Most scholarly sources I’ve consulted acknowledge one critical fact about Orphism: there is a real paucity of records from the time period in which it arose (apparently 6th century B.C.). Thus, scholarship teaches us by its wide disagreement over many details, much of what may be said about Orphism in its original context is at best of a reconstructive nature, and so may contain significant errors.1
However, since Orphism continued as a live religion for many centuries, we do, as it turns out, have some substantial remarks about at least as it was in the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ. Here our two main sources are Plato and Empedocles.2
For instance, in Plato’s Laws the Athenian Stranger, discoursing about founding a new state and ensuring its colonists know that Justice is written into the very fabric of reality, says to the colonists:
“Men, according to the ancient story, there is a god who holds in his hands the beginning and end and middle of things, and straight he marches in the cycle of nature. Justice, who takes vengeance on those who abandon the divine law, never leaves his side.”– Laws 715e-716
Note that this conception of the nature of the universe is pantheistic, asserting that all things which exist are divine, and especially that all which doesn’t seem to be divine (like us mortals) were in fact made out of God Himself. Though Plato does not mention the word Orphism, the myth he has the Athenian Stranger relate here comes from an Orphic source that runs, “Zeus is the first and the last, the head and the middle, the one out of whom all things were created.”3 The remainder of this part of the Athenian’s discourse is fascinating in its own right in terms of the view of Justice it outlines, but I will have to relegate that discussion to a different post elsewhere.
Another place Plato mentions Orphic doctrine is in the dialogue Cratylus:
…some people say that the body is the tomb of the soul, on the grounds that it is entombed in its present life, while others say that it is correctly called ‘a sign’ because the soul signifies whatever it wants to signify by means of the body. I think it is most likely the followers of Orpheus who gave the body its name, with the idea that the soul is being punished for something, and that the body is an enclosure or prison in which the soul is securely kept…until the penalty is paid…– Cratylus 400b-c
A third citation from Plato, which again does not name Orpheus directly but does, say scholars, probably represent Orphic ideas, is this from the Gorgias:
But then [Callicles] the life of those people you call happiest is a strange one, too. I shouldn’t be surprised that Euripides’ lines are true when he says,– Gorgias 492e-493a
But who knows whether being alive is being dead
And being dead is being alive?
Perhaps in reality we are dead. Once I even heard one of the wise men say that we are now dead and that our bodies are our tombs, and that the part of our souls in which our appetites reside is actually the sort of thing to be open to perusasion and to shift back and forth.
It is the idea of the body as the “tomb” or “prison house” of the soul that should raise alarm bells for the Christian student of ancient mythology. For though Scripture does exhort us not to be excessively attached to earthly things, since the goal of Christ’s redemption is the resurrection of the body Christianity proper does not denigrate the body in an “Orphic”-like fashion.
Nor does the next part of Orphism mesh with Christianity: the cycle of reincarnations that the soul must undergo in order to be purified. As one Orphic source wrote of the conditions of the soul in this cycle:
“wanders from the home of the blessed, being born into all kinds of mortal forms, passing from one laborious path of life to another. For the mighty Air chases him into the Sea, and the Sea spits him forth upon the dry land, and Earth casts him into the light of the blazing Sun, and the Sun hurls him into the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and he is hated of them all. I also am one of these, an exile and a wanderer from the Gods.”Fragment 115.6ff, as cited in James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece
The soul’s reincarnation, indeed, knows no physical boundaries: ““Ere now, I too have been a boy, a girl, a bush, a bird, and a scaly fish in the sea.”4
It is often argued that Plato’s presentations of the soul were heavily influenced by Orphic doctrines. Among passages cited in this regard are this lengthy one from Republic X.614b-615c:
[Er] once upon a time was slain in battle, and when the corpses were taken up on the tenth day already decayed, was found intact, and having been brought home, at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day as he lay upon the pyre, revived, and after coming to life related what, he said, he had seen in the world beyond. He said that when his soul went forth from his body he journeyed with a great company [614c] and that they came to a mysterious region where there were two openings side by side in the earth, and above and over against them in the heaven two others, and that judges were sitting between these, and that after every judgement they bade the righteous journey to the right and upwards through the heaven with tokens attached to them in front of the judgement passed upon them, and the unjust to take the road to the left and downward, they too wearing behind signs [614d] of all that had befallen them, and that when he himself drew near they told him that he must be the messenger to mankind to tell them of that other world, and they charged him to give ear and to observe everything in the place. And so he said that here he saw, by each opening of heaven and earth, the souls departing after judgement had been passed upon them, while, by the other pair of openings, there came up from the one in the earth souls full of squalor and dust, and from the second there came down from heaven a second procession of souls clean and pure, [614e] and that those which arrived from time to time appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another, and those which came from the earth questioned the others about conditions up yonder, and those from heaven asked how it fared with those others. And they told their stories to one another, the one lamenting[615a] and wailing as they recalled how many and how dreadful things they had suffered and seen in their journey beneath the earth—it lasted a thousand years—while those from heaven related their delights and visions of a beauty beyond words. To tell it all, Glaucon, would take all our time, but the sum, he said, was this. For all the wrongs they had ever done to anyone and all whom they had severally wronged they had paid the penalty in turn tenfold for each, and the measure of this was by periods of a hundred years each, [615b] so that on the assumption that this was the length of human life the punishment might be ten times the crime; as for example that if anyone had been the cause of many deaths or had betrayed cities and armies and reduced them to slavery, or had been participant in any other iniquity, they might receive in requital pains tenfold for each of these wrongs, and again if any had done deeds of kindness and been just [615c] and holy men they might receive their due reward in the same measure;
Much more could be written on these themes, but this will suffice for this very short, unskilled attempt to sketch the ancient Greek “Orphic” religion built on the myth of the great singer Orpheus.
- An important remark in this regard is given in a source I cite several times below, James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5: “…it would be rash to affirm for certain that everything which I shall put before you had a place in the Orphic religion so early as the sixth century B.C. It is none the less true that the family resemblance between the different ideas to which I shall call your attention is sufficient to justify their claim to a common ancestry; and in this case we must be content to infer the character of the parent from that of the children.”
- For the sake of disclosure, I initially discovered all the references to these writers which I looked up and transcribed below from James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5. In other words, nothing in the present post on this blog is original scholarship!
- As cited by James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5: Ζϵὺς πρω̑τος γϵ́νϵτο, Ζϵὺς ὕστατος, ἀργικϵ́ραυνος, Ζϵὺς κϵϕαλή, Ζϵὺς μϵ́σσα, Διὸς δ̕ ϵ̓κ πάντα τϵ́τυκται.
- As cited by James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Greece, Lecture 5