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An Introduction to Orpheus (Greek)


from Jenny March, Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology, 572-574

ORPHEUS. The supreme singer and musician of Greek myth, so skilled that he entranced the whole of nature with his song, taming savage beasts and moving even rocks and trees. As Shakespeare would put it (Two Gentlemen of Verona III. ii. 78-81):

For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.

Orpheus accompanied the Argonauts on their expedition to fetch the Golden Fleece, lulling the waves and soothing the crew with his music. He even saved their lives by drowning out the Sirens’ singing with his own, surpassing theirs in sweetness.

orpheus2Orpheus was the son of one of the Muses, usually said to be Calliope, by either Apollo or the Thracian Oeagrus. His best-known myth is his descent to the Underworld to fetch back his wife Eurydice. Our first reference to the story is in Euripides’ Alcestis (357-62) of 438 BC, though it is only with Virgil and Ovid that the story is told in detail. Soon after Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice, she died of a snake-bite, perhaps while she was pursued by the amorous Aristaeus. Orpheus so mourned her death that he determined to bring her back from Hades.

He passed through the entrance to the Underworld at Taenarum in Laconia and courageously made the long and lonely descent. He sang, and Charon, the ferryman, and the watchdog Cerberus were so charmed by his music that they allowed him to enter. Again he sang, and entranced the entire world of the dead. All the shades listened and wept, Tantalus (i) forgot his hunger and thirst. The vultures stopped tearing at Tityus’ liver, Sisyphus sat on his great stone to listen. The wheel of Ixion stood still. Then, for the first time, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Most important of all, Hades (i) and Persephone were delighted and said that he might take his Eurydice back to earth. Their only condition was that he must lead the way, and that he must not look back at her until they had regained the light of the sun.

It may be that in the early, lost version of the myth, Orpheus succeeded in winning back his wife. But this is not so in the familiar, later version. They set off, Eurydice following her husband, and Orpheus was just reaching the end of the long ascent when, eager for sight of his wife and afraid that she might not be there behind him, he looked back. At once she melted away into the darkness, dying for the second time.

Orpheus tried to follow her, but this time his entrance to Hades was resolutely refused. Eventually he returned to Thrace and wandered through the land, mourning inconsolably and singing of his loss. Finally he was torn to pieces by Thracian women (or Maenads). Various motives are given for their bloodthirsty act. Either they resented Orpheus for his fidelity to the memory of Eurydice, or for turning to the love of boys in his grief. Or they were driven to it by Aphrodite, resentful because of his mother Calliope’s judgement in the dispute with Persephone over Adonis; or by Dionysus, angry because Orpheus had failed to worship him, preferring Helios, the Sun-god. Or each of the women wanted Orpheus for herself, and they tore him apart in the resultant squabble. Whatever their motive, it resulted in a ghastly death for the world’s finest singer.

orpheus3The birds and the beasts, even the rocks and the trees, wept for Orpheus. His head was thrown into the River Hebrus and floated, still singing, down the stream. It was carried to Lesbos, where the people buried it and were rewarded with an especial skill in music and poetry. The Muses gathered up the scattered fragments of his body and buried them in Pieria, where the nightingale was said to sing more sweetly over his grave than anywhere else in Greece. His lyre was set by Zeus among the stars as the constellation Lyra. His shade passed once more to Hades, where he was reunited with his Eurydice, able now to walk with her and gaze his fill, no longer fearing to lose her by an incautious glance.

Orpheus was said to be the founder of the mystic cult of Orphism (see Zagreus) and was credited with the authorship of many poems and mystical books. He appears occasionally in ancient art; and Pausanias (9.30.4) tells us that there was a statue of him on Mount Helicon, home of the Muses, where he was surrounded by animals of stone and bronze, listening to his singing. His legend has been of tremendous inspiration in the postclassical arts, particularly to painters, dramatists and composers. Many operas have been based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most famous being Monteverdi’s Orpheus (1607), Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (1762, ending with Eurydice happily restored to Orpheus through the grace of the gods), and Offenbach’s burlesque, Orpheus in the Underworld (1858).

Sources on Orpheus: Simonides, fr. 567; Pindar, Pythian 4.176-7; Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1629-30; Euripides, Bacchae 560-4, Iphigeneia at Aulis 1211-14, Rhesus 943-4; Plato, Symposium 179b-d; Apollonius, Argonautica; Apollodorus 1.3.2, 1.9.16, 1.9.25, 2.4.9; Diodorus Siculus 1.23, 1.96, 3.65, 4.25; Pausanias 9.17.7, 9.27.2, 9.30.4-12, 10.7.2, 10.30.6-7; Virgil, Georgics 4.453-503, Culex 268-95; Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.1-85, 11.1-84.1. M. Linforth, The Arts of Orpheus (1941); C. Segal, Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet (1989).