Monday, May 01, 2006

Orpheos Bakkikos

Nathan Bauman, who writes the blog Seoul Hero, has helpfully provided information linking Orpheus to Christ in what looks like an image syncretizing Christianity and Orphism. I've borrowed this image from Nathan's old blog, Nathan's Updates from Seoul.

This image has recently been made famous by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, who wrote The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (Three Rivers Press, 2001). On page 52, they write:
From the same period [i.e., 2nd-3rd centuries A.D.] comes the remarkable talisman which shows a crucified figure immediately recognizable as Jesus but who is actually Osiris-Dionysus (see front cover and plate 6). The inscription under this figure reads "Orpheus-Bakkikos," which means "Orpheus becomes a Bacchoi." Orpheus was a great legendary prophet of Dionysus who was so respected that he was often regarded as the godman himself. A Bacchoi was an enlightened disciple of Dionysus who had become completely identified with the god. The talisman , therefore, represents Dionysus dying by crucifixion, symbolizing the initiate's mystical death to his lower nature and rebirth as a god.
I haven't read this book, though I've read scholarly critiques of it that convince me of the wrongheadedness of its thesis, which (if I recall) states that Jesus never existed but is merely a figure constructed out of pagan myths. They point to the image above as evidence for this thesis because this crucifixion scene, an obviously pagan one, predates crucifixion scenes depicting Jesus on the cross.

This argument looks flawed to me since we have the literary evidence from the first century gospels for the crucifixion of Jesus. Freke and Gandy would need to find pre-Christian evidence of Orpheus being crucified for their argument to work.

However, the link to Dionysus (= Bacchus) is interesting, and is also made by Wikipedia:
According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus's lost play Bassarids, Orpheus at the end of his life disdained the worship of all gods save the sun, whom he called Apollo. One early morning he ascended Mount Pangaion (where Dionysus had an oracle) to salute his god at dawn, but was torn to death by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron, Dionysus. Here his death is analogous with the death of Dionysus, to whom therefore he functioned as both priest and avatar.
I wouldn't trust either The Jesus Mysteries or Wikipedia very far, but if Orpheus did come to be considered Dionysus in one of his guises, then the crucifixion image above would show a link between Dionysus and Jesus from around the same time as the "second-century bronze statuette of Dionysus, with the text of Psalms 28:3 engraved in Greek capitals around the waist," which I commented upon in yesterday's post.

But if I interpret the image more cautiously, then I'd say that it shows Orpheus, but not necessarily Dionysus, as Jesus. Or does it show Orpheus as a martyr for Dionysus in much the same way that a crucified Christian would become a martyr for Christ? Interpreting images is never so straightforward.

At the very least, however, the image shows yet another example of one religion borrowing imagery from another religion, which I yesterday noted had occurred in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity as an "aggressive Teutonic warrior becomes the Christ who charges into battle in mounting the cross for his own crucifixion in The Dream of the Rood."

Which reminds one of the 'crucifixion' of Odin...

UPDATE: Thanks to Ian Myles Slater, I now know of the scholarly consensus that this 'amulet' is a forgery. See comments for details.


At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I now realize why I never made a career in epigraphy! When I wrote the original post, I somehow overlooked the bottom kappa on the left, and I failed to see the iota hiding in the crease on the right. Anyway, I'm glad you found that image interesting.

I'd be the first to agree with you about the conclusion that Jesus never existed. I would love to know more about this artefact, which seems on the surface to show an influence of either Christianity on Greek religion, or the other way around. Meanwhile, thanks to your post, I know a little more already.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If I had more time, I'd do a better search for material on this image and on the link between Dionysus and Christ, but time is short...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:40 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

As amusingly pointed out by James Patrick Holding, at,* the object in question has long been seen as a forgery; and was brought forward in either full knowledge or with egregious disregard for actually reading the "authoritative source" from which it was derived.

I would have to agree that, if accepted as genuine, it would be mostly an interesting example of either syncretism or an in-the-workshop error of identification, as has been suggested for some labels of characters on Athenian vases.


At 12:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, you seem to be correct. This 'amulet' is a forgery. Thanks for that alert.

I've managed to locate a scholarly text, Orpheus and Greek Religion (W. K. C. Guthrie), that clearly notes that this 'amulet' is forged.

For a 1993 reprint of Orpheus and Greek Religion (London: Methuen, 1952), by William Keith Chambers Guthrie, go to Amazon, where you can search inside the book.

On pages 265-266, Guthrie provides an illustration of this Orpheus image and observes concerning this 'amulet' or 'seal-cylinder,' that R. Eisler argues for "a purely pagan origin for the design" (265). Guthrie, however, voices some scepticism (266).

Guthrie's scepticism appears to have been warranted, for on page 278, he adds a later citation to Otto Kern, a German expert on Orpheus:

"In his review of this book in Gnomon, 1935, 476, [Otto] Kern recants and expresses himself convinced by the expert opinion of J. Reil and R. Zahn ('Aggelos, Arch. f. neutest. Zeitgesch. und Kulturkunde, 1926, 62 ff.) that the ORPHEOC BAKKIKOC gem is a forgery" (p. 278).

That pretty much settles the issue for me.

My sole remaining question is why Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy saw fit to put the image of a known forgery on the cover of their book, as if it were evidence for a myth of the 'crucifixion' of Orpheus (or Dionysus).

Answer: They're either ignorant or deceptive.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:11 PM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...


Did they ever explain how they know the amulet was faked? Did they mention when it was done, in the manner, and by whom?

Chris Weimer

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Chris, Guthrie doesn't give the arguments (and I've just again clicked on Amazon and used the search-inside-the-book function).

I'd suggest that you get Kern's review of Guthrie's book in Gnomon, 1935, 476, where he declares himself convinced by the expert opinion of J. Reil and R. Zahn in their work 'Aggelos, Arch. f. neutest. Zeitgesch. und Kulturkunde, 1926, 62 ff., or that you get Reil and Zahn's work yourself and read them firsthand (and the term 'Aggelos is written in Greek script, by the way).

I don't have much access to such things here in Korea, or I'd check these myself.

Of course, you could ask online at one of the scholarly listserves.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:46 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

If you want to buy something, you might be inclined to spread the word that it's a forgery. If you want to sell something, you're going to take great pride in its fascinating history and pellucid provenance.

I have an object in my house that I have shown on separate occasions to two friends, an art dealer who prides himself in his ability to discern hidden values and a restorer, a former employee of Sutheby's. One says it's a fake. The other says it only looks like a fake because it's well-preserved. Neither is willing to explain how they "know".

What I was wondering to myself is whether this artifact might actually be Christian in origin. During certain periods it may have been wise to disguise such a fact by means of disinformative labeling.

At any rate, it's certainly a very interesting item.

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Sir G said...

Hello Jeffrey

There was an ancient cult in Greece known as the orphic religion (it is well known and discussed in many places, Russell's history of Western Philiosophy immediately comes to mind), of which Plato (and apparently Socrates) were followers. it has been suggested (it will take me little time to dig up the reference, but i will be happy to oblige) that much of he theological departure (that is those things which are different) between early Xianity and Judaism are due to the fact that Paul (who may have been an orphic in his earlier life) imported some orphic ideas into his preaching (such as "dominions"). Later generations of Xians read Plato with amazement and said: wow, this man has guessed so much Xianity! What they didnt realize is that Plato influenced Xianity (or perhaps Xianity and Plato fed from the same common orphic source). so perhaps this is not so surprising that someone might want to assimilate orpheus (a self-sacrificing figure who rises to an eternal life after death) to the figure of Xst. this completely aside from the Q whether this particular item is or is not forgery.

another interesting point is that the piece is "regarded as forgery", not proven to be one. unlike painting in which we can C14-date the paint, for example, or coinage, in which we can essay the gold for purity to see whether it is old or not, stone is stone and we can date neither it nor the stone cutting technique.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Sir G said...

PS as i am not born again, i have no stake in the opinion whether Jesus existed or not, but see no reason to doubt His existence. that anyone doubts it seems a little silly, does anyone doubt the existence of Buddha or Confucius or Socrates? or Scipio Africanus? i think the whole debate it designed just to irriatate people and the right response is to ignore it.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, I should probably have declined to express an opinion since I haven't seen the German scholars' arguments against the object's authenticity. I was a bit too quick on that, but my thinking was that if Kern had been convinced, then the arguments against authenticity must be powerful.

Gawain, I haven't seen arguments for Paul having been an Orphic earlier in his life, but I can't say that I see much evidence for it (not that I've looked). I'd concede that some of his soteriological language about how Christ saves believers may have been drawn from the mystery religions, for he does talk about "mysteries" -- but, again, I haven't studied this material.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:13 PM, Blogger Sir G said...

well, it's not something one can (or wants to) debate about (like Christ's non-existence), really, it's neither here nor there. there are intresting and well argued opinions to this effect out there, which to me seem quite convincing, but, like the fraudulence of the crucified orpheus, the exact nature of truth is indeterminate. let me know if you want the reference and i will look for it. br

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a new article around with a fresh perspective. Found via FRDB:



Quite interesting actually. All theories until now, which claimed that it's a forgery, are based on completely unscientific premises. Has anyone read the article by Mastrocinque?

At 6:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous. People may find the article (whether English or German) useful.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is there any historical evidence that Jesus existed as a real person outside of the fictional accounts of the Bible? The Catholic church knew that this was a problem and so fabricated a phony Josephus account a thousand years later. A well known forgery. Why would they go to all that trouble? He was given the birth date of a Sun God over 300 years after his death. Before that there had been numerous birth dates assigned to him. You would think that if Jesus had been a real person that early Christians would have had some kind of clue as to when he was born. And what did Paul know about Jesus? Did he ever mention a virgin birth or any of that stuff? The miraculous things attributed to Jesus would have surely been part of historical record had he been real. There is no evidence that he existed as a real person. You may want to take a look at this discussion group:


At 1:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I'm not interested, but I'll leave the link up in case anybody else takes an interest.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:26 AM, Blogger Clayton Veno said...

The only one I see who is either lying or deceptive is YOU! Reil Zahn and Masers claim that the Orpheos Bakkikos is "forgery" was later refuted and debunked by Francesco Carlotta IN THIS

At 2:30 AM, Blogger Clayton Veno said...

And of course you wouldn't check the wheres Jesus link because you are a biased "scholar" and a fraud.

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Don't you mean I'm either "either ignorant or deceptive"? I plead ignorance, if I'm wrong.

By the way, here's your link. I've made it easier of access.

However, my interests are far removed from this issue these days, so I have nothing more to say on it.

Finally, if you cannot address me with courtesy, your comments will be deleted.

Jeffery Hodges

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