Classical Myth The Myth of Orpheus Spring 2009
note: There are many different versions of this myth. This version is my own, and
is a combination of several different versions of the ancient Greek myth.
Apollo - the god of music, beauty, order, and prophecy. He is also sometimes
considered to be the god of the sun. His personality seems opposite to that of
Dionysus, and yet (amazingly) the two gods are often associated with one another.
Muses - daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory), goddesses of music, poetry
& learning; usually said to be nine in number.
Orpheus - the best lyre player in the world. Said to be the son of Apollo and
Calliope (one of the Muses).
Eurydice - his beloved; a young naiad (water nymph).
Hades & Persephone - god & goddess of the dead; they live in the Underworld, also
Hermes - the messenger god who leads dead souls to Hades
Cerberus - the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades; he lets no live
souls in and no dead souls out.
Dionysus - god of wine, intoxication & madness. He was worshipped with rituals
called orgia, which involved drinking, dancing, and loss of self-consciouness (i.e.
loss of the consciousness of one's individual self). Today's mardi-gras celebrations
are said by some to be the direct descendants of ancient Dionysiac orgia.
Maenads - female followers of Dionysus, who, in their wild frenzy, would
sometimes become extremely violent.
Helios - god of the sun. Sometimes the identity of Helios was merged with that of
The Myth of Orpheus
Orpheus, said to be the son of Apollo and Calliope, lived in Thrace in
Northwest Greece, and was the best lyre player in the world. Some say that Apollo
was the one who taught him to play. Orpheus played and sang so beautifully that
he enchanted everyone who heard him. Even animals stopped to listen to him and
stones and trees moved closer to hear him sing.
Orpheus fell in love with a beautiful nymph (or nature spirit) named
Eurydice, and he won her heart by his singing. They were married in an open-air
ceremony on a hillside. In the late afternoon after the wedding, a former admirer of
Eurydice's began to pursue her. She became frightened and ran away without
looking where she was going. In her fright she stepped on a snake, which bit her.
The snake turned out to be poisionous, and Eurydice died almost immediately.
Orpheus grieved constantly for Eurydice. He would sit and sing songs of
mourning all day, every day, and weep as he sang. The animals and even the trees
and grasses tried to comfort him, but it was no use. Every reason for living seemed
to have gone away when Eurydice died. At last Orpheus decided to go into Hades
and try to find her.
Orpheus found the cave that led to Hades and slowly descended into the
Underworld. He sang to Cerberus and charmed him until the three-headed dog
allowed him to enter. Orpheus played for Hades and Persephone and sang them a
song about the beginning of the world and the origin of gods and men. Then he
sang about the joys of love and the sadness that comes with love's loss. Orpheus'
singing charmed even the hearts of Hades and Persephone, rulers of the dead. They
allowed him to bring his dear Eurydice back to life on one condition: he could not
turn back and look at her until they reached the upper world.
Orpheus agreed and turned to go, hoping that Eurydice was following him.
But the journey to the upper world was long and difficult, and Orpheus desperately
longed to see if Eurydice was really behind him. Orpheus resisted this impulse until
the opening of the cave was in sight, just ahead; then he could no longer resist.
Orpheus turned back, just for an instant, to see if Eurydice was really there. But that
instant was his undoing. As he looked back, he saw Hermes leading her back down
to Hades, even as she stretched out her arms to him in her heart-aching sorrow.
Orpheus was inconsolable over his loss of Eurydice for the second and final
time. He sang constantly of his love for her and refused to look at any other women.
Also, he became a devoted worshipper of Apollo, the sun god. It was his custom to
go up to the top of a mountain every morning in order to greet the sun. This made
Dionysus very angry. Dionysus was at that time winning the region of Thrace over
to his own worship, celebrated at night with frenzied music and dancing. Dionysus
resented Orpheus and began to complain to his Maenads about Orpheus' neglect.
The Maenads already hated Orpheus because he refused their advances, so one day,
in a Dionysiac frenzy, they attacked Orpheus and tore him limb from limb.
The Muses gathered up some parts of his body and buried them, but
Orpheus' head and his lyre fell into the River Hebros. From there they floated to the
island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia, the head still singing as it went. The Lesbians
took the head and the lyre and treated them with great respect. They dedicated the
lyre to Apollo and it was kept for many years in Apollo's temple there. Some say
that the Lesbians buried Orpheus' head nearby; other says that they kept it, too, in
Apollo's temple, where it not only continued to sing, but also gave oracles and
prophesied the future.
After many years a religion grew up, said to have been inspired by Orpheus.
Orphic religion told of a life after death. It hinted that the soul did not die with the
body, but went on a journey to another world. Those who had lived good lives and
had purified themselves of all evil, lived permanently in a beautiful place,
sometimes called the Elysian Fields. There the sun always shone and the souls
enjoyed an ageless and deathless existence. Those who had lived sinful lives
remained in Hades, suffering dreadful tortures. Those whose lives had been partly
good and partly evil were given a glimpse of the Elysian Fields, but were forced to
be reincarnated into new bodies and return to this life once more.