The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXII

The Orphics…

The Evidence…

Their Sacred Logoi

Roughly contemporary with Pythagoreanism, Orphism is the name given to a religious movement that arose in Greece in the sixth century B.C., and whose teachings continued to flourish in Western thought for over two millennia. (As late as the fifteenth century, the great Florentine Christian Neoplatonists Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola still regarded their own philosophical and religious systems as versions of “the Orphic theology”.)

The Orphics were preachers who possessed a body of sacred texts, few of which, unfortunately, have survived (except in fragmentary citations by other authors). We have, most importantly, certain gold plates dating from the third century B.C., discovered in the nineteenth century in graves in Crete and Southern Italy. The plates are inscribed with ritual verses and hymns (probably originating in the sixth century) that outline aspects of the Orphic eschatology, or doctrine of the afterlife, and which were thus obviously intended to help the deceased in their passage into the other world.

Beyond these, we possess a certain body of doctrine, also largely eschatological, recorded or promulgated in various writings of the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C., of which the following are the most significant examples: first, the writings of the Pre-Socratic philosophers Empedocles (see below) and Pythagoras, whose cosmological and eschatological doctrines show probable Orphic influence; more important, some of the great myths of Plato (specifically, those that record the experiences of the soul in the afterlife in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, the Gorgias, and the allegory of Er in the Republic). Also in the classical period, there are certain “Orphic” passages from the poet Pindar, as well as from the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides and the comic playwright Aristophanes.

From Hellenistic times, we have evidence from Aristotle and from the third-century follower of Aristotle, Eudemos. We have a brief reference to the Orphic cosmogony in the third-century Argonautica (the epic recounting the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece) by Apollonius of Rhodes.

Finally, in the new era, we have the generally antagonistic evidence of the Christian Apologists of the second century A.D., particularly Athenagoras and Clement of Alexandria. And then we have an abundance of references to the Orphics by the Neoplatonists who found Orphic doctrines so congenial to their own: especially the third century A.D. Porphyry and Iamblichus, Macrobius (writing in Latin, c. 400), and the late-fourth or early-fifth-century Proclus.

The broad agreement amongst these writers suggests strongly that there was some common source of Orphic doctrine upon which they all relied, but what it was, and what precisely it contained, we don’t know. It can hardly be denied, in any case, that a body of writings under the name of Orpheus was already well known to the classical authors. Aristotle, for instance, refers to the “Orphic verses”, Euripides knows him as the author of certain teletai, or theological tracts, and Plato speaks of a mass of books attributed to Orpheus and his legendary disciple Musaios, which encapsulate, as he calls it, a hieros logos, a “sacred word” or “revelation”.


In all such references to the Orphic hieros logos, the same complex of doctrines and beliefs is always assumed: the idea of the pre-existence of souls in a pure, disembodied state in the celestial aether; the doctrine succinctly expressed by the Greek formula soma sema (body tomb)–that is, the idea of birth in the world and the body as a fall, death, burial or imprisonment of the soul; the necessity therefore of the soul to purify itself of the contaminating taints of the body and the senses both in this world and the next if it is to be saved; its expectation of a retributive afterlife in which the just will be rewarded with bliss and the unjust punished; the belief in transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, according to which the soul must undergo a series of incarnations in this world and purgations in the next before it may finally escape the weary wheel of births and deaths and fly back into the aether whence it came.

We’ll have to return later to discuss these doctrines in somewhat more detail, but to the Orphics, in any case, the “sacred logoi” of which Plato and others speak must have been a Bible of sorts. Their great epic hymn of creation, known as the “Orphic Rhapsodies”, was finally fixed at twenty-four books, a number meant obviously to coincide with that of Homer’s epics whose unique authority they were meant to relativize. In this regard, the Orphic writings represented yet another novelty in Greek civilization. For, while it is true that the two great epics of Homer were often referred to as the “Greek Bible”, Homer’s epics were not expressly written as sacred literature. They were grand mythic narratives, and like all myths, they explained to their Greek audience much about themselves as a people, including the origins of their gods and religion; but they were not didactic, and claimed no divine authority, which the Orphic writings assuredly were and did.

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