Incenses in the Orphic Hymns

1 Introduction

Although the 87 Orphic Hymns were marginal in antiquity, and are not mentioned by any author until many centuries into the so-called Byzantine period, they are useful for understanding ancient paganism in countless ways. One aspect of this is the mention of incenses or suffumigations (thymiama) to be used with each of the hymns, differing from deity to deity. Although these correspondences should certainly not be taken as general rules of Hellenic worship, and the logic behind them is often unclear, some interesting principles can be derived from the brief instructions:

  • Animal sacrifices are not necessary, and probably deliberately avoided in keeping with Pythagorean maxims; this can be inferred from the fact that the only non-incense offering is milk and that beans are explicitly excluded from the offering of all seeds. (Beans being forbidden by Pythagoras; cf. the Advice to his Students.)
  • The nature of the incense mirrors the nature of the deity: e.g. Pan (whose name can be interpreted as meaning “all”) receives a variety of suffumigations, as does the all-encompassing Mother-of-Gods; Sleep receives poppies (the source of sleep-inducing morphine); Aether saffron, the color of which suits his fiery nature; Night torches, which are only needed at night.
  • Associated deities sometimes, but not always, receive the same suffumigation, e.g. Dike and Dikaiosyne; the Muses and Mnemosyne; Apollon and Artemis; the Winds; but to the contrary, Leucothea is separated from Palaemon; Leto from her children.
  • Some offerings are derived from established cult practice, especially the “all-seed” offering to Earth.
  • Storax can be somewhat threatening/fearful, while arōmata (fragrant herbs) are correlated with kindlier deities: hence the terrifying Erinyes receive the former, but the same goddesses, pacified as Eumenides, receive the latter.
  • Arōmata are the generic offering for female deities (from Nymphs through Hera and Rhea to Nature) and perhaps (domesticated) plant life/fertility generally (Dionysus, Adonis).
  • While storax and arōmata show certain tendencies, they are far from iron-clad rules; it is often not clear why a given deity is assigned to them, to the catch-all frankincense or to the less prominent myrrh. Frankincense is perhaps somewhat more celestial while arōmata are more terrestrial? Myrrh watery?
  • Manna and libanomanna seem to refer to the same thing, perhaps frankincense in the form of powder as opposed to “tears”.
  • It is possible that Pluton and Persephone are deliberately not given an offering, but only the hymn; in the other cases where the suffumigation is omitted, it often seems that the title, which included the suffumigation, was first lost and then filled in again by a scribe (e.g., OH 55 is titled “To Aphrodite” rather than “Of Aphrodite”, the form used almost everywhere else.)

2 What are arōmata?

Theophrastus gives us a list: “Those (plants) which are used as fragrances (arōmata) are about these: cassia, cinnamon, cardamum, nard, cat thyme (naîron), balsam herb, camel’s thorn (aspálathos), storax, iris, nártē (unidentified), costus, all-heal (pánakes), saffron (krókos), myrrh, galingale (kýpeiron), camel-hay (skhoînos), sweet flag (kálamos), marjoram (amárakon), melilot (lōtós), and dill (ánnētos). For some, it is their roots, others their bark, twigs, wood, seeds, resin or flowers” (Theophrastus, Investigation of Plants 9.7.3).

As Theophrastus himself indicates, this is only a rough list; it should certainly not be taken as comprehensive or definitive. Another source, for instance, also calls musk aromatic (Etymologicum Magnum), and many other examples could be found.

In the case of the Orphic Hymns, we must evidently exclude storax, saffron and myrrh from the list of fragrant herbs.

3 List of offerings

Suffumigation (thymiama) of frankincense (libanos):
Heaven/Ouranos (OH 4), Heracles (OH 12), Hermes (OH 28), Titans (OH 37), Curetes (OH 38), Corybas (OH 39), Justice/Dike (OH 62), Justice/Dikaiosyne (OH 63), Ares (OH 65), Fortune/Tyche (OH 72), Fortune/Daemon (OH 73), Muses (OH 76), Mnemosyne (OH 77), Themis (OH 79), North Wind/Boreas (OH 80), Westerly Wind/Zephyrus (OH 81), South Wind/Notus (OH 82)

Suffumigation of frankincense powder/granules (libanomanna):
Sun/Helios (OH 8), Zeus Astrapaeus (OH 20), Sea/Thalassa (OH 22), Hephaestus (OH 66)

Suffumigation of powder/granules (manna; i.e. of frankincense?):
Victory/Nike (OH 33), Apollon (OH 34), Artemis (OH 36), Dionysus Licnites (OH 46), Silenus, Satyrs and Bacchae (OH 54), Asclepius (OH 67), Health/Hygeia (OH 68), Palaemon (OH 75), Dawn/Eos (OH 78), Death/Thanatos (OH 87)

Suffumigation of storax (styrax):
Prothyraia (OH 2), Saturn/Kronos (OH 13), Zeus (OH 15), Zeus Keraunos (OH 19), Proteus (OH 25), Dionysus (OH 30), Demeter Eleusinia (OH 40), Mise (OH 42), Semele (OH 44), Hipta (OH 49), Chthonic Hermes (OH 57), Graces (OH 60)

Suffumigation of storax and manna:
Erinyes (OH 69)

Suffumigation of fragrant herbs/spices (arōmata):
Stars/Asteres (OH 7), Moon/Selene (OH 9), Nature/Physis (OH 10), Rhea (OH 14), Hera (OH 16), Nereids (OH 24), Athena (OH 32), Mother/Mētēr Antaia (OH 41), Seasons/Horai (OH 43), Dionysus Pericionius (OH 47), Sabazius (OH 48), Nymphs (OH 51), Dionysus Trietericus (OH 52), Adonis (OH 56), Eros (OH 58), Fates/Moirai (OH 59), Eumenides (OH 70), Melinoe (OH 71), Leucothea (OH 74), Oceanus (OH 83), Hestia (OH 84), Dream/Oneiros (OH 86)

Suffumigation of myrrh (smyrna):
Protogonus (OH 6), Poseidon (OH 17), Clouds/Nephai (OH 21), Nereus (OH 23), Leto (OH 35)

Suffumigation of saffron (krokos):
Aether (OH 5)

Suffumigation from a torch (dalos):
Night/Nyx (OH 3)

Suffumigation (of…?) together with poppy (mēkōnos):
Sleep/Hypnus (OH 85)

A variety of suffumigations (poikila):
Pan (OH 11), Mother-of-Gods/Mētēr Theōn (OH 27)

Suffumigation of all kinds of seeds (pan sperma), except beans and arōmata:
Earth/Gē (OH 26)

All suffumigations, except frankincense; and make a libation of milk:
Dionysus Amphietes (OH 53)

No specified suffumigation (at least in part because of text loss; or sometimes because none is meant to be given?):
Hekate (OH 1), Pluton (OH 18), Persephone (OH 29), Curetes (OH 31), Dionysius Bassareus Trietericus (OH 45), Dionysus Lysius Lenaeus (OH 50), Aphrodite (OH 55), Nemesis (OH 61), Law/Nomos (OH 64)