Orpheus is a figure from ancient Greek mythology, most famous for his virtuoso ability in playing the lyre or kithara. His music could charm the wild animals of the forest and even streams would pause and trees bend a little closer to hear his sublime singing. He was also a poet and a prophet and is widely referenced in all forms of ancient Greek art.
Orpheus had excellent musical pedigree as his mother was the Muse Calliope and he learnt his great skills from his father the god Apollo, the finest musician of them all. Orpheus’ mortal father was generally considered to be King Oeagrus (or Oiagros) of Thrace, where the Greeks believed the lyre also came from. Orpheus’ brother was the unfortunate Linos, the kithara teacher of Hercules, who was killed by his famous pupil after he over-chastised the hero.
Orpheus was a member of Jason’s expedition to find the Golden Fleece. The talented virtuoso not only entertained the Argonauts but also kept time for the rowers of the Argo and is said to have even calmed the seas with his seductive singing and charmed the terrible Sirens - an early example of the Greek’s faith in the magical powers of music.
Orpheus married Eurydice; however, their happiness was short-lived, for Eurydice was bitten on her ankle by a poisonous snake and died, in some accounts, on her wedding night. Distraught, Orpheus followed his love down to Hades and with his music charmed Charon, the ferryman, and Cerberus, the fearsome dog which guarded the gates, to allow him into the realm of shades. Meeting Persephone, the wife of Hades, he beseeched the goddess with his song to release Eurydice and allow her to return to the land of the living. Hades then appeared and, moved by Orpheus’ offer that if Eurydice could not be released, he would stay himself in the underworld, the god consented to her release. There was, however, a condition. The shadow of Eurydice would follow behind Orpheus as he left Hades, but if he once looked back at her, she would forever remain in the world of the dead. Delighted, Orpheus agreed to this simple request but as he walked through the shadows of Hades and heard not a single footfall from behind, he began to doubt Eurydice was there. Then, almost at the threshold of the world of light and happiness, the doubtful Orpheus looked back. There she was, the shadow of Eurydice, but as soon as their eyes met, the girl vanished. In despair, Orpheus stumbled to the daylight and collapsed, his grief not allowing him to eat or drink. Finally, he gathered his senses and roamed the forests of Thrace, but he shunned human company and never sang or played his lyre again. His misery would soon end, though, when he was set upon by a group of frenzied Maenads who stoned him to the ground and ripped him to pieces for his lack of merriment. The limbs of the unfortunate musician were carried out to sea and his head, still whispering his lover’s name, was said to have washed up on the island of Lesbos where the Muses buried it. At the spot they also built a shrine on which birds would sing in such a fashion as to recall the fabulous lost talent of Orpheus. The great musician’s lyre was smashed by the Maenads in some accounts, whilst in others it is also washed up on Lesbos, discovered by a fisherman, and given to Terpander. In yet another version, the lyre of Orpheus was made into a constellation by Zeus in lasting recognition of a great musical gift.
Aside from music, Orpheus was considered the first Greek poet who passed on the artistic mantle to Musaeus, Hesiod, and Homer. He is mentioned as such, albeit rather negatively, by both Plato (Protagoras and Apology) and Aristophanes (Frogs). Orpheus also had the powers of prophecy, and some traditions credit him with giving the human race the gifts of agriculture, medicine, and writing.
In ancient Greek art Orpheus is, unsurprisingly, usually depicted with his lyre or kithara close at hand, and from the 4th century BCE he is sometimes wearing Thracian dress. On red-figure pottery, scenes from the Eurydice myth are popular as are scenes of the musician’s death, attacked by ferocious women (although interestingly, none ever have the attributes of Maenads).
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- Carabatea M. Greek Mythology. Pergamos, Peania, 2007.
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- Hope Moncrieff A.R. Classical Mythology. Senate, London, 1994.
- National Geographic. National Geographic Essential Visual History of World Mythology. National Geographic, 2008.
- Thomas H. Carpenter. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece. Thames & Hudson, 1991.
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c. 700 BCE