Who was Orpheus the great musician, hero and prophet?

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A Roman relief of Orpheus playing a lyre

Myths helped ancient people make sense of their world and explained aspects of their current society. These stories often developed over time and came to represent different things. Many myths played an important part in ancient’s societies Cosmology and religion. A good example of this is the cycle of myths concerning Orpheus. He was at once a hero, musician, poet, and religious prophet. His life and death demonstrated to the Greeks the importance of music and poetry. His stories inspired a cult and a Mystery Religion even developed around the life and supposed teachings of Orpheus. The stories about the singer and prophet were among the most important in the Classical World and have continued to be, to this day.

Origin of Orpheus

Little is known about the origin of the stories of Orpheus and his origins may lie in Mycenaean era or in Minoan Civilization. The myths of Orpheus often have a Thracian connection and the Orphic tales may have originated in that region. Some have proposed that his name is based on the Greek word for orphan. A late Roman writer argued that the name Orpheus comes from ‘best voice’ in Greek. The earliest reference that we have for Orpheus comes from a 6th-century poem. There are many allusions to the poet, musician and prophet in the 5th and 4th century BC. However, at an early date, there was some doubt expressed as to whether or not Orpheus was a real person. Most Greeks and later Romans viewed him as an important historical figure [1]. They believed he was a singer or a magician who existed in the generation before the Trojan War. Commentators from the Roman period believed that there was more than one Orpheus. There were up to four individuals known as Orpheus, and they were Greek and Thracians who were magicians, seers, musicians’ or prophets. There were probably others, including poets and religious figures who adopted the name Orpheus. It is not known if these individuals simply assumed the name or whether Orpheus was a moniker or title of some sort. A large body of poem and religious writings were known as Orphic writings in the Graeco-Roman World, which were very popular. These were almost certainly not the work of one figure. The popular version of Orpheus and his life came into its current form in the work of Virgil and Ovid [2].

Vase painting showing Orpheus among Thracians

The life of Orpheus

As with other myths, there are multiple versions of the life and times of Orpheus. According to one source, he was the son of a King of Thrace. In another set of writings, he was the son of Apollo, the Olympian god of light, reason, and music and Calliope the Muse of eloquence. It is widely believed that Apollo gave a lyre made of gold to Orpheus. A lyre was a small harp and those who played the stringed instrument usually sang in verse. In the Classical World, poetry was nearly always performed with music and they were near synonymous to the Greeks and later the Romans. There are several stories about Orpheus early life, including that he learned the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians and established the cult of various gods in several cities. In one source he tutored the fabled King Midas in the lyre. All the myths praise Orpheus as a great poet and musician. It was asserted that his melodies were so powerful that he could charm any living thing, human or animal. His music was so powerful it could even animate rocks and stones [3]. Moreover, the hero was often shown as calming savage beasts. There was a tradition that Orpheus was one of the Argonauts. These were a group of explorers who sailed to the Black Sea from Greece and reached the land of Colchis (modern Georgia). They were led by the great hero Jason who stole the Golden Fleece. According to the Hellenistic Epic the Argonautica, Orpheus played a crucial role in the success of the expedition. The poem relates how the Centaur Chiron advised Jason to take Orpheus with them on the journey as he had powerful skills. The musician was shown in the poem to be both a dreamer and also someone possessed of great magical powers because of his musical gifts. When the ship of the Argonaut was passing the islet that was the home of the Siren, half-women, and half-birds. Their songs beguiled sailors, which led them to crash their ships onto the rocks where they would die by drowning. The Sirens voices were drowned out by Orpheus and his lyre and thereby he saved his fellow Argonauts. The musician and singer shared in many of the adventures of Jason and he eventually returned to Greece. In some myths, Orpheus is shown as being an early follower of the God of Wine and intoxication, Dionysus. He travelled throughout Greece and devoted himself to his art, until he encountered Eurydice, who was exceptionally beautiful and with whom, he fell in love passionately [4].

19th century statue of the death of Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice married in a beautiful ceremony and the musician would play songs and his wife would dance to them. One day, God Aristaeus, the son of Apollo. saw Eurydice and instantly fell in love with her. He was a minor God and a cultural hero, associated with practical skills such as beekeeping. Aristaeus one day chased Eurydice and tried to abduct her. The wife of Orpheus fled but as she did, she trod on a snake, that bit her, and she died. There is another version of her death, according to Ovid [5]. In this version, Eurydice died on her wedding day, when during a dance she stepped on a venomous snake. Naturally, Orpheus was devastated, and he was grief-stricken. The gods and the nymphs were all so saddened that they decided to help him to retrieve his wife from Hades, the realm of the dead. The gods helped Orpheus to descend into the Underworld, which was strictly out of bounds for humans. One myth narrates that Orpheus father, Apollo had Hades’ grant the musician access to his dead beloved. Another version reports that Orpheus music melted the hearts of the God of the Underworld. He allowed Eurydice to follow Orpheus out of the Underworld on the condition that he did not look back as his wife exited the Underworld [6]. However, Orpheus was not strong enough and turned back to see his wife and immediately Eurydice was drawn back into the realm of the Dead and she returned to the shadows.

The death of Orpheus

Orpheus was heartbroken and wandered in a daze. Now he could only sing sad and mournful songs and his only ease was staring at the infinite skies. As he drifted in Thrace, he encountered a group of women. They demanded that he sing for them, but he refused as he was heartbroken. The Thracian women were enraged, and they attacked him and tore the singer limb from limb and flung his body parts into a river. In other versions of the myth, he is torn asunder by female followers of Dionysus (Bacchus in Roman sources), after rejecting their sexual advances. According to one story, as his head floated down the river, it was still singing[7]. The Muses and nymphs buried him on an island, and it was claimed that music would rise from the tomb of Orpheus. In another version, the head of the musician became an oracle of his father, Apollo. Many myths show Orpheus and Eurydice being happily reunited in the Blessed Fields, in the Underworld [8].

Gold tablets with Orphic inscriptions

The meaning of the myth

The myths of Orpheus are important because they explain the importance of art in human society. In the Orphic cycle of stories, the power of music and poetry, are shown to be almost magical and possessing great powers. They can affect remarkable changes and even bring peace and order. Indeed, they could even melt the heart of the God of the Underworld. The myths were often interpreted as showing the power of love. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld was designed to show the power of the Gods and that humanity must abide by their commands. When Orpheus looked back, he had disobeyed the Lord of the Underworld and in punishment, he lost Eurydice. This was a common theme in many Greek myths which often had embedded in them warnings about the nature of the gods and humans lowly place in the cosmos [9].

The religion of Orphism

A large amount of poem, treatise, oracles, hymns, and religious works came to be attributed to Orpheus. By at least the 6th century BC, there was a cult dedicated to the great musician, this was not uncommon. At some point a whole religion developed based on the alleged prophecies and teachings of Orpheus, these were spread by itinerant priests. Many believe that Orphism, as it is known by modern scholars, was a reform of the cult of Dionysus. Thracian and Pythagorean influences have also been identified on the religion. Orphism taught its followers to live an ascetic life and to abstain from eating meat and to eschew all forms of violence. Some has seen similarities between Orphism and Buddhism and Jainism. A set of rites and ceremonies played a very important role in Orphism. These led eventually to the famous Orphic Mysteries. This was a Mystery Religion where initiates were given secret knowledge to the initiates. There are only a few sources on the religion which did not have a coherent set of doctrines. It appears that during the rituals that the descent of Orpheus into the underworld and his dismemberment and death were re-enacted. It has been suggested that these rites originated in the Dionysian Mysteries. Orphism taught that the uninitiated would be doomed to be reincarnated and suffer while the initiated would go to a Blessed afterlife with heroes such as Orpheus and Eurydice[10]. Evidence communities forming around Orphic texts and rituals have been found from Southern Italy to the Crimea. In many parts of Greece and elsewhere, Orphic shrines were often believed to have oracles, that could foretell the future.

Cultural influence

The myths of the singer and musician were very influential. The great Athenian dramatists referenced them in their works. Plato discussed the myth in one of his dialogues. Indeed, it has often been argued that Orphism, influenced the Athenian philosopher [11]. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was often presented in the plastic arts and many mosaics depicting scenes from the story have been recovered by archaeologists. During the Renaissance and later, the myth became very popular and many artists painted scenes from the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. One of the first great operas, by Gluck, was based on the fable. Many writers and poets have been inspired by the myths of Orpheus, such as John Milton and the great 20th-century German poet Rilke.

Conclusion

The stories of Orpheus are unusual myths in many ways. While a hero or a demi-god he was very different from others such as Hercules. He was not famed for his strength but his art. The myths of Orpheus demonstrated the Greeks believed in the power of music and poetry. The tales of the great musician provided the Greeks with moral lessons, such as the need to heed the Gods and respect their power. A set of texts and rituals were attributed to Orpheus, and they became a religion that was based upon the idea of reincarnation and rituals. This religion was very widespread and influential. However, much about this religion and its evolution is unknown and still mysterious. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most popular in all mythology.

Further Reading

Edmonds, Radcliffe G., K. Dowden, and N. Livingstone. "Orphic Mythology." A Companion to Greek Mythology (2011): 73-106.

The Orphic Hymns. JHU Press, 2013.

Edmonds III, Radcliffe G. Redefining ancient Orphism: a study in Greek religion. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

References

  1. Detienne, M. The writing of Orpheus: Greek myth in cultural context (JHU, JHU Press, 2002), p. 14
  2. Detienne, Marcel. The writing of Orpheus: Greek myth in cultural context (JHU, JHU Press, 2002), p. 145
  3. Liveley, Genevieve. "Orpheus and Eurydice." A Handbook to the Reception of Classical Mythology (2017): 287-298
  4. Lively, p. 290
  5. Ovid. Metamorphoses, x, vi
  6. Ovid Metamorphoses, x, vi
  7. Virgil, The Georgics, iv
  8. Ovid Metamorphoses, x, vi
  9. Heath, John. "The failure of Orpheus." Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 124 (1994): 163-196
  10. Guthrie, William Keith. Orpheus and Greek religion: a study of the Orphic movement (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 125-145
  11. Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion (London, Blackwell), p. 320-321