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Orpheus: The Charm of Music in Life and Death

Updated on October 30, 2014
Orpheus | Source

He was born with a special gift, the ability to play music more beautifully than any other living being including Apollo, the god of music, who some claim as his father. His poetry was unparalleled because of his mother, and he was also gifted in prophecy being a master augur. Auguries were prophets that used signs from nature to make predictions. These usually included reading the flight of birds and/or entrails of animals. He appeared in several stories, with most ending in sheer sadness proving once again that the life of a demigod was hard.

Calliope: Muse of epic poetry and mother of Orpheus
Calliope: Muse of epic poetry and mother of Orpheus | Source
Apollo with Thalia the Muse
Apollo with Thalia the Muse | Source
Calliope teaching Orpheus
Calliope teaching Orpheus | Source

The Parents of Orpheus

There are two different stories of his parentage. In both, his mother is the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope. Pindar and Plato both make him the son of King Oeagrus of Thrace. Others made him the son of Apollo. If Apollo was not his father, he certainly favored the young man, as all of his special talents, music, poetry and prophecy, came from the god. Late in Orpheus's life, he would show his own favor of the sun god. Calliope did marry King Oeagrus, but she already had four sons with the god Ares, so it is not unlikely that she shared a night of passion with the god of poetry just before her marriage to the mortal king. Orpheus was at least a demigod, as his mother was a goddess. If he was the son of the sun god, however, he should have been a god himself. His death should mean that the king was his father, but the circumstances, which we will discuss later, bring that into question.

Apollo met the young man who was being raised on Mount Parnassas, the home of the Muses, when Apollo was dating Calliope's sister Thalia. The god saw something special, probably himself, in the boy and gave him a gift. Apollo had considered himself the best musician, especially at the lyre, since receiving the first one created by his brother Hermes. When Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him to play, even the god would admit that the boy could out play him, which was huge for any god but especially for the egotistical Apollo. His mother then taught him to write the poetry he would sing as he played. After some practice, Orpheus had the power to charm not only all living beings but also to get trees and stones to do his bidding at the sound of his music.

The Argo
The Argo | Source
A Siren
A Siren | Source
Symplegades | Source

Orpheus as an Argonaut

When Jason set out to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis in order to retrieve his rightful throne, Apollo sent Orpheus to help him. Jason's teacher, Chiron the centaur, told him that he would never survive the voyage without Orpheus. Chiron knew that the Argonauts would have to sail past the dreaded Sirens, the half-bird/half-woman creatures that lived on a rocky cliff in the Mediterranean Sea. The Sirens would sing out to passing sailors, and their songs were so overpowering that the men would crash their ships on the rocks trying to reach the singers. In truth, Orpheus would save the Argonauts several times during their journey.

The son of Calliope was able to outplay the Sirens as the Argo passed thereby saving his fellow Argonauts, but without his music, the Argo never would have left dry-dock. Knowing the magnitude of the trip the sailors would face, Argo, the builder of the ship that bore his name, had created a ship so large that the men were not capable of pushing it off into the water. When Orpheus played his lyre, though, the wooden ship was charmed, just as the trees would have been, and slid into the sea.

When the Argo made its first stop, at Lemnos, they ran into a group of women who had already killed their own husbands and were about to do the same to the Argonauts after a night of drunken pleasure. If not for the sound of Orpheus's playing, the women would have been successful. His music charmed the men out from under the spell of the women and saved them all.

The Argonauts also faced the quandary of the clashing rocks. Also known as the Symplegadae, the clashing rocks was a water way between parallel rock cliffs that would close upon themselves whenever a ship tried to pass between them smashing ship and sailors alike. Since Orpheus's music had the power to charm the rocks, the Argo was able to sail through without the rocks clashing together.

Orpheus mourning the death of Eurydice
Orpheus mourning the death of Eurydice | Source
Orpheus plays for Hades and Persephone
Orpheus plays for Hades and Persephone | Source
Orpheus leads Eurydice from the Underworld
Orpheus leads Eurydice from the Underworld | Source
Eurydice returned to the Underworld
Eurydice returned to the Underworld | Source

Orpheus and Eurydice

Following his time with the Argonauts, Orpheus met a beautiful nymph named Eurydice. He instantly fell in love with the girl and asked for her hand in marriage. When the wedding day of Orpheus and Eurydice arrive, the couple could not be happier. Orpheus played his lyre while Eurydice danced with the other nymphs. It was not long, however, before the beauty of Eurydice caught the eye of a satyr. Satyrs were known to lust after women, and now Eurydice was a target. She ran from the half-man/half-goat creature, but in trying to escape, fell into a pit of vipers. She was bit on the heel and died from the poisonous venom.

When Orpheus found his dead wife, he sang out his sorrow, and it was so sad that even the gods and goddesses cried over his loss. Following her funeral, Orpheus felt he could not go on living without his wife. Finally, the other nymphs, in an attempt to save him, suggested that he go to Lord Hades and plead for his wife to be returned to him.

He set out for the Underworld, lyre in hand, with no thought of what would happen to him. He charmed Charon, the ferryman of the dead, in such a way that the boatman agreed to take him across the river Styx despite the fact that he was still alive. On the Underworld side of the river, Orpheus played for Cerberus until the three-headed guard dog went to sleep letting the hero slip past. When he reached the king and queen of the Underworld, Hades and Persephone, he told them his sad tale then began to play for them.

Persephone had been moved by a sad tale in the past, but Hades had never been swayed to release the dead before hearing the music of Orpheus. When he finally agreed, he placed a condition on Orpheus. He was to lead his beloved wife from the Underworld, but he had to trust that Hades was letting her go. If at any point Orpheus doubted that she was behind him and turned to make sure, Eurydice would be returned to the Underworld forever.

Orpheus agreed and started his way back out of the Underworld with Eurydice following behind him. His heart was filled with joy as he set out, but the farter he went and the closer to the world above he got, the more his mind began to worry that she was not behind him. He continued walking and fighting the urge to look back, then just as he was clearing the opening to the living world, Orpheus could no longer stand the questioning in his mind. He turned and looked back. Eurydice was there but in an instant, she was pulled back into the Underworld and the land of the dead. Orpheus had come so close, but at the very end, he failed to get his beautiful wife back.

Dionysus | Source

After his trip to the Underworld, Orpheus became fascinated with the concept of life after death. Having been one of only a few heroes to travel to the realm of Hades and return, he studied others who had done the same. He was interested in the story of Zagreus/Dionysus. Zagreus was a son born from the union of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and her father Zeus. Zeus was so happy with the boy, that he took him to Olympus and placed him on the throne. He then left for a short trip leaving Hera in charge of his son. This, of course, was a huge mistake, as Hera hated every child her husband ever fathered by someone other than her. The Titans became concerned with the child and his future powers and wanted to kill him. Hera let them right in to the throne room. When Zeus returned and found his son dead, he retrieved the heart of Zagreus and took it to Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia. It is told that he put the heart in a drink and gave it to the girl then mated with her. The child created by their union, was the reincarnated Zagreus or Dionysus.

Orpheus believed that all souls went through transmigration upon death and would return to life in a new form. The ancient Greeks called this concept metempsychosis, and Plato was an ardent believer based on the writings of Orpheus. Orpheus taught that the soul was immortal and continually trapped inside a mortal body being forced to reincarnate over and over until they had completed the cycle enough times to earn immortality among the gods. The Cult of Dionysus was said to have been founded by Orpheus. Initiates of the cult could earn rewards for their final existence with the gods and even quicken the process. The Mysteries at Eleusis, a cult following Demeter and Persephone, taught similar beliefs.

The Death of Orpheus
The Death of Orpheus | Source
Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus
Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus | Source
Lyra constellation
Lyra constellation | Source

The Death of Orpheus

Following the death of Eurydice, Orpheus swore off women for the rest of his days. Many writers, like Ovid, claimed that he turned his love toward young boys in the bloom of manhood from that point on in his life, which also mirrors Apollo who was known to take several young male lovers like Hyacinth and Cyparissus. The women of his homeland of Thrace, however, were not happy with his rejection. His grief also led him to turn his back on the gods with the exception of Apollo, either because he was his father or because he had given him so much support in his youth.

One morning Orpheus set out to worship Apollo upon the rising of the morning sun. He went, as he always did, to the most sacred place close to his home, the Temple of Dionysus. There Orpheus came upon a group of maenads, crazed women followers of Dionysus who held drunken orgies and tore any man who came upon them limb-from-limb. The women, coming off a night of partying, first started throwing rocks and tree limbs at him, but as he was singing, they refused to hit him. Determined to get their revenge on him for not only his rejection of Dionysus but his rejection of women in general, they seized Orpheus and started tearing him apart.

When Orpheus's head washed up on shore, where it was still singing songs of his mournful death, the local nymphs collected it and his lyre and took them to his mother and her sisters, the Muses. Devastated, the Muses found the remaining body parts of Orpheus and buried him at the foot of Mount Olympus then his aunts took his lyre into the heavens and created the Lyra constellation.


Orpheus's life was filled with contrasts. He was blessed with many gifts from his parents, and they served him well in all matters except for love much like Apollo who was also unlucky in matters of the heart. The gods had been important to him as well, being the son of a goddess and possibly a god. He developed a religion and the Cult of Dionysus based on his experience in the Underworld, but still he renounced all of the gods except Apollo,only to be killed by followers of the very god he previously worshiped himself, Dionysus. If he had stayed with the Muses on Mount Parnassas he would have had an easier life, but then his name would not have lived forever.


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