Orpheus

Orpheus was born near Dion in Pimpleia, a village with which he kept close ties throughout his life. His mother was Calliope, the eldest of the Muses. Some said his father was Apollo, others that it was King Oeagrus, the son of Pieros (whose daughters were punished by the Muses). Orpheus’ musicianship was legendary. The fifth-century bc poet Timotheus tells that he introduced the lyre to Pieria, where his playing was so fine and his voice so sweet that (in Euripides’ words): ‘Deep in the deep forest folds of Olympus, Orpheus magicked the trees with his music, magicked the wild forest beasts with his music.

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Everything that heard him followed him: trees, boulders, animals. Even mountain streams changed their course so they could listen to his singing; and in the Thracian land of the Cicones the wood nymph Eurydice (‘Wide Justice’) fell in love with him Enraptured, the two married. But soon disaster struck. While Eurydice was picking flowers and weaving garlands with her fellow nymphs, she disturbed a sleeping snake. It bit her on the ankle and within moments she was dead. Grief stricken, Orpheus sang such heart-rending laments that all nature mourned with him. At last, when they could bear his anguish no longer, the Muses suggested to Orpheus that he should travel to the Underworld and beg Haides to return Eurydice to life.

Setting fear aside, Orpheus descended deep beneath the earth until he met the savage guard-dog of Hades, the three-headed Cerberus. Softly Orpheus soothed it with a gentle lullaby; and soon he was standing in the presence of King Haides. Here he sang his tearful elegy, pouring out his love for his lost wife, begging Haides to restore her to life – she had been so young. His music touched the hardest heart.

The ghosts of criminals condemned to everlasting tortures swooned to hear it; the icy hearts of savage Furies melted; and even Haides was moved to compassion. He agreed to Orpheus’ request. On one condition – that on the way home he must go ahead, not looking round until both reached the upper earth. As Orpheus walked on, he heard Eurydice’s light footsteps close behind him. At last faint sunlight could be seen. But now Orpheus stopped and listened. Nothing. How could he be certain that Eurydice was following? Impulsively, he looked round. And there she was, a sad smile on her lips, as (true to Haides’ orders) she turned and left him And the darkness engulfed her.

For Orpheus life was meaningless. All he could do was sing of his lost Eurydice. But still his music was irresistible. Everywhere he went, women fell in love with him At last at Dion – crazed with desire – they clawed and tore at him hysterically, until their passion faded and they found that they had ripped him limb from limb. Some said that Orpheus was rent apart not from desire, but because he worshipped Apollo and neglected Dionysus. So, Dionysus jealously unleashed his maenads (his female followers), who attacked Orpheus at sunrise on a mountaintop. Still others told that Orpheus was killed by Zeus’ thunderbolt.

The Muses collected his remains and performed the last rites over them at Dion. A few miles from the city on the road towards Olympus, Pausanias saw a pillar topped by a stone urn, which (locals said) contained Orpheus’ bones. Pausanias wrote, too, that at Dion the women who killed Orpheus ran to the River Helicon to wash off his blood. But as they neared, the river in revulsion sank into the ground so that it might not be complicit in the murder. Today, where it sank, there is a small idyllic lake. Only Orpheus’ head survived his mutilation. Still singing, it was carried by the waves to Lesbos, where it was buried with great veneration. The Muses took Orpheus’ lyre to Mount Olympus, where the gods transformed it into a constellation. Still clutching his lyre, Orpheus is attacked by frenzied female devotees, one wielding a spit, the other a rock.

In antiquity, a collection of hymns and teachings attributed to Orpheus formed the basis of a mystic religion (Orphism), whose adherents believed in the survival and transmigration of the soul after death.