“Orphic Reform” by Harold R. Wiloughby

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I recently read an article on the Symbol Reader blog about Orpheus. If you are not familiar with this blog, I suggest you check it out. It is my favorite blog out there. Anyway, I inquired about a suggestion to read that would give me some more information about Orpheus, since I was not very familiar with the mythology. She pointed me to the following page.

Sacred Texts

This is actually a chapter from a larger work called Pagan Regeneration. It is a very good piece and gave me a lot of information regarding Orpheus and the mystery cult that developed from the myth.

Wiloughby explains that it is not clear whether Orpheus actually existed or not. What is clear is that Orpheus seems to balance the Dionysian frenzy by adding a sober and calming view. He is credited with teaching the mystical arts to humans. Essentially, he was a reformer.

It is not possible to pronounce with certainty whether such a man as Orpheus ever really existed or not. He may have been a purely mythical figure. If he was a real man he was a religious leader of mark and deserving of admiration: a prophet, reformer, and martyr. Whether mythical or real, Orpheus was the antitype of the flushed and maddening wine-god Dionysus. He was a sober and gentle musician who charmed savage men and beasts with his music, an exact theologian, the prophet of reform in religion, who was martyred for his efforts.

The Orphic teachings passed down through the cult include instructions for the afterlife, not dissimilar to Egyptian writings.

Quite as revealing as these literary references, however, are the so-called Orphic tablets from tombs in southern Italy and Crete. They are eight in number and are all of very thin gold. According to a consensus of scholarly opinion, they contain the mutilated fragments of a ritual hymn composed for members of the Orphic sect as early as the fifth century B.C. In their present form they may be dated roughly from the fourth century B.C. to the second century of our era. Their purpose is self-evident. Buried with the dead they were intended to give instructions concerning conduct in the next world, formularies and confessionals to be repeated, and directions as to postmortem ceremonial observances. Their ritualistic character and the tone of conviction that pervades them give them peculiar value as sources of information concerning Orphic experience and practice. These remarkable tablets, though they are few in number, constitute our most valuable source materials for the Orphic cult.

One aspect of the Orphic philosophy that I found fascinating was the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, something that has always interested me. Essentially, initiates into the cult believed that the soul passed through a series of reincarnations until it was purified to the point that it became godlike again.

In its first analysis, therefore, the Orphic process of salvation was a process of purification from bodily taint. The problem, however, was not such a simple one as these words would indicate. It was not merely from the evils of a single existence that the Orphic sought deliverance, but from the evils of a long series of bodily existences. The Orphic first, and the Pythagorean later, believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body. On leaving the corpse at death, the soul was normally doomed to inhabit the bodies of other men or of animals even, passing on through a chain of physical existences until finally purified. An Orphic fragment preserved by Proclus reads: “Therefore the soul of man changing in the cycles of time enters into various creatures; now it enters a horse, again it becomes a sheep . . . . or as one of the tribe of chill serpents creeps on the sacred ground.” Reincarnation, like dualism, was an important item in Orphic theology.

Wiloughby points out the similarities between a Bacchanalia and the Orphic rites, but notes that there are also differences. While both include the consumption of raw flesh (it appears to be that of a sacrificial bull), the Orphic rites are much less savage and view the eating of the bull’s flesh as both communion and a reenactment of what happened to god Dionysus.

In general the prescribed Orphic ritual was a modification of the rude Bacchic rites we have already examined. The persistent representation of Orpheus in antiquity was that of a reformer of Dionysiac rites. Diodorus affirmed that “Orpheus being a man highly gifted by nature and highly trained above all others, made many modifications in the orgiastic rites; hence they call Orphic those rites that took their rise from Dionysus.” From the standpoint of ritualistic observance, therefore, there was much in common between Dionysian and Orphic practices. On the very threshold to the Orphic cult stood the omophagy, or feast of raw flesh, which was so prominent a Dionysian rite. In the remaining fragment of Euripides’ Cretans an initiate tells of certain ritual acts which he performed in the process of becoming a “Bacchus” and the one he stresses particularly is the eating of raw flesh.

The last thing I wanted to point out was the Orphic doctrine against suicide. Since the soul must go through the series of reincarnations to purify itself, it is offensive to God to kill yourself without going through the necessary suffering needed to help cleanse the spirit.

At one point especially the moral influence of Orphism was clear and indubitable: that was in its protest against suicide. Since the body was the soul’s place of penance a man had no right to take his own life. If he did he was a fugitive prisoner trying to escape before God had released him. Here Plato found Orphic thought peculiarly congenial to his own. In the Phaedo he represented Socrates as saying, shortly before his death, “There is a doctrine whispered in secret that a man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand. Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians and that we are a possession of theirs.”

The whole chapter is very good and worth taking the time to read. I want to thank Symbol Reader again for the suggestion. I really got a lot out of reading this. I hope you do as well.



Filed under Literature

2 responses to ““Orphic Reform” by Harold R. Wiloughby

  1. Jeff, what a surprise. I had been offline all Sunday and I was so happy to find this post right now, on Sunday evening. Orphism is so fascinating. I am flabbergasted that they also ate raw flesh. They seem to be so contradictory in their beliefs and practices, yet, and maybe because of that, I’m drawn to them. That Roman mosaic is breathtaking.

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