"Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus
on His Lyre" by Gustave Moreau (1865).
Orpheus ( /ˈɔrfi.əs/ or /ˈɔrfjuːs/; Ancient Greek: Ὀρφεύς) 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 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.
See also: Eurydice
The earliest literary reference to Orpheus is a two-word fragment of the sixth-century BC lyric poet Ibycus: onomaklyton Orphēn ("Orpheus famous of name"). He is not mentioned in Homer or Hesiod.Most ancient sources accept his historical existence; Aristotle is an exception.
Pindar calls Orpheus "the father of songs" and asserts him as a son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope: but as Karl Kerenyi observes, "in the popular mind he was more closely linked to the community of his disciples and adherents than with any particular race or family".
Greeks of the Classical age venerated Orpheus as the greatest of all poets and musicians: it was said that while Hermes had invented the lyre, Orpheus perfected it. Poets such as Simonides of Ceos said that Orpheus' music and singing could charm the birds, fish and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, and divert the course of rivers. He was one of the handful of Greek heroes to visit the Underworld and return; his music and song even had power over Hades.
Some sources credit Orpheus with further gifts to mankind: medicine, which is more usually under the aegis of Aesculapius; writing, which is usually credited to Cadmus) and agriculture, where Orpheus assumes the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus, giver of Demeter's knowledge to mankind. Orpheus was an augur and seer; practiced magical arts, especially astrology, founded cults to Apollo and Dionysus and prescribed the mystery rites preserved in Orphic texts. In addition, Pindar and Apollonius of Rhodes place Orpheus as the harpist and companion of Jason and the Argonauts. Orpheus had a brother named Linus that went to Thebes and became a Theban.
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 became fond of Orpheus and gave him a little 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.
Traveling as an Argonaut
The Argonautica (Greek: Ἀργοναυτικά) is a Greek epic poem written by Apollonius Rhodius in the 3rd century BC. Orpheus took part in this adventure and used his skills to aid his companions. Chiron told Jason that without the aid of Orpheus, the Argonauts would never be able to pass the Sirens—the same Sirens encountered by Odysseus in Homer's epic poem the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on three small, rocky islands called Sirenum scopuli and sang beautiful songs that enticed sailors to come to them, which resulted in the crashing of their ship into the islands. When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew his lyre and played music that was more beautiful and louder, drowning out the Sirens' bewitching songs.
Death of Eurydice
Descent to the underworld
The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice (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 traveled 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.
This story also lead to the composition of the song Minuet and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice.
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.
The death of Orpheus by Dürer(1494, detail)
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 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 (illustration, right) the ribbon high in the tree 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 cave of Orpheus' oracle in Antissa, Lesbos
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 re-united 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.
Strabo (64 BC – c. AD 24) surprisingly gives a more mundane telling of Orpheus's life, presenting him as a mortal, though he mentions that he was a "wizard" who lived and died in a village close to Olympus. He writes that he practiced his skill for money but later gathered followers and power that in the end killed him. He uses the word agurteuonta (αγυρτεύοντα), a term used by Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannus to characterize Teiresias as a trickster with an excessive desire for possessions. The word agurtēs (αγύρτης) most often meant charlatan and always had a negative connotation.
Pausanias wrote of an Egyptian who also had the opinion that Orpheus was a magician, using the word mageuse (μάγευσε).
Orphic poems and rites
A number of Greek religious poems in hexameters were attributed to Orpheus, as they were to similar miracle-working figures, like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sibyl. Of this vast literature, only two examples survived whole: a set of hymns composed at some point in the second or third century AD, and an Orphic Argonautica composed somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back as far as the sixth century BC, survives only in papyrus fragments or in quotations. Some of the earliest fragments may have been composed by Onomacritus.
Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, by John William Waterhouse
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 and abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs and beans — which came to be known as the Orphikos bios, or "Orphic way of life".
The Derveni papyrus, found in Derveni, Macedonia (Greece) in 1962, contains a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem in hexameters, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras, written in the second half of the fifth century BC. Fragments of the poem are quoted making it "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance". The papyrus dates to around 340 BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it Europe's oldest surviving manuscript. The historian William Mitford wrote in 1784 that the very earliest form of a higher and cohesive ancient Greek religion was manifest in the Orphic poems.
W.K.C. Guthrie wrote that Orpheus was the founder of mystery religions and the first to reveal to men the meanings of the initiation rites.
Orpheus with the lyre and surrounded by beasts, Byzantine & Christian Museum, Athens
Several etymologies for the name Orpheus have been proposed. A probable suggestion is that it is derived from a hypothetical PIE 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".Fulgentius, a mythographer of the late 5th to early 6th century AD, gave the unlikely etymology meaning "best voice" , "Oraia-phonos"