© Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace
Orpheus is one of the most celebrated mythical personages of the antiquity who appears very often in literature and art. A son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and of the Muse Calliope, mythical hero of the ancient Greeks, is primarily famous for the “magical” power of his lyre his music and poetry.
It is said that god Apollo chose Orpheus to teach him his music and offer him the lyre given to him as a gift by Hermes, while the Muses, sisters of his mother, taught him to use it artfully and masterly. The sweet singing and the harmonic sounds of the lyre had the power to captivate the wild beasts that left their lairs to follow Orpheus, and also had the power to make trees and rocks move and made them dance in the rhythm of his music.
He joined the expedition of the Argonauts, travelled with them to Colchis and helped them with his music to overcome many difficulties; he calmed down the sea when a great tempest occurred during the journey; he eliminated the fierce dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece and tamed the Symplegadae. The beauty, power and magic of his singing surpassed even that of the Sirens so that the Argonauts could escape from their trap.
After the Argonautic expedition he returned to Thrace, where he met and married to Eurydice, a Dryad Nymph. One day, newly married Eurydice was bitten by a snake in her attempt to escape from the sexual pursuit of the shepherd Aristaeus and died. Orpheus was inconsolable for the early and unfair death of his wife so he tried to console himself by singing and playing the lyre. However, unable to bear the loss of his wife, he decided to descend to the kingdom of the dead in search of Eurydice.
Orpheus charmed the gods of the Underworld and delighted the guardian beasts with the harmonic sounds of his lyre and his plaintive singing. Pluto, the god of the eternal darkness and his wife Persephone were moved and granted Orpheus to win back his wife and take her to the upper world but upon one condition: Orpheus should walk in front of his wife not look back at her until they have arrived at the upper world. Full of happiness, Orpheus ascended through the dark passage of Hades followed by Eurydice who was guided by the sound of his lyre. At the very moment when they were about to leave Hades Orpheus, overwhelmed by his anxiety of love, looked back to see if Eurydice was following him. Then Eurydice disappeared immediately and Orpheus lost her forever.
This version of the story dates to the time of Virgil who first introduced the name of Aristaeus. Still, other writers also mention the visit of Orpheus to the Underworld. According to Plato, the chthonian gods “presented an appearance” of Eurydice to Orpheus. Ovid has another version of the myth in which the death of Eurydice was not provoked by her escaping from Aristaeus but from her dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day.
Eurydice returned to Hades, the world of the shadows and Orpheus returned full of sorrow back to Thrace. His grief and pain for the final loss of his wife led him to abhor the women. Ovid mentions in Metamorphoses that Orpheus treated with contempt the Thracian Maenads, followers of god Dionysus, who in revenge tore him to pieces and further threw his limbs in Evros river. However, in Attic pottery, the personages attacking Orpheus are presented as simple Thracian women who thought that Orpheus’ contempt to women had an influence upon their own husbands.
His head and lyre floated from Evros to the Lesbian shores, where the inhabitants buried his head. The Muses collected the members of his body and buried them at the foot of Olympus, while the lyre of the great musician was transferred to the sky and placed among the stars. His soul returned to the Underworld, where it was finally reunified with the soul of his beloved Eurydice.
This is the most prevailing version of the tragic end of Orpheus. Still, there are versions of the myth in relation to the causes of his death. According to a summary of a lost play of Aeschylus from the Late Antiquity, Orpheus showed contempt to the worship of Dionysus and honoured Helios – Apollo. That made Dionysus furious so he sent the Thracian Maenads to murder him as a punishment for his hybris against the god. It is important that his death is similar to that of god Dionysus. Another version of the myth originating from the antiquity ascribes the death of Orpheus to the thunderbolts of Zeus because the former revealed sacred secrets to the people.
In general, the myths around Orpheus developed into a whole new cult; the Orphism, the Orphic mysteries and the Orphic poems are connected with the name of the mythical poet.