Symbology in Greek Tales and Legends

symbology in myth sun chariot

Symbology in Greek Tales and Legends

“Taylor says that the Grecian theology was first ‘mystically and symbolically’ promulgated by Orpheus, and so at once goes to the root of the whole matter. To understand that theology, therefore, we must treat it from the point of view of mysticism and symbolism, for no other method is capable of extracting its meaning. …
“These symbolic Orphic fables have for ages baffled the intelligence of rationalistic literalists, and shocked the prudery of ecclesiastics who, erroneously regarding the Jewish myths as actual realities, have fallen into the same error with regard to the fables of Orpheus. Nonnus states the simple fact in saying “Orpheus describes the series of powers, and the modes, energizings and powers of being, by means of fabulous symbols. … we find Proclus writing, ‘the Orphic method aimed at revealing divine things by means of symbols, a method common to all writers of divine lore.” ~G. R. S. Mead

Greek and Orphic Tales

The Orphic fables of ancient Greece are full of mystical and spiritual symbology. They were not so foolish as to actually believe that the sun rode across the sky in the chariot of Helios, or that Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and gave it to man. These are symbolic tales, as are most of the others. Some literalists will point out that evidence has been found to indicate that some such myths and legends actually did occur. That really doesn’t matter. The philosophers, prophets, and spiritual teachers may have taken historical events and used them to make a point symbolically. It is what the tale stood for symbolically that mattered, not whether or not it actually happened on the physical level.

Orpheus was a traveling musician, poet, philosopher and prophet of ancient Greece. It was claimed that he had the power to charm all living things with his music. He is credited with founding, or at least spreading, certain ideas about religion, theology, and mysticism that came to be know as Orphic Mysteries. The main points were that (1) the human soul is divine and immortal, but must be “awakened” by certain practices which were taught in the mystery schools to those who proved worthy by passing certain preliminary trials.


The Greeks, like the Babylonians before them and the Romans and Gnostics after them, kept many of these mystery teachings private by not writing them down, but sharing them only by word of mouth. This was done for the protection of those who might misuse such knowledge and hurt themselves as others; much as most sensible people today would consider it irresponsible to publish a book giving detailed instructions on making bombs at home from readily available ingredients.

But here is where that philosophy creates problems: how do you find potential students if you never write any of the teachings down? In the ancient world, this was partly done by giving public talks, and that is still done to some degree. A more effective way,however,was to bury at least some of those spiritual truths in myths, legends, and tall tales: in symbology.

phoenix symbology

The phoenix symbolically blocking the sun.

So they wrote about a great bird called the Phoenix (Thunderbird or Firebird in other places) that was very much real—but only symbolically. They wrote about a great god carrying the sun across the sky, not because such a being existed, but because they wanted us to pay attention to the sun, especially the Spiritual Sun. They wrote about God feeding man with sacred “bread” which is not literally bread at all, but the Divine Light that comes from God to nourish the spirit and soul as bread nourishes the body. The “Fountain of Youth” is another symbolic name for this Light Energy since those who use it ted to age slower than others.

Even today, writers continue this practice, though for different reasons. Instead of telling you to live a moral life, they write about the tribulations of those who don’t. Instead of writing about the foolishness of materialism, they will write a book about an evil materialist who is inevitable defeated by those who still have morals and perhaps even believe in God (read the Dean Koontz Frankenstein series). This is a different way to use symbology, but still a valid one.

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