The cult of Orphism was a mystery sect that originated from ancient Greece and followed the practices and writings of the mythical poet Orpheus. Similar to the Eleusinian mysteries, only those initiated into the cult learned the full truth of the group’s practices and beliefs.
Scholars, both today and in the ancient past, could only ever speculate as to what truly occurred within. However, over the last century archaeologists and historians have uncovered scraps of information such as the Orphic tablets and the Derveni Papyrus, both of which have shed some light on the group’s unique mythology and practices.
Who Was Orpheus, the Legendary Founder of the Cult of Orphism?
The existence of the cult of Orpheus raises many questions, above all, who exactly its founder Orpheus was. According to legend, Orpheus was a renowned poet, musician, and prophet from Thrace who could charm and influence all living things, even stone itself, through his musical abilities. Like many figures of myth and legend, his origins differ slightly in different accounts. However, they all agree he was of Thracian origins and that he was born near Mount Olympus — possibly in the ancient town of Pimpleia. Orpheus’ mother was the Muse Calliope, while his father is thought by many, including the poet Pindar, to have been the mythological Thracian king Oeagrus or the god Apollo. Pindar called Orpheus the father of songs and ancient writers recognized him as the greatest musician and poet to have ever lived.
Orpheus and the Expedition of the Argonauts
Orpheus was a renowned musician and a hero remembered through myths and legends. He accompanied Jason and the Argonauts on their journey to retrieve the golden fleeces from the distant lands of Colchis. Orpheus was a musician, not a warrior. Although, without him, the Argonauts would never have found success on their perilous journey. The Argonauts encountered the Sirens of Sirenum Scopuli who would entice sailors to their doom through their beautifully enchanting songs. These were the same Sirens that Odysseus outwitted in the Odyssey.
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When the Sirens began their alluring songs, Orpheus stepped forward, pulled out his lyre, and began to sing a louder and more beautiful song than the Sirens. Orpheus’s song drowned out the sirens, saving the Argonauts not with strength or cunning but with music. According to the ancient poet Phanocles, Orpheus became the lover of a young Argonaut called Calais son of Boreas, God of the North wind.
The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice: Orpheus in the Underworld
Arguably the most famous myth about Orpheus is his descent into the Underworld to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice. Orpheus and Eurydice fell in love at first sight and they lived together happily for a short while. However, when Hymen the god of marriage came to bless their union, he foretold that their happiness was not destined to last. Eurydice travelled with some nymphs not long after the prophecy to a nearby forest. In one version of the tale, they encounter the shepherd, Aristaeus, who lusted after Eurydice and began to chase her. While another says that Eurydice and the nymphs began to dance together. Regardless of the version, the distraction led to Eurydice being bitten by a snake and dying instantly.
When Orpheus heard of his love’s demise, he sang a song of grief so moving that both the heavens and the earth learned of his loss. Orpheus decided to travel to the Underworld to find his love. Along his journey, he used his supernatural music to dissuade all obstacles, namely the three-headed dog Cerberus. Orpheus soon met with the lords of the Underworld Hades and Persephone. He played them a heart-breaking song that moved even Hades the god of death to tears. Hades agreed to allow Orpheus and Eurydice to return to the land of the living but under one condition: Eurydice would follow behind Orpheus and at no point was Orpheus allowed to look back at her until they reached their destination.
Orpheus agreed, thanking the lords of the dead for their kindness. But Orpheus could not hear his love’s footsteps behind him and thought he had been tricked by the gods. No more than a few footsteps from the exit, Orpheus lost faith and turned to see if Eurydice was behind him. She was there and Orpheus watched as she was pulled back down to the Underworld as he had failed to follow Hades’ one condition. Orpheus returned to the land of the living consumed by guilt and grief.
Death of Orpheus
The final myth about Orpheus deals with his death, and there are different versions each ending the same. Orpheus meets his end at the hands of Maenads, female worshipers of god Dionysus, who tear him to pieces. The Maenads kill him after he rejects their advances. This is either because he has sworn off love after his failed attempt to save his wife Eurydice or because he rejected all women seeking the company of men only.
The playwright Aeschylus claims that Dionysus sent the Maenads to kill Orpheus because he disdained worship of the gods apart from Apollo. All versions end with the Maenads ripping off Orpheus’ head, which remained intact and still sang. His head eventually ended up in Lesbos and, through Zeus’s power, gained oracular abilities. The people of Lesbos built a shrine for him near Antissa, where pilgrims would travel to ask an oracle for prophecies.
Orpheus is never mentioned by either Homer or Hesiod despite the consensus being that he existed several generations before Homer and the reported events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although ancient writers such as Strabo, Pindar, and Apollodorus claim he existed, Homer’s lack of any mention of him led thinkers such as Aristotle to deny his existence outright.
The Orphic Hymns which form the basis of the Orphic Theogony are attributed to Orpheus. However, the unlikelihood of the mythic Orpheus ever having existed in the first place calls his authorship into question. Although the mythical Orpheus never existed, his legend likely inspired other writers to establish the cult of Orpheus. Orpheus’s musical abilities, his descent into the Underworld, and his death at the hands of followers of Dionysus, strongly influenced the future cult’s unique beliefs and practices.
The Orphic creation myth is very similar to Hesiod’s Theogony because it presents the creation as a genealogy of the gods. Both creation myths share strong similarities, but the Orphic myth also shares much in common with near eastern and Egyptian creation myths.
The Orphic Hymns claim that the first being was Chronos (Time) who spawned Aither (Ether), Chaos (Unorder), and Erebos (Darkness). Time then created a cosmic egg in Ether and from it hatched a supreme being called Phanes, who is also called Protogonos, Eros, Metis, and Dionysus. Phanes is described as a beautiful androgynous figure bathed in light with a lion’s head and golden wings. Phanes then asexually birthed Nyx (Night) and passed its scepter to her, making Nyx the second ruler of the universe. Nyx then proceeded to create the Titans familiar from Hesiod’s theogony such as Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky).
Events then unfolded similarly to in the Theogony, with Kronos castrating his father Ouranos and swallowing his and Rheas Olympian children to prevent any challenge to his rulership. As Hesiod recounts, Zeus is spirited away by Rhea but does not simply defeat the Titans. Zeus swallowed Phanes the original creator and thus became “the beginning, middle, and end of all.” With Phanes’ power and Nyx’s counsel, Zeus recreated the universe. The Derveni Papyrus comments that Zeus achieved this incredible feat with the help of Moria, an incarnation of fate that gave Zeus mastery over reason and time itself.
Zeus then proceeds to establish the Olympian pantheon in a similar manner to Hesiod’s Theogony. A significant difference is that Dionysus is born through the forceful union of Zeus and Persephone. Zeus bequeathed Phanes’ scepter and rulership of all things to his last son Dionysus, also referred to as Zagreus in the Orphic texts. This angers Zeus’s wife Hera who wishes for one of her children to receive Phanes’ sceptre.
Hera enlisted the help of the Titans in her plans to destroy Dionysus-Zagreus. The Titans lure the infant using a mirror and children’s toys, and then tear him to pieces and consume him. Athena manages to save Dionysus- Zagreus’s heart and informs Zeus who hurls lighting down incinerating the Titans.
From the ashes of the Titans and the consumed Dionysus- Zagreus, humankind is born. The soul of humanity contains an aspect of Dionysus- Zagreus, while their physical forms, created from the Titans, imprisons their souls. The original sin committed by the Titans results in the imprisonment of the soul, which must suffer a cycle of rebirth. Specifically, the soul must undergo ten reincarnations to purge itself of the Titan’s crimes.
Dionysus-Zagreus is also reincarnated and the Orphic texts present two familiar accounts of how this happened. Their heart is either implanted in Zeus’s thigh or given to Zeus who implants it in the womb of the mortal, Semele. Both cases result in the rebirth of Dionysus-Zagreus, who the Orphics worshipped.
Orphism differs significantly from other religious practices of the time. Mainly through their belief in Metempsychosis (reincarnation), the concept of original sin, and a strong leaning towards monotheism in their devotion to Dionysus-Zagreus. They believed that their founder, Orpheus, learned these truths during his journey to the Underworld, which itself is akin to a soul’s cycle of rebirth. Furthermore, their founder’s untimely demise is very similar to Dionysus- Zagreus’s death.
Metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul, was not a belief contained only in Orphism. Followers of Pythagoras also believed in the concept, and philosophers such as Plato and Socrates gave it much consideration. What makes the Orphic version different is the belief in original sin and the suffering the soul undergoes every cycle of rebirth. The Orphics believed that all souls that have not undertaken the mystic rites of Orpheus will suffer in mud and painful servitude as they await their next reincarnation. Those who do take the Orphic rites and follow their practices would spend their days in the company of Orpheus and the gods while waiting for their rebirth. A soul that has lived through three cycles adhering to Orphic practices is released from the cycle of reincarnation.
Plato refers to Orphic priests who would pester the rich by knocking on their doors with their holy books asking if they wished to be cleansed of their sins. The use of holy scripture was considered a novelty by Plato and his contemporaries. Unfortunately, no such books have survived intact, yet we can presume that they contained the Orphic hymns and the various prohibitions and dogma that their followers needed to obey.
Much of what is known about the cult’s practices has survived through references from ancient writers such as Plato, Euripides, and others. Many of these references are referred to mockingly and should not be taken at face value. However, the fact that numerous ancient sources referred to similar beliefs implies that there is some truth to their words.
The Orphics believed in Adikia or the avoidance of harming or bringing injustices to any living soul. They believed that murder and any acts of violence against another are great sins. This belief pertained to all creatures with a soul, and the Orphics were strict vegetarians as a result. They also avoided eating beans similar to followers of Pythagoras.
Orphics adhered to an ascetic lifestyle to avoid further contamination of their souls. There are also accounts that they took vows of celibacy, similar to some versions of their founder Orpheus after his failed attempt to save Eurydice.
Initiation into the Cult of Orpheus
It is unclear exactly what occurred during the Orphic initiation rites, but recent archaeological discoveries suggest that an important aspect of them was the revelation of important knowledge to prepare and guide followers in the afterlife. Archaeologists have uncovered bone tablets in Olbia, with inscriptions such as “Life. Death. Life. Truth. Dio(nysus). Orphics”. The meaning of the tablets is unknown but scholars believe they were intended to help Orphics remember what to do when they died.
Gold-leaf tablets discovered in Orphic graves throughout Greece present instructions for how to navigate the afterlife. Within Metempsychosis, one’s soul would descend to the Underworld and drink or pass through the river Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) shedding all memories of its previous life in the process. The Orphic tablets instruct followers to avoid this river and instead drink from the pool of Mnemosyne (“Memory”). Keeping hold of their memories, the souls would then find their gods and recite formulaic phrases which would allow them into the company of their gods.
The cult of Orphism remains a mystery to this day. Historians still debate whether or not it should be considered a distinct religious sect, an alternative lifestyle, or a new school of philosophical thought. It is unclear what happened to the cult and how it fell out of popularity. However, new archaeological discoveries indicate that answers may be uncovered in the near future.