, in the hymns at least, the soul – first of all, the soul is embodied. It’s not that there’s an immaterial soul and a physical body. The soul itself, similar to let’s say some ancient Egyptian beliefs, the soul itself has different types of body associated with it. So there’s a more fiery element of soul, and then there’s the breath of life, the animating force of soul, and then there’s a condensation of this life breath into a more watery and moist fluid body, and then there’s the concrete embodiment into our corpus is more associated with the earth element. So we have a process in the Orphic hymns of different types of bodies coming together and forming Kristin Mathis who you see sitting in front of you. And when we – it’s not clear to me yet what parts of that recur. We know clearly the corpus will be different next time around, but what other elements persist is still an area that I don’t feel like I can really comment on —

CB: Yeah.

KM: — more specifically.

CB: One of the few Orphic fragments, actually the direct reference is that Vettius Valens has to Orpheus where he preserves these four passages from some Orphic text about the immortality of the soul, and I thought that was really interesting that we have this practicing astrologer in the 2nd century who is drawing on some Orphic, philosophical or spiritual text. So Valens in Book Nine, he says, “As the divine Orpheus says,” and then it has a quote. It says, “Man’s soul takes root in the ether.” And then it says – here’s another quote – “and when we draw in the air, we harvest the divine soul.” And then he gives another quote that says, “The immortal and unaging soul comes from Zeus.” And then the fourth quote says, “Of all things, the soul is immortal, the body mortal.”

So this is, you know, a later – this is 2nd century CE already, but this is interesting that at least in terms of whatever Orphic text Valens was drawing on, he was drawing inspiration of this idea of the soul being immortal from this Orphic tradition.

DL: Yes, and that point that Valens makes about Zeus – what was the exact quote again?

CB: That “the immortal and unaging soul comes from Zeus.”

DL: Right. So that’s really interesting in light of the elemental scheme of Empedocles, who is the originator of the four element scheme. And in his text, he equates like, one to one each of the four elements with a god, and Zues is the element of fire. So it’s —

KM: Well, I would say just, Drew, that – because I feel like you’re almost down-selling this here – there is no separate word for fire.

DL: Right.

KM: He says there are four elements – Zeus —

DL: Yeah.

KM: Right? And Zeus, I think, you know, could be fire, could be air, but like, Zeus, Hera – which is clearly air – and then, yeah, so he’s not even, he doesn’t even have the word yet for something that’s separate from the god.

DL: Right. And so, Chris, that first statement about the ether and that statement about Zeus – those are both elemental statements about the soul. And so it’s clear that there’s some interest in these different elemental bodies of the soul.

CB: Yeah. For sure. And also, in the context of Valens, he’s partially talking about the air and the breath of life, and there’s some overlap there in terms of the moment of birth and this notion that astrologers have commonly had in terms of the emphasis on casting the birth chart for the moment of birth and for sometimes the moment of first breath and some ancient notions about the breath of life making the person sort of like, alive at that time in some way.

KM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s critical. I mean, we see that in the hymns in all sorts of ways, appropriately, you know, many levels. The hymns themselves begin with a birth. Right? The very first hymn is Hecate, and then the second hymn is Prothyraea, who is the goddess of birth, of bringing forth, of childbearing, of the act of labor and birth. And that begins the hymns and then throughout the hymns, we get over and over again these references to air as the force of life – particularly in the hymn to Hera, but also in Rhea because they’re different, again, different facets of a die, right? The life breath has a cosmic element of the animate life breath of the cosmos, which is primarily identified with Rhea, the spouse of Cronus. And the human being has their life breath primarily identified with Hera.

CB: Okay. So and this connects with – because in a recent Q&A with my Hellenistic course, somebody was asking me, you know, is it true that in ancient astrology that the Sun is associated with the soul. And one of the things when we were looking at the texts that it did say was that the life breath was associated with the SUn, but that there are some notions of like, life breath and soul having some sort of connection in some ancient philosophies.

KM: Yeah, and I think that this gets to the different aspects of soul bodies. Right? You have the soul body that’s more what we might think of as the intellect or some sort of… It’s not just the intellect, but it’s the thinking capacity, let’s say, and it’s more than rationality. Let’s call it your mode of apprehension. So that could include certain forms of senses as well, but apprehension is one type of soul body. The animate force or the breath is another type of soul body. And this becomes very complex and codified in later Platonic philosophy. But in the Orphics, I think we’re seeing something that is maybe a little bit more fluid and fractal.

DL: Right, and not to get too far away from the Orphics, but I think something in that Q&A, Chris, when somebody brought up the soul and the life breath and how the life breath comes up, gets connected to the Sun in Valens as you pointed out, it made me remember this passage from The Beginning of Wisdom by Ibn Ezra, the Meira Epstein translation, where in just the second sentence on the Sun – so there’s a section of each of the planets, and this is the second sentence on the Sun – says, “Hers is the air and the sensitive soul.” And the note on the word “sensitive” is that this word could also mean feeling or sensing. So again, these elemental connections with the Sun – it’s like, you would think it’s just fire, but there’s also this airy quality, so it’s interesting.

CB: Right. And that would be in the context of Ibn Ezra’s like, 13th century Aristotelian views drawing on Aristotle and some of his distinctions with soul. And it’s interesting here with the Orphics, though, that we have this much earlier Greek tradition about soul and its connection with ether, and just to bring us back to the original point because I think it’s something that surprises many people when they maybe first start learning about some of this is usually we think about the ideas of reincarnation being an Eastern concept or being like, an Indian concept in terms of Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation. And while we don’t necessarily have ideas of karma going on here, the idea that we have any sort of like, doctrine of reincarnation potentially, however that’s defined, is a little surprising, but it’s something that is here in Orphism and also, as you said, Kristin, something in Pythagoreanism as well.

KM: And according to the ancients, both Orpheus and Pythagoras, ancient scholars related this belief to Orpheus and Pythagoras having roots in Egypt. So whether we take that as contemporary historians, you know, there’s debate about how much Orphism and Pythagoreanism owe to Egypt. I tend to think they actually owe a fair amount to Egyptian beliefs. But certainly in Egyptian beliefs about the pharaoh’s soul, we see an idea that there’s a cycle and the pharaoh through various rituals that are in the Pyramid Texts, which are very ancient, the pharaoh’s soul can achieve a certain type of immortality by joining the circumpolar stars. And I think that’s a really interesting area for further research, looking into specific connections there.

CB: Yeah. That makes me think of that there’s a commonality at least of a preoccupation with the afterlife. And I know what little we know from the Orphic tradition, one of the things – one of the ways that we know anything is that there have been a number of different tombs or graves that have been discovered where there’s Orphic elements in the burial sites of where they buried people with different Orphic artifacts.

KM: Yeah. The most famous are what are called the gold lamellae, or sometimes they’re called the gold tablets. They’re very thin pieces of gold upon which were inscribed texts. And the texts are interesting. The texts are in Greek. And we have a number of these from different locations around the Mediterranean. But the texts in Greek sometimes are very simple; they just say the initiate’s name or they say the name and the word “initiate.” But the longer texts give – I often think of them as like, a GPS instruction for the underworld. Right? So it tells the deceased what to do when they enter the underworld. “You’re going to see two streams; don’t take the left one – stick to your right.” Or sometimes “Don’t take the right one; stick to your left.” “You’ll see a tree. There’s astream there – don’t drink from it. And then when you stand before Persephone and Hades, this is what you say.” And what they say is, “I am a child of earth and starry sky, and my family is heavenly.” That’s the sort of password or phrase that you are, according to these little golden tablets, that the deceased needs to speak in order to be granted a more favorable or eternal afterlife. And there’s a lot of scholarly discussion about how related these gold tablets are to the different literary Orphic texts we have, but I tend to think that they are the evidence that we have that shows that the initiation is something that yes, happened during life in the form of a community ritual, but then that initiates probably maintained connections with the community so that when they died, one can imagine that there’s other initiates who were somehow responsible for making sure these tablets go into your hand or sometimes they were placed in your mouth when you were buried. And so I think, you know, we don’t have a smoking gun where such and – where you have a tomb where there’s a big tome of the Orphic hymns right next to the gold tablet, but I think that there’s enough continuity in the language and the cosmology represented in the hymns and in these gold tablets that we can use them to extrapolate that there must have been some community aspect that carried through the initiate’s life cycle and helped care for them in death.

DL: Yeah, the connection to death practices is really fascinating, and I think, you know, the community also serves a role in helping each other remember, and I think that’s definitely a lesson that we can take up today is like, what is our role in reminding each other of each other’s divinity? And for this emphasis on memory and how it is really important in the Orphic mysteries as opposed to other kinds of mysteries, it’s worth mentioning that the stream that you’re not supposed to drink from in the underworld is the river of forgetfulness. So it is an imperative for the initiate not to drink from the water of forgetfulness.

CB: Right. That was super interesting to me because in one of the recent episodes – maybe it was the one with Kira on the Lots – we talked about Plato’s Myth of Er and how in Plato’s conceptualization, that the souls before incarnation they choose their lives, but then they drink from the river of forgetfulness and they forget everything before they’re reborn again. But in the Orphic tradition that you have like, an option, that there’s the river of forgetfulness, but then there’s also another one of memory, and that that’s part of the instructions potentially with some of the things that Orphic initiates were given for the afterlife was to try to remind them to remember who they are and to not drink from the river of forgetfulness but instead from the one of memory. And that’s really interesting as an additional piece fleshing out something that’s sort of like, not in Plato but that was there in this Orphic tradition that perhaps he was influenced by.

KM: Yeah. I think it’s really, it’s so striking to me that our natural state is to be connected to the all. Right? There’s no way we can escape it. We are all connected to the all. But we forget, and specifically, drinking from the river of forgetfulness locks us into the cycle of rebirth as it does in Plato. But by remembering and following this other stream, we’re able to more deeply and deeply remember who we are to the point that we can be sort of reabsorbed and not come back in a different body.

DL: And these streams were in the sky. They were not just imagined things that happened in the shady recesses of the underworld. These were actual stars that they could point to. And this is something that Kristin and I get into in some depth in our class on this, but it has very much to do with the Milky Way and how we orient toward the center of the Milky Way versus toward the limbs or the arms of the Milky Way. And they saw this stream as like, further – you know, we have the galactic center currently around 26 degrees of Sagittarius. The anti-center around 26 degrees of Gemini is where they saw these streams as like, a literal fork in the stars.

KM: Well there’s like, a gap there, right? There’s a gap in the – when you look at the Milky Way, like, with the naked eye, observing it at night in an area with low light – which would have been the case in most of the ancient Mediterranean world – you can physically see this milky path that they believed was – not just the Orphics, but in general in the ancient Greek world, was associated with Hera’s milk. Right? There’s the myth that Heracles is suckling at the breast of Hera, and she pushes him away and the milk squirts out and goes across the sky. There’s ancient references to the fact that initiates need to be suckled with the milk of Hera to achieve immortality. And when they looked at the Milky Way, that formed a really important part of the Orphic sort of astral cosmology, so that the Milky Way plays a really big role in how the soul navigates through the heavens after death. It was a common belief in the ancient world that – I mean, not just in Greece, but – that the Milky Way was composed of souls or that it was a river of souls traveling between the worlds. We have references from Heraclitus about specific gates in the Milky Way – gates meaning locations or points within the Milky Way that were entry and exit points. I think Manillius also references those soul entryways. And, you know, we haven’t – again, this research is ongoing, but I believe that the Orphics were also preoccupied with how the Milky Way intersected with specific constellations, intersected with the path of the Sun, and that they were trying to create a literal map for the soul’s journey through the Milky Way after death, and that the end destination was the circumpolar stars – and particularly the stars that never set below the horizon. Right? The idea being that the hearth – Hestia – the celestial hearth of Hestia is the polar star, and the circumpolar stars are the souls of the initiates surrounding this celestial fire. And I think there’s a lot more work for me and others to do there on unpacking the language of this that flows throughout the hymns, but the hymn to Hestia is a really beautiful one. And it ends – it is one of the last hymns in the collection, and the whole journey goes from birth – like, the crossroads and then the birth – through various deities and ends with Hestia and sleep and death.

CB: What we were just saying makes me think of Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs, which is based on Homer but also is trying to set up the celestial portals and he establishes them in Capricorn and Cancer as like, the gates for the soul.

KM: Yeah, exactly. Capricorn and Cancer are the two gates that are most frequently mentioned, and then because of the precession of the equinoxes, those gates had actually shift a little by the time of classical Greece so that the actual gates would have been in between Gemini and Leo and in between Scorpius Sagittarius. And I think one of the – again, I keep saying this, but ongoing research – for me, is how much of these Orphic hymns is taking, is them trying to figure out very ancient traditions of let’s say the Milky Way and gates and fit them into the sky as they were observing it in 500, 400 BCE. Right? So like, if you’ve inherited a tradition of the gates being Cancer and Carpicorn because that’s where the equinoxes fell at a particular point or that’s how, you know, it intersected with the horizon at a particular point in time, very ancient point in time, and now in 500, 400 BCE you’re looking at the sky and it’s a little bit different, you need to account for that. And maybe some of what we find in the Orphic hymns is an attempt to integrate these older temple astral traditions into the sky as they were observing it in their own lifetime.

CB: Right. It makes me think of the Thema Mundi as well with, you know, Cancer being the Ascendant and the rising sign and Capricorn being the Descendant and each being associated with the Moon and Saturn. Okay. So this is all really interesting and important. We’ve talked about reincarnation; we’ve talked about the immortality of the soul and the preoccupation with giving people some instructions and even like the passwords and telling them what to say in order to go in the better path or the better direction in the afterlife. So this is similar and sort of reminiscent to some of the later trends with like, gnosticism and like, the transmission of wisdom or knowledge and especially remembering where you came from and what your divine origin is. And so we can see the ways in which some of the Orphic traditions may have influenced some of those later traditions of gnosticism and Hermeticism in pretty major ways, and yeah, that seems pretty significant in terms of influence.

KM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the really exciting things, I think, about the Orphic hymns and Orphism in general is, you know, as you mentioned, Chris, we don’t associate reincarnation usually with the West and western tradition, and similarly, we don’t associate… You know, we have this maybe Victorian or early 20th century popular belief that the Greeks are very rational and, you know, there’s nothing irrational at all about the Greeks. And the Orphics just undercut and cut through so many of those stereotypes and give us a way to access something that’s undeniably part of Western culture, and by “Western culture,” I mean ancient Mediterranean culture. So this is including the Near East and Egypt and, you know, Italy as well as Greece. But it gives us a way to look back at that and see that, actually, this is an animate cosmos. It is involved in cyclical and eternal time. You know, it’s nonlinear; it’s nondual; it’s very preoccupied with relationality with the cosmos. And so this like, really exciting to me, just as a human being, that all of this goes so far back.

CB: For sure. What is the connection with the Pythagoreans? It seems like there’s some interchange between the two and questions of directionality between the Orphics and Pythagoreans. We can see already some crossover with doctrines of reincarnation, which both groups held. But what is their connection and what are their overlaps or areas of difference?

KM: Yeah. The quick answer is we’re not exactly sure. Everybody agrees that there is connection. In the ancient world, there are some references – some people ascribe the Orphic material or certain Orphic literary texts to Pythagoras. They say, “Oh, you know, Pythagoras wrote it.” Other ancient authors say Pythagoras was influenced by Orpheus. So we don’t know. What we do know is that the area that produces some of the most juicy Orphic material is the same area where Pythagoras and his followers lived. So Pythagoras was born on Samos; he was supposedly the student of a pre-Socratic philosopher named Pherecydes who supposedly had access to the mysteries of the Pheonicians and Pheonician books and wrote about that. So Pythagoras learns from Pherecydes, and then he moves to southern Italy and starts a school there. That area of southern Italy is – as well as Sicily – is a real melting pot, and we can talk a little more about that later, but many of the, whether it’s vases that have art or gold lamellae or different pre-Socratic authors who seem to have been influenced by Orphism, they’re also tend to be concentrated in those colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. So there’s undeniable contact and overlap but more than that, at this point, we really don’t know.

CB: Okay. Awesome. Well, that’s gonna be a future episode on Pythagoreanism, so I’ll bookmark that and come back to that later. So since we’ve talked about the Orphic hymns a number of times up to this point, why don’t we transition and start actually talking about them and maybe a good introduction to them would be actually reading one of the Orphic hymns to give people like, a direct understanding of what we’re talking about with that text.

KM: Yeah, I’d be happy to do that. I think we talked about reading the Greek version as well, right? Of the hymn of the stars or the hymn of Astron?

CB: Yeah. So one of the things is that these are hymns, and so it’s put in the form of a poem or almost like a song, and so we’re gonna read one of the hymns which is dedicated to the stars, and you were gonna read it in Greek first to give us some idea of the poetry and the rhythm of that. And then afterwards, we’ll read the Greek translation. So —

KM: That sounds perfect.

CB: — I’ll show that on the screen. What critical edition is the Greek text from, again?

KM: Yeah. So this is from an Italian critical edition, Ricciardelli, which is one of the two main critical editions of the Greek text, and I really like her commentary, so that’s the one that I usually translate from.

CB: Okay.

KM: And I just – a brief note on my pronunciation here. Greek was actually a tonal language, if we think about Chinese or Vietnamese as being tonal. I’m not going to read it like that. Nobody’s really fully reconstructed it the way that, as English speakers, we’re taught to pronounce and translate Greek is very focused on the meter, that is to say the rhythm of the words. So I’ll be reading it the way I was taught to read Greek in school, but just for our imaginations, we’d have to of course supply a melody, a lyre, and take into account that the singing of it would be using the tones of the language itself as part of the musicality.

CB: Okay. All right.

KM: [speaking Greek] That means “of the stars, the incense is aromatic herbs.” [speaking Greek]

CB: Wow. Yeah, you can really hear – even not knowing the meaning of the words, as an English speaker, you can really hear the poetry involved in the Greek language.

KM: Yeah. And unfortunately, I stumbled a little bit there towards the end, but I think the rhythm of it and the sonic repetition, the alliteration and the vowel sounds are important there as well.

CB: Right. So and here is from your translation of this for the same passage.

DL: So I think I’ll be reading that? Okay.

“From starry sky, I call forth holy flame with consecrated voices and serpentine sounds, summoning pure, hallowed daimons. Stars in the heavens, beloved children of black night, wheeling ‘round her throne in every day at ease, sparkling fiery eternal ancestors of all, destined signals and informants, via degrees of each fate. Presiding over the divine path of dying humans, guarding and aspecting the seven shining cinctures, zigzag air roamers in sky and under earth. Fire runners. Eternal, unyielding, untarnishable ones. Forever illuminating the dusky mantle of night, appearing bright mirrored in her twilight winter gloom underskirt. Gleaming with sparkly twinkle toes, cheerful in the gentle time of night. Initiate the storied healing of this holy rite, this well-snaked mystery ritual. Come upon and imbue the learned medicine of the mystery celebrant, and with these famous honored works, bring the day’s good course to an end.”

CB: Wow. All right. So that’s… Yeah. So this is what the hymns are like, and there’s like a common structure for all of them, but there’s a reference to the initiate and to this being part of some ritual.

DL: Right. And this is common in the hymns that they conclude with some kind of call for the divine to do something to the initiate or for the divine to hear the initiate so that some effect can be enacted.

KM: Yeah. And I just in terms of Greek religion in general, Greek hymns are usually structured with an invocation or naming of the deity, and then often – like in the Homeric hymns – you get a story or some snippet of a mythological tale that sort of fills out the hymn. And then at the very end, you get the petition – what you’re asking for. But in general, Greek hymns are heavy on the praise of the deity with a short request at the end.

In the Orphic hymns, we get this attention to naming that runs through the hymn. So if you notice, it’s harder to see in the English than in the Greek, but we start out “from starry sky, I call force holy flame.” Right? So I’m calling this down. There’s an element of almost magical invocation. Right? You’re summoning. The word in Greek is summon, or it can be translated as summon. And then names stars – Astron – in the heavens. And then the rest of it are these descriptors of the stars that in Greek, grammatically, are still in a grammatical form of a name, which we can’t really do in English very well. It’s clumsy. But that’s why you get these long sort of epithets in the Orphic hymns. “Stars in the heaven, beloved children, wheeling ‘round the thrones, sparkling fiery, eternal ancestors, destined signals, presiding over the divine path” – so these repetition, name upon name upon name, different ways of summoning these stars and describing them, and then as Drew pointed out at the end, you get the request for the divinity to do something specific. Right? “Initiate the storied healing, this holy rite. Come upon and imbue the learned medicine of mystery celebrant, and bring the day’s good course to an end.” And just one word here about my translation process; we can talk about this a little bit more later, but the language of the hymns is often meaning several things at the same time. So what I like to think is one of my contributions to the field of Orphic studies is that previous translations have translated the most literal meaning of the hymn. So they’re very accurate. Many of the – there are other translations out there of the hymns that are quite accurate, and they translate the level of meaning that is most apparent and often mythological in content. But the nature of Orphic language, the nature of mystery language in general, is that it carries multiple meanings that the initiate will understand and be able to access, but that to the regular person, if they picked up this hymn, they would just see a hymn to the stars. They would say, “Oh yeah, it’s talking about the stars, you know, in the night sky – isn’t that lovely?”

CB: Yeah. They would be like, “This is pretty. That’s pretty. This is a catchy tune,” or something like that.

KM: Right. Yeah, exactly!

CB: There’s just like, the surface level where it’s just like a pop song almost that you could listen to it as.

KM: Right! Exactly. And then but if you are somebody who has an ear for astrological, astronomical, and esoteric mystery language, you’re going to hear things that you’re like, “Wait a second!” And that’s actually the story of how I came to be involved with the Orphic hymns is that I picked up the hymn to Hermes to translate because I like Hermes, and as I was reading it, I was like, “Wait a second. I think I’m seeing something here.” And then I translated the hymn to Aphrodite, and I found myself seeing stuff there too, and I think that’s when all those years ago, Chris, I wrote to you like, “Hey, I think I’m seeing some astrological stuff in this hymn.” And as I translated more and more hymns, I found more and more language that – I wanna be very clear, I’m not sure if in the hymns themselves the language is being used astrologically. It’s being used to describe celestial phenomena, and I think they’re sort of interested in measuring and documenting, understanding the celestial bodies and describing them accurately. But for anybody who also knows the later astrological material, certain words leap out at you. Like in this hymn, the seven shining belts – well, if you just translate that as the, you know, the seven… The word in Greek is heptakis, which means literally seven-fold shining, zonas, which gives us the English word “zone,” but in Greek means like a girdle or the common everyday usage is the girdle that women wore around their peplos or their cloak to tie in closed. So we have imagery elsewhere in this hymn to the stars of night having a cloak, having a peplos, and there’s a girdle there. So you could read this hymn – and most people have – as simply a lovely poetic description of the night being like a cloak and the stars being like embroidered on her cloak and there’s a belt that closes it. But if you know that zonas is a word that later gets picked up for astrological purposes to refer to certain belts or pathways in the sky, then you can begin to say, oh, wait – this word heptakis – that’s, you know, previous commentators have looked at that and said, “You know, we’re not sure why seven-fold here – this must be some reference to the seven planets and being embroidered on night’s robe or something like that.” But the fact that they’re using seven and zonas together – perhaps this is an esoteric reference to seven paths or seven planets. We don’t – the nature of esoteric language is that we can’t look at this and say for sure this is what this means, right? But it evokes something. It evokes a description of the sky that contains information. There’s data in here for those who know how to read it. And I think, you know, Chris, you’ve mentioned, you’ve pointed out in some of your other episodes that Vettius Valens, for instance, critiques some earlier astrologers for being opaque or I forget the exact words that he uses – unnecessarily confusing. And I think that one of the interesting things about the Orphic hymns is that they are clearly, to me at least, I think they’re clearly written to convey certain data about celestial observation as well as the soul’s journey, and they’re written esoterically. They’re designed to be confusing. They’re designed to present one surface meaning and yet another level for those who perhaps are part of an initiated tradition where they’ve received verbal teachings and know how to understand the hymns. And so that —

CB: Right.

KM: — potentially provides a really interesting link between the later astrological folks like Vettius Valens who were very interested in transparency and with these very early temple traditions that were much more based around secrecy and priestly lineages.

CB: Right. Yeah. There was definitely for some of the traditions in the written component an esoteric or mysterious or enigmatic manner to the writings, and that’s something that Valens is constantly complaining about for the earlier authors like Nechepso and Petosiris, but also especially for another writer named Critodemus who there was a recent book that was published by a scholar named Cristian Tolsa who argued that Critodemus was part of the Orphic tradition and therefore that maybe part of the reason why Valens complained about his text being enigmatic or esoteric so much because Critodemus was writing in a similar Orphic tradition that encoded the language in different ways and made it hard to understand or difficult to understand and that unraveling the text is like, part of the process of familiarizing yourself with it so that it’s not, everything’s just not on the surface level but you have to actually like, work for the information.

KM: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think that Critodemus is the really interesting and fascinating example of what it might look like to have taken an Orphic tradition that was not so astrological but maybe more connected to these very old temple traditions and begin to sort of translate it out or through a process of close reading and exegesis critical – what we’d call critical reading, right? If Critodemus is looking at that and looking at more ancient Orphic traditional texts and trying to draw out the implications for astrology, and he might be situated somewhere between an older Orphic mystery tradition and, you know, the eventual Hellenistic astrologers like Valens and others. This is, you know, I love that this new book that you’re talking about is a great example of someone doing work on that area.

CB: Yeah, for sure. And it creates an interesting linkage between the earlier Orphic tradition that we’ve been talking about like you’re saying and the later astrological tradition. And yeah, but going back even to just this passage, we can see a hint of that and what that’s like in terms of reading esoteric writings. Hold on just a second – reading an esoteric writings and then an implicit meaning in there, for example, here with the reference to the seven zones. And I talked a lot in the episode last month on the Antikythera Mechanism how one of the things that seemed to set the Hellenistic astrological tradition apart was the advent of this ordering of the planets in what they referred to as the order of the seven-zoned sphere that had the planets in descending Chaldean order with the Sun in the center. And, you know, whether something like this is a reference to that, but at the very least, it’s clearly a reference to the planets but it’s not stated explicitly but instead more implicitly or poetically.

KM: Yeah. And it doesn’t mention here, you know, this would be a great example of why I might place these hymns relatively early, because we don’t see an explicit naming of an order of planets. We don’t see a reference to seven spheres here. We see seven belts, right? So I’m still very much working on dating and geography. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a definitive answer. But it’s the fact that we see a slightly more simple version of things that we later see much more codified and complex takes on, that simplicity is part of the reason why I wonder if the material from these hymns or the core of the material in these hymns isn’t located at a relatively early time period.

CB: Right. That’s one of the questions. And so I guess we didn’t talk about that, but there’s, because of the lack of clear material, there’s no reference to like, a date of composition or of an author in the texts, so there’s pretty strong debates about the dating of the Orphic hymns. And there’s some people that date them relatively late, to between the first through the fourth century CE, versus you argue for more of an earlier dating for the Orphic hymns.

KM: Yeah. And I think one of the people who I think has done really important work on this – and I would be remiss if I didn’t shout her out – is the scholar Anthi Chrysanthou who’s written a book called Defining Orphism, and she does a lot of work. She doesn’t really talk about the hymns that much, but she’s done a lot of work relating early Orphism to different types of celestial beliefs. And her work is by far the best book out there on Orphism right now, I think, with the Critodemus book also being a must-have. But yeah, I think, you know, we also get on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a French scholar who wants to date the hymns even further back because she believes they refer to specific… She’s an Egyptologist, and she believes that they were for specific things that were happening in the sky around 1100 BCE and relates them to different pyramid texts. She has a whole critical analysis. So I think that I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that they’re – it’s really interesting to think about whether or not these particular hymns were written down in the 500 to 400 sort of time frame, basically pre-Plato, even if they weren’t written down then, to think about them as perhaps preserving a tradition that is pre-Platonic.

DL: And your evidence for that, Kristin, is that they’re – at least part of it that I can speak to is that there’s philosophical remnants of pre-Socratic philosophy laced throughout the hymns, but Plato does not appear. At least, Platonic thought, you haven’t identified any Platonic language or themes.

KM: Yeah. I feel like I’ve been able to identify ways that Orphic language appears in Plato, but not vice versa. And that, you know, I’m not finished translating the hymns yet, because each hymn takes me forever because of the amount of research that I have to do. And so I’m not saying that my opinion might not change in a few years, but at this point, I think that we’re looking at material that is strongly pre-Socratic in flavor, let’s say that. Right? The flavor is pre-Socratic.

CB: Yeah, it seems like there’s a lot of earlier influences and things from earlier philosophy and religion in the hymns. This – one of the things when I saw that reference to the seven-zoned spheres it just made me think of the reference in Thrasyllus to Nechepso and Petosiris where Thrasyllus in the summary at one point says, “Concerning the seven-belted” and then parenthetically “sphere,” he makes distinctions as he himself says in accordance with the teachings of Petosiris and Nechepso. And one of the things I’ve just been working out over the past few months is I always assumed that the seven-zoned sphere, which is that ordering of the planets that goes Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, that it went before the second century and the astrologers just adopted something from earlier astronomers. But instead what I’ve been finding as I go through the sources is that I can’t find references to it prior to the second century BCE, and I’m starting to think now that the Nechepso and Petosiris text was the one that actually popularized that ordering and that they referred to that order as the order of the seven zones or the seven-zoned sphere. So to whatever extent that’s true, I just think one could possibly make an argument that if this does refer to the seven-zoned sphere, that it would be then something that wouldn’t anodate the second century but would come either in the late second century BCE or after that at some point once that concept had been developed. But I could certainly see arguments for like, an earlier influence or whatever, and that’s something that would be discussed, and I look forward to seeing in your book your full analysis of where things sort of shake out with that in the end.

KM: Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. I’m not – you know, it’ll, my book that’s gonna be forthcoming soon will have a limited amount of commentary because it’s a much shorter selection of hymns. But I’m working like, you know from having written your book, and you know, or somebody like Demetra who has spent, you know, so many decades creating her two volumes – this is something that will take me a long time indeed. And it may very well be that the dating will turn out to be later in the second century, or that, you know, one other possibility that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been contemplating what you pointed out recently about Nechepso and Petosiris is that perhaps there’s traditions that we’re not fully aware of that haven’t remained to us that were Egyptian traditions that both sources are drawing on. And I’m not an Egyptologist. You know, I certainly, as you do, try to keep abreast of these things, but we may be… When I started, let’s put it this way, when I started in the ‘90s, Garth Fowden’s thesis – he wrote a book called The Egyptian Hermes – and his thesis that the Hermetic tradition was actually based on Egyptian temple traditions was considered wild. Right? Like, “No, it wasn’t! Hermetic stuff is Greek and it only -” you know, the idea that it could have had a link to actual Egyptian temple practice was, you know, a lot of people laughed at it. A lot of scholars laughed at it, and now it’s the standard belief. So who knows in 10, 20 years what we may find or reconsider from the Egyptian tradition, you know. I think it’s, I feel like my own lifetime is proof that – you know, who would ever think I would be on The Astrology Podcast talking about the refined points of Nechepso and Petosiris? It’s beautiful and amazing.

CB: Yeah, for sure. And in the egyptian astrology episode I did a year ago, we talked about how there’s been recent archeological finds of new horoscopes or birth charts that survived from egyptian temples that were being used by the priests there, and these are new finds that are using techniques that we didn’t know existed before – a special set of lots – as well as that are earlier now than some of the surviving Greek horoscopes. So yeah, our knowledge of things is growing and changing all the time.

KM: Yeah.

CB: Yeah. So in terms of reading into texts and this process of Orphic having multiple layers, one of the texts that has been discovered in the past century that relates to that is the Derveni papyrus, where – this is an Orphic text, but it’s also like a commentary where the author was reading into the text and explicating some of the implicit doctrines, right?

KM: Yeah. The Derveni papyrus, it relates back to what we were talking about earlier with these initiate tombs and things that are found in them, because the papyrus was found in a carbonized state. Right? So it was partially burned, which is why it’s fragmentary. And it was found near a tomb where it had apparently been burned on somebody’s probably as part of a funeral ritual, and part of the papyrus survived. And through a very – it was discovered in, I think, ‘51 or ‘52, 1951 or ‘52, but for various political reasons and academy in-fighting, it wasn’t really released widely until the 2000s. So it’s just now in the past 10 years or so that – 10, 15 years – that scholars are really grappling with what it means. But what it means literally in terms of the text itself, but also what it means for the history of religion and the history of understanding esoteric practice and ancient mysteries. And basically, if you had asked somebody in, I don’t know, 1965 or something, is it possible that folks in the period when the Derveni papyrus was discovered, which is the – sorry – roughly speaking around the time of Alexander the Great, if you had asked a scholar if Greek philosophers were unpacking words and doing this type of critical understanding of texts and trying to get behind the hidden meanings of words, if you’d said, “Were they doing that around the time of Alexander the Great?” They’d say, “No, no, no, no, no – that’s something that happens much, much later. That’s a Neoplatonic thing that happens in, you know, 3rd and 4th centuries.” And this – the discovery of this papyrus – pushed all of that back, and it gave us an insight into how quite early on Greek philosophers and authors, thinkers, were really mining texts to extract meaning from them in an esoteric way, meaning that they were looking beyond the surface meaning and getting at the meaning behind the surface meaning. So, for example, in the Derveni papyrus, it says pointblank it says Orpheus writes in ways that are confusing for people to read, and he’s doing that because he’s trying to hide the true meanings. So when he says X, what he really means is Y, and when he says A, what he means is B. And it goes through this lost Orphic text and parses it out and explains it to the reader, presumably an initiate. And because of that Derveni papyrus, because that papyrus shows us unequivocally that Orphic texts were meant to be read esoterically, we can now go and look at other Orphic texts to see how they might preserve some of the same esoteric language.

CB: Okay. So you have to read each of the hymns very carefully. There can be multiple levels of meanings and then, by extension, that may cause us then to look at some of the astrological texts that have survived and see if they were ever employing similar approaches in terms of esoteric writing or in terms of multiple meanings.

KM: Yeah, absolutely.

CB: All right, so we’re back from a break. We’re going to now transition to talking about the hymn for Ares, for Mars, and this is the other hymn that you two wanted to share today, right?

DL: Yeah.

CB: All right. Let’s do it.

DL: Cool. Hymn to Ares – Mars – incense, frankincense.

“Unbroken, strong-spirited mega mighty, formidable daimon. You’re eager for arms are adamantine, even a mortal-slaying murderer, a stormtrooper of city walls. Master Ares, thudding sword on shields and arms, you’re always spattered in gore, sullied in slaughter. When you rejoice in bloodshed, manslaughter, and the press of battle, you give folks the shivers. You, who crave ugly struggles of sword and spear, stop this enraged battle strife. But an end to heart-grieving pain. Instead, bend to the desires of Aphrodite, the Cyprien one, or carouse with Dionyssus, the liberator, or exchange your battle arms for the labor and tillage of Demeter. Become a bestower of blessings. Grant us peace. Fulfill the desires of all who care for children.”

So this hymn is somewhat unique relative to other hymns for the planets. In Hymn for Aphrodite, for example, we’re not seeing anything about Aphrodite needing to do anything other than what she always does. Aphrodite brings us together. But Mars as a malefic planet in astrology, we definitely see in this hymn the idea that maybe there’s something to Mars that is counterproductive for our spiritual path, and that we need to bind some of the more intemperate qualities of Mars in order to proceed on our journey toward initiation or to immortality or any of these other things that we’ve talked about. And one of the things within the language of the hymns and just the way that the hymn is structured – you notice that this first part is invoking Mars’s negative qualities or the, you know, the war and the strife, and then the second part is invoking his – or calling him to behave in another way, to bend to the desires of Aphrodite. And this plays out very clearly in just the sound of the hymn, too, and I think this is more clear in the Greek that the first half of the hymn is a cacophony. It sounds rough; it sounds unmusical. In fact, one of the words used in the Greek for Ares is amouson, which means unmusical or unmuselike. And so when we hear these, like, the enraged battle strife or the clamor or the swords thudding on shields – these are like, unrhythmic chaotic notions of what war sounds like. And then later in the hymn, we hear carouse with Dionyssus, the liberator. There’s a smoother or a more inviting kind of sonic quality to this section of the hymn, and it’s extremely interesting that, you know, the unmusical quality of Mars is invoked as sort of antithetical to what the initiates are trying to provide for their own journey or to install within their own being. Because, of course, Orpheus is a musician. And so there’s something extremely… There’s something that this hymn does in particular about valorizing music, placing value in music and song. There’s something about song that is completely different from, you know, the sounds of war. So Kristin, what would you take up on this?

KM: Yeah. Well, yeah, you’re right on the money. I think, you know, just to back up, the structure of this hymn is reminiscent of the structure of Greek magical what we call binding spells. Right? So a common magical trope or formula in ancient Greek magical practice is to name a deity, sort of like you do in a hymn, but name it and then give it a direct command – “Stop. Cease.” And then redirect it. And we see this in for instance the later Greek magical papyri but also on little lead tablets that are called defixiones that we can date quite far back where people are trying to, let’s say, like, a really common way to use a spell would be for a chariot race. Right? You’re like, let Drew’s horse, you know, not win the race. May he be bound. May he stumble and fall and may instead of winning the race may he trip and, you know, break his leg. Or something like that. Or in an erotic spell, you might name someone and then give them a command – “Make her come to me in the night. May she,” and then all the lovely things that you want her to do, and all the things that you don’t want her to do. “May she turn her face away from her husband. May she instead come to my door.” So the structure of the hymn to Mars is that of a magical binding spell, you know, which you mentioned, Drew. But I also think one of the really interesting things about this hymn, as you’ve pointed out, is that Mars is not just unmusical, but that there’s a way in which even the remedies that are offered are also, by association, associated with music. Right? Aphrodite is associated with pleasant music. Dionyssus is associated with dance and carousing music. And we see Demeter, the labor and tillage of Demeter, right – this is more of a reach, but makes me think about agricultural songs and the rhythm of agricultural work. Right? When you get out behind the plow or with a shovel, a spade in your hand. So there’s something about redirecting the stamina and enthusiasm of Mars into these more muse-like forms.

DL: Yeah, the meter and the rhythmic quality and like, the idea of rhythm comes up in other hymns. Like, the Sun is often spoken of in terms of this sort of like, steady pace, right? And we can see that steadiness as an astronomical feature of the Sun, right, it goes the same pace every day, as opposed to the astronomical features of Mars, which are very erratic, right? He has these retrogrades where the stations – you don’t even, the Sun is always averse from Mars when he stations. And so there’s this kind of, you know, coming out of left field energy of Mars and this lack of expectation that we would associate with metrical music.

CB: This is very reminiscent of the Picatrix and some of the planetary invocations in terms of the way they attempt to invoke some of the planets and some of the deities associated with them. We’re seeing a similar but much earlier tradition here, right?

KM: Yeah. And as Drew pointed out, this hymn is sort of remarkable in the Orphic hymns for being the only hymn to the planets that has this binding quality to it. Even the hymn to Cronus mentions binding, mentions fetters and chains, but does not seek to bind Cronus himself.

DL: Right. Cronus is the bonds of the cosmos. It’s like, a necessary limit in a way. And that hymn is definitely much more reverent I would say. In terms of how this hymn illustrates or is at least related to if not a cause for astrological doctrines, this idea of binding Mars – Kristin made this incredible discovery about how this might map onto the domicile scheme, and we have a graphic to illustrate that where… We have Mars ruling Scorpio and Aries, and flanking those domiciles are the domiciles of Venus and Jupiter in both case, and so provided that we’re comfortable with the association of Venus with Aphrodite as is stated in the hymn and of Dionysus with Jupiter, which is also very well established, then we can see how the domicile scheme actually it puts this hymnal information within it.

CB: Right. So for the audio listeners, we’re looking at a diagram that has Mars in Scorpio and Mars in Aries – its two domiciles – and then on either side of Mars, we have the domiciles of the two benefits, with Venus in Libra and Jupiter in Sag on two sides of Mars in Scorpio, and then Venus in Taurus and Jupiter in Pisces on either side of Mars in Aries.

KM: Yeah. And I think that this is something, you know… This is, I think, one of the really interesting ways – it’s a great example of how something that’s poetically expressed in the hymns could be later codified in and sort of taken up, worked with, played with, and created into a formal scheme. And I think that’s really what we’ve been talking about here a lot is this idea of the Orphic material forming I almost wanna say like, a generative pool of images, data, esoteric possibilities that then get picked up by later writers and elaborated into something more structured.

CB: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me, especially, you know, in their conceptualization even in the domicile scheme of putting certain planetary gods opposite to other planetary gods and the two domiciles of Venus being put in opposition to the two domiciles of Mars so that they’re drawing out. And Rhetorius of Egypt even explicitly says at this point that the reason for this arrangement is because like, ideas of love and unity are opposite to ideas of strife and war. And in the Orphic text here, in the hymn, we can see that Venus is clearly being used almost as like, the antithesis to Mars to counterbalance it, and that is actually basically one of the terms used for the planets opposite to one’s domicile is “antithesis.”

KM: Yeah. And —

DL: Another – oh, go ahead.

KM: No, you go ahead.

DL: I was just gonna say that another way that kind of notion of antithesis comes up in the hymns or in the hymn to Ares specifically is the relationship between Mars and childbearing. And to your point, Chris, about these schemes and schematization of these ideas, we actually think that there’s a relationship here with the Thema Mundi as well where – and I think we have a diagram for this as well – just showing Mars’s depression or fall in the first house of the Thema Mundi where the Moon rules that, and so there’s that last line of the hymn speaking to all who bear children, right? Kristin’s done some really interesting work on how this idea comes from a figure of – she calls it the Moon Nanny or the kourotrophos so I wonder if, Kristin, you might offer your speculations and just very good —

KM: Yeah.

DL: — research on this idea.

KM: Thanks. Yeah. So the word in the very last line of the hymn to Ares ends with “fulfill the desires of all who care for children,” and that word in Greek for “all who care for children” is kourotrophos, which means literally “childrearers.” It’s a word that in everyday ancient Greek could refer to the nannies in a household. Right? They might be slaves, they might be older relatives, they might be… Yeah, often older women tasked with helping to raise a child. And so in everyday language, that’s what that word means. But there’s a really interesting tradition both in ancient Greek religion and in Etruscan art and religion of seeing certain deities as kourotrophos, as child nurturers, and they were usually the deities, the goddesses – because they were goddesses or sometimes genderless, agender beings – the deities that were called kourotrophos played a specific role in helping bring the child, the soul of the child, through childbirth safely. And there’s some interesting, as I said, Etruscan artwork and archaeological evidence of figurines that show winged figures straddling a crescent Moon and holding —

DL: It looks like a boat.

KM: Yeah —

DL: Right?

KM: — that looks like a boat —

DL: Back to the nautical idea, for sure.

KM: And holding a child – a very adult-like looking child, right, because it’s supposed to be a soul. And holding this soul and bringing it into the world. So when the, you know, as usual, in this Orphic hymn, there’s several layers of meaning. You could read this as just, “Hey, Mars! You should really calm it down with the warfare because you’re making a lot of governess and nannies really sad that their little boys have to go off to war.” That would be the most exoteric or surface-level meaning. But when we say, “Grant us peace and fulfill the desires of the kourotrophos,” that evokes these deities responsible for birthing the soul into the world, and one of the major deities associated with birthing the soul into the world is the Moon. Both in Etruscan art with these crescent Moon figures, but also in, you know, for folks who are more familiar with the Greek goddesses, goddesses like Artemis were associated with childbirth, and Artemis is also associated with the Moon. Even Persephone was sometimes associated with childbirth probably because she had an association with death and near-death experiences, which childbirth was very dangerous.

DL: And so how this is connected with the Thema Mundi is that the first house of the Thema Mundi is the domicile of the Moon, of this kourotrophos, this child rearer, the one who ushers the soul into the body. And therefore by binding Mars, who takes his depression or his fall in the first house of the Thema Mundi, it’s facilitating the Moon to perform that function more peacefully and successfully, and that’s an important thing for a religion that’s very concerned with the journey of the soul.

KM: Yeah.

CB: That’s really cool. So one of your points, Kristin, is that you think that some of these earlier Orphic doctrines probably – they didn’t necessarily have astrological components in and of themselves in like, the hymns for example, but they influenced potentially the later astrologers and later astrological thinking that then could have become the motivation for why some later astrologers took inspiration and created different technical things.

KM: Yeah. That’s perfectly put. That’s exactly it. And I think it gives us a really tantalizing question, at least to my mind, which is how many of these astrologers might have themselves either been initiates or been part of a tradition maybe if it wasn’t strictly speaking Orphic but was influenced by Orphic initiatory beliefs. Right? So you know, when a Hellenistic or Roman astrologer speaks about their student as an initiate, maybe there was some level of literal meaning there, whether it was an Orphic initiation or an initiation into a lineage of astrologers, right? I just wonder, you know, it really makes me wonder about those threads of lineage and transmission and what would have been required of astrological students in the ancient world.

DL: And they were all poets, weren’t they? I mean, many of those astrological —

KM: Yeah.

DL: — writers were poets. They were, you know, attuned to the muses, attuned to the musical nature of language, and their treatises were, you know, many of them were versified. They were written as poems, as songs, and so it does make one wonder how much of these multiple layers of meanings are also found in astrological texts that, of course in the last 30 years or so, the main focus of translations of the texts has been to transmit the technical frameworks. But maybe there’s more to be found there and more research to be done on what kind of esoteric doctrines might have also been implicit.

CB: Yeah. Well let’s talk about that. So there’s a huge tendency in the first half of the Hellenistic tradition, the earlier half, for instructional texts to be written in verse, and in a recent lecture you gave, Drew, you actually said something I thought was important related to this, which is just you asked the audience to think back to like, a song that meant something to them and the range of meaning that that invoked in them, right?

DL: Yeah. I think it’s really powerful to think about mystery language in terms of song. This multivalence or this tendency for music and for poetry to – I mean, it’s not even a tendency. It’s what it does. Something about melody and something about rhythm induces a state within us to perceive multiplicity and to allow opposites to coexist – to be a both/and. And of the things that was really striking to me when I gave that lecture and was asking for feedback from the audience about a song that meant a lot to them was when one of them said – I asked, “What’s the song and what does it mean to you?” And one of them said, “This song means so many things to me, and it’s meant so many different things to me over the course of my life.” And I think there’s something there that is the crux of mystery language and of initiation itself that we need certain kinds of experiences in order to understand the divine. That the soulfulness of a song – you know, songs have soul, right? Like, people put their whole life in a song when they write it. They put their whole life in a poem. And they really do leave a piece of themselves there that is the whole. And when we listen to a song, you know, it allows for this beautiful coexistence or this beautiful reassembly of ourselves from, you know, experiences that kind of fracture us or make us feel hurt or pain, and we’re reunited with the all through these soulful transmissions of music and poetry. And so this something that I’ve been exploring lately is what is it about soul and song that is connected, and I think that Orphesu is like, the main figure to work with to understand that and to bring it more into the world whether you’re an astrologer or a musician.

KM: Yeah. Thank you for that, Drew. I mean, I also think just to put a little pin in something that maybe or maybe plant a seed, Chris, in your head for your Pythagoras episode – this is one of the places where I do see a lot of overlap between Pythagoreanism and Orphism and particularly the Orphic hymns is that the hymns are very interested in number, ratio, and there are several explicit references to music. Like in the hymn to Apollo, we get references to the Dorian mode. We have references to other forms of musical modes in the hymns. And the Pythagoreans were likewise very interested in musical ratios and number symbolism as a way to connect with the divine. So that’s a really rich area for further explanation, and it has a direct impact, as you know, on later astrology that the number symbolism and importance of ratio and geometry is, I mean, can’t be overstated, basically.

DL: It’s the basis of aspect doctrine, basically.

CB: Right. And you get into notions of harmony and structure and concord and number and the critically important doctrine of the harmony of the spheres, which is connected with Pythagoreanism and influenced the later astrological tradition in that we – it’s the reason why we see astrologers like Ptolemy writing not just works on astronomy and astrology but also on harmonics and music theory.

KM: Exactly.

CB: So —

DL: We need to revive natural philosophy, I think. It’s time.

CB: Yeah, well, it’s just going back to in the ancient world sometimes the interconnection of all of these different realms of like, science and mathematics but also religion and philosophy and mysticism and all of these things being tied together in different ways in connection with like, the unity of the cosmos, perhaps.

KM: Yeah.

DL: Yeah. And like, we live in an era of intense specialization. Right? Like, going back to the beginning of industrialization when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, you know, how does the nation become wealthy? It becomes wealthy by differentiating different kinds of labor and people specializing in certain things, and so now we come to this point where we have at this moment in history incredible specialization. But what ties it together? What gives – like, if I’m a specialist in something, you know, I’m a scientist and I have my little niche of science and I’m find like, the truth for that specific sphere – that truth doesn’t go beyond that sphere. And so I think part of the magic of the hymns especially for our time today is allowing us to grasp the all, grasp the whole, grasp what is between all of these ways that we’ve fractured ourself from the world around us that we can start to see things again as a totality. And I think that’s really what spirituality, various spiritual traditions throughout history have always been trying to do and the Orphics are just one of them.

KM: Yeah. I also wanna pick up here on something that I feel like I’m – an undercurrent that I’m hearing from both of you, which is that in the Orphic poetry and the Orphic use of poetry is proliferative? I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that word right. But it proliferates meaning. It multiplies meaning. And in an ancient context in general in ancient philosophy, we see that that is something that they value. Where we – our modern, scientific mind – tends to want to narrow down a meaning to be the most precise and accurate that it can be and therefore the most precise is the most powerful, of course in the ancient world there were times when people wanted very precise language. But in general, one can say that philosophers liked language that allowed for more and more possibility, and this ties back to your earlier point, Drew, about song. Songs are similar; poetry is similar, that the words in a song or sung poetry generate meaning because they’re not everyday language. And that generative meaning is at the base of what we think of as magic, right? That magic is the ability to proliferate and grow many different things out of something that looks like it shouldn’t be able to grow that, right?

DL: Yeah.

KM: So the more – if I have a word that can generate three or four different levels of meaning, that is a powerful word.

DL: Right.

KM: And the person who through their life cycle is able to dive into and play with and extract multiple deeper and deeper layers of meaning from a text, that person is an initiate, is wise, is —

DL: A magician.

KM: A magician! A philosopher, right? A lover of wisdom is somebody who plummets – spelunks – the caves of a text. And what I think is really cool for those of us who practice astrology and, you know, maybe other forms of ancient-based spirituality these days is that we have those experiences. I mean, I’m sure you two feel this way, right? When you learn about astrology, it’s like learning a language, and all of a sudden, you see the world differently and there’s this wonderful feeling where you think, “I am never going to learn the end of this. It is going to just get deeper and deeper and richer and richer over my whole life. I could live 14 lifetimes, and I still wouldn’t reach the bottom of it.” And that’s because astrology is one of these generative languages that the ancient world valued.

CB: That’s a great point.

DL: I think that – go ahead, Chris.

CB: Just that that made me think of the multivalent nature of astrological archetypes is an analogy for the multivalent nature of language in and of itself.

DL: Yes.

KM: Yeah.

DL: Beautiful.

KM: Yeah.

CB: So taking it back to the astrology and the astrologers as we’re getting towards the end of this, as Drew said, it’s really notable that a lot of the early astrological texts tended to be written in verse, and there was a definite tendency for the earlier astrologers to write their texts in a way that the – similar to the hymns that we just read earlier where it’s in this poetic form, in the form of a song, essentially. And this is true of the immensely influential text of Dorotheus of Sidon from the first century was written in verse, the text of Manetho from the first or second century was written in verse, Anubio, the Nechepso text was actually some version or some early core part of the Nechepso text was also written in verse right there at the very, you know, ground level or the start of the Hellenistic astrological tradition, and then finally, we also have some astrological texts that are attributed to Orpheus, and one of them is a text on transits. And what’s interesting about this text is we have like, a summary of it that survives, but occasionally it seems like the summarist will occasionally lapse into quoting an exact phrase from the text and it’ll still be in verse form. So there was somebody – and obviously this is tied in with the broader practice in Hellenistic astrology and tendency to write pseudepigrapha that were like, attributing texts to legendary or famous figures instead of using your own name and assigning it to the text. But some people like Garth Fowden, for example, in the Hermetic tradition argued that the purpose of that was to sort of signal that you’re part of a tradition by attributing it to the legendary founder of your tradition like Hermes. And we have ancient philosophers like Iamblichus claiming that the Egyptian priests ascribe their texts to Hermes in order to signal being part of some sort of lineage, so perhaps we have something similar there with this text attributed to Orpheus on transits.

KM: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that it probably signal an allegiance to a lineage. It could also signal the inspiration, right? I mean, especially in a mystery tradition context, we don’t know what type of experiences motivated the writing of these texts. Did authors feel that they were in communication with Orpheus himself or receiving dreams or inspiration from Orpheus, much like I’m thinking of Aesclepius in the medical tradition where people frequently sought up dreams and revelations from Aesclepius as a divine figure. And, you know, we really don’t know what types of invocation of Orpheus himself might have been present. So I think that probably both of those things are true, right? That it signals a lineage and perhaps an inspiration.

CB: Right.

DL: And there’s also – I think another example of like, a verse astrological text would be Astronomica from Manilius —

CB: Oh right.

DL: — and yeah, I mean it’s – there’s so many of them, it’s like, it’s… But he actually mentions Orphesu in the text as well and specifically he talks about Orphesus’ skills of enchanting with music and also imposing a limit on death is how the translation goes. I think that translation is from Gould, that Kristin showed me. And you know, it makes one wonder, you know, this psychopomp figure of Orpheus, his connection to music, his connection to the afterlife, and his influence on all of these astrological thinkers, it makes one wonder to what extent the earliest astrology that we know about and the earliest texts that we have – were they about the life and the nativity and what the person is destined for in life? Or was it about something more? Was there also an interest in death and the kind of afterlife that the nativity could promise or that could be achieved through a certain kind of experience of that nativity? Big questions that I don’t think that we will ever be able to answer conclusively, but it certainly makes it – for me, personally, coming into this tradition, this Orphic lineage, that I very much see myself as a caretaker of now and going forward, is seeing that art and science and astrology are part of the same thing. That as astrologers, we’re offering poetic insights for people. We’re offering the kind of reassembly that I was talking about earlier, the kind of unification of self or the kind of rejuvenation or the ability to go on. That’s what we do. We give people art. We give people a new beginning by getting to see things in a different way or getting to – like Kristin was saying – proliferate these meanings about our lives. And so for me, it’s definitely changed my perspective about what it means to be an astrologer, that astrologers are artists and it’s no surprise that a lot of my astrologer friends have like, artistic backgrounds or they have interest in the arts, so.

CB: Yeah. And the connecting of different worlds that seem opposite or often framed as opposite, which we often think of as a mercurial thing and that astrology gets assigned to Mercury in the Hellenistic tradition by Valens and other astrologers, but here we see some of the overlap with Orpheus as well potentially there in combining different worlds.

DL: Totally.

KM: Yeah. And with Hermes, we see, you know, as you started out, Chris, mentioning quite early on in this episode that both Hermes and Orphesu share the lyre which is, you know, tuned to either five or seven strings. And they share a connection to memory. They share a connection to mathematics and ratios, rather, you know. And to song and poetic production. And that – I just, I feel like there’s such a beautiful role that astrology and the Orphic hymns, or maybe astrology perhaps as understand via the Orphic hymns, but when we bring this Orphic cosmology into the study of astrology, it enlivens the chart. It enlivens our understanding of the cosmos. And it helps, for me personally, in this era where we do feel so separate and we do feel disconnected, most of us, from not just the natural world but just each other and everything, you know, on our little screens. This is a really beautiful balm – B A L M – balm for the world.

DL: The love balm, how about that?

KM: Yeah! The love balm. Very Aphroditic.

DL: The proliferation of meaning and double entendre.

CB: Love it. You’re already encoding dropping wisdom bombs in the subtext of the words. All right. This is brilliant. I think we’re getting towards the end of wrapping up here. I know that this is a huge topic and this is probably something we could talk for hours and hours and hours about because it’s such a big field and such an emerging field as it’s growing more and the two of you are doing really innovative and important work here. But maybe – yeah, are there any other things you wanna make sure that we include before we wrap up and talk about where you’ll be continuing some of this work and where people can go to find out more about it? Are there any like, points that we’re gonna kick ourselves if we didn’t include towards the end?

KM: I think this feels very like a great place to wrap up.

DL: Yeah, I like how we’ve —

CB: Okay.

DL: — kind of wrapped up with more of a discussion about the implications of this. It feels good.

CB: Okay. Good. I felt so as well; I just wanted to make sure. Okay, brilliant. So tell me about your continuing work about this topic, like what you have coming up, what you’re working on, and where people can find out more information about it.

DL: So, I mean, Kristin is still translating, and her Substack offers a wealth of her translation as well as commentaries on the translations, you know, giving some of the insights that similar to the ones that we’ve discussed today and, you know, just really rich commentary,s o that’s awesome. Kristin and I also teach a class, which will be resuming or relaunching this month and we’ll be starting our meetings for that in May. So the information for getting in touch with that will be on my website and also on Kristin’s website, so those are the places where you can get in touch with us.

CB: Brilliant. For those listening to the audio version, so Kristin, your website is KristinMathis.com and your Substack is MysteriaMundi.Substack.com, and that’s where you regularly post your translations of the Orphic hymns as you’re going through and doing them?

KM: Yeah, the Substack is where I sort of, you know, as I’ve said, this is all a work in progress, so if you wanna be along for the ride, the Substack is where I’m regularly posting. And Star – the class that Drew and I are offering – really takes a deep dive into this material with a lot of slides and art and different access points, ways of understanding the esoteric content in the hymns.

DL: And we also —

CB: Brilliant.

DL: — we also wanna provide a resource list for free for folks who’ve tuned into this episode, so on my website is where you’ll be able to put in your email and get access to that very rich resource list.

CB: Brilliant. So here for the video viewers, here’s Kristin’s website – KristinMathis.com. Drew’s website is archeastrology.com, and you can sign up to be notified and for that mailing list and to get those resources as well as information about your classes at archeastrology.com/star. Correct?

DL: Yes, that’s right, thank you.

CB: Cool. All right. I will put links to your websites in the description below this video on YouTube or on the podcast website for those listening to the audio version. I’m very excited to see – Kristin, you’re also working on a book or you’ll eventually publish a book on the Orphic hymns, right?

KM: Yeah. This, it’s coming out with Revelore, hopefully in 2024, and this first book will be a selection of hymns that are really geared towards folks with a devotional practice, so it’ll be organized by days of the week and contain a selection of hymns with some light-ish commentary, and then I have this ongoing project to eventually publish translations of all the hymns with a massive commentary. I’m not gonna hold my breath for the latter; it’s coming, but not this year.

CB: Brilliant. That’s exciting. Well, people can maybe give you some encouragement in the comments section on the video on YouTube to know that they’re excited about that project and yeah, we’ll have to talk again at some point in the future once it’s out.

KM: Yeah. Thanks.

CB: Cool. All right. Awesome. Thank you both so much for joining me for this today. This was an amazing episode; this has like, filled in a lot of things for me where I’ve been going back into the origins of Hellenistic astrology over the past few months, and this is a much more important and integral component than I previously realized or fully acknowledged until I started paying closer attention to it and started being influenced by your work, so thank you, both of you, for teaching me something about Hellenistic astrology that I didn’t fully grasp until now. I appreciate it.

DL: Oh my god —

KM: Yeah.

DL: — we taught Chris Brennan something about Hellenistic astrology?

KM: Yeah, that is like, the biggest compliment ever. Chris, I just wanna return the kudos, because when we were talking briefly before we started recording about the fact that I don’t have formal training as an astrologer. But your book, along with Demetra George’s book, are like, I go to them constantly. They sit right there on my bookshelf, and I am accessing them all the time. So thank you for being a steadfast, just, yeah. Talk about a wisdom lineage. Thank you.

DL: Hell yeah.

CB: Thank you —

DL: And like, I wouldn’t be here without this podcast and it’s truly an honor to be on it.

KM: Yeah.

CB: Yeah. I’m glad to have you both on for the first time. I’m glad to have you on for the first time, Drew, because we’ve worked together and known each other for several years, so this was definitely, it was finally the right time for us all to get together and do this. So thank you.

DL: Thank you.

KM: Thank you.

CB: All right. Thanks everyone for listening or watching this episode of The Astrology Podcast, and we’ll see you again next time.


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