Orpheus – The Legendary Musician and Poet

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Most people may know Orpheus from one of the most tragic love stories ever written. He was unlucky enough to lose the only person he loved and when given the chance to get her back from death, he wasn’t able to follow a simple direction and so lost her forever.

However, Orpheus was more than just a broken-hearted man who roamed the land, singing sad songs. Here’s a closer look at the man behind the myth.

Who Is Orpheus?

Blessed with an exceptional musical pedigree, Orpheus was born to the god Apollo, the Greek god of poetry and music, and the muse Calliope, the patron of epic poetry. However, other versions of the story say that his father is a king of Thrace, Oeagrus.

As some accounts have it, Apollo was the finest musician of all gods, but his son would go on to surpass his skills. He gave Orpheus a lyre which Orpheus perfected. When he sang and played, the animals, and even inanimate objects such as rocks and trees, moved about in dance. Most depictions of Orpheus feature him playing his lyre, surrounded by enthralled animals.

It’s also said that Orpheus joined Argonauts, a group of heroes who banded together in the years before the Trojan War, as they searched for the Golden Fleece. Orpheus entertained the Argonauts and even helped settle a few brawls with his stories and music. He helped calm the seas and also saved the Argonauts from the Sirens and certain death, by playing his own powerful music.

What these stories have in common is the ancient Greek’s belief in the power of music. This is represented through the playing of Orpheus.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Of all the stories connected to Orpheus, the most popular is that of his doomed relationship with Eurydice. Eurydice was a beautiful wood nymph, who was lured towards the music when she heard his playing. When they set eyes on each other, Orpheus and Eurydice fell in love.

Orpheus married Eurydice but their happiness was short-lived. Eurydice was strolling through the woods when the demigod Aristaeus, tried to rape her. She manage to run away from him but fell into a nest of vipers where she was bitten fatally and died. In other versions, Eurydice dies on their wedding night.

Orpheus was overcome with grief with his wife’s death and distraught, he followed his wife to the Underworld, hoping to find her there. He charmed the ferryman Charon with his music and even the fearsome, multi-headed dog, Cerebrus, which guarded the gates of the underworld, was helplessly tamed by his music.

Hades, god of the Underworld, was so moved by his music and his anguish that he allowed him to take Eurydice back to the land of the living, on one condition. Upon leaving the land of the dead, neither Orpheus nor Eurydice were forbidden to look back until they reached the surface. Unfortunately, Orpheus was unable to do as he was instructed. As he was just about to reach the surface, he was anxious about whether Eurydice was behind him, and couldn’t resist turning back to see if she was there. She was there, but she hadn’t reached the surface yet.  Eurydice disappeared into the underworld, and Orpheus lost her for a second time and this time, forever.

Being separated from the person he loved most for the second time because of his own doing, Orpheus wandered aimlessly, lamenting the love he lost. He found no peace and he shunned the company of women completely.

As some accounts have it, towards the end of his life, Orpheus rejected all gods except Apollo. This angered the Ciconian women, followers of Dionysus, who brutally killed him. Orpheus’ was mourned far and wide, his lyre was placed among the stars by the Muses and his soul was finally able to reunite with Eurydice, waiting for him in the Underworld.

Lessons from Orpheus’ Story

  • The moral of Orpheus and Eurydice’s story is the importance of patience, trust and faith. Had Orpheus trusted that his wife was behind him, he wouldn’t have looked back. His wavering was what caused him to lose Eurydice. His impatience and thought that he had successfully completed the mission and kept his word, when in fact he hadn’t, was what caused his undoing.
  • The love story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a representation of eternal and enduring love, and the grief that comes with the loss of such love.  
  • The story can also be taken as a symbol of the consequences of looking back and living in the past. By turning back, Orpheus is looking to the past, instead of looking to the future. When he loses Eurydice for the second time, he spends the rest of his life living in the past, lamenting his beloved.   
Orpheus Legendary Musician and Poet

Orpheus in Modern Culture

Orpheus is a character that has made consistent appearances in numerous modern works, such as the operas Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo ed Euridice by Willibald Gluck, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, and the film Orphee by Jean Cocteau. The famed sculptor Auguste Rodin also has his own take on the lovers, showing Orpheus fighting the great urge to look back.

The theme of a love forlorn is a theme that is perennially explored in all forms of art, and Orpheus and Eurydice are among the most popular examples of lovers who met but were not destined to be together in life.

Orpheus Facts

1- Who were Orpheus’ parents?

Orpheus father was either Apollo or Oeagrus while his mother was Calliope.

2- Did Orpheus have siblings?

Yes, they were The Graces and Linus of Thrace.

3- Who was Orpheus’ spouse?

Orpheus married the nymph, Eurydice.

4- Did Orpheus have children?

Musaeus is said to be the offspring of Orpheus.

5- Why is Orpheus famous?

He was one of the few living persons, along with the likes of Persephone, Heracles and Odysseus, to enter the Underworld and come back out into the land of the living.

6- Is Orpheus a god?

No, Orpheus wasn’t a god. He was a musician, poet and prophet.

7- Who taught Orpheus to play the lyre?

Apollo taught Orpheus who then went on to perfect the lyre.

8- Why does Orpheus look back?

He looks back because he was anxious, impatient and afraid that Eurydice wasn’t behind him.

9- How did Orpheus die?

Some accounts state that he was torn to pieces by the followers of Dionysus, however others state that he committed suicide out of grief.

10- What is Orpheus’ symbol?

The lyre.

11- What does Orpheus symbolize?

He symbolizes the power of unconditional love and the power of art to rise above sorrow, pain and death.

In Brief

Once a happy musician singing songs to beasts and men, Orpheus was reduced to a sorrowful wanderer. He is an example of what can happen to someone who loses the one they love most. In Orpheus’ case, he was also consumed by guilt because had he not looked back, Eurydice would have had another chance to be with him in the land of the living.