Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Lyre Player and Bird Fresco from the Throne Room of Nestor's palace in Pylos dated LH IIIB (about 1300 BCE).
The story of Orpheus, like those of Odysseus and Achilles is another that predates written language and encompasses elements that inform cultural depictions until the present day.
Poets such as Simonides of Ceos said that Orpheus' virtuoso music and singing could charm the birds, fish and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, and divert the course of rivers. It may well be Orpheus depicted in the above image; a fresco which survived the fire which brought the Mycenaean world to an end in about 1200 BCE, uncovered in Pylos. Against the ragged background, the poet, let’s call him Orpheus, sits on an amazingly colourful rug.
Everything about him is alert, his eye bright and open, his body poised and taut, upright, ready. In his arms he holds a large, five-stringed kithara (lyre), the fingers of his right hand plucking at the strings, which bend to his touch.
Against the florid red of the wall behind him, the red of life itself, is an enormous, pale bird, the colour of the bard’s robe … its eye as bright and open as Orpheus’ its body larger than his, its presence in the room huge and buoyant, nothing insubstantial about it, making its way out into the world…The bird is poetry itself taking wing … It is the bird of eloquence, the ‘winged words’ epea pteroenta. Meaning and beauty take flight in Orpheus’ song. (Adapted from ‘The Mighty Dead’ Adam Nicholson). Who Orpheus was, to whom the myth refers, is lost in the cloudy past, but the song sings on.
So, to the story of Orpheus:
Often thought to be the son of a Muse (probably Calliope, patron of epic poetry) and Oeagrus, a king of Thrace, where the Greeks believed the kithara also came from. Other versions give Apollo, god, among other things, of music, as Orpheus’ father. He was considered the best musician and poet of all, and he perfected the kithara. Most ancient sources accept his historical existence: Pindar calls Orpheus 'the father of songs'. Orpheus was supposed to have passed on his musical skills to Midas – of the golden touch.
After journeying in Egypt, Orpheus joined Jason’s expedition to find the Golden Fleece in Colchis on the Black Sea. He not only entertained the Argonauts but also kept time for the rowers of the Argo, calmed the seas with his seductive singing and his gentle notes even ended a few drunken brawls amongst the mariners. When Orpheus heard the voices of the Sirens, tempting the Argonauts sailors to their deaths, he drew his kithara and played more beautiful music, drowning out the Sirens' song of enchantment.
Of course, the best-known story of Orpheus is that of his marriage to Eurydice. The marriage was ill-starred. Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, didn’t bless their wedding and doom ensued. There are numerous versions of the story; in one version, Euridice ran from an amorous satyr: in another, dances with naiads, in both versions she was bitten by a poisonous snake and died on her wedding day.
Orpheus, distraught and overwhelmed with grief, followed his love to Hades, the land of the dead, to attempt to bring her away with him. With his singing and playing he charmed Charon, the ferryman, and Cerberus, the fearsome dog which guarded the gates of the River Styx, to allow him into the realm of shades. In one telling of the story, his music and grief so moved Hades, king of the underworld, that Orpheus was permitted to take Eurydice back to the world of life and light. Hades set one condition: upon leaving the land of death, both Orpheus and Eurydice were forbidden to look back. The couple climbed up toward the opening into the land of the living, but Orpheus, unable to hear Euridice’s footsteps, turned back. In that moment, she disappeared, this time forever.
Other versions speak of Orpheus' visit to the underworld in a more negative light; the infernal gods only ‘presented an apparition’ of Eurydice to him. Plato's representation of Orpheus is that of a coward; instead of choosing to die in order to be with the one he loved, he instead mocked the gods by trying to go to Hades to bring her back alive. Orpheus had the talent with music to charm his way into the underworld, but that was not enough. He must show Hades that he had the fortitude not once to glance back and see if his beloved Eurydice was truly behind him. He held strong until the very end, when he took one quick glimpse back to make sure she was behind him as he stepped out of Hades. That moment when his trust wavers was his undoing.
Orpheus was inconsolable at this second loss of his wife. He spurned the company of women and kept apart from ordinary human activities. His misery would soon end.
A group of Ciconian Maenads, female devotees of Dionysus, came upon him as he sat singing beneath a tree. They attacked him, throwing rocks, branches, and anything else that came to hand. However, Orpheus' music was so beautiful that it charmed even inanimate objects, and the missiles refused to strike him. Finally, the Maenads' attacked him with their own hands, and tore him to pieces. Orpheus' head floated down the river, still singing, and came to rest on the isle of Lesbos.
An Attic red-figure stamnos depicting the death of Orpheus, c. 470 BCE. (Louvre, Paris). It shows the thyrsus typically associated with Dionysus and Maenad figures.
In some versions of the myth, Dionysos had sent his followers on their terrible task because Orpheus had preached to the people of Thrace that Apollo and not Dionysos was the greatest god. It is interesting to note that in the Bronze Age, fugitive priests from Egypt did settle in the northern Aegean and brought with them worship of the sun god Amun. (This also explains the element of the Orpheus story that he once visited Egypt). In another version the Maenads, stoned him to the ground and ripped him to pieces for his lack of merriment (or homosexuality in some interpretations).
His head, still singing, with his lyre, floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established. The dismembered limbs of Orpheus were gathered up and buried by the Muses. His lyre they had placed in the heavens as a constellation. Orpheus’s music had the power to save Eurydice, and yet she was not spared in the end, and neither was he. But the story itself has been a source of inspiration for many artists, and the myth of Orpheus has been retold and reimagined numerous times in art, music, dance, and literature.
The character of Orpheus appears in operas by Claudio Monteverdi (Orfeo, 1607), Christoph Gluck (Orfeo ed Euridice, 1762), and Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858); Jean Cocteau’s drama (1926) and film (1949) Orphée; and Brazilian director Marcel Camus’s film Black Orpheus (1959). It is depicted by artists like Titian, Poussin, and Rodin—many highlighting Orpheus and Eurydice’s anguished final embrace, Orpheus’s performance of music, or his fateful glance back.
Unusually, the image below, ‘Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus’ (1900). Painting by John William Waterhouse focuses on two illuminated nymphs who marvel at Orpheus’s head drifting by in the water. They are the sublime glow in the dark; he is a dull crystal ball, an abandoned childhood plaything sent down the river. The gruesomeness is not the shocking thing here — what is showing is beauty, which is rarer.
The last rendering of the Orpheus and Euridice story we will talk about is Nick Cave’s title song of the 2004 double album, ‘Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus’. It presents the myth as a twisted fairy tale, set to a languorous blues-rock tune: Orpheus builds a lyre from a block of wood and a wire, accidentally kills Eurydice when he plays it for her, and eventually falls down a well into Hell, where he’s reunited with her. ‘Orpheus went leaping through the fields,’ Cave sings in his baritone twang. ‘Strumming as hard as he did please/Birdies detonated in the sky/Bunnies dashed their brains out on the trees…’ the grungy, sadistic lift of this music suits Orpheus’s predicament better perhaps than any more conventionally beautiful song could.