Culture

From Orpheus To Jesus: The Trail Of The Good Shepherd

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Snapshot

The motif of the Good Shepherd is older than Christianity. It was only later, with the rise of the faith in Rome that this pagan motif was associated with Jesus.

Twelve years ago on a hot summer day in Wardha, we, a group of friends, were visiting Vinoba Bhave Ashram in Paunar, Maharashtra, after a rather strenuous but very useful camp on sustainable farming technologies. As we walked by the prayer hall, I noticed a rather interesting sculpture of Jesus playing a flute. I pointed it out to my Protestant friend accompanying me. He saw it and spontaneously reacted, “Impossible ….this is a distortion…” I saw that he was not happy with the depiction and I changed the topic but deep inside I felt disturbed. Why is it that my Christian friend finds it uncomfortable to see Jesus with a flute… after all, the image of Jesus as a good shepherd is a powerful Christian iconography.

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The sculpture depicting Jesus playing a flute.
The sculpture depicting Jesus playing a flute.

The shepherd imagery of Jesus features prominently in John’s narrative of Jesus mythology (John 10:11 and John 10:14). Christian theology relates this to psalm 23 of David in Hebrew Bible, which says that the G_d is his shepherd and that he shall not wander. However, in John, Jesus is a good shepherd and a good shepherd is defined as ‘one who lays down his life for his sheep’ (10:11). Christian evangelists, who try to convert Jews, often use this statement as a kind of a continuity and fulfilment of Judaism in Christianity. Yet the psalm 23 which, begins as ‘a song of David’, speaks of G_d leading his herd to greener pastures etc. and not ‘laying down his life’.

Hence it is interesting to see if the Christian imagery of ‘good shepherd’ is really a continuation or even derived from Judaism or if it is inspired by non-Jewish elements. In this context, it should be noted the Jesus story of John is considered as the highly Hellenised version of all the four narratives endorsed by Council of Nicea in the fourth century CE.

Let us assume that a time machine has transported us to the Rome of early decades of the first two centuries of the Common Era. Standing in the streets of Rome, we ask for the shrine of the good shepherd. We are led to a shrine. It is not that of Jesus but that of Orpheus.

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Orpheus: Hellenistic ceiling painting. The Mandala

aspect, diversity of animals surrounding him and the

Mithra cap are important symbolic features.
Orpheus: Hellenistic ceiling painting. The Mandala aspect, diversity of animals surrounding him and the Mithra cap are important symbolic features.

Orpheus was a divine musician, who was also the good shepherd of ancient Rome. In the pagan sacred shrines, the mosaics showed Orpheus seated in a Mandala surrounded by animals which are attracted by his divine music. He holds a lyre. His mythology has striking parallels to that of Jesus.

In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the son of god Apollo. He was also a musician from Thrace who played the lyre. His divine music tamed the wild animals and even the rivers stopped to listen. He ultimately sacrificed his own life for the resurrection of his bride. He was dismembered by Maenads, women devotees of Dionysus. It is a resurrection that failed at one level. Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, however, asserts that "through dismemberment... the divine spark got into everything, the divine soul entered the earth... which guarantees resurrection”. In Christian theology, the believers are actually considered as being unified as an institutional body (Church), which in turn is seen as the bride of Jesus (2 Cor. 11.2). Now one can appreciate the mytho-theological parallels. Jesus sacrificed his mortal body for the salvation of his believers – or his bride – just like Orpheus did for his bride centuries ago. In Christian myth Jesus triumphed.

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Orpheus dismembered by Maenads, as depicted in a greek vase
Orpheus dismembered by Maenads, as depicted in a greek vase

Orpheus shunned the females on his return from the netherworld and was killed. Jesus also meets a female in his mythical return from death. However, unlike Orpheus, Jesus meets a lonely, lamenting Magdalene. Immortalised in countless Medieval Christian paintings, Jesus restrains Magdalene from touching him. Perhaps, this act of Jesus made famous by the words Noli me tangere ('Touch me not' John 20:17) may actually be scoring of a brownie point by Christian myth-makers over their Hellenistic counterparts. Orpheus allows himself to be murdered by women. Jesus orders Magdalene not to touch him. This may also be a subtle hint of the fear of murder by the females that proved fatal in the Orpheus mythology. Jesus after his brief sojourn into the world after resurrection ascends to heaven and lives eternally with his heavenly father. Orpheus too descends to the netherworld and lives eternally with his terrestrial bride, now transformed spiritually.

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Jesus forbids Magdalene from touching him on
resurrection: Painting by Giotto di Bondone (13th century), Florence, Italy.
Jesus forbids Magdalene from touching him on resurrection: Painting by Giotto di Bondone (13th century), Florence, Italy.

With these parallel elements of mythology, the early Christian art started depicting Jesus as Orpheus, the good shepherd – then a very famous attribute of one of the most popular Hellenistic worships of that period. Orphic mystery initiation was a great spiritual practice in ancient Rome and in this, Orpheus himself was seen as the chief messiah of Dinoysius.

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This is early Christian depiction of Jesus as Orpheus with

Mithra cap and musical instrument- Catacombs of Peter and

Marcellus, Rome 4 th century CE
This is early Christian depiction of Jesus as Orpheus with Mithra cap and musical instrument- Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus, Rome 4 th century CE

Like all pagan religions, Orphic school too was not an exclusive one. It allowed its own evolution through rich infusion of Mithraic imageries and Neo-platonic philosophic streams. Neo-Platonism in turn contained in its elements of Indic wisdom. It will not be a far off speculation to consider that the music which captivated the beasts from the lyre of Orpheus could have been the Pythagorean music of the spheres. The Hellenistic mosaics show Orpheus with the characteristic headwear of Mithra worship.

In early Christian art, we see Christians adopting the Orphic imagery for Jesus. Here then is the more pagan root of the Christian imagery of 'good shepherd'. In early Christian catacombs of the fourth century, we meet Jesus-Orpheus compound figure still with Mithra headwear and the lyre. But starting sixth century, as the temporal power of Rome started becoming well established in the hands of institutional Christianity, we see a marked change in the Orpheus-Christ art. The figure of good shepherd is still there – significantly the lyre is gone and in its place there is the cane of shepherd – shaped like a cross. The biodiversity surrounding Orpheus is progressively reduced with monoculture of white sheep.

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Jesus replaces Orpheus completely. Lyre is

replaced by cross-like scepter. Mithraic headwear

is gone. The diversity of fauna, replaced by

monoculture of white sheep: Mosaic in the

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 5 th century CE.
Jesus replaces Orpheus completely. Lyre is replaced by cross-like scepter. Mithraic headwear is gone. The diversity of fauna, replaced by monoculture of white sheep: Mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, 5 th century CE.

Now the divine musician, who bonded with multitude of animals through the celestial music is gone and in his place has come the shepherd king with the sceptre. As the authoritative 'Biblical and Theological Dictionary' explains, sceptre, the Hebrew word, originated from the shepherd's rod. In the Christian art of the medieval period as well as in later calendar art, Jesus the good shepherd permanently lost his musical instrument as he was handed over the power through the sceptre.

As the pagan good shepherd’s mystery of dismembering and resurrection got mapped into the history-centric account of Christianity, the passion plays which depict the death and resurrection of Jesus became encapsulated with anti-Semitism. The passion plays have been focal points of spreading anti-Semitic violence in Christendom. In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Nazi Party was delighted in the use of passion play in inciting violence against the Jewish community. And that is not limited to the pre-holocaust/Nazi period either. Actor Mel Gibson, who is known for his drunken anti-Semitic rants, has also been severely criticised for his movie The Passion of Christ (2004).

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Gibson during the shooting of the film.
Gibson during the shooting of the film.

Abraham H Foxman of Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found the movie as "the reincarnation of a story that became the legitimate basis for centuries of expulsions, murders and discrimination against Jews". Sure enough, the flashback scene 11 of the movie talks about Jesus being the good shepherd, who dies for the flock.

The appropriation of the good shepherd imagery by Christianity achieved two things; the spiritual evolution of Orphic music was lost to Europe; the wilfully inaccurate anchoring of the good shepherd imagery to the psalms of David, with the motive of proselytising Jews created institutional anti-Semitism. It would take a burning of Bruno, inquisition of Galileo and countless torture and deaths of heretics, for the West to discover again the music of Orpheus at least in the realm of science. It would take 2,000 years of anti-Semitic persecution and a holocaust in the twentieth century to exorcise, though still not fully, the evil of anti-Semitism.

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Krishna playing the flute
Krishna playing the flute

A contrasting evolution can be seen in the imagery of Krishna as the cowherd and flute player in India. Attested by the chronicles of Megasthenes, the Greek emissary, and Greek convert to Bhagvath-Dharma in third and first centuries BCE respectively, the imagery of flute playing Krishna evolved uninterrupted by institutional power games for at least the last 2,000 years if not more. There are some rare sculptures of Krishna with shepherd’s staff. But the most dominant picture is that of the flute player.

Perhaps, Christianity too should shed its history-centrism and accept the pagan archetypes on which it is based upon. It should come to terms with the earth-rooted spirituality of its images, forsaking its claims of messiah hood appropriating Judaism. Christianity should also come to terms with the truth that there is nothing exclusive about Jesus, and his mythology represents just one instance of the many dismembering-resurrection myths which can be found throughout the world. Perhaps, then the Christian mind can come to terms with Jesus playing a flute.