Thursday, August 12, 2010

The cave of Orpheus' oracle in Lesbos and other stories

PD Image: The cave of Orpheus' oracle in Antissa, Lesbos, Greece

Orpheus has a special importance in Greek mythology, with the inspiration for Orphic cults, literature, poetry and drama of ancient Greece and Rome and Western classical music.

According to one myth, in the later part of his life, Orpheus disdained the worship of all gods except the sun, whom he called Apollo. One day he went to the oracle of Dionysus at Mount Pangaion to salute the sun at dawn, but was rent to pieces by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron (Dionysus) and buried him in Pieria.

Ovid’s account of his death gives it a bizarre twist: the Ciconian women, Dionysus' followers, killed him, when they were spurned by Orpheus, who had hated women after the death of his wife Eurydice, who died of a snake bite, after which he had taken only boys as his lovers. First the women threw sticks and stones at him, but his music was so powerful and beautiful that even the stones and sticks refused to hit him. However, finally, the enraged women tore him to pieces. In an Albrecht Dürer drawing a ribbon high in a tree is lettered ‘Orfeus der erst puseran’ (‘Orpheus, the first sodomite’); an interpretation of the passage in Ovid where Orpheus is said to have been ‘the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys.’

His severed head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the Hebrus River (Maritsa or Evros) to the Mediterranean Sea, and the winds and waves carried them on to the shores of Lesbos island (now in Greece), where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built for him near Antissa. There his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo.

Lesbos, the Greek island located in the northeastern Aegean Sea, is the third largest Greek island and the largest of the numerous Greek islands scattered in the Aegean, and separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait.

Interestingly, one meaning of the word lesbian is derived from the poems of Sappho, who was born in Lesbos and who wrote with emotional content towards other women. It is due to this that Lesbos and especially the town of Eresos, Sappho’s birthplace, are a hot destination for lesbian tourists/ LGBT tourism. But, the deeply conservative Greek Orthodox population of the island disapproves of it strongly. In 2008 the Lesbian islanders lost a court battle against the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece. The Lesbian islanders had requested a legal injunction to bar homosexual groups from using the word ‘lesbian’ in their names, because the petitioners’ claim it violates their human rights as it is ‘insulting’, and the usage of the word ‘lesbian’ to refer to certain sexual preferences of women disgraces the people of Lesbos island.

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