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Jonathan Stults

Orphic and American Indian Synchronicities

The mythical tales of Orpheus and his followers, collectively known as the

Orphics, has been tremendously influential on Ancient Greek society and religion. Many

of the Orphic rites and beliefs have been borrowed by other religions. These borrowed

beliefs include baptism, original sin, that life is suffering, dogmas, selling of indulgences,

secret initiation rites, a divine child, and through sacred ceremonies one becomes one

with god. These patterns of dogma are nearly universal throughout the world, and no

better example can be found than in American Indian societies. The comparisons are so

striking that it is hard not to believe that these societies had no contact with each other.

Alas, Orphism and American Indian religion of the contiguous United States share much

in common.

Geometry posed significance to both American Indian and Orphic, especially the

Orphic off-shoot, the Pythagoreans.1 As geometry was sacred and critical to the

Pythagoreans, geometry to the American Indian was crucial to numbers. Seven was a

sacred number both in the ancient world and to the American Indian. To the American

Indian, 7 is sacred because it symbolizes the four cardinal directions, North, East, South,

West, as well as the Heavens, the Underworld, and the world we live in, the Center. The

number 4, for the four cardinal directions, was the most important number for most

American Indians, for it symbolized the geometrical plane which we live on. The number

4 symbolized many things to the American Indian, such as the four elements of earth

(stone), air, fire, water; the stages in which the earth was created, earth, plants, animals,
1
Hartley Alexander Burr, The World’s Rim, p. 11

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humans; for the four basic colors, red, blue, green and yellow, which also correspond to

the Sun, Sky, Earth and Stone as well as the four cardinal directions; for the Four Pillars

of the World, and so on.2 The Number 4 also has key significance with the celebration of

the Sun Dance, and 4 is to American Indians what 10 is to the Pythagoreans. To both the

American Indian and the Orphic, the central plane which we live on is at the center of the

cosmos.3 To both Orphic and American Indian, time is cyclical, and is like a living

creature. It is eternal, having no beginning or end.4

Duality of the soul is also apparent to both. They believe each of us are born with

two souls. When we die, one of the souls is transmigrated, or born again. The other

descends to the Underworld. For the Orphics to combat this apparent contradiction of

being reborn and ascending to Heaven, they decided that the circle of births is not eternal.

There is a point where the soul is sufficiently tested and can ascend to heaven.5 To

reiterate, the cyclical notion of time means that death is just another beginning, a

beginning for the soul as another living creature or the beginning in a transcendent

hereafter.6

To understand the Orphic religion, much background information must first be

divulged to the reader. Orpheus, who lends his name to the Orphic religion, is first

depicted in 570 BCE on a small black vase walking with his lyre, surrounded by two

sirens.7 He is supposed to predate Homer by several generations. Orpheus was a poet,


2
Hartley Burr Alexander, The World’s Rim: pp. 10-45
3
Hartley Burr Alexander, The World’s Rim: p. 19
4
Åke Hultkrantz, Native Religions of North America, p. 32
5
Martin P. Nilsson, A History of Greek Religion, p. 222
6
Åke Hultkrantz, Native Religions of North America, p. 33
7
Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 11 pp. 109-110

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prophet, musician, healer and muse. In this respect, he shows much in common with the

American Indian medicine man. F.M. Cornford even describes Orpheus as a shaman,8

which alone renders many parallels with the American Indians. There are many

contradicting myths and stories surrounding the ‘founder’ of Orphism, who is Orpheus.

Orpheus was a man who supposedly came from the vicinity of Olympus in Macedonia,

but the most likely home which Orpheus is attributed to is in Thrace. From there, his

religion migrated across the Greek empire and found a strong following in Crete.

Orpheus was many things to many different people, and featured in a variety of literature.

Orpheus’s mother was a Muse, Calliope, and his father was a river god and King of

Thrace named Oeagrus. Orpheus was probably born in a cave in Mount Helicon, Livithra.

Before Orpheus existed, if he even did, was his voice. His charming singing and musical

skill at the lyre are unmatched anywhere in the ancient world. Orpheus traveled with

Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, since the prophetic centaur

Chiron warned Jason that only Orpheus’s voice would allow them to pass the Sirens.

Orpheus also charmed the clashing rocks as their ship Argo passed through, and Orpheus

put the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece to sleep with his sweet song. Paramount to the

religion attributed to his name, Orpheus convinces the Argonauts to become initiated into

the mysteries of Samothrace, to perform a sacrifice after the accidental killing of a king,

and performing purification rites at Malea. Finally by himself, Orpheus performs yet

another purification rite at the gate of Tainaron, the entrance to the Underworld. These

actions performed by Orpheus become critical in the development of the Orphic religion.9

8
F.M. Cornford, Principium Sapientiae, p. 89
9
W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, pp. 27-28

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The Orphics worshipped two gods, Dionysos and Eros.10 Jane Harrison describes

Orphism as being “…the worship of the real mysteries of life, of potencies rather than

personal gods; it is the worship of life itself in its supreme mysteries of ecstasy and love.”

Caves were also important to the American Indian and Orphic. Among American Indians

of the Northwest and Northeast Coasts, sanctity attaches itself to mountains and caves.11

Similarly, the symbol of the cave corresponds directly to the American Indian and Orphic

shamanic belief of the underworld. Accordingly, various Orphic sanctuaries on mountains

have been discovered on the island of Crete.12 Also the child Dionysos was slain in the

cave he was raised in. A striking parallelism between Orphism and American Indian

mystic practices involves the bull-roarer (rhombus, or churinga). The bull-roarer has been

used across cultures, from the Aborigines and Siberians, to the Ancient Greeks and

American Indians. It is a sacred instrument used in initiation rites. The device itself

consists of a cord attached to an oval piece of wood, and then the bull-roarer is swung in

the air, twisting on it axis. It makes a ferocious sound; it represents the sound of thunder,

or the voice of the Sky God or his son or servant. In its use during Orphic initiation rites,

the bull-roarer represents the thundering of Zagreus, or Dionysos.13 The 5th century B.C.

poet Aeschylus describes the bull-roarer as follows; "And bull-voices roar thereto from

somewhere out of the unseen, fearful semblances and from an image as it were of thunder

underground is borne on the air heavy with dread." The idea of the bull-roarer sounding

the voice of God is also common among many California and Sierra Nevada Amerindian

tribes

10
Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion, p. 657
11
Wilson D. Wallis, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 29
12
C. Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, p. 19
13
Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth, p. 22

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Important to understanding Orphism is to understand its close relatives, the

Dionysiatic and the Mysteries of Eleusis, which the Orphics even adopted and added to.14

Orphism can be described as a refined version of the Dionysiatic cult, and there is

nothing preventing an Orphic follower from also being a follower of the very popular

Eleusinian cult. Paramount to the Bacchic cult was the sacrament of wine, while the key

sacrament to the Eleusinian cult was a beverage called kykeon. However, the Orphics

were ascetics, except during their purification and initiation rites. Dr. Albert Hofmann,

the founder of the potent psychedelic drug LSD, believes kykeon was a brew made of

mushrooms, or a chemical cousin to LSD that can be found in ergot (as well as the

common Morning Glory flower seeds that the Aztec priests took as a sacrament), LSA:

In professional circles of Greek scholars, it is absolutely clear that the ancient Greeks
used some psychoactive substance in their cult. There exist many references to a sacred beverage,
kykeon that was administered to the initiates after preparations which took one week. After the
adepts got this potion, they had, all together, powerful mystic experiences that they were not
allowed to talk about and describe exactly. I had worked about twenty years ago with the Greek
scholar, Professor Kerényi, on this problem.
The interesting question is: what were really the ingredients of this kykeon, this sacred potion?
We had studied many plants that Professor Kerényi had suggested as possible candidates, but they
were not at all psychedelic. Then came Gordon Wasson with his hypothesis; naturally, it involved
mushrooms, because he saw mushrooms everywhere! He asked me, if the men in Greek antiquity
had the possibility to prepare a psychedelic potion from ergot. He came to this idea, because the
Mysteries of Eleusis were founded by the Goddess Demeter and Demeter is the goddess of grain
and ergot (Mutterkorn). That gave him the idea that ergot could be involved in the preparation of
kykeon.15

Albert Hofmann expounds this view further in his book The Road to Eleusis.

Since Orpheus probably hailed from Thrace, it is possible he picked up on the Scythian

ceremony of burning hemp in a tent to commune with god. It is important to understand

that the goal of consuming a psychedelic drug is to achieve union with the god in

question. Psychedelic peyote cactus is taken as a sacrament among most American Indian
14
J.D. Bury, A History of Greece, p. 301
15
Stanislav Grof interview with Dr. Albert Hofmann, 1984

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groups today, and its use has spread as far as Canada and the Carolinas. Peyote is used for

its ease of creating visions and mystical experiences, without the need of hunger/sleep

deprivation or severe grief. The Orphics however, were probably forbidden from drinking

alcohol. However, their initiation and sacred rites are shrouded in secrecy and it is

unknown for certain whether a brew like kykeon could have been consumed by them. It is

likely that the wine the Orphics drank in their rituals, as shown through the Eleusinian

Mysteries, did not contain alcohol as the only intoxicant but instead was a mixture of

various inebriants.16 Similarly among American Indians, the ecstatic ritual of smoking the

sacred pipe filled with tobacco or willow bark consummated a communion with man and

the divine.17

Hermaphrodites and bisexuality are another synchronicity between the Orphics

and American Indians. Orpheus himself is even described as being somewhat

androgynous.18 The idea of perfection consisting in a being that encompasses full unity-

totality is evident throughout the world.19 Remaining Orphic fragments describe Phanes,

the supreme god who started creation and life, as being “female and male” and “female

and father.” Phanes is often described as being three gods; Eros, because Phanes must not

only be creation but procreation; Zeus, since he became Phanes by swallowing him; and

Dionysos, because Phanes was reborn as him.20 Dionysos therefore was the most bisexual

of all the gods.21 In order to show the sheer awe of Phanes, and to solve the conundrum of

having a male deity procreating without a female one, Phanes was resolved to be asexual.

16
Albert Hofmann, The Road to Eleusis, p. 89
17
Åke Hultkrantz, Prairie and Plains Indians, p. 23
18
Weston la Barre, The Ghost Dance, p. 439
19
Mircea Eliade, The Two and the One, p. 108
20
W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, pp. 100-102
21
Mircea Eliade, The Two and the One, p. 109

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And hence the paradox of procreation was solved. Bisexuality symbolizes totality, and

hence symbolizes perfection.22 Among Greek gods alone, Attis, Adonis, Cybele, along

with the aforementioned Phanes/Eros/Dionysos were all bisexual.23 In an Orphic poem

preserved by the philosopher Proclus, men are created by the tears of the creator

(Orphicorum fragmenta 354.) In Zuni mythology Awonawilona is androgynous, and is

described as being both ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Father Sky.’ From the Navajo, the bisexual

Ahsonnutlia created the four giants to support the Four World Pillars, in the four cardinal

directions.

The most important myth in Orphic theology is that of Orpheus’s decent to the

Underworld. Orpheus wife was either a Thracian nymph, or more likely a Dryad named

Eurydice (‘wide-ruling’). Orpheus won Eurydice over with the music from his lyre, and

their love knew no bounds. Aristaeus was envious, and sought to take Eurydice by force.

She fled and stepped on a deadly viper, killing her. Orpheus, refusing to be without his

beloved, sought her back. As he mourned at her grave, the outline of the road to the

Underworld becomes clear to him. Orpheus follows it and encounters many monsters

along the way, but manages to tame them with song. He passed through the gate of

Tainaron into the Underworld, playing his lyre. The beauty of Orpheus’s music charmed

the guardian Cerberus, allowing Orpheus to pass, and his lyre-playing stopped Ixion’s

wheel from turning. Orpheus eventually reached Hades and Persephone, and played for

them the sorrow he felt over his lost beloved, which moved the King and his Queen to

tears. They led Orpheus to Eurydice, now just a shade, (eidolon) allowing her to leave

with him. But Hades had one condition; that Eurydice must follow Orpheus out of the

22
Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth, p. 26
23
Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, p. 421

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Underworld, and Orpheus must trust Hades’ promise of allowing her to leave. If Orpheus

did look back at Eurydice, she would stay a shade in the Underworld forever; if Orpheus

did not look back at his beloved, she would become a mortal once again. Orpheus

rejoiced, and began to leave the Underworld. But after awhile Orpheus could still not

hear Eurydice walking behind him, and started to think Hades was just playing a trick to

get him out of the Underworld. Only a few feet from the entrance, Orpheus turned around

to look for her, but only saw a mere glimpse of her shade as she was pulled back into the

Underworld for eternity. Orpheus was incredibly distraught, and could not enter the

Underworld again for he could not enter the same way twice. Orpheus now shunned all

female attention. 24 Some accounts of the story say Orpheus committed suicide, others

that he was struck dead by Zeus’s thunderbolt. Aeschylus's version of the story tells that

Dionysos was jealous at Orpheus’s devout worship of Apollo, and Dionysos saw this as

obstructing his conversion of Thrace to his own Bacchic religion. He sent the Mænads to

kill him. These vicious women tore him apart in an orgiastic frenzy, and hence recreating

the death of Dionysus himself. Ovid’s account tells of Orpheus angering the Mænads for

his sexual love for boys that resulted form the death of Eurydice. The Mænads tore him to

pieces like in one of their ceremonial orgies. Orpheus’s singing head and lyre floated

down the River Hebrus to the shores of Lesbos, where he was buried and a shrine built

upon his grave. His severed head now served as an oracle.25 Orpheus’s soul was now

finally reunited in the Underworld with Eurydice.

24
W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, pp. 29-33
25
Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, p. 181

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This tale of creation is prevalent amongst American Indians throughout the

contiguous United States. Orphic myths that tell of a semi-divine figure descending to

the Underworld to bring back his wife, only to have her taken away at the last possible

moment, are common to American Indian mythology. Myths of this type can be found

among the Huron, Ojibwa, Montagnais-Naskapi, Iroquois, Ottawa, Salish, Kwakiutl,

Nootka, Haida, Yokuts, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Seneca, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Thompson,

Okanagan, Carrier; Salish, and Interio, to name just a few. Most American Indian tribes

have some sort of Orpheus myth. The Chinook have an Orpheus myth quite analogous to

the ancient Greek one.26 The myth begins with the death of Coyote’s and Eagle’s wives.

Coyote and Eagle decide to go on a quest to find their dearly departed, by the western

edge of the world. Upon arriving at the western edge, where the land of the dead is

located, Coyote and Eagle find themselves in a gigantic meeting lodge. The moon is on

the lodge floor, illuminating the lodge. The dead appear only when an old woman

swallows the moon, and Coyote and Eagle see their wives amongst the dead. The old

woman swallows the moon to create night, and vomits it up to begin day. After the old

woman had vomited the moon up again, Coyote built a huge wooden box and placed

leaves of all the different kinds of plants in the world into it. Coyote and Eagle then kill

the old woman, and Coyote put on her dress, and placed the huge wooden box behind the

entrance to the lodge therefore setting a trap. Coyote and Eagle waited, and when the

time was right Coyote swallowed the moon. Once again the dead appeared, and Coyote

vomited up the moon. As the dead exited the lodge, they were trapped in the box. Coyote

threw the moon into the sky, where it stands today, and they began their journey home

with Eagle carrying the box. Upon hearing his wife’s voice in the box, Coyote begged
26
John Bierhorst, The Mythology of North America, p. 144

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Eagle to allow him to carry the box, and when they were almost home Eagle acquiesced

to Coyote’s request. In his blind desire to see his wife again, Coyote opened the box. All

the dead rose up and disappeared back into the west. If Coyote had not opened the box,

people would be immortal and only die for a season like the plants. Ever after, plants die

in the winter and live again in spring. But people will not because of Coyote’s

impatience.

Another Orphic myth comes from the Cherokee, and is similar to the Orpheus and

Eurydice tale of original sin. The story differs from the Orphic version in that the taboo

violated involves a box, which can also be found among the Chehalis, Wishram, Wasco,

Kalispel, Yakima, Tenino and Nez Pierce. Everyday as the Sun climbs to the west, She

stops at her daughter’s house for dinner. Sun hated the people of Earth below, for they

always cover their eyes and turn away when they look at her. However Sun’s brother,

Moon, liked the people of Earth because they always smiled upon him at night. Sun was

jealous of Moon, and to get back at him she decided to kill all the people of Earth.

Everyday as she rose, Sun would torch the Earth with her rays, killing scores of people.

The remaining humans sought aid from the friendly spirits, the Little Men. The spirits

knew the only way to save the people of Earth was to kill the Sun, so the spirits created

medicine to turn two humans into snakes. One would be a copperhead, the other a

spreading adder. They were to wait outside Sun’s daughter’s house, and kill her Sun as

she came for dinner. The snakes went into the sky to wait. Once Sun had come, the

spreading adder was too blinded by her light to kill her, and Sun went into the house. The

copperhead slithered away, afraid to try to kill Sun herself. People began to die again, and

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humans went to the spirits for help once more. For the second time, they made medicine

and changed one human into Uktena, the great water monster, and another human into a

rattlesnake. Like the copperhead and spreading adder, Uktena and the rattlesnake waited

outside her daughter’s door for Sun. But rattlesnake was so anxious that he bit the first

thing to exit the door, which was Sun’s daughter. She died, and too discouraged to wait

for Sun, the rattlesnake and Uktena went back to Earth. When the Sun found her daughter

dead, she locked herself in her house grieving, and the people of Earth were plunged into

darkness. Humans went to the spirits again, who told them they must retrieve Sun’s

daughter. Seven men chose to make the journey to the ghost country, Tsusgina’i, in the

land of the dead towards the west, Usunhi’yi. The spirits told the seven men to bring a

box, and each man to carry a sourwood rod. The spirits said that when the men arrived,

the ghosts would be in a circle dancing, and that the men should stand outside the circle

and when Sun’s daughter walks by, strike her with the rods and take her back to Sun in

the box. The spirits strictly forbid the men from opening the box. The seven men do as

they’re told, and none of the ghosts realizes what has happened to Sun’s daughter. As the

seven men head home towards the east, Sun’s daughter comes to life again and cries to be

let out. The men refuse, but when they’re almost home, Sun’s daughter complains that

she’s suffocating. Fearful that she really will die, the men cracked the box lid just a bit to

let in air. They heard a fluttering sound as something flew out of the box, and heard a

redbird chirping. The men, unsure of what happened, carried on towards home. When

they finally reached their village and opened the box, nothing was in it. Because the

seven men had opened the box, humans are forever unable to bring back their loved ones

for the land of the dead. People will never be able to be reunited with their loved ones

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after they die ever again, but the Sun is finally reconciled with music and dance.

The following is an account of the Orphic myth is found among the Comanche. A

young couple were in love, when the woman suddenly died. The man refused to allow

this, and vowed to follow her to the Underworld. He waited outside her lodge until he

saw her spirit rise like a cloud out of her body, then jumped on his horse and followed it

for months. He traveled so long and hard that his horse died, and all his belongings that

he carried with him were worn out. On foot he finally reached the realm of the dead. He

soon found the lodge belonging to his dead wife’s father, where she lived as well. His

wife was inside, and when he asked her to come back with him to the world of the living,

she had mixed feelings. She has happy in the realm of the dead, but she loved her

husband dearly. Her father resolved her inner conflict for her, and said to the husband,

“Well, go back with her. But remember this: when you leave the camp you must go

eastward. And you must not touch her before you come to the place where the buffalo is.

You must give her a buffalo’s kidney to eat. When she eats this she will become flesh,

and after that she can live with you as your wife. But you must never strike her. If you

strike her she will come back to us.” So the young couple left the realm of the dead

together. Eventually they came to the buffalo plains, and the husband killed a buffalo and

fed his wife its kidney. She now became a living human being again. They embraced and

forgot all about the realm of the dead, and soon reached their village. When autumn came

around, everything was still going well for them. One day they were lying down together

in their lodge, when the husband reached for a blanket and accidentally struck his wife.

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She yelled, “You struck me in the head! Now I must return to the realm of the dead!” And

so she faded away and went, never to return to this world again.

Some conclusions can be drawn from Orpheus and his American Indian

counterparts. In all of them, the Elysian Fields which Orpheus goes to, or the realm of the

dead is always happy place. The dead wife is almost universally indifferent to returning

to the land of the living, and sometimes even hostile to the idea. Both Orpheus and all

the American Indian heroes must charm the guards of the underworld with music to gain

entrance. This is exemplified in Orpheus’s ability to play the lyre and soothe anyone with

his songs. Another common theme is that the road to the underworld becomes apparent at

the grave of the Orpheus hero’s beloved, which he is able to follow to the underworld. In

order for this to happen, the wife’s body must always be buried, and not cremated. At

other times, the hero waits outside the lodge where his beloved’s body is, and follows her

soul as it exits the lodge. Dancing is also a common Underworld theme; usually the

American Indian heroes find his wife, she is in a circle dancing, and Orpheus dances and

observes dancing while he is in the underworld. The variety of dance taking place is

usually the ghost dance. The ghost dance also inspires many American Indian Orpheus

myths, not only the original Orphic. Orpheus and his American Indian counterparts may

have descended to the underworld by means of severe grief. Their intense sadness would

have been the catalyst to send them on their voyage, but the Orphic and American Indian

initiates used sleep deprivation, drugs, or would have starved themselves to send them on

their journey.

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Three different initiatory rites are typical to American Indian and Orphic

ceremonies. Puberty, or initiation rites, which all members of a society much go through.

The second is not obligatory for all members of society, and include the initiates who join

a secret society. These secret societies are usually made entirely of male, and jealously

guard their secrets. Secret societies are observed among the Pueblo people, which

penetrates the social fabric of society even after death. Orphic initiation differs from this

in that the most important secret ceremonies were performed by women. This was

because the female rites were considered beneficial to both men and women, since female

rites were concerned with the life of all.27 However, since women alone were allowed

communion with the god, they became sinners through possession of the god.

Onomakiritos apparently changed this more archaic belief to allow men only of the

primordial age to partake in communion with the god, so as both men and women were

sinners and could partake in these sacred rites.28 It was believed not only in female

followers of Dionysos, but in all human beings lurked original sin. Since all humans are

created from parts of the gods, the third initiation is required to achieve a higher religious

status.29 Although the second two kinds are similar, a condition of ecstatic union with the

god is necessary to achieve a higher religious status. This third kind of initiation is quite

apparent in the Orphics, while all three kinds of initiatory rites can be seen among the

American Indians. As far as puberty rites for the Orphics are concerned, they were

inherited by the earlier Dionysian cult.30 For the American Indian, puberty rites usually

comprised of a vision quest, at least for boys. Here the youth sought to recreate the hero’s

ecstatic descent to retrieve his wife by going on their own journey; the youth would also
27
C. Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, p. 240
28
C. Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, p. 240
29
Mircea Elidae, Birth and Rebirth, p. 2-3
30
C. K Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, pp. 374-375

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discover his spirit guide, an animal that would accompany and guide him for the rest of

his life.

The actual initiation rites (teletai) of the Orphic and American Indian initiations

are shrouded in secrecy, as is common with initiation rites around the world.31 There is

also a great deal of variety and sheer number of rituals, the Osage themselves having 168

different rituals for attaining priesthood.32 They are shrouded in secrecy because in these

initiations, the original creation myth is shown to the initiate; the creation of mankind is

revealed. The powers of creation remain shrouded in myth because they exist very far

away in time and space.33 A face covered in plaster, invoking the initiates as ancestral

spirits or ghosts, is revealed in the Orphic Hymn to the Titans as described by the poet

Euphorion.34 Similarly in Pueblo society, a face painted black was representative of

spirits or ghosts.

In referring to the Orphic initiation rites, the Eleusinian Mysteries are

probably what are being alluded to.35 To become an Orphic initiate, (Bacchos) the

inductee musts confess. The confession, as told in the Cretans is standard for all initiates.

The initial avowal for the confession is, ‘the servant I, Initiate, of Idæan Jove.’36 The

Idæn Jove refers to is none other than the supreme Orphic god Zagreus, who is the reborn

Dionysos, and whose name is used interchangeably with Dionysos. In the initiate

ceremony, a live bull was dismembered and so commenced a feast of raw flesh,
31
Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth, p. 4
32
Francis La Flesche, The Osage and the Invisible World, p. 56
33
Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, p. 81
34
C. Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, pp. 267-268
35
Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, p. 182
36
Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion, p. 479

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(Omophagia). The sacrificed bull, in a recreation of the death of Zagreus, was quickly

torn apart as quick as possible, and its warm blood poured into a cup. The blood was

drunk to inherit the life of Zagreus.37 Since the bull is a divine incarnation for the god,

consuming its raw flesh was to achieve complete communion with Zagreus. There was no

other way to achieve a more ecstatic union with the divine. The eating of the bull appears

to occur mainly in Crete; in Thrace, a goat was substituted, and in Athens the ritual eating

of raw flesh was not practiced. There are also stories that young boys were sacrificed

instead of bulls, to more accurately recreate the death of Dionysos. However if this

practiced ever existed, it seems to have died out by the 5th or 4th century BCE. Yet there

was another method in which to achieve communion with Zagreus, which was by

devouring the flesh of the goddess by eating the Eleusinian meal-cake.38 Rubbing meal

with mud was also a purification ritual among the Orphics.39 The initiates partook in the

initiatory ceremonies, in order to achieve supreme consecration on a quest to join the

mother of the child.40 The mother and child can only be Rhea and Zagreus. This desire to

seek communion with the mother is found among American Indians. Furthermore the

recreation of ascent to heaven, performed ceremonially by climbing a ladder, occurred

not only with the Orphic initiation41 but in some American Indian societies and creation

myths as well. In the Wintun creation story, Olelbis sends two buzzard brothers to build a

stone ladder from Earth to Heaven, right before he creates man.42 Man and woman can

bathe in a pool at the ladder’s summit to restore youth.

37
Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion, p. 483
38
Weston la Barre, The Ghost Dance, p. 548
39
Martin P. Nilsson, A History of Greek Religion, p. 218
40
C. Kerényi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, p. 118
41
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, p. 488
42
Hartley Burr Alexander, The World’s Rim, p. 199

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The Orphics were ascetics, demonstrated in their various taboos. Their

communion with Zagreus was their sole exception, because of its divine relevance. The

Orphics had great respect for animals, and therefore abstained from killing them. They

also were forbidden from eating meat. Also among the American Indians, respect for

animals was critical, as animals are seen as human’s brothers. Various taboos were

apparent in their ritual; for instance there’s a common taboo against eating the animal

which one’s spirit guide presents itself.43 American Indian boys must observe taboos

throughout their puberty rites and vision quests. The most apparent taboo of all in

American Indian societies is the taboo from speaking a dead person’s name. In the

Wichita Orpheus myth, the taboo is from sleeping with another woman. The hero

foolishly does soon after his wife is brought back from the underworld, and therefore

loses her once again. In the Pawnee myth, the hero must not speak angrily to his deceased

wife, similar to the Comanche hero’s taboo from striking his wife. Like the Orphic myth,

the Tlingit, Klikitat, Modoc, Western Mono, Navaho, Zuni, Fort Hall Shoshoni,

Blackfoot, Malecite, and Huron, the Orpheus hero must not turn around to look at his

wife before she is fully reanimated.44

Among the American Indians, the sweat lodge represents the most significant

custom of purification. It is almost universal among American Indian tribes. The return to

life which the hero in their Orpheus myth experiences is symbolically demonstrated by

American Indians in the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge is a purification ceremony used to

protect oneself against evil spirits, and to heal one’s ailments. The hero of the Ojibway

43
Åke Hultkrantz, The Religions of the American Indians, p. 77
44
Åke Hultkrantz, The Religions of the American Indians, pp. 131-132

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Jonathan Stults

Orpheus myth returns after only one night from the land of the dead. She builds a sweat

lodge, puts her husband’s corpse and two boxes, containing his brains and soul, pours hot

water over the stones to create the steam for the sweat lodge, and waited outside. Within

minutes her husband was resurrected. The Sweat Lodge Rite, (Inikagapi) is a separate rite

in itself, and one of the seven sacred rites of the Lakota.45 The sacred pipe is instrumental

in this ceremony, as smoking tobacco or willow bark is with every American Indian

ritual. The ceremony is usually dedicated to the Creator or Great Spirit. Black Elk, a

Lakota, dedicates his offering of the sacred pipe to “the Six Powers and to the four-

leggeds and the wings of the air.”46 The actual sweat lodge itself contains a pole,47 no

doubt symbolizing the axis of the ‘cosmic tent’. The sweat lodge is often a larger part of

the Sun Dance or peyote rituals, since often one would experience visions in the sweat

lodge. Just like the Orphic purification rites, both sexes were included. One 19th century

account of the sweat lodge ceremony is as follows:

Now the robe is thrown down [to cover the door], and then the holy men speak
(woklakapelo). They speak in the spirit language (he hanploklakapi eciyapelo). These are the
things they say:
‘Sweat lodge stones (tonkan yatapika), pity me! Sun, pity me! Moon, pity me! Darkness
of night (hanokpaza kin), pity me! Water, standing in a waken manner (mni wakanta najin ki) pity
me! Grass, standing in the morning (pejihinyanpa najin kin) pity me! Whatever pitiful one is
scarcely able to crawl into the tipi and lie down for the night (takuxika teriya tiyoslohanhan
hinyunke), see him and pity him.’48

To the American Indian, the Sun Dance was a religious ceremony to recreate and

renew the world,49 much like the Orphic ritual which involved tearing apart the bull to

represent Zagreus’s recreation of the world. The Sun Dance was an act of tribal

45
Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin, Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, p. 293
46
John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, p. 185
47
Howard L. Harrod, Renewing the World, p. 105
48
Raymond A. Bucko, The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge, p. 125
49
Åke Hultkrantz, Prairie and Plains Indians, p. 9

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Jonathan Stults

purification,50 and food gathering as well as procreation are key themes, just like the

Orphics. The Sun Dance’s most common goal was to bring back the herds of bison and

was practiced once a year. It was practiced by over twenty tribes generally in early or

mid-summer, and like the Orphic initiation rite, was thoroughly woven into their

respective society’s social fabric. The Sun Dance was not exclusive to one gender, but

required the presence of the whole tribe, and sometimes necessitated thousands of on-

looking spectators. The Sun Dance was taught to a holy man in a vision, and is one of

seven sacred rituals foretold by the Lakota prophet White Buffalo Calf Woman.51 The Sun

Dance had many purposes, among them for renewal of crops, protection from danger, and

giving thanks. It usually includes purification by using the sweat lodge. The Sun Dance

festivities include some rites solely for men, but is generally open to all members of the

tribe. One interesting aspect of the Sun Dance is that it includes self-mutilation. The

cutting off of a piece of skin, the removal of a finger joint, or the tying of oneself to the

central axis pole are all seen in the Sun Dance.52

The Corn Dance is akin to rejuvenation ceremonies practiced by the Orphics, and

is practiced by the Zuni and other Pueblo tribes. In this respect, a ritual was performed to

ensure the crops would return. A key Orphic theme of rebirth and renewal is seen in the

following passage from Pueblo mythology:

“Paiyatemu said, ‘The Corn Maidens left us because one man desired them and wished to
lay hands on them. We are their flesh and they give us themselves to eat. If they give it to us again
and we plant in the spring for the rain to water we shall be fed again with their flesh. They will be
our mothers and we shall be their children. If at any time we think evil thoughts or are unhappy
they will go away from us again and we shall have nothing. When we dance the Corn Dance we
shall carry their flesh in our hands. We shall not see them but they will be there in spirit. They will
be among us and when we speak to them they will hear us.’ The people answered, ‘It shall be as
50
Hartley Burr Alexander, The World’s Rim, p. 140
51
Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin, Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, p. 289
52
Alice lee Marriott, Peyote, p. 13

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Jonathan Stults

you have said.’ Yellow corn (girl) said to the priests, ‘At the end of the year send for us and we
will come to Itiwana. Newekwe Youth will always lead us. Pekwin [chief Sun priest] will go first
(make the road) and Pautiwa will follow Newekwe, and after him Father Koyemci. My flesh is
your flesh. When you put my flesh in the ground it sprouts and does not die. It is like your bodies.
When they are buried in the ground they do not die, our flesh is like your flesh.’ It is so. The
people went home.”53

Paiyatemu is the god relevant to corn for the Pueblos, and like Orpheus is a master

musician. The passage coincides with the dismemberment of Zagreus and Orpheus. The

passage also demonstrates the importance of the Corn Dance to the Pueblo people, for

they saw themselves as being composed of corn.54 It was therefore necessary to renew the

corn crops every year in December, to rebirth not only corn but the Pueblo people

themselves.

Secret societies, as already mentioned, were also important to the Orphic and

American Indian. Among the Omaha tribe, secret societies were based upon what

guardian spirit, the buffalo, ghost, grizzly bear and rattlesnake, and water-monster, one

shared in common.55Confession was also integral to Orphic and various American Indian

tribes, among them being the Okanagon, the Plains Indians, Chippewa, Pueblos and

Iroquois.56 The Okanagon would have confession dances whenever a cosmic event

frightened them, and the Iroquois would have confession at their New Year ceremonies.

Important to note that for the American Indian and Orphics, the New Year was a rebirth.

It was the death of the past year, and birth of the new, for the year was seen as living.

Much like the Orphic initiations, the Ghost Dance Religion of 1890 exhibits fundamental

similarities with secret societies, the key similarity being that the Ghost Dance and

53
Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, pp. 145-146
54
Hamilton A. Tyler, Pueblo Gods and Myths, p. 145
55
Åke Hultkrantz, Prairie and Plains Indians, p. 30
56
Wilson D. Wallis, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 113

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Jonathan Stults

Orphic religions were open to anyone with a predisposition and willingness to go through

the ecstatic, shaman-like initiations.57

The infamous Ghost Dance religion of 1890 initially formed in 1889, fully died

out in the 1890’s, and exhibits many Orphic influences. The ghost dance from which it

takes its name is a dance to seek reunification with the dead in a perfect afterlife, and is

common to American Indians. The ghost dance also probably inspired the Pomo tribes

Orpheus myth;58 the Sarcee and Winnebago’s ghost dance has strong connections to the

original Orphic myth. The ghost dance in the Orpheus tradition was probably

contaminated with shamanic initiation visions.59 In fact the myth of Orpheus even served

as an “institution legend” for the Ghost Dance.60 The Ghost Dance of 1890 has

connections to the Orphic myth in that it was comprised of ritual dances to strengthen the

connection with the dead; the Western Mono and Yokuts have their religious beliefs

firmly aligned to that of the Orphics. The Ghost Dance prophet, a Paiute named Wovoka,

or Jack Wilson, “died” on January 1, 1889. He was taken up to heaven with the death of

the sun in the form of the eclipse. The early anthropologist James Mooney, gave the

following account of Wilson’s ascent to the spirit world:

“…he saw God, with all the people who had died long ago engaged in their oldtime sports and
occupations, all happy and forever young. It was a pleasant land and full of game. After showing
him all, God told him he must go back and tell his people they must be good and love one another,
have no quarreling, and live in peace with the whites; that they must work, and not lie or steal, that
they must put away all the old practices that savored of war, that if they faithfully obeyed his
instructions they would at last be reunited with their friends in this other world, where there would
be no more death or sickness or old age. He was then given the dance which he was commanded
to bring back to his people. By performing this dance at intervals, for five consecutive days each
time, they would secure this happiness to themselves and hasten the event. Finally God gave him

57
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, p. 314
58
Åke Hultkrantz, The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition, p. 29
59
Åke Hultkrantz, The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition, p. 311
60
Åke Hultkrantz, Belief and Worship in Native North America, p. 13

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Jonathan Stults

control over the elements so that he would make it rain or snow or be dry at will, and appointed
him his deputy to take charge of affairs in the west, while “Governor Harrison” would attend to
matters in the east, and he, God, would look after the world above. He then returned to earth and
began to preach as he was directed, convincing the people by exercising the wonderful powers that
had been given him”61

Jack Wilson transverses the spirit world much like Orpheus. The Ghost Dance

Religion was supposed to create a palingenesis; all Amerindians, dead and alive, would

inhabit this new ‘regenerated earth.’62 This directly correlates to the Orphics belief in

original sin; the world we live in now is a palingensis of the world Orpheus lived in.

The Orphics and the American Indians had much in common. Not only their

eschatology, but their religious practices as well align peculiarly. The tale of Orpheus’s

decent to the underworld in search for his lost lover transcends geographical and cultural

restrictions and is almost universal throughout American Indian religion. Also, the use of

bull-roarers, the symbolic significance of caves, the ghost dance, purification and

initiation rites, as well as various other synchronicities are discerned in both Orphic and

American Indian cultures.

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Barre, Weston la. The Ghost Dance. New York: Doubleday & Company Incc, 1970

Bianchi, Ugo. The History of Religions. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1975

61
Alice Beck Kehoe, The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization, p. 6
62
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 320-322

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Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of North America. New York: Quill William Morrow,

1985

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Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Rites, Symbols Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row Publishers,

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Hultkrantz, Åke. Native Religions of North America. New York: Harper & Row, 1987

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Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press,

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