Thursday, November 10, 2011


Alberto Bernabé, Francesc Casadesús (ed.), Orfeo y la tradición órfica: un reencuentro. (2 vols.) Akal Universitaria. Madrid: Akal, 2008. Pp. 1803. ISBN 9788446018964. €91.35 (pb.).

Reviewed by Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta, University of Groningen (

Version at BMCR home site

Preview, vol. 1

The last decades have seen great advances in our knowledge of Orpheus and the Orphic world. The spectacular papyrological and archaeological finds of recent years, including the Derveni papyrus and the gold and bone lamellae from Thessaly and Olbia, respectively, have resulted in renewed interest and the appearance of numerous studies in which Bernabé, Brisson, Burkert, West and others have contributed to enlarging our overall sense of the Orphic world-view. This wonderful book, edited by Alberto Bernabé and Francesc Casadesús, intends to provide quick and easy access to these new developments. Indeed, the huge two-volume edition provides an overview of the most recent tendencies in the research on Orpheus and Orphism up to 2006 and takes as its starting point an objective philological analysis of the material, now possible thanks to Bernabé's monumental and recent publication Orphicorum et orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta (Munich and Leipzig, 2004-2005), which replaces the excellent but outdated Orphicorum fragmenta (1922) by Kern.

The sixty-three essays (excluding introduction and epilogue) in this impressive collection are the work of both editors (Bernabé is the author of thirteen articles and co-author of one other, Casadesús the author of five), numerous collaborators, including, notably A.I. Jiménez (six contributions plus one co-authored article) and M. Herrero (four), and a select number of renowned specialists, including L. Brisson, W. Burkert, C. Calame, F. Graf, C. Riedweg and M. West.

In addition to the introduction, the first volume includes six major parts:

1. Orpheus: from Mythical Character to Author
2. Orphic Texts
3. Similar Voices
4. The Framework of Orphic Beliefs
5. Orphic Practices: Orpheotelestai and Mystai
6. Orphic Music and Discourse

After the first part, which assesses issues of a more general character and focuses on the mythical figure of Orpheus and its tradition, Parts 2 and 3 are entirely devoted to the textual materials, presenting and critically analysing the testimony provided by the different texts that are directly or indirectly related to Orphism.

The second part provides the necessary philological basis required to attempt, in the following parts, an objective reconstruction of the Orphic world-view. It opens with a synthetic overview of the many different Orphic texts. There is no-one better able to do so than Bernabé, a scholar with decades of experience in dealing with Orphic texts. He divides the bulk of them into three large groups:

1. Poems related to the archē
2. Poems related to the telos
3. 'Scientific' poems and other late productions

This tripartition, however, is intended more as an orientation for the reader than as an organizational principle, since the articles included in the textual section follow a typological characterization: Orphic and Homeric Traditions (M. Herrero), Orphic Poems and the Hesiodic Tradition (M.L. West), Orphic Theogonies (A. Bernabé), Orphic Hymns (G. Ricciardelli), Orphic Argonautica (M. Sánchez), Orphic Lithica (R. Martín), Orphic Literature in a Jewish Context (Riedweg), Hymns, Epigrams and Mantic Poetry (Bernabé), Ritual Literature (A.I. Jiménez), Magic and Pseudo-Scientific Literature (R. Martín), The Derveni Papyrus (Casadesús), The Golden Lamellae (Bernabé-Jiménez), and The Olbian Lamellae (Bernabé).

The third part (R.B. Martínez) includes an analysis of the testimony of a group of poets known in Antiquity as theologoi , whose characteristics are similar to those of Orpheus. They move between myth and reality: Musaeus, who seems to belong to the realm of myth; Linus, originally the name of a song and later of a legendary figure; Epimenides, perhaps a historical figure; and Onomacritus: all are poets traditionally associated with theogonic and ritual poems closely associated with Orphic literature.

The fourth part, starting with a study by W. Burkert on fragment 12 Bern., approaches several myths and ideas traditionally related to Orphism: the Orphic Myth of Dionysus and the Titans (Bernabé), Orphic Ideas on the Soul (F. Molina), the Orphic View of the Afterlife (Bernabé), Symbols and Symbolism in the Golden Lamellae (M. Tortorelli), Orpheus, Eleusis and Athens (Graf) and Orphism and Dionysianism (Jiménez).

The fifth part has a more practical character, since it focuses on Orphic Ritual and Rites (Jiménez), on Orpheotelestai and Orphic Life (Jiménez) and on Orphic Ritual and Magic (R. Martín). After offering a definition of the term teletē, the section analyses both the parts and the elements of the ritual and then describes other minor rituals.

The sixth part, in turn, analyses Orphism and Music (Molina), Orphic Discourse (Calame) and Etymologies and Plays on Sounds and Words in Orphic Texts (Bernabé).

The second volume consists of four major parts:

7. Parallels to Orphic Ideas outside Greece and Rome
8. Traces of Orphism
9. Orphism and Politics
10. In Search of a Synthesis

A. Bernabé's 'Ex Oriente. Near Eastern Parallels to Orphic Myths and Beliefs' opens the seventh part and assesses the alleged Oriental influences on Orphism. The title itself, with its preference for the term 'parallels' rather than 'influences', advances the author's sceptical attitude towards the so-called Oriental influences. After reviewing, one by one, so-called parallels from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Phoenician and Hebrew backgrounds, the author concludes (pp. 930-931), firstly, that parallels are never complete (sometimes we may find thematic connections, but Oriental elements have also been transformed on Greek soil); secondly, when the Oriental origin of a given element can be ascertained, there is no evidence to affirm its prior existence in an earlier period – most influences proceed from the Hellenistic or Imperial periods.

Articles are devoted to researching the parallels between Orphism and different cultural milieus, concerning the Golden Lamellae and the Jaiminīya Brāhmana (J. Mendoza), Ideas of the Afterlife and Fate in Ancient India (E.A. Luján), Parallels between Orphism and Zoroastrianism (J.A. Álvarez-Pedrosa), Orpheus and Qumrán (J.M. Roessli) and Orphism in Thrace (A. Fol).

The eighth part, the lengthiest of the book, deals with traces of Orphism in different intellectual milieus, notably philosophy. The opening article by F. Casadesús on Orphism and Pythagoreanism begins by deconstructing the often ambiguous and always vague label 'Orphic-Pythagorean' used to describe elements in Greek thought that are not easy to classify or explain. Given that Orpheus appears to be an entirely mythical figure, the author focuses on old testimonies about Pythagoras and those that relate him to Orpheus, in order to subsequently assess the Orphic and Pythagorean concept of the soul and the belief in its punishment in the afterlife. There follows a series of articles on the relationship between Orphism and Heraclitus (Casadesús), Empedocles (C. Megino), Other Presocratics (Bernabé), Pindar (M.A. Santamaría), Greek Tragedy (S. Macías), Greek Comedy (Bernabé), Plato (Casadesús), Aristotle (Megino), the Stoa (Casadesús), Hellenistic Poets (Santamaría), Orphism in Rome (Herrero), in Lucian and the Second Sophistic (Santamaría), in the Papyri (D. Obbink), in Greek and Roman Religious Epigraphy (Jiménez), Neo-Platonism (L. Brisson), Gnosticism (E. Albrile), Christianity (Herrero), and Nonnus's Dionysiaca (R. García-Gasco).

The ninth part, on Orphism and Politics, is entirely devoted to Orphism, the Genos and the Polis (Herrero) and focuses on the sociopolitical side of the Orphic movement. It claims that there is a need to revisit the view on Orphism as a chemin de déviance , as proposed by D. Sabbatucci and M. Detienne. A monolithic explanation of Orphism is considered to be impossible since different chronological and spatial coordinates produced rather different understandings. Against the interpretation of Orphism as the religion of the pariah one might oppose, for example, the aristocratic attitude which, by means of Orphic lore, transformed social into eschatological elitism.

The tenth part is an epilogue by Bernabé which attempts to provide an overview of the achievements of the volume in twenty-three pages. The author summarizes the goals reached in both volumes by means of fifteen sections which roughly coincide with the previous nine parts of the work. Indeed if one subtracts the introduction, in which the editor explains the goals of the enterprise (1. 'Razones de un intento'), and the closing section (15. 'Colofón'), each major part is covered by a titled section, except for the fourth part which is covered in two sections (5. 'Las creencias órficas' and 6. 'El Orfismo, Eleusis y el Dionisismo') and the eighth part which is covered in four sections (10. 'Relaciones del Orfismo con la literatura y la filosofía'; 11. Prolongación romana del orfismo'; 12. 'Huellas del orfismo en papiros e inscripciones; and 13. 'Últimos ecos: neoplatónicos, gnósticos y cristianos'). This epilogue provides very useful, quick access to the contents of the different parts of the book and also summarizes the conclusions drawn by different scholars in the corresponding parts.

According to Bernabé, openness and flexibility are inherent to Orphic religiosity from the beginning. Given the lack in Ancient Greece of a priestly caste and the literary transmission of Orphism, the Orphic message was always likely to be interpreted by intermediaries of all kinds and with a variety of provenances. These intermediaries adapted Orphic lore to the needs and circumstances of various followers. Unlike the official Greek religion, which was more concerned with the group and its social cohesion, Orphism was more closely related to the individual. The multilayered character of Orphism is consequently due more to the idiosyncrasy of its 'consumers' than to a religious hierarchy that controlled its contents. As a result, Orphism appears as a religious phenomenon that could embrace a wide range of attitudes to and understandings of the Orphic phenomenon: on one end of the spectrum we have a more popular strand in which the magical solutions attributed to Orpheus played a central role, since they provided relief for daily ills; on the other end we have a more refined and deeper understanding of the Orphic lore, which emphasized its philosophical or even scientific aspects, as reflected by Pindar and Empedocles. Between these opposing poles there are still those who had confidence in the redeeming power of the teletē , namely the transmission by means of myth and ritual of a body of religious beliefs as a means to overcome the fears associated with Hades and death. In the author's view, a good understanding of the Orphic phenomenon must take this variety, flexibility and openness as a point of departure, otherwise one runs the risk of overlooking the intrinsic character of this religious movement.

The book is comprehensive, well structured, thorough and clear. It also includes an extensive bibliography (pp. 1649-1731) and detailed index (pp. 1733-1792). It is a fantastic book for all students of Orphism and related subjects.

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