In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Orpheus and Orphism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Papers
  • Bibliographies
  • Literary Aspects

Classics Orpheus and Orphism
Alberto Bernabé
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0173


In classical Antiquity some religious poems written in hexameters were attributed to Orpheus, a mythical singer, who supposedly had the ability to charm all living creatures with his music. The most relevant aspects of his mythical biography were his traveling as an Argonaut with the mission of counteracting the song of the Syrens and his descent into Underworld searching for his deceased wife. Greeks believed Orpheus to be a real character and attributed to him the foundation of rites, especially mysteries; thus, he was converted into the prophet of a religious movement with imprecise boundaries. Also he was credited as the author of different poems on religious topics. Orphic texts may have been transmitted in the private sphere of mysteries: initiation rites related to the pursuit of salvation in the afterlife. Some scholars suggest that they maintained their integrity through the centuries because the ancient texts were recycled with only slight variations and were scarcely influenced by literary “trends” and characteristics of the following historical periods. Toward the end of the 19th century and early 20th century there was an excessive tendency to label a diverse range of texts under the term “Orphic.” This excess led to a critical reaction, starting in the 1930s, that was skeptical even of the idea that Orphism existed as a religious movement, and for some time Orphic texts received little attention from academics. However, the discovery of a series of fundamental texts (Gold Tablets, Derveni papyrus) led to a revival of the topic in the 1980s, when the interest in Orphic literature and religion increased exponentially even though the discussion of the content, reach, and degree of cohesion of this movement is still debated. From the 1990s to the beginning of the 21st century there have been new editions of the texts and new proposals to interpret them. The debates continue among scholars about the nature and even existence of Orphism, as well as about the interpretation of particular Orphic texts.

General Overviews

Guthrie 1993 is an excellent, albeit outdated, introductory study of Orphism. Linforth 1941 appears to be critical regarding the existence and outreach of Orphism, but he develops a noteworthy and precise philological analysis of the texts. Parker 1995 is shorter, but it is more updated and targeted at a non-specialized audience. Sorel 1995 is a short popular book that shows the common characteristics of a book from the Que sais-je? collection. Bernabé and Casadesús 2008 is a broad handbook in two volumes where specialists from several countries discuss different aspects of the question, from mythology to religion, philosophy, and literature, with special attention to the relation between Orphism with texts of several Oriental literatures, and with Greek literature and philosophy. Edmonds 2013 represents an opposed interpretation denying the existence of Orphism as a religious movement.

  • Bernabé, Alberto, and Francesc Casadesús, eds. 2008. Orfeo y la tradición órfica: Un reencuentro. Madrid: Akal.

    Systematic study of the myth of Orpheus, the Orphic works, religious beliefs, rituals, and the link between the Orphic texts and other authors written by various scholars. The bibliography is abundant and the state of the question presented for each theme is updated. Essential handbook for the study of each of the topics discussed.

  • Edmonds, Radcliffe G., III. 2013. Redefining ncient Orphism: A study in Greek religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139814669

    This work challenges the idea that Orphism existed as a coherent religious movement, suggesting instead that “Orphic” was a label applied to a variety of texts and rituals for a range of different reasons over the ages. It proposes a new way to evaluate the evidence labeled as Orphic in Antiquity.

  • Guthrie, William Keith Chambers. 1993. Orpheus and Greek religion: A study of the Orphic movement. Foreword by Larry J. Alderink. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    The only introductory handbook of Orphism in English. Although it precedes the publication of fundamental texts, it is nevertheless an excellent introduction to the question: well structured, informative, and easy to read. Originally published in 1935.

  • Linforth, Ivan M. 1941. The arts of Orpheus. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This work limits the evidence for Orphism to things explicitly “sealed with the name of Orpheus.” In response to Guthrie’s study, Linforth concludes that this evidence shows no coherent religious movement.

  • Parker, Robert. 1995. Early Orphism. In The Greek world. Edited by Anton Powell, 483–510. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203269206

    Concise but well-documented presentation about Orphism in the first stages of its history. Targeted at non-specialists but contains basic bibliographic references.

  • Sorel, Reynal. 1995. Orphée et l’orphisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    Clear and useful book as a first point of access to the question.

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