In Greek legend, Orpheus was the chief representative of the arts of song and the lyre, and of great importance in the religious history of Greece. The mythical figure of Orpheus was borrowed by the Greeks from their Thracian neighbours; the Thracian "Orphic Mysteries", rituals of unknown content, were named after him.
From the 6th century BC onwards, Orpheus was considered one of the chief poets and musicians of antiquity, and the inventor or perfector of the lyre. By dint of his music and singing, he could charm the wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, even arrest the course of rivers. As one of the pioneers of civilization, he is said to have taught mankind the arts of medicine, writing and agriculture. Closely connected with religious life, Orpheus was augur and seer; practiced magical arts, especially astrology; founded or rendered accessible many important cults, such as those of Apollo and Thracian god Dionysus; instituted mystic rites, both public and private; and prescribed initiatory and purificatory rituals.
Several etymologies for the name Orpheus have been proposed. A probable suggestion is that it is derived from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European verb *orbhao-, "to be deprived", from PIE *orbh-, "to put asunder, separate". Cognates would include Greek orphe, "darkness", and Greek orphanos, "fatherless, orphan", from which comes English "orphan" by way of Latin. Orpheus would therefore be semantically close to goao, "to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell", uniting his seemingly disparate roles as disappointed lover, transgressive musician and mystery-priest into a single lexical whole. The word "orphic" is defined as mystic, fascinating and entrancing, and, probably, because of the oracle of Orpheus, "orphic" can also signify "oracular".
According to the best-known tradition, Orpheus was the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, which in pre-historic period seems to describe a wider region from Olympus to Hellespontos Straits as the Orphic texts (Argonautica) point out that Orpheus was born in Mount Elikon at Livithra (Piplan, Pieria), and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. In other traditions, Calliope and Apollo were his parents. Orpheus learned music from Linus, or from Apollo, who gave him his own lyre (made by Hermes out of a turtle shell) as a gift, in which he grew to love
The Argonautic expedition
Despite Orpheus's Thracian origin, he joined the expedition of the Argonauts. Centaur Chiron had warned Argonaut leader Jason that only with the aid of Orpheus would they be able to navigate past the Sirens unscathed. The Sirens lived on three small, rocky islands called Sirenum scopuli and sang irresistibly beautiful songs that enticed sailors and their ships to the islands' craggy shoals. Once shipwrecked on the rocks, the sailors became supper for the Sirens. However, when Orpheus heard the Sirens, he drew his lyre and played music more beautiful than that of the Sirens, thus drowning out their alluring but deadly song.
Death of Eurydice
But the most famous story in which he figures is that of his wife Eurydice. Eurydice is sometimes known as Agriope. While fleeing from Aristaeus, she was bitten by a serpent which brought her to her death. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and gods wept and gave him advice. Orpheus went down to the lower world and by his music softened the heart of Hades and Persephone (the only person to ever do so), who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth. But the condition was attached that he should walk in front of her and not look back until he had reached the upper world. In his anxiety he broke his promise, and Eurydice vanished again from his sight. The story in this form belongs to the time of Virgil, who first introduces the name of Aristaeus. Other ancient writers, however, speak of Orpheus' visit to the underworld; according to Plato, 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 dancing with Naiads on her wedding day.
The famous 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 mistakenly derived from another Orpheus legend in which he travels to Tartarus and charms the goddess Hecate.
Death of Orpheus
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 Apollo. One early morning he ascended Mount Pangaion (where Dionysus had an oracle) to salute his god at dawn, but was torn to death by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron, Dionysus. Here his death is analogous with the death of Dionysus, to whom therefore he functioned as both priest and avatar.
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 Lesbian shore, where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honour near Antissa. The lyre was carried to heaven by the Muses, and was placed amongst 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. His soul returned to the underworld, where he was re-united at last with his beloved Eurydice.
In Attic vase painting, however, the women who attack Orpheus appear to be normal Thracian women, who are irritated that the bard's songs have stolen their husbands away from them.
Orphic poems and rites
A large number of Greek religious poems in hexameter were attributed to Orpheus, as they were to similar miracle-man figures like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sybil. Of this vast literature, only two examples survive whole: a set of hymns composed at some point in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, and an Orphic Argonautica composed somewhere between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back as far as the 6th century BC, survives only in papyrus scraps or in quotations by later authors.
In addition to serving as a storehouse of mythological data along the lines of Hesiod's Theogony, Orphic poetry was recited in mystery-rites and purification rituals. Plato in particular tells of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would go about offering purifications to the rich, a clatter of books by Orpheus and Musaeus in tow (Republic 364c-d). Those who were especially devoted to these ritual and poems often practiced vegetarianism, abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs — which came to be known as the Orphikos bios, or "Orphic way of life".
The post-classical Orpheus
In the Divine Comedy, Dante sees the shade of Orpheus along with those of numerous other "virtuous pagans" in Limbo.
This story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been the subject of operas and cantatas through the history of western classical music.
Spoken-word myths - audio files
|Orpheus myths as told by story tellers
|1. Orpheus and the Thracians, read by Timothy Carter, music by Steve Gorn, compiled by Andrew Calimach
|Bibliography of reconstruction: Pindar, Pythian Odes, 4.176 (462 BC); Roman marble bas-relief, copy of a Greek original from the late 5th c. (c. 420 BC); Aristophanes, The Frogs 1032 (c. 400 BC); Phanocles, Erotes e Kaloi, 15 (3rd c. BC); Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika, i.2 (c. 250 BC); Apollodorus, Library and Epitome 1.3.2 (140 BC); Diodorus Siculus, Histories I.23, I.96, III.65, IV.25 (1st c. BC); Conon, Narrations, 45 (50 - 1 BC); Virgil, Georgics, IV.456 (37 - 30 BC); Horace, Odes, I.12; Ars Poetica 391-407 (23 BC); Ovid, Metamorphoses X.1-85, XI.1-65 (AD 8); Seneca, Hercules Furens 569 (1st c. AD); Hyginus, Poetica Astronomica II.7 Lyre (2st c. AD); Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.30.2, 9.30.4, 10.7.2 (AD 143 - 176); Anonymous, The Clementine Homilies, Homily V Chapter XV.-Unnatural Lusts (c. AD 400); Anonymous, Orphic Argonautica (5th c. AD); Stobaeus, Anthologium (c. AD 450); Second Vatican Mythographer, 44. Orpheus