On the Trail of Orphic Mysteries in Bulgaria

The Secrets May Be Forgotten but Intriguing Clues Remain

I must be a bit taller than Orpheus. As I attempted to lie down in his reputed tomb, I just could not quite fit. Even if I had taken off my shoes and pressed my bare soles against the end of the cutout rock, my head would still not fit flat in the cavity. At the time, the early evening of July 29, 2014, I was filled with exuberant excitement as we were on the quest for new (and rediscovered) knowledge. And besides, why not have some fun along the way? Only later did the potential importance of this somewhat nondescript stone crypt sink in. Could it really be the final resting place of the legendary, well-nigh mythical, Orpheus—the musician and poet, prophet and seer, founder of the Orphic Mysteries, reformer of the teachings of Dionysus—as some, including the Bulgarian archaeologist and researcher Nikolay Ovcharov (see his book, Chronicle of the Holy City of Perperikon, Sofia, 2005, p. 44), have suggested?

I was in southern Bulgaria (a region that was a part of ancient Thrace), in the Rhodope Mountains, spending a week undertaking a reconnaissance exploration of various ancient sites with my colleagues Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy in conjunction with Maria Salabasheva and Dimitar Moskovsky from Bulgaria and a Bulgarian National Television (BNT) two-person film crew. In particular we were working in the region southeast of Plovdiv, which, with a population of over 340,000, is the second largest city in Bulgaria (the largest is the capital, Sofia).

Plovdiv is a very ancient city indeed; its origins have been traced back some 6,000 years, and could be much earlier. Known in Greco-Roman times as Philippopolis, in honor of Philip II of Macedon who conquered the city in 342–341 BC, this was the cosmopolitan center of an important religious cult celebrating and venerating Dionysus and Orpheus. On coins of the city issued during the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled AD 138–161), Dionysus is depicted with his customary attributes. In his right hand he holds a kantharos—a two-handled vessel used for drinking—as Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, wine, and the religious ecstasy that could be induced by ritual drinking. With his left hand he supports a thyrsus (thyrsos), a staff or long wand tied with ribbons and topped with a pinecone. Carried by celebrants and followers of Dionysus-Bacchus, particularly the female members of his retinue known as the Maenads (who, in an intoxicated frenzy would dance ecstatically), one interpretation of the thyrsus is that of a phallic symbol. The pinecone represents the head from which the seed issues forth; thus it is a potent fertility symbol signifying life and rebirth. From this primordial meaning, the thyrsus more generally came to stand for prosperity, pleasure, enjoyment of life, and even downright hedonism—all attributes associated with the classical Dionysus-Bacchus.

Perhaps as a counterbalance to the themes advertised on the coins depicting Dionysus, which are rather frenetic and chaotic by nature, Philippopolis simultaneously issued coins depicting the goddess and personification Homonoia (sometimes equated with Harmonia/Concordia; the goddess of harmony and concord) representing order and unity. Homonoia is depicted holding a patera in her right hand, used for libations to the gods, and a cornucopia—the horn of plenty, a very ancient symbol of abundance—in her left arm. It seems that with the coins of Homonoia the authorities were stating clearly that honoring the gods via proper, calm, sanctimonious rituals would result in harmony and abundance, even as they acknowledged the ecstatic cult of Dionysus, which ultimately had the same goals of fertility and plenty, with the coins they issued depicting the wine god. In this case it was not two sides of the same coin, as the saying goes, but rather two coins depicting different means to the same outcome: prosperity and good living.

Under the influence and reforms of Orpheus, the cult of Dionysus came to represent much more than simply fertility, abundance, and pleasure in this life. The concepts of immortality and the prospect of a future existence beyond this life were introduced. This brings us to the next level of analysis of the Dionysus-based cult, including the role of Orpheus and what have since become known as the Orphic Mysteries. To explore these we must leave the bustling city of modern Plovdiv and its Greco-Roman antecedents.

The original center of the cult of Dionysus was located at the now abandoned site known as Perperikon approximately 50 miles to the southeast of Plovdiv. Other important sites in this context include Belintash (Belantash), about 25 miles to the northwest of Perperikon (approximately midway between Plovdiv and Perperikon), and Tatul, located approximately 13 miles south of Perperikon.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) the sanctuary of Dionysus was located in the Rhodopes of Thrace. Here was housed the oracle of Dionysus-Zagreus (we will come back to Zagreus in due course), similar to that of Apollo at Delphi, famous throughout the ancient world. The Dionysian oracle, the location of which was lost for centuries, has now been identified (although admittedly not all scholars agree) at the site of Perperikon, a bustling mountaintop city in ancient and medieval times. As interpreted and reconstructed by modern archaeologists and historians, the inner sanctum of the sanctuary of Dionysus consisted of a large, oval hall open to the sky in the center of which was situated a huge stone altar. On the altar a fire burned; during oracular consultations wine libations were poured onto the altar and fire. The oracle consisted of interpreting the form and strength of the flame—the nature it took and the height to which it rose. Priests attended to the sanctuary and rituals. Interpretations were carried out through the intermediary of a prophetess in a possibly wine- or drug-induced ecstatic state.

Legend has it that Alexander (356–323 BC), the young King of Macedon (son and heir of Philip II), consulted the Thracian oracle of Dionysus in the winter of 334 BC as he was marching with his army to cross the Dardanelles and enter Asia to engage the Persians. The height of the flame on the altar was unprecedented, foretelling the glorious victories that Alexander would experience over the next decade as he set off to conquer much of the known world, having already brought the Balkans under his control. Carved in the bedrock near the altar of Dionysus at Perperikon is an ancient seat with footrest that is known as “Alexander’s Throne.”

Nearly three centuries after Alexander’s visit, the Roman Governor of Macedonia, Gaius Octavius (circa 100–59 BC), consulted the oracle concerning his young son, born in 63 BC. The Roman historian Suetonius (late first or early second century AD), in his Lives of the Caesars (also known as The Twelve Caesars), recounted that as the wine was poured on the altar, the flame “rose above the temple roof and mounted to the very sky, and such an omen had befallen no one save Alexander the Great, when he offered sacrifice at the same altar [and] the flame lept to the sky” (John Carew Rolfe. Suetonius. 1914, Vol. 1, p. 267). A new king of Rome, a new ruler of the world, was thus prophesied. And who was this young child, of which the oracle foretold great things? None other than Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus (the name and title he was given by the Roman Senate in 27 BC) who, upon defeating Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BC, emerged as the sole victor of the civil wars that rocked the late Roman Republic, thus becoming the first Roman Emperor (reigning until his death in AD 14). When Gaius Octavius consulted the oracle, there was no rational reason to believe that Octavian would rise to such heights. Yes, his grandmother was the sister of Julius Caesar, but at the time Caesar’s political career was just beginning and few would have dared predict that he would become dictator before being assassinated in 44 BC. If there is indeed truth to the story of Gaius Octavius and his consultation of the oracle of Dionysus, this was a powerful and unexpected prognostication.

Closely associated with Dionysus were Orpheus and Zagreus. Orpheus was a renowned poet and musician, singing and playing the lyre. It is said that he could charm all living things, and even inanimate objects such as stones, with the beauty of his music. He was also a philosopher and prophet, founder of the Orphic Mysteries (Orphism) which centered in large part on a reformation of the rituals surrounding the cult of Dionysus. Zagreus is a rather obscure god who has been associated with, or even equated with, Dionysus, especially in connection with Orphism. Yet Zagreus was of a very different nature, in some ways, from the classical Dionysus. He was possibly connected with caves, the nocturnal and dark, and the Underworld. He was sometimes linked with Hades (Pluto), being considered the latter’s son. Zagreus is also seen as a hunter, but one who captured his prey alive, such as in a pit. Why live capture? Certainly not out of compassion for the hunted, as the rest of the story ties in with primitive Dionysian rituals where small, live animals were torn limb from limb and their flesh consumed warm and raw—arguably a holdover from incredibly ancient prehistoric practices. Perhaps Zagreus should be regarded as the dark side of the festive Greco-Roman character Dionysus.

Orpheus, who could charm all creatures with his songs, was said to have humanized and civilized the Dionysian beliefs and practices. Orpheus did his best to persuade the followers of Dionysus to forgo their orgies and bloody sacrifices, and as part of his reforms he introduced the Orphic Mysteries, often hailed as the first of the mystery religions of ancient Greece. According to scholar of the esoteric Joscelyn Godwin, “The purpose of these, as far as we can tell, was to transmit some kind of direct knowledge that was helpful in facing the prospect of death” (Rosicrucian Digest, no. 1, 2008, p. 49; reprinted from his book, The Golden Thread, 2007). In this context, it is important to take notice of the myths surrounding Orpheus involving his journey to the Underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, and restore her to the living (in some versions of the myth Orpheus is tragically unsuccessful in this attempt). One of the often recounted myths involving Dionysus-Zagreus, which has been considered central to Orphism, is that as a child Dionysus was dismembered and eaten by the Titans, but his heart was saved by Athena and, through the power of Zeus, Dionysus-Zagreus was reborn. Furthermore, in anger Zeus destroyed the Titans, burning them with lightning, but from their ashes humankind was born. This myth has been interpreted as introducing the doctrine of rebirth, resurrection, and immortality (or at least the potential, depending on actions in this life), and also the concept that all of humanity contains a divine spark (from the god Dionysus) even if the soul is embedded in a gross material body (from the Titans). Here we have the basic elements of the doctrines of so many “mystery religions,” including arguably Christianity. There is one potential problem with this myth: It may be primarily an inaccurate late nineteenth-century reconstruction rather than a genuine ancient myth (see: Radcliffe Edmonds, “Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth”, Classical Antiquity, April 1999).

But there is more to the story of Orpheus-Dionysus-Zagreus. In one myth, Orpheus the reformer of the Dionysian rituals was ultimately physically torn apart by angry Maenads (recall the dismemberment of Dionysus, and the animal dismemberments associated with Zagreus) who felt he was not honoring Dionysus properly. Thus Orpheus became a reformer and savior who died for his cause, not unlike the Jesus of the early Christians. A carved stone amulet of the third or fourth century AD depicts Orpheus crucified on a cross, apparently in analogy to the crucifixion of the Christian Jesus.

As demonstrated by the myths, Orpheus and Orphism are very closely associated with Dionysus, and in particular Dionysus-Zagreus, to the point that sometimes Orpheus is viewed as an incarnation of Dionysus.

The possible tomb of Orpheus is located at Tatul, south of Perperikon. Ancient joint festivals and processions were probably carried out between the two sanctuaries. At Tatul are two ancient tombs hewn from the living bedrock at the highest level of the natural rock outcropping. This is a rare and unusual placement for tombs, which was reserved only for the most important leaders and personages. Two Thracian nobles were buried this way—Orpheus and Rhesus. Rhesus was a Thracian king who sided with the Trojans during the Trojan War. One legend has it that his mother was one of the Greek Muses, his father was the river god Strymon, and he was raised by water nymphs. Rhesus, the king and warrior, may have taken the tomb cut into the side of the summit under an arch, while that of Orpheus is the one on the very top, which when open faces the heavens.

Northwest of Tatul and Perperikon is found another ancient sanctuary known as Belintash. Today it is a stark rock mountaintop composed of weathered igneous rock. Little evidence of ancient activities at Belintash remains other than pottery shards and various miscellaneous artifacts collected by archaeologists, along with holes for posts and other carvings in the bedrock. The structures that must have once graced the site are long gone. Important to our present theme is a silver votive plate dating to Roman times (or possibly earlier) that was found here bearing the representation of Dionysus-Sabazius (Ivan Hristov, Sanctuaries of the Anciant [sic] Thracians in the Rhodopes, 2009, p. 92).

Sabazios (Sabazius) is another enigmatic god, possibly of local Thracian origin, who took the form of both a nomadic horseman and a sky father. He has been equated with Zeus as well as Dionysus (and in the latter connection, has been associated with Perperikon) and in turn with Zagreus through Dionysus. There is evidence that the followers of Sabazios introduced their god to Anatolia (modern Turkey) during their travels to Asia, forming links between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Some Greco-Roman writers, such as Plutarch (circa AD 46–120) apparently misinterpreted the Jewish Sabbath as a festival in honor of Sabazios, and thus connected Judaism with the worship of Dionysus. As mistaken as this may be, it is curious that Orphism, an outgrowth of Dionysian rituals and beliefs, has often been interpreted as sharing many parallels with Christianity. Christianity, of course, is explicitly an outgrowth of Judaism. Perhaps in connecting Judaism with Dionysus, Plutarch had a deeper understanding in this area than for which he is generally given credit. At any rate, many mysteries surrounding Dionysus and Orpheus remain to be explored.


Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Website: RobertSchoch.com

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.