Orpheus is a figure from Greek mythology born in the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace (now partly in
Bulgaria), king of the Thracian tribe of Cicones. His name does not occur in Homer or Hesiod, but he
was known by the time of Ibycus (c.530 BC). Orpheus was called by Pindar "the father of songs". He
was a son of the Thracian river god Oiagros and the Muse Calliope, but as Karl Kerenyi observes, "In
the popular mind he was more closely linked to the community of his disciples and adherents than with
any particular race or family."
The Greeks of the Classical age venerated the legendary figure of Orpheus as chief among poets and
musicians, and the perfector of the lyre invented by Hermes. Poets like Simonides of Ceos said that,
with his music and singing, he could charm birds, fishes and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into
dance, and even divert the course of rivers. He was one of the handful of Greek heroes to visit the
Underworld and return; even in Hades his song and lyre did not lose their power.
As one of the pioneers of civilization, he is said at various times to have taught humanity the arts of
medicine, writing (in one unusual instance, where he substitutes for the usual candidate, Cadmus) and
agriculture, where he assumes the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus. More consistently and more closely
connected with religious life, Orpheus was an augur and seer; practised magical arts, especially
astrology; founded or rendered accessible many important cults, such as those of Apollo and the
Thraco-Phrygian god Dionysus; instituted mystic rites both public and private; and prescribed initiatory
and purificatory rituals, which his community of followers treasured in Orphic texts. In addition, Pindar
and Apollonius of Rhodes place Orpheus as the harpist and companion of Jason and the Argonauts.
Several etymologies for the name Orpheus have been proposed. A probable suggestion is that it is
derived from a hypothetical PIE verb *orbhao-, "to be deprived", from PIE *orbh-, "to put asunder,
separate". Cognates would include Greek orphe, "darkness", and Greek orphanos, "fatherless, orphan",
from which comes English "orphan" by way of Latin. Orpheus would therefore be semantically close to
goao, "to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell", uniting his seemingly disparate roles as disappointed lover,
transgressive musician and mystery-priest into a single lexical whole. The word "orphic" is defined as
mystic, fascinating and entrancing, and, probably, because of the oracle of Orpheus, "orphic" can also
Orpheus' father was Oeagrus a Thracian king (or, according to another version of the story, the god
Apollo); his mother was the muse Calliope. While living with his mother and her eight beautiful sisters
on Parnassus, he met Apollo who was courting the laughing muse Thalia. Apollo became fond of
Orpheus and gave him a little golden lyre, and taught him to play it. Orpheus's mother taught him to
make verses for singing.
The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice (also known as Agriope).
While fleeing from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), Eurydice ran into a nest of snakes which bit her fatally
on her heel. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and
gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of
Hades and Persephone (he was the only person ever to do so), who agreed to allow Eurydice to return
with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had
reached the upper world. In his anxiety he forgot that both needed to be in the upper world, and he
turned to look at her, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever. The story in this form
belongs to the time of Virgil, who first introduces the name of Aristaeus. Other ancient writers,
however, speak of Orpheus' visit to the underworld; according to Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium, the
infernal gods only "presented an apparition" of Eurydice to him. Ovid says that Eurydice's death was
not caused by fleeing from Aristaeus but by dancing with naiads on her wedding day.
The story of Eurydice may actually be a late addition to the Orpheus myths. In particular, the name
Eurudike ("she whose justice extends widely") recalls cult-titles attached to Persephone. The myth may
have been mistakenly derived from another Orpheus legend in which he travels to Tartarus and charms
the goddess Hecate.
The descent to the Underworld of Orpheus is paralleled in other versions of a worldwide theme: the
Japanese myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the Akkadian/Sumerian myth of Inanna's Descent to the
Underworld, and Mayan myth of Ix Chel and Itzamna. The mytheme of not looking back, an essential
precaution in Jason's raising of chthonic Brimo Hekate under Medea's guidance, is reflected in the story
of Lot's wife when escaping from Sodom. The warning of not looking back is also found in the
Grimms' folk tale "Hansel and Gretel." More directly, the story of Orpheus is similar to the ancient
Greek tales of Persephone captured by Hades and similar stories of Adonis captive in the underworld.
However, the developed form of the Orpheus myth was entwined with the Orphic mystery cults and,
later in Rome, with the development of Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus.
According to some versions of the story (notably Ovid's), Orpheus forswore the love of women after the death of Eurydice and took only youths as his lovers; he was reputed to be the one who introduced pederasty to the Thracians, teaching them to "love the young in the flower of their youth."
According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus's lost play Bassarids, Orpheus at the end of his life disdained the worship of all gods save the sun, whom he called Apollo. One early morning he went to the oracle of Dionysus to salute his god at dawn, but was torn to death by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron, Dionysus. Here his death is analogous with the death of Pentheus.
Ovid (Metamorphoses XI) also recounts that the Thracian Maenads, Dionysus' followers, angry for
having been spurned by Orpheus in favor of "tender boys," first threw sticks and stones at him as he
played, but his music was so beautiful even the rocks and branches refused to hit him. Enraged, the
Maenads tore him to pieces during the frenzy of their Bacchic orgies. Later, the story would sometimes
be seen from a Christian moralist angle: in Albrecht D\u00fcrer's drawing (illustration, right) the ribbon high
in the tree is lettered Orfeus der erst puseran ("Orpheus, the first sodomite").
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