Orpheus is a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion.
Some ancient Greek sources note Orpheus’ Thracian origins. The major stories about him are centered on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music (the usual scene in Orpheus mosaics), his attempt to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the underworld, and his death at the hands of those who could not hear his 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, film, opera, music, and painting.
For the Greeks, Orpheus was a founder and prophet of the so-called “Orphic” mysteries. He was credited with the composition of the Orphic Hymns and the Orphic Argonautica. Shrines containing purported relics of Orpheus were regarded as oracles.
Traveling as an Argonaut
The Argonautica 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 ships into the islands.
When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew his lyre and played the music that was louder and more beautiful, drowning out the Sirens’ bewitching songs.
According to 3rd century BC Hellenistic elegiac poet Phanocles, Orpheus loved the young Argonaut Calais, “the son of Boreas, with all his heart, and went often in shaded groves still singing of his desire, nor was his heart at rest. But always, sleepless cares wasted his spirits as he looked at fresh Calais.”
Death of Eurydice
The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice (sometimes referred to as Euridice and also known as Argiope).
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 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. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, 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’ 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. 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 to bring 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. In Ovid’s account, however, Eurydice’s death by a snake bite is incurred while she was dancing with naiads on her wedding day.
Virgil wrote in his poem that Dryads wept from Epirus and Hebrus up to the land of the Getae (northeast Danube valley) and even describes him wandering into Hyperborea and Tanais (an ancient Greek city in the Don river delta) due to his grief.
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. According to the theories of poet Robert Graves, the myth may have been derived from another Orpheus legend, in which he travels to Tartarus and charms the goddess Hecate.
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. 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.
According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus’ lost play Bassarids, Orpheus, towards the end of his life, disdained the worship of all gods except 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 shreds by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron (Dionysus) and buried in Pieria.
Here his death is analogous with that of Pentheus, who was also torn to pieces by Maenads; and it has been speculated that the Orphic mystery cult regarded Orpheus as a parallel figure to or even an incarnation of Dionysus.
Both made similar journeys into Hades, and Dionysus Zagreus suffered an identical death. 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 recounts that Orpheus …
had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him, or because he had sworn to do so. Yet, many felt a desire to be joined with the poet, and many grieved at rejection. Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his affection to young boys and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering this side of manhood. — Ovid. trans. A. S. Kline, Ovid: The Metamorphoses, Book X
Feeling spurned by Orpheus for taking only male lovers, the Ciconian women, followers of Dionysus, 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.
In Albrecht Dürer’s drawing of Orpheus’ death, based on an original, now lost, by Andrea Mantegna, a ribbon high in the tree above him is lettered Orfeus der erst puseran (“Orpheus, the first pederast”).
His head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the river Hebrus into the sea, after which the winds and waves carried them to the island of Lesbos, at the city of Methymna; there, the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honor near Antissa; there his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo. In addition to the people of Lesbos, Greeks from Ionia and Aetolia consulted the oracle, and his reputation spread as far as Babylon.
Orpheus’ 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. Orpheus‘ soul returned to the underworld, to the fields of the Blessed, where he was reunited 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 lied about the stories and the mysteries of the gods.
Orphic poems and rites
A number of Greek religious poems in hexameters were attributed to Orpheus, as they were too similar miracle-working figures, like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sibyl.
Of this vast literature, only two works survived whole: the Orphic Hymns, a set of 87 poems, possibly composed at some point in the second or third century, and the epic poem Argonautica, composed somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries.
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.
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.
Those who were especially devoted to these rituals 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 more 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.