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Who is Orpheus?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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