The Orphic Initiators: Priests of Orphism

One of the most mysterious spiritual movements in the ancient world, what can be said about the initiator-priests of Orphism?

Orphism is the name given to the philosophical, spiritual, eschatological and religious ideologies and practices connected to the legendary Greek poet Orpheus. The consistency of those movements regarded as Orphic, and the exact nature of Orphic beliefs, is still fiercely debated among scholars of Graeco-Roman religions.

Even if there was not a coherent body of religious ideas which can be collectively referred to as Orphism, however, it is clear that the figure of Orpheus, and those who claimed the authorities of his works, were deeply involved in the culture of initiation and mystery religion. This article discusses what can be inferred about this process of initiation, and the mystery of Orphism.

Orphic Initiators

Plato, in his condemnation of travelling charlatans who peddled mystical and magical wares (Republic 364e-365a), mentions religious men who produced a “bushel of books”, written by supposedly mythical poets like Orpheus, and presented them as a means to salvation, offering useless initiation as an escape from damnation in the afterlife.

Theophrastus satire of Characters, meaniwhile, produced during the late 4th century BC, includes an account of a Superstitious Man who visits the “priests of the Orphic Mysteries” every month, along with other dream interpreters, fortune tellers and seers.

It seems plausible that these two passages are describing the same thing, and there was a real trend for priests/initiators promoting initiation into Orphic systems of thought.

The Derveni Papyrus

The Derveni Papyrus provides a probable real-world example of this phenomenon. This wonderful text, preserved in the grave of a rich man who valued it enough to have it cremated on the same pyre as his own body, is, as yet, the only surviving papyrus text from Greece.

The majority of the text is a commentary on a poem supposedly written by Orpheus, but a prominent part of the text makes reference to this very problem of travelling initiators claiming profound knowledge but seeking only money, and dissuading those they dupe from any genuine spiritual pursuits, much to the commentators chagrin (Derveni Papyrus col. 20). The tone of the text, and this passage in particular, suggests that the author, as well as being an apologist for his faith, may have been a more honest Orphic initiator, in contrast to those he criticises.

Initiators in the Derveni Papyrus

In the main body of its commentary on an Orphic poem, the Derveni Papyrus displays a tendency towards reconciling its doctrinal position (as dictated by interpretations of its sacred Orphic poem) with what can be labelled as contemporary physics, in the form of the ideas of Presocratic philosophers. Its attempted etymology of the name of the Titan Kronos (Derveni Papyrus col. 14), for example, from the Greek word krouesthai, meaning “thrust”, shows an effort to balance poetic religious language with the emerging physical language of forces, movement and bodies.

This openness and eagerness towards philosophical thought was probably typical of the Orphic initiators who fell within the more honest categories of travelling mystics, as opposed to the charlatans described above, if the Derveni Papyrus author is any indication.

True Mysticism

Olympiodorus (On the Phaedo, cited in Kingsley 1995: 112) mentions that Plato paraphrased lots of his ideas from the ideas of Orpheus. One such example (Phaedo 69c), acknowledges that, in the “mysteries”, there were many participants who acted with a frenzied mania, but there were very few who could actually be considered true “mystics” – that is, those who could deeply understand the doctrines of a mystery, and were not simply revelling in it.

Plato equates these true mystics with philosophers (69d). Perhaps these were the real Orphic initiators – learned, reflective apologists – echoing the sentiments of the Derveni Papyrus commentator. Perhaps, furthermore, Platos lambasting of the entire enterprise as money-grubbing and useless was a dismissive only of the dishonest initiators, while the real mystics, such as the Derveni Papyrus commentator, would have earned Platos respect.

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