It was Euripides, and perhaps only Euripides, who made the goddess Hosia in the image of his own high desire, and, though the Orphic word and Orphic rites constantly pointed to a purity that was also freedom, to a sanctity that was by union with rather than submission to the divine, yet Orphism constantly renounced its birth-right, reverted as it were to the old savage notion of abstinence. After the ecstasy of
‘I am Set Free and named by name
A Bacchos of the Mailed Priests,’
the end of the mystic’s confession falls dull and sad and formal:
‘Kobed 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.’
He that is free and holy and divine, marks his divinity by a dreary formalism. He wears white garments, he flies from death and birth, from all physical contagion, his lips are pure from flesh-food, he fasts after as before the Divine Sacrament. He follows in fact all the rules of asceticism familiar to us as ‘Pythagorean’. …
Diogenes Laertius in his life of Pythagoras gives a summary of these prescriptions, which show but too sadly and clearly the reversion to the negative purity of abstinence . ‘Purification, they say, is by means of cleansings and baths and aspersions, and because of this a man must keep himself from funerals and marriages and every kind of physical pollution, and abstain from all food that is dead or has been killed, and from mullet and from the fish melanurus, and from eggs, and from animals that lay eggs, and from beans, and from the other things that are forbidden by those who accomplish holy rites of initiation.’ The savage origin of these fastings and taboos on certain foods has been discussed; they are deep-rooted in the ritual of aTrorpoTrrf, of aversion, which fears and seeks to evade the physical contamination of the Keres inherent in all things. Plato, in his inverted fashion, realizes that the Orphic life was a revival of things primitive. In speaking of the golden days before the altars of the gods were stained with blood, when men offered honey cakes and fruits of the earth, he says then it was not holy to eat or offer flesh-food, but men lived a sort of ‘Orphic’ life, as it is called.
Poets and philosophers, then as now, sated and hampered by the complexities and ugliness of luxury, looked back with longing eyes to the old beautiful gentle simplicity, the picture of which was still before their eyes in antique ritual, in the ocna, the rites of the underworld gods those gods who in their beautiful conservatism kept their service cleaner and simpler than the lives of their worshippers. Sophocles’ in the lost Polyidos tells of the sacrifice ‘dear to these gods’:
‘Wool of the sheep was there, fruit of the vine,
Libations and the treasured store of grapes.
And manifold fruits were there, mingled with grain
And oil of olive, and fair curious combs
Of wax compacted by the yellow bee.’