The mystery tradition known as Orphism is often misunderstood, largely due to the lack of evidence in existence. Mystery traditions are initiatory in nature; to reveal the secret information to non-initiates was forbidden, in some instances punishable by death. This secretive nature of mystery traditions makes it very difficult for modern scholars to discern what actually occurred within the cult. The Orphic mystery tradition is unique among ancient Greco-Roman cults. Whereas mainstream Greco-Roman cults were sanctioned by the state, with rituals that followed a set format of sacrifice and feasting, the Orphic tradition was a secret initiatory tradition, with written rituals relying heavily on sacred texts. The Orphic tradition is also unique in that, rather than operating out of temples, it has no set center of worship. Rather, itinerant priests traveled from location to location with their holy books, seeking individual worshippers. Because they traveled to different locations, the tradition is eclectic, as the priests combined local traditions with their own. This makes studying Orphism quite difficult, as one must separate the local customs with the Orphic teachings.
This eclectic nature has caused many modern scholars to assert that Orphism was not a set tradition, focusing on the regional variants as proof. However, by studying the extant Orphic texts within each individual context, common themes emerge that indicate a more solid tradition, contradicting modern scholarly thought. The studying of the Orphic tradition via the extant religious texts presents a unique challenge to scholars; many of the extant texts are fairly recent discoveries, found not in monasteries and private collections, but buried within followers’ tombs or under the sands of Hellenistic Egypt. As such, there is very little documentation of the transmission of the ideas contained within. In addition, there is a great likelihood that many of the Orphic texts began as oral tradition, since they often contain formulaic phrases. Martin West indicates that when dealing with ancient texts, particularly fragments, it is necessary to include the context when attempting any sort of textual criticism of ancient texts; this context is vital to deciphering the regional variations from the core ideas as well as identifying the true meaning of the text itself. By studying the use of these formulaic phrases throughout the Orphic texts, combined with ideas that are decidedly Orphic in nature, a relationship between the texts emerges that indicates that there is a core set of ideas for the cult, despite the regional variations.
In the twentieth century, works on Orphism by Otto and Guthrie asserted a true, cohesive Orphic tradition. However, as more texts were discovered by archaeologists, other scholars refuted this idea, instead holding to the bricoleur theory as described by Graf. While the bricoleur theory has a number of merits, it focuses too sharply on differences rather than commonalities. I propose an alternative bricoleur theory, based on analysis of the texts. I believe the Orphic priests engaged in bricolage by combining local customs with their existing tradition; however, there was a core tradition circulating in the Greco-Roman world via the information in the priests’ holy books. This study analyzes the texts currently classified as ‘Orphic,’ in order to determine how the formulaic phrases and ideas contained within the texts might have been transmitted.
Smith, S. (2015). Stardust, Memory, and Holy Books: Innovations and Influence of Orphism as Fringe Religion. https://oaks.kent.edu/node/312
Smith, Shellie. 2015. “Stardust, Memory, and Holy Books: Innovations and Influence of Orphism As Fringe Religion”. https://oaks.kent.edu/node/312.
Smith, S. Stardust, Memory, and Holy Books: Innovations and Influence of Orphism As Fringe Religion. 5 June 2015, https://oaks.kent.edu/node/312.