Since Orphism developed fairly late in Southern Italy, and among a fairly literate immigrant population at that, we can watch the fascinating process of a faith in evolution. Around the seventh century you see this Thracian element begin to merge with indigenous chthonic cults of Persephone and Dionysos and then around the fifth century you can note another strain being added into the mix, what I call the Empedoklean and Pythagorean strain. This strain is actually responsible for a lot of notions people have about what constitutes Orphism which is ironic since it’s kind of a-typical of the general movement. For instance by taking what other groups in this complex considered to be temporary mortuary taboos and transforming them into a permanent model of a pure life based on abstinence or even more significantly by bringing in the notion of metempsychosis which conflicts radically with the earlier beliefs held by such groups as evidenced in their ritual and myth. Although I am interested in disentangling these strands I feel a strong affinity for elements of Pythagorean Orphism and believe that a lot of useful information has been preserved in that stream of thought which supplements nicely Bacchic Orphism. In a way I suppose it’s analogous to the relationship between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity.
One thing that I consider particularly valuable in their tradition is the strong emphasis on mathematics. (And you thought it would be the five-year probationary ban on speaking they imposed on new students; no, though that one’s good too!) In fact this was so important to them that before all of their holy places one could find this inscription:
Let none ignorant of geometry enter here.
While I’m not sure I’d go that far, I do believe having a basic math test before letting someone into ritual with you is kind of a good idea.
Okay, Billy. You start with one god. You add another. And then another. Now how many gods do you have?
If Billy answers anything other than three he should be turned away.
Think how much conflict like this we polytheists could avoid by such a simple measure.