The Orphic Mysteries cannot be looked at through the eyes of a single generation of Greeks. One must use fragments from many different centuries and from many authors to get an approximation of what the Orphic Mysteries were about. The first part of the essay will outline the character of Orpheus. We know from different accounts of Orpheus that he descended into Hades in search of his wife. However, Orpheus’ chthonic connection is more than this single journey into Hades. He is looked at as a guide through the underworld. The second part of the essay will analyze the Orphic theogony.
Orpheus’ theogony gives the Orphic mysteries their aition of humans, inner divinity, as well as the concept of original impiety/sin. The third part of the essay will define the different facets of the Orphic mysteries, like funerary practices and prayers. Therefore, this essay will focus on many primary sources to extract a concise understanding of the Orpheus, his theogony, and the Orphic mysteries. Firstly, it is important to note that before, during, and after the Classical Period in Greece, many infamous authors reference Orpheus.
The first to mention Orpheus, which we know of, is Alexis, a comic poet from 4th century B. C. E. “Come and choose any books you like from here… There is Orpheus, Hesiod, tragedies, Choirilos, Homer, Epicharmos. ” (Athens. 4. 164) One can see that in Alexis references Orpheus from an even older generation of writers. In addition to Alexis, Plato speaks about the books of Orpheus. This secures the fact that Orpheus and his writings were at least well known in the literary circles of Classical Greece. During the beginning of the Roman Empire, Diodoros writes about the Orphic poems.
“In agreement with his, it is pointed out, are the expositions in the Orphic poems and the things which are introduced in the mysteries, the details which it is not lawful to recount to the uninitiated. ” (Diodoros. 3. 62. 8= O. F. 301) Therefore, one can see that Orpheus and his writings were a part of Greek and Roman culture from the 4th century B. C. E. into the era of the Roman Empire. But who was Orpheus? Orpheus’ story begins as many other heroes associated with a secret cult: A hero, with parents of chthonic roots, descends into Hades. In Orpheus’ case, both parents are viewed as chthonic, which gives him a deeper connection to Hades.
His mother was a muse and his father is Oiagros, a Thracian river-god. (Kerns) Later in Orpheus’ life, a venomous snake bit his wife, a Thracian nymph, on their wedding day. Orpheus descended into Hades to find his wife. He plays his instrument, which soothed the spirits of the underworld. He convinces one of the people to help locate his wife. There are differing accounts as to what happens next; nevertheless, it is commonly agreed that he fails in his attempts. After he returns to earth, he is struck with grief so much so that he develops a distaste for women.
This account of Orpheus’ journey into the underworld is from Virgil and Ovid. In Apulian pottery, one sees Orpheus depicted in Hades, not in search for his wife, but as a protector of souls entering the underworld. “Orpheus arrives before Hades and Persophone and leads a woman with his hand. ” (Bernabe and San Cristobal 96-97) There is also and Apulian amphora of a man as he receives Orpheus. The most important part of the painted amphora is that the man is holding a papyrus roll in his hand. As one will see later, the Orphics used items such as a papyrus roll as a ticket for entrance and guidance into a better afterlife.
The final point to make about an Orpheus’ character is concerning his death. Dionysus was jealous because Orpheus was, to him, too strictly dedicated to Apollo. He directed the Maenads to kill Orpheus. “Among the earliest evidence for the legend of Orpheus’ death are the representations of it on vase-paintings, which go back to the 5th century B. C. ” (Guthrie 33) Therefore, we see how Orpheus, from chthonic roots, went intHadeses to find his wife. The Maenads, who were directed by Dionysus, killed him. In addition to his story, Orpheus is seen as guidance into the underworld, presumably because he had journeyed their before.
The aition of the Orphics that explains how humans and gods came into existence is very much like the Panhellenic aition, except that the Orphic version diverges when concerning the story of Dionysos. Our Orphic theogony comes from the Dervini Papyrus. “It [Dervini Papyrus] is preserved on a charred book roll found in a grave in Macedonia Dervini and dated to the late 4th century. ” (Graf 62-63) The author is a mantis who offers interpretations of oracles and initiations. He recounts the theogony of Orpheus. The Orphic theogony extends back to explain the creation of the universe up until humans come into the picture.
Chronos overthrows Ouranos, and then Zeus overthrows Chronos. This is where the Orphic theogony derails from the commonly accepted story of Dionysos. Zeus claims that Dionysos will be the next in line for the kingship. The Titans, directed by a jealous Hera, distract the child Dionysos with a mirror and a toy and then eat him. Zeus becomes so furious that he sends a thunderbolt down that turns the Titans to ash. Dionysos’ heart is recovered and brought together in one place. Humans came into existence from the ashes of the Titans and the heart of Dionysos. The origin of the humans is the focal point of the Ophic Mysteries.
They believed that from Dionysos came the human soul and from the Titans came the original sin, or more accurately the original impurity. One of the main goals of the Orphic Mysteries was to rid the soul of impurities in order to unite with the divine. The Dionysos and Orphic connection is also strengthened with other sources. Herodotus relates some Orphic poems to Dionysos Bacchios. In addition, there was a bone tablet found in the agora of Olbia Pontica that reads, “belonging to Dionysos of Orpheus. ” (Graf 54-55)
Both Herodotus’ writings and the bone tablet date back to the 5th century B. C. E. It is important to see how the Orphic theogony and these alternative sources link Orpheus to the deity Dionysos, specifically with the epithet Bacchios. The rituals of the Orphic mysteries are still a little vague. However, we still have evidence that the Orphic mysteries had many prohibitions, chanted hymns, and unique funerary practices. The best example is from the abstention of eating meat. “Clothed in raiment all white, I shun the birth of men nor touch the coffins of the dead, and keep myself from eating of food which has had life. ” (Euripides, Hipp. 952 f. The reason they were vegetarians was the Orphics belief in reincarnation.
On an Orphic tablet that was left with a person who died alludes to this concept of a soul and rebirth: “Now you have died and now you have been born, thrice blessed one, on this day. ” (Edmonds 36-37) The Orphics went so far as to not bury their dead in woolen clothes. “For in these rites too if a man have a share, it is not lawful for him to be buried in woolen garments. (Herodotus 2. 81) So, one can see the prohibitions set by the Orphic beliefs in reincarnation. Another part of the Orphic mysteries is the sacrifice rituals.
When an Orphic cult would sacrifice, it would never be an animal sacrifice or slaughter of any kind. Normally the Orphics would sacrifice various cakes, or popanons. Although, many Orphics were believed to be extremely disciplined, there was a few Orhics who took advantage of the superstitions of the Greek World. They were called Orpheotelestai. These Orphics were the begging monks of the Greek world. They would prey upon the various superstitions of the citizens as a means of living. One could also draw a comparison to a televangelist. The Greek writer, Theophrastus even mentions the Orpheotelestai in Characters.
Although, these Orpheotelestai were a nuisance to the community, they were only taking the surface layer of the Orphic Mysteries and manipulating it for personal means. We do not know a great deal of the prayers of the Orphic mysteries. However, we do know of some hymns from the Lykomidai that are about Orpheus. “The Lykomidai of Phlya in Attica chanted hymns of Orpheus over their sacred performances. ” (Pausania 9. 30. 12= O. F. 304) One could deduce that these hymns were passed through the ages and trickled into various cults. The final part to discuss is the Orphic funerary practices.
The Orphics in Cumae and other areas had specific burial grounds for those initiated into the Bachhos or the Orphic mysteries. Many gold tablets give instructions on how to enter into the final stage of reincarnation and subsequently a better afterlife in commune with the divine. “But when the soul leaves the light of the sun, Go straight to the right, having kept watch on all things very well. ” (Edmonds 20) This is one of many gold tablets associated with Orpheus and Dionysos. This one was found in Thurii; however, these have been found in Rome, Petelia, Pharsalos, and other areas.
Therefore, from the prohibitions, like the abstention from eating meat, the hymns, and the funerary practices, one can begin to understand that the Orphic mysteries wanted to lead a pure life in order to find a less fearful afterlife. At this point, it is important to note the extreme differences of the Orphic mysteries to the rest of the cults of the Greek world. First, most of the Greek cults focused on the here and now. One would pray to a deity for a favor in return. The point of most Greek cults was not finding a spiritual closeness to the deity, but to form a divine barter system of sorts.
The Orphics on the other hand, sought a disciplined lifestyle in order to reach a better afterlife. The Orphics viewed themselves as part of the divine and the point to life was to become reconnected with the greater divinity in death. In addition, Greek cults centered on the slaughter of animals. During festivals like the Panathenaia, as many as 100 bulls would be sacrificed. The Orphics would not even bury their dead in woolen clothes or eat meat because of their strong belief in the soul’s reincarnation. Therefore, one can see the drastic difference in a standard cult in the Greek world and the Orphic mysteries.
In conclusion, the Orphic mysteries are understood through looking at the character of Orpheus, what the Orphic theogony is about, and what the Orphic rituals consisted of. Orpheus, who had chthonic roots, helped the deceased enter into a better afterlife. From Orpheus came the origin of how gods and humans came to be, with a particular emphasis on how the child-god, Dionysos, was killed by the Titans. From Dionysos came the soul and from the Titans, the physical form and original impurity arose. From this aition, the Orphics developed the notion of reincarnation.
The point of life and becoming an Orphic was to shed the soul of impurities and become reunited with the divine. This parallels very closely with Christianity. In the Roman age, one could assume that the Orphic mysteries could have been used as a transition into Christianity, by pulling from the many correlations. I think it is important to look at the components of the Greek world that do not regularly fit into the classical understanding of the Greek world. The black sheep of history can sometimes be a foreshadowing of the next model of human understanding.