The mythological tradition names Orpheus as the pre-eminent musician of the "Golden Age" of heroes. Orpheus' music and song are said to have been so enticing that they could charm the very birds from the trees, soothe Cerberus and bring the Furies to tears (Metamorphoses, X.48).

Orpheus' parentage is unclear and though all sources agree his mother was the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, there is dispute over the identity of his father, some authors claiming he was the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus, others claim he was sired by the God of the sun and music, Apollo.

Details concerning Apollo's early life are sparse, although it appears as though his mother and aunts taught him to sing and play the lyre.

Orpheus Marries and becomes an Argonaut
Although one might not expect a famous musician to be a "hero" per se, Jason sought out Orpheus to join him and the other Argonauts in his quest to recover the Golden Fleece for King Pelias. This was due to a prophecy given to Jason by Chiron, a centaur famed for his nobility and skill in the arts of medicine and divination, which stated that the mission of the Argonauts would fail if Orpheus did not lend his assistance.

Orpheus' sole weapon was his lyre, which he used to raise the spirits of his fellow Argonauts, and to charm fish from the sea as food for their long journey. Orpheus' most famous contribution to the quest was, however, his dealing with the Sirens (Argonautica, 4.890-920).

The Sirens were three bird-women, who lived on an island meadow scattered with the bones of their numerous victims. These monsters would sing a seductive song to passing sailors, luring them onto jagged rocks where their ships would be wrecked and the mariners drown.

When the Argo neared this island, Orpheus began to play his lyre and to sing an echoing song in order to confuse that of the Sirens, thus preventing the crew from being seduced into a shipwreck.

One Argonaut, Boutes, was nevertheless affected by the song of the Sirens and, seeing that his comrades were sailing away from the enchanting music, he jumped overboard but was saved by Aphrodite and taken to the shores of Cape Lilybaeum.

Before he joined the Argonauts, Orpheus was married to a maiden named Eurydice. Unfortunately this marriage was short-lived, as Eurydice was killed when a poisonous snake bit her heel.

There is dispute regarding the manner of her death, some say that she was struck as she danced to Orpheus' music, while others maintain that she was fleeing the advances of Aristaeus, Apollo's son.

Still others, such as Ovid, state that she was killed when "roaming with her gay Naiads" (Metamorphoses. X.13). Regardless of the manner of death, all authors agree that Orpheus was distraught at the news of his bride's demise, and he resolved to descend into the Underworld to bring her back to the land of the living.

Ovid tells of how Orpheus appealed to Persephone, queen of the Underworld, for the return of his bride and how his song was so beautiful that the shades of the dead wept at the sadness of the music (Metamorphoses X.59).

Persephone called Eurydice to her and gave her to Orpheus to take out of the Underworld, on the condition that he not look back at his bride until they both stood back under the light of the sun.

The pair climbed the steep path back to the upper world, and Orpheus stepped out into the sunlight, but eager and forgetting that they must both be out of the Underworld, Orpheus looked back before Eurydice had time to follow. She slipped back into Erebus, dying a double-death, leaving Orpheus alone.

Plato interprets this myth as a play on appearances versus reality, stating that the shade of Eurydice was merely an apparition reflecting Orpheus' desire for insubstantial, mortal love.

Furthermore, Plato infers that, as Orpheus is unwilling to kill himself for his love, rather seeking to bring her back to the living, he lacks heroism and this is why he leaves empty-handed.

Orpheus's Insanity
Following his failure to rescue Eurydice from Hades, Orpheus went mad, Ovid compares him to Heracles, a hero who similarly visited the underworld and would later be driven to insanity (Metamorphoses. X. 64-7).

Despite all his efforts, he would not be admitted into the Underworld a second time, and so Orpheus returned to the land of the living, living in the wild and spurning the love of women, although many burned with desire for him, and it is said that this behaviour is what inspired the men of Thrace to love adolescent boys rather than women.

Death of Orpheus
One day, Orpheus was singing in a wooded glade when a group of Thracian women happened upon him. These women were Maenads, devotees of Bacchus, and in their drunken frenzy they threw stones and branches at Orpheus, but the beauty of his music stopped the missiles as they were unwilling to strike the bard.

Undeterred, the women began to attack Orpheus with their bare hands, tearing him apart. Tradition states that his head and lyre were cast into the river Hebrus, where they still gave out mournful music as they flowed to the sea, and landed on the isle of Lesbos.

In yet another version, the lyre of Orpheus was made into a constellation by Zeus in lasting recognition of a great musical gift.

Orpheus' shade then fled to the Underworld, retracing his steps searching for Eurydice and eventually found her in the Elysian Fields.

Since Orpheus had been the bard of Bacchus' mysteries, the god avenged his death by transforming the Maenads into trees. However, this account is contested, as it is unlikely that Bacchus would drive his own devotees to kill his favourite musician (although it is possible that these women were spurred on to kill Orpheus by the fact that he shunned their sexual advances).

Alternate versions of the death of Orpheus do exist, for example, Orpheus is said to have shunned the gods (except Apollo) towards the end of his life and, in one version of the story, Bacchus killed him for abandoning his cult.

Still other accounts say that Orpheus killed himself after his failure to rescue Eurydice, or that Zeus struck him with lightning for the crime of revealing the mysteries of the gods.

Poems about Orpheus
In later antiquity, several poems were attributed to Orpheus, although few of them survive in their entirety, they have been quoted by subsequent authors (mostly in the 1st century C.E., although papyrus fragments containing Orphic poetry have been found as old as the 6th century B.C.E.).

These texts are all theogonies (accounts of the origins of the gods and their deeds), including works on Uranus and Gaia as well as an unconventional telling of the birth of Dionysus.

As some of these poems are accompanied by ritual prescriptions, it can be assumed that they would have been performed in ritual contexts in mystery cults. Separate from his theogonies, Orpheus is credited with some 87 hymns revolving around Dionysus, again presumably sung in Bacchic mysteries.

It is, however, unlikely that any surviving poems were composed by Orpheus himself (if he existed at all), but rather after the Orphic style.

The story of Orpheus has remained perennially popular among poets and artists.



[1] "Ancient Greece"

"Apollonius (trans. R. Hunter), Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica), 1998, Oxford University Press"

"S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (third ed.), 1999, Oxford University Press"

"Ovid (trans/ A.D. Melville), Metamorphoses, 1986, Oxford University Press"

"Ancient History Encyclopedia"

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