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Vegetarianism and its Origins – Part 1: the Orphics

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‘Food’ is undergoing a change nowadays, which is mainly about ethics, good quality of life, health and status.

As for me, I changed my diet out of love for animals. In a very short time, I noticed a great improvement in my overall well-being through the vegetarian diet.

The commercial mass production, the unacceptable conditions in which animals are kept, the appalling conditions during transport (sometimes over thousands of kilometres), the associated food scandals – all this contributed to my decision. And I discovered that, thanks to animal-loving environmental activists and health reformers, there are so many dietary alternatives. You don't have to go without anything.

It began in antiquity

Vegetarianism began in antiquity, in the Western hemisphere in ancient Greece. At that time, meat was primarily eaten by the rich; the common people in Greece and in Rome lived on cereals, vegetables and fruit.

In those days, animal fights and animal hunts were socially of utmost importance. Animal sacrifices played a major role. Killing animals and eating meat were part of the social customs. Those who refused to eat meat excluded themselves from public life and its ‘highlights’ and became outsiders.

The first reports of ancient vegetarianism date back to the 6th/5th century BC and refer to the Orphics, a community with a religious background. They lived in Greece and Greek-populated southern Italy and spread to the northern Black Sea coast. Their way of life was handed down by Plato (Greek philosopher, 427-347 BC). The Orphics referred to the mythical singer and poet Orpheus, in whom they saw the originator of their teachings and the author of authoritative Orphic texts. Their endeavour was to prepare for the expected survival of the soul after the death of the body. It was not a uniform religious community with a self-contained doctrine, but a multitude of autonomous groups.

The explanations discussed in research for their emergence and early development are speculative. In particular, the relationship of Orphism to related phenomena within Greek religion such as Pythagoreanism, the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’, various manifestations of the cult of Dionysus and the religious philosophy of the pre-Socratic Empedocles is unclear. The Orphics shared some goals and beliefs with the ‘Pythagoreans’, a religious community that Pythagoras had founded in southern Italy in the 6th century BC. According to later reports, Pythagoreans living in Italy were among the authors of Orphic writing.

The Orphics strove for the ‘liberation of the soul’, practised asceticism and abstinence, avoided meat, in which they saw ‘corruption of the soul’, a kind of inner defilement.

The Orphics were primarily interested in the origin of the cosmos, the world of the gods and humanity, and in the fate of the soul after death.

Their doctrine of the soul

Already in the Homeric epics we find the view that in human and animal existence there is an animating principle whose presence is a prerequisite for life and which survives the death of the body. According to the ideas handed down by Homer, this entity, the ‘soul’ (Greek psychḗ), separates from the body at death and goes to the underworld as its shadowy image. The poet assumes that the soul's after-death existence is unpleasant; he makes it lament its fate.

The Orphics combined this concept with the notion of ‘transmigration of souls’, which states that the soul enters successively into different bodies and thus passes through a plurality of lives. By granting the soul an independent existence even before the formation of the body, the Orphics abandoned the assumption of a natural attachment of the soul to a particular body. This gave the soul a previously unknown autonomy. Its connection with a body no longer appeared as a requirement of its nature, but as a mere episode in its existence. It was now not only considered immortal, but its existence was placed on a basis entirely independent of the transient world of the body. Thus, it was ascribed an original divine or god-like nature and corresponding freedom. It comes into contact with suffering and mortality and must have corresponding experiences. From the Orphic point of view, however, such a mode of existence does not correspond to the natural destiny of the soul, but is only a temporary state willed by the gods. Therefore, as Plato testifies, the Orphics referred to the body as the ‘prison of the soul incarcerated in it’. They also spoke of the divine spark that rests unconsciously in man and that must be awakened. To do this, it is necessary to overcome the instinctive nature of the body, which corresponds to the animal kingdom. The song of Orpheus leads to the harmony necessary for this and provides free space for the soul's longing for the divine origin.

The soul can finally leave the world of the body if it follows a path of redemption. The goal is a permanent, blissful existence in its home, the divine realms of the beyond. This corresponds to their actual, original nature, which is divine or god-like. The Orphics thus held a fundamentally optimistic view of the world, which differed fundamentally from the traditional, principally pessimistic view of the Greeks with regard to the afterlife.

Orpheus and Eurydice

One of their most important myths tells how Orpheus descended into the underworld to find his deceased wife Eurydice in the realm of the dead and return her to the world of the living. Because of his song, he did indeed receive permission from the gods there to take her with him, but the ascent together failed; Eurydice had to make her way back. Orpheus' lamentations and his playing on the lyre caused the rocks, the plants, the animals and the humans to listen in unison and forget all quarrels. But opposing forces in the form of the Maenads burst forth and tore the singer apart. The world harmony retreated into the background. Orpheus, the great singer and founder of religion, henceforth became the great inspirer of artists from all over the world.

The Eastern origin

At its core, it was an Eastern body of thought that had an impact on the West via the Orphics. This includes vegetarianism. ‘Eating meat kills the seed of great compassion for all living beings,’ says a Buddhist sutra. Buddha saw consistent vegetarianism as one of the fundamental steps on the path to self-knowledge. Hinduism has also had the ethical ideals of renouncing violence and respecting all creatures for thousands of years. ‘By not killing living beings, one becomes worthy of salvation’ is the statement in one of the original collections of laws of Vedic culture.


(to be continued in part 2)

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