The Orphic Mysteries



“Of the many belief systems circulating in archaic Greece, Orphism was perhaps the most significant. The state-sanctioned religion of Hellenism may have intermingled with all aspects of daily life, but archaic Greece was also a mixture of superstitious magic and philosophical cults. There were rational beliefs such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, as well as sects with mystical tendencies like Pythagoreanism and later, Orphism, the adherents of which developed the Eleusinian Mystery Festivals, an annual celebration that captivated Athenians for nearly two thousand years.

Unlike the state-sanctioned rituals of Hellenism, of which it was a part, Orphism was guarded by educated elite. Those who followed Orphism were called Orphics, and they held their yearly mystery festival on the Eleusinian plains west of Athens in celebration of Demeter and Persephone – as well as their mysterious consort, Dionysus, who played a key role in this religion.

The Orphic religion, as well as their texts, was said to have been associated with the literature from the mythical poet, Orpheus. In the myth of Orpheus, his wife Eurydice suffers a fatal encounter with a snake. By journeying to the Underworld and composing a song that softens the heart of Hades, Orpheus is able to win his wife’s resurrection, but on one condition: he mustn’t turn back to look at her on his way out. Of course, he can’t resist one last look, and he immediately loses his love a second time. From then on, Orpheus can only recall Eurydice’s ghost through song.

There is an unhappy version of the Orpheus myth as told by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C. Similar to the ending in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Aeschylus’ play describes Orpheus dismemberment by the Bassarai (the Bacchants in Ovid). However, his head goes on singing and makes its way across the sea to Lesbos where it is venerated by Apollo.

Orpheus’ death in this myth as well as in the Metamorphosis can be seen as an allegory for peaceful societies inevitably succumbing to barbarism. Ovid claims that Dionysus punished the Bacchants for killing Orpheus, but in contrast, Aeschylus’ play has Dionysus sending the Bassarai to punish Orpheus for not paying him tribute. This is an interesting distinction that differentiates Orphism from earlier orgiastic cults. The Orphics were enemies of the orgiastic praise of early Dionysian rituals – and the fundamental point of the Orphic poems was the dismemberment of Dionysus at the hands of the Titans.

In the Orphic verses Dionysus is Zagreus, son of Persephone and Hades/Zeus. Hera convinces the Titans to tear him apart, but Zeus is able to save Dionysus’ heart, and he destroys the Titans with a lightning bolt. From their ashes man is born – hence man’s “Titanic” nature.

Egyptian myths exerted a lot of influence on Greek myths, especially during the 6th century when Greek merchants frequently visited the country. The Greeks would have been aware of the Egyptian Cult of the Dead, which influenced the Cult of Adonis and Dionysus, whose dismemberment at the hands of the Titans also mirrors the Egyptian myth of Osiris. In an ancient epic by Alcmaeonis, Dionysus-Zagreus is equated with the night, thunder and the earth. He is the “highest of all gods.” For Dionysus was originally a god of the Underworld. The Egyptians equated him with Pluto. In fact, Heraclitus said that Hades and Dionysus were one and the same.

Dionysus – So while the cult of Dionysus, which originated in Egypt, was incorporated into the Orphic religion, it also lost some of its earlier vitality and impact. The central rite of Orphism was the animal sacrifice, a symbolic dismembering and eating of Dionysus. This rite is interpreted as a crime in the Orphic myths, in which the Titans are similarly demonized. Like mankind, the Bacchants are equated with the Titans, hence with the principle of evil, and their Dionysian frenzy was condemned by the Orphics.

The unhappy ending of the Orpheus myth is one of vengeance for turning the Maenads into criminals. Dionysus was a god of the Underworld, and Orpheus did not acknowledge him, but rather associated with Apollo-Helios, the sun god.

Orphism was built on old ideas, but the Orphics systematized these ideas in a practical way, creating an organized religion that was powerfully influential, especially to Christian Gnosticism with its emphasis on love.

Orphism’s insistence on freeing the soul from physical bondage was also borrowed by Christianity, and in Orphism we can also find an origin of religious guilt and its resolution through purification rituals conducted by an elite few who claimed they could save people’s souls – which probably influenced other similar religious priesthoods that came later.

Plato may have thought the Orphics were swindlers, but they were very influential. The Orphics’ ultimate triumph was the concretizing of heaven and hell – of delineating good and evil and putting the work of preparing the human soul for death into a fantastically detailed religious practice.”

Pagan Regeneration: A Study of Mystery Initiations in the Graeco Roman World by Harold R. Willoughby



Next to the Eleusinian mysteries in importance and popularity was the Dionysian, which was centered around Dionysus (Bacchus), a god of life, vegetation, and the vine, who, because all things growing and green must one day decay and die, was also a divinity of the underworld. Those initiates who entered into communion with Dionysus drank heavily of the fruit of the vine and celebrated with feasts that encouraged them to dress themselves in leaves and flowers and even to take on the character of the god himself, thereby also achieving his power. Once the god had entered into union with the initiates, they would experience a new spiritual rebirth. This divine union with Dionysus marked the beginning of a new life for the initiates, who, thereafter, regarded themselves as superior beings. And since Dionysus was the Lord of Death, as well as the Lord of Life, the initiates believed that their union with him would continue even after death and immortality was now within their grasp.

The earlier rites of Dionysus were conducted on a much lower level than those of Eleusis, and often featured the sacrifice of an animal— usually a goat— that was torn to pieces by the initiates, whose savagery was meant to symbolize the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the divinity. Although the cult was not looked upon with high regard by the sages and philosophers of the day, amulets and tablets with fragments of Dionysian hymns upon them have been found dating back to the third century B.C.E. These magical symbols were buried with the dead and meant to protect the soul from the dangers of the underworld.

Orpheus may have been an actual historic figure, a man capable of charming both man and beast with his music, but god or human, he modified the Dionysian rites by removing their orgiastic elements. According to some traditions, he was said to be the son of a priestess of Apollo, gifted with a melodious voice, golden hair, deep blue eyes, and a powerful magnetism that exerted a kind of magic upon all those with whom he came into contact. Then, so the legend goes, he disappeared, and many presumed him dead. In reality, he had traveled to Memphis, where he spent the next 20 years studying in the Egyptian mystery schools. When he returned to Greece, he was known only by the name that he had received in the initiation rites, Orpheus of Arpha, “the one who heals with light.”

Orpheus next changed the cult of Bacchus/Dionysus and set about restructuring the spiritual soul of Greece, recreating the mysteries by blending the religion of Zeus with that of Dionysus. Orpheus taught that Dionysis Zagreus, the horned son of Zeus and Persephone, the great god of the Orphic mysteries, was devoured by the evil Titans while Zeus was otherwise distracted. Athena managed to save Dionysus Zagreus’s heart while the enraged Zeus destroyed the Titans with his thunderbolts. Zeus gave the heart of his beloved son to the earth goddess Semele who dissolved it in a potion, drank thereof, and gave birth to Dionysus, the god of vegetation, whose cycle of birth, death, and rebirth reflects the cycle of growth, decay, and rebirth seen in nature.

Orpheus preached that humankind was created from the ashes of the Titans who devoured Dionysus Zagreus; therefore, the physical bodies of humans are formed from the evil of the Titans, but they also contain within them a tiny particle of the divine essence. Within this duality a constant war rages, so it is the duty of each human to repress the Titanic element and allow the Dionysian an opportunity to assert itself. The final release of the divine essence within, the redemption of the soul, is the utmost goal of the Orphic process. This process may best be obtained by the soul reincarnating in a number of physical bodies in different life experiences.

In Orphic thought, the gods Apollo and Dionysus were two representations or revelations of the same divinity. Dionysus represented the mysteries of life, the secrets of past and future incarnations, the true relationship between spirit and body—truths that could only be accessible to the initiates of the mystery school. Dionysus was the expression of the evolving soul in the universe. Apollo personified those same truths as they could be applied to humans in their earthly existence. Apollo gave inspiration to those who would be artists, poets, doctors, lawyers, and scientists through divination, such as that which issued from his priestesses at Delphi.

One of the essential aspects of the Orphic initiation was the process of the initiate absorbing the healing light of Orpheus and purifying the heart and spirit. Among the truths that Orpheus had learned in the Egyptian sanctuaries was that God is One, but the gods are many and diverse. Orpheus had descended into hell, the underworld, and braved its challenges and subdued the demons of the pit. The disciples of the Orphic/Dionysus schools were promised the celestial fire of Zeus, the light retrieved by Orpheus, that enabled their souls to triumph over death. These things would all be enacted in the mystery play that depicted Orpheus descending into Hades and observing Persephone, the queen of the dead, being awakened by Dionysus and being reborn in his arms, thus perpetuating the cycle of rebirth and death, past and future, blending into a timeless immortality.

While other schools of reincarnation see the process of rebirth as an evolving of the soul ever higher with each incarnation, the Orphic concept introduces the aspect of the soul being gradually purged or purified through the sufferings incurred during each physical rebirth. As the soul inhabits the body, it is really doing penance for previous incarnations, a process that gradually purifies the soul. Between lifetimes, when the soul descends to Hades, it can enjoy a brief period of freedom that can be pleasant or unpleasant. Then it must return to the cycle of births and deaths. How many lifespans must the soul endure before the process of purification is completed and its final release is obtained? Plato envisioned three periods of a thousand years each as a possible answer.

According to Orphic teachings, the only way out of the “wheel of birth,” the “Great Circle of Necessity,” was through an act of divine grace that could possibly be obtained by the supplicant becoming immersed in the writing, ritual acts, and teachings of Orpheus and receiving initiation into the mysteries of the cult. Although there are no available texts clearly setting forth the process of initiation, it is likely that they included fasting, rites of purification, and the reciting of prayers and hymns. It also seems quite certain that the initiates would have enacted a play depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Dionysus Zagreus. In addition, records suggest that a horned bull was sacrificed and the initiates partook of a sacramental feast of its raw flesh as a holy act that brought them in closer union with the god. Once this had been accomplished, the initiates were given secret formulas that would enable them to avoid the snares awaiting the unwary soul as it descended to Hades and would ensure them a blissful stay while they awaited a sign that their participation in the Great Circle of Necessity had ended.

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