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Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, by Kathleen Freeman, [1948], at

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Orpheus lived probably in Thrace, in pre-Homeric times. Aristotle believed that he never existed; but to other ancient writers he was a real person, though living in remote antiquity.

Nothing is known of any ancient Orphic writings. It was believed that Orpheus taught, but left no writings, and that the epic poetry attributed to him was written in the sixth century by Onomacritus.

The Orphic literature current in the time of the Neo-Platonists (third century A.D.) is now thought to be a collection of writings of different periods and varying outlook, dating from the sixth century B.C. to the beginning of the Christian era.

A large number of titles survive. 1

There are also a number of gold plates from tombs, and a few papyrus fragments, which give Orphic instruction to the dead.

1. (Plato, Philebus 66C): In the sixth generation, cease the ordered arrangement of your song!

2. (Plato, Cratylus 402B, C): Ocean, fair-flowing, first began marriage, he who married his full sister on the mother's side, Tethys.

3. (ib. 400B, C: The Orphics explained the name 'sôma' for the body with reference to the verb 'sôzesthai', to keep safe or guard, the simile being that of a prison).

4 (Plato, Republic 363C: Orphic doctrine on rewards and punishments in the next world, ascribed to 'Musaeus and his son': the just are given a life of feasting and everlasting drunkenness, and some say they shall leave children and grandchildren behind; the unjust are plunged into mud or made to carry water in sieves).

5. (ib. 364E: The Orphic books give instruction on purification, both private and communal, by means of sacrifice both for the living and the dead. These they call 'Teletai', 'rites of initiation', which if performed will save us from hurt in the next world, whereas if we fail to perform them, dire pains await us).

5a. (Plato, Laws 669D: on incompatible elements in music. Poets who mixed up such elements in their compositions would 

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provoke the laughter of all men who, as Orpheus says) have come to the time of enjoyment.

6. (ib. 715E: as the ancient saying goes) God holds the beginning and end, and the middle of all existing things.

6a. (ib. 829D: Nobody is to sing a song not approved by the Guardians, not even if it be sweeter than the hymns of Thamyrus and Orpheus).

7. (Plato, Symposium 218B: Alcibiades bids the uninitiated depart. Cp. the Orphic command): Ye uninitiated, close the doors!

8. (Plato, Timaeus 40D: the 'descendants of the gods', as the Orphics 1 call themselves, give the following account of the origin of the other gods): The children of Earth and Heaven were Ocean and Tethys, and from these came Phorcys, Cronos and Rhea, and their contemporaries; and from Cronos and Rhea came Zeus and Hera and all those whom we know, said to be their brothers and sisters, and others still, their offspring.

9. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1071b; 1091b: The Theologoi generate all things from Night. The ancient poets agree that the Ruler is not Night and Heaven or Chaos or Ocean, but Zeus).

10. (ib. 983B: the ancient Theologoi made Ocean and Tethys the parents of Creation, and the oath of the gods in Water, or Styx as they called it).

10a. (Aristotle, de gen. anim. 734a: The so-called epic poems of Orpheus say that the various organs—heart, lungs, liver, eyes, etc.—were formed successively: for he says therein that the animals come into being in the same way as a net is woven).

11. (Aristotle, de anima, 410b: Discussion on whether all living things, including plants, have Soul: in the so-called Orphic poems, the poet says that Soul is borne along by the winds, and enters from the Whole when the creatures inhale).

12. (Damascius: The Theologia in Eudemus, attributed to Orpheus, says nothing about the Intelligible. He gave Night as the original Element. In the current Orphic Rhapsôdiae, the theology concerning the Intelligible is roughly as follows: for the One original Element, Time; for the Two, Aether and Chaos; and in the place 

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of Being, the Egg; this triad come first. At the second stage comes either the Egg Fertilised, as God, or the Bright Robe, or the Cloud; from these comes Phanês. At the third stage come Mêtis as Intellect, Erikepaios as Power, Phanês as Father.

(Achilles: The Orphics say that the Sphere is like an Egg, the vault of Heaven being the shell, and the Aether the skin).

13. (Damascius: The Orphic theogony given in Hieronymus and Hellanicus is not the same: it gives the first two elements as Water and Earth. The third Element was begotten of these two, and was a serpent having the heads of a bull and a lion with the face of a god in between; it had wings, and was called Ageless Time, or Unchanging Heracles. With him was united Necessity or Adrasteia, an element having no body, and spread over the whole universe, fastening it together. Time, the serpent, produced a three fold offspring: Aether, Chaos and Erebus; in these, Time begat the Egg. At the third stage came a god without body, with golden wings, and bulls’ heads on his flanks, and on his head a huge changing serpent. This theogony sings of Prôtogonos (First-born), and calls Zeus the Marshaller of All Things).

(Athenagoras: Orpheus was the first theologian. He gave Water as the beginning of the Whole; from Water came Mud, and from both came a serpent, Heracles or Time. This Heracles produced a huge Egg, which split into two, forming Gê (Earth) and Ouranos (Heaven). Heaven united with Earth and produced the female Fates, and the male Giants and Cyclôpês. Ouranos flung the males into Tartarus, whereat Earth in anger produced the Titans):

Lady Earth produced the sons of Ouranos, who are also called Titans, 1 because they have been punished by great starry Ouranos.

14. (Ps.-Demosthenes: Implacable and reverend Justice, which Orpheus, who revealed to us the most holy rites, says is seated beside the throne of Zeus and looks upon all mortal happenings).

Is. (Marmor Parium: From the time when . . . 2 son published his poem, the Rape of Persephone and the search of Demeter and the gift of corn to men).

(Orphic Argonautica: The wandering of Demeter, her sorrow for Persephone, and her lawgiving).

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15a. (Berlin Papyrus: paraphrase of an Orphic version of the Hymn to Demeter):

Orpheus was the son of Oiagros and the Muse Calliopê; and the Lord of the Muses, Apollo, nodded towards him so that he became inspired and wrote his Hymns, which to a slight extent Musaeus corrected and wrote down, and he gave the sacred rites (orgies) of Orpheus to be revered by Greeks and barbarians, being deeply concerned with rites, purifications and oracles. The goddess Demeter . . . whom Orpheus gave as the sister of Zeus, others as the mother. There is no need to recall these things to the recollection of the pious.

(Homer's Hymn to Demeter, 418, 420-3 follow.)

(After the Rape of Persephone) Demeter mourns for her daughter. Calliope and Cleisidicê and Dêmonassa having come with the queen to get water, inquire of Demeter as if she were a mortal—though Musaeus says in his poems that she joined them because of some need.

(Demeter nurses Dêmophon, infant son of the queen Baubô: she anoints him with oil and cradles him in the fire. Baubô sees this and screams. Demeter says):

'Foolish and wretched mortals, having foreknowledge neither of the evil nor of the good in prospect for you!'

(The baby is burnt up. The goddess reveals herself):

'I am Demeter, bringer of seasons, of bright gifts. What god of heaven, or who among mortal men, has seized Persephone and reft her dear soul?'

(The homecoming of Celeus, and story of Triptolemus)

Whence it (the poem) is called 'The Descent' (into Hades).

16. (Apollonius Rhodius, 'Argonautica', I. 494: Orpheus, having lifted up his lyre, tried his song. He sang that Earth and Heaven and Sea formerly were fitted together into one form, and separated through destructive Hate; and that there are, as a perpetual sign in the Aether, the stars, the moon and the paths of the sun; and how the mountains rose, and how the singing rivers with their nymphs and all things that move were created. And he sang how first of all Ophiôn and Eurynomê daughter of Ocean held sway on snowy Olympus, and one was like Cronos in honour, with his power and might, and the other like Rhea; but they fell into the streams of Ocean. These then (Cronos and Rhea) for a while ruled over the Titans, blessed gods, while Zeus was still young, still 

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thinking as a child, and was dwelling in the Dictaean cave, and the earth-born Cyclopes had not yet strengthened him with bolt, thunder and lightning, which give glory to Zeus.

Gold plates from tombs in Italy and Crete1

17. (From Petelia, fourth-third century B.C.)

You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing. Do not even go near this spring. And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory, flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards. You must say, 'I am the child of Gê (Earth) and of starry Ouranos (Heaven); this you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am perishing. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.' And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring, and then thereafter you shall reign with the other heroes.

17a. (From Eleuthernae (Crete), second century B.C.)

A I am dry with thirst and am perishing.

B Come, drink, I pray, from the ever-flowing spring on the right, where the cypress is. Who are you, and whence?

A I am the son of Earth and starry Heaven.

18. (From Thurii, fourth-third century B.C.)

I come from the pure, O pure Queen of the earthly ones, Euclês, Eubouleus, and ye other immortal gods! I too claim to be of your blessed race, but Fate and other immortal gods conquered me, (and sent) the star-smiting thunder. And I flew out from the hard and deeply-grievous circle, and stepped on to the crown with my swift feet, and slipped into the bosom of the Mistress, the Queen of the Underworld. And I stepped out from the crown with my swift feet.

'Happy and blessed one, you shall be a god instead of a mortal.'

I have fallen as a kid into milk.

19. (From Thurii: for a woman)

I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld, Euclês, Eubouleus and all other gods! For I too claim to be

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of your race. And I have paid the penalty for unjust deeds, whether Fate conquered me . . . with the thunderbolt and the lightning flash. Now a suppliant I come to noble Persephone, that she may be kind and send me to the seats of the pure.

19a. (From Rome: for a woman)

I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Underworld, Euclês, Eubouleus, noble child of Zeus! And I have this gift of Memory prized by men.

'Caecilia Secundina, come, made divine by the Law!'

20. (From Thurii)

But whenever a soul leaves the light of the sun—enter on the right where one must if one has kept all (the laws) well and truly. Rejoice at the experience! This you have never before experienced: you have become a god instead of a man. You have fallen as a kid into milk. Hail, hail, as you travel on the right, through the holy meadow and groves of Persephone!

21. (From the same place).

To Earth, first-born Mother, Cybelian Korê said: . . . Of Demeter . . . All-seeing Zeus.

O Sun, Fire, you went through all towns, when you appeared with the Victories and Fortunes and all-wise Fate, where you increase the brightness of the festival with your lordship, O glorious deity! By you are all things subdued, all things overpowered, all things smitten! The decrees of Fate must everywhere be endured. O Fire, lead me to the Mother, if the fast can endure, to fast for seven nights and days! For there was a seven-day fast, O Olympian Zeus and all-seeing Sun . . .

22. (Clement of Alexandria: Orphic terms from the poem On Orpheus by Epigenes).

Shuttles with bent carriages (ploughs)

Warp-threads (furrows)

Thread (seed)

Tears of Zeus (rain)

Fates clothed in white (phases of the moon)

Little flower (spring)

Workless (epithet of night)

Gorgonian (epithet of the moon, because of the face in it.)

Aphrodite (time for seed-sowing)

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23. (Papyrus, third century B.C.)

. . . in order that he may find

. . on account of the rite they paid the penalty of their fathers. Save me, Brimô, Demeter Rhea, and armed Curêtês! . . .

So that we may perform beautiful sacrifices . . .

Goat and bull, limitless gifts . . .

And by the law of the river. . .

Of the goat, and let him eat the rest of the flesh. Let no uninitiated look on!

. . . dedicating to the . . .

. . prayer . . .

I call on . . . and Eubouleus, and call the (Maenads) who cry Euoi . . .

You having parched with thirst the friends of (the feast). . .

. . . of Demeter and Pallas for us . . .

King Irekepaigos, save me, (Phanes)!

(The end is mutilated, but there is a reference to the toys of Dionysus): top, rattle, dice-bones, or mirror.


1:1 For list and discussion, see Companion, pp. 5-8.

2:1 The Orphics are not named here, but are obviously meant.

3:1 Τιτῆνες from τίνεσθαι.

3:2 'Orpheus, Oiagros’ and Calliope’s (son)' is supplied in the blank space here.

5:1 See Harrison, Prolegomena, Appendix by Gilbert Murray; Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, pp. 172-31 Freeman, Companion to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers pp. 16-7.

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