Interview with an Orphic Rhapsode

When I began to feel more serious about my polytheism, began to feel that my relationship with Antinous and his associated deities was going to be a long-term commitment, I started reading the classic literature, the Greek and Roman writers who still speak for the ancient world. I went for the poetry and fiction first, so the epics and the two great collections of hymns, the Homeric and the Orphic, were among the first things I read. I listened to an abridged audiobook of the Iliad, read by Derek Jacobi, waded into Allan Mandelbaum’s translation of the Aeneid, and soon became very attached to the Orphic Hymns, in the revised edition of Apostolos Athanassakis’ translation.

I still haven’t finished reading the Aeneid (although I loved Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia), but I continue to use the Orphic Hymns in ritual and devotion. So when I heard that a fellow polytheist and magic-worker, an insider, so to speak, was making a new translation, I was very interested. Reading a couple of her translations was enough to motivate me to invest in her Kickstarter for the Orphic Hymns Grimoire and prompt this interview.

Sara Mastros is a witch for hire, writer, and teacher living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she operates a non-denominational Witch House. Along with co-conspirator Simon Zealot, she operated the full-service witching operation Mastros & Zealot: Witches for Hire, specializing in divination and custom sorcery. Sara practices an eclectic mix of many witching styles, but focuses on the syncretic magics of late antiquity, particularly those of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. You can read her blog, and keep abreast of all her doings at http://www.MastrosZealot.com

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In the interview below, I’ve put my questions in italics and Sara’s responses in regular font.

How did you discover the Orphic Hymns, and what inspired you to translate them?

I don’t entirely remember when I first heard the Orphic Hymns. I grew up with the Greek gods, and I always adored the ancient world. By the time I was in middle school, I was deeply engrossed in reading classics, so I suspect I first read Taylor’s translations then. However, I didn’t really connect with the hymns until a trip to Greece:

Early in the summer of 2015, Greece was in turmoil. Following the January election, the Troika gave Greece four months to re-negotiate payment terms on its bailout program, with final payment due July 1. Things did not go as planned. In early June, the Troika rejected Greece’s proposal, and the spectre of a Greek banking collapse, and the hasty exit of Greece from the Eurozone began to loom large. On the 26th of June, Greece broke off negotiations, and the next day I got on a plane to Brussels, en route to Athens; my first ever trip abroad. Still heavy-hearted from the recent death of my parents, I had plans to tour Greece, my father’s ancestral home, with my shamanism teacher and beloved friend Caroline Kenner, and a group other pagans most of whom I did not yet know. I wept, although I couldn’t have told you why, the first time I saw Greece, arising like Fairy Land from the clouds as my plane descended. I was coming home in a way I still don’t understand. When we landed, the pilot came over the loudspeaker and announced, first in Greek and then in English the news: the Greek stock market would not be opening the following week.

The next day, Sunday the 28th, I toured the ancient Athenian marketplace, the Agora, where Plato taught, and I gave sacrifice at the temple of Hephaestus there. We climbed the Acropolis, and I came face to face with Athena, the virgin queen of Reason, the mistress of Athens, the daughter my late father always wanted me to be. The European Central Bank announced it would, for the time being, continue its Emergency Liquidity Assistance, but every ATM in the Plaka had a line a block long, as Greeks got what cash they could, fearing the currency controls we all knew were coming.

On the first of July, my group boarded a large pink motorcoach, and headed to Eleusis. Our guide, Eleni, spoke quietly into her phone, telling her mother to stockpile her heart medication if she could. In the Ploutonion of Eleusis, through the crack where Persephone yearly arises, I entered into the Underworld, the tears I hadn’t been able to find for my dead parents came at last. I lay weeping, prostrate in the sun-warmed cave, my fear of death leaving me, first in sobs, and then in shivers, and finally in sleep. Wise Caroline told the group to leave me be, and I dreamt a powerful initiatory dream while they climbed to the site of the ancient temple of Demeter at the top of the hill. A referendum was announced for July 5th; Greeks would vote on whether to approve or reject the Troika’s proposal.

That afternoon, we departed for Epidauros, the birthplace of Asclepios, and then onto Mycenae, where I danced a joyful jig in the bathtub where Clytemnestra slit Agamemnon’s throat, and poured out libations to their daughter Iphigenia. At the hilltop fort of Tyrins, I injured my knee, and the rest of the trip was shadowed by that pain. Thursday, July the second, we spent largely on the bus, driving across the Peloponnese. Every time the bus stopped, Eleni and the bus driver would try an ATM, but here, in the countryside, they were often out of cash. By this point, Greek bank accounts were limited to 60 Euros per day. The driver, in broken English, pulled me aside and shared a blunt with me. “For leg hurt”, he said. Blessings on him and his house, and on his giant pink motorbus. Back on the bus, in a haze of weed and pain and nescafe frappe, the splendour of Arcadia passing outside the windows, Hermes inspired me to write: first the poem below, and then the outlines of what would, in time, become this book.

The Arcadian Hymn to Hermes, Written on a Bus from Mycenae to Olympia

Listen now, as the muses sing
to Hermes Kriophorus, the Quicksilver King.
Teacher of teachers, the Universal Mind,
Arcadian child of Māyā, divine.
Mathematician, Magician, Traveler, Thief:
Make the pious man doubt, and bring the skeptic belief.
Brings justice to the market and victory to the gambler,
Bring guidance to the lost and inspiration to the rambler.
Make our words be clever and our eyes be bright.
Grant unearned luck and true wisdom’s insight.
Let our tongues be quick; and let us walk quick too.
Let our lies be convincing, but make our teachings be true!
Send instructive dreams and controllable visions,
Ennoble our purpose, empower our missions.
And when, at last, our lifetimes end,
Be our beloved guide, and our psychopomp friend.

Over the next few days, I bathed in the Castalian spring and learned to prophesy at Delphi. I met Aphaea, the ancient goddess of the nets, at Aegina. The Greek people overwhelmingly voted to reject the bailout plan, and markets worldwide began to tumble; Grexit looked like a very real possibility. The next day, back in Athens, the finance minister stepped down, and, without the group, I rode the incline to the top of Mt Lykabettus, the mountain of wolves, dropped from the sky by Athena when Erichthonius, the half-serpent future king of Athens, escaped from the box Athena kept him in. There, in the dim interior of the chapel of St. George, the avatar of Sabazios, I prayed for Greece, and her people. And then I sat smelling azaleas, drinking nescafe, and I read Kazantzakis’s words on Greekness:

“Every living thing is a workshop where God, in hiding, processes and transubstantiates clay. This is why trees flower and fruit, why animals multiply, why the monkey managed to exceed its destiny and stand upright on its two feet. Now, for the first time since the world was made, man has been enabled to enter God’s workshop and labor with Him…What a fearful ascent from monkey to man, from man to God!”

Who are some of your influences as a translator and poet?

Aside from the great ur-rhapsodes of ancient Greece (Orpheus, Hesiod, Homer, etc) the authors who have most been whispering in my mind while I work on this project have been:
1) Nikos Kazantzakis, who captures, for me, the essence of what it means to be Greek,
2) Emily Wilson, who recently translated the Iliad, stripping away centuries of patriarchal overlay from the text and presenting a radically new, but powerfully classical, translation that reignites the classic for our new millenium. This is a great introduction to her work: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/08/the-odyssey-translated-emily-wilson-review
3) Ludwig Wittgenstein, the early 20th century philosopher, who wrote extensively on the impossibility of literal translation. He famously said; “If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”
4) My bff and magical partner, Simon Zealot, who is a far better poet than I.

Are the hymns/your translations religious or magical texts, or do you see a difference?

That’s a great question, and one that I don’t think has a real answer. We don’t really know much about the origins of the hymns in their present form, so we’ll probably never be able to answer a question like “What was the intent of the original author(s)?” They were likely intended for use in magico-religious ritual (unlike, say, the works of Homer, which were designed largely as popular entertainment). I think that the best familiar analogue to them is the biblical Psalms, which are ancient prayers, several of which request specific, actionable, “real world” results, and which have been used for magic for even longer than the Orphic hymns. Are the psalms a religious or a magical text? Are the Orphic hymns? I think “yes” is the only 100% true answer to that question that is possible.

The question of exactly what is a “magical text” and what distinguishes it from other similar texts is a very fraught one, and not one I want to get too bogged down in. Branislav Malinowski, writing in volume II of “The Coral Gardens and their Magic” outlines four criteria, which are as good as any other definition. He says:
“I can tell when a text or utterance is magical, apart from any rubric or any understanding of how their religion works… It is magic if it has the following 4 features:
1. It has a phonology that is markedly different from the community’s regular speech. (magic words / voces magicae / barbarous names, etc.)
2. It is sung or chanted, with numerically grouped rhythmic repeats.
3. It makes present-tense statements that are obviously counterfactual (usually in the hope that they become true, or true to some small degree).
4. It meets a certain coefficient of weirdness”

The Orphic Hymns clearly meet all of these standards. (In as much as we can determine. It’s hard to say how counterfactual they were, but one assumes that, even in ancient days, the gods did not grant every prayer)

That being said, I would argue that texts, in and of themselves, can be neither religious nor magical. It is the response the evoke in the reader which is religious or magical (or philosophical or humorous or etc) . My interaction with the hymns, as I work with them, is certainly both religious and magical in character, and my core demographic for the book is pagan magicians, although I hope that it is of interest to anyone with an interest in Greek myth and poetry.

Give us your working definition of “Orphism”.

I think the noted classicist M. L. West put it best when he said “As for ‘Orphism’, the only definite meaning that can be given to the term is ‘the fashion for claiming Orpheus as an authority’. The history of Orphism is the history of that fashion.”

I want to say, first off, that I do not consider myself “an Orphic” in the sense that I do not hold to all the teachings of the Orphic mystery cult of late antiquity, as it has come down to us. My relationship with the Greek gods is complicated and multi-variant. My Greek ancestry is primarily from Kos, a Greek island in the Aegean just off the coast of modern Bodrum, Turkey (called of old “Halicarnassus”), near where the Orphic Hymns were likely written. I’m broadly interested in the culture, religions, and magics of the ancient Mediterranean, but I’m especially fascinated by the remaining scraps of the pre-Indo-European traditions of my ancestors from eastern Turkey and the Aegean, which are less patriarchal, less imperial, and more ecstatic and goetic/shamanic than classical Athenian Hellenism. The Orphic Hymns are deeply rooted in those old Eastern traditions, and that is the core of my work with them. Like any great work, they are, in their own words “poly-mythic”, telling different tales to different people at different times. None of these interpretations are the single correct one, and even the worst versions of them retain some of their potency. Deep wells run clear.

What is your academic background?

My formal academic background isn’t especially relevant to this project. While I adored classics, philosophy, and anthropology as a child, an unfortunate mix of internalized misogyny and a stubborn desire to prove I was “just as smart as a boy” landed me in theoretical mathematics (which, to be fair, I also loved). I have undergraduate degrees in mathematics, philosophy, and history & philosophy of science, as well as a masters degree in theoretical mathematics (my specialty is called “Analytic Topology of Small Cardinal Spaces” which means something like “Some infinite things are bigger than other infinite things. The amount of counting numbers is the smallest size of infinity. The number of points on a line is bigger than that. If there are things which are in between those sizes, what shape are they?”)

I was most of the way through a PhD when I suddenly realized that I was miserable. It hit me like a ton of bricks; spending 12 hours a day in a tiny cinderblock room working on problems only 10 or 15 other people in the whole world cared about wasn’t just a thing I had to get through, it was literally what I was signing up to do for the rest of my life. This may be obvious to everyone but me without trying it, but it turns out, that’s not so fun. So, I decided I needed to make a change. At that point, in addition to my studies, I was teaching logic for the philosophy department (because they paid more than the math department), and I had a conversation with my teaching supervisor, the late, great Mickey Perloff that went something like this. “… All I ever wanted was to be a natural philosopher, like Pythagoras or Plato. Why isn’t that a job anymore?” “You know, Sara… it wasn’t a job then either. Those people were either independently wealthy or else they made a living by teaching rich people’s kids.” I really enjoyed the university teaching I was doing, and so the next weekend, I sent an email to my PhD director asking if I could just take a masters and leave in June, and I sent out resumes out to every private high school in Philadelphia (where I wanted to move). I got a great job, graduated with a masters, and that was the end of me and university academics. I taught high school for nearly a decade, and I very much enjoyed it, but after my parents’ untimely death in 2012 (they were killed together in a car accident), I felt the need to change gears and focus on my spiritual and magical work. And that is how I got to here.

What do you hope to accomplish with this publication?

When I started translating the Orphic Hymns, my goals were simple. I wanted to obey the command of the Muses, who set me to the work. I wanted to improve my Greek, and deepen my relationships with the gods. I started posting a few of my translations on facebook for friends, and people got really excited about them. I started posting some notes and commentary with the translations, and then a couple of spells. Eventually, it became clear that I had a whole book in the works, so, after much public prompting, I decided to start a kickstarter to gauge if there really is enough interest in the hymns to publish a book. I adore these hymns, and one of the goals of the project is to get them into the hands of people who don’t usually read the classics. But, I also really wanted lyrical, rhymed, strong-metered translations (because they’re so powerful in ritual) with a more modern sensibility than Taylor’s 1790s translations. Finally, and perhaps I’m not supposed to admit this, but I’m generally of the “honesty is the best policy” persuasion, it would be nice to make a little money from this work. 🙂

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