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Orphism (religion)

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For the movement in Cubist art see Orphism (art).

Orphism or (more rarely) Orphicism seems to have been a mystery religion in the ancient Greek world. Its founder was alleged to be the mythical poet Orpheus. Nevertheless, its historical roots have been traced back to the 6th century BC.



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.
  • 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.


Though distinctively Orphic views and practices are attested as early as Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato, most of the sources to the teachings and practices of Orphism are late and ambiguous, and some scholars claim that Orphism is in fact a construction of a later date. However, inscriptions found in various parts of the Greek world testify the existence of a movement with certain beliefs which are later associated with the name of Orphism. Furthermore, the Derveni papyrus attests that the Orphic mythology can be dated back to the 4th century BC, and it is probably even older.


The Orphic theogonies are genealogical work like the Theogony of Hesiod, but the details are different. They are possibly influenced by Near Eastern models. The main story is this: Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Persephone, he is murdered and boiled by the Titans. Sinful mankind is born out of the ashes. The soul of man (Dionysus factor) was divine, but the body (Titan Factor) held it in bondage. It was declared that the soul returned repeatedly to life, bound to the wheel of rebirth.

The heart of Dionysus is saved in implanted into the leg of Zeus; he then makes the mortal woman Semele pregnant with the re-born Dionysus. Many of these details are referred to sporadically 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 cent. BC. It is the product of a syncretistic 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.


The epigraphical sources demonstrate that the "Orphic" mythology about Dionysus' death and resurrection was associated with beliefs in a blessed afterlife. 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, but of the pool of Mnemosyne, 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.

See also


  • Albinus, Lars. 2000. The House of Hades. Aarhus.
  • Betegh, Gábor. 2006. The Derveni Papyrus. Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge.
  • Burkert, Walter. 2004. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge, MA.
  • Graf, Fritz. 1974. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens. Berlin, New York.
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1952. Orpheus and Greek religion. London.
  • Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni. 2001. Le lamine doro orfiche. Milano.
  • West, Martin L. 1983. Orphic Poems. Oxford.
  • Robert Parker. 1995. "Early Orphism". In The Greek World, Anton Powell (ed.).

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