Orpheus is unique here in Greek mythology. Most tales involving mortal heroes revolve around great wars, feats of physical strength, or acts of immense bravery. However, Orpheus is different. He wasn’t known for his skilled fighting. Instead, he was a musician and poet with abilities that made even gods melt.
He wasn’t an ordinary artist. Orpheus lived an exciting life, going through many trials. He’s mentioned many times by poets and scholars covering the legends of antiquity, leaving behind a lasting legacy. As a prophet, Orpheus is a patron of a religious movement known as the Orphic Mysterious. He’s also responsible for creating the Orphic Hymns and is the subject of many shrines in ancient Greece.
The Origins of Orpheus
The early life of Orpheus is largely lost to the sands of time. Most scholars agree that he was the son of Oeagrus, who was the king of Thrace. His mother was one of the Muses, who were inspirational goddesses of literature, art, science, and music. His mother was most likely Calliope, the patron of epic poetry.
Orpheus reportedly lived several generations before Homer, as the famous poet does not mention him. Neither does Hesiod. Some notable scholars, including Aristotle, don’t believe he existed at all. However, his lasting legacy and several legendary stories support his presence in mythology.
When he was just a young child, Apollo appeared before Orpheus. The god of music, poetry, and art Orpheus his lyre and taught him the art of music. It didn’t take long for the young musician to become one of the greatest. His abilities were so impressive that they charmed animals and caused trees to dance.
Some scholars say that while Hermes invented the lyre, Orpheus was the one to perfect it. His skills knew no bounds, and they impressed even the gods.
Life as an Argonaut
In the Greek poem “Argonautica” by Apollonius Rhodius, Orpheus plays a vital role. The musician accompanied Jason and the Argonauts to search for the Golden Fleece. While his presence seems unorthodox, the centaur Chiron told Jason that he needed Orpheus in this quest.
Eventually, the Argonauts encountered the Sirens while sailing the Argo. The Sirens were the same dangerous creatures that appeared in “The Odyssey.” The Sirens sang bewitching songs that lured sailors to crash their ships. When the creatures started to sing, Orpheus began to play his lyre. He played louder than the Sirens, drowning out their song and preventing the Argonauts from falling prey to their songs.
The Marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice
One of the most heart-wrenching Greek myths involving Orpheus is his wife, Eurydice. Orpheus married after his tenure with Jason and the Argonauts. He loved her deeply.
After her wedding, Eurydice was strolling in the tall grass when a Satyr attempted to force himself upon her. She fled but quickly fell into a pit of vipers. She dies of a snake bite to the heel. Orpheus found her dead body later and immediately began to mourn her loss the best way he knew how: Through song.
He sang some of the most mournful songs. They were so sad that even nymphs and gods started to weep. They advised him to go to the Underworld to get her back.
A Quest into the Underworld
Orpheus ventured into the Underworld to resurrect his one true love. While mortals would typically not be allowed in, he again used his musical abilities to his advantage. Orpheus sang songs that charmed the ferryman of the Styx, Charron. He even lulled the beastly guardian Cerberus into a state of calm. They both allowed him to pass, giving him the chance to meet Hades and Persephone.
The King and Queen of the Underworld were initially unwilling to hear his plight. But once again, music saved the day. Orpheus’ songs softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone. Hades allowed Orpheus to take Eurydice back to the mortal world.
However, there was one stipulation. The two could not look back as they ventured out of the Underworld.
Orpheus and Eurydice made their way back out. Orpheus led the way. When he reached the opening to the land of living and light, he was so ecstatic to have his love back. So, he turned around to share his delight with Eurydice. However, only Orpheus had crossed the threshold into the upper world. Eurydice was behind him only a few steps away from the opening into the mortal world. Because she was still in the Underworld, Eurydice immediately disappeared and was lost to the Underworld.
The Death of Orpheus
Later in life, Orpheus was most known for his writings. According to the poet Ovid, he abstained from the love of women. His dedication to his lost wife prevented him from doing so despite the advances of many.
He reportedly did not worship the gods and chose to dedicate his time to Apollo. This act of defiance angered many. As he saluted Apollo at dawn near the Oracle of Dionysus, the Maenards attacked
The Maenads were female followers of Dionysus. Some accounts of his death say that the Maenards were directly encouraged by Dionysus herself, as she didn’t like that he worshipped a rival god. The Maenads didn’t just kill Orpheus. They shredded him to pieces.
However, Orpheus’ did not stop playing music. His head continued to sing. His head and lyre floated down the Hebrus river and into the sea. Eventually, it made its way to the island of Lesbos. There, the people of Lesbos set up an Oracle of Orpheus.
His head continued to prophesize until the oracle became more famous than even Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi. So, Apollo silenced it. He ordered Orpheus’ dismembered limbs to be buried by the Muses. They obliged, burying his body under Mount Olympus.
Upon his burial, Orpheus’ soul was able to go to the Fields of the Blessed in the Underworld. There, he was finally reunited with his wife Eurydice. As for his lyre, the Muses took it into the stars, where it became the constellation Lyra.
Orpheus was the son of King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope.
Orpheus was a talented musician, poet, and prophet. He reportedly received his lyre from the god Apollo.
Orpheus was part of the Argonauts, traveling with Jason and his crew in search of the Golden Fleece. His music helped them overcome the Sirens.
The Thracian musician married a woman named Eurydice, also spelled Euridice.
Orpheus ventured into the Underworld to bring his wife back from the dead after her accidental death.
Orpheus worshipped no gods but the sun. He called the sun Apollo after the god who taught him his gift of music.
He was eventually killed and dismembered by the Maenads of Dionysus.
As a prophet, he founded the Orphic Mysteries, a religion based on his teachings.
Orpheus’ story is retold in modern works like “Black Orpheus,” the novel “Orfeo,” Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy,” the chamber opera “Orphee,” and more. He also served as inspiration for music by Franz Liszt, Haydn, Stravinsky, Gluck, and other famous composers.
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