Orpheus: Greek Mythology’s Most Famous Minstrel

Orpheus of Greek mythology was no god. He wasn’t a king, either. He was a hero, but not the Heraclean kind. Orpheus was a renowned bard from ancient Thrace that played a mean lyre. And his story, complicated and sad as it is, still inspires the devoted artists and romantics of today.

Who is Orpheus?

Orpheus was the multi-talented son of Oeagrus, a Thracian king, and the muse Calliope. He was born in Pimpleia, Piera, near the foothills of Mount Olympus. While there are no confirmed siblings of Orpheus, it is said that Linus of Thrace, a master orator and musician, could have been his brother.

In some alternatives to mythology, Apollo and Calliope were said to be the parents of Orpheus. Having such legendary parents would definitely explain why Orpheus was gifted in both music and poetry: it was hereditary.

It is said that Orpheus mastered various poetic forms at a young age. On top of this, he was an accomplished lyrist. Due to his musical inclinations, Orpheus is frequently credited with being one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived Indeed, that is what legends would lead us to believe.

Orpheus was taught how to play the lyre in his youth as an apprentice to Apollo, who as Apollon Mousēgetēs took a vested interest in the child of Calliope. Most popular legends even claim that it was Apollo who gave Orpheus his very first lyre.

It is hard to pinpoint when Orpheus lived, but based on Orpheus’ involvement in the Argonautic expedition, he likely existed during ancient Greece’s Hero Age. Jason’s legendary quest for the Golden Fleece predates the Trojan War and the events of the Epic Cycle, placing the feats of Orpheus around 1300 BCE.

Was Orpheus a God or Mortal?

In classical Greek mythology, Orpheus was mortal. It could be argued that Orpheus was even a demi-god, having been the offspring of a goddess after mating with a human. Regardless of this fact, even demigods could not escape death.

Orpheus, the greatest musician to ever live, was believed to have died after his adventures.

Orpheus and Eurydice

As one of the world’s most tragic love stories, the pairing of Orpheus and Eurydice seemed a match made in heaven. It was love at first sight when Eurydice, a dryad nymph, attended one of Orpheus’ popular performances after his return as an Argonaut. From that point on, the pair was inseparable. Where Orpheus went, Eurydice followed, and vice versa. It didn’t take long for the lovebirds to decide to get married.

Hymenaios, the god of matrimony and a companion of Aphrodite informed the bride and groom that their union would be short-lived. However, the two were so enamored that they dismissed the warning. On their wedding day, Eurydice met an untimely end when she was bitten by a venomous snake.

Ultimately, Eurydice was Orpheus’ muse. Her loss caused the Thracian bard to spiral into a deep, lifelong depression. Although he continued to play the lyre, Orpheus only played the most dismal songs and never took another wife.

What Was Orpheus Famous For?

Orpheus is famous for a few reasons, but the most famous story of his surrounds his descent into the Underworld. The myth launched Orpheus from an acclaimed bard to a cult icon. Unsurprisingly, the Orphic mystery cult venerated other individuals and Greek gods that returned unscathed from the land of the dead. Among the worshipped are Hermes, Dionysus, and the goddess Persephone.

Outside of this unique, resume-worthy trait, Orpheus is most of all remembered for his beautiful songs – so beautiful, in fact, they could sway the gods themselves – and his immense grief over the loss of his beloved wife. Although not everyone could say they went to the Underworld and bargained with Hades, it is Orpheus’ musical accomplishments that made him a hero to the ancient Greeks.

What is the Story of Orpheus?

The story of Orpheus is a tragedy. When the audience is introduced to Orpheus, he is an adventurer. Although a great hero of antiquity, Orpheus was markedly not a fighter like Heracles, Jason, or Odysseus. He could not run military drills and he likely was poorly trained in combat. However, Orpheus needed only his songs to succeed.

It was Orpheus’ songs that vanquished Sirens, won the heart of his wife, and it was his songs alone that would convince the gods to defy fate. The use of brute force and strenuous physicality would not have achieved anything that Orpheus had already accomplished.

Orpheus in Greek Mythology

Most surviving myths never show Orpheus as the dashing, weapon-wielding hero. Instead, he relied on music to get him through life’s worst moments. He used his expertise to his advantage to get himself out of some troublesome situations. Also, his music could charm wildlife and stop rivers from flowing so that they could instead hear him play.

Jason and the Argonauts

The dazzling tale of Jason and the Argonauts captivated the ancient world as much it does today.

Orpheus was a part of the expedition that set out to collect the fabled golden fleece. This makes him an Argonaut and a familiar face to the Greek heroes, Jason and Heracles.

The complete myth is recorded in The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, a Greek epic author. There’s also a 1963 film that employs stop-motion beautifully.

Orpheus vs. the Sirens

During his adventures with the Argonautic expedition, Orpheus encountered some of the most fearsome creatures from Greek mythology. The crew encountered Harpies, Talos, and some fire-breathing bulls. However, as far as sea-dwelling monsters of the deep go, 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 demise. Oh, and while they had the faces of beautiful maidens, they had bird bodies and talons.

Jason and his crew came across the sirens by happenstance. Their songs enchanted the men on the ship, and they were soon all totally down bad for these frightening bird-women.

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, Orpheus did what he does best! He tuned up his lyre and started playing a “rippling melody.”

So, although the sirensong was endless, Orpheus was able to get his friends back on track long enough to avoid a collision.

The Orpheus Myth

The myth of Orpheus starts out fantastic. Two young people, madly in love, and oh-so-crazy about one another. They got married and were looking forward to spending the rest of their lives together. That is, until Eurydice got a fatal snake bite.

Orpheus was distraught. It didn’t take long for the young poet to realize that he could not go on living without Eurydice. Rather than pull a Romeo, Orpheus instead decided to go to the Underworld and bring Eurydice back.

So, Orpheus made the descent. All the while, the poet played such mournful songs that the Greek gods wept. Cerebus let him pass and even Charon, the stingy ferryman, gave Orpheus a ride free of charge.

When Orpheus reached the shadowy realm of Hades, he made a plea: to let his lost wife return to him for a few more years. Eventually, Orpheus reasoned, the Underworld would have both of them. So what would a handful of more years hurt?

The dedication Orpheus displayed reminded the King of the Underworld of his own affection for his wife, Persephone. Hades couldn’t help but concede. But, there was a condition: on their ascension to the Upper World, Eurydice would walk behind Orpheus and eager, 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.

READ MORE: 10 Gods of Death and the Underworld From Around the World

However, Orpheus looked behind him! Grief-stricken, Orpheus again tried to reach the Underworld. Only, the gates were barred shut, and Zeus had sent Hermes to keep Orpheus away. Just like that, the soul of his beloved Eurydice was lost forever.

What Did Orpheus Do Wrong?

As minor as it seemed, Orpheus made a heart-wrenching mistake: he looked back. By looking behind him to see his wife too soon, Orpheus broke his word to Hades.

Though, the implications are larger than just that. The pity of the King and Queen of the Underworld could only help so much. For a place held together by stringent rules, the Underworld wasn’t supposed to just let the dead leave.

Hades made one very rare exception. Unfortunately, Orpheus – giddy at the thought of being rejoined with his wife among the living – blew his chance.

How Did Orpheus Die?

After trudging his way back to lonesome Thrace, Orpheus resigned to being a widower. Life sucked. He remained a drifter, hanging out in the woods of Thrace and channeling his grief into his somber songs.

During the years following Eurydice’s death, Orpheus began to neglect worshipping other Greek gods and goddesses. That is, save for Apollo. Orpheus would routinely climb the Pangaion Hills so that he would be the first to see the light of day.

On one of his treks, Orpheus came across Maenads in the woods. These frenzied female worshippers of the god Dionysus were all around bad news.

Likely sensing Orpheus’ shunning of Dionysus, the Maenads attempted to stone the grieving bard. They gathered rocks, hurling them in his direction. Alas, his music was too lovely; the stones passed Orpheus, each unwilling to harm him.

Since the stones failed, the women took to tearing Orpheus apart with their own hands. Limb by limb, the great Thracian bard was killed.

The encounter left pieces of Orpheus scattered across the hills. His still-singing head and lyre fell into the River Hebrus where the tides eventually led to the island of Lesbos. Inhabitants of the island buried Orpheus’ head. Meanwhile, the 9 Muses gathered Orpheus’ remains from the Pangaion Hills.

The Muses gave Orpheus a proper burial in the ancient Macadonian city of Leibethra at the base of Mount Olympus. As for his treasured lyre, it was placed amongst the stars in memory of him. It is, as we know it today, the Lyra constellation.

The son of the muse, Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, was no more. His time had come to dwell in the shadowy Underworld.

As for his killers – according to the historian Plutarch – the Maenads were punished for the murder and turned into trees.

Was Orpheus Reunited with Eurydice?

Most accounts recite that the soul of Orpheus was reunited with Eurydice in Elysium. The couple then went on to spend eternity together in the blessed, bounteous fields.

There are a few ancient writers that say the long-sought reunion of Eurydice and Orpheus never happened.

Orpheus the Pederast

Pederasty, in ancient Greece, was a romantic relationship between an older and younger male – usually a teen. Although socially acknowledged, it was criticized in Athens and other parts of the Greek world for several reasons. In the Roman Empire, pederasty was commonly practiced and viewed as a social norm.

READ MORE: Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities

Some later variations of the Orpheus myth refer to Orpheus as a practitioner of pederasty. The Roman poet Ovid claims that after the loss of Eurydice, the legendary bard spurned the affection of women. Instead, he “was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his affection to young boys and enjoy their brief springtime.”

Anyways, it was Orpheus’ complete rejection of women that lead to the Maenads killing him instead of his shunning of Dionysus. At least, according to Ovid and later scholars. The author’s work in the Metamorphoses is likely the origin of Orpheus’ connection to pederasty, as it was not mentioned as a motive behind his murder in the original Greek myth.

Orphic Mysteries and Orphic Literature

The Orphic Mysteries was a mystery cult based around the works and myths of the poet, Orpheus. The mystery cult peaked in the 5th century BCE in ancient Greece. Several surviving works of hexametric religious poetry were ascribed to Orpheus. These religious poems, the Orphic Hymns, played an important role during mystic rites and rituals.

In Orphism, Orpheus was considered to be an aspect – or an incarnation – of the twice-born god, Dionysus. On that account, many modern scholars theorize that Orphism was a subsect of earlier Dionysian Mysteries. The cult itself generally venerated those gods and goddesses that had gone to the Underworld and returned.

Key pieces of Orphic literature include the following: 

  • Sacred Discourses in Twenty-Four Rhapsodies
  • The 87 Orphic Hymns
  • The Orphic theogonies
    • Protogonos Theogony
    • Eudemian Theogony
    • Rhapsodic Theogony
  • The Orphic fragments
  • Orphic Argonautica

A great emphasis of the Orphic Mysteries is a pleasant afterlife. In this way, the Orphic Mysteries relate to Demeter and Persephone’s Eleusinian Mysteries. Many Mysteries that branched off of major Greek religion are tied to the promise of a certain life after death, depending on their primary myths and theogonies.

Did Orpheus Write the Orphic Hymns?

Orpheus is not the author of the Orphic Hymns. The works are, however, meant to imitate Orpheus’ style. They are short, hexametric poems.

Whether or not Orpheus knew of the hexameter is as debatable as his existence. Both Herodotus and Aristotle question Orpheus’ use of the form. It is posited that the Orphic Hymns were written by members of the thiasus of Dionysus sometime after.

READ MORE: History’s Most Famous Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and More!

Hexameter plays a significant role in Greek myths, having been invented by Phemonoe, the daughter of the god Apollo and the first Pythian oracle of Delphi. Likewise, the hexameter is the form used in the Iliad and the Odyssey; it was considered the standard epic meter.

Orpheus in Modern Media

Being a 2,500-year-old tragedy, the myth of Orpheus is insanely popular. While the charm of Orpheus is hard to resist, the rest of the story is profoundly relatable.

Where there is an innate fear of losing a loved one, the Orpheus myth speaks to the lengths individuals are willing to go to regain them. Or, at least, a shade of them.

Its commentary further suggests that the dead can have an unhealthy hold over the living and that true inner peace cannot be had until we allow the dead to rest.

The adaptation of Orpheus to modern media explores these themes and more.

The Orphic Trilogy

The Orphic Trilogy encompasses three avant-garde films by the French director, Jean Cocteau. The trilogy includes The Blood of a Poet (1932), Orpheus (1950), and Testament of Orpheus (1960). All three films were shot in France.

In the second film, Jean Marais acts as the famous poet, Orpheus. Orpheus is the only one out of the three films that is an interpretation of the myth surrounding the fabled poet. On the other hand, the Testament of Orpheus acts as a commentary of life’s obsessions specifically through the eyes of an artist.

Hadestown

One of the more famous modern adaptations of the Orpheus myth, Hadestown is a Broadway sensation. The musical is based on a book by Anaïs Mitchell, an American singer-songwriter.

Hadestown takes place in a post-dystopian, Great Depression-era America. Coincidentally, the songs of Hadestown are likewise inspired by the Jazz Age, with elements of American folk and blues. The narrator of the musical is Hermes, the unofficial guardian of Orpheus: a poor singer-songwriter working on his magnum opus.

In a climate-change-ravaged world, Eurydice is a hungry drifter who marries Orpheus despite his idealism and songwriting obsession. Meanwhile, the Underworld is hell-on-Earth Hadestown where workers’ rights don’t exist. Hades is a cruel railroad baron and Persephone is his dissatisfied, fun-loving wife. The Fates have a role as well, dressed as flappers and acting as the main character’s invasive thoughts.

Black Orpheus

This 1959 film adaptation of the ancient Greek myth is set in Brazil and directed by Marcel Camus. During the ecstasy of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, a young (and very much engaged) Orfeu meets a charming girl on the run from death, Eurydice. Although the two develop a romantic relationship, the adaptation has Orfeu unintentionally killing his beloved in a terrible electrical accident. 

The film features Hermes as a station guard at a trolley station, and Orfeu’s fiancee, Mira, ends up striking the killing blow to Orfeu as he cradles Eurydice’s lifeless body. Sound familiar? Mira is a stand-in for the Maenads of classical myth.

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