When Orpheus sang the wild beasts would lay down, entranced, and the sweet music of his lyre coaxed rocks and trees into dance. His musical skills were considered a gift from his mother, the Muse Callope, but there were some who whispered his true father was Apollo.
Whether the musical god passed the skill of cithara and lyre to the young Thracian we know not, in any case, the beautiful music of Orpheus was renowned throughout the ancient world.
Orpheus joined the Argonauts on their voyage to steal the Golden Fleece from Colchis. The haunting melodies from his lyre smoothed the journey as his pure voice soothed the souls of the sailors. When the men grew weary from rowing, Orpheus would take out his instrument and with each shining note they became more refreshed and fired with energy.
The Argo approached the flowery island of Anthemoessa where lived the three Naides, (now tranformed into half-birds by Demeter) whose song caused sailors to lose all memory, will and ambition. Orpheus saved the Argonauts from falling under the spell of these Sirens by playing his lyre and drowning out the mesmerising song. Soon after returning from his voyage, Orpheus married a nymph named Eurydice, but they were wed only a short time before tragedy struck.
Eurydice was killed by the bite of a serpent, and the shattered Orpheus descended to the underworld to beg for her release.
Orpheus in the underworld
“Love has led me here,”, he sang. “Love, a god all powerful with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the thread of Eurydice’s life. We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beseech you.”
As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Cerberus lay back on his haunches, Tantalus forgot his thirst, Ixion’s wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant’s liver (that was the Punishment of Prometheus, the daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then, it is said, for the first and only time, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. And Persephone herself came to listen.
Hades too was moved by the beauty of the song and agreed to release Eurydice to the world of the living. On one condition, that Orpheus must not look back as he was conducting her to the surface.
The happy Orpheus agreed and swiftly made his way through the dark caverns trusting that his bride was following close behind him. Just before reaching the top however, Orpheus was gripped with sudden doubt .. perhaps a terrible trick had been played on him.
Why take the word of such a god as Hades?
After all this is the god who tricked Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds. As he approached the last step before entering the light, Orpheus had to see for himself. He looked back, and Eurydice slipped forever into the netherworld.
Orpheus and the Maenads
Orpheus was inconsolable at this second loss of his wife. He spurned the company of women, shunned his friends, and roamed through the land of Thrace weeping and playing sad tunes on his lyre
One fateful day, Orpheus came upon a band of crazed women, Maenads who were female devotees of Dionysus. They attacked him, throwing rocks, branches, and anything else that came to hand, but his music could charm rocks and the missiles refused to strike him. Finally, the Maenads’ attacked him with their own hands, and tore him to pieces, leaving his dismembered body upon the mountain.
The Muses gathered up the scattered pieces and buried all but the head at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His head floated upon the sea to the Isle of Lesbos, where the people gave it a proper burial. As a reward, the inhabitants of Lesbos ever since have been blessed in the art of music.
In honour of the beauty of his music, the Muses placed the lyre of Orpheus in the heavens as the constellation Lyra. His shade passed a second time to the underworld where he found and embraced his Eurydice.
They roam the happy fields together now, .. “sometimes he leading, sometimes she, and Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no more to be punished for a thoughtless glance.”