Mandelstam is leading me into uncharted waters; thanks to Victor Terras’s “The Black Sun: Orphic Imagery in the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam” (see my Further Addenda to this post for details and quotes), I learn that Orphic imagery was floating around in early-20th-century Russia and used by Mandelstam, so—being utterly ignorant of Orphism (in fact, basically unaware of its existence, although I’m sure I’ve seen the word)—I went to my standard references on Greek thought, The Presocratic Philosophers by Kirk and Raven and Greek Religion by Walter Burkert. The early evidence is scanty and disputed; Kirk and Raven come to the conclusion that “there was no exclusively Orphic body of belief in the archaic period” and “the corpus of individual sectarian literature… cannot for the most part be traced back earlier than the Hellenistic period,” while Burkert seems to think it goes back considerably earlier, referring to “the books of Orpheus” that were honored in the time of Euripides (who refers to them). But what struck me was the following paragraph (Burkert, p. 297):
The characteristic appeal to books is indicative of a revolution: with the Orphica literacy takes hold in a field that had previously been dominated by the immediacy of ritual and the spoken word of myth. The new form of transmission introduces a new form of authority to which the individual, provided that he can read, has direct access without collective mediation. The emancipation of the individual and the appearance of books go together in religion as elsewhere.
Probably old hat to those who study the historical effects of literacy, but not something I’d thought about.