Orphism (religion)

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Orphism (more rarely Orphicism; Ancient Greek: Ὀρφικά) is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices[1] originating in the ancient Greek and Hellenistic world,[2] as well as from the Thracians,[3] associated with literature ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus, who descended into the Greek underworld and returned. Orphics revered Dionysus (who once descended into the Underworld and returned) and Persephone (who annually descended into the Underworld for a season and then returned). Orphism has been described as a reform of the earlier Dionysian religion, involving a re-interpretation or re-reading of the myth of Dionysus and a re-ordering of Hesiod's Theogony, based in part on pre-Socratic philosophy.[4]

The central focus of Orphism is the suffering and death of the god Dionysus at the hands of the Titans, which forms the basis of Orphism's central myth. According to this myth, the infant Dionysus is killed, torn apart, and consumed by the Titans. In retribution, Zeus strikes the Titans with a thunderbolt, turning them to ash. From these ashes, humanity is born. In Orphic belief, this myth describes humanity as having a dual nature: body (sōma), inherited from the Titans, and a divine spark or soul (psychē), inherited from Dionysus.[5] In order to achieve salvation from the Titanic, material existence, one had to be initiated into the Dionysian mysteries and undergo teletē, a ritual purification and reliving of the suffering and death of the god.[6] Orphics believed that they would, after death, spend eternity alongside Orpheus and other heroes. The uninitiated (amyetri), they believed, would be reincarnated indefinitely.[7]

In order to maintain their purity following initiation and ritual, Orphics attempted to live an ascetic life free of spiritual contamination, most notably by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet that also excluded certain kinds of beans.



Orphism is named for the legendary poet-hero Orpheus, who was said to have originated the Mysteries of Dionysus.[8] However, Orpheus was more closely associated with Apollo than to Dionysus in the earliest sources and iconography. According to some versions of his mythos, he was the son of Apollo, and during his last days, he shunned the worship of other gods and devoted himself to Apollo alone.[9]

Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BC[10] or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".[11] The Derveni papyrus allows Orphic mythology to be dated to the end of the 5th century BC,[12] and it is probably even older.[13] Orphic views and practices are attested as by Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato. Plato refers to "Orpheus-initiators" (Ὀρφεοτελεσταί), and associated rites, although how far "Orphic" literature in general related to these rites is not certain.[14]

Bertrand Russell (1947) pointed out about Socrates

He is not an orthodox Orphic; it is only the fundamental doctrines that he accepts, not the superstitions and ceremonies of purification.[15]

Relationship to Pythagoreanism

Orphic views and practices have parallels to elements of Pythagoreanism, and various traditions hold that the Pythagoreans or Pythagoras himself authored early Orphic works; alternately, later philosophers believed that Pythagoras was an initiate of Orphism. The extent to which one movement may have influenced the other remains controversial.[16] Some scholars maintain that Orphism and Pythagoranism began as separate traditions which later became confused and conflated due to a few similarities. Other argue that the two traditions share a common origin and can even be considered a single entity, termed "Orphico-Pythagoranism."[17]

The belief that Pythagoreanism was a subset of direct descendant of Orphic religion existed by late antiquity, when Neoplatonist philosophers took the Orphic origin of Pythagorean teachings at face value. Proclus wrote:

"all that Orpheus transmitted through secret discourses connected to the mysteries, Pythagoras learnt thoroughly when he completed the initiation at Libethra in Thrace, and Aglaophamus, the initiator, revealed to him the wisdom about the gods that Orpheus acquired from his mother Calliope."[18]

In the fifteenth century, the Neoplatonic Greek scholar Constantine Lascaris (who found the poem Argonautica Orphica ) considered a Pythagorean Orpheus.[19] Bertrand Russell (1947) noted:

The Orphics were an ascetic sect; wine, to them, was only a symbol, as, later, in the Christian sacrament. The intoxication that they sought was that of "enthusiasm," of union with the god. They believed themselves, in this way, to acquire mystic knowledge not obtainable by ordinary means. This mystical element entered into Greek philosophy with Pythagoras, who was a reformer of Orphism as Orpheus was a reformer of the religion of Dionysus. From Pythagoras Orphic elements entered into the philosophy of Plato, and from Plato into most later philosophy that was in any degree religious.[20]

Study of early Orphic and Pythagorean sources, however, are more ambiguous concerning their relationship, and authors writing closer to Pythagoras' own lifetime never mentioned his supposed initiation into Orphism, and in general regarded Orpheus himself as a mythological figure.[17] Despite this, even these authors of the 5th and 4th centuries BC noted a strong similarity between the two doctrines. In fact, some claimed that rather than being an initiate of Orphism, Pythagoras was actually the original author of the first Orphic texts. Specifically, Ion of Chios claimed that Pythagoras authored poetry which he attributed to the mythical Orpheus, and Epigenes, in his On Works Attributed to Orpheus, attributed the authorship of several influential Orphic poems to notable early Pythagoreans, including Cercops.[17] According to Cicero, Aristotle also claimed that Orpheus never existed, and that the Pythagoreans ascribed some Orphic poems to Cercon (see Cercops).[21]

The Neoplatonists regarded the theology of Orpheus, carried forward through Pythagoreanism, as the core of the original Greek religious tradition. However, earlier sources demonstrate that it began as a fringe movement, with its mythology and ritual considered unorthodox and incorporating alien elements similar to the Egyptian religion of the 4th and 5th centuries BC. Modern historians tend to support the latter view.[17]


The Orphic theogonies are genealogical works similar to the Theogony of Hesiod, but the details are different. The theogonies are symbolically similar to Near Eastern models. The main story has it that Zagreus, Dionysus' previous incarnation, is the son of Zeus and Persephone. Zeus names the child as his successor, which angers his wife Hera. She instigates the Titans to murder the child. Zagreus is then tricked with a mirror and children's toys by the Titans, who shred him to pieces and consume him. Athena saves the heart and tells Zeus of the crime, who in turn hurls a thunderbolt on the Titans. The resulting soot, from which sinful mankind is born, contains the bodies of the Titans and Zagreus. The soul of man (the Dionysus part) is therefore divine, but the body (the Titan part) holds the soul in bondage. Thus, it was declared that the soul returns to a host ten times, bound to the wheel of rebirth. Following the punishment, the dismembered limbs of Zagreus were cautiously collected by Apollo who buried them in his sacred land Delphi. In later centuries, these versions underwent a development where Apollo's act of burying became responsible for the reincarnation of Dionysus, thus giving Apollo the title Dionysiodotes (bestower of Dionysus).[22] Apollo plays an important part in the dismemberment myth because he represents the reverting of Encosmic Soul back towards unification.[23][24]

There are two Orphic stories of the rebirth of Dionysus: in one it is the heart of Dionysus that is implanted into the thigh of Zeus; in the other Zeus has impregnated the mortal woman Semele, resulting in Dionysus's literal rebirth. Many of these details differ from accounts in the classical authors. Damascius says that Apollo "gathers him (Dionysus) together and brings him back up". Firmicus Maternus, a Christian author, gives a different account with the book On the Error of Profane Religions. He says that Jupiter (Zeus) originally was a (mortal) king of Crete—a concept of Euhemerus—and Dionysos was his son. Dionysos was murdered, and then cannibalized. Only his heart was salvaged by Athena. A statue of gypsum (the same substance the Titans used to disguise themselves) was then made to look like Dionysos, and the heart placed within.[25]

The Orphic theogonies include:


Surviving written fragments show a number of beliefs about the afterlife similar to those in the "Orphic" mythology about Dionysus' death and resurrection. Bone tablets found in Olbia (5th century BC) carry short and enigmatic inscriptions like: "Life. Death. Life. Truth. Dio(nysus). Orphics." The function of these bone tablets is unknown.[27]

Gold-leaf tablets found in graves from Thurii, Hipponium, Thessaly and Crete (4th century BC and after) give instructions to the dead. Although these thin tablets are often highly fragmentary, collectively they present a shared scenario of the passage into the afterlife. When the deceased arrives in the underworld, he is expected to confront obstacles. He must take care not to drink of Lethe ("Forgetfulness"), but of the pool of Mnemosyne ("Memory"). He is provided with formulaic expressions with which to present himself to the guardians of the afterlife.

I am a son of Earth and starry sky. I am parched with thirst and am dying; but quickly grant me cold water from the Lake of Memory to drink.[28]

Other gold leaves offer instructions for addressing the rulers of the underworld:

Now you have died and now you have come into being, O thrice happy one, on this same day. Tell Persephone that the Bacchic One himself released you.[29]


  1. ^ Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture by Marilyn B. Skinner, 2005, page 135, "[...] of life, there was no coherent religious movement properly termed 'Orphism' (Dodds 1957: 147–9; West 1983: 2–3). Even if there were, [...]"
  2. ^ Three Faces of God by David L. Miller, 2005, Back Matter: "[...] assumed that this was a Christian trinitarian influence on late Hellenistic Orphism, but it may be that the Old Neoplatonists were closer [...]"
  3. ^ History of Humanity: From the seventh century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. Routledge reference, Siegfried J. de Laet, UNESCO, 1996 , ISBN 92-3-102812-X, pp. 182–183.
  4. ^ A. Henrichs, “‘Hieroi Logoi’ ” and ‘Hierai Bibloi’: The (Un) Written Margins of the Sacred in Ancient Greece,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 101 (2003): 213-216.
  5. ^ Sandys, John, Pindar. The Odes of Pindar including the Principal Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1937.
  6. ^ Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Rituales órficos (Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2006);
  7. ^ Proclus, Commentary on the Republic of Plato, II, 338, 17 Kern 224.
  8. ^ Apollodorus (Pseudo Apollodorus), Library and Epitome, 1.3.2 . "Orpheus also invented the mysteries of Dionysus, and having been torn in pieces by the Maenads he is buried in Pieria."
  9. ^ Alberto Bernabé, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Raquel Martín Hernández, Redefining Dionysos
  10. ^ Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, 2003, page 162, "Orphism began in the sixth century BCE"
  11. ^ W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greeks & Their Gods (Beacon, 1954), p. 322; Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), pp. 21, 30–31, 33; Parker, "Early Orphism", pp. 485, 497
  12. ^ "The Derveni Papyrus: An Interdisciplinary Research Project" . Harvard University, Center for Hellenic Studies.
  13. ^ Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), pp. 30–31
  14. ^ Parker, "Early Orphism", pp. 484, 487.
  15. ^ Bertrand Russel (1947). History of Western Philosophy . George Allen and Unwin. p. 111 .
  16. ^ Parker, "Early Orphism", p. 501.
  17. ^ a b c d Betegh, G. (2014). Pythagoreans, Orphism and Greek Religion. A History of Pythagoreanism, 274-295.
  18. ^ Proclus, Tim. 3.168.8
  19. ^ Russo, Attilio (2004). "Costantino Lascaris tra fama e oblio nel Cinquecento messinese", in Archivio Storico Messinese, pp. 53-54.
  20. ^ Bertrand Russel (1947). History of Western Philosophy . George Allen and Unwin. p. 37 .
  21. ^ Aristotle; Ross, W. D. (William David), 1877; Smith, J. A. (John Alexander), 1863-1939 (1908). The works of Aristotle . p. 80 .CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  22. ^ Alberto Bernabé, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Raquel Martín Hernández. (2013), Redefining Dionysos
  23. ^ Proclus in commentary on Cratylus states that Apollo signifies the cause of unity and that which reassembles many into one
  24. ^ Dwayne A. Meisner, Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods (2018)
  25. ^ Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanarum religionum 6.4
  26. ^ British Museum Collection
  27. ^ Sider, David; Obbink, Dirk (2013-10-30). Doctrine and Doxography . p. 160. ISBN 9783110331370.
  28. ^ Numerous tablets contain this essential formula with minor variations; for the Greek texts and translations, see Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (Routledge, 2007), pp. 4–5 (Hipponion, 400 BC), 6–7 (Petelia, 4th century BC), pp. 16–17 (Entella, possibly 3rd century BC), pp. 20–25 (five tablets from Eleutherna, Crete, 2nd or 1st century BC), pp. 26–27 (Mylopotamos, 2nd century BC), pp. 28–29 (Rethymnon, 2nd or 1st century BC), pp. 34–35 (Pharsalos, Thessaly, 350–300 BC), and pp. 40–41 (Thessaly, mid-4th century BC) online.
  29. ^ Tablet from Pelinna, late 4th century BC, in Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife, pp. 36–37.


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Categories: Ancient Greek religion | Greco-Roman mysteries | Orpheus

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