AskDefine | Define Orphic

Dictionary Definition

Orphic adj
1 ascribed to Orpheus or characteristic of ideas in works ascribed to Orpheus
2 having an import not apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding; "mysterious symbols"; "the mystical style of Blake"; "occult lore"; "the secret learning of the ancients" [syn: mysterious, mystic, mystical, occult, secret]

Extensive Definition

Orphism (more rarely Orphicism) is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices in the ancient Greek and Thracian world, associated with literature ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus, who descended into Hades and returned. Orphics also revered Persephone (who descended into Hades each winter and returned each spring) and Dionysus or Bacchus (who also descended into Hades and returned). Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".
Classical sources refer to "Orpheus-initiators" (Orpheotelestai), 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.


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.


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.


The Orphic theogonies are genealogical works like 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; he is murdered and boiled by the Titans. Zeus hurls a thunderbolt on the Titans, as Hermes snatches Zagreus' heart to safety. The resulting ashes, 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. It was declared that the soul returned repeatedly to life, bound to the wheel of rebirth.
The heart of Dionysus is implanted into the leg of Zeus; he then makes the mortal woman Semele pregnant with the re-born Dionysus. Many of these details are referred to sporadically in the classical authors.
  • 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 cent. 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.
According to the Thracian orphism primary there exists the Great Goddess – Mother. She is the Universe: she self conceived and bore to her first-born son, who is the sun during the day and fire during the night, (personified as Zagreus or Sabazius).


The epigraphical sources demonstrate that the "Orphic" mythology about Dionysus' death and resurrection was associated with beliefs in a blessed afterlife. 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 leaves found in graves from Thurii, Hipponium, Thessaly and Crete (4th cent. BC) give instructions to the dead. When he comes to Hades, he must take care not to drink of Lethe ("Forgetfulness"), but of the pool of Mnemosyne ("Memory"), and he must say to the guards:
"I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven. I am thirsty, please give me something to drink from the fountain of Mnemosyne."
Other gold leaves say:
"Now you are dead, and now you are born on this very day, thrice blessed. Tell Persephone, that Bacchus himself has redeemed you."


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



  • Albinus, Lars. 2000. The House of Hades. Aarhus.
  • Betegh, Gábor. 2006. The Derveni Papyrus. Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation. Cambridge.
  • Burkert, Walter. 2004. Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture. Cambridge, MA.
  • Graf, Fritz. 1974. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens. Berlin, New York.
  • Graf, Fritz, and Sarah Iles Johnston. 2007. Ritual texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. Routledge: London, New York.
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1952. Orpheus and Greek religion. London.
  • Parker, Robert. 1995. "Early Orphism". In The Greek World, Anton Powell (ed.).
  • Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni. 2001. Le lamine doro orfiche. Milano.
  • West, Martin L. 1983. Orphic Poems. Oxford.

External links

Orphic in Bulgarian: Орфизъм
Orphic in German: Orphiker
Orphic in Estonian: Orfism
Orphic in Modern Greek (1453-): Ορφισμός (θρησκεία)
Orphic in Spanish: Orfismo
Orphic in Esperanto: Orfeismo
Orphic in French: Orphisme (religion)
Orphic in Italian: Orfismo
Orphic in Hebrew: אורפיזם
Orphic in Hungarian: Az orphikusok
Orphic in Dutch: Orphisme (godsdienst)
Orphic in Japanese: オルペウス教
Orphic in Polish: Orfizm
Orphic in Portuguese: Orfismo (culto)
Orphic in Romanian: Orfism (religie)
Orphic in Russian: Орфизм
Orphic in Slovak: Orfizmus
Orphic in Finnish: Orfilaisuus
Orphic in Turkish: Orfizm
Orphic in Ukrainian: Орфізм
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