SEARCHING FOR ORPHEUS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Tatul, Thracian rock shrine in Rhodope, claims to be 'tomb' of mythical musician

orpheus grave tatul bulgaria

Huddled deep among the hills of the Eastern Rhodope, Tatul could be any one of the many hamlets that you pass through while travelling in this area. Yet, it is not an ordinary Rhodope village. A high rocky hill rises about 300m south of it, crowned by one of the most peculiar megalithic structures the Thracians ever made.

On the hilltop, a 4.5-metre-high monolithic stone mass rises in the shape of a truncated pyramid. A semi-circular niche that overhangs a sarcophagus-like stone tomb is carved into one of its sides. A second rectangular basin nearly 2m long is hollowed out at the top of the pyramid, and its resemblance to a sarcophagus is stunning.

The second sarcophagus can only be seen if you climb a flight of steep, narrow and vertiginous steps.

In spite of its spectacular appearance, the Thracian shrine at Tatul has not been extensively researched, barring excavations in the 1970s, which focused on its late Antiquity and mediaeval fortifications, and again in the 2000s.

Orpheus grave

The sanctuary is located on a hill visible from all around

The sanctuary was founded between the 18th and the 11th centuries BC, and was active well into the 1st millennium BC. During the Hellenistic era, at the end of the 4th and the first half of the 3rd centuries BC, the shrine was fortified with a wall enclosing several sacred buildings. One of these, dubbed Building No. 1, is Tatul's most impressive structure, notwithstanding the stone pyramid of course. Building No. 1 has been interpreted as a heroon, or a temple to a deified ancestor from the 4th century BC.

And yet Tatul has acquired a different fame thanks to the sensationalist media and the Internet. According to the well-publicised hype, the stone pyramid is where Orpheus, the mythical musician who went to Hell and then returned, was buried.

Several ancient Greek sources say that Orpheus was a Thracian musician, poet and prophet of the so-called Orphic mysteries. His playing of the lyre was so captivating and his songs so beautiful that not a single creature on earth could remain unmoved by his gift. The stories about how Orpheus was born, how he lived and how he died, however, differ according to whoever told them. All his biographers were born centuries after he died.

There were two noted events in his mythical life, and they have stirred the human imagination for centuries. The first tells of Orpheus's descent into Hell. So distraught was the musician by the sudden death of his wife, Eurydice, that he descended into the Kingdom of the Dead and, with a song, softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone. Eurydice was allowed to return to life on one condition: Orpheus was to walk in front of his wife and was not to look back until both of them had seen the light of the sun. As is common with this kind of myth, Orpheus did turn round.

Orpheus grave

The second story follows on from the first. The distraught Orpheus angered either a group of women or the Maenads of Dionysus (the accounts vary), who murdered him with their bare hands or by stoning. The reputed whereabouts of the remains of Orpheus are Pieria, on mainland Greece (Aeschylus), and Dion, at the foot of Mount Olympus (Pausanias). His lyre and severed head were then carried by the Maritsa River and waves of the sea to Lesbos, where they started to foretell the future.

In 2002 Greek archaeologists announced that they had found the likely site of the Orphean oracle on Lesbos. Bulgarian historians countered this with the theory that the grave of Orpheus might be in Tatul.

How did it come about that the names Tatul and Orpheus began to be used in the same sentence?

This is the result of the practical application of a bold theory, developed by the late historian Professor Aleksandar Fol. It posits that Orpheus was a real person who lived in the 2nd millennium BC and was of Thracian origin, and that he achieved the reformation of the religion of an entire people.

Before Orpheus, the Thracians believed in an elemental Dionysus, the god of unbridled ecstasy and darkness in both nature and the human soul. Orpheus introduced the Thracians to a new deity, the bright, spiritual god Apollo, who promised everyone who followed him a life after death. However, this new religion was confined only to aristocrats and a chosen few who were introduced to his teaching, and only they could hope to live forever after death.

Orpheus statue

A modern sculpture depicting Orpheus and Eurydice in the town of Smolyan

Professor Fol's theory was applied to Tatul in the mid-2000s, as it was reputed to have been a shrine to Orpheus and also his possible resting place. Circumstantial evidence abounds. The sepulchral complex has no known equivalent in the Balkans, and it is obvious that it was designed for a very important person who, perhaps, not only reformed the religion, but was also a senior nobleman.

The sarcophagus atop the pyramid is so high that it appears to be looking towards the sky and the sun. Orpheus was, after all, a disciple of Apollo, the sun god. One of the legends about the death of the musician claims that he was torn to pieces by the Maenads precisely because he had chosen to bow before Apollo instead of Dionysus.

This hypothesis gained momentum in the 2000s, and in 2005 a find from the area gave it additional weight. Some villagers claimed to have discovered near the shrine a statuette of a nude Greco-Roman deity with a lyre. The artefact dates from the 1st or the 2nd centuries AD and possibly depicts Apollo. Some researchers, however, claim that it is actually a rare image of Orpheus.

This piece of circumstantial evidence, boosted by the curiosity of tourists and media sensationalism, transformed Tatul. Today the shrine is popularly known as the "Grave of Orpheus" and the site, complete with a concrete path, benches and signposts, features on all the Rhodope tourist routes. Sadly, the metal roof protecting some of the excavated structures is not particularly inspiring for those who come to wonder at this magnificent place. 

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