The Orphic Hymns are a collection of 87 poems in hexameter verse. The composition of the Orphic Hymns dates back to the first four centuries CE (most likely in the second or third century). However, it is possible that they circulated in Greece for centuries before any attempt at official codification and recording in the Roman imperial years. Unfortunately, we do not know where they were created and used. The presence of deities that were almost entirely unknown in mainland Greece focuses the research on Asia Minor and Pergamon, where they could have been used in Mysteries associated with Dionysus in the sanctuary of Demeter (a theory with many supporters and critics, which remains currently charming but unproven).
The Orphic Hymns collection is part of a broader literary current called Orphic. They are not the product of a single and organised movement. The term simply indicates anything that has anything to do, even distant, with the mythological musician from Thrace. But the existence (or not) of Orpheus is another mystery. According to the mythological tradition, Orpheus was a famous bard from the wilderness of Thrace with so much talent in the lyre that he could move inanimate objects and bring tears to the eyes of Persephone and Pluto. He was also aware of the secrets that led the soul to a glorious path after death, a blessing shared with people in mystical worship. The ancient world was full of poems attributed to Orpheus. Some were undoubtedly very old, but others were clearly created in later periods and simply used the name of the mythical poet to acquire prestige and popularity among the masses.
As expressed through the hymns, Orphic mythology adopts many elements from the tradition of Homer and Hesiod and adds its details. Hymns were religious poems praising a deity and expressing a request or prayer. But they could have another character as lyric poems accompanied by musical instruments, dedications that survived on columns or walls, magical invocations and works of a philosophical nature. The composer (or composers) of the Orphic Hymns that have survived to the present day selected from all these traditions. The result is poems of a religious and philosophical nature belonging to a period of syncretism. Man's agony in the face of the inevitable end motivates him to invoke the help of all the gods and demons who can help save the soul. The hymns are thus transformed into a peculiar “database” of ancient religious beliefs and traditions.
Most Orphic Hymns address deities and concepts (Trial, Justice, Law) of the Greek pantheon. There is one hymn for Adonis and three for the deities of Anatolia (Mise, Ippa, Melinoe). Seven hymns are dedicated to Dionysus, the supreme god of Orphism, while only three refer to Zeus. There are specific references to perfumes and aromatic substances associated with particular deities in many hymns. Still, the reason for the exact relationship between the sense of smell and the gods remains unclear. The organisation of the Hymns follows an evolutionary course from the first generations of the gods and the theme of creation to end up in sleep, dreams, and death. In the middle unfolds the appearance of the physical world, the domination of Zeus, the alternation of the structural elements of the universe (fire, air, water, and earth), the birth and worship of Dionysus and various more minor deities associated with Orphic teaching.