Orphic Theogeny

26 May

Thus in the divine dynasty of the Orphic theogony six generations are represented as having held in turn the supreme government of the Universe, Phanes, Night, Ouranos, Kronos, Zeus, Dionysos, and the command of the poet is fullfilled, that command which is expressed in one of the few precious lines attributed to Orpheus by Plato himself: “And in the sixth generation bring to a close the order of your song” (Philebos 66c).

Yet the story is not quite finished,  and in what follows we have the link between all these warrings in heaven, these seemingly domestic affairs of the Immortals, and our own religious life.  The most heinous part of the the Titan’s crime has still to be told.  When they had slain the infant Dionysos, they tasted of his flesh.  In wrath at the outrage Zeus launched a thunderbolt at them and burned them up, and from the smoking remnants of the Titans there rose a race which this age had not yet known , the race of mortal men.

The fragments do not allow us to form a coherent picture of creation accomplished by Phanes.  He made an eternal home for the gods and was their first king.  The lines describing the making of the sun and the moon (which is a world in the heavens containing “many mountains, many cities, many mansions (O.F. 91) must be referred to him.  There are men too in this age of Phanes (O.F. 94), but they are not of our race. As we shall see, all this belongs to a vanished era, and the men of Phanes’ time we are told, were men of the Golden Age.

Phanes bore a daughter, Night, whom he took as his partner and to whom he gave great power. She assisted him in the work of creation, and he handed over his sceptre to her, so that she became next in order of the rulers of the universe.  As a mark of the pre-eminent position which she afterwards to hold unchallenged, he gave her the gift of prophecy.  She gave her oracles from a cave, at the entrance to which was the dim and abstract Orphic goddess Adrasteria (the same as Ananke, Necessity) whose solemn business it was to make laws for the gods.

Night bore to Phanes Gaia and Ouranos (Earth and Heaven) who in turn were the parents of the Titans, Kronos, Rhea, Okeanos, Tethys and the rest.  To Ouranos Night handed over the supreme power.  There follow the common Greek stories about the Titans, the supremecy of Kronos, his mutilation of his father Ouranos (with the birth of Aphrodite), his marriage with Rhea, his swallowing of his children and the trick by which Rhea saved the life of Zeus and restored the others to the light of day.  The Kuretes appear as the guardians of Zeus.  In the Orphic version the unique position of Night is continually emphasized.  Each god who is destined to succeed to the supreme power in the Universe seems to owe something to her care.  In this generation ‘above all she tended Kronos, and cherished him’ (O.F. 129).

W.K.C.  Guthrie, M.A.  Orpheus and Greek Religion A Study of the Orphic Movement (Methuen & CO. LTD. London First Published 1935) pp.81-83

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