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Andrew Michael Ramsay-‘About Orpheus’ From His ‘Discourse Upon The Mythology Of The Ancients’

1729 headpiece from the printer François l’Honoré in Amsterdam. Engraving by Bernard Picart.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Andrew Michael Ramsay’s,  ‘A discourse upon the theology & mythology of the Ancients‘, first published in Paris in 1727 and then published in London in 1728. Besides the seminal review of Ramsay’s views upon mythology, this text it is a gold mine for quotes by ancient philosophers and scholars!


🌿From the 1728 English version

We must however distinguish between the Gods of the Poets and those of the Philosophers. Poetry deifies all the various parts of nature, and gives spirit to bodies, as well as body to spirits: It expresses the operations and properties of matter by the actions and passions of such invisible powers, as the Pagans supposed to be directors of all the motions and events that we fee in the universe.

The Poets pass in a moment from allegory to the literal sense, and from the literal sense to allegory; from real Gods to fabulous Deities; and this occasions that jumble of their images, that absurdity in their fictions, and that indecorum in their expressions, which are so justly condemned by the Philosophers. Notwithstanding this multiplication of inferior Deities, these Poets however acknowledged, that there was but one only supreme God. This will appear from the very ancient traditions which we still have of the philosophy of Orpheus. I am far from thinking that Orpheus was the author of those works which go under his name: I believe with the famous Grotius, that those books were wrote by the Pythagoreans, who professed themselves disciples of Orpheus: But whoever were the authors of these writings, it is certain that they are older than Herodotus and Plato, and were in great esteem among the Heathens; so that by the fragments of them still preserved, we may form a judgment of the ancient Theology of the Greeks. I shall begin with the abridgment which Timotheus the Cosmographer gives us of the doctrine of Orpheus This abridgment is preserved in Suidas, Cedrenus and Eufebius.

There is one unknown Being exalted above and prior to all beings, the author of all things, even of the aether, and of everything that is below the aether: This exalted Being is Life, Light and Wisdom ; which three names express only one and the fame Power, which drew all beings, visible and invisible, out of nothing.”

It appears by this passage, that the doctrine of the creation, (or the production of substances) and that of the three forms of the Divinity were not unknown to the heathen Philosophers: We shall soon find them in Plato. Proclus has transmitted down to us this extraordinary passage of the Theology of Orpheus .

The universe was produced by Jupiter, the empyraeum, the deep Tartarus, the earth, and the ocean, the immortal Gods and God defies; all that is, all that has been, and all that shall be, was contained originally in the fruitful bosom of Jupiter. Jupiter is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. All beings derive their origin from him. He is the primitive Father and the immortal Virgin. He is the Life, the Cause, and the Energy of all things. There is but one only Power, one only ‘God, and one sole universal King of all.”

This passage seems to insinuate, that the universe is a substantial emanation from the divine Essence, and not a mere effect of his Power; however, this gross error is no proof of Atheism in him who maintains it, as we shall fee hereafter. I shall conclude the Theology of Orpheus with a famous passage of the author of the Argonautica, who is looked upon to be a disciple of his:

We will sing first an hymn upon the ancient chaos; how the heavens, the sea, and the earth were formed out of it. We will sing likewise that eternal, wise, and self-perfect love, which reduced this chaos into order.”


🌿From the 1727 French Edition

Il faut distinguer les Dieux des Poëtes d’avec ceux des Philosophes. La Poësie divinise toutes les différentes parties de la Nature, & donne tour à tour de l’esprit au corps, & du corps aux Esprits. Elle exprime les operations & les proprietez de la matiere par les actions & les passions des Puissances invisibles, que les Payens supposoient conductrices de tous les mouvemens & de tous les évenemens qu’on voit dans l’univers. Les Poëtes passent subitement de l’allegorie au sens litteral, & du sens litteral à l’allegorie, des Dieux réels aux Dieux fabuleux ; c’est ce qui cause le mélange de leurs images, l’absurdité de leurs fictions, & l’indécence de leurs expressions justement condamnées par les Philosophes.

Malgré cette multiplicité de Dieux subalternes, ces Poëtes reconnoissoient cependant qu’il n’y avoit qu’une seule Divinité suprême ; c’est ce que nous allons voir dans les très-anciennes Traditions qui nous restent de la Philosophie d’Orphée. Je suis bien éloigné de vouloir attribuer à ce Poëte les Ouvrages qui portent son nom. Je crois avec le celebre Grotius que les Pythagoriciens qui reconnoissoient Orphée pour leur maître, sont les Auteurs de ces Livres. Quoi qu’il en soit, comme ces Ecrits sont plus anciens qu’Herodote & Platon, & qu’ils étoient fort estimés parmi les Payens, nous pouvons juger par les fragmens qui nous en restent de l’ancienne Theologie des Grecs.

Voici l’abregé que fait Timothée Cosmographe de la doctrine d’Orphée ; cet abregé nous a été conservé dans Suidas,[16] Cedrenus,[17] & Eusebe.

« Il y a un Etre inconnu, qui est le plus élevé & le plus ancien de tous les Etres, & le Producteur de toutes choses, même de l’Ether, & de tout ce qui est au-dessous de l’Ether. Cet Etre sublime est Vie, Lumiere, Sagesse ; ces trois noms marquent la même & unique Puissance qui a tiré du néant tous les Etres visibles & invisibles. »

Il paroît par ce passage que l’idée de la création, c’est-à-dire de la production des substances, n’étoit pas inconnue aux Philosophes Payens ; nous la trouverons bien-tôt dans Platon. Proclus nous a conservé encore ce merveilleux passage de la Theologie d’Orphée [18]:

« L’univers a été produit par Jupiter. L’Empyrée, le profond Tartare, la Terre & l’Ocean, les Dieux immortels & les Déesses, tout ce qui est, tout ce qui a été, tout ce qui sera, étoit contenu originairement dans le sein fécond de Jupiter, & en est sorti. Jupiter est le premier & le dernier, le commencement & la fin. Tous les Etres émanent de lui. Il est le Pere primitif, & la Vierge immortelle. Il est la vie, la cause & la force de toutes choses. Il n’y a qu’une seule Puissance, un seul Dieu, & un seul Roy universel de tout. »

Je finis la Théologie d’Orphée par ce passage fameux de l’Auteur des Argonautiques, qui a suivi la doctrine d’Orphée[19]:

« Nous chanterons d’abord un hymne sur l’ancien Cahos ; comment le ciel, la mer & la terre en furent formez. Nous chanterons aussi l’Amour parfait, sage & éternel, qui a débroüillé ce Cahos. »


16.Suidas de Orph. p. 350.

17.Cedrenus, p. 47.

18.Proclus de Timæo p. 95.

19.Argon. Steph. p. 71. Edit. Fugger. an. 1566.

A later French edition of both the “Travels of Cyrus’ and the ‘Discourse upon the theology & mythology of the Ancients.


More about Andrew Michael Ramsay:🌿 French text source:
Andrew Michael Ramsay-‘About Orpheus’ From His ‘Discourse Upon The Mythology Of The Ancients’

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