Orphic Mysteries

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Orphic Mysteries

Orphic Mysteries or Orphism, religious cult of ancient Greece, prominent in the 6th cent. BC According to legend Orpheus founded these mysteries and was the author of the sacred poems from which the Orphic doctrines were drawn. The rites were based on the myth of Dionysus Zagreus, the son of Zeus and Persephone. When Zeus proposed to make Zagreus the ruler of the universe, the Titans were so enraged that they dismembered the boy and devoured him. Athena saved Zagreus' heart and gave it to Zeus, who thereupon swallowed the heart (from which was born the second Dionysus Zagreus) and destroyed the Titans with lightning. From the ashes of the Titans sprang the human race, who were part divine (Dionysus) and part evil (Titan). This double aspect of human nature, the Dionysian and the Titanic, is essential to the understanding of Orphism. The Orphics affirmed the divine origin of the soul, but it was through initiation into the Orphic Mysteries and through the process of transmigration that the soul could be liberated from its Titanic inheritance and could achieve eternal blessedness. Orphism stressed a strict standard of ethical and moral conduct. Initiates purified themselves and adopted ascetic practices (e.g., abstinence from eating animal flesh) for the purpose of purging evil and cultivating the Dionysian side of the human character.

See W. C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion (rev. ed. 1953, repr. 1967).

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