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The Orpheus Myth

December 6, 2007

From Who’s Who in the Ancient World by Betty Radice.

Omissions and my comments are indicated by square brackets.

The greatest singer and musician conceived by the Greeks, son of the Muse Calliope by either a king of Thrace or Apollo; said to be the founder of the mystic cult of Orphism. Apollo gave him a lute with which he was able to charm wild beasts and make rocks and trees move. He sailed with the Argonauts and was able to help them, by his music, through the Clashing Rocks and past the Sirens. On his return he married Eurydice. When he descended to Hades to recover her after her death he could charm Cerberus and make the damned forget their tortures, and so moved Dis [the god of the Underworld, also called Pluto] and Persephone that they allowed her to leave. Then when he lost her he wandered about Thrace singing of his love until he was torn to pieces by women, either Thracians who were infuriated by jealousy of Eurydice, or by maenad followers of Dionysus because the failed to honour the god; the latter version was the subject of a lost play by Aeschylus. In later legend the Muses collected and buried his fragments, but his head, still singing, and his lyre floated out to sea to Lesbos, the seat of lyric music, where they were dedicated to Apollo; a subject symbolic of the artist’s immortality for the French painters Moreau and Redon.

[Quotation from Lycidas by J Milton.]

Orphism adopted him as its founder as early as the seventh century B.C., and there are many poems and oracles purporting to be by him…..Orpheus with his lute and Orpheus’s love for Eurydice are themes for poets and musicians of all periods.

[Some examples are mentioned.]

Radice, B., Who’s Who in the Ancient World, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1973, ISBN 0-14-051055-9, pp.179-180.

From James Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art.

Omissions and my comments are indicated by square brackets.

Orpheus. Legendary Thracian poet, famous for his skill with the lyre. He married Eurydice, a wood nymph, and at her death descended into the underworld in an unsuccessful attempt to bring her back to earth.

1. Orpheus charms the animals with his music (Met. 10: 86-105) [Ovid’s Metamorphoses]. Such was his musical skill that Orpheus charmed not only the wild beasts but also the trees and rocks which would not come after him at the sound of his lyre. He sits under a tree plucking the lyre or, especially in Italian Renaissance painting, he plays a lira da braccio, an instrument of the Viol family…He is young and usually wears a laurel crown, the award for victory in ancient Greek contests of poetry and song. Animals of many kinds, wild and domestic, are gathered peacefully round him. Birds perch in the trees. The subject was popular in Roman times, and early Christian artists used it to represent the Messiah…..

2. Eurydice killed by a snake (Met. 10:1-100). Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, while fleeing from an unwelcome suitor, trod on a snake and died from its bite. She is depicted lying dead on the ground while Orpheus weeps over her; in the background demons drag here soul into the entrance of Hades. Or she flies from the suitor Aristaeus. Or, in a 17th cent. classical landscape, Orpheus plays his lyre to a group of reclining listeners, unaware that Eurydice nearby is starting to her feet in fright. The snake entwines her ankle or, occasionally, an arm.

3. Orpheus in the underworld (Met.10:11-63) Orpheus descended into Hades and by the power of his music succeeded in persuading Pluto to allow Eurydice to follow him back to earth, on the condition that he did not look back at her until they reached the upper world. But at the last moment he did so and Eurydice vanished for ever into the shades. Losing Eurydice made Orpheus despise women. Because of this he was attacked by frenzied Maenads of Ciconia in Thrace and torn to pieces (Met: 11: 1-43)………The story of a descent into the lower regions to fetch back the dead occurs elsewhere in myth and folklore, and forms a part of Christian belief.

Hall, J., Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, John Murray Ltd., London,1989,
ISBN 0 7195 4147 6, pp.230-231.

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