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Orpheus


Orpheus, by Gustave Moreau (1880)
Orpheus, in Greek legend, 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 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.

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. 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.

After the death of Eurydice, Orpheus rejected the advances of the Thracian Maenads, who, jealous of his faithfulness to the memory of his lost wife. They 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.

Orpheus founded the Orphic cult. He is 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.

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.



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