What Was Orphism?

Unknown.jpegBack in Ancient Greece, religion was a critical part of daily life. In addition to their rich, extensive mythology, the Greeks could be initiated into mysteries, secretive and occult groups, almost like secret societies, such as the infamous Eleusinian Mysteries. The groups all coexisted, and they all had unique rituals, and some taught different stories about the creation of the world. The idea of reincarnation, thought outlandish by some, is actually a commonly accepted belief practiced worldwide, and one particular creed in Greece, called Orphism, played a monumental role in Greek culture, not to mention philosophy, its teachings adopted by Pythagoras and even as far as Plato. Little can be said about the creation of the group, no less about the founder; further, the literature that is attributed to the society is scant, and authors have yet to be identified.

According to Orphic cosmological tradition, the universe was conceived of in a cosmic egg. In other words, the cosmos was initially an embryo, self-contained, which at a certain point hatched, the upper half of the egg forming the Heavens, the lower, Earth. There was chaos at first. Then, the three realms—Heaven, Earth, and Sea—were bound by Æther. This substance, described as the fifth element by Aristotle, was like a belt that held the three realms together tightly, creating a compact universe. The Orphics believed in an omnipotent creator, a demiurge, whom they called Phanes, who was the embodiment of both male and female, and thus the objective progenitor of humanity. img_phanes.jpgPhanes was the mightiest of the deities, the god of all gods, until he was devoured by Zeus—a common motif in Greek mythology. It is considered by scholars that this creation story was most likely inspired by contemporary civilizations like Egypt, India, and Babylon, each of which had a creation story of the almost exact structure. Orphism was named after the mythical musician Orpheus, who, so skilled at playing the lyre he could lull rocks and Hades’ three-headed dog Cerberus, tried to retrieve his wife from the Underworld under the condition that he not look at her. He failed in the end and was killed by mænads, passionate followers of Dionysus. The actual religious foundations for the society derive from another myth: that of Dionysus. Born to Zeus and Persephone, Dionysus was dismembered and eaten by the Titans. An angered Zeus struck the Titans with his thunderbolt, disintegrating them, and reviving from their ashes a reincarnated Dionysus, along with man.


Man, born divine and depraved, half-god and half-Titan, was therefore impure. His holy blood from Dionysus’ ashes was tainted with the blood of the corrupt Titans. This mirrors the Christian doctrine of original sin in that it assigns man an innate evil that is up to him to remove, through virtuous action. For this reason, the Orphics thought the body (soma, σωμα) was a tomb (sema, σημα). The body was an impediment, something of which to be ridden, as it reminded man of his corporeality, as opposed to his spirituality, his imperfection, as opposed to his perfection. Plato attested, “I have heard a philosopher [Pythagoras] say that at this moment we are actually dead, and that the body is our tomb…”.[1] To the Orphics, the body was on the same plane of being dead; so tainted is it, that it is like a sarcophagus. Only through certain religious rituals could an individual temporarily transcend his earthly tomb and become one with his divinity. During rituals, the goers would try to enter a state of “enthusiasm,” or an intense and passionate fervor, usually achieved through music, dance, or meditation. The objective of the participant was to escape his body, to relinquish his consciousness, to relieve his sense of self, and to unite with his divine side, in an attempt to reunite with God. Thus, Orphics tried to induce ecstasy, which means etymologically “to stand outside oneself”—literally to escape oneself. In the afterlife, said the Orphics, the soul would be put through judgment, where it would be subject to rigorous testing to see whether its bodily owner was virtuous or not. Sinners would be punished accordingly. The luckier ones had to face Hades, while those who were worse off would be reincarnated until they purified their soul. On the other hand, those who properly tended to their soul were able to be reunited with the World-soul, an overarching, all-inclusive spirit that permeated the world—a pantheistic spirit—from which they came. Central to Orphic doctrine was metempsychosis, a nice way of saying reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul. This concept is similar to the Buddhist idea of Samsara, the wheel of rebirth: If, when we die, we have not balanced our Karma, we are condemned to another life, ad infinitum, until we do so.

When one brings up Orphism, the next topic that will come up, most probably, would be Pythagoreanism, the philosophical brotherhood started by Pythagoras, inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem, since he took many of their doctrines and implemented them into his teachings. Historians accredit Pythagoras with being the first to call himself a philosopher; as such, he took philosophy seriously, considering it a way of life. To him, the happy life was one of contemplation; philosophy was a theoretical life, lived in Unknown-2.jpeginquiry, in discussion, in experimentation. He is said to have “intellectualized” Orphism, applying scientific thinking and reasoning to its beliefs, making it a viable way of life, rather than a mystery. Again, we have Plato to testify: “[T]hey say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but never destroyed. And the moral is, that man ought to live always in perfect holiness.”[2] Here, Plato describes the ethical system of Orphism, explaining the idea of purification, which is required if one wants to join the World-soul. Moreover, he sets up the idea of the immortality of the soul advocated by Pythagoras—an idea that Socrates would have taught him and that would play a crucial role in his philosophy. The soul exists eternally and can never be destroyed; if it is impure at the end of its body’s life, it is to take the body of a new person, and then another, until purification; if, however, at death, the soul is pure, it can go to the World-soul. This last sequence can be detected in Platonic thought in the Phædrus. If Pythagoras considered philosophy a way of life, if a good life was one of purity, what then did purification look like, and what good did philosophy do anyone? For Pythagoreans, a virtuous life consisted of dutiful moral responsibility and ascetic self-constraint. The body, remember, was a tomb, but the soul was holy and needed to be pure if it wanted to return to divinity; hence, the life of the Pythagorean was dedicated to caring for and tending to the soul, cautious not to commit any vices. In the afterlife, the soul was judged by its scars, which of course were not physical, but spiritual, symbolic of the vices of which the body was guilty. Based on this belief, the soul was of paramount importance and took precedence over the well-being of the body.

One of the key beliefs of the Pythagoreans, derived from Orphism, was the transmigration of the soul. In fact, there are several stories about Pythagoras and his belief therein. “Once they said that he [Pythagoras] was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: Stop, do not beat it; for it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it giving tongue,” reported Xenophanes.[3] In this story, Pythagoras remembered the voice of a friend of his and reasoned that his soul must have been reincarnated as a dog. Pythagoras was famously a vegetarian. Anyone who joined qm1428642438.jpgthe Pythagorean creed was a vegetarian, on the basis that animals could be the host of either a friend’s or an ancestor’s soul. Similarly, beans were to be refrained from, for Pythagoras said they were the seeds from which humans were birthed. To eat a bean, was to eat a fellow human. Interestingly, it is worth pointing out that, according to legend, Pythagoras died because he was chased to a bean field by an angry mob, and, not wanting to trample the beans, decided to surrender himself to the mob instead. The eating of meat or beans was called Adikia (αδικια). It was a grave vice. Plato recounts, “[M]en are said to have lived a sort of Orphic life, having the use of all lifeless things, but abstaining from all living things.”[4] Orphism was practically synonymous with vegetarianism as a result. The Pythagoreans, it can be entertained, were pantheistic, insofar as they believed all life was interconnected, like a web, which was connected to Unknown-3.jpegthe World-soul, of which all living things were a part. Another story in Pythagorean tradition tells of a man named Æthalides who was bestowed by Hermes the gift of being able to remember his past lives. Upon passing, he was reincarnated as Euphorbus, who was slain by Menelaus in the Trojan War; his soul went to Hermotimus, who went to a temple and allegedly pointed out the shield used by Menelaus, proving he was Euphorbus in his previous life; then, Hermotimus died and became Pyrrhus; and finally, the soul went on to inhabit yours truly, Pythagoras. Pythagoras urged his followers every night to go through their previous day, recalling as much detail as possible, as a way of strengthening their memory, whereby they could eventually remember as far back as their own previous lives. Herodotus also mentions a strange ritual practiced by the Pythagoreans in his Histories:

Nothing of woolen, however, is taken into their temples or buried with them, as their religion forbids it. Here their practice resembles the rites called Orphic and Bacchic, but which are in reality Egyptian and Pythagorean; for no one initiated into these mysteries can be buried in a woolen shroud, a religious reason being assigned for the observance.[5]

Another Presocratic philosopher who borrowed from Orphic thought was Empedocles, the originator of the four elements, who claimed, “For by now I have been born a boy, girl, plant, bird, and dumb seafish.”[6] It is important to note how exactly Pythagoras—and Empedocles for that matter—came into knowledge, specifically, of the Orphic teachings, and generally, his own teachings. Scholar Theodor Gomperz suggested that Unknown-4.jpegPythagoras was influenced by nearby civilizations, like Egypt, Babylon, and India; as I explained earlier, the creation stories of the Orphics, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Indians were all related. Of these traditions, Gomperz said, India was most likely the connection. After all, it is not that unreasonable, seeing as Pythagoras was a contemporary of the Buddha through the 6th- and 5th-centuries BC. More evidence is that during this time, India and Greece were united under Cyrus’ Persian Empire, meaning there were definitive interactions between the two. The similarities between Pythagoreanism and Buddhism are numerous, from the shared tradition of vegetarianism to the theory of reincarnation.

Conclusively, Orphism, while now outdated, impacted ancient civilization on a considerable scale, having been used by Pythagoras, the Buddha, Empedocles, and Plato. Categorizing Orphism is as difficult as categorizing Buddhism, as it is neither a religion nor a philosophy in its proper sense, although it does share some characteristics of the ritualistic mysteries of Ancient Greece, along with its literature. The practices of vegetarianism, pantheism, and immortality and transmigration of the soul, while seemingly foreign to the Western world—the latter two more so—have undeniably defined Western culture.


[1] Plato, Gorgias, 493a
[2] Plato, Meno, 81a
[3] Diogenes Läertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 8.36.12-15
[4] Plato, Laws, VII, 782c
[5] Herodotus, Histories, II.81
[6] Empedocles, 117


For further reading: Philosophic Classics: Ancient Philosophy by Forrest E. Baird (2000)
A History of Ancient Western Philosophy by Joseph Owens (1959)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Frederick Copleston (1993)
The Greek Thinkers Vol. 1 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Dream of Reason  by Anthony Gottlieb (2013)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Socrates to Sartre by Enoch S. Stumpf (1982)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s