Orphism (religion)

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Orphism (more rarely Orphicism; Ancient Greek: Ὀρφικά, romanizedOrphiká) is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices[1] originating in Thrace[2] and later spreading to the ancient Greek and Hellenistic world,[3] associated with literature ascribed to the mythical Thracian poet Orpheus, who descended into the Greek underworld and returned.[4] This type of journey is called a katabasis and is the basis of several hero worships and journeys. 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.[5]

Orphic mosaics were found in many late-Roman villas

The suffering and death of the god Dionysus at the hands of the Titans has been considered the central myth of Orphism. 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 (Ancient Greek: σῶμα, romanizedsôma), inherited from the Titans, and a divine spark or soul (Ancient Greek: ψυχή, romanizedpsukhḗ), inherited from Dionysus.[6] 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.[7] Orphics believed that they would, after death, spend eternity alongside Orpheus and other heroes. The uninitiated (Ancient Greek: ἀμύητος, romanizedamúētos), they believed, would be reincarnated indefinitely.[8]



Orphism is named after the legendary poet-hero Orpheus, who was said to have originated the Mysteries of Dionysus.[9] 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.[10]


Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900) by John William Waterhouse

Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BC[11] or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".[12] [13][14] The Derveni papyrus allows Orphic mythology to be dated to the end of the 5th century BC,[15] and it is probably even older.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] Some scholars maintain that Orphism and Pythagoreanism began as separate traditions which later became confused and conflated due to a few similarities. Others argue that the two traditions share a common origin and can even be considered a single entity, termed "Orphico-Pythagoreanism."[19]

The belief that Pythagoreanism was a subset or 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.[20]

In the fifteenth century, the Neoplatonic Greek scholar Constantine Lascaris (who found the poem Argonautica Orphica) considered a Pythagorean Orpheus.[21] 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.[22]

Study of early Orphic and Pythagorean sources, however, is 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.[19] 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.[19] According to Cicero, Aristotle also claimed that Orpheus never existed, and that the Pythagoreans ascribed some Orphic poems to Cercon (see Cercops).[23]

Belief in metempsychosis was common to both currents, although it also seems to contain differences. Where the Orphics taught about a cycle of grievous embodiments that could be escaped through their rites, Pythagoras seemed to teach about an eternal, neutral metempsychosis against which personal actions would be irrelevant.[24]

The Neoplatonists regarded the theology of Orpheus, carried forward through Pythagoreanism, as the core of the original Greek religious tradition. Proclus, an influential neoplatonic philosopher, one of the last major classical philosophers of late antiquity, says

"For all the Grecian theology is the progeny of the mystic tradition of Orpheus; Pythagoras first of all learning from Aglaophemus the rites of the gods, but Plato in the second place receiving an all-perfect science of the divinities from the Pythagoric and Orphic writings."

(trans. Thomas Taylor, 1816) [25]

Orphic literature

Nymphs Listening to the Songs of Orpheus (1853) by Charles Jalabert

A number of Greek religious poems in hexameters were attributed to Orpheus, as they were to similar miracle-working figures, like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sibyl. Of this vast literature, only two works survived whole: the Orphic Hymns, a set of 87 poems, possibly composed at some point in the second or third century, and the epic Orphic Argonautica, composed somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries. Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back as far as the sixth century BC, survives only in papyrus fragments or in quotations.[26]

Orphic Hymns


The Orphic Hymns are 87 hexametric poems of a shorter length composed in the Roman Imperial age.

Orphic Argonautica


The Orphic Argonautica (Greek: Ὀρφέως Ἀργοναυτικά) is a Greek epic poem dating from the 4th century CE of unknown authorship.[27] It is narrated in the first person in the name of Orpheus and tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The narrative is basically similar to that in other versions of the story, such as the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, on which it is probably based. The main differences are the emphasis on the role of Orpheus and a more mythological, less realistic technique of narration. In the Argonautica Orphica, unlike in Apollonius Rhodius, it is claimed that the Argo was the first ship ever built.

Derveni papyrus


The Derveni papyrus, found in Derveni, Macedonia (Greece) in 1962, contains a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem in hexameters, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras, written in the second half of the fifth century BC. Fragments of the poem are quoted making it "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance".[28] The papyrus dates to around 340 BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it Europe's oldest surviving manuscript.



The Orphic theogonies are works which present accounts of the origin of the gods, much like the Theogony of Hesiod. These 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.

Orphic Egg

Jacob Bryant's Orphic Egg (1774) with Ananke

In Orphic theogonies, the Orphic Egg is a cosmic egg from which hatched the primordial hermaphroditic deity Phanes/Protogonus (variously equated also with Zeus, Pan, Metis, Eros, Erikepaios and Bromius), who in turn created the other gods.[29] The egg is often depicted with the serpent-like creature, Ananke, wound about it. Phanes is the golden winged primordial being who was hatched from the shining cosmic egg that was the source of the universe. Called Protogonos (First-Born) and Eros (Love) an ancient Orphic hymn addresses him thus:

Ineffable, hidden, brilliant scion, whose motion is whirring, you scattered the dark mist that lay before your eyes and, flapping your wings, you whirled about, and through this world you brought pure light.[30]



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".

The main difference seems to be in the primordial succession:[31]

  • In the Eudemian Theogony (5th century BC),[32] the first being to exist is Night (Nyx).[33]
  • In the Rhapsodic Theogony, it starts with Chronos ('Unageing Time', different from Kronos, Zeus' father) who gives birth to Ether and Chaos, and then lays the egg from which Phanes/Protogonos arises.
  • In the Hieronyman Theogony, the egg arises from soil (more specifically 'the matter out of which earth was coagulated') and water, and it is 'Unageing Time' Kronos which arises from it, and gives birth to Ether, Chaos and Erebus. Then Kronos lays a new egg in Chaos, from which arises Protogonos.
  • In the Derveni Theogony, the Night lays the egg from which Protogonos arises, he then give birth to Ouranos & Gaia, which give birth to Kronos, himself father of Zeus who end up swallowing the primordial egg of Protogonos and recreating the Universe in the process.

But there are other differences, notably in the treatment of Dionysos:[31]

  • In the Rhapsodic Theogony, Dionysos is dismembered and cooked by the Titans before Zeus struck them with lightning (mankind then arises from the soot, and Dionysos is resurrected from his preserved heart).
  • The Derveni Papyrus being fragmentary, the story stops without having mentioned him.
  • The Hieronyman Theogony does not include Dionysos being eaten by the Titans, as both sources for the work (Damascius and Athenagoras) do not mention it, despite the latter describing the war on the Titans.

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).[34] Apollo plays an important part in the dismemberment myth because he represents the reverting of Encosmic Soul back towards unification.[35][36]

Gold tablets

Gold orphic tablet and case found in Petelia, southern Italy (British Museum)[37]

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.[38]

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. As said in the Petelia tablet:

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.[39]

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.[40]


  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. ^ Crampton, Richard J. , Allcock, John B. and Danforth, Loring. "Balkans". Encyclopedia Britannica, Antiquity, Illyrians and Thracians, 15 Apr. 2024
  3. ^ 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 […]"
  4. ^ Cartwright, Mark (2020). "Orpheus". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2024-04-26.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Sandys, John, Pindar. The Odes of Pindar including the Principal Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1937.
  7. ^ Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Rituales órficos (Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2006);
  8. ^ Proclus, Commentary on the Republic of Plato, II, 338, 17 Kern 224.
  9. ^ 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."
  10. ^ Alberto Bernabé, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Raquel Martín Hernández, Redefining Dionysos
  11. ^ Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson, 2003, page 162, "Orphism began in the sixth century BCE"
  12. ^ Guthrie 1955, p. 322.
  13. ^ Kirk, Raven & Schofield 1983, pp. 21, 30–31.
  14. ^ Parker 1995, pp. 485, 497.
  15. ^ "The Derveni Papyrus: An Interdisciplinary Research Project". Harvard University, Center for Hellenic Studies. 2 November 2020. Archived from the original on 30 July 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
  16. ^ Kirk, Raven & Schofield 1983, pp. 30–31.
  17. ^ Parker 1995, p. 484,487.
  18. ^ Parker 1995, p. 501.
  19. ^ a b c Betegh 2014.
  20. ^ Proclus, Tim. 3.168.8
  21. ^ Russo, Attilio (2004). "Costantino Lascaris tra fama e oblio nel Cinquecento messinese", in Archivio Storico Messinese, pp. 53-54.
  22. ^ Bertrand Russell (1947). History of Western Philosophy. George Allen and Unwin. p. 37.
  23. ^ Aristotle (1908). The works of Aristotle. Translated by Ross, W. D. p. 80.
  24. ^ Leonid Zhmud (2012). Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans. OUP Oxford. pp. 232–233. ISBN 978-0-19-928931-8.
  25. ^ "Proclus, in Theologian Platonis I.5 (I.25-26, Saffrey-Westerink) = Orph. 507 IV Bernabé - Living Poets".
  26. ^ Freeman, Kathleen. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Harvard University Press (1948), p. 1.
  27. ^ Meisner, p. 4. West, p. 37 states that "it can hardly be earlier and may well be later than the fourth century AD".
  28. ^ Janko, Richard (2006). Tsantsanoglou, K.; Parássoglou, G.M.; Kouremenos, T. (eds.). "The Derveni Papyrus". Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Studi e testi per il 'Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini'. 13. Florence: Olschki.
  29. ^ West 1983, p. 205.
  30. ^ The Orphic Hymns 5, To Protogonos
  31. ^ a b Richardson 1985, pp. 87–90.
  32. ^ Meisner 2018, p. 1.
  33. ^ Betegh 2007, p. 146.
  34. ^ Alberto Bernabé, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Raquel Martín Hernández. (2013), Redefining Dionysos
  35. ^ Proclus in commentary on Cratylus states that Apollo signifies the cause of unity and that which reassembles many into one
  36. ^ Meisner 2018.
  37. ^ British Museum Collection
  38. ^ Sider & Obbink 2013, p. 160.
  39. ^ Numerous tablets contain this essential formula with minor variations; for the Greek texts and translations, see Graf & Johnston 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)
  40. ^ Tablet from Pelinna, late 4th century BC, in Graf & Johnston 2007, pp. 36–37



Editions and translations




Further reading


Articles on Orphism

  • Bernabé, Alberto. "Some Thoughts about the 'New' Gold Tablet from Pherai." Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 166 (2008): 53–58.
  • Bremmer, Jan. "Orphism, Pythagoras, and the Rise of the Immortal Soul". The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife: The 1995 Read-Tuckwell Lectures at the University of Bristol. New York: Routledge, 2002. 11–26. ISBN 978-0-415-14147-5
  • Bremmer, Jan. "Rationalization and Disenchantment in Ancient Greece: Max Weber among the Pythagoreans and Orphics?" From Myth to Reason: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought. Ed. Richard Buxton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 71–83.
  • Bremmer, Jan N. (2013). "Divinities in the Orphic Gold Leaves: Euklês, Eubouleus, Brimo, Kybele, Kore and Persephone". Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 187: 35–48. JSTOR 23850747.
  • Comparetti, Domenico, and Cecil Smith. "The Petelia Gold Tablet". The Journal of Hellenic Studies 3 (1882): 111–18.
  • Edmunds, Radcliffe. "Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin." Classical Antiquity 18.1 (1999): 35–73.
  • Finkelberg, Aryeh. "On the Unity of Orphic and Milesian Thought". The Harvard Theological Review 79 (1986): 321–35. ISSN 0017-8160
  • Graf, Fritz. "Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology: New Texts and Old Questions". Masks of Dionysus. Ed. T. Carpenter and C. Faraone. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 239–58, ISSN 0012-9356.
  • Fulińska, Agnieszka (1 January 1970). "Dionysos, Orpheus and Argead Macedonia: Overwiev and Perspectives". Classica Cracoviensia. 17: 43–67. doi:10.12797/CC.17.2014.17.03.
  • Robertson, Noel. "Orphic Mysteries and Dionysiac Ritual." Greek Mysteries: the Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults. Ed. Michael B. Cosmopoulos. New York: Routledge, 2004. 218–40, ISBN 978-0-415-24872-3.
  • Torjussen, Stian (September 2005). "Phanes and Dionysos in the Derveni Theogony". Symbolae Osloenses. 80 (1): 7–22. doi:10.1080/00397670600684691. S2CID 170976252.
  • West, Martin L. "Graeco-Oriental Orphism in the 3rd cent. BC". Assimilation et résistence à la culture Gréco-romaine dans le monde ancient: Travaux du VIe Congrès International d'Etudes Classiques. Ed.D. M. Pippidi. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1976. 221–26.

Books on Orphism


General studies

  • Albinus, L. (2000). The house of Hades: Studies in ancient Greek eschatology. Aarhus [Denmark: Aarhus University Press. ISBN 978-87-7288-833-0
  • Burkert, Walter (2004). Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-01489-3. Retrieved 10 August 2023.
  • Martin, Luther H. Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction 1987, 102, ISBN 978-0-19-504390-7.
  • Russo, Attilio (2004). "Costantino Lascaris tra fama e oblio nel Cinquecento messinese", Archivio Storico Messinese, Messina 2003–2004, LXXXIV-LXXXV, 5–87, especially 53–54.
  • Sournia Alain. Chap. "Sapesse orientale et philosophie occidentale : la période axiale" in Fondements d'une philosophie sauvage. Connaissances et savoirs, 2012, 300 p., ISBN 978-2-7539-0187-2.
  • Zuntz, Günther. Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, ISBN 978-0-19-814286-7.