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The head of Orpheus, from an 1865 painting by Gustave Moreau.
The head of Orpheus, from an 1865 painting by Gustave Moreau.

In Greek legend, Orpheus (Greek: Ορφέας) was the chief representative of the arts of song and the lyre, and of great importance in the religious history of Greece. The mythical figure of Orpheus was borrowed by the Greeks from their Thracian neighbors; the Thracian "Orphic Mysteries", rituals of unknown content, were named after him. (See Orphism (religion).)

The ancients knew him as a Thracian of Pieria (the coastal region above Mount Olympos), a magical musician, and also as a priest of Dionysus. Some attribute him as the founder of the Dionysiac rites. 1



The name Orpheus itself belongs to the oldest level of Greek names: those ending in -eus (for example, Atreus). Such names are pre-Homeric, thus Orpheus does not occur in Homer or Hesiod, but he was known in the time of Ibycus (c. 530 BC). Pindar (522442 BC) speaks of him as “the father of songs”.

From the 6th century BC onwards, Orpheus was considered one of the chief poets and musicians of antiquity, and the inventor or perfector of the lyre. By dint of his music and singing, he could charm the wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, even arrest the course of rivers. As one of the pioneers of civilization, he is said to have taught mankind the arts of medicine, writing and agriculture. Closely connected with religious life, Orpheus was an augur and seer; practiced magical arts, especially astrology; founded or rendered accessible many important cults, such as those of Apollo and the Thracian god Dionysus; instituted mystic rites both public and private; and prescribed initiatory and purificatory rituals.

George Grote wrote that "Orpheus is celebrated by Pindar as the harper and companion of the Argonautic maritime heros." 2

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 signify "oracular".


According to the best-known tradition, Orpheus was the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, which in pre-historic period seems to describe a wider region from Olymbos to the Hellespontos Straits, as the Orphic texts (Argonautica) point out that Orpheus was born in Mount Elikon at Livithra (Piplan, Pieria), and that his mother was Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. In other traditions, Calliope and Apollo were his parents. Orpheus learned music from Linus, or from Apollo, who gave him his own lyre (made by Hermes out of a turtle shell) as a gift.

The Argonautic expedition

Despite Orpheus's Thracian origin, he joined the expedition of the Argonauts. Centaur Chiron had warned Argonaut leader Jason that only with the aid of Orpheus would they be able to navigate past the Sirens unscathed. The Sirens lived on three small, rocky islands called Sirenum scopuli and played irresistibly beautiful songs that enticed sailors and their ships to the islands' craggy shoals. Once shipwrecked on the rocks, the sailors became supper for the Sirens. However, when Orpheus heard the Sirens, he drew his lyre and played music more beautifully than that of the Sirens, thus drowning out their alluring but deadly song.

Death of Eurydice

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 which brought her to her death. 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 hearts of Hades and Persephone (the only person to ever do so), who agreed to allow 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. Ovid says that Eurydice's death was not caused by fleeing from Aristaeus but by dancing with Naiads on her wedding day.

The famous 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 story of Orpheus and Eurydice has interesting similarities to 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. Also it is similar to the story of Lot and his wife when escaping from Sodom. More directly and importantly, the story of Orpheus bears direct similarity to the ancient Greek tales of Demeter captured by Hades (where in early myth she is transformed into Cthon-Demeter and later returned as Prosperine) and similar stories of Adonis or Apollo being captive in the underworld (described as Cthon-Apollo). This reflection of stories might indeed date back to cosmogenic and deities focal in Greek prehistory before Zeus became central in Greek myth, such as Cronos and Gaia. However, the eventual form of the Orpheus myth was entwined with the mystery cults (called Orphic cults as perhaps a misprision of the old term Ophidian cults and even older Ova cults), the development of Mithrasism and Sol Invictus in Rome, and the predecessors of Orpheus. What Orpheus was before the twists of myth enveloped him with other stories might have been a happy king with a happy wife and many daughters, but perhaps that was a different king and a different time, a different place. Only Lethe is wiser than Klio, although it is said they sip of each other's tongues.

After the death of Eurydice, Orpheus presumably swore off the love of women and took only youths as his lovers. He is reputed to be the one who introduced pederasty to the Thracians, teaching them to "love the young in the flower of their youth".

Death of Orpheus

Albrecht Dürer envisaged the death of Orpheus in this pen and ink drawing, 1494 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)
Albrecht Dürer envisaged the death of Orpheus in this pen and ink drawing, 1494 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

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 ascended Mount Pangaion (where Dionysus had an oracle) 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 Dionysus, to whom therefore he functioned as both priest and avatar.

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. Medieval folkore puts a Christian spin on the story: in Albrecht Dürer's drawing (illustration, left) the ribbon high in the tree is lettered Orfeus der erst puseran ("Orpheus, the first sodomite").

His head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the swift Hebrus to the Mediterranean shore. There, the winds and waves carried them on to the Lesbos shore, where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honour near Antissa; there his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo (Life of Apollonius of Tyana, book v.14). 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 Mount Olympus, where the nightingales sang over his grave. His soul returned to the underworld, where he was re-united at last with his beloved Eurydice.

In Attic vase painting, however, the women who attack Orpheus appear to be normal Thracian women, who are irritated that the bard's songs have stolen their husbands away from them.

Orphic poems and rites

A number of Greek religious poems in hexameter were attributed to Orpheus, as they were to similar miracle-man figures like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sybil. Of this vast literature, only two examples survive whole: a set of hymns composed at some point in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, and an Orphic Argonautica composed somewhere between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back as far as the 6th century BC, 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 (Republic 364c-d). Those who were especially devoted to these ritual and poems often practiced vegetarianism, abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs and beans — which came to be known as the Orphikos bios, or "Orphic way of life". 3

The historian William Mitford wrote in 1784 that the very earliest form of a higher and cohesive ancient Greek religion was manifest in the Orphic poems. 4

W.K.C. Guthrie wrote that Orpheus was the founder of mystery religions and the first to reveal to men the meanings of the initiation rites. 5

The post-classical Orpheus

In the Divine Comedy Dante sees the shade of Orpheus along with those of numerous other "virtuous pagans" in Limbo.

This story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been the subject of operas and cantatas through the history of western classical music:

In addition, the story served as a basis for Angelo Poliziano's "Orfeo", a musical renaissance play which is considered by some scholars to be an important forerunner of the opera genre.

In a 1985 article in 19th Century Music musicologist Owen Jander controversially argued that the 2nd movement (Andante con moto) of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto was programatically modelled after the Orpheus myth.

The Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth set in 1950's America. Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice is an interpretive retelling of the myth of Orpheus from the point of view of his wife, Eurydice. Jean Anouilh's Eurydice (1941) sets the story among a troupe of performers in 1930s France.

Film retellings and reinterpretations include:

The Czech-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, sometimes called the last of the romantic authors, wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus immediately following the Duino Elegies.

The English poet John Milton repeatedly made allusions to the figure of Orpheus in his work, most centrally in "Lycidas" (1637).

The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote Orpheus and Euridice as an elegy to his late wife Carol in 2003.

The tale of Orpheus was mixed with Celtic fairy lore in the Middle English metrical romance Sir Orfeo. The myth of Orpheus was also retold in The Sandman comic books by Neil Gaiman, and in the Hugo Award-winning novella, Goat Song by Poul Anderson.

Russell Hoban's "The Medusa Frequency" alludes heavily to the Orpheus myth. In fact, the head of Orpheus is a central character, albeit inside another character's mind...

Thomas Pynchon's novel "Gravity's Rainbow" uses the Orpheus myth as one structure, with Slothrop as Orpheus and postwar Germany as Hades. There are many references to the afterlife in Slothrop's "descent" into the continent, the yacht the Anubis being one example.

Salman Rushdie used the Orpheus and Eurydice narrative as a mythic underpinning to the magical realist novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (see also the song of the same name recorded by U2 with lyrics provided by Rushdie).

A modernised version of the myth of Orpheus is told in Nick Cave's song The Lyre Of Orpheus from the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.

W H Auden wrote a beautiful poem called "Orpheus" about the conflicting desires "to be bewildered and happy or most of all the knowledge of life".

Orpheus appears as a member of Odysseus's last voyage from Ithaca in Nikos Kazantzakis' epic poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel.

XTC's Andy Partridge and Slapp Happy's Peter Blegvad spend 13 years, on and off, creating the album Orpheus: The Lowdown, a dense mix of music, poetry and spoken word.

Sonya Taaffe's "Shade and Shadow" presents the Orpheus myth in relation to the modern fear of death and isolation.

In The Sandman, Orpheus is the son of Dream and Calliope, and his head lived on as an oracle, protected by a priesthood created by his father. This lasted up to the twentieth century, when his father granted him the boon of death.

In the TV series Angel, Orpheus is the name given to a drug taken by humans to give them a rush when their blood is drunk by a vampire. Faith uses it in the series to take down Angelus.

There is a role-playing game developed by White Wolf Game Studios titled Orpheus. In it players take on the role of projectors, individuals who can project their souls into the lands of the dead.

  • In a recent episode of the cartoon TV series Family Guy, the Griffins' house is taken over in fashion similar to the 1982 film, Poltergeist as a result of Peter's desecration of an Native American skull he unearthed. After the house is properly exorcised, the Griffins are told to walk away from the house and not look back. Unable to resist, Peter looks back at the house, which immediately returns to its haunted state. This alludes to Orpheus' desire to stare back at his wife as they left the realm of Hades.

The 2001 film Moulin Rouge! is reminiscent in its plot of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The character Christian (played by Ewan McGregor) has the gift of song and follows the Bohemian/Dionysian ideals. A loose allegorical connection can be made between most characters and events in the two tales. The film appears to be almost equally inspired by Orpheus & Eurydice and by La Boheme, a cunning act of synthesis by writer/director Baz Luhrmann.

Spoken-word myths - audio files

Orpheus myths as told by story tellers
1. Orpheus and the Thracians, read by Timothy Carter, music by Steve Gorn, compiled by Andrew Calimach
Bibliography of reconstruction: Pindar, Pythian Odes, 4.176 (462 BC); Roman marble bas-relief, copy of a Greek original from the late 5th c. (c. 420 BC); Aristophanes, The Frogs 1032 (c. 400 BC); Phanocles, Erotes e Kaloi, 15 (3rd c. BC); Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika, i.2 (c. 250 BC); Apollodorus, Library and Epitome 1.3.2 (140 BC); Diodorus Siculus, Histories I.23, I.96, III.65, IV.25 (1st c. BC); Conon, Narrations, 45 (50 - 1 BC); Virgil, Georgics, IV.456 (37 - 30 BC); Horace, Odes, I.12; Ars Poetica 391-407 (23 BC); Ovid, Metamorphoses X.1-85, XI.1-65 (AD 8); Seneca, Hercules Furens 569 (1st c. AD); Hyginus, Poetica Astronomica II.7 Lyre (2st c. AD); Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.30.2, 9.30.4, 10.7.2 (AD 143 - 176); Anonymous, The Clementine Homilies, Homily V Chapter XV.-Unnatural Lusts (c. AD 400); Anonymous, Orphic Argonautica (5th c. AD); Stobaeus, Anthologium (c. AD 450); Second Vatican Mythographer, 44. Orpheus


Orpheus Gate on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named for Orpheus.


  • 1 C.H. Moore, p. 52
  • 2 G. Grote, p.21
  • 3 C.H. Moore, p. 56: "The use of eggs and beans was forbidden, for these articles were associated with the worship of the dead".
  • 4 William Mitford, The History of Greece, 1784. Cf. v.1, Chapter II, Religion of the Early Greeks, p.89. "But the very early inhabitants of Greece had a religion far less degenerated from original purity. To this curious and interesting fact, abundant testimonies remain. They occur in those poems, of uncertain origin and uncertain date, but unquestionably of great antiquity, which are called the poems of Orpheus or rather the Orphic poems [particularly in the Hymn to Jupiter, quoted by Aristotle in the seventh chapter of his Treatise on the World: Ζευς πρωτος γενετο, Ζευς υςατος, x. τ. ε]; and they are found scattered among the writings of the philosophers and historians."
  • 5 W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: a Study of the Orphic Movement, p.17. "As founder of mystery-religions, Orpheus was first to reveal to men the meaning of the rites of initiation (teletai). We read of this in both Plato and Aristophanes (Aristophanes, Frogs, 1032; Plato, Republic, 364e, a passage which suggests that literary authority was made to take the responsibility for the rites". Guthrie goes on to write about "... charms and incantations of Orpheus which we may also read of as early as the fifth century BC. Our authority is Euripides, Alcestis (referencing the Charm of the Thracian Tablets) and in Cyclops, the spell of Orpheus".


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