The Influence of Egyptian Funerary Practices on Greek Orphism : A Comparison of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Orphic Gold Tablets
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Orphism is a historically controversial title due to the lack of a collective ancient group who called themselves "Orphic." On a basic level, Orphism is a branch of Dionysiac, or Bacchic, worship. The title of Orphism stems from the mythical man Orpheus who is at the heart of most Orphic theology. He appears as a musician, poet, and later, a spiritual leader. Orphism has come to be known as a religious and philosophical group, also called a mystery cult, in which followers lived an ascetic lifestyle in order to achieve happiness in the afterlife, and worshiped chthonic gods and goddesses, such as Persephone, in addition to their founder, Orpheus. What evidence we do have of Orphic traditions and groups are often only partial and from biased sources. One of the most important sources, the Orphic gold tablets, are a series of gold lamellae found in grave sites across Greece and Rome which appear to also advocate Orphic beliefs and eschatology. A close comparison of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the gold tablets reveals numerous similarities not only in imagery, but especially in eschatological views of the afterlife. Although scholars still debate even the existence of Orphism, the Orphic gold tablets exist outside of any other tradition known in Greece. During the sixth century BCE, when the Orphic tablets began to be buried with deceased initiates, the Book of the Dead underwent a revival in Egypt, which included numerous additions and edits. This revival of interest included updates on many of the spells, updates which include Orphic imagery and influence. Contemporary Greeks such as Herodotus noted Orphic traditions existed in Egypt during this time period. Up until recently, scholars have struggled to compare these two traditions, but a renewed in interest in both subjects has opened the doors for a new wave of research. Through the comparison of these two traditions, we can come to understand the two cultures that produced them better, and pave the way for cross-cultural studies in the ancient world.