Redefining Ancient Orphism


                  Recent discoveries in the past few decades, such as the Derveni papyrus, the bone tablets from Olbia, and the new gold tablets, have transformed the possibilities for scholarly reconstruction of Orphism.  Bernabé's new edition of the Orphic fragments provides the opportunity for a fresh examination of the evidence, but also unfortunately seems to re-codify some of the problems built into the 1922 edition of Kern.  Likewise, much of the recent scholarship on Orphism still clings to the models developed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, rather than making use of more recent models developed in anthropology and the history of religions.  The evidence for Orphism must be re-examined, removing the evidence from the outdated constructs into which it has been assembled and exploring the ways it fits into the ancient textual and ritual contexts from which it comes.

                  In this project, I intend to build upon my previous researches into Orphism.  Not only did one section of my first book treat the Orphic gold tablets, but I have also published one article and given three conference papers relating to Orphism.  I envision Redefining Ancient Orphism as a book-length study, with five sections.  In the introduction, I briefly review old ways of defining Orphism and explain my definition of Orphism as a label for extra-ordinary religion.  In the central chapters, I examine three aspects of older models - the ideas of Orphic Scriptures, Orphic doctrines, and the authority of Orpheus - that have distorted the understanding of the evidence and propose better ways to understand this evidence.  In conclusion, I explore the consequences of my redefinition of Orphism for the scholarship on ancient Greek religion.

                  The modern construction of ancient Orphism, as it is still codified in the reference sources, basic textbooks, and collections of Orphic fragments, owes much to the scholarly controversies in the last century over the origins of Christianity.  Orphism was often cast as an authentically religious movement to be compared with the otherwise formalistic and ritual practices of Greek religion. As Smith 1990 has pointed out, the categories at work here that define authentic religion are the Protestant or anticlerical critiques of the formal, hierarchical, and ritualized nature of Catholicism. Orphism is fabricated on the model of Protestant Christianity, complete with the direct revelation from the founding divine figure, an emphasis on holy scripture, and a concern with "real" theological issues - creation, eschatology, and, most importantly, soteriology.  Orpheus himself is the founding prophet, not without honor in Greece except for his own country of Thrace, where he is torn apart by local maenads.  Plato's hubbub of books, the collections of pseudepigraphic poetry attributed to the mythical poet, become, in this model, the sacred scriptures, the Bible of the Orphics.  These scriptures are often imagined to contain, like the Christian Bible, complete and comprehensive accounts of doctrinally important matters, cosmogony and anthropogony as well as eschatology. The supposed myth, fabricated at the end of the 19th century, of the death and resurrection of Zagreus and the creation of humankind from the ashes of his Titanic murderers provides not only a dying and rising divine figure parallel to Christ but also a doctrine of original sin. In this modern construction, all of these features, familiar from Protestant Christianity, portray Orphism as a real, doctrinal religion that could provide an authentic basis for a way of life, in contrast to the mechanical, ceremonial rituals and meaningless myths of traditional Greek religion.

                  While the worst excesses of this construct remain only in outdated reference manuals and undergraduate textbooks, a number of the premises of this model persist even in the studies of scholars who accept the criticisms of individual elements. Soteriological elements or non-Homeric eschatologies in Greek religion are still often associated with Orphism or vague "Orphic influence," and scholars are reluctant to abandon the idea of a special connection between Orphism and sacred texts. The coherence of the modern construct of Orphism, the familiarity of its features, makes scholars reluctant to abandon the model as a whole, even while they reject many of the elements.

                  I propose a re-examination of the ancient evidence that takes seriously the model, proposed by Burkert 1982 and others, of itinerant religious specialists competing for religious authority among a varying clientele.  Rather than looking for a coherent set of sacred texts canonical to people who considered themselves Orphics, texts expressive of doctrines pertaining to sin, salvation, and afterlife, we should look for the products of bricolage, pieced together from widely available traditional material to meet the demand of clients looking for extra-ordinary solutions to their problems.  If the texts and rituals are products of bricolage, however, and their creators bricoleurs competing for authority, we cannot expect to find either consistency of texts or doctrines, merely a loose family resemblance between composites of the same traditional elements.  A redefinition of ancient Orphism requires a polythetic definition that accommodates the complexities of the ancient contexts rather than the sort of monothetic definition that identifies Orphism by its scriptures and doctrines. Nevertheless, the attempt to force the evidence into this preconceived modern construct has created unnecessary confusions in interpretation, as, e.g., the debate over the Orphic status of the author of the Derveni papyrus shows.

                  As recent scholarly efforts in reconstructing the ancient category of 'magic' have shown, the reconstruction of the ancient category of Orphism must begin with the recognition that Orphism is also, in some sense, an ancient cultural classification as well as a modern scholarly category.  Although 'ism's are a modern abstraction, the ancient Greeks recognized a category of religious actions that could be labeled orphika and people engaging in such activities who could be labeled Orpheotelests or even (in later evidence) simply Orphikoi. However, to limit the ancient category of Orphism to those things "sealed with the name of Orpheus," as Linforth 1940 did, would be to exclude people and things that the ancient Greeks would have classified together (as well as including other data that is nevertheless sealed with the name of Orpheus). The name of Orpheus was one way of marking a category of religious activities, but, as with the term magos, the use of the term itself is insufficient to show the boundaries of the category.  By redefining Orphic as a label that was applied for a variety of reasons in a wide range of contexts, we can better understand why texts, practices, or people were labeled Orphic, as well as how the boundaries of the category shifted over time, from the Classical through the Hellenistic and into the Late Antique period.

                  The ancient evidence for Orphism seems to pertain to abnormal religious practice, most often connected with practices that maintain or restore an abnormal level of purity.  The orphikos bios mentioned by Plato and others is notable for its purity, including abstention not just from violence and bloodshed but even from animal food. Such a pure life was not necessarily linked explicitly with Orpheus, as the chorus from Euripides' Cretans indicates. Indeed, the so-called 'Orphic' gold tablets from Thurii have no mention of Orpheus, but the primary self-identification of the deceased as one who comes pure and from the pure indicates a concern for purity that outweighs all other considerations. Rituals designed to purify someone from the stains of previous crimes (either one's own or one's ancestors') or to perfect someone, bringing the person into closer relation with a deity, are often credited to Orpheus, most notably the Eleusinian Mysteries.

                  The concern for purity is characteristic even in negative representations. Plato, however, lumps together the wandering beggar-priests, who offer purificatory rituals and promise rewards in the afterlife, with those who cite as their authority the hubbub of books by Orpheus and Musaeus. Theophrastus' Orpheotelests cater to those who are so neurotically obsessed with purity that they are paralyzed by a weasel crossing their path. Euripides' Theseus assumes that Hippolytus takes Orpheus for his lord because of his son's unusual avoidance of the impurities associated with sex. These references show that Orphic purity was often considered, not as abnormally pure and thus a more effective or pious relation with the gods, but on the contrary as deviant from normal piety, either by taking unnecessary precautions or by masking true impiety with a fraudulent cover of extreme piety.  This Orphic purity is either no more effective than ordinary modes of living (and thus a ridiculous burden), or it is simply a sham purity that serves as a cover for deeper impurities. The ancient category of Orphism, therefore, included both the positive self-definitions and the positive and negative other-definitions, many varying evaluations of abnormal religious purity.

                  This concern for purity to the extent of registering a protest against normal ways of life should not lead one to confuse ancient Orphism with Puritan Protestantism, with a fanatical devotion to Scripture and an obsession with original sin.  As I have argued in my 1999 article, the central role of the myth of Zagreus in the modern definition of Orphism depends on seeing the evidence for Orphic concern with purification within a model based on Protestant Christianity. The evidence for the myth of Zagreus and the rituals associated with the dismemberment of Dionysos needs to be re-placed into the proper contexts within the various strands of Greek religion that produced this evidence, such as Dionysiac cult and Neoplatonic philosophy.  Brisson 2002 has elucidated some of the Neoplatonic contexts, but more remains to be done, especially for earlier evidence such as the Gurob papyrus and the gold tablets.  The fragmentary and disjointed evidence attests not to a consistent and coherent doctrine surfacing only infrequently from a continuous but clandestine tradition, but rather to a variety of texts and rituals produced in a wide range of contexts over a long span of time whose resemblances to one another are the result of a shared pool of traditional mythic elements and an appeal to extra-ordinary authority.  Re-examining the evidence that has been used to support an Orphic idea of original sin will produce a better understanding of the ideas and practices of purification within ancient Greek religion. 

                  The Orphic claim to extra-ordinary purity seems often to have been expressed in terms of a lot after death superior to that of ordinary mortals.  Although vaguely defined "Orphic influence" is often seen in any vision of the afterlife, from Pindar to Aristophanes to Plato, that departs from the gloomy shades of Homer, the images of rewards and punishments in the afterlife were part of the common mythological tradition at any anyone's disposal, not merely the province of Orphic believers.  What is characteristic of Orphism is the claim to exceptional status, not merely a differentiated afterlife for various types of mortals.  Thus, the Eleusinian Mysteries, which promise special treatment in the afterlife to initiates, are said in some accounts to have been founded by Orpheus, that is, the label Orphic could be applied to them.  By understanding Orphism as a label that could be applied by the ancient Greeks whenever a phenomenon satisfied enough criteria of a polythetic definition, rather than as religion defined by specific doctrines and images of the afterlife, evidence such as that of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the gold tablets, or even the Apulian Underworld vases can be better understood, both in and of itself and also in relation to other evidence.

                  The textual focus in the modern definition of Orphism is based on somewhat circular reasoning.  If Orphics are defined as those who make use of the writings of Orpheus, then Orphism must be, by definition, text-centered. Likewise, the assumption that Orphic cosmogonies were complete and consistent accounts of the creation of the world and mankind depends on the idea that Orphism was a text-centered tradition.  The variants of this sacred text are charted, as West 1983 has done, in a manuscript stemma, rather than seen as the products of bricolage, mythic elements and genealogies inserted for specific points in particular contexts, like the cosmogonies in Homer or Aristophanes.  The result is that early theogonies such as the one found in the Derveni papyrus are assumed to have been as complete and systematic as the later Orphic Rhapsodies in 24 books.  Such systematization is, however, characteristic, not of the Classical period, but rather of the era in which the Rhapsodies were compiled.  The Sibylline Oracles provide a parallel of a corpus that was expanded from short and scattered earlier texts to a complete and systematic description of the cosmos from beginning to end.  Even though the Rhapsodies include elements from earlier texts, this evidence needs to be seen in the context of this later systematizing, just as the earlier evidence must be understood in the context of competitive bricoleurs.  The Derveni papyrus indeed provides ample evidence of the kind of maneuvering that such a practitioner must engage in to convince his clients of his authority.  This competitive context suggests that we should not expect a single canonical version of a cosmogony or of any hieros logos.  Riedweg 2002, by contrast, attempts to trace the texts on the various Orphic gold tablets to a single Urtext, rather than to see them as separate products of specialists working with a set of similar materials to produce texts for clients. 

                  A redefinition of Orphism along the lines I have proposed may seem a step backwards, jettisoning the conclusions drawn by many scholars in the past century and, to use Bernabé's image, making their labors as fruitless as Penelope's weaving.  However, re-examining the evidence with attention to its ancient contexts and making use of the new models for reconstructing these religious contexts provides a more accurate understanding, not only of the evidence itself, but also of the relation of different pieces to one another.  The picture may not be as neat and tidy, nor as familiar as an Orphism constructed in the image of a Protestant sect, but this messy and incomplete picture nevertheless offers a less distorted view of ancient Greek religion and the place of Orphism within it.  Moreover, much of the work done by scholars using older models surely need not be abandoned, but merely adapted; their insights can contribute to our understanding of the evidence from new perspectives.  The disjointed and fragmentary pieces of evidence we have are not the relics of secret canonical doctrines and scripture, but the productions of countless bricoleurs in competition with one another for religious authority.  Rather than trying to define the doctrines and scriptures crucial to a secret sect, we must try to reconstruct the dynamics of this competition, the specialists and clients who were involved, and the traditional elements they used in their texts and rituals.  To abuse Bernabé's metaphor, we must indeed unravel the weaving of Penelope, for the threads of evidence belong not in a single Puritan Christian funeral shroud but in a complex patchwork of Greek religious practices, whose brilliance and intricacy we can at best only hope to recover in part.

A proposed Table of Contents follows:


Introduction: Definitions old and new

- New discoveries & old evidence

- Old models of myth & religion: a history of scholarship on Orphism

- New models of myth & religion:  competition and bricolage

- Redefining Orphism as a label for extra-ordinary religion

Orphic Scripture or the Smoke of Many Books?

- Orphic textuality: the authority of voice and writing

- Orphic cosmogonies:  early genealogies and systematic Rhapsodies

- Orphic hieroi logoi:  rituals and specialists

- A Hubbub of Books:  competition vs. canon

Orphic Doctrines or the Pure from the Pure?

- Superstition or Piety: marginalization of self or other as Orphic

- Original Sin or Ancestral Crimes:  Zagreus & the concern with purification

- Life in the afterlife: the initiates' privilege and the mythic tradition

- The Words of Orpheus:  improvisation vs. dogma

Orpheus:  Prophet or Pseudonym?

- Orpheus the singer, Orpheus the founder

- Orpheus and Homer & Hesiod

- Orpheus and the Chaldaean Oracles

- The Authority of Orpheus

Conclusion: The consequences of redefining ancient Orphism

- Unweaving Penelope's Web

- Re-placing the evidence

- The complex tapestry of ancient Greek religions