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Orpheus: The Greatest Mystic and Musician of Greek Mythology

Orpheus and Eurydice by Edward Poynter
The romantic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice remains one of the most popular themes in Western art and literature. Painting by Edward Poynter. Public Domain

Orpheus, the son of god of music and healing, Apollo, and muse Calliope, was the greatest bard, mystic, and prophet in ancient Greek mythology.

He had the most melodious voice of all mortals and his lyre playing enchanted gods, mortals, and animals alike.

Orpheus was taught to play the lyre in his youth as an apprentice to Apollo. Ancient legends claim that it was Apollo who gave Orpheus his very first lyre.

Other ancient historians have Orpheus as the son Thracian king Oeagrus, born in the foot of Mount Olympus, home of the gods.

Orpheus of Greek mythology was a romantic hero, and as enchanting his music was, his story about his lost wife Eurydice was sad and complicated. At he the same time he was a mystic with many followers.

He was the founder and prophet of the “Orphic” mysteries. His Orphic Hymns are a collection of 87 hymns addressing several gods.

Other than a gifted musician and poet, his adventurous nature brought him to the ship of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. Heracles was on that mission, too, placing Orpheus in the company of two mythical heroes.

The Romantic Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus is best known for the romantic myth of descending to the Underworld trying to bring his deceased wife back from the land of the dead; and the mourning of his failure to succeed.

When Orpheus met Eurydice it was a match made in heaven, love at first sight. Eurydice, a dryad nymph, attended one of Orpheus’ performances after his return as an Argonaut.

The two became inseparable, spent all the time together, making an ideal romantic pair. It didn’t take long until they decided to get married.

However, Hymenaios, the god of matrimony and a companion of Aphrodite informed the bride and groom that fate had it that their union would be short-lived.

Orpheus and Eurydice were so enamored that they ignored the warning. But on their wedding day, Eurydice met an untimely end when she was bitten by a venomous snake.

The bard could not go on living without Eurydice. He decided to do something no mortal had ever done before: Descend to the Underworld and bring Eurydice back.

The mournful songs he played on his dark journey made the gods weep. Cerberus let him pass the Underworld gates, even Charon, the cold ferryman, gave Orpheus a ride free of charge.

When Orpheus reached the shadowy realm of Hades, he made a plea to the god of the dead: to let his lost wife return to him for a few more years, then he would have both of them.

The dedication Orpheus displayed reminded the god of the Underworld of his own affection for his wife, Persephone. Hades conceded. But, there was one condition:

On their ascension to the world of the living, Eurydice would walk behind Orpheus and  lovestruck Orpheus would not be allowed to look at his wife until they were both again in the Upper World. If he did, Eurydice would remain in the afterlife.

Eager Orpheus looked behind him, though. Eurydice was lost forever. The lovestruck man had not kept his word to Hades. Zeus sent Hermes to keep Orpheus away from the gates of the Underworld.

Orpheus among the Thracians
Orpheus (left, with lyre) among the Thracians, from an Attic red-figure bell-krater (c. 440 BC) Attributed to the Painter of London E 497 – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011) CC BY 2.5

Orpheus with Jason and the Argonauts

Before he met Eurydice, Orpheus was a part of the expedition led by Jason, set out to find the fabled golden fleece. Along in the adventure was another mythical hero, Heracles.

The complete myth is recorded in The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, a Greek epic author.

Onboard the Argo, Orpheus encountered some of the most fearsome creatures from Greek mythology, like the Harpies and Talos. However, the Sirens were considered some of the most formidable foes.

The Sirens were creatures that would enchant their victims with an irresistible melody. Their singing alone was enough to lead ancient sailors to their death. They had the faces of beautiful maidens, with bird bodies and talons.

Jason saw that the Sirens’ songs enchanted the men on the ship. All except Orpheus. Since Orpheus was the only sane one left, he knew he had to do something to stop his mates from beaching their ship on the Sirens’ island.

So, he tuned up his lyre and started playing a melody. The music made the crew bring Argo back on track long enough to avoid a collision.

The Orphic Mysteries

Orpheus, like Dionysos and Demeter, was among the very few who returned miraculously from the world of the dead. For this reason, he was credited as the founder of a sect and numerous mystical/theological poems used in their liturgies were attributed to him.

Of his writings, only two examples survive whole: a set of hymns composed in the second or third century, and an Orphic 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. It contains numerous mythological data along the lines of Hesiod’s Theogony.

Most scholars agree that by the fifth century BC there was an Orphic movement with travelling priests offering teaching and initiation based on a body of legend and doctrine said to have been founded by Orpheus.

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 carrying books by Orpheus and Musaeus, offering purifications to the rich.

Those who were especially devoted to these cults often practiced vegetarianism, 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, northern Greece in 1962, contains a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem in hexameters.

It is about the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of 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. It is registered in UNESCO’s “International Memory of the World Register.”

Maenads attack Orpheus
The Death of Orpheus, detail from a silver kantharos, 420–410 BC, part of the Vassil Bojkov collection, Sofia, Bulgaria Gorgonchica – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0

 Death of Orpheus

The death of Orpheus was as unpleasant as his life after losing Eurydice forever. He was torn apart by the Maenads, the ravening devotees of Dionysos, who after dismembering him, threw his limbs around, with his head still singing.

There are two versions of the motive of the Maenads for killing the young bard:

According to some ancient poets, notably Ovid, the Maenads were offended because after losing Eurydice, Orpheus could not see other women and stopped having heterosexual sex, turning to the love of young boys. From tragic lover to a lowly pederast.

The second version is that the Maenads killed him because he offended Dionysos. After the death of Eurydice, Orpheus had denounced all gods except Apollo, his teacher.

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