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Classical Greek Mythology

Orpheus, Orphism, and Philosophical Myths

What was Orphism?

Orphism was a religious system that emerged in the sixth century B.C.E. in Greece. It was part of the mystery religion tradition, as opposed to the more orthodox Olympian religion. As such, it is related to other mystery cults such as the Dionysian and Eleusinian mysteries. Orphism takes its name from Orpheus, the musician whose talent created ecstasy among his followers. When his wife, Eurydice, was killed, Orpheus travelled to the Underworld, hoping to bring her back. There his beautiful music so enchanted even Hades and Persephone that they agreed to allow his wife to follow him back to the upperworld as long as he did not look back at her during their journey. In the passage out of Hades, having almost succeeded, Orpheus cannot resist looking back, causing poor Eurydice to fade back into death.

Many unorthodox myths pervaded the Orphic tradition. The most important one involves Dionysos in his Thracian (northeastern Greece/southern Balkans) form as Zagreus. In this myth, Zeus was the father of Persephone by his sister Demeter. Zeus then seduced his daughter Persephone, taking the form of a snake to do so. The result was the child Zagreus-Dionysos. The jealous Hera convinced the Titans to kill the child, which they did by dismembering him and eating him. In his anger, Zeus turned the Titans into ashes with a strike of his thunderbolt and the mixture of ashes and the bits of the divine Dionysian flesh resulted in the creation of humanity. Thus, humans contain within themselves the possibility of rebirth or resurrection. Zeus recovered the dead child’s heart and placed it in Semele, who then gave birth to the resurrected god.

Like the Dionysian and Eleusinian mysteries, then, the Orphic ones celebrated the concept of life beyond death and formed the basis of what was, in effect, a philosophical myth.



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