Orphism: Definition, Religion & Philosophy

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

Orphism was but one of several Mystery Cults in the ancient world. It is deeply tied to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as well as several myths about the god, Dionysus. In this lesson, you will explore its rich mythology, history, and philosophy.

What is Orphism?

Orphism was one of several Mystery Cults that existed in ancient history. Mystery Cults were religions not supported by the state religion, and were therefore considered on the fringes of society. Yet, they were able to attract many followers because they offered religious experiences not found from the state religion, a promise of a better afterlife, and a sense of camaraderie with one's fellow initiates. The actual religious practices and initiations of these cults were a well-kept secret and were considered a transformative period for the initiate.

While historians have not been able to pinpoint when Orphism started, they do agree that it existed by at least the 5th century BCE. Orphism revolved around the philosophy and teachings supposedly written down by the mythic figure, Orpheus, one of only a few heroes to journey to the underworld and return.

Orphism, the Myth

Orphism focuses on the myth of Orpheus' journey to the underworld. Orpheus was the son of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Orpheus' gift for music was legendary. He was also married to the nymph, Eurydice, but unfortunately, their marriage did not last long. While out on a walk, Eurydice was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. Orpheus was inconsolable and could not live without her. Thus, he vowed to journey to the underworld and retrieve her.

In this 19th century painting, Orpheus mourns the death of Eurydice.

However, the problem was that no living person could enter the underworld and there were many barriers to keep such people away. Orpheus was able to get past all of these obstacles using his music. Eventually, Orpheus arrived at the court of Hades and Persephone and begged them to release Eurydice. At first Hades refused, but Orpheus played his mournful song of his loss of Eurydice and was able to move the king and queen of the dead. Hades yielded, but told Orpheus to trust that he had given Eurydice back to him, and to not look behind him to see if she was there until he was out of the underworld.

Orpheus tried his best to follow these instructions, but could not help feeling doubtful. He could not hear or see Eurydice behind him to know if she was truly there. Just before he reached the exit to the world of the living, Orpheus could stand it no longer and looked behind him only to see Eurydice being dragged back to the underworld. Orpheus went back to Hades and begged to have her released again, but Hades remained firm and did not let her leave a second time.

Orpheus turns around just before he leaves the underworld only to see Eurydice taken from him once more.

Orpheus wandered the world singing his sad tale and telling others of his experiences in the underworld until the Maenads, the frenzied female followers of Dionysus, tore him limb from limb because they did not like his sad song. When they ripped off his head and threw it into the river, it continued to sing of the things he had seen in the underworld. The Orphics claim it was from him that they learned what the afterlife was really like.

The Orphic Religion & Philosophy

The Orphic religion had several followers from the scholarly class, and may have had some connections to one of the other popular Mystery Cults in the area, the Eleusinian Mysteries. The central god the Orphics serve is Dionysus, whose followers in the myth tore Orpheus limb from limb. However, Dionysus is celebrated as a god of death and rebirth, hence his association to the Orphic religion.

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