- 02 Feb 2012
Orpheus (Ancient Greek:‛Oρφεύς) was a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth. The major stories about him are centered on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music; his attempt to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld; and his death at the hands of those who could not hear his divine music. As an archetype of the inspired singer, Orpheus is one of the most significant figures in the reception of classical mythology in Western culture, portrayed or alluded to in countless forms of art and popular culture including poetry, opera, and painting.
To the Greeks, Orpheus was a founder and prophet of the so-called “Orphic” mysteries. He was credited with the composition of the Orphic Hymns, a collection of which survives. Shrines containing purported relics of Orpheus were regarded as oracles. Some ancient Greek sources note Orpheus’s Thracian origins.
According to Apollodorus and a fragment of Pindar, Orpheus’s father was Oeagrus, a Thracian king; or, according to another version of the story, the god Apollo. His mother was the muse Calliope; or, a daughter of Pierus, son of Makednos. His birthplace and place of residence was in Pimpleia, Olympus. In Argonautica the location of Oeagrus and Calliope’s wedding is close to Pimpleia, near Olympus. While living with his mother and her eight beautiful sisters in Parnassus, he met Apollo, who was courting the laughing muse Thalia. Apollo fell in love with Orpheus and the two became lovers. Apollo, as the god of music, gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him to play it. Orpheus’s mother taught him to make verses for singing. Strabo mentions that he lived in Pimpleia. He is also said to have studied in Egypt.
Orpheus is said to have established the worship of Hecate in Aegina. In Laconia Orpheus is said to have brought the worship of Demeter Chthonia and that of the Kores Sōteiras (Greek,Κόρες Σωτείρας) savior maid. Also in Taygetus a wooden image of Orpheus was said to have been kept by Pelasgians in the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter.
The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice (sometimes referred to as Euridice and also known as Agriope). While walking among her people, the Cicones, in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice was set upon by a satyr. In her efforts to escape the satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and she suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief, played such sad and mournful songs that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus travelled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone (he was the only person ever to do so), who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.
The story in this form belongs to the time of Virgil, who first introduces the name of Aristaeus (by the time of Virgil’s Georgics, the myth has Aristaeus chasing Eurydice when she was bitten by a serpent) and the tragic outcome. Other ancient writers, however, speak of Orpheus’s visit to the underworld in a more negative light; according to Phaedrus in Plato’s Symposium, the infernal gods only “presented an apparition” of Eurydice to him. Ovid says that Eurydice’s death was not caused by fleeing from Aristaeus but by dancing with naiads on her wedding day. In fact, Plato’s representation of Orpheus is that of a coward, as instead of choosing to die in order to be with the one he loved, he instead mocked the gods by trying to go to Hades and get her back alive. Since his love was not “true”—he did not want to die for love—he was actually punished by the gods, first by giving him only the apparition of his former wife in the underworld, and then by being killed by women.
The story of Eurydice may actually be a late addition to the Orpheus myths. In particular, the name Eurudike (“she whose justice extends widely”) recalls cult-titles attached to Persephone. The myth may have been derived from another Orpheus legend in which he travels to Tartarus and charms the goddess Hecate.
The descent to the Underworld of Orpheus is paralleled in other versions of a worldwide theme: the Japanese myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the Akkadian/Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, and Mayan myth of Ix Chel and Itzamna. The Nez Perce tell a story about the trickster figure, Coyote, that shares many similarities with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. This is but one theme present in a larger “North American Orpheus Tradition” in American Indian oral tradition.The myth theme of not looking back, an essential precaution in Jason’s raising of chthonic Brimo Hekate under Medea’s guidance, is reflected in the Biblical story of Lot’s wife when escaping from Sodom. The warning of not looking back is also found in the Grimms’ folk tale “Hansel and Gretel”. More directly, the story of Orpheus is similar to the ancient Greek tales of Persephone captured by Hades and similar stories of Adonis captive in the underworld. However, the developed form of the Orpheus myth was entwined with the Orphic mystery cults and, later in Rome, with the development of Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus.
According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus’s lost play Bassarids, Orpheus at the end of his life disdained the worship of all gods save the sun, whom he called by the name of his former lover Apollo. One early morning he went to the oracle of Dionysus at Mount Pangaion to salute his god at dawn, but was ripped to pieces by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron (Dionysus) and buried in Pieria. Here his death is analogous with the death of Pentheus. Pausanias writes that Orpheus was buried in Dion and that he met his death there. He writes that the river Helicon sank underground when the women that killed Orpheus tried to wash off their blood-stained hands in its waters.
Ovid also recounts that the Ciconian women, Dionysus’ followers, spurned by Orpheus, who had forsworn the love of women after the death of Eurydice and had taken only youths as his lovers, first threw sticks and stones at him as he played, but his music was so beautiful even the rocks and branches refused to hit him. Enraged, the women tore him to pieces during the frenzy of their Bacchic orgies. Medieval folkore put additional spin on the story: in Albrecht Dürer’s drawing of Orpheus’ death, a ribbon high in the tree above him is lettered Orfeus der erst puseran (“Orpheus, the first sodomite”) an interpretation of the passage in Ovid where Orpheus is said to have been “the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys.”
His head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the swift Hebrus to the Mediterranean shore. There, the winds and waves carried them on to the Lesbos shore, where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honour near Antissa; there his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo.
The lyre was carried to heaven by the Muses, and was placed among the stars. The Muses also gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Leibethra below Mount Olympus, where the nightingales sang over his grave. After the river Sys flooded Leibethra, the Macedonians took his bones to Dion. His soul returned to the underworld, where he was reunited at last with his beloved Eurydice. Another legend places his tomb at Dion, near Pydna in Macedon. In another version of the myth Orpheus travels to Aornum in Thesprotia, Epirus to an old oracle for the dead. In the end Orpheus commits suicide from his grief unable to find Eurydice. Another account relates that he was struck with lightning by Zeus for having revealed the mysteries of the gods to men.