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Direttore responsabile: Fabrizio Serra.

Autorizzazione del Tribunale di Pisa n. 36 del 30/10/2007.

issn 2035-5572
issn elettronico 2035-6455
Toward a post-secular Europe.
Regulating Religious Diversity in the Public Educational Space
Flavio Pajer, Introduzione 11

Section i
Flavio Pajer, L’istruzione religiosa pubblica in un’Europa multireligiosa. Le politiche
educative del cattolicesimo romano 23
Peter Schreiner, A Protestant Perspective on Religious Diversity in Education in Europe 39
Peter Antes, Integration of Islam in Schools 49
Amos Luzzatto, Il ‘posto degli Ebrei’ nella costruzione dell’Europa 59
James Barnett, Some Animals are more Equal than Others. Be Wise as an Owl and ‘fox-
ed’ by Religion 63

Section ii
Maurice Sachot, Le concept de laïcité et ses implications pour l’enseignement du fait
religieux 81
Marco Ventura, An Inclusive Approach to Religion in Public Education. The Legal
Dimension 89
Mariachiara Giorda, Teaching and Learning about Religions in School : a Subject for

Europe 101
Giovanni Filoramo, Conclusioni 119

Ezio Albrile, Mangiare dio. Prospettive dalla tarda antichità 125
Guy G. Stroumsa, The Afterlife of Orphism. Jewish, Gnostic and Christian Perspecti-
ves 139
Francesco Massa, The Meeting between Dionysus and the Christians in the Histo-
riographical Debate of the xix and xx Centuries 159
Recapito dei collaboratori del presente fascicolo 183
Norme redazionali della casa editrice 185


Gu y G. Stroumsa

T he very existence of ‘Orphic’ communities has been questioned in the last gen-
erations, and some scholars now prefer to speak only of Orphic texts. 1 This is the
view, for instance, of Martin West. 2 For some, Orphism, with or without quotation

marks, is an illegitimate brain child, born of the assumption that the existence of texts
under the name of Orpheus must have entailed that of communities of devotees. As if,
for instance, the Enochic pseudepigraphical books were claimed to prove the existence
of Enochic communities. This negationist trend seems to have lost some steam in re-
cent years. 3 And yet, even if Orphism were, in the words of Albert Henrichs, « hardly

more than a scholar’s dream », one must acknowledge this dream to have been a very

potent one, a dream which has for more than a century – since the word’s first appear-
ance, in 1884 and Rohde’s Psyche, published in 1893, 4 succeeded in lifting spirits and en-

couraging hypotheses about its nature, origins and influence.

Among the many scholars who fell under the spell of Orphism (I will make no
attempt of my own to define this term), no one, it seems, went as far as Salomon
Reinach, who chose to call his general introduction to the religious history of hu-
mankind, published in 1909, simply, Orpheus. According to his ‘Pan-Orphic’ concep-
tion, « Orphism did not have common points only with Judaism and Christianity, but

also with more distant religions, such as Buddhism, and even with the quite primitive
beliefs of contemporary savages. When one looks close, one finds a bit of Orphism

1  This epistemic skepticism starts, at the latest, with Ulrich von Wilamowitz Moellendorff ’s Der Glaube der
Hellenen, Berlin, Weidmann, 1931-1932 = 32). For a crisp summary of the various points questioned, see Eric
Robertson Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1951, pp. 147-149. This
paper was read in Columbus, Ohio, on April 28, 2006, as the keynote lecture of Ritual Texts for the Afterlife : a Gold  

Tablets Conference (Ohio State University, April 28-30, 2006). I should like to thank Fritz Graf for having invited me
to open the conference (an invitation that only an overdose of Professorial hybris made me accept). Thanks are
due to Arieh Finkelberg and David Jordan for various suggestions during the preparation of this article, as well
as to Robert Parker for his judicious and incisive remarks on its penultimate version. The texts of the lamellae are
now conveniently published, translated and discussed in Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnson, Ritual Texts for the
Afterlife : Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, London-New York, Routledge, 2007. See also Radcliffe G. Edmonds,

iii (ed.), The ‘Orphic’ Gold Tablets and Greek Religion : further along the Path, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge Uni-

versity Press, 2011. 2  Martin West, The Orphic Poems, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1983, p. 2.
3  For Alberto Bernabé, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristobal, Instrucciones para el más allá : Las laminillas  

órficas de oro, Madrid, Ediciones clásicas, 2001, p. 15, there is no remaining doubt that we can now speak of Orphic
groups and initiates, followers of the Orphic religious movement which produced Orphic literature, between the
sixth and the fourth centuries b.c.e. For these authors, the gold lamellae, too can rightly be called Orphic (231-
232). See also Alberto Bernabé, La toile de Pénélope : a-t-il existé un mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les titans ?, « Revue

de l’Histoire des Religions », 219, 2002, pp. 401-433, esp. 422 : it is only the Orphic myth which gives a coherent

meaning to the gold lamellae. The whole issue, edited by Philippe Borgeaud, Claude Calame and André Hurst, is
devoted to L’orphisme et ses écritures, nouvelles recherches.
4  See Fritz Graf, The Luminous Path to Paradise, forthcoming.
140 guy g. stroumsa
in all religions… ». 1 In times of Orphic fashion, and even of Orphic fever, the main

dissenting voice was probably that of Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, for whom Orphism

had only been a marginal movement whose shadow did not overcast the great Hel-
lenic light. Wilamowitz’s attitude is telling : what was so seducing in Orphism was

precisely its marginality within the Hellenic mainstream, and the radical character of
its beliefs and ethos, which predated by half a millenium the Christian kerygma. Some
could, then, conceive Orphism to have been a praeparatio evangelica, announcing Bibli-
cal monotheism, while others saw in Orphism a respectable Hellenic counterpart to
The seductive power of the Greek mysteries in general, and of Orphism in particu-
lar, appears to have somewhat subsided after the Second World War. The contempo-
rary distrust of the sweeping generalizations of earlier times, which were often based
upon (either explicitly or implicitly) teleological – and sometimes theological – views
of religious history, has encouraged a suspicion of cross-cultural influences and a pref-
erence for analogy over genealogy. 2  

Christianity has now lost much of its traditional appeal as well as of the antagonism
that it generated in previous generations. The fight for or against the distinctive role
of Christianity in contemporary Western European societies or its unique status in the
history of religious phenomena now belongs to the past. A new generation of scholars
has given up interest in Christian parallels to Orphic doctrines, in order to focus upon
the Orphic texts themselves, studied in their cultural and historical context. This trend
ad fontes, and away from the Nachleben of Orphism, has been strongly supported by a
succession of important discoveries from quite different places, such as some new gold
tablets, bone inscriptions, and, last not least, the Derveni papyrus. 3  

Despite the highly limited character of the evidence, the new finds have permit-
ted to sharpen significantly our perception of things. The closeness of some Orphic,
Bacchic and Pythagorean rituals, had already been noted by Herodotus (ii, 81). Other
testimonies suggest various types of connections between Pythagoreans and the Or-
phic writings. Ion of Chios, for instance, suggests that Pythagoras ascribed some of his
own poetry to Orpheus. 4 Such ancient claims have been basically accepted and their

significance broadened by modern scholarship. Jan Bremmer, for instance, can define
Orphism as the product of Pythagorean influence on the Bacchic mysteries, during the
first quarter of the fifth century. Robert Parker, on his side, notes the similar ‘Puritan’
attitudes of both Pythagoreans and Orphics, adding that while the former developed a
coenobitic life, the latter remained wanderers (Walter Burkert has called them « itiner-  

ant charismatics »). 5 In any case, there seems to be wide agreement on the fact that the

1  Salomon Reinach, Orpheus, histoire générale des religions, Paris, Librairie d’éducation nationale, 1933, viii.
The first edition was published in 1909. Reinach’s studies on Orphic themes (as well as on many other topics of
the history of religions) are conveniently reprinted in Salomon Reinach, Cultes, mythes et religions, Paris, Robert
Laffont, 2000.
2  Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine : On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiq-

uity, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 112-113.

3  On the relationship between the Derveni papyrus and the gold plates, see in particular Gabor Betegh, The
Derveni Papyrus : Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 325-348.

4  See for instance Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, London, New York, Routledge, 2002, p.
15 ; Christoph Riedweg, Pythagoras : His Life, Teaching, and Influence, Ithaca, London, Cornell University Press,

2005, p. 18.
5  Robert Parker, Early Orphism, in Anton Powell (ed.), The Greek World, London, Routledge, 1995, ;Walter

Burkert, Bacchic Teletai in the Hellenistic Age, in Thomas Carpenter, Christopher Faraone (eds.), Masks of Diony-
the afterlife of orphism 141
Orphic beliefs reflected a radical movement of opposition to the civic values of Greek
life in the polis.
The fourth element in Herodotus’s famous equation, Egyptian religious traditions,
which he identified with Orphic, Pythagorean and Bacchic attitudes, is now recognized
by some as providing a possible origin to some of the major themes in the so-called
Orphic gold tablets. Günther Zuntz had already noted, together with various paral-
lels from the ancient Near East (such as the refrigerium, for the souls of the dead, to
be found also in Mesopotamia, or the similarities between Persephone and Ereskigal),
some Egyptian analogies. 1 Reinhold Merkelbach was recently able to point to striking

similarities between the Orphic gold leaves and spells from the Egyptian Book of the
Dead. 2  

Both the figure of Orpheus and the traditions in his name appear to have been at the
heart of a connection between barbarian and Greek systems of wisdom, to quote the
editors of a recent collection of essays. 3 I shall not deal here, however, with a shaman-

ism à la Zalmoxis or with a possible Asiatic or Near Eastern background of Orphism. 4  

Looking downstream, rather than upstream, I shall seek to follow the afterlife of Or-
phism beyond the Hellenic mainstream, and to search for later traces of the revolution-
ary attitude to religion identified with the early Orphic texts, in the interpretatio judaica,
the interpretatio gnostica and the interpretatio christiana of Orpheus and Pythagoras.
In The End of Sacrifice, I identified four major ‘mutations’ of ancient religion in the
longue durée of the Roman Empire. 5 These mutations were respectively : a new care

of the self, the development of the religions of the book, the end of blood sacrifices,
and the passage from civic to communitarian religion. My claim was that the religious
changes which we can observe in this period represent more than the passage from
polytheism to monotheism, or from paganism to Christianity. These changes reflect,
rather, the radical transformation of the very idea of religion as it was conceived in
the ancient world. Among ancient religions, I include here, of course, the religion of
Israel, which was based, until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., upon
daily blood sacrifices. In the book, I observed successively the deep transformations of
the psyche (and the emphasis on its survival after the decomposition of the body), the
new importance of hermeneutics and of holy or revealed writings, up to the birth of
Islam (not only the canonization of the Jewish and the Christian Bible), the progressive

sus, Ithaca, n.y., Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 259-275 ; see also Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolu-

tion : Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, Cambridge, Mass, London, Harvard University

Press, 1992, pp. 125-127.

1  Günther Zuntz, Persephone : Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, Oxford, Clarendon

Press, 1971, pp. 370 ff. On the refrigerium, the best work is still André Parrot, Le “refrigerium” dans l’au delà, Paris,
Leroux, 1937, originally published in « Revue de l’histoire des religions », 103, 1936.

2  Reinhold Merkelbach, Die goldenen Totenpässe : Ägyptisch, Orphisch, Bakchisch. i. Ägyptisches und Griechis-

ches Totengericht, « Zeitschrift für Papirologie und Epigraphik » (zpe), 128, 1999, pp. 1-13 ; see also Roy Kotansky,

Incantations and Prayers for Salvation on Inscribed Greek Amulets, in Christopher A. Faraone, Dirk Obbink (eds.),
Magika Hiera : Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 107-137, esp.

130, n. 49 : the motif in the tablets may be Egyptian, as the so-called Coffin texts deal with a similar protection in

the afterlife.
3  Philippe Borgeaud, Claude Calame, André Hurst, L’orphisme et ses écritures. Nouvelles �����������������������������
recherches. Présen-
tation, « Revue de l’histoire des religions », 219, 2002, pp. 379-383.

4  See for instance Luc Brisson, Orphée et l’Orphisme dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine, Aldershot, Variorum, 1995,
pp. 1-3.
5  The End of Sacrifice : Religious Transformations of Late Antiquity, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2009, first

published as La fin du sacrifice : les mutations religieuses de l’antiquité tardive, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2005.

142 guy g. stroumsa
abandonment of blood sacrifices until their imperial forbidding toward the end of the
fourth century, and finally the new importance of religious communities in the con-
struction of identity. In the course of the work, I came to the conclusion (which I had
not anticipated) that Judaism had been, in a sense, a precursor of each one of the reli-
gious transformations studied in the Roman Empire, and that these transformations
could not be understood without reference to Judaism. The Jews had long learned to
call attention to the religious self, an attention reflected, already, in the Psalms. They
had known for a long time, more than others, to cultivate their holy writings. They had
learned, willy nilly, to reform their religious life and reinvent a cult without daily sacri-
fices. 1 Finally, they succeeded, even before the destruction of the Temple, to emphasize

the communal, rather than the national aspects of their identity.

In this book, although I had duly made reference to the Orphic sacred books, I did not
give much attention to what strikes me now as obvious : in various ways, Orphic writings,

Pythagorean communities, and Bacchic rituals, predated by centuries the phenomena I

was trying to describe. Let us review briefly these four points. First, the Orphic concep-
tion of personal eschatology, i.e., the belief in the immortality of the soul and the afterlife
promised to the pure ones, reflects a radical transformation of archaic Greek attitudes
toward the fate of the soul after death. Walter Burkert has even spoken of a « discovery  

of the individual » in Orphic and Pythagorean circles. 2 In other words, Orphic doctrines,

stressing the idea of salvation of the individual, usher in a new period in the history
of religious ideas, much before the « new care of the self » under the Roman Empire.

Secondly, Orphic doctrines are embedded in holy writings, (hieroi logoi), or more pre-
cisely in a series of books, or texts. Such a central role attributed to books is in striking
contradistinction to traditional religious praxis in Greece. We have no earlier evidence
of sacred books in ancient Greece. 3 Franz Cumont could thus define Orphism as « a

religion of salvation based upon books » 4.    

Thirdly, the well-known objections on the part of Orphic traditions to blood sacri-
fices, (whatever may be their mythological or theological grounds) underlined by veg-
etarianism, reflect a strong opposition to major aspects of the civic cult of the polis.
Finally, the central importance of the community of the faithful for the Pythago-
reans also testifies to a move from civic to communitarian religion, much before the
same phenomenon can be observed among the Jews.
All in all, Martin Nilsson’s conclusion that early Orphic teachings reflect a complete
break with Homeric traditions remains valid, even if we disagree today with his views
on the nature of Orphism itself. One may note that this multiple and radical break
with archaic patterns of religion seems to have occurred around the middle of the
first millenium B.C., at the time identified by Karl Jaspers, two generations ago, as the
Achsenzeit, the axial age, which showed, according to him, similar shifts away from ar-
chaic patterns of thought and behavior in various cultural contexts. Together with the
Greek Presocratics, Jaspers mentioned the Hebrew prophets, Zarathustra (although

1  Polemics both against the Jerusalem Temple and against sacrifices altogether can be found at Qumran and
in early Christian writings. A significant polemical passage against blood sacrifices is also found in the newly pub-
lished Gospel of Judas.
2  Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution, p. 300. In Lux perpetua (Paris, Geuthner, 1949), Franz Cumont had al-
ready defined the Orphics as the first authors of a metamorphosis of eschatological ideas. See the new edition of
this work, Torino, Nino Aragno, 2009.
3  On this topic, much has been written recently ; see Robert Parker, On Greek Religion, Ithaca, n.y., Cornell

University Press, 2011, pp. 16-20. 4  Cumont, Lux perpetua, p. 244.

the afterlife of orphism 143
any dating remains here highly controversial), the Buddha, and Confucius. 1 Closer to  

us, Jonathan Z. Smith is using a different vocabulary to describe much the same contra-
distinction between two models of religious practice. Among ancient religions, Smith
opposes those which he calls « locative » to those he identifies as « utopian ». 2 While the

first are essentially civil, or collective, religions of the polis, strengthening the demands
of society, the second offer an escape from the oppressive order of hic et nunc, and insist
on personal eschatology and soteriology. Such religions reject the values of the city,
the central norms of Greek society. They usually find their natural expression among
marginal groups in society, such as women, and tend to emphasize or even cultivate
this marginality. It is in this sense that Marcel Detienne can refer to Orphism as one of
the main ‘chemins de la déviance’ in ancient Greece. 3  

1. Orpheus Judaeus
The very marginality of Orphic traditions in the world of the Greek polis may have
rendered them, and especially the figure of Orpheus, more attractive or palatable to
Jews in the Hellenistic world. 4 Indeed, the teachings of Orpheus immediately appeared

to have little to do with the official religion of the polis, which the Jews attacked so
fiercely, and its public sacrifices. Pythagorean and Orphic doctrines were known and
appreciated by Alexandrian Jews at the beginning of the second century. Aristobulus,
the first Jewish philosopher we know of, who lived in Alexandria in the mid-second
century, stemmed from a high-priestly family. According to him, both Pythagoras and
Orpheus had been taught by the Law of Moses. Aristobulus claimed that the father of
Hellenic song, like Pythagoras (and Socrates), had actually been converted by Moses
to the cause of the one God. 5 To be sure, what we know of Aristobulus is only what is

quoted from his work in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica. There is no reason, however,
to deny a significant impact upon Jewish thinkers in Alexandria of intellectual and re-
ligious trends clearly differentiated from the polytheistic milieu of Hellenistic Egypt.
Other ancient testimonies, in particular that of Josephus, present the Essenes as Jewish
Pythagoreans of sorts. 6  

1  For a new enquiry on Jasper’s concept of Achenzeit, see Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt (ed.), The Origins and Diver-
sity of Axial Age Civilizations, Albany, suny Press, 1986.
2  Jonathan Zittell Smith, Hellenistic Religions, in Encyclopedia Britannica (1974 ed.), viii. 750. See also his Here,
There, and Anywhere, in Jonathan Zittell Smith, Relating Religion : Essays in the Study of Religion, Chicago, London,

Chicago University Press, 2004, pp. 323-339.

3  See Marcel Detienne, Dionysos mis à mort, Paris, Gallimard, 1977.
4  One should note, yet, that Orpheus came to be seen, already by the fourth century, as the founder of the
Eleusinian Mysteries – an unusual, but not marginal form of polis religion (see [Eur] Rhes 943, 966. Cf. Fritz
Graf, Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit, Berlin-New York, de Gruyter, 1974). ���� Mys-
teries of all types came to be ascribed to him ; see Ivan M. Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus, New York, Arno, 1973

[1941]). For Robert Parker (personal communication), the Jews liked more some of the writings than the figure of
Orpheus himself, and wrote pseudo-orphica because this was one of the few moulds available in which to write
in Greek about theology.
5  See Erich S. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism : The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Lon-

don, California University Press, 1998, pp. 248-250. See for instance Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism : Stud-  

ies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1974, i, p. 263 : « The

monotheizing tendency and the strict way of live practices by Orphic conventicles with their esoteric, didactic
house-worship devoid of sacrifice early aroused the interest of Jewish circles in Egypt who, as Aristobulus and
Artapanus show, made Orpheus a witness to the truth of the Mosaic law ». See further Hengel, Judaism and Hel-

lenism, i, p. 245, cf. i, pp. 165ff.

6  Josephus, Ant. Jud. 15.371 ; Bel. Jud. 2.137 ; on Essenes and Therapeutes, cf. Philo, De vita contemplativa 1-2. Cf.
144 guy g. stroumsa
The Jewish historian Artapanus, who also wrote in the second century, alters the
tradition, transmitted by Hecataeus of Abdera, of the Egyptian wisdom transmitted
to the Greeks by Orpheus. Instead, Artapanus claims that Musaios, whom he identi-
fies with Moses (Numenius will later make the same identification), was Orpheus’s
teacher. In Greek literature, Musaios was also ordinarily associated with Orpheus, but
usually as either his son or his disciple. 1 As a héros civilisateur, Moses-Musaios bestowed

many gifts to humanity, including philosophy. Hence, Greek philosophy, or wisdom,

has a Jewish origin. Moses, adds Artapanus, was also called Hermes, « because of his  

ability to interpret the sacred writings » 2.    

The strong interest in the figure of Orpheus, as expressed by Aristobulus and Arta-
panus, is also reflected in the existence of Hellenistic Jewish pseudepigraphical texts at-
tributed to Orpheus. These texts, which have a rather complex literary history, present
an Orpheus having accepted a monotheistic world-view. 3 In Pseudo-Justin’s Cohortatio  

ad Graecos, for instance, Orpheus, who had been the first ‘teacher of polytheism’ of the
Greeks, addresses his son Musaeus (and other legitimate auditors) « concerning the one  

and only God (perı henos kai monou theou) ». 4 The master of the universe is described in

the following terms : He is one, self-generated ; all things have been brought forth as the

offspring of this one… ».  

The same Pseudo-Justin describes the Master of the universe, who sits
On a golden throne, and He stands with the earth at His feet.
And He stretches out His right hand all the way
To the ocean’s edge. 5  

As noted by Erich Gruen, « certain striking verses in the Orphic hymn illuminate the

core of this mental world. The poet asserts that God appears in a cloud that obscures
him from mortal vision ». 6 What imports here is that the vision of God, a central topic

for Jewish intellectuals, is directly related to Orpheus.

There is no reason to accept at its face value Erwin Goodenough’s theory about
syncretistic Jewish mysteries in Hellenistic Egypt and the existence of an « Orphic Ju-  

daism ». 7 The Orphic impact on Hellenistic Judaism, however, goes beyond the figure

of an Orpheus who would have joined the camp of Moses. 8 Orphic mythology was  

intriguing enough to leave clear traces in the Jewish substratum of the Pseudo-Clem-
entine writings, a Christian novel from the fourth century. This substratum, probably

Walter Burkert, Craft versus Sect : The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans, in Ben F. Meyer, E. P. Sanders (eds.),

Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1982, iii, pp. 1-22, esp. 21. Martin Hengel, Juda-
ism and Hellenism, I, 245-247, explains away the direct dependence of Essenes upon Pythagoreans, rejecting it as
highly improbable. For him, the Therapeutae « are best explained as an imitation of the Essenes in the Egyptian

Diaspora », rather than the other way around.

1  Carl Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors. i. Historians, Chico, Cal. : Scholars Press, 1983, n.

45, 232. 2  Praep. Evang. 9.27.1-6.

3  On the literary relations between the various fragments, see Nicole Zeegers-Vander Vorst, Les versions
juives et chrétiennes du fr. 245-7 d’Orphée, « L’antiquité classique », 39, 1970, pp. 475-506.

4  Ch. 15 ; Carl R. Holladay, Fragments from Jewish Authors, iv, Orphica, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1996, pp. 104-

5  Ibi, pp. 106-107, l34-36 ; cf. 152-153 for another version. Cf. commentary, 43-44 ; further details Nikolaus Wal-

ter, Pseudo-Orpheus, in Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit, iv, Gütersloh, Mohn, 1983, pp. 217-243.
6  Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, p. 249.
7  See Erwin R. Goodenough, By Light, Light : The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism, New Haven, Yale Uni-

versity Press, 1935, pp. 278 ff ; see in particular 296.

8  Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, pp. 248-250. See Hom. vi,3,4-8, and Recogn. 10,17,1-20.1 and 30-34.
the afterlife of orphism 145
a Jewish apologetic writing, must have dated from the second century C.E.. Both ver-
sions of the Pseudo-Clementine novel, the Greek Homilies and the Latin Recognitions,
retain long and quite detailed presentations of Orphic cosmogony. Orpheus is pre-
sented as the most educated among the pagans, and thus reflects a form of ‘cultivated
Orphism’. 1  

Various literary sources point to the existence of contacts between Dionysiac milieus,
within which the Orphic texts were read, and the Jews in Hellenistic Egypt. Noah Ha-
cham has recently argued at some length that iii Maccabbees retains clear traces of a
violent polemic against Alexandrian Jews who were offering some kind of cult to Dio-
nysus. 2 Ptolemaeus IV Philopator (221-205), as is well known, was an ardent devotee of

Dionysus, who engaged in serious efforts to promote the cult. 3 Under such conditions,  

it is easy to imagine attempts, on the side of Alexandrian Jews, to highlight similarities

between Dionysus and their own God. Such attempts may not have remained one-
sided. After all, we know, from the testimonies of both Plutarch and Tacitus, that the
Jewish God could be identified with Bacchus (or Liber). Tacitus refers to the chanting,
music instruments, and garlands of ivy of the Israelite priests as a basis for the identi-
fication of the Jewish god and Liber – an identification he founds baseless. 4 Plutarch,  

on the other hand, goes at some length into the similarities between the character of
the Jewish god and Dionysus. In his Quaestiones Conviviales, the participants in a sympo-
sium held at Aidepsos in Euboea discuss the identity of the Jewish God and a possible
link between Dionysiac and Jewish cult. The ritual of the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot),
in particular, is compared to a ‘Thyrsus Procession’. For Plutarch « it is probable that  

the rite is a Bacchic revelry, for in fact they use little trumpets to invoke their god as do
the Argives at their Dionysia ». Plutarch adds that « even the feast of the Sabbath is not

completely unrelated to Dionysus ». 5    

The knowledge of the Orphic cosmogonic myth and of the various traditions among
the Jews does not seem to have been confined to Hellenistic, or Greek-writing Jews.
In La légende de Pythagore de Grèce en Palestine, a book published in 1927, Isidore Lévy
argued that various Jewish traditions describing Moses’s descent into Hell should be
understood as modeled upon Pythagoras’ katabasis to Hades. 6 For him, Artapanus,  

Philo, and Josephus retained only partial echoes of a lost Jewish Alexandrian novel of
Moses, which imitated the legends of Pythagoras. According to Lévy, moreover, this
deep Pythagorean influence was not limited to Hellenistic Jewish literature. He sought
to show that similar traces of the story of Pythagoras’ katabasis could also be found
in Rabbinic literature. Lévy was referring here in particular to a late antique Hebrew

1  See Pierre Geoltrain, Jean-Daniel Kaestli (eds.), Ecrits apocryphes chrétiens, Paris, Gallimard, 2005, 1965, ii, n.,
and 1974, n.
2  Noah Hacham, 3 Maccabees : An Anti-Dionysian Polemic, in Jo-Ann Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, Chris Shea

(eds.), Ancient Fiction : The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative, Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature,

2005, pp. 167-183.

3  Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, pp. 229-230 ; The cult of Dionysus had also been introduced to Jerusalem in

167 bce, during the religious persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes ; see ii Mac. 6,7. Cf. Menahem Stern, Greek and

Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Jerusalem, Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974, i, p. 560.
4  Tacitus, 5.1 ; Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, Jerusalem, Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1980,

ii, p. 19.
5  Quaestio 6. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, i, 560, who notes that the equation of the God of the Jews with
Dionysus was due primarily to Dionysus’s identification with Sabazius.
6  Isidore Lévy, La légende de Pythagore de Grèce en Palestine, Paris, Champion, 1927, iii, pp. 137 ff.
146 guy g. stroumsa
text called the Revelation of Joshua ben Levi. The remaining disjecta membra of this Jewish
katabasis, argues Lévy, retain the trace of the deep influence of religious Pythagoreism
upon the Jews. For him, both Therapeutes and Essenes strove to get as close as possible
to the Pythagorean ideal. The correspondences between the teachings of Moses and
those of Pythagoras were noted by Jewish Hellenistic authors, from Aristobulus to Jo-
sephus, (Ant. 15.371), who considered the Therapeutae and the Essenes as an interesting
case of a Jewish Pythagorean sect. 1 As seen above, some modern authors have been

cautious about such an identification. And yet, Lévy’s insight is supported by the recent
monograph of Justin Taylor, which offers a careful and detailed comparative analysis
of rituals and patterns of behavior among Pythagoreans and Essenes. 2 Taylor’s results  

show that both communities retained an intense interest in protecting the exclusivity
of the group. For Taylor, this interest went in both cases much beyond that common
among Greco-Roman voluntary associations, and was the result of a permanent prob-
lem of purity. Taylor concludes with the strong plausibility of Pythagorean influence
upon the Essenes, via the Therapeutes in Alexandria. 3  

Reference must be made here to Albrecht Dieterich’s Nekyia, published in 1893. 4 As  

is well-known, Dieterich sought in this highly influential work to show that the Apoc-
alypse of Peter (of which a Greek version had been discovered among the Akhmim
papyri in 1887), was a Christianized version of an Orphic-Pythagorean nekyia going
back to archaic Greece. The parallels between the Apocalypse of Peter and I Enoch,
according to Dieterich, are explained by the intermediary of the Essenes, who com-
bined Judaism and Orphic Pythagoreanism. Dieterich’s sweeping references to a hy-
postasized Orphism have been duly criticized. 5 Isidore Lévy, already, had proposed

to revise Dieterich’s theory, and viewed the Apocalypse of Peter (as well as the Second
Sybilline Oracle), as derived from a Jewish Apocalypse related to the Pythagorean ka-
tabasis. 6 Our picture of the evolution of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic literature

is now much sharper than it was in the late nineteenth century. And yet, the idea of
a mediation of the Essenes (or, rather, the Therapeutes) for the passage of Orphic
or Pythagorean conceptions to Jews (and then Christians) remains today a legitimate
working hypothesis.
The Hekhalot (i.e., [heavenly] palaces) literature, a series of Hebrew texts, extremely
difficult to date, represent the first stage, under the Roman Empire and in late an-
tiquity, of Jewish mystical literature. In Hekhalot literature, mention is made of the
mystic’s vision of the [heavenly] chariot originally described in Ezekiel. The terminus
technicus used in these texts for the mystical vision experience is yarad la-merkavah, lit.
« he went down to the Chariot ». Now, rather than yarad, « he went down », one would

have expected ‘alah, « he went up ». Many years ago, I proposed to see in the concept of

yerida, « descent », as used in this context, a linguistic calque of katabasis, a term origi-

nally referring to the descent in the Underworld, but which had become in the early
centuries of the Christian era a common metaphor for the mystical voyage ending in

1  Josephus, Ant. Jud. 15 :371 : the Essenes follow the way of life taught to the Greeks by Pythagoras.

2  Justin Taylor, S. M., Pythagoreans and Essenes : Structural Parallels, Turnhout, Brepols, 2004.

3  Taylor, Pythagoreans and Essenes, pp. 106-107.

4  Albrecht Dieterich, Nekyia : Beiträge zur Erklärung der neuentdeckten Petrusapokalypse, second, posthumus

ed. Leipzig, Berlin, Teubner, 1913 ; cf. Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell : An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Chris-

tian Literature, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983, pp. 41-45.

5  See in particular Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell, pp. 43-45. 6  La légende de Pythagore, p. 103.
the afterlife of orphism 147
the vision of the divine world and palaces, or even of the divinity itself, usually seated
upon its throne of glory. 1 My claim was then limited to the linguistic influence of the

Umwelt upon Jewish conceptions. Today, I would be more audacious, and argue that
the root yrd points to earlier literary descriptions of the ‘mystical’ voyage, in particular
in pseudepigraphical literature, which took place in the Underworld.
I have presented here a brief overview of the repercussion of the figure of Orpheus on
Jewish Hellenistic literature and of possible Orphic or Pythagorean influences upon
Jewish conceptions. One piece of evidence, however, seems to imply that the contacts
between Jews and Orphics also went in the other direction.
In Orphic mythology, Erikepaios is one of the names of the god Protogonos, or
Phanes. Side by side with Erikepaios, the Rhapsodies mention Metis, Eros and Bromios. 2  

The evidence (there are eleven occurrences of Erikepaios in Kern’s Orphicorum Frag-
menta) comes mainly from the Orphica of the Neoplatonists, but the name also appears
(under the form Irikepaigos) in an important papyrus found at Gurob, in the Fayyum,
and dated from about 300 b.c. 3 The very fragmentary text describes a sacrifice. Erike-

paios appears there as a god of salvation, and is invoked in a prayer : « Erikepaios, save    

me ! » which culminates in the sentence : « There is one Dionysus [heis Dionysos] ».


This last expression seems to echo the Diathekai of the Pseudo-Justin :  

One Zeus, one Hades, one Sun, one Dionysus,

One god in all things. Why separate what one proclaims ?  

The name Erikepaios remains puzzling. Obviously, its etymology is not Greek. Malalas
states in his Chronography that it means zôodotèr, ‘life-giver’, but it is unclear on what
he established his claim. Among modern scholars, Robert Eisler, the fanciful author
of Orpheus the Fisher, stated in his Weltmantel und Himmelzelt, published in 1910, that
Erikepaios stemmed from arikh anpin, the Aramaic for Hebrew erekh apaim, a biblical
epithet of God (Exod. 34,6 et al.) which became a divine emanation in medieval Kab-
bala. 4 Very soon after Eisler, Karl Beth argued in an article Über die Herkunft des orphis-

chen Erikepaios, for what he calls a « Vedic-Vedantic » origin. For him, Erikapaios would

come from Hiranyagarbha, a vegetation divinity and the ‘golden germ’ of the « world  

egg » referred to in the Upanishads. 5


Between the two World Wars, W. K. C. Guthrie wrote on the Gurob papyrus that « there  

is an Orphic flavor about the whole fragment, with its mentions of One Dionysus… ». 6    

1  Mystical Descents, in Guy G. Stroumsa, Hidden Wisdom : Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism,

Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2005 (2nd ed.), pp. 169-183, esp. pp. 179-180. 2  West, The Orphic Poems, p. 203
3  For the evidence, see Otto Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta, reprint Dublin, Zurich, Weidman, 1972 (first ed.
1922), where the Gurob papyrus is fragment 31. The ten other occurrences all stem from Neoplatonic and other
late antique texts, from Alexander of Aphrodisias through Proclus to Damascius and Syrianus ; see fragments 60, 

65, 80, 81, 102, 107, 107b, 108, 167, 170. The Gurob papyrus was published by Josiah Gilbert Smyly, Greek Papyri
from Gurob, Dublin, 1921. See now James Hordern, Notes on the Orphic Papyrus from Gurôb (P. Gurôb 1 ; Pack2 2464),  

« zpe », 129, 2000, pp. 131-140, see esp. p. 138. See further Albert Henrichs, Hieroi logoi and hierai biblioi : The (Un)

written Margins of the Sacred in Ancient Greece, « Harvard Studies in Classical Philology », 101, 2003, pp. 207-266, esp.

233, n. 88.
4  Robert Eisler, Weltenmantel und Himmelzelt : religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des antiken

Weltbildes, Munich, Beck, 1910, pp. 470-475.

5  See for instance Chandogya Upanishad 19. Karl Beth, Über die Herkunft des orphischen Erikepaios, « Wiener  

Studien », 34, 1912, pp. 288-300.

6  William Keith C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993 (first
ed. 1952), p. 98.
148 guy g. stroumsa
Erikepaios is described as : « a non-Greek name for which no certain interpretation has

been found ». 1 In a note, Guthrie mentions various suggestions made about the origin

of the word, adding that according to Eisler, « the name is Aramaic and means long

face ». 2 In this shortened form, it is very hard indeed to make any sense of such a pro-

André-Jean Festugière proposed to see in Erikepaios a Lydian god assimilated to Dio-
nysus. 3 In his book on the Orphic poems, Martin West devoted some efforts to Erike-

paios. For him, it is « beyond doubt a non-Greek name ». He adds that « the name Erike-

paios too seems to derive from an Asiatic form of Dionysus-cult ». 4 West mentions that    

« an altar found at Hierocaesarea in Lydia bears a dedicatory inscription of the second

century a.d. “to Dionysus Erikepaios” ». For him, that « suggests that Erikepaios may

have been, like Sabazios, a local deity of Asia Minor who came to be identified with
Dionysus ». 5 In a footnote, West rightly rejects Eisler’s « far-fetched » suggestion, based

as it is on the assumption that medieval Kabbalistic doctrines had circulated orally for
more than a millennium before being consigned to writing. 6  

Yehuda Liebes published in 1988 an article entitled The Kabbalistic Myth as Told by
Orpheus. The article was published in Hebrew, but an English translation appeared
in 1993. 7 Liebes picks up Eisler’s suggestion, and argues that Orphics in Hellenistic

Egypt were influenced by aspects of Jewish mythology, including by the divine figure
of Arikh Anpin, which was to receive a literary expression only much later, but was
then already circulating orally :  

I claim that Orphic believers, who had adhered from ancestral times to a myth resembling the
Jewish one, adopted certain facets of the Jewish myth following their acquaintance with Alexan-
drian Jews in the last centuries of the pre-Christian era. 8  

Between West’s radical rejection of Eisler’s suggestion and Liebes total acceptance of
it, there is, however, a third option. Arikh anpin, as we have seen, is the Aramaic for er-
ekh apaim (lit. « long of nostrils », hence « long-suffering »), one of the main attributes of

Yhwh in the theophany of Ex 34,6.

And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and
gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.
Now the few verses of this theophany soon became a capital text, and their echo would
be heard throughout the history of Judaism. From an early date, as far as we know,

1  Ibi, p. 97.
2  Ibi, p. 145, n. 18. The reference is to R. Eisler, Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt, p. 47. Eisler’s long-standing in-
terest in Orpheus and Orphism also produced Orpheus the Fisher : Comparative Studies in Orphic and Early Christian

Symbolism, London, Watkins, 1921 and Orphisch-Dionysische Mysteriengedanke in der christlichen Antike, Vorträge der
Bibliothek Warburg, Hamburg, 1922-1923 (Reprint Hildesheim : Olms, 1966).  

3  André Jean Festugière, Les mystères de Dionysos, in Etudes de religion grecque et hellénistique, Paris, Vrin, 1972,
pp. 32, 41. 4  West, The Orphic Poems, p. 171. 5  Ibi, p. 205.
6  Ibi, p. 205, n. 91. West’s reference to Schelling’s 1815 tractate Über die Gottheiten von Samothrace is mistaken.
Nowhere in this work does Schelling refer to Erikepaios. Schelling only argues that various elements from Greek
mysteries reflected Hebrew esoteric traditions.
7  See Yehuda Liebes, The Kabbalistic Myth as Told by Orpheus, in Id., Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messian-
ism, Albany, suny Press, 1993, pp. 65-92. [Originally published in Hebrew in Shlomo Pines Jubilee Volume, i (= « Jeru-  

salem Studies in Jewish Thought », 7, [1988]), pp. 425-459.]

8  Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism, p. 73. Eisler’s suggestion had been rejected, with little
argumentation, by Yehoshua Guttmann, Jewish Hellenistic Literature, Jerusalem Bialik Institute, 1963, i, p. 153 (in
the afterlife of orphism 149
they were integrated in a central place in liturgy, a place underlined by its importance
in late antique Pyyut, or liturgical poetry. Moreover, the « thirteen divine attributes » in

this biblical text became ‘canonized’, as it were, in Jewish medieval theology and phi-
losophy. Hence the hypostatic Divine character of Erekh Apaim/Arich Anpin in the Sefer
ha-Zohar, or Book of Splendor, the most important Kabbalistic text, redacted by Moses
of Leon in thirteenth-century Castile.
In a sense, Liebes’s view of things is a mirror reflection of Goodenough’s argument
about Greek mystical traditions among Jews in the Hellenistic period. 1 I wish to argue  

here that the presence of a Jewish divine epithet (erekh apaim) in Orphic context shows
that in their contacts with Orphic and Pythagorean beliefs and literary documents, the
Jews did not remain on the receiving end. Some Jewish influence of these beliefs and
texts must be recognized, although we do not know through which proximate chan-
nels this influence was transmitted.
In the texts found at Qumran, there are about a score of occurrences to erekh apaim. 2  

Together with the Hebrew text of Ben Sira, these texts are the oldest Hebrew texts ex-
tant outside the Bible. From our perspective, the presence of erekh apaim is quite interest-
ing, as it points to an early use of the term among the Jews, as a way of addressing God.
One may then postulate that Erekh Apaim became at some point ‘Hellenized’ into Er-
ikepaios, although it remains however impossible to argue for a specific time and place. 3  

While no occurrence of Erikepaios appears outside the Orphic traditions, we can-

not be sure that it is within the milieu in which the Orphic writings were read that this
Hellenizing occurred. The various references, however, to contacts between Jews and
followers of Dionysus provide circumstantial evidence for such a milieu. 4 The Helle-  

nization of erekh apaim as a divine entity in Orphic context, then, may reflect contacts
between Jews and Dionysus devotees. Such contacts might have taken place in Helle-
nistic Egypt, if we accept Hacham’s argument about Jewish followers of Dionysus in

2. Orpheus Gnosticus
Orphic and Gnostic cosmogonies show some striking similarities. Moreover, the two
movements appear to have been rather parallel phenomena, in their nature as well as
in their origins. Both flourished on the margins of society, as their Weltanschauung was
in some fundamental ways reticent toward, or even opposed to that of contemporary
mainstream religious attitudes. Both offered salvation to their followers, at the exclu-

1  For Goodenough’s views on Orpheus, see for instance Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-
Roman Period, New York, Pantheon, 1964, ix, pp. 89-104. For a powerful criticism of Goodenough’s method and
achievements, see Morton Smith, Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in Retrospect, « Journal of Biblical Literature »,

xxx, pp. 53-68.

2  See for instance 4Q Mysteries.a 9 :5 ; 4Q Ways of Righteousness.b 1aii-b :14 ; 4Q 364 18,3 ; 4Q382 104,9.

3  Although, of course, the Gurob papyrus gives a terminus ad quem around 300 b.c. E. In an oral objection
to my proposal, Walter Burkert referred to the word andrikepai, in a gold band found in Pherai, and now in the
Museum of Volos, dated 350-300 bce (Bernabé, of 493 [= l 13]). For him, andrikepai might be explained as a pun
upon Erikepaios. If true, this etymology would cast doubt upon a possible Hebrew origin of Erikepaios, due to
its early date.
4  Zeev Weiss, the archaeologist who was in charge of the Dionysus Mosaic in Sepphoris, has argued that the
house might well have belonged to a Jew, and perhaps even to Rabbi Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishna.
See Zeev Weiss, Between Paganism and Judaism : On the dwellers of the Dionysus house in Roman Sepphoris, « Cathe-

dra », 26-27, 2001, pp. 7-26 (in Hebrew).

150 guy g. stroumsa
sion of non-initiates. This salvation was that of the soul, its escape from body and this
lowly, material world. 1  

Writing between the two world wars, Hans Leisegang had called attention to deep
parallelisms between various doctrines of second-century Gnostic thinkers and Orphic
conceptions. 2 Leisegang argued that the doctrine of reincarnation in the theologies of

Basilides and Carpocrates seemed to come from the Orphics, and he also discerned
in the thought of Valentinus traces of ultimately Orphic influence. While Leisegang
did not deny the presence of various ‘oriental’ elements in Gnosticism, what he called
the Gnostic ‘mode of thought’ and the ‘spiritual structure’ of the different Gnostic
systems, remained for him essentially Greek. The similarities between the Gnostic and
the Orphic texts, he argued, showed that Gnosticism offered a return to ancient Greek
cosmogonies. Such a return he explained by the ‘reawakening’ of Orphism and Py-
thagoreism under the early Empire. 3  

Leisegang’s position is characteristic of a ‘Pan-Hellenic’ attitude, which strives to

minimize or even deny the impact of ‘oriental’ sources on intellectual and religious
trends in the Hellenistic world. The search for the intellectual and religious roots of
both Orphism and Gnosticism has traditionally oscillated between Greece and Near
Eastern religious cultures – Egypt, Israel or Iran. The ‘either or’ approach, however,
is mistaken, as the origins of both movements need not be exclusive of one another.
As we have seen, some Jewish themes may well be present in Orphic texts, side by side
with clearly Greek and Egyptian elements. A similar approach should be developed
about Gnostic origins : Jewish (mainly apocalyptic) sources, whose presence appears to

be quite certain, need in no way exclude Greek roots for some of the central elements
in Gnosticism. In both cases, recognizing the presence of ‘foreign’ elements while seek-
ing to preserve the genuine ‘Greek’ character of the movement reflects a rather essen-
tialist attitude, too rigid for describing adequately syncretistic phenomena.
Finally, recent research has made it clear that the texts traditionally labeled « Orphic »    

and « Gnostic » do not necessarily stem from clearly defined movements bearing the

same names. The well-known arguments about Orphism have been alluded to above.
The move from the existence of texts labeled « Gnostic » – even assuming an adequate

definition of this term is available – to that of « Gnostic » communities, in Egypt or


elsewhere, is highly problematic. Like Orphism, Gnosticism appears more and more
not to have ever reflected one single religious identity, and the latest scholarly fashion
seeks to offer a radical deconstruction of what was once considered a religion present
throughout the oecumene. 4 Contemporary research, based upon the Nag Hammadi

1  The present article was redacted long before I could read Einar Thomassen, Gnostics and Orphics, in J. Dij-
kstra, J. Kroesen, Y. Kuiper (eds.), Myths, Martyrs, and Modernity : Studies in the History of Religions in Honour of Jan

N. Bremmer (« Numen Book Series », 127), Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2010, pp. 463-473. Thomassen concludes, like me

but on different grounds, that « it is highly probable that Orphic-Bacchic mysteries were an important model and

inspiration for Gnostics » (473). See further Ezio Abrile, L’epica mancata. Appunti di biopolitica gnostica, « Anto-

nianum », 86, 2011, pp. 738-807.

2  Hans Leisegang, Die Gnosis, Leipzig, Kroener, 1924. I use the fourth edition (Stuttgart, Kroener, 1955). See in
particular various remarks in ch. 4 (on the Ophites), ch. 6 (Basilides), ch. 7 (Carpocrates), and ch. 9 (Valentinus).
Cf. Henri-Charles Puech, En quête de la gnose. i. La gnose et le temps, Paris, Gallimard, 1978, p. 155, n. 1.
3  On the possible absorption of Orphism by Neopythagoreism, see Elias Bickerman, The Orphic Blessing,
reprinted in his Religions and Politics in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Como, New Press, 1985, pp. 233-239, esp.
238, n. 8.
4  See in particular Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking Gnosticism : an Argument for Dismantling a Dubious

Category, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996. See also Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism ?, Cambridge,

Mass., London, Harvard University Press, 2003.

the afterlife of orphism 151
Coptic texts, has led to rest Hans Jonas’s conception of Gnosis as more or less identical
to the Geist of the Spätantike.
On various occasions, Walter Burkert has called attention to various similarities be-
tween Orphic and Gnostic texts, speaking about « intriguing possibilities ». For him, the

Orphic combination of the Dionysus myth with the doctrine of transmigration of the
soul, and the radical asceticism that it entails « could have been the basis for a religion

of salvation ; but it seems that these potentialities were not fully exploited before the

advent of Gnosticism ». 1 Plato’s writings might have provided a channel through which

Orphic traditions could have reached the Gnostics. Indeed, besides the clear Platonic
influences on various Gnostic texts and conceptions, the discovery of a passage from
Plato’s Republic among the works found at Nag Hammadi underlines the presence of
Plato in communities in which the Gnostic texts circulated. 2  

More precisely, the myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus while he was looking
into a mirror –which finally results in anthropogony – strikes Burkert as having possi-
bly « stimulated the Gnostic images of how something divine, by a mirroring process,

fell into the traps of matter and was dispersed there ». 3 In this context, attention has

been called independently by both Henri-Charles Puech and Hans Dieter Betz to a pas-
sage of a Gospel of Philip quoted by the fourth-century heresiologist Epiphanius in his
chapter on the gnostikoi. 4 In this text, reference is made to the ‘passwords’ that the soul

must say while climbing from heaven to heaven :  

The Lord has shown me that my soul must say on its ascent to heaven, and how it must answer
each of the powers on high. I have recognized myself, it says, and gathered myself from every
quarter, and have sown no children for the archon. But I have pulled up his roots, and gathered
my scattered members, and I know who you are. For I, it saith, am of those on high. And so,
they say, it is set free. 5 

A similar reference to the gathering of the disseminated members of the divine figure
is found in the only extant passage of the Gospel according to Eve, also quoted by
Epiphanius in the same chapter :  

I stood upon a high mountain and saw a tall man, and another of short stature, and heard as it
were a sound of thunder and went nearer in order to hear. Then he spoke to me and said : I am  

thou and thou art I, and where thou art there am I, and I am sown in all things ; and whence thou  

wilt, thou gatherest me, but when tou gatherest me, then gatherest tou thyself. 6  

1  Burkert, Craft Versus Sect, p. 9.

2  The passage is Plato, Republic 588B-589B (Cairensis Gnosticus, vi, 5). I thank Walter Burkert for having re-
minded me of this obvious fact.
3  Burkert, Orphism and Bacchic Mysteries : New Evidence and Old Problems of Interpretation, W. Wuellner, ed.,

Protocol of the 28th Colloquy of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies, Berkeley, 1977, p. 8. �����������������
On the mirror me-
taphor, see Henri-Charles Puech, En quête de la gnose, ii , Sur l’Evangile selon Thomas, Paris, Gallimard, 1978, pp.
4  Henry-Charles Puech, in « Annuaire de l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, ve Section », 70, 1962-1963, pp.

84-87 ; 71, 1963-1964, pp. 90-91 ; 72, 1964-1965, 101-104 ; Betz, ‘Der Erde Kind bin ich und des gestirnten Himmels :’ Zur Leh-

re vom Menschen in den orphischen Goldplättchen, in Fritz Graf (ed.), Ansichten griechischer Rituale, Stuttgart-Leipzig,
Teubner, 1998, pp. 399-419, esp. Pp. 418-419.
5  Epiphanius, Panarion, 26, 13.2. Transl. 94.Note the expression « pull up the roots ». Cf. kitsets ba-netiyot in the

description of the four which entered the pardes (Mishna, Hagiga 14, b).
6  Epiphanius, Panarion 26.3.1 (278.8-13 Holl). I quote the translation in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, Robert
McLachlan Wilson (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha, Cambridge, Clarke, 1991, i, pp. 358-360. See also François
Bovon, Pierre Geoltrain (eds.), Ecrits apocryphes chrétiens, Paris, Gallimard, 1997, i, pp. 479-482, with some further
parallels noted.
152 guy g. stroumsa

Another highly interesting Gnostic text was inserted at an early date into the apocry-
phal Acts of John (ch. 87-105). This text purports to reveal the esoteric understanding
of the mystery of the cross. In this context, reference is made to the fact that « the  

members of him who came down have yet to be gathered together ». Only the proper  

understanding of the secret myth will permit the identification of the believer with the
savior, i.e., his divinization. 1  

Puech proposes to read these texts in the light of a passage of Porphyry’s Letter to
Marcella :  

You should train yourself to ascend into yourself [he prompts his wife], gathering all the mem-
bers of your body which have been scattered and cut into many pieces from their former unity
which had strength due to its size. 2  

The images of dispersion and reassembling of body members in this text, notes Puech,
seem to be rooted in a myth relating the cutting into pieces, and then the recollection,
of a divine body (and also perhaps in a ritual act). While for Reitzenstein (and others)
such images seemed to refer to the myth of Osiris, for Puech, it is the myth of Dio-
nysus Zagreus which formed the kernel of Porphyry’s metaphor. Puech follows here
Pierre Boyancé, for whom Porphyry and the Neoplatonists had been offering a sym-
bolic interpretation of the Orphic myth of Dionysus Zagreus. 3 Like Puech, the Ital-  

ian historian of ancient religions Ugo Bianchi was intrigued by the phenomenological
parallels between Orphic and Gnostic texts, and stated that « les orphiques ont fait du  

gnosticisme avant la lettre ». 4 Both movements struck him as being structurally similar

in their dualism and soteriology. On various occasions, Bianchi sought to identify the
nature of the continuity between Orphism and Gnosticism. He insisted upon what he
called Orphic « mysteriosophy », which he saw as announcing Gnostic theosophy and

anthroposophy : the wandering of the soul in this world, in the cycle of births, and as-

piring to final liberation. 5 Without denying the presence of Jewish or Iranian themes in

Gnostic mythology, Bianchi, in the footsteps of Leisegang, argued for the preeminence
of the Greek structural element. He also recognized, however, that Gnosticism could
have taken root only in monotheistic milieu, which permitted the focus on the lower
demiurge as responsible for material creation. Bianchi noted, moreover, the similar fate
of Orphism and Gnosticism in the history of scholarship. In both cases, this fate oscil-
lates between two diametrically opposed positions : either both movements are seen as

full-fledged religions, or their existence is rejected altogether. Bianchi argued for the
middle way, seeing them both as complex religious movements, plural but « essentially  

coherent », established upon what he calls a « sophic » interpretation of the contempo-


rary religious scene. 6  

1  ch. 100 ; ii. 185 Schneemelcher-Wilson ; i, 1007 Bovon-Geoltrain.


2  sullegousa apo tou somatos panta to diaskedasthenta sou mele kai eis plethos katakermastisthenta…. I quote ac-
cording to Kathleen O’Brien Wicker (ed.), transl., Porphyry the Philosopher, To Marcella (« Texts and Translations,

Graeco-Roman Series »), Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1987, ch. 10, pp. 54-55.

3  Puech in « Annuaire de l’ephe », 72, 1964-1965, pp. 103-104. This interpretation might go back to Xenocrates.

Boyancé establishes his argument upon Olympiodorus’ Commentary on the Phaedon.

4  Ugo Bianchi, L’orphisme a existé, pp. 187-195, esp. 194, in Id., Selected Essays on Gnosticism, Dualism and Myste-
riosophy (« Studies in the History of Religions », 38), Leiden, Brill, 1978.

5  Ugo Bianchi, Le problème des origines du gnosticisme et l’histoire des religions, in his Selected Essays, pp. 219-235,
esp. 228. 6  Ibi, p. 223.
the afterlife of orphism 153
One must admit that Bianchi’s language is lacking in clarity. If I understand him
correctly, however, he calls attention to the structural similarities between two move-
ments which both expressed deep unease with contemporary main-stream religion.
He also postulates a genetic link between them, although the nature of this link is
not specified. Bianchi refers to the Ophitic diagram mentioned by Origen and to the
various ‘passwords’ to be pronounced by the soul at the seven ‘checkpoints’ manned
by the archons, on its way to salvation. 1 For him, these passwords play a role parallel

to that of the Orphic gold leaves : in both cases, the soul recognizes its divine origin. 2

What should be emphasized, however, is the deep structural difference between the two
systems : for one, the voyage of the soul takes place in the underworld, for the other,

throughout the heavens. This dramatic change does not seem to have been studied
carefully enough. Further studies should emphasize the Jewish Apocalyptical heritage
of the heavenly visions in early Christian and Gnostic literature, and analyze if and
how this heritage lies at the core of the passage of the soul’s journey from the Under-
world to the Heavenly realm.
A final note : while Jewish Hellenistic literature was mainly marked by the figure of

Orpheus, the Gnostic texts ignore this figure, and mainly offer structural parallels to
Orphic mythology, soteriology, and purity rituals.

3. Orpheus Christianus
After having proved so attractive to the Jews, the figure of Orpheus puzzled the Chris-
tians in the Roman Empire. For them, it was at once attractive and dangerous. More-
over, Christianity and Orphism share, strikingly, the fundamental idea of a suffering
god. In the last pages of his monographic study of Orphism, Guthrie reviews the vari-
ous scholarly attempts to find points of similarity between the two movements, and
reproduces the famous Berlin amulet showing a crucified figure, with the inscription
Orpheos bakkikos. 3 As we have seen, the figure of Orpheus had undergone in Hellenistic

Jewish literature a conversion of sorts to monotheism. It remained a popular figure, a

singer similar to King David, in early Christian art, at least until the fourth century. 4 To  

be sure, Orpheus did not only elicit complimentary remarks. Clement of Alexandria
speaks of him in malam partem, as an impostor, who had with his art lured humanity
into idolatry. 5 For Clement, it is precisely Orpheus’s peculiar style of paganism which

1  Contra Celsum, vi, 30-31 (345-48 Chadwick).

2  Ugo Bianchi, Psyche and destiny, in his Selected Essays, p. 55, xxx. Similar passwords are of course well-known
from the Orphic gold lamellae ; see Christoph Riedweg, Poésie orphique et rituel initiatique. Elements d’un ‘discours

sacré’ dans les lamelles d’or, « rhr », 219, 2002, pp. 459-481.

3  W. K. C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, p. 265.

4  On the avatars of Orpheus in Christian art and literature, see John Block Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle
Ages, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1970. For the early centuries, see in particular chapter ii. See
further Christoph Markschies, Odysseus und Orpheus – christlich gelesen, in Raban von Haeling (ed.), Griechische
Mythologie und frühes Christentum, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005, pp. 227-253. For more
detailed studies of artistic representations, see Ilona Julia Jesnick, The Image of Orpheus in Roman Mosaic (« bar  

International Series », 671), Jerusalem, 1997. For the impact of Orpheus’s figure on late antique Jewish art, see

Moshe Barasch, The David Mosaic of Gaza, in Nurith Kenaan (ed.), Assaph : Studies in Art History, Tel Aviv, Tel

Aviv University, 1980, i, pp. 1-41. I wish to thank Rina Talgam for calling my attention to these last two items.
5  Protrepticus i, 3, 1 (éd. Mondésert-Plasart [« Sources Chrétiennes », 55], Paris, Cerf, 1949 [2d ed.]). Cf. Jean-Mi-

chel Roessli, Convergence et divergence dans l’interprétation du mythe d’Orphée. De Clément d’Alexandrie à Eusèbe de
Césarée, « rhr », 219, 2002, pp. 503-513. See also Eleanor Irwin, The Songs of Orpheus and the New Song of Christ, in

John Warden (ed.), Orpheus : The Metamorphoses of a Myth, Toronto, Buffalo, London, Toronto University Press,

1982, pp. 51-62.

154 guy g. stroumsa
was particularly threatening, since it could appear as dangerously close to the Christian
Martin Nilsson has spoken of a hostile relationship between the early Orphics and the
adepts of Bacchic rituals, comparing it to the rivalry between early Christians and Jews,
whom the Christians despised and accused of misunderstanding their own Scriptures. 1  

Nilsson was here following in the footsteps of Jane Harrison, who saw in Orpheus a
prophet of reform of the primitive Dionysiac religion. As a reform of former cult,
Orphism was thus compared to the Christian reform of Judaism – and, inevitably, the
traditional perception of Christian ‘spirit’ versus Jewish ‘flesh’ spilled over, as it were,
onto the perception of the tensions between Orphism and traditional Greek religion.
The discussion of the relationship between Orphism and Christianity is part and
parcel of the broad theme of Hellenistic mysteries versus Christian sacraments. At
the start of his celebrated essay on the topic, dating from 1952, a. d. Nock points out
that it has been so much discussed that it is hard to believe that one may come up with
any new conclusions. 2 In his Drudgery Divine, Jonathan Z. Smith argued at length that

among Protestant scholars, mystery religions were often treated as essentially Catholic
in their essence, as it were. Such scholars often considered Judaism as a cordon sanitaire
around early Christianity, which prevented its ‘pollution’ by the looming « Hellenistic  

mysteries ». 3 Smith was no doubt able to identify a clear desire, mainly within Protes-

tant milieus, to ‘protect’ early Christianity from the surrounding cults and myths in the
Roman Empire. To a great extent, indeed, these cults and myths were deemed in these
milieus to be too close to those of the Catholic Church. There is much truth in this ap-
proach, but it is far from representing the whole gamut of attitudes. 4  

Fritz Graf has recently proposed to relate the strong interest in Orphism at the end
of the nineteenth century to the Kulturkampf in Bismarkian Germany. 5 The identifica-  

tion of preludes and parallels to early Christianity in the Greek world led to its histo-
ricizing, thus supporting the demand for a ‘privatization’ of religion, for its ‘des-estab-
lishment’. Similar attitudes, however, would soon be reflected in Catholic milieus ; the  

most striking example, here, is probably that of Alfred Loisy, a Catholic priest who was
eventually excommunicated for the boldness of his scholarly views, and who ended at
the Collège de France a career begun at the Institut Catholique. Loisy described what
he thought was the Orphic cult referred to in the gold lamellae : « L’ascétisme ici vient    

en aide au mysticisme pour organiser la rédemption ». 6 In Les mystères païens et le mystère


chrétien, a book written before the first World War but only published in 1919, Loisy
insisted on the « spiritual affinities » between pagan mysteries and Christianity. Both

represented in the ancient world the transformation of former « national religions » (or    

Two fundamental studies on Orphism and early Christianity were published after these pages were redacted :  

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Tradición órfica y cristianismo antiguo, Madrid, Trotta, 2007, and Fabienne Jour-
dan, Orphée et les chrétiens : la réception du mythe d’Orphée dans la littérature chrétienne grecque des cinq premiers siècles.

i. Orphée, du repoussoir au préfigurateur du Christ, Paris, Belles Lettres, 2010.

1  Martin Nilsson, Early Orphism and Kindred Religious Movements, « Harvard Theological Review », 28, 1935,

pp. 181-230, esp. 204.

2  Arthur Darby Nock, Hellenistic Mysteries and Christian Sacraments, in Zeph Stewart (ed.), Essays on Religion
and the Ancient World, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972, ii, pp. 791-820.
3  Smith, Drudgery Divine, pp. 79-81.
4  Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, pp. 52-54, argues against Smith for interaction between religions of
Late Antiquity. 5  Graf, The Luminous Path to Paradise.
6  Alfred Loisy, Essai historique sur le sacrifice, Paris, 1920, p. 411.
the afterlife of orphism 155
« cults »), such as the religion of the Greek polis and that of Israel, which were unable

to offer promises of personal immortality and eternal happiness. 1 For Loisy, the great  

divide was that between state religions and those of the individual. For him, only the
latter were established upon personal choice : « On naît dans sa religion nationale, on

entre dans le mystère librement et par choix ». 2 In a sense, then, Loisy’s analysis re-

flects the acceptance by a French Catholic intellectual of the new attitudes to religion
entailed by the 1905 Law of separation of Church and State. Religion, true, spiritual
religion, is the business of the individual. One imagines easily how such an approach
could strike more traditional Catholic scholars as tainted with either free-thinking or,
worse, a Protestant color.
Indeed, Loisy’s conception of Orphism would be the main target of Marie-Joseph
Lagrange, the daring Dominican who, in the late nineteenth century, had established
the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, in order to show urbi et orbi
that Catholic scholars were able, just like the Protestants, but of course better, to study
the Bible with the tools of historical philology and modern archaeology.
Orphism was so central for Lagrange that he devoted to it the fourth volume of
his Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, published in 1930. From the start,
Lagrange states clearly the stakes involved : he intends to debunk the commonly held

view that Christianity represents the union of messianic beliefs with the cult of a sav-
ing god, or that it is, before all, a mystery religion which succeeded more than others. 3  

The various chapters of the book deal, in rather scholastic fashion, with the current
state of research on Orphic literature, the figure of Orpheus, Orphic myths, Orphism
as a salvation religion, and its impact of Orphism in Greece. A very short and insig-
nificant chapter deals with Orphism and Judaism. It is only in the twelfth and last,
long chapter, L’orphisme et le christianisme, that Lagrange tackles the book’s real goal :  

to refute Loisy’s claim that Orphism, as a Dionysiac mystery cult established around
the myth of the death and resurrection of Dionysus Zagreus, was « le type le plus rap-  

proché du christianisme paulinien ». 4    

The union to the suffering and dying god is the first theme analyzed by Lagrange,
who concludes that Orphism, like the other mysteries, lacked the notion of spirit
which would have rendered such a union possible. As to the union to the resurrected
god, the fundamental difference between Christians and Orphics lies in the status of
the body : the Christian strives for the resurrection of the body, while the deepest desire

of the Orphic is his liberation from the burden of the body. In the Orphic myth, one
cannot really speak of original sin, as the evil nature of the titans is the origin, rather
than the consequence, of their sin. On sacrifice and omophagy, the deep divide be-
tween Orphism and Christianity is obvious ; it is for vetus, rather than verus Israel, that

blood sacrifices are considered a pleasing offering to God. On purifications after death
and the prayer for the dead (retained in the Catholic refrigerium), Lagrange accepts the

1  Alfred Loisy, Les mystères païens et le mystère chrétien, Paris, Nourry, 1930 [first ed. 1919]), p. 15. Cf. Susan
Guettel Cole, Voices beyond the Grave : Dionysus and the Dead, in Thomas H. Carpenter, Christopher A. Faraone

(eds.), Masks of Dionysus, Ithaca, London, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 277-285, speaks of Dionysus as of a
god whose myths about the double birth, death and rebirth, and journey to the Underworld, transformed into a
figure attractive to those who wished to escape anxieties of death (279). 2  Loisy, Mystères païens, 17.
3  Marie-Joseph Lagrange, Les mystères : l’orphisme, Paris, Gabalda, 1937 (« Introduction à l’étude du Nouveau

Testament », iv : « Critique historique »), p. 2-3. Cf. François Laplanche, La crise de l’origine : La science catholique

des Evangiles et l’histoire au xxe siècle, Paris, Albin Michel, 2005, xxx.
4  Lagrange, Les mystères : l’orphisme, p. 191.

156 guy g. stroumsa
argument of the « German Protestant » scholars, for whom purgatory is a rather late

conception, unknown to the earliest Church.

Lagrange’s discussion of a possible influence of Orphism on early Christianity is
summed up with a total disclaimer : « il ne peut être question de l’influence de l’opinion

orphique (encore moins des mystères) sur la religion chrétienne ». 1    

The book ends with a reference to a fourth or fifth century mosaic found, with
Lagrange’s help, in Jerusalem in 1901, a picture of which appears on the title page. Or-
pheus plays the lyre to the beasts, in what seems to be an originally pagan iconography,
later Christianized, as shown by the images of Georgia and Theodora. 2  

4. Conclusion
In his influential L’idéal religieux des grecs et l’Évangile, first published in 1932, André-Jean
Festugière, a Dominican classicist writing in the spirit of Lagrange, 3 sought to identify  

what was missing in Greek thought, that permitted the Gospel to take hold of the an-
cient world. Marshalling both Greek philosophy and literature, he reached the conclu-
sion that while the Greeks did reflect on human suffering, and did at times recognize
that it could teach and ennoble men, they were unable to perceive its saving value. It is
only divine sacrifice that can bring to man’s delivery. Festugière’s vision, so eloquently
presented, remained rather schematic – and totally ignored the Jewish character of ear-
liest Christianity. In these pages, I have argued for the need to study together the various
echoes of Orpheus and Orphism in the Hellenistic and Roman world, if we want to
understand more precisely the continuities and discontinuities between Orphic, Jew-
ish, Gnostic and Christian texts.
The argument between Loisy and Lagrange has been presented here at some length
as it exemplifies the stakes of the history of religions in the ancient world as a burning
issue in shaping religious identities in the twentieth century. To us, such arguments
may sound as coming from afar, and their echo is blurred. Today, a scholar would
be very singular to claim that her or his identity is challenged by perceptions of an-
cient Orphism and of its historical impact. Oddly enough, in an age in which claiming
inter-disciplinary interests is de bon ton, we seem to have given up on ancient, still un-
solved problems. The comparative study of suffering gods, at least, remains very much
a scholarly desideratum.
I have not dealt here, on purpose, with Radcliffe Edmonds iii’s argument according
to which the Zagreus myth is a fabrication of modern scholarship dependent upon
Christian models. 4 Such a discussion is best left to philologists. Edmonds is certainly

right in calling attention to the cultural and religious context in which the modern
study of Orphism was born and developed. But he, too, like all of us, is also the heir of
this context : it is still hard for us to recognize the existence, centuries before the birth

of Christianity, of some of its fundamental concepts.

1  Lagrange, Les mystères : l’orphisme, p. 217.

2  On this mosaic, which is now in Istanbul, see A. Ovadiah, S. Muchnik, The Jerusalem Orpheus : A Pagan or a

Christian Figure ?, in A. Oppenheimer, U. Rappaport, M. Stern (eds.), Chapters in the History of Jerusalem during the

Second Commonwealth, Jerusalem, Ben Zvi Institute, 1981, pp. 415-433 (in Hebrew).
3  He had studied at the Ecole Biblique for a year.
4  Radcliffe G. Edmonds iii, Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth : A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Origi-

nal Sin, « Classical Antiquity », 18, 1999, pp. 35-73.

the afterlife of orphism 157
At the start of this essay, I referred to the religious mutations of late antiquity. On the
transformation of the person, on the use of books in religion, on the end of blood sacri-
fices, and on the passage from civil to communitarian religion – on all these mutations,
and on how they were made possible, the Orphic traditions offer important insights.
The early Orphic texts highlight one early instance of the transformation of religious
beliefs in the Achsenzeit, at least within small, marginal groups. It was carried around in
various garbs during the Hellenistic world, in particular by the Jews. It is only under the
Roman Empire that the implicit and explicit conceptions underlining it would become
widespread, permitting the transformation of the very idea of religion.
c o mposto in car atter e dan t e mon ot y p e d a l l a
fabr izio serr a editor e , p i s a · r om a .
s tamp ato e rileg at o n e l l a
t ipog rafia di ag n an o, ag n a n o p i s a n o ( p i s a ) .
Maggio 2012
(cz 2 · fg 3)

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