Orphism (more rarely Orphicism) (Ancient Greek: Ὀρφικά) is the name given to a set of religious beliefs and practices originating in the ancient Greek and the Hellenistic world, as well as by the Thracians, associated with literature ascribed to the mythical poet Orpheus, who descended into Hades and returned. Orphics also revered Persephone (who annually descended into Hades for a season and then returned) and Dionysus or Bacchus (who also descended into Hades and returned). Orpheus was said to have invented the Mysteries of Dionysus. Poetry containing distinctly Orphic beliefs has been traced back to the 6th century BC or at least 5th century BC, and graffiti of the 5th century BC apparently refers to "Orphics".
Classical sources, such as Plato, refer to "Orpheus-initiators" (Ὀρφεοτελεσταί), and associated rites, although how far "Orphic" literature in general related to these rites is not certain. As in the Eleusinian mysteries, initiation into Orphic mysteries promised advantages in the afterlife.
The main elements of Orphism differed from popular ancient Greek religion in the following ways:
- by characterizing human souls as divine and immortal but doomed to live (for a period) in a "grievous circle" of successive bodily lives through metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls.
- by prescribing an ascetic way of life which, together with secret initiation rites, was supposed to guarantee not only eventual release from the "grievous circle" but also communion with god(s).
- by warning of postmortem punishment for certain transgressions committed during life.
- by being founded upon sacred writings about the origin of gods and human beings.
The Orphic theogonies are genealogical works similar to the Theogony of Hesiod, but the details are different. They are possibly influenced by Near Eastern models. The main story is this: Dionysus (in his incarnation as Zagreus) is the son of Zeus and Persephone; Zeus gives his inheritance of the throne to the child, as Zeus is to leave due to Hera's anger over a child being born by another mother; Titans are enraged over the proclamation of attendance and under Hera's instigation decide to murder the child, Dionysus is then tricked with a mirror and children's toys by the Titans who murder and consume him. Athena saves the heart and tells Zeus of the crime who in turn hurls a thunderbolt on the Titans. The resulting soot, from which sinful mankind is born, contain the bodies of the Titans and Dionysus. The soul of man (Dionysus factor) is therefore divine, but the body (Titan factor) holds the soul in bondage. Thus it was declared that the soul returns to a host ten times, bound to the wheel of rebirth.
There are two Orphic stories of the rebirth of Dionysus, in one of which it is the heart of Dionysus that is implanted into the thigh of Zeus; the other where he has impregnated the mortal woman Semele resulting in Dionysus's literal rebirth. Many of these details differ from accounts in the classical authors. Firmicus Maternus, a Christian author, gives a different account with the book "On the Error of Profane Religions". He says that Jupiter (Zeus) originally was a (mortal) king of Crete, and Dionysos was his son. Dionysos was murdered, and cannibalized. Only his heart was salvaged by Athena. A statue of gypsum (the same substance the Titans used to disguise themselves) was then made to look like Dionysos and the heart is placed within.
- The "Protogonos Theogony", lost, composed c. 500 BC which is known through the commentary in the Derveni papyrus and references in classical authors (Empedocles and Pindar).
- The "Eudemian Theogony", lost, composed in the 5th century BC. It is the product of a syncretic Bacchic-Kouretic cult.
- The "Rhapsodic Theogony", lost, composed in the Hellenistic age, incorporating earlier works. It is known through summaries in later neo-Platonist authors.
- Orphic hymns. 87 hexametric poems of a shorter length composed in the late Hellenistic or early Roman Imperial age.