Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.13

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2013.  Pp. xii, 451.  ISBN 9781107038219.  xii, 451.  

Reviewed by Robert Parker, University of Oxford (

Table of Contents

This learned and intelligent work sums up Radcliffe Edmonds’ studies since 1999, in which he has sought to give us an Orphism without original sin, without, that is, the myth that mankind carries a burden of inherited guilt because they were born from the Titans who devoured the baby Dionysus, son of Persephone. From that starting point he has been led to study almost every aspect of what it is still convenient to call Orphism, whatever reservations the term demands. In many respects he is highly sceptical in the tradition of I.M. Linforth’s The Arts of Orpheus (1941). His Orphism has no fixed traditions, no central myths, nor could it have them, given the unstable channels through which religious traditions were diffused in the ancient world. He acknowledges a debt to Burkert’s ‘ground-breaking’ article of 1982 (62 n. 183), which substituted a model of ‘independent religious craftsmen’ for one of a religious sect. The label ‘Orphic’, he writes, is as vague as ‘New Age’, ‘a set of ideas loosely defined by their distance from mainstream religious activity’ (5). In the denial of core beliefs, he follows a path diametrically opposed to that of Alberto Bernabé in his monumental edition of Orphic remains (2004-5) and many associated articles; courteous polemic against Bernabé runs through the book.

Yet he does not jettison ‘Orphism’ completely. If one thinks in terms not of an essence but of Wittgenstein’s family resemblances, the family of Orphic rituals and ideas is marked for Edmonds by (claims to) ‘extraordinary purity, sanctity, antiquity, and strangeness’. Whereas Linforth rejected all evidence not explicitly associated with the name of Orpheus, Edmonds is prepared to consider ideas not so designated but comparable to others that are: lacking rigorous definition, the label Orphic is one that a given author might or not apply in a given case. Thus he acknowledges the Gold Leaves as Orphic not on the basis of supposed allusions in them to specific Orphic doctrines (which he denies), but because they display quirky ‘Orphic’ claims to especial purity and kinship with the gods. He also makes use of this licence in relation to Plato Cratylus 400b-c, the famous passage on soul-body relations where ‘some’ are said to derive σῶμα from σῆμα whereas Orpheus1 relates it to σῴζω, as a receptacle that either guards or protects the soul: for Edmonds even the view of ‘some’ is so unorthodox that a different writer on a different day might well have ascribed it to Orpheus.

Part 1 (three chapters) treats ‘Definitions old and new’. Particularly instructive here, for one not familiar with the Christian and (above all) neo-Platonic authors so central and so problematic for our knowledge of Orphism, is the highlighting of the important recent work in this area by Brisson, Jourdan and Herrero. Edmonds inclines to a much later date (4th c. AD) for the Orphic ‘Rhapsodies in 24 books’ than does West (2nd c. AD), and distances himself from the brilliant gymnastics of West’s very precise reconstructions of various earlier Orphic theogonies.

Part 2 treats ‘Orphic scriptures’, and develops several unorthodox arguments. In chapter 4, ‘ Orphic textuality. A hubbub of books’, he quotes the two much-quoted early testimonia which speak of Orphic (or Musaean) books contemptuously in association with rites (Eur.Hipp. 953-4, Pl. Resp. 364b-365a), and argues that they reveal nothing specific about Orphism: the suspicion of books here displayed is just part of a more general 5th/4th c. suspicion of the emerging medium of the book. I doubt that there was such a general suspicion — some references to books in the period are neutral, and in some developing sciences such as medicine there was no visible conflict between between orality and textuality ; however that may be, what is at issue in the Orphic references is not book technology per se but the claim to authority implied in the use of supposedly inspired books. A better point to press home against those such as the reviewer who have spoken of Orphism as almost a ‘religion of the book’ is the insistence in the sources on a multiplicity of books. Edmonds’ real target is the idea of a fixed canon of Orphic ideas accepted by all participants in Orphic rites. While insisting on the distinctive character of Orphic textuality, I would concede that the views proposed in Orphic poems about religious matters were not ordered or canonized or policed. This religion of many books was not a religion of the book.

Edmonds also tries a new approach to the difficult problem of the stance of the author of the Derveni papyrus.2 He reads the papyrus as a sophistic display, like the exegesis of Simonides’ poem in Plato’s Protagoras, an attempt by the author to outbid his rivals in the Orpheus industry; for the remarks on sacrifices and purification show this author too to be a ritual practitioner: ‘his treatise is aimed at winning clients in the public marketplace, not at showing a select group of sectarians the secret of salvation’ (129). Yet the Derveni author also seeks to establish a distance between himself and those ‘who make a profession out of rites’; it is not clear that he speaks as one such himself.

In chapter 5, ‘Orphic hieroi logoi. Sacred texts for the rites’, Edmonds points out that hymns were regularly performed in ritual contexts, and that Orpheus was famous as a composer of Hymns: the relation of Orphic poetry to ritual was not then so exceptional as is generally supposed. (Arguments against what he calls ‘the Orphic exception’ run through the book.) But there is no evidence that Orphic poems were sung chorally, and all known Orphic poetry is in hexameters, not a sung or communal metre. The point that Orpheus was credited with Hymns is correct, but is weakened if Betegh is right, as Edmonds himself thinks, that the poem quoted in the Derveni papyrus was itself a hexameter ‘hymn’. He goes on to dispute the standard notion that the ‘Rhapsodies in 24 books’ assembled previous Orphic writings into a coherent form; this could rather have been a medley like the collection of Sibylline oracles. I do not venture to enter this territory, beyond noting that the lack of complete consistency within the attested fragments does not prove that coherence was not the aim.

Chapter 6, ‘ Orphic mythology. The content of Orphic poems’, surveys the wide variety of themes and rituals associated with Orpheus, particularly those concerning Demeter;3 the point is to wean us from a fixation on the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus as supposedly the key Orphic myth. This is salutary, though a more rigorous distinction between rites said to have been founded by Orpheus and themes supposedly treated in actual Orphic poems would have been helpful. He stresses the diversity of the topics supposedly sung about by Orpheus as described by Apollonius Rhodius and in the late Orphic Argonautica ; the dismemberment of Dionysus is not among them, but that argument is double-edged given that undeniable Orphic themes such as the cosmic egg and the swallowing of the world by Zeus are absent as well.

Part 3 ’Orphic doctrines, or the pure from the pure?’, brings us to specific beliefs, though its conclusion has already been announced in the last sentence of Part 2: ‘There was no fixed set of Orphic myths or doctrines, no Orphic mythology, just a bewildering array of rituals and myths to which different ancient authors and audiences, at different times and for different reasons, gave the magical name of Orpheus (191)’. Chapter 7, ‘Orphic purity, piety or superstition?’ allows an obsessive concern with purity to be characteristic of Orphism, but insists that it is ordinary concern (about one’s own or one’s ancestors’ transgressions) taken to an extreme, not a concern with a pollution of quite different origin in the crime of the Titans. Edmonds denies en passant that the Olbia bones attest persons self-designated as ’Ορφικοί, and that the vegetarian ‘Orphic life’ mentioned by Plato was ever led by any historical Greek. Chapter 8, ‘Life in the afterlife’, plays down Orphism’s supposed obsession with that phase of existence; he has to try (p. 268) to limit the scope of Diodorus’ statement (1.96.4-5) that Orpheus introduced ‘mythmaking about Hades’ from Egypt. Such a concern was not, he argues, exclusive to Orphism nor particularly emphasised within it. He exploits here Sourvinou-Inwood’s argument that the inert condition of the souls in Odyssey 11 is untypical even within the text of Homer; it was not left to Orphism to introduce the possibility of a ‘lively afterlife’. But how ‘lively’ is ‘lively’? There is a considerable gap between the possibility of the dead having some awareness of events happening in the world of the living, and an eager hope of good times to come, ‘the symposium of the blessed’ and eternal drunkenness associated with Musaeus or Orpheus by Plato and Plutarch. Edmonds allows quite a range of atypical views about the soul to be labelled Orphic, on the basis inter alia of the ‘family resemblance’ view of Cratylus 400 B-C noted above, but argues that they show concern about the soul’s status in the here and now, not the afterlife. But one can scarcely divide the two things so sharply.

With chapter 9, ‘Original sin or ancestral crimes: Zagreus and the concern with purification’, we come to the heart of the matter, or rather to what Edmonds strongly denies to be the heart of the matter: the supposed birth of mankind from the remains of the Titans thunderbolted in punishment for the dismemberment of Dionysus. Edmonds argues that the narrative sequence in question occurs only in the neo-Platonist Olympiodoros in the sixth century AD (In Phaed. 1. 3-6), though the individual elements are attested earlier; when Proclus speaks of ‘the mythical punishment of the Titans and the birth of mortals from them’ (In Rempubl. II. 338) he will be speaking rather of a different tradition (discussed on pp. 369-70) that humans emerged from the defeated Titans after the Titanomachy. Edmonds stresses that even Olympiodoros does not make the point that, as descendants of the guilty Titans, we humans are also guilty. Olympiodoros does, by contrast, argue that a portion of divinity is present in us, via that fragment of Dionysus ingested by the guilty Titans, but several scholars have wondered whether that detail may be his own elaboration. Edmonds goes further and argues that the dismemberment-thunderbolting of Titans-anthropogony sequence is itself a fabrication by Olympiodoros. For one not well versed in Olympiodoros this claim is not easy to judge; I merely note that in speaking of a fragment of Dionysus within mankind, Olympiodoros was drawing out an implication of an existing story, not constructing a new narrative sequence in the way postulated by Edmonds for the anthropogony.

If Edmonds is right about Olympiodoros, the whole understanding of Orphism in terms of a primal offence against Dionysus is rendered void and there is no need to debate whether or not earlier texts allude to it. But he tackles such supposed allusions none the less, and shows that several are non-probative. Some remain more obstinate. Edmonds does not counter Dodds’ point (The Greeks and the Irrational, 176 n. 132) that in Laws 701b-c Plato speaks of men reverting to ‘the so-called old Titanic nature’, as if it were originally theirs; Cicero’s view (Leg. 3.2.5 ) that the reference is to the Titanomachy, not to a myth of our descent from the Titans, cannot, pace p. 329, determine what Plato intended. Again, H.J. Rose argued (after Tannery ) that the myth of human descent from the Titans who dismembered Dionysus son of Persephone is implied by Pindar’s reference (fr. 133 Snell) to the blessed lot in the afterlife of those ‘from whom Persephone accepts ποινά for ancient grief’, the grief caused by the murder of her son — a grief otherwise unattested, as Edmonds stresses, but which she can be assumed to have felt. Edmonds argues that the more obvious ancient grief associated with Persephone is that caused by her rape by Plouton (though even in this case the grief that is most stressed is her mother’s). But mortals do not owe Persephone compensation for an offence committed by one god with the connivance of another. Edmonds’ counter is twofold. He argues that Pindar elsewhere uses ποινά and related words not in its original sense of ‘compensation paid by an offender’ but more loosely as reward, payment. In the particular fragment, however, the verb ‘accept’ (δέχεσθαι) strongly suggests a relation between an offender and an offended party, who may or may not accept the proffered ποινά. He also argues that Kore’s myth is comparable to other myths about girls whose path to normal marriage is obstructed by death, and who receive cult as appeasement/compensation from persons not responsible for their sufferings. But we do not know such rites (some of which can probably be differently interpreted) from contemporary sources. The crucial idea of vicarious compensation is created by modern interpretation, not directly attested; the bizarre notion of trans-species compensation (mortals paying for a god’s crime) does not find a parallel.

Another stubborn text is the second line of the Gold Leaf from Pelinna (OF 485-6 Bernabé), which instructs the newly dead person : ‘tell Persephone that Bacchos himself has released you’. For Edmonds the juxtaposition of the two gods here (and in OF 598 T Bernabé, ‘those being initiated to Dionysus and Kore in Orpheus’) is a chance product of Persephone’s role as goddess of the underworld and Dionysus’ as the god who provides ritual release.4 But the line has much more bite if the indirect victim of an ancient crime is being told that the speaker has been set free by the direct victim of that crime himself.

A reconstruction based on three words of Pindar, five of Plato, one line of one Gold Leaf and a text written a millennium or so later is manifestly fragile. But an Orphic notion of a primal fall would not be as isolated as Edmonds implies: Empedocles tells in his own words how his journey through a cycle of incarnations was caused by a crime in his past life. The important parallel figure of Empedocles is strangely absent, except on points of detail, from Edmonds’ account. A further point may strike the reader only when stepping back from Edmonds’ powerful negative arguments: even for him, mankind is born from the guilty Titans, at least in the neo-Platonic reading of Orpheus; all that he has done is to change the crime leading to the punishment and our creation from the crime against Dionysus to that against the gods at large (see above on Proclus In Rempubl. II. 338). Edmonds will counter that the myth in question is one of many designed to explain the origin of mankind, that it is not exclusive to Orphism, and that its primary purpose is aetiological, not soteriological. But he himself quotes the gloomy and clearly orphically-tinged conclusions drawn from it by a pessimist imagined by Dio Chrysostom (Or. 30.10-11): whatever its origin, it invited re-interpretation in such terms.

Suppose one follows Edmonds in removing mankind’s descent from the slayers of Dionysus from our picture of Orphism: what then? We are still left with the extraordinary wild Orphic variants on theogonic myth to try to understand; in particular, the point of the Titans’ crime against the baby Dionysus has become obscure. We are still left with Orphic doctrines of the soul that imply a drastic rejection of accepted Greek views about life in the body. There is still an association with vegetarianism. There is still a descent from Titans which may have left us polluted. There are still ‘so-called Orphic and Bacchic’ burial rites that are seen by Herodotus (2. 81) as being in fact ‘Pythagorean and Egyptian’, i.e. outside Greek norms; an inscription from Cumae which reserves burial in a particular plot to βεβαχχευμένοι (cited by Edmonds on p. 224) confirms, remarkably, that religious practice could shape the individual in a way that remained practically relevant after the rite was over. Orphism surely is exceptional within Greek religion — or perhaps one should rather say ‘early Orphism’, with M.P. Nilsson. The link between books and rites so marked in the early testimonia fades away in the hellenistic period, and Orphism virtually disappears as a distinct and dynamic force in lived religion , until it re-emerges in late antiquity in a quite new form.

As will have become clear, I cling — habit or obstinacy perhaps — to several aspects of a pre-Edmonds vision of Orphism. But let me stress that this is a lucid, powerful and thoroughly instructive work, a major contribution.


1.   Plato’s expression οἱ ἀμφὶ Ὀρφέα probably means no more than this (cf. S.L. Radt, ZPE 38, 1980, 47-58).
2.   He accepts the author as Orphic, partly on the basis of his broad ‘family resemblance’ definition of the phenomenon: ‘It is his claims to special knowledge about purification, sacrifice, divination and other ritual matters, as well as his attribution of religious authority to Orpheus, that mark the Derveni author as Orphic’ (137).
3.   He accepts (174-5) that P. Berol. 13044 attests an Orphic hymn to Demeter. But the verses quoted in the papyrus all derive from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter; Orphic elements only intrude in the prose commentary. This is rather a case of appropriation to the name of Orpheus of a work of different origin.
4.   Edmonds seems to me to underplay the specific connection between Orphika and Bakchika. Though it is true that Orpheus is sometimes said to have founded rites of Demeter, we never find a textual juxtaposition comparable to Herodotus’ ‘Orphic and Bacchic’ (2.81).

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