Who is Orpheus?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
In Homer's "Odyssey," Orpheus saves sailors from the Sirens.
In Homer's "Odyssey," Orpheus saves sailors from the Sirens.

In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a well-known figure with several divergent stories. He is said to be both a man from Thrace who was a follower of Dionysus, as well as the son of the Muse, Calliope, who is said to represent epic poetry. His father is sometimes said to have been Apollo.

Orpheus was the outstanding musician of his day, moving both people and creatures with the sweetness of his music. In the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius,when Jason and the Argonauts set sail in search of the Golden Fleece, Orpheus is among the company, along with other heroes, such as Hercules. It is Orpheus who serenades the beginning of the expedition, and he, too, who encourages the others to learn about the protection for sailors offered by the goddess Persephone when they land at Samothrace.

The god Apollo is often said to be Orpheus's father.
The god Apollo is often said to be Orpheus's father.

When they must sail by the Sirens — the bird-women whose songs lure men ineluctably to their deaths — as Odysseus and his crew also did on the way home from Troy in The Odyssey, it is Orpheus who saves them. His song is sweeter than the Sirens’, and so their power is overcome.

The other well-known story about Orpheus concerns his love for Eurydice, a dryad. Both Orpheus and Aristaeus tried to win her, but Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus. Aristaeus did not give up, however, and Eurydice died from a poisonous snakebite as she was running away from Aristaeus one day.

Orpheus's music charmed Charon, the ferryman of the underworld.
Orpheus's music charmed Charon, the ferryman of the underworld.

Orpheus was desolate and determined to try to bring Eurydice back from Hades. He managed to charm Charon, the ferryman of the dead, with his music, and his music also soothed Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, who let him pass. His music also moved Persephone, Hades’ consort, to plead with Hades on Orpheus’s behalf for Eurydice’s release.

In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld and the chief caretaker of the abode of the dead.
In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld and the chief caretaker of the abode of the dead.

Hades agreed, but on one condition: Orpheus must not look back to check that Eurydice was following him: he must simply proceed back to the Earth, or he would lose her forever. And, in his desperation, Orpheus did look back, and so lost Eurydice again.

Some traditions have Orpheus offending Dionysus and being torn to death by his followers, the maenads. The story of Orpheus was used as the material for operas by Gluck and Monteverdi, and as the foundation of a play and later a movie by Jean Cocteau.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to LanguageHumanities about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to LanguageHumanities about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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    • In Homer's "Odyssey," Orpheus saves sailors from the Sirens.
      By: Juulijs
      In Homer's "Odyssey," Orpheus saves sailors from the Sirens.
    • The god Apollo is often said to be Orpheus's father.
      By: lornet
      The god Apollo is often said to be Orpheus's father.
    • Orpheus's music charmed Charon, the ferryman of the underworld.
      By: zwiebackesser
      Orpheus's music charmed Charon, the ferryman of the underworld.
    • In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld and the chief caretaker of the abode of the dead.
      By: Anatoly Vartanov
      In Greek mythology, Hades is the god of the underworld and the chief caretaker of the abode of the dead.