Our sources of information concerning the Orphic movement are unusually authoritative and accessible. They include chiefly a reputable group of classical writers together with a singular collection of Orphic tablets found in south Italy and Crete. The list of classical witnesses to the Orphic cult is headed by the name of Pindar. In his "Dirges," or choral lyrics intended to be chanted at funerals, he offered consolation to mourners by telling them of the Orplic promise of immortality. He further detailed the Orphic doctrine of reincarnation which he represented as a scheme of preliminary purgation by means of triple earthly lives, preceding the final bliss. Again he described with pleasing detail the delights of the Elysian land where the final beatification was to be realized, and in the second Olympian Ode he told of the future of the wicked as well as of the pure. Another important classical witness to Orphism was Plato. Though affecting to despise the system, he was actually much influenced by it. In Cratylus, for example, he made use of the characteristic Orphic idea of the body as a prison house of the soul (soma-sema). In the Republic he described the missionary methods of the Orphics in terms that were not complimentary, yet revealed the vigor of the movement. He told of zealous propagandists who besieged the doors of the rich and persuaded them by a parade of Orphic scriptures that they could provide deliverance and purgation from sin, both for the living and the dead, by means of initiation. Plato also made reference to the idea of the transmigration of souls and to the Orphie rule of life. The dramatist Euripides included an all-important Orphic confessional in his Cretans, and in his admirable Hippolytus he drew a character sketch of a typical and consistent Orphic. Even the comedian Aristophanes bore favorable testimony to the influence of the Orphic mysteries. He had the glorified Aeschylus, the "grand old man" of Attic tragedy, commend Orpheus for teaching mystic rites to mortal men. This torch of reverence, however, did not prevent Aristophanes from giving a lively parody of Orphanic initiation in telling of old Strepsiades' visit to Socrates' "thinking shop." These four names, Aristophanes, Euripides, Plato, and Pindar, include the bulk of classical testimonia to the Orphic mysteries.
Quite as revealing as these literary refernces, however, are the so-called Orphic tablets from tombs in southern Italy and Crete. They are eight in number and are all of very thin gold. According to a consensus of scholarly opinion, they contain the mutilated fragments of a ritual hymn composed for members of the Orphic sect is early as the fifth century B.C. In their present form they may be dated roughly from the fourth century B.C. to the second century of our era. Their purpose is self-evident. Buried with the dead they were intended to give instructions concerning conduct in the next world, formularies and confessionals to be repeated, and directions as to postmortem ceremonial observances. Their ritualistic character and the tone of conviction that pervades them give them peculiar value as sources of information concerning Orphic experience and practice. These remarkable tablets, though they are few in number, constitute our most valuable source materials for the Orphic cult.For an expansive expression of Orphic theology, however, one must turn to the corpus of so-called Orphic literature. We know that as early as the time of the Pisistratidae there were in existence at Athens various poems attributed to Orpheus. They were quoted by Plato and later writers, but their genuineness was challenged by Aristotle and Herodotus. Under the hands of the Orphics a vast literature grew up around this nucleus, but for our purpose the hymns only are of special importance. They are of late compilation and uncertain date, although Professor Dieterich would locate their original composition between 200 B.C. and the beginning of the Christian era. In their present form they represent the developed state of Orphic theology, their general tone being that of mystical monotheism. Of the eighty and more extant hymns, all but nine carry in their headings specifications concerning the particullar perfume to be burned while they were being stung. Most of them also conclude with an invocation to the deity addressed to bless the mystics in the fulfilment of their rites:
And grant a blameless life, a blessed end.
Propitious to thy mystics' works incline
Rejoicing come, for holy rites are thine.
One of these Christian sources, however, deserves specific citation because it preserves in convenient mythological form a bit of fundamental Orphic theology. The passage in question is found in the "Exhortation to the Greeks" by Clement of Alexandria, and it includes a detailed narration of the myth of Dionysus Zagreus. Undoubtedly Clement's rendering of the legend was based upon a lost Orphic poem or poems--at least in the passage itself Clement made two quotations from Orphic literature. According to his version of the myth, Persephone bore to Zeus a son "who had the form of a bull." To quote "a certain mythological poet":
The importance of this myth lies in the fact that in Orphic thought it was connected with a peculiar theory concerning the origin and nature of man, and so ultimately with the thought of man's eternal destiny. From the ashes of the blasted Titans, the Orphic said, man was created. But these Titans had already consumed the god Dionysus, and their ashes contained the vitality of a divine being. Hence man by his very constitution was believed to be a compound of two natures, one Dionysian and immortal, the other Titanic and mortal. His soul was divine, but while in the body it was confined in a charnel house. Plato made full use of this Orphic conception, and in his Gorgias he quoted "a certain philosopher," who said, "We are dead and the body is a tomb." Pindar earlier stressed the divine origin and nature of the human soul in contradistinction to the mortality of the human body. "While the body of all men is subject to over-mastering death, an image of life remains alive, for it alone comes from the gods," he affirmed. This sharp dualism of soul and body appears again and again in the Orphic tablets, though it is not always clear that the myth of the origin of man from the ashes of the Titans was in mind. On the Petelian tablet (south Italy, third century B.C.) the soul is represented as asserting its divine nature thus:
But my race is of Heaven.
What the Orphic did with the idea of transmigration was to moralize it into a cycle of purgations intended to free the soul from bodily taint and leave it in the end a pure heavenly essence. According to Pindar, the soul had to undergo three such periods of purification in as many different incarnations before the process would be complete. Only those who "thrice had been courageous in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong" could pass by the highway of Zeus into the tower of Cronus where the ocean breezes blow around the Islands of the Blest." In Plato the series of three incarnations was magnified to three periods of a thousand years each, during which the process of purgation might be completed. At the close of each thousand-year period, the souls drew lots, thus choosing the manner of their next incarnation. One of the most striking scenes depicted in any of Plato's writings was the eschatological vision of Er, son of Armenius, recounted in the tenth book of the Republic. At the place of judgment, Er saw mortal souls allotted to a new cycle of life choosing their several destinies.
"He saw the soul which had once been Orpheus choosing the life of a swan out of enmity to the race of woman . . . . He beheld also the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale. Birds on the other hand, like the swan and other musicians, wanting to be men . . . . After making choice and drinking of the waters of Lethe, these souls shoot away like stars, to birth."
Empedocles announced three transmigration periods of ten thousand years each ere the soul could be considered eligible for heavenly bliss.The technical Orphic expression for the transmigration of souls and their reappearance in human bodies was "rebirth" (palingenesia). These physical rebirths, however, were what the Orphic least desired, and to escape this weary round of reincarnation was the goal of all his endeavor. According to Proclus, the salvation offered by this system was the freeing of the spirit from the wheel of physical rebirths. In his commentary on Plato's Timaeus, he said, "This is what those who are initiated by Orpheus to Dionysus and Kore pray that they may attain:
I have passed with eager feet to the Circle desired.
The Orphic answer to this problem was, in the first instance, by participation in certain prescribed rites of initiation. Orphism came to the seekers for salvation in the Greek world not merely as a philosophy of life but as a religious cult with divinely authenticated rites which must be fulfilled, else there, could be no guaranty of deliverance. To those only who had "by happy fortune culled the fruit of the rite that releases from toil," was there assurance of salvation, the rite in this instance being initiation into the Orphic mysteries. The mendicants who, according to Plato, harassed the rich, exhibiting scriptures by Orpheus, sought to persuade people that they might obtain purification in life and release from suffering after death by the observance of their ritual. Initiation into an Orphic cult was the first step toward deliverance.In general the prescribed Orphic ritual was a modification of the rude Bacchic rites we have already examined. The persistent representation of Orpheus in antiquity was that of a reformer of Dionysiac rites. Diodorus affirmed that "Orpheus being a man highly gifted by nature and highly trained above all others, made many modifications in the orgiastic rites; hence they call Orphic those rites that took their rise from Dionysus." From the standpoint of ritualistic observance, therefore, there was much in common between Dionysian and Orphic practices. On the very threshold to the Orphic cult stood the omophagy, or feast of raw flesh, which was so prominent a Dionysian rite. In the remaining fragment of Euripides' Cretans an initiate tells of certain ritual acts which he performed in the process of becoming a "Bacchus" and the one he stresses particularly is the eating of raw flesh.For the Orphic this "red and bleeding feast" had two important meanings. It was, first of all, a communion service. Already he had within himself the spark of divinity which came from the ashes of the Titans. This divine life within him, however, was weak, very weak. It needed nourishment. In the sacrificial bull his god Zagreus was ritualistically incarnate; hence, in eating the raw flesh of the torn bull, be partook of a divine substance that nourished and strengthened the immortal life within himself. Just as the life of Zagreus entered the devotee physically when he partook of the flesh of the bull, so the man's soul entered more fully into the spiritual life of Zagreus by this very physical process. In a mystical sense God and man became one by the communion.
But the feast of raw flesh was also a memorial service to the Orphics. With the legend of the divine child Zagreus in mind, they looked upon their own ritual as a re-enactment of the ancient tragedy in which their god was done to death by the Titans. Just as they tore to pieces the flesh of the sacrificial bull and ate it, so the Titans of old had dismembered the child Zagreus. According to Nonnus, it was customary for Orphic initiates to daub themselves with white clay or gypsum as the Titans did in order to conceal their identity. One of the technical expressions for the ritual act of bedaubing with clay was apomattein (literally, "to smear off"). Harpocration has the following note on this word:
"Others use it in a more special sense, as for example when they speak of putting a coat of clay or pitch on those who are being initiated. In this ceremony they were mimetically enacting the myth told by some persons, in which the Titans, when they mutilated Dionysus, wore a coating of gypsum in order not to be identified."
In this comment the mimetic character of the Orphic ritual is definately asserted.
The real inwardness of this act of daubing with gypsum, however, lay in another direction. It was an act of purification--strange as it may seem. The terms perimattein and apomattein ("to besmear" and "to smear off") were used interchangeably to mean "to purify." In the Orphic rite of initiation, just as in the Sabazian rite at which Aeschines assisted, the candidates for initiation were "purified and wiped clean with mud and pitch." They were not purified from mud and pitch but rather with mud and pitch. Since it was not a physical cleansing that was sought but rather a spiritual cleansing, clay and pitch served the purpose quite as well as water. Yet Plutarch, with all his sympathy for Orphism, protested vigorously against purifications in this manner, calling them "unclean purifications, filthy cleansings and bemirings." Orphic initiation, then, in addition to the rite of communion, featured a strange ceremonial of cleansing intended to rid the candidate of the stains inherent in his physical nature.
For the Orphic, however, mere initiation with its prescribed rites, its mysticizing of crude Dionysian ritual, its communion service, and its purifications, was not sufficient as a guaranty of salvation. Initiation, while it was the beginning of a process that eventuated in complete salvation, was but the beginning. The salvation process itself continued as an arduous self-discipline and it lasted a lifetime. The initial sacraments of communion and purgation were supplemented by the austerities of the "Orphic life"--an expression that became proverbial. So the "Bacchus of the Mailed Priests" in Euripides' Cretans ends his confession thus:
From man's vile birth and coffined clay,
And exiled from my lips alway
Touch of all meat where life has been.
"Purification is by means of cleansings, and baths and aspersions. A man must also keep himself from funerals and marriages and every kind of physical pollution, and abstain from all food that is dead or has been killed, and from mullet, and from the fish melanurus, and from eggs, and from animals that lay eggs, and from beans, and from the other things that are forbidden for those who accomplish the holy rites of initiation."
The Orphic, like the Pythagorean, lived a life of ceremonial cleanliness and holiness. By washing and aspersions, at once symbolic and sacramental in character, he sought to purge away the taint of his bodily nature, the "ancient woe" inherited from the Titans. He kept himself rigorously from all defilement of physical contacts with human or animal bodies, from human births especially, and from dead bodies; for in a corpse the evil Titanic matter was left without any vital Dionysian element. Both in life and in death certain clothing regulations were strictly observed. In life the Orphic wore garments of pure white. In death the initiated were never buried in woolen wrappings.
Not only were rules concerning cleanliness and clothing strictly adhered to, but certain food regulations were also carefully followed. Having once partaken of the sacrament of raw flesh, the Orphic fasted forever thereafter from animal food. This was the most familiar of all the prohibitions observed by the Orphics, and Plato defined the Orphic manner of living in terms of this observance. "Orphic lives, as they are caIled," he said, "were led by those of our race who adhered to the use of all inanimate things, but abstained from every thing wherein is life." This abstinence from animal food was a main item in the discipline of the tragic Orphic Hippolytus, whose asceticism was the object of Theseus' bitter invective in Euripides' drama. In his rage the old king cried out against his own son:
Of lifeless food: ....
.... I warn all men to shun
Such hypocrits as you.
At one point especially the moral influence of Orphism was clear and indubitable: that was in its protest against suicide. Since the body was the soul's place of penance a man had no right to take his own life. If he did he was a fugitive prisoner trying to escape before God had released him. Here Plato found Orphic thought peculiarly congenial to his own. In the Phaedo he represented Socrates as saying, shortly before his death, "There is a doctrine whispered in secret that a man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand. Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians and that we are a possession of theirs." In view of all this array of literary evidence, certain moral obligations must be added to the ritualistic requirements which characterized the Orphic life.But participation in rites of initiation and a life of ascetic observance, even, were not sufficient to guarantee full and final salvation for the Orphic. There were certain postmortem rules of conduct to be observed as well. The Orphic tablets bring this out most clearly. They chart the geography of the next world for the initiate, acquaint him with the divine beings who have the determination of future weal or woe, prescribe certain ritual acts to be observed, and instruct him in formularies and confessions to be repeated under certain circumstances.
The Petelia tablet told of a nameless well-spring situated at the left of the House of Hades. This the soul must avoid. Since it was contrasted specifically with the Well of Memory in the following verses, the forbidden spring was probably Lethe, or Forgetfulness. Because the Orphic had spent a lifetime in purification he had no need of forgetfulness. The well-spring of which he must drink was the one flowing from the Lake of Memory. This was the Orphic counterpart of the "well of water springing up unto everlasting life." The Petelia tablet also served to inform the soul what formula to use in asking for a drink from the Well of Memory. It was an avowal of divine origin: "I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven." According to the tablet, this declaration would be sufficient to gain the boon desired from the guardians of the Lake of Memory.
From the holy Well-spring,
And thereafter among the other Heroes,
You shall have lordship.
I have flown out of the sorrowful weary wheel,
I have passed with eager feet to the circle desired.
Admittedly Orphic practice did not offer a new birth experience as a single catastrophic event to be realized in one's lifetime, unless initiation itself is considered that event in a proleptic way. But Orphism did furnish the possibility for a long regenerative process, beginning at initiation and ending after the death of the physical body--a development that eventuated in happy immortality. As an extended process, therefore, rather than as a single event, Orphism fostered the experience of regeneration.It is certainly pertinent to inquire whether or not the Orphic type of religious experience had real significance in the Graeco-Roman world at the beginning of the Christian era. Of the influence of Orphism in the Greek world during classical times, we have found ample testimony by writers of the highest repute. It is more difficult to trace the influence of Orphism as a distinct religious movement during the Hellenistic and later periods. Still the discovery of the important private Orpheum in the recently excavated Villa Item at Pompeii, leads one to anticipate similar finds elsewhere that may illustrate the distinctive functioning of the Orphic cult in first-century life. If when Pompeii was overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. an Orphic brotherhood was operating under private patronage in this charming villa, similar groups were certainly to be found elsewhere in the Roman world maintaining their peculiar cult practices. Aside from such independent functioning, however, Orphism continued to influence the world through systems other than its own. Like Pythagoreanism in this as in much else, it merged readily with other movements. Its ideas were adopted by popular philosophies and its practices were taken over by popular religions. Orphism became very influential at ancient Eleusis particularly, and with the influx of foreign gods and goddesses into the Greek world it captivated them also. In these secondary forms the Orphic view of life and the Orphic way of living continued to influence thought and action even where Orphic brotherhoods as such had ceased to exist.
There is plenty of direct literary evidence as to the power of Orphic ideas and practices, however institutionalized, during the Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman periods. One of the characteres of Theophrastus, for example, was a man who every month repaired to the priests of the Orphic mysteries to partake of their rites. Usually he was accompanied by his wife. But if she was too busy, his children and their nurse went along with him. Perhaps the most notable example of a prominent man who shared the Orphic hope in the first Christian century was Plutarch. Both he and his wife were initiated into an Orphic thiasus. Though he strongly criticized certain Orphic practices, and refused to be frightened by the terrors of their Hell, and depreciated the morbid type of self-examination fostered by their manner of life, yet he and his wife found the Orphic hope a real consolation to themselves in the time of trouble. Strabo and Pausanias, as well as Plutarch, made casual reference to Orphism as a feature of contemporary religion, while Lucian, in his irresponsible manner, reflected Orphic ideas here and there. The Latin poet Statius praised the widow of a certain Lucan for not deifying him as Bacchus and consecrating to him "a deceitful thiasus"--a testimony that the Orphic practice of deifying the dead was not infrequent in the Graeco-Roman world.Of more concrete significance is the archaeological evidence furnished by sepulchral art and grave inscriptions. According to the Orphic scheme of things, the soul entered upon the status of divinity after death. Among the monuments there are a number--quite apart from royal or imperial memorials--which actually represented the dead as gods. At Guthaeum, for example, a first-century (A.D.) statue representing a youth was found near a sarcophagus. It was obviously intended to be a portrait statue; but a panther stands by the side of the youth, a grape cluster is in his hand, and a vine crown is on his head. Here is a clear memorial of the process of apotheosizing a youth after death and of representing him as the god Dionysus.
Among the grave inscriptions there are parallels to this sculptural representation of a deceased youth as a god. A priest of Thasos dedicated an inscription to his dead wife as "an incarnate goddess," and a man by the name of Lucius consecrated a monument to his child of four years with these words: "To my sweetest child and personal God who hearkens to my prayers." More clearly reminiscent of certain characteristic Orphic ideas is a second-century (A.D.) inscription found in a Sabine village. "The soul is immortal for it came from God. The body is the garment of the soul. Honor the God in me." This was good Orphic doctrine throughout.Here and there also among grave inscriptions are to be heard the echoes of Orphic ritual. On a tombstone in Cnidus was engraved this affirmation, "I have not drunk of the water of Lethe that ends all things." Immediately one is reminded of the Petelia tablet with its description of a nameless well-spring at the left of the House of Hades with a white cypress standing near--a well-spring by all means to be avoided. There are other inscriptions which recall the cool waters of Memory flowing from the well-spring on the right, from which the parched soul may drink and find new life for itself. Two epitaphs of the third century (A.D.) found at Rome contain prayers that are reminiscent of the Orphic tablets. "May Aidoneus, the king of the dead, give you the cold water" is the petition of one, while the second inscription repeats the same request in the first person, "May he give the cold water to my thirsting soul." Most peculiar of the Orphic inscriptions is one from Abydos, dated roughly at the beginning of our era. It stood originally on the grave of a Lycian Greek buried near the reputed tomb of Osiris. The inscription expressed the conviction that since the tomb of the god was near, the soul of the dead would escape Hades: "Hermes gathers me with the sons of the gods, and I have not drunk the water of Forgetfulness." Here the Arcadian Hermes makes his appearance in the role of Psychopompos, as in classical mythology and the Hermetic literature, and the inscription as a whole memorializes the blending on Egyptian soil of Orphism, Hermetism, the Osiris cult, and local tradition.
Altogether, therefore, the grave monuments of Graeco-Roman times strongly reinforce the literary evidences that Orphic ideas were still very influential in the life of paganism when Christianity first emerged. Hence, among the new-birth experiences of paganism contemporary with early Christianity the extended Orphic process of regeneration must not be ignored.