Orpheus is one of the most well-known heroes of Greek mythology. Unlike most Greek heroes, Orpheus is famous for being a lover, not a fighter. A legendary bard, musician, poet, and prophet Orpheus charmed his way through Greek mythology. A tragic hero, Orpheus’ reputation as a lover may be what led to his gruesome end.
Although some ancient historians disagreed on whether Orpheus was man or myth, his pedigree would certainly indicate the latter. His mother is usually portrayed as Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry. His father is typically depicted as either being the god Apollo, or more commonly, King Oeagrus of Thrace.
If his father was indeed Apollo, that would help to explain Orpheus’ musical talent. Apollo was known as the greatest musician in Greek mythology. If his father was King Oeargrus, that could also help to explain Orpheus’ skills, as the lyre was said to have come from Thrace.
In most versions of the myths featuring Orpheus, he gained his musical skills from Apollo. Orpheus was staying with his mother and some other muses. One of these muses, Thalia, was being courted by Apollo. Upon meeting the young Orpheus, he gifted him a golden lyre and taught him to play it. His mother, as the muse of poetry, taught Orpheus how to write verses for singing.
Orpheus charming the animals, mosaic. Source: cascoly2 / Adobe Stock
The Adventures of Orpheus
Myths about a hero who sits at home all day writing poems wouldn’t be too exciting to hear. But Orpheus wasn’t just a bard, he was an adventurer who traveled the world getting into scrapes. Below we cover his three biggest stories and explore how his reputation as a lover led to his tragic ending.
Orpheus and the Argonauts
It is said that as a young man Orpheus left his hometown of Pimpleia, located near the base of Mount Olympus, and traveled to Egypt for his education. On his return to Greece, he wasted little time becoming a member of an expedition with the legendary hero Jason. For anyone unfamiliar with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts , Jason was searching for the Golden Fleece so that he could take back his throne.
Orpheus wasn’t just on the expedition to provide entertainment. His day job was to keep time for the numerous rowers on the ship. According to the Argonautica, he also calmed drunken brawling sailors with his music. His music was said to be powerful enough to even calm the sea.
The true reason Jason recruited Orpheus for the journey though was the sirens. The sirens were terrible women of the sea that used their siren songs to draw ships towards their rocky islands. The vessels would crash, and the sirens would devour the sailors.
Chiron, one of the Argonauts, had told Jason that they could only get past the sirens with the help of Orpheus. He was correct. Orpheus played music so loud and so beautiful that it drowned out the song, allowing the Argonauts safe passage past the sirens.
Legends tell of hundreds of sailors lured to their deaths by sirens (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
The Tragic Love Story of Orpheus and Eurydice
At some point after his adventures with the Argonauts, Orpheus met and fell in love with Eurydice. Orpheus was not destined to live happily ever after though. There are two major interpretations of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but they both begin the same way – tragically.
On the day of her wedding to Orpheus, Eurydice was walking in some long grass when she was attacked by a satyr, a male nature spirit with a reputation for attacking women in Greek mythology. Eurydice fended off the satyr, but in doing so fell into a pit of vipers. She was bitten on the ankle and died soon thereafter.
Orpheus, distraught in his grief, played such mournful music that it made the gods cry. The gods advised Orpheus to travel to the underworld and bring his wife back to the land of the living. Orpheus did this, using his talents to charm both Charon, the boatman, and Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of hell.
Upon meeting Hades and Persephone (the king and queen of hell) he played his music for them. Charmed, they in return allowed him to take Eurydice home. There was only one condition – she must walk behind him during their journey, and Orpheus could not look back at her until they were both out of the underworld.
Tragically, upon reaching the land of the living, Orpheus forgets himself and joyfully looks back at his wife. Having failed his task, Eurydice promptly disappears, trapped in the underworld for eternity.
Orpheus and Eurydice, 17th century Dutch oil painting ( Public Domain )
In Virgil‘s version of the story, Orpheus was a tragic hero trying to save his wife. Other versions painted him in a more unflattering light. Plato depicted Orpheus as a coward. In this version, the gods were punishing Orpheus and had no intention of returning Eurydice to him.
To Plato, a real man who loved his wife would do the right thing and die to be with her. As a lover, not a fighter, Orpheus was not only unwilling to die for his love, he didn’t even fight for her. He just charmed his way through the underworld. For his cowardice, he was punished with the false hope of seeing his wife.
The Death of Orpheus
There are two major myths surrounding the death of Orpheus, with one major thing in common. Orpheus is normally depicted as being killed by women.
In one version, Orpheus grew to hate all the gods except Apollo, after the second loss of his wife. Orpheus abandoned his patron, Dionysus and chose to only worship Apollo. One morning, he traveled to the oracle of Dionysus atop Mount Pangaion so he could salute Apollo as the sun rose. This was seen as a slap in the face to his old benefactor, and Orpheus was torn apart by Thracian Maenids (female worshippers of Dionysus).
In another version, he was torn apart by Thracian women, because after the death of his wife he chose only to sleep with other men. Feeling spurned, they ripped him apart. His head and lyre floated down a nearby river, still playing his mournful music long after his death. Eventually, the gods stepped in to silence the music, and Orpheus’ soul returned to the underworld to rejoin Eurydice.
A Dismal End
Orpheus’s death is an embarrassing one for a Greek hero. He is neither defeated by a terrible monster nor slain in battle. Instead, he meets his end by being ravaged by a group of angry women. It is not exactly a heroic ending.
Some ancient Greek historians argued that Orpheus’s end was a just punishment for how he lived his life. To them, he was a coward who used his talents to avoid fights and emotionally blackmail the gods to get what he wanted.
Perhaps this is why, despite often being attributed as the first Greek poet (if he did exist), Greek poets had such little time for him. Homer and Hesiod do not mention him at all, and Plato had nothing good to say about him.
Today, Orpheus crops up in modern pop culture surprisingly often. He has appeared in films, plays, and even video games. Orpheus, the crafty bard who would rather love than fight, seems to appeal much more to the modern audience than the ancient one.
Top image: Detail from ‘Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld’ by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1861. Public Domain
By Robbie Mitchell