Orpheus, by Gustave Moreau (1880)
In Greek legend, Orpheus was the chief representative of the art of song and playing the lyre, and of great importance in the religious history of Greece. The derivation of the name is uncertain, the most probable being that which connects it with "dark". "Orpheus" may also possibly be a derivative of "ophruoeis" - which translates to "on the river bank". This may be in reference to his untimely and brutal demise at the hands of the bachanntes, and his subsequent dismembering into the river Hebrus. It might also be a reference to trees along the river bank, as his father, Oeagrus, translates to "of the wild sorb-apple" and both of these things refer to the Hellenic River Goddes, Halys (also known as Elis or Alys) Orpheus may have been originally a god of darkness; or the liberator from the power of darkness by his gift of song. It is possible, but very improbable, that Orpheus was an historical personage; even in ancient times his existence was denied.

Although by some he was held to be a Greek, the tradition of his Thracian origin was most generally accepted. His name does not occur in Homer or Hesiod, but he was known in the time of Ibycus (c. 530 B.C.), and Pindar (522—442 B.C.) speaks of him as “the father of songs”.

From the 6th century onwards he was looked upon as one of the chief poets and musicians of antiquity, the inventor or perfecter of the lyre, who by his music and singing was able not only to charm the wild beasts, but even to draw the trees and rocks from their places, and to arrest the rivers in their course. As one of the pioneers of civilization, he was supposed to have taught mankind the arts of medicine, writing and agriculture. As closely connected with religious life, he was an augur and seer; practised magical arts, especially astrology; founded or rendered accessible many important cults, such as those of Apollo and Dionysus; instituted mystic rites, both public and private; prescribed initiatory and purificatory ritual. He was said to have visited Egypt, and to have become acquainted there with the writings of Moses and with the doctrine of a future life.

According to the best-known tradition, Orpheus was the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, and the muse Calliope. Sometimes, Calliope and Apollo were his parents. Orpheus learned music from Linus, or from Apollo, who was also his lover and who gave him his own lyre (made by Hermes out of a turtle shell) as a love gift.

During his residence in Thrace he joined the expedition of the Argonauts, whose leader Jason had been informed by Chiron that only by the aid of Orpheus would they be able to pass by the Sirens unscathed. The Sirens lived on three small, rocky islands called Sirenum scopuli and sang beautiful songs that enticed sailors to come to them. They then ate the sailors. When Orpheus heard their voices, he withdrew his lyre and played his music more beautifully than they, drowning out their music.

But the most famous story in which he figures is that of his wife Eurydice. Eurydice is sometimes known as Agriope. While fleeing from Aristaeus, she was bitten by a serpent and died. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and gods wept and gave him advice. Orpheus went down to the lower world and by his music softened the heart of Hades and Persephone (the only person to ever do so), who allowed Eurydice to return with him to earth. But the condition was attached that he should walk in front of her and not look back until he had reached the upper world. In his anxiety he broke his promise, and Eurydice vanished again from his sight. 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 Plato, the infernal gods only “presented an apparition” of Eurydice to him.

The famous myth of Eurydice we know now may actually post date Orpheus by ages. The myth may have been mistakenly deduced from another Orpheus legend in which he travels to Tartarus and charms the Snake goddess Hecate. This was misread as a snake killing of Eurydice.

After the death of Eurydice, Orpheus swore off the love of women and took only young men as his lovers. He is reputed to be the one who introduced male love to the Thracians, teaching them to love the young in the flower of their youth. Some hold that he was killed for not honoring Dionysus, and others that the women of Thrace were angry at his rejections and at his taking away their boyfriends and husbands. It is significant that his death is analogous with the death of Dionysus, whose teachings he had received from his father, the river god Oeagrus, and to whom therefore he functioned as a priest and avatar.

Ovid recounts that the Thracian Maenads, Dionysus' followers, 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. His head and lyre floated “down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore,” where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honour near Antissa. The lyre was carried to heaven by the Muses, and was placed amongst the stars. The Muses also gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Leibethra below Olympus, where the nightingales sang over his grave.

A large number of Greek religious poems in hexameter were attributed to Orpheus, as they were to similar miracle-man figures like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Olen, Epimenides, and the Sybil. Of this vast literature, only two examples survive whole: a set of hymns composed at some point in the second or third century CE, and an Orphic Argonautica composed somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries CE. Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back as far as the sixth century BCE, survives only in papyrus scraps or in quotations by later authors.

In addition to serving as a storehouse of mythological data along the lines of Hesiod's Theogony, 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 offering purifications to the rich, a clatter of books by Orpheus and Musaeus in tow. Those who were especially devoted to these rituals and poems often practiced vegetarianism, abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs - which came to be known as the Orphikos bios, or "Orphic way of life".

In the wake of James Frazer's work, a number of comparitivists have labeled Orpheus a life-death-rebirth deity.

Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 1-105; XI, 1-66; Apollodorus, Bibliotheke I, iii, 2; ix, 16 & 25; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 23- 34; IV, 891-909; Plato, Republic 364C-D.

Edited and wikified from an encyclopedia of 1911

Orpheus is also the name of a large New Orleans Carnival Krewe, founded in 1993. The Orpheus parade takes place on Lundi Gras night, the night before Mardi Gras.

Orpheus is also the name of a Carnival Krewe in Mandeville, Louisiana, which first paraded in 1988. They parade in Mandeville the Friday before Mardi Gras.

Orpheus is also the English title of the movie Orphée directed by Jean Cocteau in 1949.

External Links

Greek Mythology resource

The Story of Orpheus