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"Orphism" is a modern term attached to two connected phenomena of Greek religion. The first is a body of traditional poetry, possibly from as early as the seventh century BCE, ascribed to a mythical singer called Orpheus and containing an account of the creation of the world and of the afterlife of the soul, its judgment and punishment for sins on Earth, and its final reincarnation in another living body. The second is the way of life adopted by those who accepted the truth of these writings, such truths being regarded with as much respect as the revelations in the traditional Greek "mysteries" at Eleusis and elsewhere.

Contents of Orphic Writings

A number of fragments of the Orphic poems have survived, some of which belong to the poems as they were known in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. However, these writings, in the manner of popular poetry, were constantly growing by accretion, and they seem to have become a general compendium of poetical accounts of theogony, cosmogony, and the soul's nature and fate. The contents of the poems as they existed in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE must be derived mainly from evidence in contemporary literature and, to a certain extent, in painting and sculpture.


It was in Greek art and literature of the sixth century BCE that Orpheus first appeared as a famous singer. The tradition that Orpheus sang while Musaeus wrote down his master's songs may reflect the moment of transition from oral to written literaturewhich probably occurred in the second half of the seventh century BCEand this may be the time when these songs were composed.

To the poets of classical Greece, Orpheus was the singer possessed of supernatural powers. As such, he was enrolled among the Argonauts. According to an Alexandrian poet, Orpheus soothed his quarreling companions by singing to them of the creation of the world and of the dynasties of the gods. Euripides wrote of Orpheus's special connection with the underworld. A Naples bas-relief, executed at the end of the fifth century BCE, depicts his attempt to bring back his wife Eurydice from the dead. A little earlier in the same century, Polygnotus executed his famous picture of the underworld in which Orpheus was shown lyre in hand, amidst a group of legendary musicians.

It seems likely that this figure of Orpheus reflected the existing body of Orphic poetry, that his traits in fact represent its contentsa theogony which is an account of creation and a description of the underworld and of the soul's fate there.


Plato's quotation of passages from an Orphic poem (in the Cratylus and Philebus ) and Isocrates' description (in the Busiris ) of what Orpheus wrote about suggest an Orphic theogony very like the one which is preserved as the work of Hesiod, the eighth-century BCE oral poet. From much later writers (Athenagoras, of the second century CE, and Damascius, of the fifth century CE) we learn of Orphic theogonies that contain non-Hesiodic elementsthe cosmic egg and the creator Phanes. Since Phanes seems to be identifiable with the figure Eros that appears, together with the cosmic egg, in a cosmogony related in Aristophanes' fifth-century play Birds, both elements may accordingly be regarded as ancient. Three Orphic fragments joined by Otto Kern, which present a picture of the universe, may also be early since this picture of the universe, may also be early, since this picture bears a marked resemblance to Plato's image of the universe in the myth of Er at the end of the Republic. According to these fragments, the heaven, the earth, the sea, and the "signs with which the heaven is ringed" are abound round with a bond of Aether.

afterlife of the soul

Whereas Hesiod's Theogony contained a description of the underworld, inserted nominally in connection with the story of Zeus's overthrow of the Titans, this possibly traditional element was developed in the Orphic poems into a detailed account of the soul's fate after death, its judgment and its reincarnation. Plato, throughout his writings, plainly drew on an account of the soul's late which he had read about in Orphic literature. In the Gorgias (493b) he refers to "one of the wise, who holds that the body is a tomb" and he also reports the story that the soul of an uninitiated man is like a sieve: In Hades the uninitiated is most miserable, being doomed to an eternity of filling sieves with water, by means of other sieves. Quoting the same story in the Republic (363d), he speaks of Musaeus and Eumolpus enlarging on the rewards of the righteous in the other world, and he also speaks of other who "when they have sung the praises of justice in that strain proceed to plunge the sinners and unrighteous men into a pool of mud in the world below, and set them to fetch water in a sieve." In the Phaedo (69e) he says that "the man who reaches Hades without experiencing initiation will lie in mud, whereas the initiated when he gets there will dwell with the gods." In the Cratylus (420b) Plato attributes specifically to the Orphic poets the theory that the body is the tomb of the soul. Two surviving Orphic fragments (Kern Fr. 222) speak of the differing fates of the just and the unjust in the afterlife, and several (Kern Fr. 223ff.) deal with the rebirth of the soul in various forms. Plato must certainly have been referring to Orphic poems when he said in the Meno (81a) that among others "Pindar and many another poet who is divinely inspired say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is reborn, but never perishes. Consequently a man ought to live his life in the utmost holiness."

The Orphic Life

For those who believed the eschatological dogma contained in the Orphic poems, there followed certain consequences for the conduct of life.


Adikia, injustice against any living creature, had to be strictly avoided. In Euripides' Hippolytus the diet "of food without soul," which was required of followers of Orpheus, is mentioned. Herodotus referred to the Orphic practice, which was also Pythagorean, of avoiding the use of wool (robbed from sheep) in burial. Men who observed these scruples might be described as living as "Orphic life," in the words of Plato in the Laws.


Proclus spoke of those who were initiated under Orpheus's patronage with Dionysus or Kore (in the case of the latter, at Eleusis). In Euripides' play Rhesus, Orpheus's amanuensis Musaeus is an Athenian, and Orpheus himself is closely connected with the Eleusinian initiations. It is certainly to these initiations that Aristophanes referred in the play Frogs when a character says, "Orpheus taught teletai [initiations] and abstinence from killing."

Evidently, the Orphic initiation had an essentially written character. Euripides referred to the person who observes Orphic scruples as "honoring the smoke of many writings." Plato mentioned "a mass of books" of Orpheus and Musaeus. Later writers contrasted this written initiation with the visual revelation at Eleusis, as when Pausanias wrote, "Whoever has seen an initiation at Eleusis or read the writings called Orphic knows what I mean." The Orphic literature seems to have borne the same relation to visual and oral instruction as a correspondence course bears to "live" teaching, and it appears to have been freely available.

Initiation into the mysteries was supposed to give a revelation of truth that would enable men to reach the next world in a state of guiltlessness. Plato reported that mendicant seers, who "frequented the doors of the rich," capitalized on this belief by offering cities and individuals the means of purification from sins committed. Among these are no doubt to be reckoned the Orpheotelestai, of whom Theophrastus spoke.

Significance of Orphism

Was Orphism, then, either a philosophy or a religion? It certainly was not a philosophical system, since in had no developed doctrinemerely a mythical account, derived from the popular oral poetry of the past, of the nature of the universe and of the afterlife of the soul. The philosophical importance of the Orphic literature lies in its influence, first of Pythagoras and Empedocles and then on Plato.

Pythagoras seems to have taken over the Orphic stories so completely that they could be referred to by Aristotle as Pythagorean stories, and earlier, Ion of Chios could say that Pythagoras had fathered his writings on Orpheus. The immortality and transmigration of the soul is the one doctrine which can certainly be attributed to the earliest Pythagorean society; Plato spoke of a Pythagorean way of life, based, as we know from other sources, on ritual prescriptions designed to ensure the purity and blamelessness of the soul.

Empedocles, who lived in Sicily in the fifth century BCE, exhibited a similar belief in the soul's immortality and transmigration.

In the Symposium Plato does not appear to believe in the soul's immortality, but in the Meno he accepts the preexistence and survival of the soul on the authority of "divinely inspired poets," among whom Orpheus in certainly to be reckoned. This doctrine became a cornerstone of Plato's entire metaphysical system.

Orphism was not in itself a religion, although it was closely related to the initiations at Eleusis and elsewhere, which were perhaps the most striking religious manifestations of classical Greece. The Orphic element was, however, merely a traditional poetical account that provided the eschatological dogma that was the basis for certain observances to the described as a way of life. The religious depth of this way of should not be exaggerated. There were no organized rituals, religious communities, or priesthood. In the sense in which we ordinarily use the word religion in the study of the ancient world, Orphism was not a religion.

See also Aristotle; Empedocles; Plato; Proclus; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism.


Guthrie, W. K. C. Orpheus and Greek Religion. London: Methuen, 1935.

Kern, Otto. Orphicorum Fragmenta. Berlin, 1922; reprinted 1963.

Linforth, Ivan M. Arts of Orpheus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.

Nilsson, M. P. "Early Orphism and Kindred Religious Movements." Harvard Theological Review 28 (1935): 181230.

John Morrison (1967)

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A modern term for the complex of beliefs and religious practices associated with the name of Orpheus, the legendary "sweet singer" of Thrace. Contemporary scholarship is by no means in accord on the content and nature of Orphism, or even, in any meaningful sense, on its existence. Some scholars admit as evidence virtually all that is atypical of Greek religion (such as the "Orphic" grave tablets and the Pindaric passages on metempsychosis); others reject whatever is not specifically designated as Orphic.

Classical Greece recognized Orpheus as not only a poet, but also the culture hero who first instituted Greek mystery cults and rites (τελεταί). Any and all mysteries, therefore, including the Eleusinian, might be called "Orphic." In addition, Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. knew of sectarian groups who called themselves Orphics, regarded Orpheus as their "lord," reverenced sacred books, and lived an "Orphic life," in which vegetarianism and a taboo on the use of wool were conspicuous features. There were also Orphic practitioners who preyed on men's superstitious fears of the afterlife, professed the ability to perform salutary rites of purification, and even dabbled in magic. There is little archeological or literary evidence to suggest that these groups represented a stable and continuing movement.

In support of the claim that Orphism was possessed of a lofty spiritual content, it is customary to cite the myth of the Titans, who dismembered the infant Dionysus and were then blasted by the thunderbolt of Zeus. From their ashes or soot man was created. Thus, in the alleged Orphic interpretation, man's nature is primarily Titanic and evil, but also, since the Titans had tasted the god's flesh, it contains a divine element. The corollary is that man should so live as to free his divine soul from the "tomb" or "prison" of the body, and so realize his potential immortality.

The primary purpose of the myth was evidently to account for the σραραγμός, the rending ritual of the Dionysiac cult; it enjoyed a certain currency, and, with or without the sequel of man's creation, appears in several variant forms. Some of these may have been "Orphic," in the sense that speculative theological writings were often sealed with his name. Yet if this was the "cardinal myth" of historic Orphism, it is strange that the inference as to man's divine nature was explicitly drawn only once, by the late Neoplatonist, Olympiodorus (fl. sixth century. a.d.). Pending proof that the doctrine was specifically Orphic and early, the precise nature and influence of Orphism must remain problematical.

Bibliography: m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion (Munich 195561) 1:678699; 2:246431. w. k. c. guthrie, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 4:170305, with bibliog. k. prÜmm, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 6:5586; "Die Orphik im Spiegel der neueren Forschung," Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 78 (1956) 140.

[f. r. walton]

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