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Lecture 5: Orphic Religious Ideas

EXCEPT, perhaps, in the Theogony of Hesiod, we have been concerned, so far, with religious and theological conceptions of which the germ, at least, is usually to be found in the Homeric poems. With Pindar, as we shall see, the case is somewhat different. The eschatological ideas of Pindar are to some extent derived not from Homer, but from a non-Homeric, or rather, perhaps, an anti-Homeric source—I mean from the Orphic teaching as to the nature and destiny of the human soul. To this subject I will therefore invite your attention to-day.

The extraordinary religious movement known as Orphism made its appearance in Greece during the sixth century B.C. It is due to the researches of Rohde, Dieterich, Gruppe, Miss Harrison, and many other investigators during recent years, following in the path marked out by Lobeck, that we are now enabled to form a more or less consistent picture of the phenomenon in question. In its main features, it presents the appearance of a religious awakening or revival; but it was by no means destitute of dogmatic significance and value, and a considerable part of the Orphic teaching about the soul was afterwards assimilated, not only by Pindar, but also by the philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato. Where the movement originated, or whether it arose in several centres independently, and by what social, political, and economic circumstances it was fostered and promoted, are questions which do not as yet, perhaps, admit of a final answer. One of the most active centres of early Orphism was the powerful city of Croton in Italy, afterwards the home of the Pythagorean brotherhood. Otto Gruppe, indeed, believes it to be probable that in all the districts where Orphic mysticism makes its appearance in the course of the sixth century, the influence of the Orphic community at Croton was at work.1 In Athens we hear of three representatives of Orphism living at the court of Pisistratus—Onomacritus, known to history in connexion with the alleged Pisistratean recension of Homer, Zopyrus of Heraclea, and a certain Orpheus of Croton, who may possibly, as Gruppe conjectures, have been summoned from his native city in order to transplant the Orphic doctrine to the soil of Attica.2 It is at all events certain that vast quantities of Orphic literature were in circulation at Athens during the next century;3 and the impulse to its manufacture may well have been given by Onomacritus and his associates.

There is, unhappily, no contemporary evidence to show how the Orphic communities were organised during the period with which we are now concerned. The analogy of similar confederations at a later period of Greek history makes it probable that the Orphic votaries, who in Plato's time were known as the saints or holy ones (ὅσιοι),4 formed themselves into religious associations or θίασοι, the constitution of which was usually copied from that of the city in which they were established. These associations were independent of one another, so far as appertained to matters of government and administration; but it may be taken as certain that the eschatological and other doctrines which they professed were fundamentally the same. In some respects the position which the Orphic believers occupied towards the State religion must have been analogous to that of modern dissenters; but while on the one hand the theoretical cleavage between them and the established form of religion was much greater, on the other hand there is little or no indication that they abstained from taking part in the religious festivals and services which the city ordained; and so long as they fulfilled their duty in this respect, the State, for its part, with the characteristic toleration of ancient Greek life, left them alone, unless, of course, as happened in the case of the early Pythagorean society, they attempted to use their religious organisation for the furtherance of political ends.

Our knowledge of the history and development of Orphism is not sufficient to enable us to say with certainty at what particular time particular doctrines came into vogue. The most that I can attempt to do is to describe some of the leading features of the Orphic doctrine as it was in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. In the absence of contemporary documents, we must of necessity be content to reconstruct for ourselves the general character of sixth century Orphism from what we know of it in the two following centuries. The two authorities on whom we shall principally rely are Empedocles and Plato. As for the Orphic fragments, they undoubtedly contain much that descends from a remote antiquity, but they have not as yet been adequately sifted; and it may perhaps be doubted whether so difficult and delicate a task will ever be successfully accomplished. On this account it is seldom safe to make use of Abel's collection5 except by way of illustrating such conclusions as may be drawn from authorities whose date we know. Even in Plato, allusions to Orpheus and his followers are not very common; but some compensation is afforded by an archaeological discovery, which throws a good deal of light on the Orphic conception of the soul and its destiny in the future world. In the neighbourhood of the ancient Sybaris, the famous rival city of Croton, the probable headquarters, as we have seen, of Orphism in the Hellenic world, six inscribed tablets of thin gold have been discovered in tombs; and besides these, there is one from Crete and one from the vicinity of Rome. All these tablets—I quote from Miss Harrison's Prolegomena to Greek Religion, in which they are fully described and illustrated6—“have this much in common: buried with the dead they contain instructions for his conduct in the world below, exhortations to the soul, formularies to be repeated, confessions of faith and of ritual performed, and the like.”7 They supply, in short, a kind of vade mecum to the lower world. In treating of the Orphic eschatology, I shall make frequent use of these inscriptions, the most important of which probably belong to the fourth century before Christ, although the doctrine they embody is much older.

Before, however, we proceed to deal with the eschatology of the Orphics, a word or two must be said about their theological doctrine. This was contained in the numerous and often grotesque theogonies, which represented the successive stages in the evolution of the world under the figure of successive dynasties of Gods.8 The only point which it concerns us to notice here is the element of pantheism in these theogonical poems. One of the fragments celebrates Zeus as “first and last, the head and middle, out of whom all things are created”:

Ζϵὺς πρω̑τος γϵ́νϵτο, Ζϵὺς ὕστατος, ἀργικϵ́ραυνος, Ζϵὺς κϵϕαλή, Ζϵὺς μϵ́σσα, Διὸς δ̕ ϵ̓κ πάντα τϵ́τυκται.9 The legend ran that the universe with all its parts was fashioned within the frame of Zeus, after he had swallowed Phanes, in whom, as the offspring of the great world-egg, all the seeds or “potencies” were present.10 The rest of the fragment describes the world itself as nothing but the body of the God: the heavens are his head, the sun and the moon his eyes, and so on: his mind is the aether.11 Whether the whole of this fragment is early, may well be doubted; but the line in which Zeus is said to be the “head and middle” of all things was certainly known to Plato; and he speaks of the doctrine as “an ancient story”—a phrase which he elsewhere applies to primitive Orphic beliefs.12 We shall afterwards find an example of the same kind of pantheism in Aeschylus, and possibly also in Pindar.

Far more important in its influence on subsequent Greek thought is the Orphic conception of the origin and history of the human soul. A passage in the Cratylus of Plato will form a convenient starting-point for our inquiry.

Among the words whose derivation is discussed by Socrates in that dialogue, σω̑μα is one. Three suggestions are made. The first is that σω̑μα comes from ση̑μα it being held by some, says Socrates, that the body is in reality the grave of the soul—σω̑μα ση̑μα. The second proposal also connects the two words, but takes ση̑μα in the sense of “sign” or “index,” and regards the body as that by means of which the soul as it were signifies or indicates whatever she desires to say. Socrates himself is disposed, he tells us, to favour a third explanation. He would ascribe the invention of the word σω̑μα to Orpheus and his followers (οἱ ἀμϕὶ Ὀρϕϵ́α); and the reason why they called the body by this name is that, according to their belief, the soul is condemned to incarnation on account of her sins, and the body serves as the enclosure (πϵρίβολος) or prison-house (δϵσμωτήριον) which holds her fast. In this way Socrates derives σω̑μα from σώζω without, as he triumphantly asserts, the change of a single letter.13 The second of these derivations does not concern us; but the theories that underlie the first and third are closely related to one another; and it is not unreasonable to infer that if the incarceration of the soul during her life on earth was a tenet of the Orphics, they sometimes expressed what is after all essentially the same belief in a more emphatic way by saying that “the body is a tomb.” This inference is supported by the well-known passage of the Gorgias in which Plato gives his fullest exposition of the σω̑μα ση̑μα doctrine. “I should not be surprised,” writes Plato, “if Euripides speaks truly when he says, ‘Who knows whether life is death, and death life?’ So that in reality, perhaps, we are in a state of death. I myself once heard one of the wise men say that in the present life we are dead, and the body is our tomb.”14 There is reason to believe that the representatives of the Orphic way of thinking in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ were sometimes described as the “wise men” or “sages”;15 and it is therefore probable that Plato is thinking of the Orphic doctrine in this passage.

If Plato is to be trusted, we may consequently suppose that the conception of the body as the prison-house, and even perhaps the grave, of the soul was entertained in Orphic circles, and that the cause of her imprisonment in the body was believed to be ante-natal sin. “The ancient theologians and seers,” says Clement, quoting a fragment of Philolaus, “bear witness that owing to certain sins the soul is yoked with and buried in the body as in a tomb.”16 It is this belief which appears to have supplied the original motive or starting-point of the Orphic religious discipline. Like Buddhism and Christianity, Orphism was a religion of deliverance (λύσις), of salvation: the cry of the believer, like that of St. Paul, was, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?”

We shall frequently have occasion to return to this characteristically Orphic idea of the body as the sepulchre or prison of the soul, and I hope to show you hereafter how Plato made it the basis of that profoundly religious view of the ethical end which he puts before us in the Phaedo; but in the meantime let us endeavour to understand its connexion with the rest of the Orphic doctrine. The most important questions with which we have to deal are three in number. In the first place, what is the teaching of Orphism about the soul before her incarnation? Secondly, by what means, if any, is her final deliverance from the prison-house of body to be effected? And, thirdly, what is the destiny that awaits the soul after she has escaped from her prison? I will endeavour to answer these questions, so far as an answer is possible, by sketching in outline the life-history of an Orphic soul; but while on the one hand many details are necessarily wanting, on the other hand it would be rash to affirm for certain that everything which I shall put before you had a place in the Orphic religion so early as the sixth century B.C. It is none the less true that the family resemblance between the different ideas to which I shall call your attention is sufficient to justify their claim to a common ancestry; and in this case we must be content to infer the character of the parent from that of the children.

The first point to be noticed is that the soul, according to the Orphic view, is of celestial origin and divine. It is a particula divinae aurae, a particle of the pure empyrean substance or aether. “From heaven is my descent, as ye yourselves know also”—such is the language in which the departed soul addresses the Gods of the lower world; and again, “for I, too, claim to be of your blest race.” Man is “a child of earth and starry heaven”;17 his body is of the earth, but his soul, as a late Orphic line expresses it, is “rooted in the celestial element”—ἀπ̕ αἰθϵ́ρος ϵ̓ρρίζωται.18 Before entering for the first time into a corporeal tabernacle, each particular soul would seem to have lived in the society of Gods, and was in fact a God. Empedocles speaks of souls incarnate as daemons compelled by necessity's decree to wander from the abode of the blessed: he is himself, he says, “an exile and a wanderer from heaven” (ϕυγὰς θϵόθϵν καὶ ἀλήτης).19

In what way the Orphics conceived of the descent into the body is not clear. According to Gruppe,20 they pictured the process as something physical and material. Some particles of the divine aether sink downwards to the earth, where they become clothed, as Empedocles says, “in a strange garment of flesh.”21 We are told by Aristotle that in the so-called Orphic verses the soul was said to be carried to and fro by the winds, and drawn into the body by respiration.22 If this refers, as apparently it does, to the moment of birth, it would seem that the soul was believed to enter with the first breath we draw: so that we have here an early example of the theory which has sometimes been called panspermismus, soul-seeds swarming everywhere, ready to rush into the body as soon as respiration begins. But however this may be, the originating cause of the soul's descent was sin; and its imprisonment in the body has a penitentiary purpose. To one who is fresh from the spacious atmosphere of heaven, the world in which we live appears an ἂντρον ὑπόστϵγον—a cave roofed over by the sky; an expression which appears to foreshadow the simile of the Cave in Plato.23 “I wept and I wailed,” says Empedocles, “when I beheld the unfamiliar place, the joyless region where Murder and Wrath and troops of other Dooms and loathsome diseases and putrefactions and running sores wander this way and that throughout the meadow of Ateê.”24

As soon at the doors of the prison-house close round her, the soul has entered upon what the Orphics variously called the “circle” or “wheel of generation” and the “circle of Necessity,” a long and weary circuit of birth and death which must be traversed before we can return to the place from whence we came.25 The normal duration of this circuit, according to Empedocles, with whose account the myth in the Phaedrus of Plato appears to agree, is thrice ten thousand seasons, by which, in all probability, the poet means ten thousand years.26 Of its appalling vicissitudes the poet gives a graphic picture. The exile “wanders from the home of the blessed, being born into all kinds of mortal forms, passing from one laborious path of life to another. For the mighty Air chases him into the Sea, and the Sea spits him forth upon the dry land, and Earth casts him into the light of the blazing Sun, and the Sun hurls him into the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and he is hated of them all. I also am one of these, an exile and a wanderer from the Gods.”27 In her various incarnations, the soul, if we may trust the riotous imagination of the poet, leaves no realm of nature unvisited: she drees her weird in earth and sky and sea. “Ere now,” the poet says, “I too have been a boy, a girl, a bush, a bird, and a scaly fish in the sea.”28

While present in the body, the soul is therefore a fallen angel doing penance for her sins. Her ultimate aim is to be released from her chains, and recover the inheritance she has lost. How are the prison-bars to be removed? As we lost our freedom through sin, so we cannot hope to regain it until the stain is purged away. In Orphic language, the soul must be made pure. The notion of “purity” and “purification” is one of the commonest and most characteristic ideas in Orphic literature; and when we meet with the conception in Plato, as we often do, particularly in the Phaedo, there is generally reason to believe that he is building on an understructure of Orphism. I have already mentioned that the Orphic believers were designated the “pure” or “holy” ones (καθαροί, ὅσιοι). Thus in two of the Italian tablets of which I have spoken, the departed spirit addresses Persephone in these words: “Pure I come from the pure, O queen of the dwellers underground.”29 We have no right to assume that it was only an external and ceremonial purity to which the devouter followers of the Orphic faith aspired; for, according to the principles of their school, no final emancipation was possible without the inward cleansing of the soul from the pollution of the body. As Miss Harrison has said, “Consecration (ὁσιότης), perfect purity issuing in divinity is the keynote of Orphic faith, the goal of Orphic ritual.”30

One of the ways by which the Orphics endeavoured to make themselves “pure” was through the observance of a particular mode of life. The “Orphic life,” as Plato calls it,31 was distinguished by several rules of abstinence, such as the rule against partaking of animal food,32 except on certain sacramental festivals like the Omophagia or “Feast of raw flesh.”33 Empedocles elevates this precept into a law of universal obligation,34 resembling the eternal ordinances of which we read in Sophocles; and he also brings it into connexion with the Orphic doctrine of metempsychosis. “Do ye not see that in the thoughtlessness of your hearts ye are devouring one another?”35 We hear of various other taboos in the Orphic religion, among them the prohibition against beans, of which all kinds of interpretations were current in antiquity. The eating of eggs seems also to have been forbidden: and we are told by Herodotus that it was unlawful for the Orphics to bury the dead in woollen garments.36 In general, however, it is clear that asceticism in Greece never attained to anything like the same proportions as in India, even among those of the Orphic and Pythagorean school of thought. Among the Orphics, as Rohde has pointed out, the ascetic life, if such it may be called, is largely ruled by symbolism. An artificial value is attached to certain usages and objects, which the unbeliever would pronounce to be indifferent; and from these the believer abstains, because they are held to be “impure,” and consequently tend to retard the deliverance he seeks.37

In addition to the rules of life by obedience to which the Orphic brotherhoods sought after “purity,” there was also a great variety of rites and ceremonies designed to accelerate this end. To some such ceremony of a purificatory nature allusion seems to be made in the formula occurring in more than one of the tablets already mentioned, “A kid I fell into milk.”38 In connexion with this phase of Orphism we hear of various classes of religious literature in the time of Plato—θτηπολικά or sacrificial liturgies, absolutions, incantations, initiations, and so forth, the existence of which points to an elaborate and complicated ritual.39 Rohde has called attention to an Orphic fragment which implies that souls in purgatory can be helped by ceremonies performed on earth; but it may be doubted whether this is not a later development.40

That so much ceremonial may have tended to hide from the Orphic worshippers the inner significance of their religion, is probable enough. No Greek thinker had more sympathy than Plato with the spiritual side of Orphism; but he feels nothing but indignation and contempt for the degrading superstitions and practices connected with the Orphic ritual. In the Republic he complains of the effect upon the minds of the young by fostering the idea that sin can be expiated and redemption attained by such purely ceremonial and external methods. “Mendicant priests and sooth-sayers,” he observes, “visit the gates of the rich, and persuade them that they have acquired from the Gods by means of sacrifices and charms the power to heal with pleasures and festal rites whatever sin has been committed by a man himself or by his ancestors.… They also provide us with a heap of books, bearing the names of Musaeus and Orpheus, sons, we are assured, of the Moon and the Muses, liturgies by which they sacrifice, persuading not only private individuals, but also cities, that there are ways of absolution and purification from sin by means of sacrifices and joyous pleasures, both during life, and also after death, through what they call the mystic rites, which deliver us from the wrath to come; but dreadful is the doom awaiting those who have not sacrificed.”41 The professional priest or friar of whom Plato here speaks, was a familiar figure in the fourth and third centuries before Christ. Theophrastus mentions it as one of the characteristics of the superstitious man, that he is careful to pay a monthly visit to the Orpheotelestae in company with his wife, or if his wife should be otherwise engaged, in company with his little children and their nurse.42 It is difficult to believe that the ecstatic extravagances which the Orphic mysteries sometimes induced could have been otherwise than detrimental to religion and morality, although there were doubtless many to whom these mysteries brought spiritual consolation and hope.43

So much then for the means by which purification was sought during life. On leaving the body, the soul enters on an intermediate state of rewards or punishments. In the eschatological myth of the Republic, the duration of this period is given as a thousand years, human life being reckoned at a hundred, and the underlying idea being that every good or evil action of our life is expiated or rewarded ten times, a calculation in which Pythagorean influence is clearly to be traced.44 That the early Orphic and Pythagorean eschatologies were equally precise, it would be rash to affirm; but as we meet again with the “wheel of a thousand years” in Virgil,45 whose picture of the lower world is derived in part at least from Orphic sources, it is not unlikely that we have here a relic of some early Orphic apocalypse. The investigations of Dieterich and others have shown that there was a considerable amount of apocalyptic literature in Greece before the time of Plato. We hear in particular of an early eschatological poem, the κατάβασιςϵἰςΑιδου, or “Descent into Hades,” in which the pseudo-Orpheus seems to have related what he saw in his pilgrimage to the unseen world.46 In this or other writings of the same stamp, many of the features which appear in later Greek apocalypses were certainly described, such as the judgment of the dead, the rivers and lakes of the nether world, the fountains of Memory and Forgetfulness, the abodes of the blessed on the right and of the wicked on the left, together with the different rewards and punishments meted out to souls in Hades.

With regard to the happiness awaiting the just, a fragment of what is apparently an early Orphic poem declares that “they who are pious in their life beneath the rays of the sun enjoy a gentler lot when they have died, in the beautiful meadow around deep-flowing Acheron.”47 This refers, presumably, to the intermediate state, and not to that reunion with the divine which is the ultimate goal of Orphic aspiration; but for the most part it is difficult to say whether the Orphic descriptions of the bliss in store for virtue should be understood of the intermediate condition or of the final triumph of the soul. As usual in apocalyptic writings, the misery of the wicked appears to have been dwelt upon at greater length and with much more fertility of imagination than the happiness of the good. The feature of the Orphic purgatory most often mentioned in Greek literature is the ever-flowing sea of mud. “The unholy and unjust,” says Plato, not without a touch of scorn, “they bury deep in something which they call mud.”48 Without attempting to pursue the subject into detail, it must suffice to say in general terms, that so far as we can see, the object of punishment hereafter was to promote the end which the Orphics kept steadily in view through life—purification from the flesh.49

With the exception of those souls who, having reached the end of their journey, are happily exempt from further incarnation, and possibly also of some incurable sinners who remain in Tartarus as warnings to the rest,50 the others return again into bodies at the appointed time. Whether the early Orphic eschatologies did or did not admit a “choice of lives,” such as Plato describes in the Republic,51 we can scarcely doubt that the mode of existence allotted to the soul at each new stage of her career on earth was determined by the degree of “purity” or holiness which she possessed at the moment of reincarnation. From a comparison of passages in Pindar, Empedocles, and Plato,52 it would seem probable that the Orphics arranged the various kinds of life in a graduated series or scale, according to the measure of their “purity.” Empedocles held that among the lower animals, the lion occupies the highest place, and among plants, the laurel.53 Another fragment describes how those who are approaching the hour of their deliverance become “prophets and singers and physicians and chieftains among men upon the earth: from whence they arise up Gods, supreme in honour, sharing the same hearth and table with the other immortals, exempt from doom and hurt.”54 Empedocles himself combined most of these professions; and in the opening lines of his Purifcations he claims to be “no longer a mortal, but an immortal God.”55

When the wheel of birth and death has run its course, the soul, delivered at last, resumes the inheritance she lost through sin. “I have escaped from the lamentable and cruel circle: I have set my eager feet within the longed-for ring. I have passed to the bosom of the Mistress and Queen of the underworld.”56 Such is the language in which the triumphant soul announces her redemption in the tablets to which I have already so often referred. In reply, she is thus addressed: “O happy and blessed one, thou shalt be a God instead of a mortal”: “Hail, for thy sufferings are past…thou art become a God from having been a man…hail, hail, thou that farest to the right, through the sacred meadows and groves of Persephone.”57 You will observe that there is nothing in these lines to suggest that the soul loses her personal existence in the sea of universal being. To the Greeks of the classical and preclassical period, with their strong attachment to individuality and individualism, the idea of absorption was never very congenial. There are many points of contact between the Orphic and the Buddhist systems, but the Orphic heaven, at least, is not Nirvana. It is rather a state of blissful consciousness in which the soul, no longer encumbered by the body, leads the life of a God in company with Gods.

We may perhaps form an idea of the notion of heaven entertained by the better class of Orphic believers, if we look at the description given in the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus, a dialogue which admittedly owes much to Orphic inspiration. In his Literature and Dogma, Matthew Arnold illustrates what he conceives to be the popular English idea of the future state by a quotation from the Vision of Mirza: “Persons dressed in glorious habits with garlands on their beads, passing among the trees, lying down by the fountains, or resting on beds of flowers, amid a confused harmony of singing birds, falling waters, human voices, and musical instruments.”58 The Axiochus holds out the promise of the same sort of peaceful and idyllic life, with a few mildly intellectual and religious pleasures superadded. We read of a happy land of everlasting spring, free from extremes of heat and cold, bathed in the sun's soft light, with rivers of pure water, flowery meadows, and ever fruitful trees. For entertainments the inhabitants have philosophical discussions, theatres, cyclic choruses and concerts, well-ordered banquets, and the like; and the religious services which they loved on earth are renewed in heaven.59 Mutatis mutandis, it is much the same kind of picture which we find in “Jerusalem my Happy Home”:

“O happy harbour of the Saints!60

O sweet and pleasant soil!

In thee no sorrow may be found,

No grief, no care, no toil.61

There lust and lucre cannot dwell,

There envy bears no sway;

There is no hunger, heat, nor cold,

But pleasure every way.62

Thy gardens and thy gallant walks

Continually are green,

There grows such sweet and pleasant flowers

As nowhere else are seen.63

Quite through the streets, with silver sound,

The flood of Life doth flow;64

Upon whose banks on every side

The wood of Life doth grow.”

In Plato himself, however, we have a very different story. After censuring Homer and Hesiod because they commend virtue not for itself but only for its rewards, he thus continues: “Still more heroic are the blessings which Musaeus and his son bestow upon the righteous from the Gods. They conduct them into Hades, and lay them on couches, and establish a kind of symposium of saints, and set garlands on their heads, and make them live for ever in a state of intoxication, esteeming the fairest reward of virtue to be an eternity of drunkenness”—μϵ́θη αἰώνιος.65 After making every allowance for the praefervidum ingenium of Plato, who is never half-hearted either in praise or in blame, we must still believe that the picture is drawn from life. It is of a piece with his account of the Orphic friars and their degenerate practices. The purer form of the Orphic eschatological doctrine may be inferred from the Axiochus.

The soul has now returned to the harbour from which she set sail. Is this, after all, the end? May not the circumstances that brought about her exile at the first recur again and yet again? The doctrine of theἀποκατάστασις πά ντων or “restoration of all things” is certainly Pythagorean, and in view of the close connexion between Pythagoreanism and Orphism, it may well have had a place in early, as it appears to have had in later, Orphic doctrine.66 Eudemus, the pupil of Aristotle, observed in one of his lectures that if the Pythagoreans were to be trusted, his audience would have the privilege of hearing him again next aeôn. “You will be sitting there and I shall be telling you my story with this little stick in my hand, and everything else will be the same.”67 We should infer from this that in course of time the soul must begin her wanderings anew, and traverse and retraverse the revolving “wheel of generation” throughout eternity. The apparently hopeless and appalling fatalism of such a doctrine is not of itself a sufficient reason for refusing to attribute it to a religious sect. At a later period, the Stoics successfully combined the same theoretical dogma with an eminently religious conception of human life and duty; and experience has often shown that religion can grow and flourish on a soil of fatalism.68

That some such ideas about the origin and destiny of the soul began to take root in the Hellenic world during the sixth century B.C., no longer admits of doubt; and it is equally clear that they must have tended to weaken the authority and prestige of the old Homeric faith. In all fundamental respects, indeed, the Homeric and Orphic views of life are opposed to one another. Whereas in Homer the centre of interest is this present world, with its manifold joys and sorrows, and the existence awaiting the disembodied soul is shadowy, cold, and comfortless, the follower of Orpheus fixes his eyes upon the future, and looks upon what we call death as the door by which he may escape from prison and ultimately rejoin the society of Gods. In Homer and Hesiod, life is often painted in sombre colours. “The land,” says Hesiod, “is full of troubles, and so is the sea.” But after all it is life, and not death; and in Homer, at least, a life of strenuous effort, rejoicing in the very difficulties it overcomes. Among the Orphics, the Homeric melancholy, so far as this life is concerned, assumes a deeper hue; for life in the body is no longer life, but death: the true life lies before and after.

For the first time in Greece, again, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is made use of as a moral motive. Our destiny in the intermediate state depends upon our character and conduct now: sin is punished and righteousness rewarded: and in the successive incarnations which have to be undergone before the circle is fulfilled, we apparently rise and fall in the scale of existences according to the degree of purity we have attained. The aim of the believer is therefore to cleanse his soul not only by rites and ceremonies, but still more by “fasting from sin” (νηστϵυ̑σαι κακότητος).69 If he should become exceptionally pure from the defilement of the body, he has, it would seem, some ground to hope that the circle of generation will be abbreviated in his case. In general, as we saw, the cycle was supposed to occupy, perhaps, ten thousand years, in which, according at least to the Platonic view, ten separate lives were included, each of them followed by its appropriate period of reward or punishment.70 But in the myth of the Phaedrus, those who thrice in succession have chosen the life of “true philosophy,” return to the place from which they came in three thousand years:71 and with Pindar also, to have abstained from sin “three times on either side of death” is a passport to the islands of the blest72 The agreement of these two writers on such a point would seem to indicate an early Orphic belief that exceptional piety was rewarded in this way. Herodotus also seems to imply that a cycle of three thousand years had a place in Orphism.73

The Orphic conception of sin is not less different from that of the Homeric poems. In the Iliad and Odyssey, sin, as I have already pointed out, is always objectively regarded, being identified with the spirit of insolence or pride that seeks to transgress the golden law of moderation and encroach upon the rights of others, be it our fellow-creatures or the Gods. It is an error of the intellect rather than of the will; for it springs from intellectual blindness or infatuation; and the ultimate responsibility is usually laid at the door of the Gods. In the Orphic religion, on the other hand, the subjective aspect of sin becomes more prominent. It is on account of defilement contracted in our prenatal state that we are exiled from the society of Heaven; and the soul, while present in the body, is fully conscious of this fact. There is no attempt to shift the responsibility elsewhere; the guilt is our own, and we alone must expiate it. “I have paid the penalty for deeds unjust,”—so speaks the soul, when she has finished her pilgrimage,—“and now I am come as a suppliant unto noble Persephone, beseeching her to be gracious, and to send me into the abodes of the pious.”74

But the Orphic doctrine that had the greatest influence on Greek thought is that of the celestial origin and nature of the soul. It was adopted, as we shall see, by Pindar, and in one form or another it runs through nearly the whole of Greek philosophy from this time onwards. The belief in man's affinity to God was by no means alien to the religious consciousness of Homer and Hesiod. Not only is Zeus the father of Gods and men, but it is implied in the very nature of anthropomorphic theology that since God resembles man, man in his turn resembles God. Anthropomorphism, in a word, involves theomorphism. But the Orphic interpretation of man's relationship to God gives an entirely new significance to the idea because of the emphasis it lays upon the soul. It is the soul alone which is divine; as for the body, that is only the dungeon, in which the true self is imprisoned. The nerveless, shadowy phantom which Homer called the soul is beginning to disappear, and in its place we have a divine ethereal essence, by the side of which the perishable body is of comparatively slight account. The Orphic doctrine of the divinity of the soul not only introduces a new and more spiritual conception both of God and man; it also provides a basis for the belief in immortality, as we shall afterwards see.75

Nor is the ethical significance of the dogma less noteworthy. Greek poetry is always repeating the exhortation: “remember that thou art a mortal,” “cherish only mortal aspirations.” According to the Orphic religion, on the other hand, the soul is herself, though fallen, still a God; and the whole aim and object of the Orphic discipline was to rid the soul of those impurities and incrustations that besmirch and hide her essential nature. “Beware,” says Pindar, “seek not to become a God.” “Already thou art a God,” is the Orphic precept; “seek to be reunited with the Gods.”76 The full significance of the contrast between these two ideals of life and duty was apprehended by Plato, when he said, that “envy has no place in the celestial quire.” The famous words of Aristotle, ϵ̓ϕ' ὅσον ϵ̓ν δϵ́χϵται ἀθανατίζϵιν, “put on the immortal, as far as in thee lies,” express it for all time.77

The Orphic religion undoubtedly contained much that was superstitious and degrading. Even the doctrine of man's celestial origin was encumbered with a mass of mythology always fantastic and sometimes grotesque. The wicked Titans—so the story ran—fell upon Dionysus Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, tore him in pieces and devoured him; whereupon Zeus destroyed them with his thunderbolt, and from their ashes sprang the human race.78 It is for this reason that our nature is a blend of the divine and brutal; we derive the lower ingredients from the Titans, the higher from the God whom they devoured. The sacraments and other religious ceremonies, again, by means of which the Orphics sought to unify themselves with the divine, such as the Omophagia,79 were sometimes brutalising in the last degree. Nor is it by any means clear that the Orphics always escaped the moral dangers which accompany religious ecstasy. Yet in spite of these defects, it is not easy to overestimate the significance of the central doctrine of their faith—I mean the doctrine that the human soul is originally and essentially divine, together with its practical corollary, that we must strive even now to realise our affinity with God. Before this great idea could attain to full development; it had still to be freed from the entanglement of ritual and mythology, and elevated from the emotional to the intellectual plane. In one word, it had to be intellectualised. The intellectualisation of this belief, as we shall afterwards see, was effected by Plato.

  • 1.

    Griech. Myth. in Iwan Müller's Handbuch p. 1034.

  • 2.


  • 3.

    See infra p. 103.

  • 4.

    Rep. ii. 363 C.

  • 5.

    Orphica, 1885.

  • 6.

    pp. 573–600, with the critical appendix of Mr. Gilbert Murray, pp. 660–674.

  • 7.

    p. 573.

  • 8.

    Fragments in Abel, Orph. pp. 156–209.

  • 9.

    fr. 123 Abel. Cf. Orph. hymn. 11.

  • 10.

    fr. 121, 122, 123 Abel.

  • 11.

    Reading ἀου̑ς—ἀψϵυδής in l. 19.

  • 12.

    Laws, 715 E; cf. Phaed. 70 C.

  • 13.

    Crat. 400 C; fr. 221 Abel.

  • 14.

    492 E f.

  • 15.

    I have cited the evidence for this statement in my edition of Plato, Rep. vol. ii. p. 379.

  • 16.

    Diels2 i. p. 245.

  • 17.

    Diels p. 495. 3 f., 13.

  • 18.

    Quoted by Gruppe, dr. Myth. p. 1035.

  • 19.

    fr. 115 Diels,2

  • 20.

    l.c. p. 1035.

  • 21.

    fr. 126 Diels.2

  • 22.

    De An. A 5. 410b 27ff. ; cf. fr. 241 Abel,

  • 23.

    Emp. fr. 120 Diels2.

  • 24.

    fr. 118, 121 Diels 2.

  • 25.

    Guruppe, l. e. p. 1040. The phrase τροχὸς τη̂ς γϵνϵ́σϵως occurs also (with a different meaning) in St. James iii. 6 ; see Mayor ad loe.

  • 26.

    Emp. fr. 115. 6 ; Plato, Phaedr. 248 E.

  • 27.

    fr. 115. 6 ff.

  • 28.

    fr. 117.

  • 29.

    Diels p. 495.

  • 30.

    l.c. p. 478.

  • 31.

    Laws 782 C.

  • 32.

    Pl. l.c.; Eur. Hipp. 952, and elsewhere.

  • 33.

    See Miss Harrison, l.c. p. 479 ff.

  • 34.

    fr. 135.

  • 35.

    fr. 136; cf. 137.

  • 36.

    ii 81. See Rohde, Psyche2 ii p. 125 f.; Miss Harrison, l.c. p 509 ff.

  • 37.

    Rohde, l.c.

  • 38.

    Discussed by Miss Harrison, l.c. p. 595 ff.

  • 39.

    Pl. Rep. ii. 364 E. Cf. Phaed. 108 A.

  • 40.

    fr. 208 Abel (Rohde, l.c. p. 128). The passages which Rohde cites from Plato do not necessarily, I think, involve this belief.

  • 41.

    ii. 364 B. ff.

  • 42.

    Char. 16.

  • 43.

    For a more favourable view, see Miss Harrison, l.c. p. 479 ff.

  • 44.

    Plato, Rep. x. 615 A f.

  • 45.

    Aeneid vi. 748.

  • 46.

    Dieterich, Nekyia p. 128; Abel, fr. 153 ff.

  • 47.

    fr. 154 Abel.

  • 48.

    Rep. ii. 363 D; Phaed. 69 C al.

  • 49.

    Cf. fr. 224 Abel.

  • 50.

    See below, p. 135.

  • 51.

    617 D ff.

  • 52.

    Phaedr. 248 D. For Pindar, see below, p. 133.

  • 53.

    fr. 127.

  • 54.

    146, 147 (reading ἀπόκηροι).

  • 55.

    fr. 112.

  • 56.

    Diels p. 495. 16 ff. The στϵ́ϕανος is perhaps the imaginary ring or circle which lies around the happy land (Dieterich, de hymnis Orph. p. 35).

  • 57.

    Diels p. 495. 19, 34 ff.

  • 58.

    p. 223 (ed. 1900).

  • 59.

    Axioch. 371 C f.

  • 60.

    Cf. the Orphic ὅσσοσ, ϵὐαγϵσ̑ς.

  • 61.

    The ἀλυπία of Axioch. 371 C f.

  • 62.

    ἀκήρααος ἀλυπία καί ἡδϵσ̑α δίασαα οὔαϵ γὰρ χϵσ̑μα σϕοδρὸν οὔαϵ θάλπος ϵ̓γγίγνϵαασ, ἀλλ' ϵὔκραος ἀὴρ καλ. l.c.

  • 63.

    παναοσ̑οσ δϵ̀ λϵσμω̑νϵς ἄνθϵσσ ποσκίλοσς ϵ̓αρσζόμϵνοσ, l.c.

  • 64.

    πηγαί δϵ̀ ὑδάαων καθαρω̑νῥϵ́ουσσ, l.c.

  • 65.

    Rep. ii. 363 C.

  • 66.

    Rohde, Psyche2 ii. p. 123, n. 2.

  • 67.

    Diels2 i. p. 277, § 34.

  • 68.

    The Greek doctrine of the “restoration of all things” is connected with the astronomical theory of a Great Year, on which see MS. Republic of Plato vol. ii. p. 302 ff.

  • 69.

    Emp. fr. 144. Cf. the second of the Logia discovered in 1897, “except ye fast from the world” etc. (ϵ̓ὰν μὴ νησαϵὺσηαϵ αὸν κόσμον).

  • 70.

    Phaedr. 248 E, compared with Ref. x. 615 A.

  • 71.

    Phaedr. 249 A.

  • 72.

    See below, p. 135.

  • 73.

    ii. 123; cf. 81.

  • 74.

    Diels p. 495. 25 ff.

  • 75.

    p. 131.

  • 76.

    Cf. Miss Harrison, l.c. p. 477 f.

  • 77.

    Pl. Phaedr. 247 A; Arist. Eth Nic. x. 7. 1177b 33.

  • 78.

    Rohde, l.c. p. 119.

  • 79.

    See Miss Harrison, l.c. p. 479 ff.