Orpheus: the first epigeneticist?

A mosaic depicting Orpheus enchanting the beasts of the wild with the tunes of his lyre

“Upon two-natured, great and ether-tossed Protogonos I call;
Born of the egg, delighting in his golden wings he bellows like a bull,
This begetter of blessed gods and mortal men.
Erikepaios, seed unforgettable, attend to my rites,
Ineffable, hidden, brilliant scion, whose motion is whirring,
You scattered the dark mist that lay before your eyes,
and, flapping your wings, you whirled about
and throughout this world, you brought pure light.
For this I call you Phanes and lord Priapos and bright-eyed Antauges”

(Hymn 6: To Protogonas)

Orpheus is perhaps one of the most curious characters in Greek mythology. His whole life seems to be a representation of the tragic artist; even prior to the twentieth century literary deconstruction techniques. WK Guthrie in his book ‘Orpheus and Greek religion’ calls Orpheus a mysterious character of prophetic proportions; he is not only cited as a companion of the heroes (the musician on the Argo), but a key to the hero’s katabasis and introduction to Dionysiac knowledge. Guthrie also calls him as that neutralizing impulse, socratic almost, to the pervading influence of Dionysus in Thebes. Orpheus does that by the integration of an Apollonian principle of moderation, of self-abnegation through abstinence from meat and by constructing a doctrine that is now ‘mistitled’ as Orphism. In Guthrie’s knowledge, Orpheus was not trying to introduce a new religion, he was in fact attempting to alter existing theology by introducing certain laws. He is said to have briefly associated with Musaeus of Egypt and learnt from him the practice of theurgy that upon returning to Greece, he introduced the Greeks to it (Guthrie, 1993). Those missing years which could very well have been attributed to the most popular episode of Orpheus’ life; his descent into the Underworld in his vain attempt to retrieve his dear wife, Eurydice. Charmed though Hades and Proserpine were by the mellifluous tunes of his lyre, their caveat for Orpheus to not look back however tempted he maybe had not been fruitful, for Orpheus had done precisely that; turned for a swift look (merely to ensure Eurydice really was behind him) only to lose her forever.

Eurydice vanishes eternally into the Underworld

We now have ‘intellectual remains’ of Orpheus. Songs to be precise, the ‘Orphic Hymns’ that eulogize the deities of the pantheon and are pregnant with a new soteriology similarities to which can be found in Christianity through the Passion of Christ; salvation of mankind via brutal death of the prophet. Orpheus claimed that the universe grew out from an egg. In his argument there was no contention about which came first, the chicken or the egg, for his Orphic Egg (whose Hindu counterpart in Mahabharat is Hiranyagarbha) is one wherein the deity Phanes or Protogonas (whose Hindu counterpart in Mahabharat is Prajapati), the creator of the universe was incubated. Upon his release he materialized everything in the universe (Anderson & others, 1997). This is an exclusively epigenetic take on embryology. That life comes from the egg but without the need for either a feminine or a masculine impulse. But within it can be found an ovist take on preformation; a contention that had theologists and academicians from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century divided. This was not just a war between the sexes (as attributing life to the egg would make females superior to male), this was a long war of doctrine, power, and ideology. The church had an intellectual war to fight against the growing ebb of secularism and atheism within (given that epigenesis admitted of a being formed without the aid of a Supreme Being), and the rise of Islamic epigenesis propagated by the Qur’an, from without.

The Orphic egg

Given that the earliest history had already given weight to an epigenetic origin of the universe; Orpheus despite providing a doctrine of the soul of mankind being born of the undevoured remains of Zagreus (whose heart was later stitched into the thigh of Zeus for incubation, the seed for growth was still the egg from which the primal beings had been originated, and the prime demigod who had been cannibalized on by the Titans had been born of without any spermist intervention. The ideological push to epigenesis provided to embryology by the scholar of Islam, Ibn Rush (Latinized to Averroes) was also a point of contention for Aquinas. The philosophy of Ibn Rushd lent rational power (as did Qur’an when it claimed the entrance of ruh within the fetus) during incubation and not prior to the entry of the sperm inside the unfertilized zygote. Thomas Aquinas, who was a powerful scholar of the church and a fierce proponent of spermist preformation, had equated marital fidelity with an embryology that was potent enough for young men to stay ‘chaste’ until marriage and to divert their thoughts away from immoralities, specifically rape (that thinking of virgins was tantamount to rape and thinking of married women was infidelity). It was integrated into the doctrine that young men were to be questioned about their ‘erections’ and whether they entertained impure thoughts that aroused them without an external, feminine, carnal force (Pinto-Correia, 2007). If the men were to admit to masturbation they were admonished, for it was held by the Christian community that such an act led to waste of sperm and each drop has within it a fully formed human being (complete with a head, torso, limb, and brain) awaiting growth inside the womb.

Thomas Aquinas

But Orphic egg with its complete iconography has more to offer, plenty that could have been translated into Christian theology post-Christianization. Stephen Greenblatt (The rise and fall of Adam and Eve; 2017) provides a scholarly interpretation for what the serpent in the tale of Eve’s temptation entails. The desire to eat of the forbidden fruit engendered in Eve was the doing of the much villainized serpent who cajoled her. It is also held that it was Satan in a serpentine disguise, regardless he endowed the first couple with ‘the light’ of knowledge. Lucifer means light, as does Phanes, and the Orphic egg is often depicted entwined by a slithering snake. The equation between the snake and knowledge put forth in ancient Greek mythology was carried forward into Christian interpretation of doctrine.

A very popular sketch by Nicolaas Hartsoeker depicting the homunculus (or small whole being) inside a single sperm. Spermism charged the theological imagination and provided validation to a patriarchal impulse

An embryology of a feminine vein was already present in Finland. Elias Lonnrot, the author of Kalevala toured all of Finland and compiled what became the hallmark of Finnish culture. Although significant portion of the Kalevala is devoted to locating a device implicit with epigenetic symbolism, the Sampo, the cornucopian powers of which were entirely from ‘scratch’, one particular tale explicitly attributes the value of embryogenesis to a morphogenic aspect. Ilmatar (whose name can now be interpreted as All-mother) was a goddess of the vast oceans. She swam and swam for a near infinite period (or perhaps 700 years) until time came in motion when a very symbolic creature of the fauna, the bird, either brought or laid an egg on Ilmatar’s knee. When the egg(s) rose in temperature due to incubation, Illmatar brushed them off her knee and the eggs fell. Some believe there were six eggs corresponding to the days of the week and those eggs gave birth to the earth. In this story both the fluidic power of the spermatic waters and the propulsive feminine energy of the goddess give potential to the eggs. In the case of the Sampo, Ilmarinen or Eternal Hammer provides the masculine energy of the beating of the hammer to then form the Sampo.

Ilmatar; Robert Wilhelm Ekman

The ‘ruh’ in Islam, which roughly translates to the soul, describes the seat of thought and revelation. It enters the embryo through the ‘qalb’ which roughly translate to the heart but speaks of a more spiritual sphere. This is in line with the Greek idea of the human soul having its origins in the heart of Zagreus which was the last remaining organ when the Titans had fed on him. It alludes to the softer, humane core of the being in contrast to the mortal flesh of Zagreus that found its end in mastication in the mouth of titans.

But the preformation in Christianity was not exclusively meant to keep the youth from waywardness, it was also a vindication of the doctrine of Salvation in Christ; the soteriology that through the sacrifice of Christ one finds penitence for sin and that all of mankind is bound in blood with him primarily because all of us were encapsulated in the ovary of Eve when God first created the mate of Adam (Pinto-Correia, 2007). This also justified predestination and the limits of Free Will; since God had wrapped all of humanity within Eve, God had known of the original sin and had thus prepared the first couple with the requisites for birthing generations. Preformation therefore weaved together all of history into one; the sin and its culmination, the salvation through the Passion of Christ and thus true Christians ultimate destination in heaven.

The Muslims, who had been briefly vilified as Saracens, had given weight to what Orpheus had already spoken of in his poems; that man is not already wrapped in full neither in the egg nor within the sperm (therefore granting equality to the sexes), rather man is ‘plaited like a net’ and develops in a process now called morphogenesis (Niehoff, 2005).

When Guthrie wrote of Orpheus, there was academic division between Orpheus the man and Orpheus the legend. Like most figures in ancient history, Orpheus too is enshrouded in mystery, colored by academic interpretation, translated by myth and legend, and passed down in stories. Most academics had concluded that Orpheus, if at all a real person, was nothing more than a Theban priest who had modified the prevalent influence of Dionysus. But Guthrie argued, that simply because a significant number of followers tracing to Orphism cannot be found, does not weaken the argument for the existence of Orpheus. Since adhering to Greek religion did not imply the follower to be mutually exclusive in following one particular deity. A follower of Demeter could also be a follower of Proserpine, and such a one was recommended to ascribe to the cult of Zeus as well. Unlike modern religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam wherein the follower is expected to identify with only one, ancient Greeks accepted a diverse group of followers (Guthrie, 1993).

Guthrie had also written of a tradition that held that Orpheus had received the law, akin to Moses, in the shape of tablets that had been brought to him by angels from Heaven. Naturally such traditions have since shaped the image of Orpheus, as had the subsequent Christianization of a massive chunk of Europe when the lines defining vice and goodness had become finer. When Aquinas’ doctrine of spermism had marginalized infidelity as a vice that caused wastage such it could be allotted a level of vice similar to murder, thus had the lascivious chase of either Apollo (or some other) after Eurydice on the day she had taken her wedding vows with Orpheus. The Apolline principle was once again chastised as having retained its Dionysiac soul. And Dionysus is never separated entirely from Orpheus at all, in fact the most popular version of Orpheus’ death is quite similar to the soteriology of Zagreus which he propagated; Orpheus was torn to shreds by the frenzied Bassarids of Dionysus and his still sentient head had gone down the river of either Libya or Syria, singing eulogies in the names of the deities before being discovered and laid to rest by the Nymphs. The irony is rather ingenious. Orpheus met his end at the hands of the cult of the same being in whose name he preached ‘orphism’. But this new being Dionysus (formerly Zagreus) had been maligned and sullied by the desire for the flesh (since Dionysus is a nature god of free morals) and which is exactly what Orpheus preached against. The abstinence from meat was meant to inculcate in the followers a sense of moderation and balance which limited pleasures and hedonism so man could rise above the base nature of the titans.

The nymphs discover the head of Orpheus; John William Waterhouse

In Orphic theology, the world does see its end in the form that is all too known to us; the coming of Typhon, the subsequent fight between Typhon and Zeus for the cosmos, the eventual end of the universe as it is. Although in most versions Zeus does win the match (mainly because of the help form Hermes and Hephaestus), the theomachy eventually brings an end. But the world renews once again in the form of the Orphic egg and Phanes/Protogonas starts life.

Modern medicine has clarified that the birth of a child is neither exclusively on the part of the male nor the female. But once both have contributed, the embryo grows via a morphogenic process; i.e the steady differentiation of a singular fertilized cell into all other cells of the body. It is not a simple process. In fact if anything is to be accorded the title of ‘miracle’ it has to be the epigenesis of an embryo into a complete human being. In what we call the apical ectodermal ridge formed from the mesodermal cells, the limbs are formed swiftly and then a neural circuitry is generated. But there are other factors at play here too.

Conrad Waddington’s epigenetic landscape; the ball represents the zygote, the troughs represent the lineages into which differentiation will occur

Conrad Waddington, whose name is now inextricably intertwined with epigenetics for perpetuity, proposed the all too famous model for the ‘Epigenetic Landscape’. Therein he shows a landscape with plenty troughs and a ball at the top. This ball is the unfertilized zygote and the troughs correspond to the level of differentiation of the cell. It was long held that once the egg rolls down the hell into any particular trough it is impossible to push it back to the top to its original position of ‘pluripotency’, or the state in which the cell is undifferentiated. However, John Gurdon, Shinya Yamanaka, and subsequent workers on the epigenetics program have proved that it is entirely possible to do so - revert the cell to its original state of pluripotency. By a process called Induced Pluripotent stem cells (iPSC; John Gurdon) and Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT; Shinya Yamanaka), the nuclei of a somatic cell can be inserted into a denucleated egg and then allowed to differentiate into whatever cell type the researcher desires.

SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) and iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cell) with its corresponding pluripotency factors

This procedure has opened the way for numerous stem cell therapies and enabled the researchers to come up with novel ways to implement it. And it is brilliant in how simple it is; the four growth factors that Shinya Yamanaka used during his process to grow a froglet; klf4, sox2, c-myc, oct4, had been known in the science community for quite some time as the prime factors inducing pluripotency. Yet it was the brilliance of Yamanaka in believing himself enough to spend the long years needed to bring his theory to fruition. Both Gurdon and Yamanaka shared the 2009 Lasker Prize and the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology and have since gone on to have fulfilling careers.

Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon who shared the 2009 Lasker Prize and the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine; both catapulted molecular science into a new era

Epigenetics is the process by which stable, heritable changes are made to the phenotype without underlying alteration to the genome. Epigenetics enables the switching on or off of a particular gene. The human body works miraculously indeed but not mysteriously. Every mechanism is programmed with a code that is unchanging but epigenetics brings about a diversity between people; how we respond to medicine, to the environment around us, to the stress posed by our lifestyle and so on. So if in fact God had indeed encapsulated within the ovaries of Eve the genetic blueprint encoded by the four nucleotides, Thymine, Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, it was the epigenetics that has created such a diverse world of human beings.


Anderson, W. S., & others. (1997). Ovid’s Metamorphoses. University of Oklahoma Press.

Carey, N. (2012). The epigenetics revolution: How modern biology is rewriting our understanding of genetics, disease, and inheritance. Columbia University Press.

Guthrie, W. K. (1993). Orpheus and Greek religion: a study of the Orphic movement (Vol. 557). Princeton University Press.

Niehoff, D. (2005). The language of life: How cells communicate in health and disease. National Academies Press.

Pinto-Correia, C. (2007). The ovary of Eve. University of Chicago Press.



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