The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXIII

The Myth of Orpheus…

Orpheus’ Music…

Orpheus and the Argonauts…

And Eurydice…

His Descent into the Underworld…

Orpheus as Priest of Apollo…

His Rejection of Dionysus…

His Murder by the Maenads…

His Resurrection…

Since all religious movements must have a great charismatic founder, the Orphics attributed their sacred writings, for reasons that will soon become clear, either to the authorship or the inspiration of the legendary Orpheus, who was presumed to have lived — like all the mythic gods and heroes — in the epoch long before the Trojan War, though the Orphic texts clearly bear the marks of their sixth-century origin. Here follows the barest outline of Orpheus’ myth:

Orpheus was, in the usual manner of Greek mythology, a demigod, half-mortal and half-divine, the son of a Thracian King and his queen Calliope, one of the sacred Muses. As his parentage would suggest, he was a great musician: the culture hero, in fact, who was the first to bring the civilizing arts of poetry and music to the rude Greeks of the prehistoric age.

Orpheus was not of course the originator of music; that title belonged to the gods. Athena had invented the flute, although she refused to play it lest in doing so her face should become unpleasantly contorted. Pan is credited with the manufacture of the reed-pipe, and Hermes the shepherd’s pipe. Hermes also invented the lyre, and presented it to Apollo, who drew from its strings sounds so entrancing that when he played, the gods of Olympus forgot all else; indeed, even Zeus paused from his philandering for a time.

Of mortals, Orpheus was certainly the greatest musician, and for good reason. Apollo himself presented him with a lyre, his Muse mother and her sisters instructed him in its use, and his fortuitous upbringing in Thrace (one of the ancient homes of Dionysus) inevitably nurtured his young musical talent. So accomplished did it become that it was said that when Orpheus played his lyre on the Thracian mountainsides, its sweet sound uprooted trees, caused rocks to move, deflected the courses of rivers, and pacified the wild beasts, all of which left their wonted habitats to follow him. All of nature, animate and inanimate, sensate and insensate, seemed to be affected by his bewitching melody.

Following a visit to Egypt, Orpheus joined Jason’s Argonauts, and on several occasions saved the expedition from imminent disaster. When the sailors became weary, he would strike his lyre and inspire them to row with renewed zeal. If a quarrel threatened, he would play so tenderly that the most aggrieved spirits would be tranquilized and forget their anger. Orpheus saved the Argonauts from the Sirens, as well. Knowing that the sailors would be tempted to listen to the Sirens’ enthralling song, he took up his lyre and played a melody so beautiful that it drowned out the sound of the sisters’ fatal voices.

 

On his return from the quest for the golden fleece, Orpheus met and married Eurydice; but their joy was brief. After the nuptials, while promenading with her bridesmaids and picking flowers in a pleasant meadow, Eurydice was accosted by one of the wedding guests, Aristaeus, who tried to force her. Fleeing her attacker, she trod on a serpent and died of its bite.

Overwhelmed with grief, Orpheus determined to go down to the world of death to bring Eurydice back. To enter where no mortal may, he struck his lyre and charmed both the ferryman Charon and the ferocious canine guardian of hell’s gates, the three-headed dog Cerberus.

As he passed through Tartarus, his music gave temporary respite to the suffering sinners: for a moment, Ixion’s wheel ceased to revolve, Sisyphus sat peacefully upon his stone, and Tantalus listened, forgetting his hunger and thirst. For the first time, too, the faces of the dread Furies were wet with tears, and even Hades and Persephone, king and queen of the underworld, were moved to pity.

With unwonted tears flowing down his cheeks, the implacable King of the Dead could not refuse Orpheus’ request, which he granted on one condition: that he not look back at Eurydice as she followed him, until they both reached the upper world. The condition accepted, Orpheus re-ascended with Eurydice behind him, guided through the darkness by the sound of his music. But Orpheus was all the while desperate for some assurance of her safety, and when, upon reaching the sunlight, he looked anxiously backwards, she was still in the cavern. Thus, Orpheus lost her forever. Though he tried to rush back after her, he was prevented. Though the exemption had been granted on a few occasions — to Hercules, Theseus, and now Orpheus himself — , once was the limit. The gods would certainly not allow a mortal to enter the world of the dead a second time, while he was alive.

 

In utter desolation, Orpheus was forced to return to earth alone. There he forsook the company of men, and in fidelity to his dead wife, brusquely rebuffed the advances of the women who hoped to replace her. He wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace, comfortless save for his lyre, playing for the rocks, rivers, trees, and beasts which were his only companions.

One day, when the mysteries of Dionysus were being celebrated, Orpheus in his grief and anger neglected to honour the god. Indeed, some say that he taught other sacred mysteries to the inhabitants of Thrace. Every morning he was said to rise to greet the dawn on the summit of Mt. Pangaeum, preaching that Apollo, the sun, was the greatest of gods.

Affronted, Dionysus set the Maenads upon him. Offended not only by Orpheus’ insult to Dionysus but also his general rebuff to womankind, the Maenads waited until their husbands had entered the temple of Apollo, where Orpheus served as chief priest; then they murdered their husbands and tore Orpheus limb from limb.

Orpheus’ head was unceremoniously thrown into the river Hebrus; but it floated, still singing, down to the sea, and was carried to the isle of Lesbos. Eventually it was recovered by the Muses, and along with his limbs which they tearfully collected, it was buried at the foot of Mount Olympus, where to this day the nightingales sing sweeter than anywhere else in the world. But the earth could not hold him, and Orpheus’ resurrected spirit was assumed into heaven, where he reigns as a god.

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