Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Christopher G. Brown


This thesis contributes to debates about the definition of Orphism by observing three characteristics of Orphic myth: Near Eastern influence, discourse between myth and philosophy, and speculations about the natures of Phanes, Zeus, Dionysus and other deities. In chronological order I analyze the fragments of four theogonies that were attributed to Orpheus: the Derveni, Eudemian, Hieronyman, and Rhapsodic Theogonies. Most modern scholars have described these poems as if they were similar to Hesiod’s Theogony – lengthy chronological accounts of the births of the gods from the beginning of time to the present – but I argue that the Orphic tradition was more fluid, likely characterised by a variety of shorter poems, scattered in different collections.

I suggest that a better model for understanding how these poems were composed is to see each of them as an individual product of bricolage (as explained by Claude Lévi-Strauss), rather than as items in the stemma of a static manuscript tradition (as reconstructed by Martin West). I study the ways in which modern scholars have reconstructed each of these theogonies and what ancient Greek philosophers had to say about them. I observe that the Orphic tradition was more fluid and fragmented than modern reconstructions would lead us to believe, but I argue that in the Orphic theogonies one can note certain features that are not exclusive to Orphism but characteristic of it. For example, where Orphic myth departs from Hesiodic myth it tends to do so in ways that are parallel to Near Eastern myth; Orphic poetry was always engaged in the discourse between myth and philosophy; and Orphic poets speculated on the nature of the gods in ways that generated unique deities and new narratives.