Baseline Research - From Orphism to Gnosticism
- I stumbled across this article which asserts a number
of ideas and historical developments in the emergence
I'll post the first portion of it.
Naturally, I can't swear to its accuracy, but it
presents a level of detail, and an interest in even-handedness
that is impressive.
Using this article as a "baseline", it will be much easier
to "refute and refine" a working scenario.
Naturally, I'll provide the URL as well, for those
who want to read the whole article:
FROM ORPHISM TO GNOSTICISM
The Orphic Mysteries separated from the Dionysian at around the 6th
cent BC, according to most scholars, though some think the schism
occurred in the previous century, which is supported by our own
researches. Prior to this it was probably an evolving school within
the Dionysian Mysteries.
Orphism was a rationally speculative form of Dionysianism favoured by
philosophers. It was also male dominated, reacting against the alleged
feminist 'bias' of traditional Dionysianism.
Its basic tenets were that the material world was illusory and 'evil',
behind which existed a real world of spirit from which we ultimately
originated (their mythic representation of which being the ineffable
Orphic God, Phanes (son of Chaos), dually manifest to us as Dionysos
and Apollo). Their mystical task was thus one of transcendence and
return to their otherworldly origins.
Where these ideas came from is uncertain. Originally the Mysteries
had no dogma, it being part of the initiatory process to interpret
the rites, along with your personal experiences in them, as freely as
possible. Thus like modern Freemasonry (itself a relic of Orphism),
the Dionysian Mysteries probably contained many inclinations and
schools of thought (G.R.S Mead writes of other obscure sects, two of
which he calls the Thiasi and the Orgeones, which emerged amongst the
Most Dionysian initiates interpreted their mythos in a very
traditional way, following an ancient worldview inherited from the
Bronze Age. According to this view Primal Nature was 'chaotic',
paradoxical and mysterious, out of which arose a coherent world that
was largely a conceptual creation - though not necessarily ours (of
course this is a modern interpretation, but for us their theology can
best be understood in this way).
The key point being that for them there was one Cosmos, rather than
the "Heaven & Earth" duality of the Orphics, and it was a pantheistic
one. Thus their basic ideas were the same as the Orphics, but there
was no denigration of, and separation from, the material world and
the body. Their esoteric tasks involved working with this ineffable
spiritual reality behind the everyday world - the source of life - as
magicians and healers, rather than transcendence, in the mystical
The Orphic 'heresy' seems to have arisen from this in a number of
stages. Firstly, from what Joseph Campbell called the Great
Reversal, a psychological shift occurring in the late Bronze Age, a
period of catastrophe, war and famine (associated in the Aegean with
the collapse of Minoan Civilisation, and subsequent mutual
destruction of Troy and Mycenae, between 1400 and 1150 BC. See the
article 'Enclosure and Catastrophe' for a likely cause of these
After two centuries of such suffering earthly existence was seen no
longer seen as such a positive place and a tradition of lament arose.
For many this would be a sobering experience- finding later
expression in Greek Tragedy - but did not cut them off from life. For
others however the world became very dark and a negative tradition of
transcendence emerged. The embodied world became something apart from
our original existence, rather than a partial manifestation of it.
Many myths thus became inward looking, unworldly and mystical rather
than connected to a positive, productive reality. Fortunately this
trend did not gain much ground in the Aegean, though certain mystical
sects did begin to emerge there (particularly, it appears, amongst
fallen aristocracies, who lost most in this period).
The Orient however was initially far more effected by the Great
Reversal and here various influential schools of Mysticism gradually
emerged. The Ancient Greeks wrote of several travelling mystics from
India (as far as we can tell these were mostly Jains, with possibly
some 'proto-Buddhist' Nastika, and perhaps a few ascetic Shivaics)
who allegedly made Greek converts. Oriental material was probably
also received 'second hand' via eclectic sources in Asia Minor. A
mystical melting pot probably developed at this stage. Oriental
concepts in some of the developing Greek mystical sects confirm this.
The Orphic school represents the influence of such Greek Mysticism on
the Dionysian Mysteries. It probably emerged within the seed bed of
the rational and moralistic cult of Dionysos Athenaios which greatly
influenced Orphics. An ethico-metaphysical doctrine of Orphism
gradually evolved, and eventually separated from the 'lower'
Dionysian Mysteries, becoming the centre of Greek Mysticism. Orphics
considering themselves higher initiates of Dionysos (and
The first Orphic was traditionally Orpheus (hence their name), the
poet-enchanter son of Oeagrus, a King of Thrace [Thrace is
north of Macedonia and/or parts of it].
Orpheus appears to be an initiatory name taken from a heroic hunter
in Thracian myth (considered a form of Dionysos). Though it is not
known if the historical figure really existed or was just a myth of
origin. Orpheus is mentioned in some older Dionysian texts and does
not seem to have been exclusively Orphic. But later these fabled
personas would become merged in Orphic mythology.
The poems and writings attributed to Orpheus (though having more than
one author according to experts) became the sacred texts of Orphism.
It is curious that the founder of a mystical movement would come from
the most primitively pagan of all places in the Aegean, perhaps a
case of extremes mutating to their opposites? (another theory points
to the fact that the Thracians practice a form of Northern Shamanism,
with its very ascetic initiation procedures, perhaps sowing the seeds
for later Orphism.) Orpheus, whether real or mythic, was said to have
been the founder of the alphabet, greatest poet - musician - artist,
and father of all the Mysteries, in general combining features of
Hermes and Dionysos. Later he was said to be the son (and high
priest) of Apollo.
Less ostentatiously, he was the revealer of the 'truths'
of the Mysteries, which he recorded on tablets of stone at Mount
Haimos. Thus Orpheus fixed what before was free.
[VEGETARIAN - "Orpheotelestai"]
Early Orphism tended to have few physical schools (perhaps only one)
and to be represented by individual travelling initiators,
Orpheotelestai, with no fixed ties to any place or community. They
rejected animal sacrifices and were vegetarian, shunning any contact
with flesh or blood. To 'lower people' they acted as healers, but
tended to be aloof from them. Later Orphic religious communities
began to emerge, with their ranks of Musaei, or teaching initiates.
It's Mysteries were not overtly different from the orthodox Dionysian
Mysteries. It retained it's method of initiation and tradition of
orgiasm, but their practical purpose became one of transcendence, as
in Buddhist Tantra.
[MINOAN - I.E. CRETAN]
In the once secret Orphic version of the Dionysian Myth, mankind was
seen as arising from the charred fragments of the Titans (a title of
the Minoan Kings, linked to the old gods) who were struck down by the
patriarchal Zeus for their rebellion, in particular their murderous
dismemberment and cannibalization of his son (or aspect) Dionysos
Zagreus. These fragments contained both Titanic (material and
bestial) and Dionysian (spiritual and ensouled) essence. The Titans
thus replaced the Maenads as the slayers of Dionysos (though they
would be preserved as the ultimate killers of Orpheus). Thus
ambiguous female 'forces of nature' were replaced by 'evil',
["THE BODY, A TOMB" - NOT THE SAME AS
GNOSTICISM, BUT COMMON TO MOST GNOSTIC SCHOOLS]
The Orphic mission was to free the constantly reincarnating soul from
the 'wheel of rebirth', and use the teachings of Orpheus to separate
the Dionysian spirit from gross matter reuniting the fragments of
Dionysos in a heavenly paradise. Their motto being Soma Sema, "the
body, a tomb".
Both Minoan and Thracian traditions lurked behind this mythos, as
well as Oriental concepts. It would appear that whoever wrote it
blamed the Bronze Age chaos on Thracian and Minoan a rulers (the
incarnations of their gods, the Titans) and their 'degenerate' Pagan
practises. But as only the aristocracy and the conformist classes of
the time fully accepted the identity of the their rulers and the
gods, this would identify the 'heresy' as a predominantly upper class
one within Dionysianism, rather than a grass roots one. Though it
shows an ethical rebelliousness which previously did not exist in the
The specific Orphic Myth however was that of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Here Orpheus's bride, following a fatal dalliance with a thinly
disguised Lord of the Animals, descends into the underworld. Orpheus
(as the hunter son of Apollo and Urania) follows in an attempt to
rescue her. He escapes himself but does not succeed in his quest.
Afterwards he becomes an ascetic rejecting all women and is finally
torn apart by the Maenads. This is obviously a reworking of a pagan
fertility myth, but Orphics interpreted the underworld as the
material one and the world above it as heaven. Some have seen
references to an, at best, homoerotic or, at worst, a puritanical
misogynistic aspect of Orphism in this myth.
The Orphics also developed a complex cosmology. Recorded in their
Orphic Theogony and Argonautics. Here the cosmos was originally non
material void. A divine power, the eggborn Eros (identified with
Dionysos Phanes, God of Light), a golden winged hermaphrodite with
four heads (Human, Bull, Serpent and Ram), emerged spontaneously from
the void and began to create our universe via an act of will and
imagination. At some stage, after various dualistic and triadic
generations involved in this creation, an imbalance occurred from
which emerged Strife. Following which the cosmos became imperfect and
our everyday world emerged from it.
Many later details were added involving complex hierarchies and
aspects similar to those found in the Qabbalah (See Mead's Orphism
for details). Though ultimately Dionysos Phanes united everything as
one within his being. Much of this complexity today seem excessive
and unnecessary, and was probably a ploy for creating an elite class
of theological experts within Orphism.
A significant change occurs to the Orphic Mysteries in the early 6th
Century. Here the ruler of Athens, Hipparchos, commissions a
committee to collate and redact all the works of Orpheus, creating an
official canon. The task is taken so seriously that when one member's
contribution displeases Hipparchos he has him permanently banished
from Athens. From then on Orphism is not only standardized but
politically correct, and patronized by the Athenian establishment.
The Orphic works of this period reveal that it had developed a strong
philosophical base and collected the most advanced scientific belief
of the time. Apollo is emphasized more than in orthodox Dionysianism
of the period, and there is talk of an orderly cosmos and
scientifically discoverable 'Laws of Nature'. Their astronomy is the
most advanced of its period, describing a spherical, spinning earth
within a heliocentric solar system, with records going back to
1000BC. However they were not merely narrow scientific
materialists and sought to combine science with art and the spiritual.
Thus their texts were written in a literary style and the Law of
Nature was described as the manifestation of Eros, the power of
creation, attraction and harmony. They also matched their
astronomical skills with a great knowledge of astrology. Zodiacal
Astrology in the form we know it today is largely an Orphic
invention. Stars were, for them, spiritual essences entering the
world, each star being a ray of Dionysos Phanes, the Being of
Light, and the ultimate source and destiny of a reincarnating soul.
[REFORMS OF PYTHAGORAS]
This classic, or Orphean, Orphism was soon modified by the reforms of
Pythagoras in the late 6th cent. Pythagoras, an Orphic initiate,
turned his Orphism into a form of Logical Mysticism, involving the
Mysteries of the Lyre of Orpheus. Here the Orphic theories of Cosmic
Law, Harmony and Sympathy were given centre stage and greatly
developed. The Apollonian side of Orphism gained the ascendant and
Dionysos begins to mutate into a very different form. This movement
also saw a moderation in ecstatic techniques and a rise in discipline
and ascetic practices. Pythagoreanism proper remained a fringe sect
of Orphism, and was later suppressed, but it would greatly influence
the movement as a whole and the traditional Orpheans would
soon become the 'ancients' of the tradition.
Judging from the life of Empedocles, an Orphic Philosopher of this
period, they may also have held concepts similar to that of the
Tantric Bodhisattva (conscious incarnation of the illuminated).
Empedocles declared himself to have passed through successive
incarnations, from fish to man, and to now be a living god. He taught
a rationalised form of Orphism involving cyclic time. To prove his
immortality he throw himself into Mount Etna, alas never to be seen
The final stage of Orphism was the Platonic. While Plato wasn't an
Orphic or Pythagorean, he certainly admired them and developed many
of their ideas (he was also influenced via Socrates, by the older
Minoan mysteries of Diotima). In the 4th cent BC an elite school of
Orphics adopted Platonic ideals and practised both moderate hedonic
techniques and severe ascetic ones. These would become
the 'Establishment' of late Orphism.
By this time Dionysianism and Orphism in their most extreme Forms were
diametrically opposed. The former being earthily spiritual,
passionate and libertarian, the latter, unworldly mystical, logical
and paternally authoritarian. But then Orphism was also intelligent,
ethical and progressive, where as more ancient forms of Dionysianism
were instinctive, amoral and sometimes regressive. Fortunately
exchanges between the two, rooted in the same soil, would continue
and the more open schools in both camps would exchange some of their
more positive attributes.
In particular what little is known about the metaphysics of the late
Dionysian cult appears to have owed much to Orphism, but without
adopting its negative mysticism. Records of this phase, dating from
about the 2nd Cent BC, reveal an eclectic cult of universalist
inclinations (traditionally Dionysians, unlike Orphics, had been very
regional and local culture orientated). In particular two Dionysoi
were portrayed, an old and a young, often in the same scene, one of
whom was identified with a Hellenized Sabazius.
Towards the end of the Millennium the Mystery cults became the sport
of the aristocracy and many Thiasoi became corrupt. The Dionysian
Mysteries in particular may have lost much of its plebeian membership
following the crushing of the Sparticans. Even the purist schools of
Orphism were said to have gone into decline.
This was one of the factors that led to the rise of the modern
Judeo-Christian current, and the other purist religions of this
period, as people reacted against 'degenerate' paganism, particular
as found within the Roman Empire. Many of these trends took an
earlier Orphism as their model.
Orphism would be the last of the 'Pagan' Mysteries to survive in the
West (until the late 5th cent AD, at least), along with Mithracism,
Iseanism, Serapeanism and other mystery cults. In an age of hypocrisy
and "holiness" Classical Dionysianism would gradually die out (in all
but the most remote locations), or be driven underground, along with
other earthier Paganism.
The last historical evidence of the cult of Dionysos dates to the
early 5th Cent AD (in the writings of Nonnos). However adaptive
Dionysian schools appear to have survived for a little longer within
the Orphean wing of Orphism. Thus making Orphism an unwitting vessel
of Dionysian survival. This can be seen in the preservation of
allegedly Orphic texts which sound strangely 'primitive' and quite
non-Orphic. Dionysians could pay lip service to Orphic ideas, alien
to their inclinations, in order to survive as part of an organised
network, just as later Pagans would do the same in more liberal
Christian Churches (from the Celtic to the Latin American).
[text truncated here - rapid movement into more recent periods...]