Orphism (more rarely Orphicism) (Ancient Greek: Ὀρφικά) is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices originating in the ancient Greek and the Hellenistic world, as well as by the Thracians, associated with literature ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus, who descended into Hades and returned. Orphics also revered Persephone (who annually descended into Hades for a season and then returned) and Dionysus or Bacchus (who also descended into Hades and returned). Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus. Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BCE or at least 5th century BCE, and graffiti of the 5th century BCE apparently refers to "Orphics".
Classical sources, such as Plato, refer to "Orpheus-initiators" (Ὀρφεοτελεσταί), and associated rites, although how far "Orphic" literature in general related to these rites is not certain. 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.
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 BCE, and it is probably even older. 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 similar to 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 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 by the Titans who murder 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, 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; the other where he has impregnated the mortal woman Semele resulting in Dionysus's literal rebirth. Many of these details differ from accounts in the classical authors. 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, and Dionysos was his son. Dionysos was murdered, and 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 is placed within.
- The "Protogonos Theogony", lost, composed c. 500 BCE 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 BCE. 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.
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 century BC) carry short and enigmatic inscriptions like: "Life. Death. Life. Truth. Dio(nysus). Orphics." The function of these bone tablets is unknown.
Gold-leaf tablets found in graves from Thurii, Hipponium, Thessaly and Crete (4th century BCE 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.
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.
add ISBNs automatically, or discuss this issue on the talk page. (July 2010)
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- Online Text: The Orphic Hymns translated by Thomas Taylor
- translated by Thomas Taylor – alternative version
- Alexander Fol, Orphica Magica I, Sofia 2004
- vol. 87 devoted entirely to Orphism
- Edmonds, Radcliffe. “Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin.” Classical Antiquity 18.1 (1999): 35-73.
- A Genealogy of Philosophic Enlightenment in Classical Greece
- Orphic Platonism