I return now to my overview/commentary on Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets by Alberto Bernabé and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal (Brill: 2008). If you missed my first few posts on this topic, you can see them here: First, Second, Third, and Fourth.
One of the key features of the inscriptions found on these gold plates is the expression of the desire of the deceased to obtain a crown at the end of their long journey in the Netherworld. On one tablet we find this phrase, a form of which is common to many of the inscriptions:
I launched myself with agile feet after the longed-for crown.1
The Greek term used here is στεφανος (stéphanos), which is commonly translated as “crown”. Interestingly, although I would have thought the answer would be quite straightforward, scholars have debated what kind of crown we are dealing with here, and what its meaning is in the religious context of these texts (p. 122). A number of theories have been offered:
- That the “crown” was a given place in the Netherworld that the deceased was trying to reach. Because stéphanos can mean “a crown of fortifications”, the theory was that the term was used to refer to some sort of fence that encircled the kingdom of Persephone, or the dwelling of the blessed. This theory is improbable due to the lack of any description of such a fence in any Orphic or Greek myths.
- Another similar theory is that crown refers to a cycle or “orbit” that the deceased enters into after death — an astral cycle as opposed to the earthly cycle of life that one must endure until freed from it by following the correct path in the afterlife. This theory, however, is also unacceptable because there is no mention anywhere in the tablets of an astral or heavenly part of the afterlife experience–it all takes place in the Underworld of the Earth itself.
- The third theory mentioned is perhaps the simplest, but most logical: that the term crown should be taken literally to mean a physical crown that is placed on the head. There is much precedence in Greek culture and religion for the use of crowns, both for the living and for the dead.
It is this third theory that the authors argue for and which we will discuss here. In Greek culture, literal/physical crowns were used in banquets, funerary rites, triumph in athletic competitions, certain rituals, and in many mystical symbols (p. 123).
It is a significant insight into the Greek understanding of the afterlife that it was their tradition to place crowns on the heads of deserving deceased at their burial (pp. 123-4). It was believed that doing so represented the soul of the blessed being crowned and adorned with garlands in the Beyond. It was a symbol of the believer’s victory after a lifetime of struggle.
The wearing of crowns at banquets symbolized the glorious banquet at which the just will be seated for Eternity.
Crowns were also used in the rites of the mystery cults, used to identify those who had been initiated. According to Harpocration:
Those who carry out the Bacchic rites crown themselves with white poplar because the tree is chthonic (of the Underworld), and Dionysus, son of Persephone, is chthonic.
If I understand this correctly, initiates would wear a crown of white poplar (or either myrtle or ivy) because this tree represented the Tree of Life–they would wear a crown of the branches of the Tree of Life, symbolizing their victory over death. Similar to the athlete who is crowned after winning the race, the initiates are rewarded, having ensured for themselves immortal glory in the Beyond.
A certain philosopher, Theo of Smyrna, described the stages of an initiatory ritual that consisted of:
- The performance of a ritual
- The initiate’s coronation
It was claimed that this ritual was supposed to produce a state of great happiness in the initiate (p. 128).
Another important part of these coronation rituals (and this relates to my earlier post on the nurturing Mother Goddess) included what seems to be a symbolic return into the womb of the Mother Goddess. If understood in this context, such phrases found in the tablets as the following become meaningful:
I plunged beneath the lap of my lady, the subterranean queen.
The initiate re-enters the goddess’ womb in order to be reborn as a god (p. 131). Then the phrase, which I have previously cited — “A ram, you fell into the milk”–can be interpreted as the the “newly-born” initiate becoming a nursling of the goddess’ milk. This process is common to many ancient rituals and myths (p. 131). After having been born of a mortal mother’s womb, the individual is eventually received at his death by the womb of Mother Earth (here Persephone), from which he is reborn, but to a new, higher, and divine life. He is resurrected and becomes a god. All this is done in imitation of a god who once went through the same process of death and rebirth.
Of course this is all familiar territory for Christians. Just as Christ died and was reborn, and then crowned with glory, the same is promised to each faithful Christian “initiate” (Heb. 2:9; 1 Cor. 9:25; 1 Thes. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10).
Moving further back in time, we see that the granting of crowns in the afterlife was a common feature in many Jewish apocalyptic and ascension texts. Ezekiel the Tragedian, apparently a Jew who wrote a Hellenistic-style play called Exagoge (Exodus), depicted Moses as ascending to heaven, and there being crowned and seated on a throne. Similar traditions exist for Abraham, Enoch, and many other visionary figures.
In the Old Testament, while the kings obviously underwent a very similar coronation, the chief priest was also to wear a “holy crown” (Exo. 29:6). When the priest (or king) wore the crown that bore the sacred name of YHWH, he was seen as representing the Lord who would die as a sacrifice, whose blood would be taken into the Temple, and who would emerge with new life.
For Latter-day Saints, the crown is an oft-repeated motif, especially in the Doctrine and Covenants. The crown is explicitly linked to the rituals of the Temple. For example, in D&C 124:55, the Lord makes the saints the following promise:
And again, verily I say unto you, I command you again to build a house to my name, even in this place, that you may prove yourselves unto me that ye are faithful in all things whatsoever I command you, that I may bless you, and crown you with honor, immortality, and eternal life.
What is figurative in ritual will one day be a reality, as indicated in D&C 29:12-13:
12 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, and it hath gone forth in a firm decree, by the will of the Father, that mine apostles, the Twelve which were with me in my ministry at Jerusalem, shall stand at my right hand at the day of my coming in a pillar of fire, being clothed with robes of righteousness, with crowns upon their heads, in glory even as I am, to judge the whole house of Israel, even as many as have loved me and kept my commandments, and none else.
13 For a trump shall sound both long and loud, even as upon Mount Sinai, and all the earth shall quake, and they shall come forth—yea, even the dead which died in me, to receive a crown of righteousness, and to be clothed upon, even as I am, to be with me, that we may be one.
The “longed-for crown” is the crown of the dying and resurrecting God who invites his mortal followers to follow him and likewise be rewarded with great honor, immortal glory, eternal life, and heavenly kingdoms (D&C 75:5; 78:15).
- From L 9, 6 as cited in Bernabé and San Cristóbal, p. 121
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