In Greek myth, Orpheus is most well-known for his failed quest to retrieve his lover Eurydike from Hades. But there was also a cult focused around him in antiquity, a sect of the Bacchic cults which focused especially on ritual purity and the afterlife. Orphism dates back to the 6th century BCE, though most of our evidence for it comes from the Common Era. Hence, like many aspects of the ancient world, our knowledge of Orphism is rather sketchy!
Orphism had a unique cosmology in which Dionysus was king of the gods (not Zeus!) and the world was born from an egg. We know very little about Orphism, and some argue that it was not really a cult but only a literary tradition. What we do know is scattered in classical authors (especially Plato), Neoplatonists from the 3rd century onwards, and three collections of texts found from antiquity: a collection of 3rd-century CE hymns from Pergamum, a collection of golden funerary tablets from the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE, and a fragmentary papyrus containing an allegorical-cosmological commentary on an Orphic poem (now lost) from 330 BCE. So we really don’t have much.
Scholars and religious apologists (both pro- and anti-religion alike) frequently debate the similarity of Orphic and Bacchic cult to early Christianity. I won’t try to oversimplify that debate here, though IMHO both sides make good points. But Orphism is important for the study of early Christianity because it had a relatively elevated view of hieroi logoi, or “sacred words.” Orphism claimed that its texts were sacred, and invested in them a certain amount of authority because they came from the mouth and lyre of Orpheus himself. This does not mean Orphism was a textualized religion like the Abrahamic faiths. I have seen no indication of a closed canon of Orphic texts. But in investing their texts with more authority, by deeming them sacred and referring to them to justify their beliefs and practices, Orphism provided a pagan precedent for early Christianity’s introduction of the concept of sacred canon to the Greco-Roman world.
Here I review two key works on ancient Orphism. These were really useful, but also really interesting in and of themselves. I’d recommend them for New Testament students.
This book is a collection of Orphic hymns to various Olympian gods, personified natural forces, and of course Dionysus himself. The hymns date to the 2nd-3rd century CE, though their oral tradition may extend much farther back, perhaps even to the 6th century BCE when Orphism first emerged.
This book is hard to review because it really is the best of its kind. Athanassakis is a well-known translator of Greek literature (he rendered the Homeric Hymns as well), and this is a revision of a work he first published in 1977. The hymns take up only 66 pages, but the notes take up 152. The notes are helpful, because they explain various references in the hymns, particularly to Orphic myth and cosmology. However, the notes do not give any philological guidance, so the student of Greek might want to look elsewhere. The translation is superb, and Athanassakis’ introduction had some really interesting points about religious epithets and the religious experience of chanting various epithets and names of God.
My only complaint about this book is the brevity of its overview of the hymns themselves. I wish Athanassakis had spent more time introducing them as a whole and discussing various aspects of them. It would be far too tedious to read the notes on every hymns. I was hoping for something like what Graf and Johnston do in the book below, with chapters devoted to different theories about the text itself.
As I mentioned above, one of our major sources of evidence for ancient Orphism is a series of tablets found in tombs in Greece and Italy. These tablets are made of gold, and their writings are divided into two types. Some tablets have just the names of the initiates on them, while others have instructions for what to do in Hades to have a good rebirth. (Orphism held to the tenet of reincarnation.) In this way, these tablets are like a very, very short version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, also written for disciples to attain a good rebirth.
Here Graf and Johnston provide a critical edition of the tablets, with both the Greek texts and the English translation; they have a map of where each one was found; they include six chapters of research on various aspects of the tablets; and they have four appendices on other funerary tablet finds and Bacchic texts. So this is a really, really useful text, one I am going to hold on to.
A chapter by chapter summary:
- Chapter one contains the Greek and English of all 38 tablets.
- Chapter two gives a brief history of scholarship, including the debate between “minimalist” and “maximalist” approaches to how much we can know about Orphism. An interesting point here is how much scholarship on Orphism was influenced by contemporary culture wars over just how much early Christianity borrowed from paganism.
- Chapter three, “The Myth of Dionysus,” was for me the most interesting in the whole book. Here Johnston posits that Orphic myth was an intentionally created system. From here she explores how Orphic myth made itself distinctive enough to be the basis of a new cult, yet also plausible enough in the general framework of Greek myth to attract converts, while still retaining a connection between Orphic myth and Orphic ritual. For example, Orphics believes that Dionysus was the lead god in Greek myth. This was plausible to an average Greek: just as Zeus took Kronos’ position as king of the gods, so Zeus’ position could be given to another. But the belief in Dionysus’ supremacy was obviously distinctive, and clearly was the basis of Orphic focus on worship of Dionysus. (That said, the Orphic hymns demonstrate that Orphic followers worshipped all the gods, just that Dionysus had a special place in worship.)
- Chapter four, “The Eschatology Behind the Tablets,” explored the postmortem geography of the underworld. The tablets indicate that the initiate will enter Hades thirsty, but must bypass the first river, speak to the guards of Hades, and drink from the river of memory. This will allow a good rebirth in which the initiate will remember some of their knowledge from the previous life. There seem to be three options for the newly dead: for the wicked, punishment followed by a bad rebirth; for the good, a good rebirth with all knowledge forgotten; for the good who has been initiated in the Orphic cult, a good rebirth or joining the gods and heroes in the afterlife. Wow.
- Chapter five, “Dionysiac Mystery Cults,” tries to place the tablets in the context of our scant knowledge of Dionysiac cult practice. Essentially, what were these tablets for? We don’t really know. Graf argues that the tablets were a part of the initiation rites into Orphism, and were later placed in the graves of initiates after they died. However we have no record of rituals in which these tablets were created, let alone explanations of why and when they were.
- Chapter six, “Orpheus, His Poetry, and Sacred Texts,” explores the identity of Orpheus and the nature of the hieroi logoi of Orphic religion. Graf and Johnston look at different ancient sources on Orpheus as Argonaut, foreigner, singer, magician, initiator, and lover of Eurydike. They then look at the debate over how textualized Orphic religion was. They argue that when Orphic texts are referred to as heiroi logoi, this does not mark them as “scripture” the way we use the word. Instead, these were myths and explanations of rituals, and were divided into two categories of public texts and private, insider texts. In other words, the “sacred words” of Orphism referred more to Orphism’s specific texts, but that didn’t mean there was a closed canon or a theology of revelation attached to those texts.
I didn’t read any of the appendices, but even without those this was a really interesting book! While Guthrie’s book mainly tried to establish the facts of Orphism, Graf and Johnston ask more speculative and interesting questions and give insightful answers. I would really recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek religion, especially in mystery cults or practices surrounding the afterlife.
Onward and upward!