Orphism (religion)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Orphic Egg

Orphism (more rarely Orphicism) (Ancient Greek, "Ορφικά") is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices in the ancient Greek and the Hellenistic world, 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. Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BC or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".

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. As in the Eleusinian mysteries, initiation into Orphic mysteries promised advantages in the afterlife.

Contents

Peculiarities

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.

Evidence

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 BC, and it is probably even older. 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.

Mythology

Orpheus#Orphic poems and rites

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.

  • 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 century BC. 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 cent. BC) 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.

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.

Pythagoreanism

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




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Orphism (religion)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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