Hello bright readers. I come to you this month bearing a short essay, another in our loose series looking at initiation and its intrinsic paradoxes. Nice to have you along.

Since the last letter, I released a piece of ambient music that I recorded over the winter called Music For Settled Work, which you can download from Bandcamp for free. I hope you enjoy the unhurried sounds. In fact, they might not make for bad company while reading this letter.

With that we depart for unseen country, to the shadowy house of Hades and the inky meadow of sleep. We begin, fittingly, with a bit of ancient esoteric funerary custom. Down we go.

A bronze and gold form, rendered in a few strokes of paint, stands against a slate gray background. What does the form resemble? A canyon carved by flowing water into banded sandstone. An arch of living rock. A strange topography.

Image by Michelle Lynn Dyrness

Upon dying, an initiate into the so-called Orphic mysteries of classical antiquity was buried or cremated like anyone else, but not without provisions. She was given instructions, inscribed on thin gold leaf, for what to do and say when she reached the underworld.1 Bereft of her bodily vessel, she might find herself in need of direction.

There in the murky province of Hades, the instructions read, she will find two springs. The first spring, on the left and crowded with thirsty masses, she is cautioned to avoid. This presumably refers to Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, which Plato describes at the end of the Republic as the river from which souls on their way to birth are required to drink, and in so doing forget their heavenly origin. Here, upon dying, they will no doubt forget their earthly life as well. Let them drink; she is wise to walk on.

The second is called Mnemosyne, pouring forth cool from the Lake of Memory. There before it stands a pair of guards, to which she is to say:

I am parched with thirst and am dying; but grant me to drink
from the ever-flowing spring on the right, where the cypress is.

Who are you? Where are you from? they will ask.

I am a daughter of Earth and starry Sky.2

This is the water of recollection. If she drinks from it, we might imagine, she will recall not only her earthly life but also her preceding heavenly origin. To be permitted to drink, however, she must declare as much: I am daughter of Earth and starry Sky. That is to say she understands her composite nature as part human and part divine, and remembers the primordial wholeness that preceded her birth. She must already have discovered in life what she is to learn in death. It is a plain paradox — like that entailed in Jung’s principle of individuation — between forward and backward movement. Or in the labyrinth, where we find at the center the very thing that led us there.3

Indeed, in another instance, the initiate is instructed to declare:

I have flown out of the heavy, difficult circle,
I have approached the longed-for crown with swift feet.4

Most scholars agree that this heavy, difficult circle refers to the passage of souls from one body to another in a great cycle of death and reincarnation — a distinctly sorrowful alternation in the Orphic view, and therefore one to escape. To approach the longed-for crown is to do just that.5 But can we also detect in this image an echo of the knotted halls of the labyrinth? Or the wheel-eye of the Cyclops? The crown begins then to resemble that charged emptiness at the center of the mandala, the dark mirror of the pupil.

At night, when each of us lays down to depart for a murky province of our own, we are for a time bereft of our bodily vessel. We are, like the initiate, in need of some direction. The longed-for crown might resolve luminous from the darkness as a point to approach, but we find that we must already possess what we seek in order to reach it. The opposites coincide in both approach and the image approached — a paradox, but also a compelling harmony of tensions. Our task is not to reconcile the opposites then and there, like a hero might be inclined to attempt, but to humbly carry the memory back with us. Inscribed in the gold leaf is a final assurance:

And they themselves will grant you to drink from the sacred spring.6

As the initiate crouches to drink, her reflection dances on the restless surface. She cups her hands to form an empty vessel, which she lowers and submerges in the cold water, and bears it back to the mouth.

Thank you for reading along with this May chapter of Polylith. The image that accompanies it above, detail from a gouache sketch, comes courtesy of my friend and fellow wonderer Michelle Lynn Dyrness. Do check out her superb work, which threads similarly multivalent lines as these writings aspire to.

If you enjoy these letters, pass one on to a friend. Here, these arcane ramblings made me think of you. Word-of-mouth is exactly their mode of transmission. And as ever, correspondence of all kinds is welcome. Reply to this email, slip a riddling scrap of papyrus under my door, or stop by the garden for a cup of tea.

Until next month, do well to avoid the thirsty masses.

  1. The examples of these instructions that survive to us comprise a collection of short texts known as the Orphic Gold Tablets. There is much scholarly debate about whether we can rightly call these texts ‘Orphic’, and in fact whether anything we could call ‘Orphic mysteries’ ever really existed, exactly, but that is well beside our purpose here. See W.K.C. Guthrie’s excellent Orpheus and Greek Religion for a thorough discussion. 

  2. From an Orphic gold tablet, ca 200 BCE, found near Mylopatamos, Crete. The lunate tablet likely covered the initiate’s mouth. This and following inscriptions are translated by Sarah Iles Johnson and quoted in Ritual Texts for the Afterlife, co-authored with Fritz Graf. 

  3. As Heraclitus, our dark virtuoso of paradox, reminds us, ‘men do not know that what is at variance agrees with itself’. Fragment 45, translated by Guthrie. 

  4. From a tablet, ca 400 BCE, found folded in the initiate’s right hand in a tumulus at Thurii, Italy. 

  5. See Johnston’s ‘Eschatology’ chapter in Ritual Texts for more on an Orphic escape from the cycle of reincarnation. 

  6. From a tablet, ca 400 BCE, said to have been found in a grave at Petelia, Italy.