Orphism (religion): Wikis


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Orphic mosaics were found in many late-Roman villae

Orphism (more rarely Orphicism) (Ancient Greek, "Ορφικά") is the name given to a set of religious[1] beliefs and practices in the ancient Greek and the Hellenistic[2][3][4][5] world, associated with literature ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus, who descended into Hades and returned. Orphics also revered Persephone (who descended into Hades each winter and returned each spring) and Dionysus or Bacchus (who also descended into Hades and returned). Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus.[6] Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BC[7] or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".[8]

Classical sources refer to "Orpheus-initiators" (Ancient Greek,"Ορφεοτελεστάς"), and associated rites, although how far "Orphic" literature in general related to these rites is not certain.[9] As in the Eleusinian mysteries, initiation into Orphic mysteries promised advantages in the afterlife.



The main elements of Orphism differed from popular ancient Greek religion in the following ways:

  • by characterizing human souls as divine and immortal but doomed to live (for a period) in a "grievous circle" of successive bodily lives through metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls.
  • by prescribing an ascetic way of life which, together with secret initiation rites, was supposed to guarantee not only eventual release from the "grievous circle" but also communion with god(s).
  • by warning of postmortem punishment for certain transgressions committed during life.
  • by being founded upon sacred writings about the origin of gods and human beings.

Compare with Hinduism, Buddhism and Gnosticism.


Distinctively Orphic views and practices are attested as early as Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato. The recently published Derveni papyrus allows Orphic mythology to be dated back to the 4th century BC, and it is probably even older.[10] Other inscriptions found in various parts of the Greek world testify to the early existence of a movement with the same core beliefs that were later associated with the name of Orphism.


The Orphic theogonies are genealogical works like the Theogony of Hesiod, but the details are different. They are possibly influenced by Near Eastern models. The main story is this: Dionysus (in his incarnation as Zagreus) is the son of Zeus and Persephone; Zeus gives his inheritance of the throne to the child, as Zeus is to leave due to Hera's anger over a child being born by another mother; Titans who are enraged over the proclamation of attendance and under Hera's instigation decide to murder the child, Dionysus is then tricked with a mirror and children's toys is murdered and eaten by the Titans. Athena saves the heart and tells Zeus of the crime who in turn hurls a thunderbolt on the Titans. The resulting ashes, from which sinful mankind is born, contain the bodies of the Titans and Dionysus. The soul of man (Dionysus factor) is therefore divine, but the body (Titan factor) holds the soul in bondage. Thus it was declared that the soul returns to a host ten times, bound to the wheel of rebirth.

There are two Orphic stories of the rebirth of Dionysus, in one of which it is the heart of Dionysus that is implanted into the thigh of Zeus; he has impregnated the mortal woman Semele with the result Dionysus's literal rebirth. Many of these details differ from accounts in the classical authors.

  • The "Protogonos Theogony", lost, composed ca. 500 BC which is known through the commentary in the Derveni papyrus and references in classical authors (Empedocles and Pindar).
  • The "Eudemian Theogony", lost, composed in the 5th century BC. It is the product of a syncretic Bacchic-Kouretic cult.
  • The "Rhapsodic Theogony", lost, composed in the Hellenistic age, incorporating earlier works. It is known through summaries in later neo-Platonist authors.
  • Orphic hymns. 87 hexametric poems of a shorter length composed in the late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial age.

According to the Thracian orphism primary there exists the Great Goddess-Mother. She is the Universe: she self conceived and bore to her first-born son, who is the sun during the day and fire during the night, (personified as Zagreus or Sabazius).[11]

Burial rituals and beliefs

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

Gold leaves found in graves from Thurii, Hipponium, Thessaly and Crete (4th cent. BC) give instructions to the dead. When he comes to Hades, he must take care not to drink of Lethe ("Forgetfulness"), but of the pool of Mnemosyne ("Memory"), and he must say to the guards:

"I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven. I am thirsty, please give me something to drink from the fountain of Mnemosyne."

Other gold leaves say:

"Now you are dead, and now you are born on this very day, thrice blessed. Tell Persephone, that Bacchus himself has redeemed you."


Orphic views and practices have parallels to elements of Pythagoreanism. There is, however, too little evidence to determine the extent to which one movement may have influenced the other.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Ancient Cultures) 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. ^ A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels (The Anchor Bible Reference Library) by David Dungan and David Laird Dungan,1999,Back Matter: "... Neoplatonist Albinus (21-31). 54 Dial. 4.2 (italics added). 55 In Hellenistic Orphism, "an ascetic life featuring specific abstinences, especially vegetarianism," would have ..."
  4. ^ History of New Testament Research, Volume 2 (History of New Testament Research) by William Baird,2002,page 393: "... its religious neighbors, Lagrange focuses on a single example of Hellenistic religion, Orphism. This example, he thinks, is particularly appropriate, because Orphism is ...
  5. ^ Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction by Luther H. Martin,1987,page 102: "... ritually participated in an actual mystery ritual.30 More striking to Hellenistic observers of Orphism than any sup- posed ritual practices were their ascetic practices ..."
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson,2003,page 162,"Orphism began in the sixth century B.C"
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Parker, "Early Orphism", pp. 484, 487.
  10. ^ Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), pp. 30-31
  11. ^ Fol, А., Тhe Thracian orphism, Sofia 1986
  12. ^ Parker, "Early Orphism", p. 501.


  • Albinus, Lars. 2000. The House of Hades. Aarhus.
  • Bernabé, Albertus (ed.), Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta. Poetae Epici Graeci. Pars II. Fasc. 1. Bibliotheca Teubneriana, München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2004. ISBN 3-598-71707-5
  • Bernabé, Alberto. “Some Thoughts about the ‘New’ Gold Tablet from Pherai.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 166 (2008): 53-58.
  • Bernabé, Alberto and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal. 2008. Instructions for the Netherworld: the Orphic Gold Tablets. Boston: Brill.
  • Betegh, Gábor. 2006. The Derveni Papyrus. Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge.
  • Burkert, Walter. 2004. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge, MA.
  • Comparetti, Domenico, and Cecil Smith. “The Petelia Gold Tablet.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 3 (1882): 111-18.
  • Edmonds, Radcliffe. Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Graf, Fritz. 1974. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens. Berlin, New York.
  • Graf, Fritz, and Sarah Iles Johnston. 2007. Ritual texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. Routledge: London, New York.
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1935, revised 1952. Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement. London.
  • Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903.
  • Linforth, Ivan M. Arts of Orpheus. New York: Arno Press, 1973.
  • Parker, Robert. 1995. "Early Orphism". In The Greek World, Anton Powell (ed.).
  • Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni. 2001. Le lamine doro orfiche. Milano.
  • West, Martin L. 1983. Orphic Poems. Oxford.
  • Zuntz, Günther. Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

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