Orpheus and Orphism
One can still feel the breath of mystical ancient past emanating from the rock shrine Perperikon. Perperikon was a cult place for the followers of the so-called Orphism – a religion that originated precisely in Thrace in the 9th century BC, from where it spread to ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. Among its adepts were also many Roman emperors. The name Orphism originated only in modern times, historians have created it by the fact that this cult was founded by Orpheus. According to many historians, Orpheus was the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and Calliope – Zeus’ daughter and muse of eloquence and epic poetry. Thus, Orpheus is considered to be not just a mythical figure, but also a real-life local ruler in the Rhodope Mountains. In Bulgarian mythology, Orpheus is said to have been born in the village of Gela in the Central Rhodope Mountains. We all know of his tragic life and death at the hands of the drunken Bacchae, who tore him into pieces and threw his head and lyre was into the river Hebros (today Maritsa, flowing through the city of Plovdiv) when he returned to Thrace grieving after the unsuccessful attempt to bring back from the kingdom of the dead his beloved Eurydice.
Being probably the most cherished man-god of that epoch, Orpheus left deep traces in ancient culture. He is credited with inventing the one-string lyre and became also a symbol of the immortality of the soul and tender lyricism. The so-called “Hymns of Orpheus” were discovered in 1423 in Constantinople – 1,200 poems and prayers to ancient deities in the old Greek language, difficult to translate and even more difficult to understand. Orphism was practised only by members of the upper social classes, and only free and consecrated men were allowed to participate in the Orphic rituals at Perperikon and other secret locations. Ordinary people were also addressing their gods, who soothed their souls and helped them in their grief. But that was not enough for the nobility. They needed to make sure that even after death they would remain among the gods. This aspiration can be seen on the murals in the tomb near Sveshtari – the Great Goddess welcomes a deceased man with a wreath of flowers as if saying “Welcome among us.” However, to achieve this, heroic exploits in war or hunting were not enough, following the cult was important: the meetings, meditation, trance, offerings of sacrificial animals. Orpheus was deified in ancient times, but also today he remains a popular figure in operas, poems, dramas, novels and films. In the period 1965-1999, Bulgaria organized annually the International Festival of popular music “The Golden Orpheus”.
The Man Named Spartacus
The legendary leader of the slaves came from the Thracian tribe of the Medes, who inhabited the territory along the middle reaches of the river Struma in Southwestern Bulgaria today. Torn away from his country and his family, he was thrown into the brutal world of the gladiator arena, where blood and death were the ultimate entertainment. However, it is not known how Spartacus was taken into slavery and later to a gladiatorial school in the Roman city of Capua. According to one version, however, offered by biased Roman chroniclers, Spartacus was an ordinary villager, captured by the Romans and later punished for defection from service, theft or other misconduct. However, a more credible hypothesis is that Spartacus had lost his freedom during a war, which in those days and in that territory took place often. Even at that time, some historians wrote that Spartacus came from an aristocratic and perhaps even royal family. After all, its uniqueness does not lie only in physical strength or skills. To be able to control and inspire the 120 000-strong army of former slaves, where ten different languages were spoken, Spartacus had to have great leadership ability, charisma and perfect rhetoric, organizational skills, combat prowess, strategic thinking, judgment and psychological abilities. Such capacities could hardly be those of a simple Thracian villager. Between 73-71BC Spartacus lead a great uprising, also known as the Third Slave War. As we know from history lessons, but also from the many books and movies, this uprising was very bloodily suppressed. Over 60,000 slaves fell in the last battle. Spartacus was killed too, but his body was never found. According to the Greek historian Appian, Spartacus fought until his last breath, but before he fell, he managed to kill his horse. This gesture is often interpreted to mean that Spartacus wanted to show with this that he will never run away from the battlefield. However, according to Thracian traditions, where the horse was considered an almost sacred being, it was more likely a religious act. Spartacus clearly understood that if he lost the battle, he would not need a horse for any earthly travels, but rather for travels in the other world…
This brave Thracian warrior is still today considered a symbol of heroism, courage and desire for freedom.
A Few Words in Conclusion
A number of ambitious nations soon became interested in the territory of Thrace. After the Persians and Macedonians, in the year 46 AD, Thrace became a province of the Roman Empire, gradually leading to the Hellenization and Romanization of its population. But traces of these ancient people we find today not only in the mystical sacred places, on the walls of ancient tombs and museum display cases, but also in the name of the Bulgarian mountains (Rhodope, Osogovo), cities (Pirdop, Plovdiv – derives from the word Pulpudeva) and especially rivers (Struma, Iskar, Arda). Many current Bulgarian traditions seem to also have their origins in Thracian rituals – the nestinar dances on red-hot coals, the mask parades (kukeri) to ward off the evil forces of winter, the legends of fairies and nymphs, in the existence of which many Bulgarians still believe. And, last but not least, it is also the high regard for wine, which is today still considered to be a kind of sacred drink, given to man for pleasure and comfort. For tourists wandering in the footsteps of the Thracians is a trip to an exotic and mysterious time. The main part of the historical sites and most of the Thracian monuments are easily accessible for us in Bulgaria, it is sufficient to just swap one day on the beach for a sightseeing excursion. The rediscovered riches of the Thracian culture are definitely worth it.
All the pictures with www.grafikfoto.at are from my friend Anna Sieragowska because my camera was out of order on that trip. Thanks, Anna!