Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
33. The Delian Religion 35. Philosophy as a Way of Life

From Chapter II., Science and Religion

34. Orphicism
It was not, however, in its Delian form that the northern religion had most influence. In Thrace it had attached itself to the wild worship of Dionysos, and was associated with the name of Orpheus. In this religion the new beliefs were mainly based on the phenomenon of "ecstasy" (ἔκστασις, "stepping out"). It was supposed that it was only when "out of the body" that the soul revealed its true nature. It was not merely a feeble double of the self, as in Homer, but a fallen god, which might be restored to its high estate by a system of "purifications" (καθαρμοί) and sacraments (ὄργια). In this form, the new religion made an immediate appeal to all sorts and conditions of men who could not find satisfaction in the worship of the secularised anthropomorphic gods of the poets and the state religions.

The Orphic religion had two features which were new in Greece. It looked to a written revelation as the source of religious authority, and its adherents were organised in communities, based, not on any real or supposed tie of blood, but on voluntary adhesion and initiation. Most of the Orphic literature that has come down to us is of late date and uncertain origin, but the thin gold plates, with Orphic verses inscribed on them, discovered at Thourioi and Petelia take us back to a time when Orphicism was still a living creed.8 From them we learn that it had some striking resemblances to the beliefs prevalent in India about the same time, though it is really impossible to assume any Indian influence in Greece at this date.9 In any case, the main purpose of the Orphic observances and rites was to release the soul from the "wheel of birth," that is, from reincarnation in animal or vegetable forms. The soul so released became once more a god and enjoyed everlasting bliss.

Burnet's Notes


8. For these gold plates, see the Appendix to Miss Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, where the texts are discussed and translated by Professor Gilbert Murray.

9. The earliest attested case of a Greek coming under Indian influence is that of Pyrrho of Elis (see my article "Scepticism" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics). I venture to suggest that the religious ideas referred to may have reached India from the same northern source as they reached Greece, a source which we may vaguely call "Scythian." If, as Caesar tells us (B.G. vi. 14, 5), the Gallic Druids taught the doctrine of transmigration, this suggestion is strongly confirmed. The theories of L. von Schroeder (Pythagoras und die Inder, 1884) are based on a mistaken view of Pythagoreanism, and appear also to involve chronological impossibilities. See A. Berriedale Keith, " Pythagoras and the Doctrine of Transmigration" (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1909, pp. 569 sqq.).

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