1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Orpheus
ORPHEUS, in Greek legend, the chief representative of the art of song and playing on the lyre, and of great importance in the religious history of Greece. The derivation of the name is uncertain, the most probable being that which connects it with ὀρφ-(“dark,” ὀρφναῖος, ὄρφνη). In accordance with this, Orpheus may have been originally a god of darkness; or the liberator from the power of darkness by his gift of song; or he may have been so called because his rites were celebrated by night (cf. Dionysus Nyctelius). It is possible, but very improbable, that Orpheus was an historical personage; even in ancient times his existence was denied. According to Maass, he was a chthonian deity, the counterpart of Dionysus, with whom he is closely connected; J. E. Harrison, however, regards him as a religious reformer from Crete, who introduced the doctrine of ccstasis without intoxication amongst the Thracians and was slain by the votaries of the frenzied ritual. S. Reinach sees in him the fox roaming " in the darkness," to the Thracians a personification of the wine-god, torn in pieces by the Bassarae (fox-maidens). Although by some he was held to be a Greek, the tradition of his Thracian origin was most generally accepted. His name does not occur in Homer or Hesiod, but he was known in the time of Ibycus (c. 530 B.C.), and Pindar (522–442 B.C.) speaks of him as “the father of songs.” From the 6th century onwards he was looked upon as one of the chief poets and musicians of antiquity, the inventor or perfecter of the lyre, who by his music and singing was able not only to charm the wild beasts, but even to draw the trees and rocks from their places, and to arrest the rivers in their course. As one of the pioneers of civilization, he was supposed to have taught mankind the arts of medicine, writing and agriculture. As closely connected with religious life, he was an augur and seer; practised magical arts, especially astrology; founded or rendered accessible many important cults, such as those of Apollo and Dionysus; instituted mystic rites, both public and private; prescribed initiatory and purificatory ritual. He was said to have visited Egypt, and to have become acquainted there with the writings of Moses and with the doctrine of a future life.
According to the best-known tradition, Orpheus was the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, and the muse Calliope. During his residence in Thrace he joined the expedition of the Argonauts, whose leader Jason had been informed by Chiron that only by the aid of Orpheus would they be able to pass by the Sirens unscathed. His numerous services during the journey are described in the Argonautica that goes under his name. But the most famous story in which he figures is that of his wife Eurydice. While fleeing from Aristaeus, she was bitten by a serpent and died. Orpheus went down to the lower world and by his music softened the heart of Pluto and Persephone, who allowed Eurydice to return with him to earth. But the condition was attached that he should walk in front of her and not look back until he had reached the upper world. In his anxiety he broke his promise, and Eurydice vanished again from his sight. The story in this form belongs to the time of Virgil, who first introduces the name of Aristaeus. Other ancient writers, however, speak of his visit to the underworld; according to Plato, the infernal gods only “presented an apparition” of Eurydice to him.
After the death of Eurydice, Orpheus rejected the advances of the Thracian women, who, jealous of his faithfulness to the memory of his lost wife, tore him to pieces during the frenzy of the Bacchic orgies. His head and lyre floated " down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore," where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honour near Antissa. The lyre was carried to heaven by the Muses, and was placed amongst the stars. The Muses also gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Leibethra below Olympus, where the nightingales sang over his grave, while yet another legend places his tomb at Dium, near Pydna in Macedonia. Other accounts of his death are: that he killed himself from grief at the failure of his journey to Hades; that he was struck with lightning by Zeus for having revealed the mysteries of the gods to men; or he was torn to pieces by the Maenads for having abandoned the cult of Dionysus for that of Apollo.
According to Gruppe, the legend of the death of Orpheus is a late imitation of the Adonis-Osiris myth. Osiris, like Orpheus, is torn in pieces, and his head floats down every year from Egypt to Byblus; the body of Attis, the Phrygian counterpart of Adonis, like that of Orpheus, does not suffer decay. The story is repeated of Dionysus; he is torn in pieces, and his head is carried down to Lesbos. Without going so far as to assert that Orpheus is a hypostasis of Dionysus, there is no doubt that a close connexion existed between them from very early times. According to Frazer, these traditions may be " distorted reminiscences " of the practice of human sacrifice, especially of divine kings, the object of which was to ensure fertility in the animal and vegetable worlds. Orpheus, in the manner of his death, was considered to person ate the god Dionysus, and was thus the representative of the god torn to pieces every year, a ceremony enacted by the Bacchae in the earliest times with a human victim, afterwards with a bull to represent the bull-formed god. A distinct feature of this ritual was ὠμοφαγία (eating the flesh of the victim raw), whereby the communicants imagined that they consumed and assimilated the god represented by the victim, and thus became filled with the divine ecstasy. A. W. Bather (Journ. Hell. Studies, xiv. p. 254) sees in the myth an allusion to a ritual, the object of which is the expulsion of death or winter. It is possible that the floating of the head of Orpheus to Lesbos has reference to the fact that the island was the first home of lyric poetry, and may be symbolical of the route taken by the Aeolian emigrants from Thessaly on their way to their new home in Asia Minor.
The name of Orpheus is equally important in the religious history of Greece. He was the mythic founder of a religious school or sect, with a code of rules of life, a mystic eclectic theology, a system of purificatory and expiatory rites, and peculiar mysteries. This school is first observable under the rule of Peisistratus at Athens in the 6th century B.C. Its doctrines are founded on two elements: the Thraco-Phrygian religion of Dionysus with its enthusiastic orgies, its mysteries and its purification, and the tendency to philosophic speculation on the nature and mutual relations of the numerous gods, developed at this time by intercourse with Egypt and the East, and by the quickened intercourse between different tribes and different religions in Greece itself. These causes produced similar results in different parts of Greece. The close analogy between Pythagoreanism and Orphism has been recognized from Herodotus (ii, 81) to the latest modern writers. Both inculcated a peculiar kind of ascetic life; both had a mystical speculative theory of religion, with purificatory rites, abstinence from beans, &c.; but Orphism was more especially religious, while Pythagoreanism, at least originally, inclined more to be a political and philosophical creed.
The rules of the Orphic life prescribed abstinence from beans, flesh, certain kinds of fish, &c., the wearing of a special kind of clothes, and numerous other practices and abstinences. The ritual of worship was peculiar, not admitting bloody sacrifices. The belief was taught in the homogeneity of all living things, in the doctrine of original sin, in the transmigration of souls, in the view that the soul is entombed in the body (σῶμα σῆμα), and that it may gradually attain perfection during connexion with a series of bodies. When completely purified, it will be freed from this "circle of generation" (κύκλος γενένεσεως), and will again become divine, as it was before its entrance into a mortal body.
The chief ceremonies of the nightly ritual were sacrifice and libation; prayer and purification; the representation of sacred legends (e.g. the myth of Zagreus, the chief object of worship, who was identified with most of the numerous gods of the Orphic pantheon); the rape of Persephone; and the descent into Hades. These were introduced as a “sacred explanation” (ἱερὸς λόγος) of the rules and prescriptions. To these also belong the rite of ὠμοφαγία, and the communication of liturgical formulae for the guidance of the soul of the dead man on his way to the underworld, which also served as credentials to the gods below. Some of the so-called “Orphic tablets,” metrical inscriptions engraved on small plates of gold, chiefly dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., have been discovered in tombs in southern Italy, Crete and Rome.
It does not appear, however, that a regularly organized or numerous Orphic sect ever existed, nor that Orphism ever became popular; it was too abstract, too full of symbolism. On the other hand, the genuine Orphics, a fraternity of religious ascetics, found unscrupulous imitators and impostors, who preyed upon the credulous and ignorant. Such were the Orpheotelestae or Metragyrtae, wandering priests who went round the country with an ass carrying the sacred properties (Aristophanes, Frogs, 159) and a bundle of sacred books. They promised an easy expiation for crimes to both living and dead on payment of a fee, undertook to punish the enemies of their clients, and held out to them the prospect of perpetual banqueting and drinking-bouts in Paradise.
A large number of writings in the tone of the Orphic religion were ascribed to Orpheus. They dealt with such subjects as the origin of the gods, the creation of the world, the ritual of purification and initiation, and oracular responses. These poems were recited at rhapsodic contests together with those of Homer and Hesiod, and Orphic hymns were used in the Eleusinian mysteries. The best known name in connexion with them is that of Onomacritus (q.v.), who, in the time of the Peisistratidae, made a collection (including forgeries of his own) of Orphic songs and legends. In later times Orphic theology engaged the attention of Greek philosophers—Eudemus the Peripatetic, Chrysippus the Stoic, and Proclus the Neoplatonist, but it was an especially favourite study of the grammarians of Alexandria, where it became so intermixed with Egyptian elements that Orpheus came to be looked upon as the founder of mysticism. The " rhapsodic theogony " in particular exercised great influence on Neoplatonism. The Orphic literature (of which only fragments remain) was united in a corpus, called τὰ Ὀρφικὰ, the chief poem in which was τὰ Ὀρφικὰ & ἡ τοῦ Ὀρφέως θεολογία. It also included a collection of Orphic hymns, liturgic songs, practical treatises, and poems on various subjects. The so-called Orphic Poems, still extant, are of much later date, probably belonging to the 4th century A.D.; they consist of: (i) an Argonautica, glorifying the deeds of Orpheus on the " Argo," (2) a didactic poem on the magic powers of stones, called Lithica, (3) eighty-seven hymns on various divinities and personified forces of nature. Some of these hymns are probably earlier (1st and 2nd centuries). The Orphic poems also played an important part in the controversies between Christian and pagan writers in the 3rd and 4th centuries after Christ; pagan writers quoted them to show the real meaning of the multitude of gods, while Christians retorted by reference to the obscene and disgraceful fictions by which the former degraded their gods.
Bibliography.—C. A. Lobeck's Aglaophamus (1829) is still indispensable. Of more modern writings on Orpheus and Orphism the following may be consulted. The articles by O. Gruppe in Roscher's Lexikon der Mythologie and by P. Monceaux in Daremberg and Saglio's Dictionnaire des antiquités; " Orphica " in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed., 1891), by L. C. Purser; J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (2nd ed., 1908, with a critical appendix by Gilbert Murray on the Orphic tablets); E. Rohde, Psyche, ii. (1907), and article in Heidelberger Jahrbücher (1896); E. W. Maass, Orpheus (1895); S. Reinach, " La mort d'Orphée " in Cultes, mythes, et religions, ii. (1906); O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie, ii. (1906), pp. 1028–1041; T. Gomperz, Greek Thinkers, i. (Eng. trans., 1901), pp. 84–90, 123–147; E. Gerhard, Über Orpheus und die Orphiker (1861); A. Dieterich, Nekyia (1893), pp. 72–108, 136–162, 225–232; O. Kern, De Orphei, Epimenidis, Pherecydis theogoniis(1888); O. Gruppe, Die rhapsodische Theogonie (1890); A. Dieterich, De hymnes Orphicis (1891); G. F. Schömann, Griechische Alterthümer, ii. (ed. J. H. Lipsius, 1902), p. 378; P. Stengel, Die griechischen Kultusaltertümer (1898),
There is an edition of the Orphic Fragments and of the poems by E. Abel (1885). The Argonautica has been edited separately by J. W. Schneider (1803), the Lithica by T. Tyrwhitt (1791), and there is an English translation of the Hymns by T. Taylor (reprinted, 1896).
On the representations of Orpheus in heathen and Christian art (in which he is finally transformed into the Good Shepherd with his sheep), see A. Baumeister, Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums, ii. p. 1120; P. Knapp, Über Orpheusdarstellungen (Tübingen, 1895); F. X. Kraus, Realencyklopädie des christlichen Alterthums, ii. (1886); J. A. Martigny, Dictionnaire des antiquités chrétiennes (1889); A. Heussner, Die altchristlichen Orpheusdarstellungen (Leipzig, 1893); and the articles in Roscher's and Daremberg and Saglio's Lexicons.
The story of Orpheus, as was to be expected of a legend told both by Ovid and Boetius, retained its popularity throughout the middle ages and was transformed into the likeness of a northern fairy tale. In English medieval literature it appears in three somewhat different versions: Sir Orpheo, a " lay of Brittany " printed from the Harleian MS. in J. Ritson's Ancient English Metrical Romances, vol. ii. (1802); Orpheo and Heurodis from the Auchinleck MS. in David Laing's Select Remains of the Ancient Popular Poetry of Scotland (new ed., 1885); and Kyng Orfew from the Ashmolean MS. in J.O. Halliwell's Illustrations of Fairy Mythology (Shakespeare Soc, 1842). The poems show traces of French influence. (J. H. F; X)
- For Orphism in relation to the Eleusinian and other mysteries see Mystery.