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by Archaeology Newsroom

Time and Its Fulfilment in Archaic Greece and the So-called Orphic Theogonies

To the linear view of time, characteristic of advanced, abstract and mathematical thought, is opposed a circular view, based on immediate life experience. The daily alternation of darkness and light, and the annual rotation of the seasons, in combination with the waxing and waning of the moon, produce an image of time as a cycle. This is the time of the living organism. The circular view of time implies order, rhythm and, what is more, rejuvenation. Such was the conception of time in Archaic Greece from Homer onwards. Since preclassical conscience does not sharply distinguish temporal sequence from temporal events occurring therein, time is regarded as qualified and differentiated. In Hesiod time is the regular succession of opportune and unfavourable hours and days. Such a succession is thought to be as natural as the coming-into-being and passing-away of every living thing. Death is the unavoidable end term of life in much the same way as, according to the splendid Homeric simile, wind casts down a trees leaves in autumn to let following spring bring new ones in their stead – the new generation. Circular time brings births, deaths, and new births. In the 6th century B.C. the idea that life may be punishment for some primordial crime first sprang to consciousness. Anaximander’s sole surviving fragment testifies to the emergence of the idea. Its development is traditionally ascribed to the kindred movements of the so-called Orphics and the Pythagoreans. Both reversed the Homeric relation of body to sou! and thought that the true self resides in the soul. But the Pythagoreans also conducted scientific enquiries concerning the mathematical structure of the world at large. It is reported that Pythagoras defined time as the sphere of the container. As he is said to have ascribed temporal sequence to the movements of the heavenly bodies, Pythagoras can be seen as codifying and translating into the language of science an Archaic experience. It is no accident that in the middle of the 6th century B.C. the younger contemporary of Anaximander’s and reported teacher of Pythagoras, Pherecydes of Syros, composed his mixed theogony. There we find Time. Zeus and Earth to be the sole ungenerated deities. The idea that Time (with or without Necessity as his consort) is a primordial god, reappears in later Orphic theogonies. After the discovery of the Derveni papyrus in 1962. these Hellenistic compositions can be safely assumed to draw on classical models. It is not unlikely that deified Time appeared at the first stages of Orphic succession myths as early as the 5th century B.C.. The gold lamellae from South Italy. Crete and Thessafy and the bone tablets from Olbia (dating from the end of the 5th to the middle of the 4th centuries B.C.), show an astonishing preoccupation with blissful afterlife considered to be the gift of Dionysus, Persephone, or both This epigraphical evidence has been rightly associated with Dionysian initiation and Orphic mysteries. In some cases, the idea of a transmigrating soul is also manifested. The stated goal of the Orphic initiate is his or her exit from the depressing temporal cycle of births and deaths governed by Necessity. We may perhaps combine the circular view of time implied in the theory of compulsive metempsychosis with the divine couple of Time and Necessity that we find in a late version of Orphic theogony If that is correct, we may conclude that the liberated soul of the Orphic initiate escapes the order constituted at the very beginning of world formation, and reaches the original undifferentiated state, without losing his or her personal consciousness – an impossibility in the natural, and Homeric, order of things.