Orpheus, the spirit of the power of music, has had many incarnations:
• He is an exceptionally powerful Thracian deity.
• He was incorporated into the Greek pantheon as a Muse’s son and disciple of Apollo.
• He is the subject of various Mystery traditions.
Orpheus’ earliest manifestation is as a deity from the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace, now mostly in modern Bulgaria. An immensely powerful spirit, he is most famous as a magical musician. Accompanying himself on the lyre, Orpheus’ singing is so sweet and powerful, he charms wild animals, diverts rivers, and lulls rocks to sleep.
Orpheus is more than a beautiful voice: he is a culture hero, a Thracian king credited with teaching humanity the arts, healing, prophecy, augury, and astrology. He established mystic schools and instituted Mysteries. He formalized worship of his fellow Thracian, Dionysus.
Orpheus was incorporated into the Greek pantheon as the son of Kalliope, one of the Muses. Orpheus was raised by his mother and aunts and, according to Greek myth, then went to live in Thrace. He studied with the Cabeiri in Samothrace. Orpheus’ incredible musical gifts are ascribed to his relationships with the Muses and Apollo.
Greek myth portrays Orpheus as subordinate to Apollo who is sometimes identified as his father. (Alternative myth: Orpheus’ dad is a Thracian river deity.) Another Greek myth suggests that when Orpheus was a child he met Apollo, who was visiting the Muses. Apollo liked the kid and gave him a lyre and some music lessons. Orpheus is portrayed as a faithful disciple of Apollo, with whom he allies himself rather than with Apollo’s rival Dionysus, newly arrived in Greece.
Orpheus’ most famous myth involves his love for Eurydice and his willingness to enter Hades in an attempt to bring her back to life. This myth may be based on ancient tales regarding Orpheus’ powers over death. In the most famous Greek myth, those powers ultimately fail. Orpheus is not able to resurrect Eurydice. Hades remains stronger. However there are other versions of the myth where Orpheus succeeds.
Returning to Earth without Eurydice, Orpheus rejected all women, preferring the love of men. He returned to Thrace where he is described as introducing the Greek tradition of pederasty. Plato claimed that Orpheus despised women so much he refused to be reborn from a woman’s womb. Orpheus died soon after, literally ripped to pieces by women, in the manner of a Dionysian sacrifice. Two, possibly overlapping, mythic versions of his death exist:
• Thracian women killed him for rejecting the love and companionship of women.
• Thracian Maenads killed him for betraying Dionysus and allying with Apollo.
Once upon a time, in many traditions, shamans healed by singing. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice may refer to a tradition of singing victims of snake bite back to life.
Orpheus’ lyre floated to the island of Lesbos where it was enshrined as a holy relic in a temple dedicated to him. Although his body was destroyed, his head continued to prophe-size. It was kept in a sea-cave shrine dedicated to Dionysus until Apollo destroyed it. The lyre was placed in the heavens as the constellation Lyra.
After his death, various Mystery and spiritual traditions emerged focusing on veneration of Orpheus sometimes in conjunction with Persephone and Dionysus. (All three descended into Hades and returned. Dionysus, able to liberate Semele, succeeded where Orpheus failed.) Various poems and hymns are attributed to Orpheus.
In another contest with Death, Orpheus outsings those other sweet singers, the Sirens.
Orpheus’ myths have inspired literally countless artistic, literary, poetic, musical, theatrical, and cinematic interpretations, including:
• Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending
• Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, starring Jean Marais
• Black Orpheus, the 1959 Brazilian film, transports the myth to Rio de Janeiro
He is allegedly extremely handsome.
Orpheus is usually portrayed singing and playing his lyre. Classical images depict him wearing Thracian clothes.
He is venerated alongside Eros and the Muses.
• The Muses gathered Orpheus’ body and buried him in Libeithra, near Mount Olympus, where he had a tomb-shrine.
• The House of Orpheus in Volubilis, Morocco: a large circular mosaic portrays Orpheus charming lions and other beasts with his lyre.
Roses, musical performances, images of assorted animals
Apollo; Cabeiri; Dionysus; Hades; Muses; Persephone; Semele; Sirens; and the Glossary entries for Mystery and Shaman
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.