The son of the Thracian King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope, Orpheus was the most famous poet and musician of the Greek Era. He was given a lyre by the god Apollo, which he was taught to play by the Muses. They taught him so well that when he played, all the animals, plants and even rocks danced along to his music. He joined Odysseus on his quest for the Golden Fleece as an Argonaut, and after returning home victorious, married Eurydice. She died after being bitten by a snake but Orpheus descended into the netherworld to reclaim her as recounted in Orpheus and his Twice Dead bride, Eurydice (for those feeling more masochistic/scholarly, feel free to read Chapter X, from Metamorphoses :Orpheus and Eurydice).

Orpheus mourned his lost wife, and managed to fall into ill-favour with the god Dionysus, by not honouring him when he invaded Orpheus' homeland of Thrace. For this transgression, Dionysus set the Maenads on him who tore him limb from limb and threw his remains into the river Hebrus, but his body floated, still singing, to the Isle of Lesbos, where the Muses gathered him together and buried him at Leibethra, at the foot of Mount Olympus.

Other texts claim that his death was caused by the hand of Zeus who threw a thunderbolt at him, when he was caught divulging divine secrets.

A complex character originally regarded as a poet/musician and magical son of a Thracian King, he was also believed to be the secret offspring of Apollo (some myths describe him directly as a son of Apollo).

Modern scholars often see him as a thinly disguised shamanic figure, and he certainly preserves Dionysian features. On his dismemberment (described above) his oracular head was guarded in the Temple of Dionysos.

He became a key figure in the late Dionysian Mysteries where he was regarded as both the son of Apollo and an avatar of Dionysos! He thus represented the combination of the two gods.

“Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the Mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing”
~ Henry the Eighth, 3rd act, 1st scene.

“Anticipate all farewells...” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II, xiii.

"They abstained from flesh under the impression that it was impious either to eat it or pollute the altars of the gods with blood; and so there was appearing among our ancestors the kind of life which is called Orphic, and which keeps to everything that has no life and abstains from all living things."
~ Plato, Laws, 6.782c.
The Historical Orpheus

`Ονομακλυτον `Ορφην , this phrase, that "Famous Orpheus" is the earliest textual appearance of the mysterious Thracian figure, fossilized into the surviving fragments of the poet Ibykos, dated to the early 6th c. BC. Reputedly he wandered from the mountain country to the shores of Hellas just a few generations before Homer. And four centuries later, Herodotus in his own well-traveled Histories, while not mentioning the man, often refers to the practices of other peoples' as being 'Orphic'. The classical age of Greece, casting its Hellenic light about the Mediterranean world, had a wholly ambivalent relationship with this strange northern cult, one that seemed to descend fully-formed from the then little-known region of Central Europe. Neither Euripides nor Plato in their writing knew what to make of this minstrel demigod and his followers. In the playwright's Hippolytos (l. 948-54) for example, Theseus rages against his own errant son for taking up the Orphic religion, calling him a fool and hypocrite for 'paying honour to the vapourings of wordy volumes'. That play was prize-winning theater around Athens in 428BC; by then Orphic notions were well-diffused. Aristotle, even less forgiving of breezy religiosity, actually denied Orpheus ever existed. Yet, in the words of one scholar, "who wrote then the body of writing current in the 5th and 4th c. which Plato could quote unhesitatingly and cheerfully as the poems of Orpheus?" (Guthrie, p. 4)

Whoever the man may or may not have been, his poems and teachings inspired many followers during the Golden Age of Greece - they took him as a prophet, called themselves Orphics (Orpheotelestai) and their complex set of rituals, the Orphica. Traces of this cult and its artifacts have been unearthed from the Isle of Wight, dated to late Roman Britain, and as far back to a ceremonial Attic vase uncovered at the site of Gela, in Thrace, ca. 5th c. BC, in addition to dozens of finds around Italy, Crete and the Aegean shores. Another reference to the cult and its beliefs is captured by Euripides in his Alcestis, where the Greek chorus laments they have no power to sway the Fates, 'no charm on Thracian tablets which tuneful Orpheus carved out.' Orpheus was believed to have left his laws carved into tablets (sanides) atop a peak in his homeland.

The beliefs of his followers are now difficult to reconstruct - Φαρμακα, επωδαι , their charms and incantations. Certainly an element of natural harmony, love of song and dance, and belief in an afterlife were pivotal elements. Plato (above) and Aristophanes, in his The Frogs (ln. 1032) both take note of an emphasis seemingly on a vegan-like diet. Apollonius of Rhodes (ca. 240 BC) asserts these restrictions against flesh-eating extend back to Orpheus' earliest appearance, when it was actually his role as an enlightened Bronze Age shaman, who forbid the early tribes of the region from practicing cannibalism. Horace, to a degree, backs up this assertion : "When men lived wild, a spokesman of the gods / The sacred Orpheus, scared them from their foul / And murderous ways; and so the legend says / Ravening lions and tigers Orpheus tamed."
Had I the lips of Orpheus and his melody to charm the maiden daughter of Demeter and her lord, and by singing win you back from death, I would have gone beneath the earth, and not the hound of Pluto could have stayed me, nor the ferryman of ghosts, Charon at his oar. I would have brought you back.
~ Euripides, Alcestis (written 438 BC), ll. 357-362.

They say that with the music of his voice he enchanted stubborn mountain rocks and rushing streams. And testifying still to the magic of his song, there are wild oaks growing at Zone on the coast of Thrace, which he lured down from the Pieria with his lyre, rank upon rank of them, like soldiers on the march.
~ Apollonius of Rhodes, from The Voyage of Argo (written 250 BC)
The Early Orpheus

Orpheus' birth is barely sketched in most sources, though his parentage is well established: he is the son of the Muse Calliope and the Thracian river-god, Oiagros. As in all the Greek pantheon, Orpheus parent's are significant contributors to what he himself represents. Calliope is the inspiring Spirit of Music, while Oiagros, as a regional figure, represents not only the mysterious wilds of the region, but also sylvan, natural power. These two elements are thus fused into the Son to form a semi-mystic wanderer figure whose fame spread across all the known world. He was said to have been inducted to the mysteries of Rhea by the Dactyls and taught song by the sage Linus.

His first major outing was as one of Jason and the Argonauts, though as an action figure he tends to a back seat to the more Spartan, macho heroes that fill out the questing party. He seems, in the classic version of the story, only to be along to save the musclemen of the Argo from drowning themselves under the enchantment of the Sirens. However, there is an obscure and anonymous Orphic Argonautica in which he himself is the poet, relating the tale after the fact (prose trans. G. Dottin, 1930; verse trans. J.R. Bacon). In this version, obviously, he gets a little more authority than just a lyre-strumming femme, and instead becomes the party's expert on all mystical, religious, prophetical and sacrificial matters.
"When Orpheus descends to Eurydice, art is the power that causes the night to open."
~ Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus, 1955.
The Tragic Orpheus

All mythic origins and wanderings aside, it is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice which most recall. The details of the tale have inspired artists and poets, from early Roman sculptors to Enlightenment painters. Rainer Maria Rilke composed a whole book on the theme, Monteverdi and Haydn set it to music, Jean Cocteau filmed it. The attraction to the tale's circumstances are clearly underpinned by its morbid, even fatalistic romanticism, which explains a good deal of its poetical cache. Artist finds beautiful fan, marries her, she dies, he tries to resurrect her through his art, fails and then spends the rest of his life trying to redeem her memory through song.

To the Orphic followers, it was this tale more than any precepts or laws that transformed a musician into a Savior: for here was a semi-diving figure willing to descend to the shadowy world of the dead, thwart the secrets of Hades, melt the cold hearts of the judging Gods below, and might actually be able to intercede on behalf of your lost, mortal soul, if he loved you enough. This was radically inspiring material in the oft brutal and wholly indifferent Greek pantheon; you were more likely to be swindled, ambushed, blinded or raped by most of the other Olympian figures. Here, instead, was a supernatural hero with Mercy.

Orpheus didn't need to play the lyre very long when he returned from Colchis, victorious with the other Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, when he caught the eye of the dryad Eurydice. They courted, he wooed, she swooned, and a wedding day was quickly set. However, so beautiful was she that Aristaeus, the bee-keeper and hunter of Tempe, was overcome with lust and chased the new bride, perilously close to a poisonous snake. She was bitten, dies, Orpheus arrives at her side too late even to speak to her and goes near mad with grief.1
Ipse cava solans aegrum testudine amorem te, dulcis coniunx, te solo in litore secum, te veniente die, te decedente canebat.
~ Virgil, Georgics, IV, 464-6.
Left alone then, he plays to ease his pain, lyre and voice sing to his wife, on the lonely shore, as the sun goes up and still as it goes down. He hatches a plan, returns to his darkened homeland in tears, wanders into the northern caves of its furthest peaks, and gains entrance to the cold depths of Hades, where Pluto and his dark Lady hold court over the souls of the dead. He tricks the guardians of the underworld, first boatman Charon, then beastly Cerebus, and by his art gains audience with Powers Below. Again, with musical charms, Orpheus warms that cold cavern, and even the icy-cold of all those dead souls are moved and relived for a brief spell. His lyre and song weave a powerful spell:
“…I came for my wife’s sake, whose brightest years were taken by a chance snakebite. I wanted to be able to bear this, and I have tried. But Love has conquered. This god is famous in the world above, But here, I do not know… By these Halls All full of fear, by this terrible delirium, By this vast Kingdom’s silences, I beg you, Weave over Eurydice’s life, light put out too soon… I am asking only A loan, not a gift. If fate denies us This favor for my wife, one thing is sure: I do not want to go back either; triumph, then, in the death of two.”
~Ovid, Metamorphoses, x, 22 – 42.
In answer, the throne of Hades abates - Eurydice may return to the surface and leave the vaults of Tartarus, but only if the poet agrees not to look upon his wife until they both again under the light of day. And so the reunited couple set on, wife following behind. On their way to the surface though, Orpheus stops his joyful singing to Eurydice – who he cannot hear, see or even sense. He can see the mouth of the tunnel before him, but has a sudden wave of doubt, that the gods have duped him and are laughing in their thrones.
cum subita incatum dementia cepit amentem, ignoscenda quidem, scirent si ignoscere manes: restitit, Euryducenque suam iam luce sub ipsa immemor heu! victusque animi respexit.
~ Virgil, ibid., 488-91.
A sudden madness took him, the heedless lover, surely pardonable if the Lords Below knew any clemency: he stopped and by the dim light ahead, forgetting his vow, reason overcome, he looked back toward dear Eurydice.
illa “quis et me” inquit “miseram et te peridit, Orpheu, quis tantus furor? en iterum cruelelia retro fata vocant, conditque natantia lumina somnus. iamque vale: feror ingenti circumdata nocte invalidasque tibitendens, heu non tua, palmas…” ~Virgil, ibid., 494-8.
“What folly”, Eurydice cries, receding back into the darkness, “we are both destroyed, Orpheus. Again the cruel Fates recall me, sleep of Death drowns my swimming eyes. Farewell! I am swept back to shadow, my powerless hands reach back, alas never yours to have.” And, as Ovid captures the horror of the moment, “Was it he, or she, reaching out arms and trying / To hold or to be held, and clasping nothing / But empty air?” (Metamorphoses, x, 58-60)

Orpheus Silenced

That moment is the poetical flashpoint I think behind so many artists’ inspiration over the ages, particularly the romantics in the crowd. The medieval schoolmen used to employ Orpheus as a precursor to the Messiah, especially in the parallel aspects of a descent into Hell. But what is most telling is that in almost every version of the tale, the stricken bard is then condemned to live on. Orpheus is numb with grief and self-loathing and rejects all comfort at this point. He will no longer sing or dance, rejects his mother's efforts to console him, even ignores his own followers in Thracia. He will not even sacrifice to the gods, and most notably Dionysus takes offense, and his bacchanalian women converge in droves upon the poet. He ignores their pleas and taunts, until they shriek with anger. In the end, torn limb from limb by the Maenads: “…tum quoque mamorea caput a cervice revulsum / gurgite cum medio portans Hebrus / volveret, Eurydicem vox ipsa et frigida lingua.” (Virgil, ibid., 523-5) His head floats down the Hebrus, out to sea, and to the isle of Lesbos. It is retrieved by his priests and placed in a temple at Antissa, where it delivered prophecies until Apollo descended from Mount Olympus and asked the unfortunate soul to stop. Thus is Orpheus finally silenced, likely coinciding with his waning popularity as a cult figure after Alexander’s expansion of the Hellenic kingdoms, and the increasingly militant and scientific strain of thought pursued by the Greek elite and intelligentsia in response.
1 This is all very well rendered, if rather revised, by Neil Gaiman in "The Song of Orpheus", The Sandman, special No. 1, 1991 : in which Orpheus is actually taken to be the son of the Dream King. It begins with the morning of the wedding day, features the descent to Tartarus, and ends with his severed head on a beach begging for Morpheus to kill him. Instead, the Sandman walks away, leaving him in immortal but bodiless grief. Until the end of the Brief Lives run, that is, issue 49, two years later.

Sources: W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion : A Study of the Orphic Movement (NY: Norton, 1967); J.B. Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages (Harvard, 1970); Orpheus: The Metamorphosis of A Myth (Toronto, 1982); E. Flaum, "Orpheus" from the Encyclopedia of Mythology : Gods, Heroes and Legends of the Greeks and Romans (NY: 1993), p. 123; Benet, "Orpheus" from The Reader's Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. vol. 2 (NY: 1965), pp. 743-4; H.H. Scullard, Shorter Atlas of the Classical World (NY: Dutton, 1962); “Orphika: The Ancient Mystery Religions” - - last accessed Feb, 8, 2003.

Or"phe*us (?), n. [L. Orpheus, Gr. .] Gr. Myth.

The famous mythic Thracian poet, son of the Muse Calliope, and husband of Eurydice. He is reputed to have had power to entrance beasts and inanimate objects by the music of his lyre.


© Webster 1913.

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