O Much-desir'd, prolific, gen'ral queen,
Hear me, life-bearing, Health, of beauteous mien,
Mother of all; by thee diseases dire,
Of bliss destructive, from our life retire;
And ev'ry house is flourishing and fair,
If with rejoicing aspect thou art there:
Each dædal art, thy vig'rous force inspires,
And all the world thy helping hand desires;
Pluto life's bane alone resists thy will,
And ever hates thy all-preserving skill.
O fertile queen, from thee forever flows
To mortal life from agony repose;
And men without thy all-sustaining ease,
Find nothing useful, nothing form'd to please;
Without thy aid, not Plutus' self can thrive,
Nor man to much afflicted age arrive;
For thou alone of countenance serene,
Dost govern all things, universal queen.
Assist thy mystics with propitious mind,
And far avert disease of ev'ry kind.
The composition of this wonderful hymn is credited to Orpheus, the legendary ancient Greek philosopher/teacher who lived in prehistoric times. Little is historically known of him, but what is certain is that he was an influential teacher/philosopher of prehistoric Greek culture, founding the first Mysteries in Greece. It is said that:
"The Orphics had been the first philosophers of Greece and the spiritual ancestors of the Pythagorean and Platonic schools, renowned for asceticism and for belief in the immortality of the soul." (ref.)
This asceticism was, it seems, among the first of its kind on European soil. It is also said that:
"the Orphic Brotherhood ate no animal food and wore white linen garments, and had many ceremonies like those of the Brahmans." - Theosophical Glossary
and elsewhere that they were, at the very least, vegetarian. (1)
The Hymn to Health is found among the surviving Hymns of Orpheus. The very fact that Orpheus (and/or his followers) saw fit to include it among the Hymns (a central guiding text for Orphics) demonstrates the importance of health in the Orphic Life. Indeed, in the very hymn itself we find the thought that without health, one will "Find nothing useful, nothing form'd to please", that "Without thy aid, not Plutus' [the God of Wealth] self can thrive" (i.e. without health, wealth is useless), and that health "Dost govern all things." Furthermore, they close the hymn with a call on health to "Assist thy mystics with propitious mind", demonstrating that they considered health to be quite important to the philosophical or mystic mind. Combining these sentiments with their asceticism and vegetarianism/veganism indicates that such a diet must have been considered by them to be healthy, for if health is of such importance, surely the lifestyle associated with their movement would've been that which they understood to bring such health.
As described in a previous blog on the life of Apollonius of Tyana (see An Ancient Vegan), the veganism of Apollonius is claimed to have originated in India among the Brahmans, from where it was taught to the Egyptians and on to Pythagoras and the Greeks. Orpheus, however, predates Pythagoras by perhaps many centuries. Western history recognizes him as being already historically famous in the 6th Century BC, while there are eastern traditions that equate Orpheus with Arjuna (2), who in this tradition is said to have traveled the world teaching wisdom and sciences and establishing "mystery schools", thus placing Orpheus at the time of Krishna, who, tradition holds, died in 3102 BC. The latter tradition would, of course, reinforce Apollonius's belief that the life he devoted himself to had its origins in India, but in either case (and we may never know the truth of it), the antiquity is very great.
What is of primary importance is that we find the importance of health combined with vegetarianism/veganism among the first philosophers/thinkers at the very foundations of Greek, and thus western, culture. This cannot be understated, that the first thinkers of western culture, as we know it, practiced vegetarianism/veganism and understood it to be healthy.
(1) in ancient works the term vegetarian may have meant the same as what we call veganism, as in the cases of Apollonius and Pythagoras, but may perhaps mean similar to what we term vegetarian, as is often the case in ancient India, where milk was still consumed. It becomes difficult, without clear indications, to determine the extent various ancient's "vegetarianism".
(2) Indeed, elements of their stories are starkly similar, including that both are said to have gone to the "Underworld" (Hades or Patala) in order to find/retrieve their wife. Also, it is said that Orpheus "was considered dark in complexion even by the Greeks, who were never very fairskinned themselves" (Theosophical Glossary), which may perhaps add some credit to the tradition. Furthermore, Arjuna, along with his Pandava brothers is said to have been sent into exile from their Indian kingdom for 13 years (during which they traveled far and wide), and it is reported that during that exile Arjuna learned and taught song and dance (Orpheus is known as a great teacher of music). These similarities may lend credence to the eastern tradition.