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The Magic of the Orphic Hymns, by Tamra Lucid and Ronnie Pontiac

The Magic of the Orphic Hymns: A New Translation for the Modern Mystic, by Tamra Lucid and Ronnie Pontiac
Inner Traditions, 1644117207, 288 pages, August 2023

The mythical musician Orpheus charmed fish, sirens, and weary heroes with his songs while sailing with Jason and the Argonauts in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, but he is best known for his doomed love affair with Eurydice, who died after she was bitten by a snake while fleeing a rapist on their wedding day. Orpheus was so distraught that he descended into the Underworld and convinced Persephone, the Queen of the Dead, to resurrect his wife, on the condition that he not look back while leading her out of Hades.

However, in his eagerness to reunite with her, he couldn’t resist the urge to turn around, and she slipped away from him once again. Upon returning to the surface without his beloved wife, he founded the mystery religion that bears his name and the maenads tore him apart, mirroring the dismemberment of Dionysus by the Titans. A collection of 87 religious poems, known as the Orphic Hymns, were attributed to this cult hero, though the true origin and authorship of them is shrouded in mystery. 

In The Magic of the Orphic Hymns: A New Translation for the Modern Mystic, co-authors Tamra Lucid and Ronnie Pontiac revitalize the traditional hymns with fresh new poetic renderings in contemporary English. Like Orpheus, the husband and wife duo are mystical musicians themselves, who founded the experimental rock band Lucid Nation. Both were initiated into the underground music and occult scene of Los Angeles, and Pontiac apprenticed under the metaphysical scholar Manly Palmer Hall. Lucid wrote about their experiences in Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: My Seven Years in Occult Los Angeles with Manly Palmer Hall (2021).

The authors first began working with the hymns in the 1980s, when Pontiac assisted members of Hall’s Philosophical Research Society with a republication of Thomas Taylor’s eighteenth-century translation titled The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus. Pontiac, who was studying ancient Greek in college at the time, was inspired to write his own translation, and Lucid researched the ritual correspondences. Together, they produced the poetic renditions of the traditional hymns contained within this book. 

My go-to translation for the past decade has been The Orphic Hymns by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (2013), which is an excellent scholarly resource with extensive footnotes. I was drawn to Lucid and Pontiac’s more flexible poetic interpretations because I’m always looking for beautiful prayers to incorporate into my personal rituals and I thought this book might move me to craft my own hymns as well. However, The Magic of the Orphic Hymns is more than just a divinely inspired poetry collection, and I was impressed by the comprehensive historical background information the authors provide. 

In the first half of the book, Lucid and Pontiac explore the origins of Orphism from a well-researched, scholarly perspective, and the influence of Orpheus, “the first rock star,”1 on great minds throughout history. Through their engaging narrative voices, they have a knack for making what might otherwise be dry history entertaining, and this work is peppered with fascinating anecdotes about philosophers and Roman emperors. The far-reaching spiritual influence of Orphism interested me the most, and I was intrigued to learn that the early Christians saw Orpheus’s underworld journey to rescue his beloved wife as mirroring Christ’s harrowing of hell and the liberation of the virtuous souls trapped there.2 

Defining the religion of Orphism is tricky, and scholars have debated if it even existed at all.

“Orphic may have been a catch-all phrase in ancient Greece for anything neither Homeric nor Olympian,” writes Lucid and Pontiac. “The phrase could be a generic category for a cluster of related interests, like New Age in our own culture.”3

According to the Neoplatonist philosopher Olympiodorus, Orphics believed that human beings were created when Zeus struck the Titans by lightning after they cannibalized Dionysus. Humanity is therefore like an electrified Frankenstein monster composed of heavenly Dionysian spirit and corrupt Titanic flesh. Through the cycle of reincarnation, the Orphics supposedly taught that humans could purge themselves of their Titanic impurities over the course of multiple lifetimes and liberate their Dionysian divinity.

Followers of the Orphic mysteries led austere lives and restricted their diets by abstaining from meat and beans. However, authors Lucid and Pontiac state that Olympiodorus is the only source for the Titanic origin myth of humanity being Orphic and the Italian scholar Domenico Comparetti concluded that the Orphics believed in reincarnation based on his writings, so this is an educated guess supported by scant evidence. 4

Lucid and Pontiac’s exploration of Orpheus’s wife in a chapter titled, “The Evolution of Eurydice” was especially compelling to me. In the earliest sources, Eurydice is nameless, faceless, and voiceless. She is a shadow projection of Orpheus’s mourning and yearning to possess the woman who was stolen from him by death. She is an ancient victim of the male gaze, doomed to serve as muse for a famous musician while having no true identity of her own. 

Her elusive character acquired more substance in retellings. I was fascinated to learn that a name for Eurydice in some early versions of the myth was Agriope, which means “Wild-Eyed.”5 This caught my attention because Agriope is also an epithet for Hekate, the goddess of ghosts and witchcraft, in her capacity as leader of the restless dead. Under the name Agriope, Orpheus’s wife appears to be a hungry ghost sent by the Queen of the Underworld to haunt him. 

The authors suggest that Eurydice, whose name means “Wide Justice,”6 sounds more like an epithet for the goddess Persephone in her role as judge of souls than the name of a mortal wife. I’m inclined to agree, because I find the parallels between Persephone and Eurydice to be striking. Eurydice died of a snake bite after a shepherd or satyr attempted to rape her on the day of her wedding to Orpheus, and according to the Orphic Hymn to Persephone, Zeus raped Persephone in the form of a serpent. The fruit of that unspeakable union was Dionysus. Through her untimely death, Eurydice was, in a sense, abducted by Hades, and through Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld, he was reborn as a Dionysian mystic.

Persephone herself is a key figure in the myth for taking pity upon Orpheus and permitting Eurydice’s return to the land of the living, on the condition that he not look back, lest he lose her forever. Yet, despite this warning, he could not resist the urge to do so. In medieval times, Orpheus’s backward glance “was a symbol of human weakness, illustrating the way even the most dedicated among us, the holiest, cannot escape those moments of desire for material pleasures.”7

Carl Jung interpreted Orpheus’s “backward glance” as “a symbol of individuation and the achievement of autonomy.”8 Orpheus was fated to lose the love of his life so he would become the renowned mystic and musician he was destined to be. Sometimes the obligations of a relationship can limit one’s ability to pursue the soul’s true calling, and so Orpheus’s romantic hindrance was removed by the force of death, while simultaneously being used as a guiding light to propel him forward.

This poignant insight resonated deeply with me because I have observed in my own life that love lost or unrequited can be a powerful catalyst for personal growth and transformation. Limerence, or romantic obsession for someone unattainable, can serve a higher purpose when it is sublimated into artistic and spiritual pursuits. When I think back on it, it seems that heartbreak was the catalyst for every major breakthrough and turning point in my life, as if the Universe was redirecting me towards something greater, even though I felt devastated at the time. 

The second half of this book contains the “Orphic Charms and the Sacred Songs of Orpheus.” The authors have taken creative liberties with their loose translations of the Orphic Hymns, creating “a poetic work, not a scholarly translation.”9

The charms consist of the cryptic messages that were inscribed on the Orphic golden leaves, which were buried with the deceased as “passwords for the dead, messages to avert forgetfulness.”10 My favorite charm tells the departed initiate what words they must speak to the guardians of the lake of memory in order to drink from it:

“I am a child of earth/and of starry heaven,/but my race is of heaven./This you know./I am parched/and perishing./Give me cold water/from the lake of memory.”11

One of my favorite hymns is addressed to Hermes, who is cleverly described with homophones as the “lover of prophets/and profits”.12 I also adore the hymn to Persephone, in which she is honored as “the star/at the core of the apple.”13 The beautiful aquatic imagery of “The Nereids” reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”: “Daughters of Nereus,/you live in the golden castle/at the bottom of the sea./Your steeds are Tritons,/the mermen with wings./You delight in the creatures/of the billowing brine.”14

The Magic of the Orphic Hymns is a poetic odyssey through the history and mystery of Orphism that makes the traditional hymns more accessible to contemporary mystics by rendering them in vivid modern English. Anyone who is curious about the Orphic tradition or interested in revitalizing the hymns in their personal practice will benefit from reading this book. These pages want to be perfumed in incense and awakened with whispered incantations.

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary, by Tamra Lucid

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: My Seven Years in Occult Los Angeles with Manly Palmer Hall, by Tamra Lucid
Inner Traditions, 9781644113752, 160 pages, December 2021

I have quite the collection of Manly P. Hall books, which I have amassed because I live about two hours outside of LA and can score incredible finds at used book stores. From The Secret Teaching of All Ages to Man: Grand Symbols of the Mysteries, Hall’s books are what I am most proud to display on my bookshelf.

While recently I’ve been reading Hall’s The Secret Destiny of America to better understand the USA’s Pluto return this year, I will admit the aforementioned books haven’t been delved too far into yet. Most of the time, I’m intimidated by the sheer amount of history, knowledge, and occult wisdom stored in the books and feel like they’re not relics rather than learning manuals. I refer to them in dribs and drabs, taking what I need and then quickly shutting it again, almost afraid to unleash the power.

However, reading Making the Ordinary Extraordinary: My Seven Years in Occult Los Angeles with Manly Palmer Hall by Tamra Lucid has completely changed my perception of Hall – in a very good way! Lucid has painted a new picture of Hall for me, granting unique access into his life that reveals so much about his final years.

I love reading fiction books about people in history that I admire. Learning about their personality, daily life, and close association always puts their achievements in perspective for me. It’s easy to deify those we admire, but remembering they are an ordinary person helps to better understand their motivation behind their success.

Lucid and her boyfriend Ronnie, a troubled yet insightful man determined to make some changes in life, discovered The Secret Teaching of All Ages in the early 1980s. The content was life-changing, and they were surprised to find out the author, Hall, was not only still alive but gave talks regularly every Sunday morning. For over 50 years, every Sunday at 11am, Hall would give a lecture at his Philosophical Research Society (PRS) headquarters on various topics. Curious about the content of the book, Lucid and Ronnie decided to attend one.

Ronnie experienced a life-changing moment where it felt as though Hall was speaking directly to him, which many people in Hall’s life claim he had an uncanny way of doing. Following the lecture, Ronnie was eager to make a contribution to PRS, so he and Lucid decided to volunteer.

Ronnie wasn’t sure what he could contribute and was plagued by self doubt. Therefore, when Hall picked Ronnie to edit the bibliography of his alchemical books, he was honored yet doubtful he could fulfill the role. In fact, he told Hall no at first, but Hall insisted. And just like that, Lucid and Ronnie became a part of Hall’s inner circle, ushering in a whole host of characters in their lives.

There were tons of regulars at PRS; each there for their own reasons and the atmosphere was very open to ideas, research, and general philosophical questioning of the Universe. People from all walks of life from gurus to musicians gathered around the hall, making PRS an eclectic, thriving community.

Lucid describes Edith, a hip old woman that taught the couple astrology,  musicians Arthur and Lynn who called their home “New Temple of Freedom”1, Mr. Louis, who’d visit their house and go silently meditate in the corner, and many more! Reading about the variety of people, each on their own spiritual quest, coming together through the PRS community made me see how a sense of belonging can help one to flourish.

And this question of, “What brought you here?” is something that Lucid explores throughout the book for everyone she writes about. This makes the book interesting that she’s not merely just describing people, places, and events; she’s painting a picture of this time period, capturing the atmosphere and highlighting the deeper motivations and personal journey of everyone she writes about.

“We asked Steven what brought him to PRS. A dream. Dreams had been guiding him on an epic journey to gather information from all around the world about alternative and unusual methods of healing involving color, electricity, herbs, elixirs, the recipes of medieval sages like Paracelsus, and the advice of psychics like Edgar Cayce.”2

Meanwhile, Lucid and Ronnie are on their own spiritual journey. For instance, they begin visiting the Seer of the Sunbelt, Reverend Edward A. Monroe, “who would be answering questions about earth change.”3 through his Scottish spirit guide Jock. Another time, Ronnie was having trouble overcoming an illness, so Hall took him to Dr. Sabia to have a session with The Electro Stimulating Machine.

If you try to Google these things, no information comes up. And this is why Making the Ordinary Extraordinary is such a value book for one’s occult collection. There’s little to no records of these things that were happening. And reading about them opens so many doors of perception, as well as topics of research to further inquire about. When you consider this was all happening pre-Internet, you begin to see how unique of a scene this must have been. Reading Lucid’s story helps me to understand what occult Los Angeles was like in the 1980s, and oh how I wish I had been there!

In time, Ronnie began rising in rank at PRS, even delivering his own lectures on Sundays. There’s a really, kind of crazy story too at how Lucid and Ronnie wound up married because of the Halls, with Manly P. Hall as the officiant! Quite abruptly though, Hall subtly forced Lucid and Ronnie out of the PRS community. Things were changing, and Hall knew it.

What ended up happening to the community PRS, splintering and fracturing, was a heartbreaking story. For some reason, even with the great admiration and reverence I have for Manly P. Hall, I had never heard about the sketchy circumstances of his death. Lucid’s experience of leaving PRS and even warning Hall about the people he was surrounding himself with absolutely cast his death in a new light for me.

Hall did at least guide Lucid and Ronnie to this next endeavor: music. Their band Lucid Nation rocks. I totally went and listened to their music after I finished the book. Plus, I was inspired to check out all of Lucid’s other work including writing for Newtopia Magazine and documentaries Exile Nation: The Plastic People, End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, and Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War. Totally, totally amazing stuff!

But there’s just one more person I have to write about, which I saved for last intentionally because she’s been all I’ve wanted to talk about: Marie Bauer Hall. Lucid delves into Marie’s fascinating theory that Sir Francis Bacon (and his contemporaries) was Shakespeare, detailing how she went to the Burton Church in Virginia to try to dig up his tomb. Marie’s cosmology also involved the Space Mother.

Lucid describes how “In her magnum opus, Inquiry Into the Nature of Space and of Life in Space, Marie expressed optimism that it would be the mother of humanity whose conscience and consciousness would first awaken.”4 I’ve gotten so into researching more about Marie that I even bought God as Mother by Victoria Jennings, who organized and shares Marie’s work in the book. I really hope that more occult historians focus on Marie, from her life as Manly’s wife for decades to her own cosmologies – there is so much to uncover! A real treat is that Lucid includes the recipe for Marie’s zucchini pancakes at the end of the book!

All in all, Making the Ordinary Extraordinary is a must-read for anyone interested in occult history. Manly P. Hall is one of the most well-known modern occultists of our times, and Lucid’s up close and personal stories of working for Hall and being immersed in the PRS is fascinating insider information. Lucid does a wonderful job of sharing her personal experience with objectivity and genuine insight and reflection about the past. While it focuses on time-passed, it opened so many new doors for me to explore going forward; occult Los Angeles lives on through Lucid and Making the Ordinary Extraordinary.