Skip to main content

Damascius-About The Orphic Theogonies

Late Roman statuette of Orpheus with the lyre, surrounded by beasts (4th century), from Aegina, now on display in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens). Picture by Ricardo André Frantz.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is about ‘The Orphic Rhapsodies’, from Damascius’ ‘Of First Principles’, Editions Verdier, 1987 French edition and translation by professor Marie-Claire Galperine. Page 630 to 635. Our working translation from the French.

One translation a day keeps sticky gloom away… 😊


The Greek Theogonies.

The ‘Orphic Rhapsodies’. How the philosophers usually interpret them.

In these ‘Orphic Rhapsodies’ that are commonly circulating, we find a sort of theogony dealing with the Intelligible; the philosophers interpret them in swapping Chronos in place of the Unique Principle of All Things, Ether and Chaos, in place of the couple of the dual principle; and in adding the egg in place of the ‘pure being’ (étant pur), they thus form the first triad.

In the second, the philosophers place the egg that is conceived and the egg that gives birth to the god; in other words, the ripping tunic or the mist because it is from them that Phanes is gushing forth. They interpret the mean-what ever its nature may be-sometimes in a manner, other times otherwise: one meaning like Intellect, another like Father and Might, even imagining other interpretations that do not fit Orpheus.

In the third triad, they see Metis as Intellect and Erikepaios as Might, and Phanes himself as Father. Perhaps we ought to ask the question of the intermediate triad according to the tri-morphic god, conceived but still in the egg. Because the mean represents always the two extremes taken together, as far as there is at the same time, the egg and the trimorphic god. We see that the egg is what is united whereas the tri-morphic god, truly polymorphic, is what is in a state of achieved differentiation within the Intelligible. As for the mean, if we see in it the egg, it is still united, but, if we see in it the god, it is already differentiated, and finally, if we speak of the All, it is the process of differentiation. This is the Orphic theology, in its usual interpretation.

PHANES by Francesco Salviati


The Orphic theology, as transmitted by Hieronymus of Rhodes or by Hellanikos of Lesbos.

The Orphic theology transmitted by Hieronymus of Rhodes or by Hellanikos of Lesbos is formulated like this: ‘At the beginning, they say, was water and the matter from which the earth became solid.’ In placing first these two principles, water and earth-one likely to disperse by nature and the other able to aggregate it and ensure its consistency- he leaves aside as ineffable the first principle, prior to the two and unfathomable.

As for the third principle, that is coming after the two, it was engendered from these two (I speak of water and earth). It is a dragon with two heads-One of a bull and one of a lion. In the middle the face of a god, and on the shoulders, wings. He received the name ‘Chronos-that-does-not-age’, and it is also Herakles. With him is Anagke (ανάγκε, necessity, also written Ananke), identical in nature to Adrasteia (Αδράστεια, distress), incorporeal, that stretches in the whole world and touches its extremes limits. I imagine that they understand by this the third principle, surviving under the mode of the essence, with this restriction that he made it male and female to indicate the generative cause of everything. And I think that the theology embedded in the ‘Rhapsodies’ has left aside the two following principles after the first one, anterior to them, transmitted by silence, and has started with the third principle that comes after the two first, because it is the first one to contain something that can be said about and that is at the measure to what men can fathom. This third principle truly is this ‘Chronos-that-does-not-age’, so revered in this theology, and father of Ether and Chaos. According to this theology, Chronos truly is this dragon that has been engendered, and that he tells us it is a threefold seed: the humid Ether, the unlimited Chaos, and, coming third after them, the nebulous Erebos (έρεβος, personification of darkness). It teaches (the theology) that it is this second triad, analog to the first one, dynamic when the first one was paternal. This is why the nebulous Erebos is the third part of the second triad, while its peak is the Ether, not the simple and pure one but the humid Ether. As for their intermediate part, it is accordingly, infinite Chaos. However, in them, as he says, Chronos engendered the egg. This tradition also makes of the engendered egg in them a child of Chronos, because it is from them that the third intelligible triad proceeds. What is it intrinsically?  It is the egg, the dyad of the two natures, male and female that are within it; that is the plurality of the seeds of all kind that are in the intermediate part; finally, the third part after them, is this incorporeal god, carrying on his shoulder golden wings, on his sides bull heads and on the head a gigantic dragon that looks like the many shapes of wild animals. We must conceive this god as the triad’s intellect; the medium part- the many as well as the ‘two’- we must see there Might; as for the egg itself, we must see there the paternal aspect of the third triad. The third god of the third triad, this theology celebrates under the name of Protogonos (πρωτόγονος, first born), and calls it Zeus that puts everything and the world into order. This is why he is also called Pan. These are the things this genealogy teaches us about the intelligible principles.

Orphic Egg in Jacob Bryant’s ‘Mythology’.

The theology transmitted by Eudemus, as originating from Orpheus. Homer and Hesiod.

The theology written by the peripatetic Eudemus, as originating from Orpheus, did not speak at all about the intelligible, taken as completely unfathomable for our means of knowledge that are discursive thinking and didactical presentation. It is from Night that he makes all things originate. It is from her that Homer also establishes a beginning, even though he did not compose a continuous genealogy. Because we cannot accept what Eudemus said, that is that Homer makes everything begin from Okeanos and Tethys. In fact, it seems that he knows that Night is the greatest of the gods, so great that even Zeus revers her.

Zeus shrank from doing a thing to outrage rushing Night

(Homer, Illiad, XIV-315-316- quoted verse is from Robert Fagles’s translation)

Zeus and Hera • 1827- by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841).

Let’s admit that Homer himself starts with Night. For Hesiod, it seems to me that in saying the Chaos was first, he called Chaos the unfathomable and completely merged nature that defines the intelligible. From there, he first produces the Earth, as a sort of principle of the whole generation of the gods, unless maybe he places Chaos as the second of the dual principles and Earth, Tartarus and Eros, the triple intelligible; placing Eros at the third position if we consider it according to conversion. Because Orpheus, himself, gives him this name in the ‘Rhapsodies’. Earth is put at the first place of the triad, as the one being first to have been composed in a certain solid and essential state. As for the Tartarus, it is at the intermediate place, as being already in a certain way moving towards differentiation.

The theology of Akousilaos the Historian, as transmitted by Eudemus.

Akousilaos seems to put Chaos as first principle, completely unfathomable, then the two principles coming after the first: Erebos, as male principle and Night as female principle. Night in place of Infinity and Erebos in place of limit. He says that, from their blending Ether, Eros and Metis were born, the three intelligible hypostasis. He makes Ether the peak, Eros the medium hypostasis, due to the intermediate function that belong to his nature; and, finally, he makes Metis the third hypostasis, according to the revered status that the intellect itself is already. According to Eudemus’ story, he produces further, besides these gods, a great number of other gods, all originating from the same principles.

The theology of Epimenides of Knossos.

Epimenides puts forward two first principles, Air and Night, and it is obvious that he honored with silence the first principle, anterior to the two others. It is from them, I think, that Tartarus was engendered, the third principle, similar to a certain mix originating from the blending of the two; some have called it the medium intelligible because it is bent towards the two, towards the peak and the inferior limit. From their mutual blend, the egg is born, that is truly the living intelligible of that level, and from which, in turn, another generation springs.

The theology of Pherecydes of Syros.

Pherecydes of Syros makes Zas, Chronos and Chthonia eternal and the three first principles, I mean principle number one followed by the two that come after the first. From its own seed, Chronos makes fire, breath and water. I think it is the triple nature of the intelligible. From these three principles, divided into five deep retreats, another generation of gods was established in turn-called generation of the five retreats- and perhaps it may be possible to say, the generation of the five worlds. Another occasion to speak about it will come, somehow.

How many principles are in the Greek myths and what are their nature?

We shall admit that I did indeed quite cover the subject.

But there are still many more to be further assessed.’

Marie-Claire Galperine

Today’s excerpt from Marie-Claire Galperine’s

Verdier French edition of Damascius’ original:

More about Damascius: 🌿 More about Marie-Claire Galperine: 🌿
Damascius-About The Orphic Theogonies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022