Religion Wiki

Orphism (more rarely Orphicism) (Ancient Greek: Ὀρφικά) is the name given to a set of religious[1] beliefs and practices in the ancient Greek and the Hellenistic world,[2][3][4][5] as well as by the Thracians,[6] 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.[7] Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BCE[8] or at least 5th century BCE, and graffiti of the 5th century BCE apparently refers to "Orphics".[9]

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.[10] 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 Christianity, 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 BCE, and it is probably even older.[11] 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 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 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; 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. Firmicus Maternus gives a different account. 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 able to be rescued by Athena. A statue of gypsum (the same substance the Titans used to disguise themselves) is made to look like Dionysos and the heart is placed within it.[12]

  • The "Protogonos Theogony", lost, composed ca. 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 BCE) 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.[13]

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.[14]


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.[15]

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. Luther H. Martin,, Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction 1987:102: "... ritually participated in an actual mystery ritual. More striking to Hellenistic observers of Orphism than any supposed ritual practices were their ascetic practices ..."
  6. History of Humanity: From the seventh century B.C. to the seventh century A.D. Routledge reference, Siegfried J. de Laet, UNESCO, 1996,ISBN 923102812X, pp. 182-183.
  7. 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."
  8. Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson,2003,page 162,"Orphism began in the sixth century B.C"
  9. W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greeks & Their Gods (Beacon, 1954), p. 322; Geoffrey Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), pp. 21, 30-31, 33; Parker, "Early Orphism", pp. 485, 497
  10. Parker, "Early Orphism", pp. 484, 487.
  11. Geoffrey Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1983, 2nd edition), pp. 30-31
  12. Firmicus Maternus, De errore 6.4
  13. 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 (Routlege, 2007), pp. 4–5 (Hipponion, 400 BCE), 6–7 (Petelia, 4th century BCE), pp. 16–17 (Entella, possibly 3rd century BCE), pp. 20–25 (five tablets from Eleutherna, Crete, 2nd or 1st century BCE), pp. 26–27 (Mylopotamos, 2nd century BCE), pp. 28–29 (Rethymnon, 2nd or 1st century BCE), pp. 34–35 (Pharsalos, Thessaly, 350–300 BCE), and pp. 40–41 (Thessaly, mid-4th century BCE) online.
  14. Tablet from Pelinna, late 4th century BCE, in Graf and Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife, pp. 36–37.
  15. Parker, "Early Orphism", p. 501.


  • Albinus, Lars. 2000. The House of Hades. Aarhus.
  • Alderink, Larry J. Creation and Salvation in Ancient Orphism. University Park: American Philological Association, 1981.
  • Athanassakis, Apostolos N. Orphic Hymns: Text, Translation, and Notes. Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature, 1977.
  • 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.
  • Bikerman, E. “The Orphic Blessing.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 2 (1938–39): 368-74.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Burkert, Walter. 2004. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge, MA.
  • Burkert, Walter. “Craft Versus Sect: The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans.” Jewish and Christian Self-Definition: Volume Three - Self-Definition in the Greco-Roman World. Ed. B. Meyer and E. P. Sanders. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Graf, Fritz. 1974. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens. Berlin, New York.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Nilsson, Martin. “Early Orphism and Kindred Religious Movements.” The Harvard Theological Review 28.3 (1935): 181-230.
  • Parker, Robert. “Early Orphism.” The Greek World. Ed. Anton Powell. New York: Routledge, 1995. 483-510.
  • Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni. 2001. Le lamine doro orfiche. Milano.
  • 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.
  • Tierney, M. “The Origins of Orphism.” The Irish Theological Quarterly 17 (1922): 112-27.
  • 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.
  • West, Martin L. 1983. Orphic Poems. Oxford.
  • Zuntz, Günther. Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Orphism (religion). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.