Back to top

From Orpheus To Homer


A Lively Afterlife and Beyond : The Soul in Plato, Homer, and the Orphica

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III


The NeoPlatonist Olympiodorus claims that “Plato borrows everywhere from Orpheus”, but many of the afterlife ideas which Plato is supposed to have drawn from “Orphism” come not from the Orphica, but from the broader mythological tradition. Even those elements which Plato did draw from the Orphica or similar sources, however, he transformed in significant ways to suit his philosophical purposes in the particular dialogue. I first examine the idea, which appears in many different sources from the earliest evidence, of a lively afterlife, an idea that differs from the epic vision of Homer where poetic glory provides the only meaningful form of life after death. Nevertheless, a differentiated afterlife with judgement, complex geography, and rewards and punishments was a widespread and generally accepted idea, which Plato manipulates in various ways in different dialogues. By contrast, other ideas of the relation of the soul to the body, such as the soul entombed in the body or the process of reincarnation, appear marked, in the evidence of Plato and others, as extra-ordinary and unfamiliar ideas, which Plato again transposes to fit his arguments in the dialogue.

Entrées d’index

παρῳδεῖ γὰρ πανταχοῦ τὰ Ὀρφέως. Plato borrows everywhere from Orpheus. (Olympiodorus, in Plat. Phd. 7.10.10)

1.So claims the sixth century NeoPlatonist, Olympiodorus, attributing Plato’s ideas of the soul and its nature in the Phaedo to the mysterious ancient singer Orpheus. Later scholars have been inclined to follow Olympiodorus in attributing many of Plato’s ideas about the soul to Orpheus, or rather to ‘the Orphics’ or ‘Orphism’, a variously defined religious current linked to the poems of the mythic poet Orpheus. Too often, Plato’s philosophic innovations are explained away by tracing the ideas back to ‘Orphism’, but this search for sources, which served Olympiodorus and the other NeoPlatonists to bolster the authority of Plato and the ancient pagan tradition against the advancing tide of Christianity, obscures the subtle work of Plato in manipulating the mythological and philosophic tradition of which he was a part.

2.Here I want to argue that many of the ideas which Plato is supposed to have drawn from Orphism come not from the Orphica, but from the broader mythological tradition. Even those elements which Plato did draw from the Orphica or similar sources, however, he transformed in significant ways to suit his philosophical purposes in the particular dialogue. I shall first examine the idea of a lively afterlife, arguing that, while this vision differs from that of Homer, a differentiated afterlife with judgement, complex geography, and rewards and punishments was nevertheless a widespread and generally accepted idea, which Plato manipulates in various ways in different dialogues. By contrast, other ideas of the relation of the soul to the body, such as the soul entombed in the body or the process of reincarnation, appear marked, in the evidence of Plato and others, as extra-ordinary and unfamiliar ideas, which Plato again transposes to fit his arguments in the dialogue.

The Lively Afterlife

  • 1 Parker 1995, p. 500. Not only does such a claim ignore the mass of Orphic material on other subject (...)

3.To assess the idea that Plato borrows from Orpheus, we must understand what was Orphic in antiquity. The category of Orphism is often defined in modern scholarship precisely by the presence of certain kinds of ideas about the afterlife, the nature and fate of the soul. Orphic ideas of the soul and afterlife are most often defined by explicit contrast with the Homeric view of the afterlife, which is taken as the standard view for ancient Greek culture. As Parker puts it, “Orphic poetry can almost be defined as eschatological poetry, and it was in such poems perhaps that ‘persuasive’ accounts of the afterlife – accounts designed, unlike that in Odyssey xi, to influence the hearer’s behaviour in the here and now – were powerfully presented for the first time.”1 I argue that such an approach provides a misleading picture not only of Orphic ideas of afterlife, but even of the normative ideas in ancient Greek culture about the nature and fate of the soul, in life and afterwards. We cannot understand what Plato is doing with the mythological tradition unless we properly understand the place of those ideas within it. The ideas in Homeric poetry that are usually taken to be standard in fact represent a special perspective that stresses the power of poetry to provide immortality, while the range of ideas that are actually marked in the ancient evidence as extraordinary or linked with Orpheus and his ilk is much smaller. The persistence of the soul and the lively afterlife are not the exclusive province of Orphism but rather the normal and most widely accepted ideas in the tradition. Only a limited range of ideas about the relation of the soul to the body seem consistently to be labeled, in some way or other, as Orphic in the evidence.

Redefining Ancient Orphism

  • 2. See especially Edmonds 2008a, 2008b, and 2013 (from which some of the foregoing is drawn).

4.In my current work, I am seeking to redefine ancient Orphism, that is, to come up with a way of defining the category of things the ancient Greeks would have labeled Orphic.2 In my process of re-definition, I start with Linforth’s single criterion of the name of Orpheus to delineate evidence labeled as Orphic by the ancient witnesses, but I derive from this class of explicitly labeled evidence a set of criteria that characterize the material in different ways as extra-ordinary religious phenomena. I suggest that Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblances’ permits us to construct a polythetic definition in which evidence characterized by any of several criteria may be labeled Orphic. In this polythetic definition, there is no single feature, be it the name of Orpheus or some particular doctrine of the soul, that makes something Orphic. Rather, if something - person, text, or ritual - boasted of extra-ordinary purity or sanctity, made a claim to special divine connection or extreme antiquity, or was marked by extra-ordinary strangeness, perversity, or alien nature, then that thing might be labeled Orphic, classified with other Orphic things, and perhaps even sealed with the name of Orpheus. This polythetic definition permits us to include even material that is not sealed with the name of Orpheus but is classified as extra-ordinary in the same ways that other evidence that does bear Orpheus’ name.

5.Whereas modern scholars have tended to make such attributions on the basis of supposed Orphic doctrines, the ancients made no such doctrinal classifications.Rather, the ancient label “Orphic” was more like the contemporary term “new age”, which is associated, not specifically with particular religious ideas or organizations, but more vaguely with a set of ideas loosely defined by their distance from mainstream religious activity. Like “new age”, the association with Orpheus can be positive, indicating special inspiration that goes beyond the ordinary, but often is negative, implying a holier-than-thou attitude that is either ludicrous or hypocritical. Whether something is labeled as Orphic depends, in the ancient evidence, not on the presence of particular mythic motifs or religious doctrines, but upon the act of classification by a particular classifier in a specific context ; it is, therefore, always a polemical definition, not a disinterested one.

  • 3. “El creyente órfico busca la salvación individual, dentro de un marco de referencia en que son punt (...)
  1. 6. By contrast, scholars over the past century and a half have put forth various lists of Orphic doctrines in their attempts to define Orphism by its doctrines. Bernabé has recently listed the central points of Orphic doctrine that have met with (more or less) general agreement : a belief in a soul-body dualism, an idea of an original sin (or peché antécédent) from which purification can be sought to attain salvation, and the idea of a cycle of reincarnations over which this process occurs.3 I argue, to the contrary, that the dualism of the soul and body is an idea found throughout the tradition, whereas reincarnation is only found occasionally in texts labeled Orphic (even in its broadest sense) and cannot be read back into other texts. While a number of Orphic texts do emphasize the idea of purification, the idea of an Orphic doctrine of an inherited original sin is a modern fabrication, and the idea of obtaining a favorable afterlife (salvation) is not in itself an idea restricted to Orphism. The attempt to define Orphism by these doctrines includes in the category evidence that was never regarded as Orphic by the ancients themselves, as well as attributing all of these doctrines to evidence that displays only some or none of these ideas.
  • 4 “It was the Orphic Mysteries,” proclaims Smyth, “that gave birth to the most profound ideas of Gree (...)
  • 5 Rohde 1925, p. 9, complains, “To speak of an ‘immortal life’ of these souls, as scholars both ancie (...)
  • 6 For Rohde, drawing upon the ideas of his friend Nietzsche, Dionysiac ecstasy provided the worshippe (...)
  • 7 Cp. Lucas 1946, p. 67. “The modern reader, baffled and dismayed by the apparent crudity of much of (...)

7.The supposed centrality of these doctrines concerning the soul to Orphism accounts in large part for the interest that Orphism has aroused over the last century and a half, since scholars regarded Orphism as the channel through which the idea of the immortality of the soul, as well as the idea of sin and salvation, entered Western philosophic and religious tradition – primarily through the works of Plato.4 The contrast between the idea of mere persistence of souls beyond physical death and a true and authentic idea of immortality of the soul, has been seen as the contrast between the dreary Homeric afterlife, where everyone shares the same bleak fate, and the other visions of a more lively afterlife, with different fates for different folks.5 In his fundamental study of the issue, Rohde argues for the evolution of a real idea of the immortality of the soul coming from new ideas of the soul and of afterlife that arise out of the Dionysiac invasion and the Orphic reform.6 Hence, by this argument, the Orphics are responsible for the entry into Greek religion of a real concept of the immortality of the soul, and the appearance of such ideas in other texts can be attributed to the influence of the Orphics.7

  • 8. Thus, for example, despite her caveats, Johnston’s recent survey of Greek beliefs of death (...)
  • 9. Cp. Albinus 2000, p. 16. “The Archaic attitude towards death was confined to remembrance and adorat (...)
  • 10 .pace Rohde 1925, p. 26. “If the Homeric creed had not been so constructed in essentials that it cor (...)

8.Even though the historical premises of Rohde’s argument have long since been rejected, the relation of the Homeric ideas of afterlife to the Orphic is still relentlessly depicted in terms of a chronological development.8 Other views are presented as later developments, starting with the Archaic period - or rather with the elements in Homer (and Hesiod) that seem to clash with the ideas that are presumed to be “earliest”.9 Despite the notorious problems of dating the Homeric epics or even various elements within them, scholars have put forth a circular argument : the earliest material can be identified as the truly Homeric idea of afterlife, while the later material can be identified as such because it conflicts with the truly Homeric version, which is the earlier. The problem, I suggest, lies in the confusion of the world in the Homeric poems with the world of the Homeric poems, that is, the world of their audience. The ideology of death and afterlife expressed in the Homeric poems does not necessarily correspond to the ideas that were generally accepted by the audiences of the Homeric poems over the years in which the poems were being composed and performed.10 Rather, the poems articulate their own ideology of death and afterlife that resonates with the ideas of heroic glory and the poetic celebration thereof within the poems. Scholars have mistaken the special ideology within the poems for the ideas of death and afterlife of the audience outside the poems, thus misunderstanding both the way the ideas and images of afterlife are used both in Homer and in later authors such as Plato.

The Homeric Afterlife

  • 11 .The shade of Patroklos refers to the other ghosts as ψυχαὶ εἴδωλα καμόντων - souls, phantoms (...)
  • 12. Homer Iliad 12.322-8. ὦ πέπον εἰ μὲν γὰρ πόλεμον περὶ τόνδε φυγόντε| αἰεὶ δὴ μέλλοιμεν ἀγήρω (...)
  • 13. Thus, even Achilles, who chose to die young and glorious would rather be alive again, although (...)
  1. 9. The Homeric epics present a mixed picture of what happens to an individual after death, but scholars have focused on one element in that picture as the standard view of the afterlife, not just in Homer but in Greek religion more broadly. This supposedly standard view is that the souls of the dead lack all mind or force ; once a hero leaves the light of the sun, only a grim, joyless and tedious existence awaits, with no particular suffering but no pleasure either. Such a view is supported by a few key passages in the epics : the meeting of Achilles with the shade of Patroklos in the Iliad, the meeting of Odysseus with his mother in the Underworld in the Odyssey.11 This bleak vision of death and afterlife is fundamental to the Homeric idea of the hero’s choice - only in life is there any meaningful existence, so the hero is the one who, like Achilles, chooses to do glorious deeds. Since death is inevitable, Sarpedon points out, the hero should not try to avoid it but go out into the front of battle and win honor and glory.12 Such glory (κλέος) is the only thing that really is imperishable (ἄφθιτον), the only meaningful form of immortality, since the persistence of the soul after death is so unappealing.13
  • 14. “The vividness of the Homeric image of the senseless ghosts is so strong and striking in its starkn (...)
  • 15. Homer Odyssey 11.541-546 ; Homer Iliad 24.591-595. Patroklos is now safely cremated and celebrated (...)
  • 16 .Homer Odyssey 11. 29-33. I swore many times to the strengthless heads of the dead that, when I retu (...)
  • 17. As Claus 1981 notes of Iliad 23.103-4, “What is impressive about these lines is not that they expla (...)
  • 18 .Sourvinou-Inwood 1995, p. 79, referring to Odyssey 11, Odyssey 10.493-5, Iliad 23.103-7. “But if, a (...)
  1. 10. As powerful as this grim vision of the afterlife is in the Homeric epics, commentators since antiquity have noticed that this uniformly dreary life for the senseless, strengthless dead is not the only vision of afterlife presented in the Homeric poems.14 For example, Achilles worries in the Iliad lest the soul of Patroklos get angry at learning that he has given Hektor’s corpse back to his father, and the soul of Ajax can recall the past quarrel and remain angry at Odysseus while sulking at a distance, never drinking the blood that is supposed to be necessary to restore awareness to the shades.15 Odysseus, while he is performing libations and sacrifices to the dead at the entrance to the Underworld, even makes an elaborate promise to perform further rituals upon his return to Ithaca for the satisfaction of the dead.16 The scenes with Achilles and Patroklos or Odysseus and his mother are notable for their pathos, but, while these few passages clearly articulate the idea that the shades of the dead live mindless and meaningless existences,17 the other references to the life after death are much less marked, suggesting that audience needs less grounding to accept the ideas of lively afterlife introduced in them. It is the ideas of mindless shades and lifeless afterlife that need careful handling - put in the mouths of authoritative speakers like Achilles, Circe and Odysseus as explanations of strange visions, these ideas are marked as special, in contrast to the expected and accepted ideas of a lively afterlife.18
  • 19. Homer Odyssey 11.568-575. As Sourvinou-Inwood notes, “Outside this context he [Homer] does not stic (...)
  • 20. Much ingenuity has been needlessly exercised in the attempt to explain away the punishments of Tant (...)

11.Outside the few passages that emphasize the helplessness of the shades, the Homeric references to life after death provide a much more lively picture of the afterlife, a picture that corresponds with the evidence found outside the Homeric epics. The dead have feelings and emotions, memories of their lives in the sun, and the ability to know of and even interfere in the world of the living. They appreciate the attentions paid to them by the living, not simply the burial and funeral rituals, but the offerings made subsequently at the tomb. Moreover, the world of the dead itself is not so dreary, nor are all the shades merely flitting about, gibbering mindlessly. The pursuits of the dead mirror the world of the living, and the social hierarchies of the living world persist in some form after death. Orion continues his hunting, while Minos continues giving judgement and resolving conflicts, suggesting that, in the world of the dead, the shades carry on with the characteristically Greek pursuit of lawsuits.19 Minos’ position among the dead, not to mention Achilles’, suggests that the social hierarchies from the world of the living are reproduced in the land of the dead - the gods’ favorites remain favored. Likewise, those who won favor from the gods by their deeds in life continue to reap the benefits, while those who incurred the wrath of the gods continue to suffer their displeasure.20 This afterlife is not uniform for all ; those who have angered the gods continue their punishments in the afterlife, while those who have won their favor continue to enjoy its benefits. This differentiated afterlife is in direct conflict with the uniformly dreary one that underscores the importance of the heroic glory.