BMCR 2008.07.54

Tradición órfica y cristianismo antiguo. Colección Estructuras y Procesos. Serie Religión

, Tradición órfica y cristianismo antiguo. Estructuras y procesos. Serie Religión. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2007. 413 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9788481649154. €25.00 (pb).

Since the 19th century, the phenomenon of Orphism has been one of the most intensively investigated topics in Greek religion. At the core of its controversies has been the main question whether Orphism constituted a religion proper (or perhaps one according to modern sensitivities), i.e., a mode of worship with a stable, coherent foundation of beliefs, practices, rites, myths, and expectations. Coping with this inquiry has engendered so many conceptual shifts and debates, spanning nearly two centuries, as to defy recounting. The study of Orphism has had proponents, who were tempted to see traces of Orphic wisdom everywhere from Herodotus to Paul, skeptics, who denied the existence of any Orphic cult, let alone religion, and every position between.1 At the crux has been the predicament (aptly noted by Herrero, henceforth ‘H’) that elaborated reference to Orphic activity does not occur until well into the late Hellenistic period, and, furthermore, when a resurgence of interest in Orphism occurs in the later Roman Empire, “true Orphism” is obfuscated by writers with “hidden Christian or anti-Christian motivations” leading to a “tangled web of controversies.”2 Into this fray jumps H with this work, a revision of his doctoral thesis. H is a student of the distinguished Spanish scholar Alberto Bernabé, who recently edited the Orphicorum Fragmenta, itself a significant contribution to the study of Orphism.3

H’s work admirably continues this tradition and is one of the more ambitious of recent works on Orphism. Using dense philological analysis, H intends to sift through troublesome strands of the aforementioned “Christian” motivations in testimonia found in the “Imperial” period (after the 2nd century CE) in order to ascertain a semblance of the phenomenon of the “Orphism” on which ancient commentators were so ready to elaborate. Likewise, H also commendably clarifies the avenues of reception that led to positive appraisals of Orphism (even approaching, in cases, religious hybridization and appropriation) by Christian and Pagan authors alike. His ultimate goal, although his results cannot escape a fundamental controversiality, is to explain Orphism’s reception and use by Christian authors, so also judging the extent to which one can rely on Christian testimony. He admits that so ambitious an endeavor will encounter skepticism on many of its main points. He does apply sound methodology, even innovative at times, in utilizing linguistics and anthropology to buttress his arguments. His stance toward Orphism is neither hyper-skeptical nor unduly inclusive, but balances itself through reliance on the philological evidence. Such a textual reliance is a strong asset, since Orphism has been prey to rampant speculation and ideological bias. The Orphic specialist may find ample material for contestation (especially regarding the Derveni Papyrus and “Oriental” influences); this work, although armed with formidable introduction, glossary, and analytical and citation indexes, is certainly not for the uninitiated. However, for those already immersed in the essentials of Orphism or, alternatively, focused on the early Christian reaction to paganism, H’s work is a worthy, nearly essential, read, and will no doubt provoke much commentary.

The book is divided into six chapters, each much subdivided, so that the progression of thought is straightforward and accessible. The Prologue establishes methodological parameters. H announces outright that his study is purely philological, although at times prepared to delve into disciplines related to history, such as anthropology or linguistics. In an effort to open the readership to non-specialists, Greek text has been limited to the footnotes, which are at times rather dense.4 While it is not a fatal distraction, as one nears the end of the book, unfortunately, the proportion of Greek and Latin not translated increases. The true beginning is an Introduction (Chapter I). Here H dispenses with anticipation and announces his rejection of the term “Orphics”, and furthermore rejects Orphism as a coherent system, equipped with a mechanism for establishing a stable canon.5 Instead H views Orphism as “the theological elaboration of mythic and ritual elements and [a theological elaboration] of the same experience of Greek mysteries” (p. 29). His definition of Orphism is conditioned by an aversion to the preponderance of “-isms” that populate cultural studies. Orphism is rather a nebulous and fluid constellation of beliefs that frequently intersect and overlap with the religiosity of the Pythagorean, Eleusinian, and Dionysiac mysteries; there can be no autonomous community (“Orphics”) wholly distinct from them. Vigorous argument discussing the coloration of terms in scholarship such as “pagan”, whose connotation is far from neutral, and the thrust of the following chapters descend directly from the author’s initial claims.

Chapter II, “Presencia y Valor del Orfismo en Época Imperial,” deals with the non-Christian literary tradition on Orphism, and is divided into self-identified “Orphic Literature” and an investigation of the traces of Orphic ritual in direct and indirect testimonies. Here H somewhat discursively probes the hostile reception of the Dionysian / Bacchic mysteries among the Roman elite, stressing issues of religious identity and downplaying political factors.6 There is also less focus on Orphic texts from the classical period (deferring to the scholarship of M.L. West and A. Bernabé), and greater attention placed on the transmission of tradition up to and past the Hellenistic age, with particular emphasis on the Orphic Rhapsodies, because of their importance for the Neoplatonists.

Chapter III, “Espacios de Encuentro entre Orfismo y Cristianismo,” examines literary avenues of contact between Orphism and Christianity outside the “confessional” literature of either ideological camp. This includes the philosophic tradition, theological literature (e.g. oracles such as the Sibylline), Gnosticism, and Judaism. Finally, the chapter treats assimilation and syncretism between Orphism and other similar religious movements, above all in the iconography of Christianity as exemplified by Orpheus-Christ on the Berlin seal ( Orphica Fragmenta #679). While this important topic is revisited more fully in Chapter V, H envisages an assimilation of characteristics rather than a fusion of concrete elements, thus echoing other recent scholarship (some so new it could not reach his bibliography).7

Chapter IV, “La Tradición Órfica en la Literatura Apologética” is a sustained, important contribution, containing the main philological analysis of the apologetic texts that mention Orphism. H isolates for examination the relevant Christian and Pagan apologetic writing, with attention to the figure of Orpheus in their eyes, and their vision of Orphic mysteries. In a delineation of Christian apologists mentioning Orphism meaningfully, tracing the avenues for their “information” about Orphism is central. H stresses repeatedly that this knowledge did not derive from first hand experiences ( n.b. Clement of Alexandria), but rather through literary awareness; above all they had read the Rhapsodies and the Testament of Orpheus (as near parallel concordances of phrases describing Orphic rites demonstrate). Particularly useful is the application of two “reception genealogies” showing the paths for the apologists’ understanding of Orphism (note the schemata on pp. 146, 165, 170). An area of contention may become H’s lack of discussion about the non-Greek (i.e. Persian) influences in the Derveni Papyrus.8 In this case, it would have been preferable for H to follow his approach elsewhere, as when he illuminates non-Greek aspects of Orpheus (viz. his Thracian heritage) in order to draw attention to the ambiguously metamorphosing nature afforded by such diverse influences.

Lengthy Chapter V, “Estrategias Cristianas Ante el Orfismo” is dedicated to interpreting the tactics utilized by Christian apologists to ‘combat’ their pagan opponents. Orphism receives the lion’s share of attention, but H helpfully explores the overarching mission of the genre of apology. The frequent appearance of Orphism in Christian apologetic texts is owed, to some considerable degree, to the fact that its myths were so scandalous to Christian apologists that they were an all too easy target for Christian moralizing. Subsequently, H persuasively draws on “cognitive semantics” to understand the metaphoric appropriation of the vocabulary of Orphic-like mystery by certain Christians (as noted in Celsus). Concomitantly, the ascending esteem for Orphism, from the Roman period onward, is explained by the convergence of a search, more or less Neoplatonic, for a “pagan standard” around which non-Christians could rally with a quest by Christian spokesmen to identify a united pagan religiosity against which they could attack. One needs caution here, as many Christian authors, such as Augustine (whom H naturally often cites), frequently used the multiplicity of “pagan” cults and beliefs to argumentative advantage. This chapter, however, is significant beyond Orphism and provides excellent insights into Christian apologetic.

The last chapter (VI) is “El Orphismo a la Luz de los Textos Cristianos”, which attempts to tease out meaningful evidence about Orphism from the apologetic writers (notwithstanding their distortions). H systematically moves through various categories (e.g. “Gods and the Cosmos”, “Theo- and Cosmogony”, “The Creating Voice”, “Cosmology”, “Transcendence and Immanence”) to outline what Christian material can tell us. Perhaps his finest achievement is a precise discussion of the supposed correlations between Christianity and mystery religions such as Orphism. What he stresses, as in Chapter III, is the absence of meaningful correspondence between topically similar elements. So, for example, the sacrifices of Jesus and of Dionysus (broadly associated with Orphism) resemble each other only in category; the sacrifice of Jesus was voluntary and allowed for the remission of the sins of man, while that of Dionysus, apart from exegetical literature, clearly did not. This kind of penetrating analysis about supposed Christian-Orphic convergence is a chief service of this work. Is H, however, perhaps a trifle too surprised at the degree of mutual influence by Orphics and Christians, owing to the lucidity of the pertinent texts? While members of the educated elite such as Celsus and Eusebius would have possessed the ability to discriminate fine strands of theology, the lay-believer, as emphasized by anthropologists and social historians alike, is often far less acquainted with the particulars of his or her own belief-system.9 At the end of this chapter, H re-emphasizes the lack of systematic cohesion in Orphism, as well as that its later existence is sustained through solely literary routes.

In short, H’s work is an excellent piece of scholarship, with few typographical errors, and a robust, but by no means exhaustive, bibliography on Orphism. Its broad and yet still deep discussion on as complex and variegated a topic as Christianity and Orphism will be eagerly read by those who have interest in ancient Greek religion.


1. The skeptical approach being typified by U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Der Glaube der Hellenen I-II (Berlin 1931-2). For complete acceptance see n. 4.

2. The citations derive from W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, MA 1985) 296. For Herrero’s acknowledgment of this situation, see p. 41 (and passim).

3. Bernabé’s work has been favorably reviewed (albeit with serious theoretical reservations) in 2004 in BMCR 2004.12.29 by Radcliffe Edmonds, being viewed as a “monumental work of scholarship.” To gauge Bernabé’s other important contributions to Orphic scholarship, note the fourteen items in H.’s bibliography. Unsurprisingly, Bernabé’s intellectual imprint on this work is marked in the many concordant opinions between himself and H.

4. While it is not a fatal distraction, as one nears the end of the book, unfortunately, the proportion of Greek and Latin not translated increases.

5. Not an extreme position prima facie until one compares a tradition of eager acceptance of “religious” Orphism, as, e.g., in J.R. Watmough, Orphism, Cambridge: CUP, 1934.

6. Cf. S.A. Takács, “Politics and Religion in the Bacchanalian Affair of 186 B.C.E.”, HSCP 100 (2000) 301-10.

7. F. Graf, & S.I. Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife, New York: Routledge, 2007, 65: “…when religions are understood as systems, the Bacchic mysteries are, if anything, only a sub-system [of Christianity].”

8. Highlighted by J.R. Russell, “The Magi in the Derveni Papyrus,” Nâme-ye Irân Bâstân 1 (2001) 49-59.

9. See esp. “The division of doxastic labor” in D.C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, New York: Penguin, 2006, 217-222.