Greek Creation Myths: Orphism
1. Aristophanes, Birds
In the comic play The Birds (5 c. BC), Aristophanes writes a fantasy about two men from the city of
Athens who, fed up with life in Athens, convince the birds to build a city in the sky. The birds tell the
two men the following creation myth about how birds came into existence. This myth is a parody of
Orphic creation mythology.
Weak mortals, chained to the earth, creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods, you
unfortunate race, whose life is but darkness, as unreal as a shadow, the illusion of a dream, hearken to
us, who are immortal beings, ethereal, ever young and occupied with eternal thoughts, for we shall
teach you about all celestial matters; you shall know thoroughly what is the nature of the birds, what
the origin of the gods, of the rivers, of Erebus, and Chaos; thanks to us, even Prodicus will envy you
At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and
heaven had no existence. Firstly, black-winged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite
deeps of Erebus, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his
glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in deep Tartarus with dark
Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light. That
of the Immortals did not exist until Eros had brought together all the ingredients of the world, and
from their marriage Heaven (Ouranos), Ocean (Okeanos), Earth (Gaia) and the imperishable race of
blessed gods sprang into being. Thus our origin is very much older than that of the dwellers in
Olympus. We are the offspring of Eros; there are a thousand proofs to show it. We have wings and we
lend assistance to lovers.
2. The Orphic Gold Tablets
The Orphic gold tablets are small gold-leaf scraps found in burials dating from the 4 c. BC. Many of
the tablets, like the following, appear to contain instructions for the dead person about what to do
upon reaching the underworld. They also contain references to Orphic mythology, especially to the
Orphic myth that claims that humans are directly descended from the Titans, the children “of Earth
(Gaia) and starry Heaven (Ouranos).”
Translated by Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
Tablet A4, Thurii, 4 c. BC
But when the soul leaves the light of the sun,
go straight to the right, having kept watch on all things very well.
Hail, you having experienced the experience you had not experienced before.
A god you have become from a man. A kid you fell into milk.
Hail, hail; make your way to the right,
the sacred meadows and groves of Phersephoneia (Persephone).
Tablet B2, Pharsalos, 4 c. BC
You will find in the halls of Hades a spring on the right,
and standing by it, a glowing white cypress tree;
Do not approach this spring at all. Further along you will find, from a lake of Memory (Mnemosyne),
the refreshing water flowing forth. But guardians are nearby,
And they will ask you for what need have you come;
to them you should relate very well the whole truth;
Say: “I am the child of Earth and starry Heaven;
Starry (Asterios) is my name. I am parched with thirst; but give me to drink from the spring.”
Tablet B10, Hipponion, 5 c. BC
This is the [?] of Memory (Mnemosyne). When you are about to die …
you will go to the well-built halls of Hades; a spring is on the right,
and standing by it a glowing white cypress tree;
there the descending so