Orpheus is most commonly thought to be the son of King Oeagrus of Thrace and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. It seems that when Orpheus was just a child, the god Apollo took a liking to the boy and presented him with a golden lyre.
Orpheus found great delight in the instrument, and after receiving a few lessons from the music god, soon became one of the most renown musicians in all of Greece.
So beautiful were the notes he played that wild beasts became mild in temperament and both rocks and trees were given to abandon their fixed positions and follow after the gifted young minstrel.
It is said that in Thrace one can still see oak trees standing in the pattern formed during one of their ancient dances.
One has to wonder if they are patiently awaiting the day when haunting melodies once again fill the air and the earth provides a stage for their bygone promenade.
Orpheus joined with Jason and the Argonauts and accompanied them on their famous journey to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis. The young musician was able to keep peace among the unruly crew simply by playing a tune upon his lyre, for just the sound of one magical note was enough to settle all differences and restore unity between the men.
Orpheus also used his instrument to help refresh the weary sailors after a full day of laborious rowing. He would softly pass his fingers over the golden strings and immediately the entire company would feel alert and replenished.
Orpheus' musical talent proved to most valuable in allowing the Argo to safely pass by the island of the Sirens. Throughout the ancient texts the Sirens were described as a band of beautiful bird-like women whose melodic hymns seductively lured unsuspecting sailors to their death.
Whenever a ship drew near, these enchanting sea nymphs would loudly raise their voices in song and forever rob all those within hearing distance of their most sacred memories. Stripped of all will and ambition, the unfortunate victims were left shrouded in a veil of false complacency, happy just to wallow at the water's edge until Death came to collect their souls.
Heeding the advice of the wise old centaur Chiron, Jason instructed Orpheus to play his lyre as the ship daringly approached the Siren's dwelling place. The melodies brought forth from Orpheus' magical harp were so clear and beautiful that all traces of the deadly songs were lost in the wind.
To read more about the adventures of Jason and his quest for the golden fleece please see my page titled The Tale of Medea.
Shortly after arriving home from his adventures with the Argonauts, Orpheus met and fell in love with a beautiful nymph by the name of Eurydice.
The two shared a great fondness for each other and because they could not bear the thought of being apart agreed to a quick and speedy marriage.
So it came to be that on the following morning the starry-eyed young lovers stood before an assemblage of enthusiastic guests and happily exchanged their wedding vows.
However there was one amongst the crowd who did not share in their joy, for Apollo's son Aristaeus had taken a liking to Eurydice and yearned to have her as his own.
In honor of the happy day, Orpheus played his lyre as he watched Eurydice dance gleefully across the lush green meadow. But just as she stepped outside of the celebratory area Aristaeus jumped from the surrounding foliage and tried to have his way with the unwary maiden.
In a desperate attempt to escape her pursuer's advances, Eurydice swiftly turned around and made her way back across the wooded lawn. However before the new bride was able to rejoin her band of companions, she was bitten by a poisonous viper who lay hidden between the tall blades of grass.
Orpheus rushed to his beloved's side, but it was too late. All he found was Eurydice's lifeless body gently resting within a cluster of sweet smelling flowers. Knowing that he could not live without having his true love by his side, Orpheus traveled into the depths of hades to search for his newly departed wife.
As he made his way into the underworld, the saddened minstrel played his lyre so sweetly that the spirits of the dead temporarily forgot their labors and stood by to listen.
So charmed was the guard dog Cerberus, that he gave up his post and allowed Orpheus to freely drift past the fortress gates.
Those doomed to the agonies of Tartarus were also granted a moment of peace; for at that time the wheel of Ixion stood still, Tantalus forsook his thirst and Sisyphus breathed easily upon his stone.
Even the hardhearted Furies wept tears of pity as Orpheus sang his pleas before the throne of grim-tempered Dis and his queen Persephone. Unable to resist the wondrous sounds of the golden lyre, Hades loudly called for Eurydice to come out of the shadows.
He then pledged to Orpheus that Eurydice would be permitted to return to the upper world on one condition; the young husband must promise to refrain from gazing upon the image of his wife until the two were reunited in the realm of the living.
Orpheus readily agreed, and trusting that Eurydice was following closely behind, made his way through the dark and narrow caverns of perpetual emptiness. However just before reaching the top of the passageway, Orpheus became suspicious that Dis might just be playing a terrible trick on him.
After all, why should he take the word of a god like Hades? Is he not the same god who tricked poor Persephone into eating the pomegranate seeds that secured her stay in the underworld?
After walking for what seemed to be an eternity, Orpheus began to see the faint glimmers of sunlight appear in the distance. As his heart began to pound with excitement, he knew he would not be satisfied until all of his suspicions were quashed.
With only a few steps to go, Orpheus slowly turned to see if his beloved was truly at his heel. But alas, just as his eyes confirmed her presence, Eurydice was gone! Orpheus watched in horror as his lovely bride faded from view, leaving him with only a mournful cry of "goodbye."
Orpheus immediately tried to regain entrance into hades, but much to his dismay found that the door had been permanently sealed. He had no other choice but to return home, leaving his true love eternally behind.
After the death of Eurydice, Orpheus fell into a deep wave of sadness. Broken and destitute, he shunned the company of others, preferring to spend his time roaming solitary through the land of Thrace, weeping and playing sad songs upon his lyre.
Although there are conflicting theories pertaining to the motives lurking behind the death of Orpheus, all versions seem to indicate that he fell victim to some sort of Bacchanalian ritual.
According to the Greek writer Aeschylus, Orpheus was torn to shreds by a band of Thracian Maenads for refusing to pay honor to their patron god Dionysus.
His dismembered body was left to rot upon Mount Pangaion, until the Muses gathered up the fragments and buried them in the land of Pieria. Only the head remained unaccounted for, as it had been cast into the sea and had not been found with the other pieces.
It came to be that after many days of floating upon the waves, the severed head finally washed ashore at the isle of Lesbos. There it was given a proper burial, and as a reward for their kindness, the native people were richly blessed in the art of music.
In order to pay tribute to their dear and admired friend, the Muses placed the lyre of Orpheus in the heavens as the constellation Lyra.
The Roman poet Ovid paints a very different picture regarding the death of the minstrel. In his narrative The Metamorphoses, he tells us that because Orpheus had chosen to seek out intimate relationships with men, the female followers of Dionysus lashed out by pelting the musician with stones and tree branches.
When the frustrated women saw that their weapons were rendered useless by the sounds of his magical lyre, they rushed upon him and tore his body to pieces.
Ovid does cast a bit of light on this otherwise predominately sad tale, for he assures the reader that the spirits of Orpheus and Eurydice are happily reunited once his spirit entered into the land of the dead.
Another interesting fact to note is that the resting place of Orpheus also seems to change as frequently as the storyteller. The various locations noted for his place of burial are Pieria, Leibethra, Dion and the northwestern region of Thesprotia.
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