THE most important literary document extant on Orphic ceremonial is a fragment of the Cretans of Euripides, preserved for us by Porphyry in his treatise on ‘Abstinence from Animal Food’ a passage Porphyry says he had ‘almost forgotten to mention.’
From an allusion in Aristophanes to ‘Cretan monodies and unhallowed marriages’ it seems probable that the Cretans dealt with the hapless wedlock of Pasiphae, The fragment, Porphyry tells us, was spoken by the chorus of Cretan mystics who have come to the palace of Minos. It is possible they may have come to purify it from the recent pollution.
The mystics by the mouth of their leader make full and definite confession of the faith, or rather acknowledgement of the ritual acts, by which a man became a ‘Bacchos,’ and they add a statement of the nature of the life he was thereafter bound to lead.
Though our source is a poetical one, we learn from it, perhaps to our surprise, that to become a ‘Bacchos’ it was necessary to do a good deal more than dance enthusiastically upon the mountains. The confession runs as follows:
‘Lord of Europa’s Tyrian line,
Zeus-born, who boldest at thy feet
The hundred citadels of Crete,
I seek to thee from that dim shrine,
Hoofed by the Quick and Carven Beam,
By Chalyb steel and wild bull’s blood
In flawless joints of cypress wood
Made steadfast. There in one pure stream
My days have run, the servant I,
Initiate, of Idaean Jove;
Where midnight Zagreus roves, I rove;
I have endured his thunder-cry:
Fulfilled his red and bleeding feasts;
Held the Great Mother’s mountain flame;
I am Set Free and named by name
A Bacchos of the Mailed Priests.
Robed in pure white I have borne me clean
From man’s vile birth and coffined clay,
And exiled from my lips alway
Touch of all meat where Life hath been.’
[Ellopos’ note – the text above in the Greek original, ed. Austin, fr. 79: Φοινικογενοῦς τέκνον Εὐρώπης καὶ τοῦ μεγάλου Ζηνός͵ ἀνάσσων Κρήτης ἑκατομπτολιέθρου· ἥκω ζαθέους ναοὺς προλιπών͵ οὓς αὐθιγενὴς στεγανοὺς παρέχει τμηθεῖσα δοκοὺς Χαλύβωι πελέκει καὶ ταυροδέτωι κόλληι κραθεῖσ΄ ἀτρεκεῖς ἁρμοὺς κυπάρισσος. ἁγνὸν δὲ βίον τείνομεν ἐξ οὗ Διὸς Ἰδαίου μύστης γενόμην καὶ νυκτιπόλου Ζαγρέως βούτης τὰς ὠμοφάγους δαῖτας τελέσας μητρί τ΄ ὀρείαι δᾶιδας ἀνασχὼν μετὰ Κουρήτων βάκχος ἐκλήθην ὁσιωθείς. πάλλευκα δ΄ ἔχων εἵματα φεύγω γένεσίν τε βροτῶν καὶ νεκροθήκαις οὐ χριμπτόμενος τὴν ἐμψύχων βρῶσιν ἐδεστῶν πεφύλαγμαι.]
It is remarkable that the mystic, though he becomes a ‘Bacchos’ avows himself as initiated to Idaean Zeus. But this Idaean Zeus is clearly the same as Zagreus, the mystery form of Dionysos. …
A very curious account of a sacrifice to Dionysos in Tenedos helps us to realize how the shift from human to animal sacrifice, from child to bull or calf, may have come about. Aelian in his book on the Nature of Animals makes the following statement: ‘The people of Tenedos in ancient days used to keep a cow with calf, the best they had, for Dionysos, and when she calved, why, they tended her like a woman in child-birth. But they sacrificed the new born calf, having put cothurni on its feet. Yes, and the man who struck it with the axe is pelted with stones in the holy rite and escapes to the sea.’The conclusion can scarcely be avoided that here we have a ritual remembrance of the time when a child was really sacrificed. A calf is substituted but it is humanized as far as possible, and the sacrificer, though he is bound to sacrifice, is guilty of an outrage Anyhow, that the calf was regarded as a child is clear; the line between human and merely animal is to primitive man a shifting shadow.