Orpheus | Greek Hero

Orpheus | Greek Hero

Orpheus (Greek: Oρφεύς, transl.: Orphéus, classical pronunciation: [or.pʰeú̯s]) was a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion.

"Aristotle believed that Orpheus never existed; but to all the other ancient writers he was a real person, although he lived in remote antiquity. Most of them believed that he lived several generations before Homer."

Some ancient Greek sources note Orpheus' Thracian origins. The main stories about him center on his ability to enchant all living things and even stones with his music (the usual scene in Orpheus' mosaics), his attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld, and his death at the hands of the Venades of Dionysus, who grew tired of Orpheus' mourning for his dead wife Eurydice.

As an archetype of the inspired singer, Orpheus is one of the most significant figures in the reception of classical mythology in Western culture, depicted or mentioned in numerous forms of art and popular culture, including poetry, film, opera, music, and painting.

For the Greeks, Orpheus was the founder and prophet of the so-called "Orphic" mysteries. He was credited with composing the Orphic Hymns and the Orphic Argonautics. The shrines containing supposed relics of Orpheus were considered oracles.


Several etymologies for the name Orpheus have been proposed. One likely suggestion is that it is derived from a hypothetical PIE root *h₃órbʰos 'orphan, servant, slave' and finally the verb root *h₃erbʰ- 'change loyalty, status, ownership.

Cognates may include in Greek: ὄρφνη (órphnē; 'darkness') and ὀρφανός (orphanós; 'fatherless, orphan'), from which the word 'orphan' comes via Latin. Fulgentius, a late 5th to early 6th century AD mythographer, gave the unlikely etymology meaning 'better voice', 'Oraia-phonos'.


The earliest literary reference to Orpheus is a two-word fragment from the Ibian lyric poet of the 6th century BCE: onomaklyton Orphēn ('Orpheus famous-of-name'). He is not mentioned in Homer or Hesiod. Most ancient sources accept his historical existence; Aristotle is an exception. Pindar calls Orpheus "the father of songs" and identifies him as the son of the Thracian king Eagro and the muse Calliope.

The Greeks of the classical era revered Orpheus as the greatest of all poets and musicians; it was said that while Hermes invented the lyre, Orpheus perfected it. Poets like Simonides of Ceos said that Orpheus' music and singing could charm birds, fish and beasts, persuade trees and rocks to dance and divert the course of rivers.

Orpheus was one of the few Greek heroes to visit the Underworld and return; his music and singing had power over Hades. The earliest known reference to this descent into the Underworld is the painting of Polygothus (5th century BCE) described by Pausanias (2nd century CE), in which no mention is made of Eurydice.

Euripides and Plato refer to the story of his descent to retrieve his wife, but do not mention her name; a contemporary relief (circa 400 BCE) shows Orpheus and his wife with Hermes. The elegiac poet Hermesianax called her Argíope; and the first mention of her name in literature is in the Lament for Bíon (1st century BCE).

Some sources attribute to Orpheus other gifts to humanity: medicine, which is most commonly under the auspices of Asclepius (Asclepius) or Apollo; writing, which is usually credited to Cadmo; and agriculture, in which Orpheus assumes the Eleusine role of Tryptolemus as the giver of Demeter's knowledge to humanity.

Orpheus was an augure and seer; he practiced magical arts and astrology, founded cults to Apollo and Dionysus, and prescribed the mysterious rites preserved in Orphic texts. Pindar and Apollonius of Rhodes place Orpheus as the harpist and companion of Jason and the Argonauts.

Orpheus had a brother named Linus, who went to Thebes and became a Theban. He is claimed by Aristophanes and Horace to have taught cannibals to subsist on fruit, and to have made lions and tigers obedient to him. Horace believed, however, that only Orpheus had introduced order and civilization to the savages.

Strabo (64 BC - c. AD 24) presents Orpheus as a mortal, who lived and died in a village near Olympus. "Some, of course, received him willingly, but others, suspecting conspiracy and violence, united against him and killed him."

He had made money as a musician and "magician" - Strabo uses αγυρτεύοντα (agurteúonta), a term also used by Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannus to characterize Tyresias as a trickster with an excessive desire for possessions. Αγύρτης (agúrtēs) most often means charlatan and has always had a negative connotation. Pausanias writes about an unidentified Egyptian who considered Orpheus a μάγευσε (mágeuse), a magician.

"Orpheus ... is repeatedly referred to by Euripides, in whom we find the first allusion to Orpheus' connection with Dionysus and the infernal regions: speaks of him as related to the Muses (Reso 944,946);

mentions the power of his song over rocks, trees and wild animals (Medea 543, Iphigenia in Aulid 1211, The Bacchantes 561 and a jocular allusion in The Cyclops 646); refers to his enchantment of infernal powers (Alceste 357); connects him with bacchanalian orgies (Hippolytus 953); attributes to him the origin of sacred mysteries (Reso 943), and places the setting of his activity among the forests of Olympus (The Bacchae 561)."

"Euripides brought Orpheus into his play Hypsipila, which dealt with the Lemnian episode of the Argonian voyage; Orpheus there acts as helmsman and later as guardian in Thrace of Jason's children with Hypsipila. "

"He is mentioned only once, but in an important passage, by Aristophanes (The Frogs 1032), who lists, as the oldest poets, Orpheus, Museum, Hesiod and Homer, and makes Orpheus the teacher of religious initiations and abstinence from murder ..."

"Plato (Apology, Protagoras), ... frequently refers to Orpheus, his followers and his works. He calls him the son of Eagro (The Banquet), mentions him as a musician and inventor (Ion and Laws bk 3. ), refers to the miraculous power of his lyre (Protagoras), and gives a singular version of the story of his descent into Hades:

the gods, he says, deceived the poet by showing him only a ghost of his lost wife, because he did not have the courage to die, like Alceste, but planned to enter Hades alive, and, as punishment beyond for his cowardice, he met death at the hands of women (The Banquet)."

"Before the literary references, there is a carved representation of Orpheus with the ship Argo, found at Delphi, said to be from the 6th century BCE.".


On the writings of Orpheus, Freeman, in the 1946 edition of The Pre-Socratic Philosophers pp. 4-8, writes:

"In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., there existed a collection of hexametric poems known as Orphicus, which were the accepted authority of those who followed the Orphic way of life, and were attributed by them to Orpheus himself.

Plato several times quotes verses from this collection; he refers in the Republic to a "mass of books of Museum and Orpheus," and in the Laws to the hymns of Thamiris and Orpheus, while in the Ion he groups Orpheus with Museum and Homer as the source of inspiration for epic and elocutionary poets.

Euripides in the Hippolytus has Theseus speak of the "turgid effluxes of many treatises" that led his son to follow Orpheus and adopt the Bacchic religion. Alexis, the 4th century comic poet, portraying Linus offering a choice of books to Hercules, mentions "Orpheus, Hesiod, tragedies, Chérillus, Homer, Epicle."

Aristotle did not believe that the poems were Orpheus'; he speaks of the 'so-called Orphic epic', and Philoponus (seventh century AD) commenting on this expression, says that in the De Philosophia (now lost) Aristotle directly stated his opinion that the poems were not Orpheus'.

Philopon adds his own view that the doctrines were put into epic verse by Onomacritus. Aristotle, in citing the Orphic cosmological doctrines, attributes them to the 'theologoi', 'the ancient poets', 'those who first theorized about the gods'.

Nothing is known of any ancient orphic writings, except a reference in Euripides' Alceste to certain 'Thracian tablets' which 'the voice of Orpheus had inscribed' with pharmaceutical erudition.

The Scholiastic, commenting on the passage, says that there are on Mount Hemus certain writings of Orpheus on tablets. There is also a reference, without mentioning Orpheus by name, in the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus, in which the fate of the soul in Hades is said to be described on certain bronze tablets which two seers brought to Delos from the land of the Hyperboreans.

This is the only evidence of any ancient Orphic writings. Eliano (second century AD) gave the main reason against believing them: at the time Orpheus is said to have lived, the Thracians knew nothing about writing.

Therefore, it came to be believed that Orpheus taught but left no writings, and that the epic poetry attributed to him was written in the 6th century BC by Onomacritus. Onomacritus was banished from Athens by Hipparchus for inserting something of his authorship into a Museum oracle when he was entrusted with editing his poems.

It may have been Aristotle who first suggested, in the lost De Philosophia, that Onomacritus also wrote the so-called Orphic epic poems. By the time the Orphic writings began to be quoted freely by Christian and Neoplatonic writers, the theory of Onomacritus' authorship was accepted by many.

It is believed, however, that the orphic literature current at the time of the Neoplatonists (3rd century AD), and cited by them as the authority for the orphic doctrines, was a collection of writings from different periods and varying perspectives, somewhat like that of the Bible.

The first of these were composed in the sixth century by Onomacritus from the genuine Orphic tradition; the last that have survived, namely the Voyage of the Argonauts and the Hymns to Various Deities, cannot have been assembled in their present form until the early Christian era, and probably date from sometime between the second and fourth centuries AD.

The Neoplatonists cite the Orphic poems in their defense against Christianity, because Plato used poems that he believed to be Orphic. It is believed that in the collection of writings they used there were several versions, each of which gave a slightly different account of the origin of the universe, of gods and men, and perhaps of the correct way of life, with the rewards and punishments associated with it.

Three main versions are recognized by modern scholars; all three are mentioned by the Neoplatonist Damascus (fifth to sixth centuries AD). These are:

Rhapsodies, epic chants, said according to Damascus to provide the usual Orphic theology. These are also mentioned in Suda's list as 'sacred discourses in twenty-four canticles', although he attributes this work to Theognetus the Thessalylicus (unknown) or Cércops the Pythagorean. This is now known as the Rhapsodic Theogony.

It is the version generally quoted by ancient authorities, but it was not the one used by Plato, and so it is sometimes thought to have been composed after he wrote; this question cannot be decided at present.

An Orphic Theogony given by Aristotle's student Eudemo.An Orphic Theogony 'according to Jerome of Rhodes and Helanicus'. Other versions were: a Theogony put into the mouth of Orpheus by Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica; an Orphic Theogony quoted by Alexander of Aphrodisias; and a Theogony in Clement of Rome, not specified as Orphic, but belonging to the same school of thought.

A long list of orphic works is provided in the Suda (10th century AD); but most of them are attributed to other authors. They are:

Triagmoi, attributed to the tragic poet Ion, in which there was said to be a chapter called Sacred Vestments or Cosmic Invocations. The title Triagmoi apparently referred to the 'orphic tripod of three elements, earth, water, fire,' referred to by Ausonius and Galen; the latter said that this doctrine was given by Onomacritus in his orphic poems.

The Sacred Discourses, already discussed, generally identified with the Rhapsodiae.

Oracles and Rites, attributed to Onomacritus.

Subsidies for Salvation, attributed to Timocles of Syracuse or Persinus of Miletus; both the work and these writers are unknown.

Mixing Bowls, attributed to Zopiro of Heracleia; and The Robe and the Net, also attributed to Zopiro, or to Brontino the Pythagorean. The Net referred to is the net of the body, so called in Orphic literature. Brontino was also attributed a Physica, otherwise unknown.

Enthronement of the Mother and Bacchic Rites, attributed to Nícias of Eleia, about whom nothing else is known. 'Enthronement' was part of the initiation rite practiced by the coribants, the worshippers of Reia or Cybele; the person to be initiated was seated on a high chair, and the celebrants danced around her in a circle.

The title, therefore, apparently means 'the enthronement ceremonies as practiced by the worshippers of the Great Mother'. Connected with, perhaps identical to, this was a treatise on the Coribantic Rites, cited by the late Orphic poem Argonautica.

A Descent into Hades, attributed to Herodicus of Perinth, or to Cércops the Pythagorean, or to the unknown Prodicus of Samos.

Other treatises were: an Astronomy or Astrology, otherwise unknown; Sacrificial Rites, no doubt giving rules for bloodless sacrifices; Divination by means of sand, Divination by means of eggs; On the construction of temples (otherwise unknown);

On the Girding of the Sacred Vestments; and Of Stones, said to contain a chapter on the carving of precious stones entitled The Eighty Stones; a version of this work, of late date, has survived. It deals with the properties of stones, precious and common, and their uses in divination.

The Orphic Hymns are also mentioned in Suda's list, and a Theogony in 1200 verses, perhaps one of those versions which differ from the Rhapsodies. There was also an Orphic word-book, no doubt a glossary of the special terms used in the cult, some of which were strange because of their allegorical usage, others because of their antiquity; this was also said to be in verse.

This was the list of works finally classified as Orphic writings, although it was known in ancient times that many of them were the works of Pythagoreans and other writers. Herodotus said that the so-called 'Orphic and Bacchic rites' were in fact 'Egyptian and Pythagorean'; and Ion of Chios said that Pythagoras himself attributed some of his writings to Orpheus.

Others, as already stated, considered the early epics to be the work of Onomacritus. The original Hymns were thought to have been composed by Orpheus, and written, with emendations, by Museum.

There were also other writers named Orpheus: to one, from Crotona, considered a contemporary and associate of Pisistratus, two epic poems were attributed: an Argonáutica and The Twelve-Year Cycle (probably astrological); to another, Orpheus of Camarina, an epic Descent into Hades. These homonyms are probably inventions."


Past Life

According to Apollodorus and a fragment of Pindar, Orpheus' father was Eagro, a Thracian king, or, according to another version of the story, the god Apollo. His mother was (1) the muse Calliope, (2) his sister Polyhymnia, (3) a daughter of Pyero, son of Macedon, or (4) lastly of Menipe, daughter of Tamiris. According to Tzetzes, he was from Bisaltia.

His place of birth and residence was Pimpleia near Olympus. Strabo mentions that he lived in Pimpleia. According to the epic poem The Argonautics, Pimpleia was the site of the marriage of Eagro and Calliope.

While living with his mother and his eight beautiful sisters in Parnassus, he met Apollo, who was courting the laughing muse Thalia. Apollo, as god of music, gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him to play it. Orpheus' mother taught him to make verses to sing. He would also have studied in Egypt.

Orpheus is said to have established the worship of Hecate in Aegina. In Laconia Orpheus is said to have brought the worship of Ctonia Demeter and that of Κόρες Σωτείρας (Kóres Sōteíras; 'Saving Maidens'). Also in Taígeto, a wooden image of Orpheus is said to have been kept bygos in the shrine of Demeter of Elêusis.

According to Diodorus Sículus, Museum of Athens was the son of Orpheus.

Traveling as an Argonaut

The Argonautics (Ἀργοναυτικά) is a Greek epic poem written by Apollonius Rhodium in the 3rd century BC. Orpheus participated in this adventure and used his abilities to help his companions. Chiron told Jason that without Orpheus' help, the Argonauts would never be able to pass the sirens-the same sirens encountered by Odysseus in Homer's epic poem Odyssey.

The sirens lived on three small rocky islands called Sirenum scopuli and sang beautiful songs that attracted sailors to come to them, which resulted in their ships crashing into the islands.

When Orpheus heard their voices, he drew out his lyre and played ever louder and more beautiful music, drowning out the enchanting songs of the mermaids. According to the 3rd century B.C. Hellenistic elegiac poet Phanocles, Orpheus loved the young Argonaut Calais, "the son of Boas, with all his heart, and went often into shady woods still singing his desire, nor did his heart rest. But always, sleepless cares beset his mood as he gazed at the cool Calais."

Death of Eurydice

The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice (sometimes called Eurydice and also known as Argope). While walking among her people, the Scythians, in the tall grass on their wedding day, Eurydice was attacked by a satyr.

In her efforts to escape the satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overwhelmed by pain, played songs so sad and mournful that all the nymphs and gods wept.

Following their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they had both reached the upper world.

He set off with Eurydice following him, and in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that they both needed to be in the upper world, and she disappeared for a second time, but now forever.

The story in this form belongs to the time of Virgil, who first introduced the name of Aristeus (in Virgil's Georgics, the myth shows Aristeus chasing after Eurydice when she was bitten by a serpent) and the tragic outcome.

Other ancient writers, however, speak of Orpheus' visit to the underworld in a more negative light; according to Pharro in Plato's Banquet, the infernal gods merely "presented an apparition" of Eurydice to him.

In fact, Plato's depiction of Orpheus is that of a coward, for instead of choosing to die to be with the one he loved, he mocked the gods by trying to go to Hades to bring her back alive.

Since his love was not "true"-he did not want to die for love-he was actually punished by the gods, first by giving him only the appearance of his former wife in the underworld, and then by being killed by women. In Ovid's account, however, the death of Eurydice by a snakebite occurred while she was dancing with Naiades on her wedding day.

Virgil wrote in his poem that the Druids wept from Epirus and Evros to the land of the Getas (northeastern Danube valley) and even describes him wandering through Hyperborea and Tannais (ancient Greek city in the Don River delta) due to their mourning.

The story of Eurydice may actually be a late addition to the Orpheus myths. In particular, the name Eurudike ("she whose justice extends widely") recalls the cult titles attached to Persephone. According to the theories of the poet Robert Graves, the myth may have derived from another Orpheus legend, in which he travels to Tartarus and charms the goddess Hecate.

The mythema of not looking back, an essential precaution in Jason's invocation of the Scythian Brimo Hecate under the guidance of Medea, is reflected in the biblical story of Lot's wife when she escapes from Sodom.

More directly, the story of Orpheus is similar to the ancient Greek tales of Persephone captured by Hades and similar stories of Adonis captive in the underworld. However, the developed form of the Orpheus myth was intertwined with the Orphic mystery cults and, later in Rome, with the development of Mithraism and the cult of the Undefeated Sun.


According to a late antiquity summary of Aeschylus' lost play, Bassáridas, Orpheus, late in his life, disdained the worship of all the gods except the sun, whom he called Apollo. One morning, he went to the oracle of Dionysus on Mount Pangaion to greet his god at dawn, but was torn to pieces by the Thracian Venades for not honoring his previous patron (Dionysus) and buried in Pieria.

Here, his death is analogous to that of Pentheus, who was also torn to pieces by the Venades; and it has been speculated that the Orphic mystery cult regarded Orpheus as a parallel figure or even an incarnation of Dionysus.

Both made similar journeys to Hades, and Dionysus Zagreu suffered an identical death. Pausanias writes that Orpheus was buried in Dion and met death there. He writes that the river Helicon sank underground when the women who killed Orpheus tried to wash their bloodstained hands in its waters. Ovid recounts that Orpheus ...

refrained from loving women, either because things ended badly for him or because he swore to do so. Still, many felt the desire to join the poet, and many suffered from rejection. In fact, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his affection to young boys and enjoy their brief spring and the early flowering of this side of manhood.
- Ovid. From the translation by A. S. Kline
Ovid: The Metamorphoses, Book X

Feeling rejected by Orpheus for having only male lovers (eromenos), the Ciconian women, followers of Dionysus, first threw sticks and stones at him as he played, but his music was so beautiful that even the stones and twigs refused to hit him.

Enraged, the women tore him to pieces during the frenzy of their Bacchic orgies. In Albrecht Dürer's drawing of Orpheus' death, based on an original, now lost, by Andrea Mantegna, a tall ribbon on the tree above him bears the inscription Orpheus der erst puseran ("Orpheus, the first pederast").

His head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the River Hebrus to the sea, after which the winds and waves carried them to the island of Lesbos, in the city of Metimna; there the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honor near Antissa; there his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo. Besides the people of Lesbos, Greeks from Ionia and Etholia consulted the oracle, and his reputation spread as far as Babylon.

Orpheus' lyre was carried up into the sky by the Muses and placed among the stars. The Muses also collected the fragments of his body and buried them in Leibetra below Mount Olympus, where nightingales sang over his tomb.

After the river Sis flooded Leibetra, the Macedonians took his bones to Dion. Orpheus' soul returned to the underworld, to the fields of the Blessed, where he was finally reunited with his beloved Eurydice.

Another legend places his tomb in Dion, near Pidna in Macedonia. In another version of the myth, Orpheus travels to Aorno in Thesprotia, Epirus to an ancient oracle of the dead. In the end, Orpheus commits suicide because of his grief, unable to find Eurydice.

"Others said he was the victim of lightning."

Orphic poems and rites

Several Greek religious poems in hexameters have been attributed to Orpheus, as well as to similar miraculous figures, such as Bachis, Museum, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sibyl. Of this vast literature, only two works have survived in their entirety: the Orphic Hymns, a set of 87 poems, possibly composed sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century, and the epic poem Argonautica, composed somewhere between the 4th and 6th centuries.

Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back to the 6th century BCE, survives only in papyrus fragments or in quotations. Some of the earliest fragments may have been composed by Onomacritus.

In addition to serving as a repository of mythological data along the lines of Hesiod's Theogony, Orphic poetry was recited in mystery rites and purification rituals. Plato, in particular, speaks of a class of walking mendicant-priests who offered purifications to the rich, pulling out a mishmash of Orpheus and Museum books.

Those who were especially devoted to these rituals and poems often practiced vegetarianism and abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs and beans-which came to be known as Orphikos bios, or the "Orphic way of life."

The Derveni papyrus, found in Derveni, Macedonia (Greece) in 1962, contains a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem in hexameters, a theogony on the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras, written in the second half of the 5th century BC. C.

Fragments of the poem are quoted making it "the most important new evidence about Greek philosophy and religion that has come to light since the Renaissance."

The papyrus dates from around 340 B.C, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it the oldest manuscript in Europe. In it, one finds cosmological references and explanations of the names of the gods attributed to Orpheus as a primordial namer in his verses:

" 'The firstborn king, to whom then all immortal gods and goddesses and rivers and pleasant fountains and everything else that was then born, and so he became the only one.' In these verses he indicates that existing things have always persisted, but present things come from those that endure. And the verse 'and so he became the only one'.

By saying this, shows that Mind (Nous) itself is worth all other things together, being the only one, as if other things were nothing, since it would be impossible for present things to be so without Mind. Further on in the verse that follows after this, he said that Mind is worth all things : 'Now He is the king of all, and afterwards He will be also.'

The existing things each have their name according to what they dominate; in the same way, all things [together] have been given the name 'Zeus'. For the air dominates all that it desires.

By saying that "Moira spun," they meant that the thought of Zeus decrees how the things that exist come to be and will be, must come to be and cease to be. And [Orpheus] compares him to 'a king' - since that seemed the most fitting [to Zeus] of all the names said - in saying this:

'Zeus the king, Zeus the ruler above all, the bright lightning.' [Orpheus] said that [Zeus] is 'one king,' since of many one.

'Aphrodite', 'Ourania' and 'Zeus', as well as 'making aphrodisia' and 'casting', and as well as 'Peitho' (Persuasion) and 'Harmony', are all names related to the same God. For when things present are joined together, [this God] was called 'Aphrodite'. And 'Peitho', since existing things yielded to each other. 'Yielding' and 'persuading' is the same. And 'Harmony', since she harmoniously assembled (hērmose) many existing things with each [other].

[Orpheus] then named everything in a different way as best he could, because he understood the nature of people, namely that not everyone has a similar, not everyone wants the same things.

When they have power, they say whatever comes to each one's mind, whatever they want at the moment, never the same things, and this out of greed, sometimes out of ignorance. 'Earth' (Ge) and 'Mother', as well as 'Reia' and 'Hera', are the same.

She was given the name 'Earth' by convention, the name 'Mother' because all things are born of her, 'Ge' and 'Gaia', according to various people's dialect. She was called 'Demeter', being 'Mother-Earth' [Gē-Mētēr], one name from two. Because she was the same. It is said in the Hymns also: 'Demeter, Reia, Earth, Mother, Hestia, Deio.'

For she is also called 'Deio', since 'she was torn' during the union. [Orpheus] will show this when, according to [his] verses, she was born. 'Reia', since many and various beings were born gushing from her, (...) since Mind is the mother of other things, 'proper' because she is 'good'."

-papiro de Derveni

The historian William Mitford wrote in 1784 that the earliest form of a higher and more cohesive ancient Greek religion was manifested in the Orphic poems.[75] W. K. C. Guthrie wrote that Orpheus was the founder of mystery religions and the first to reveal to men the meaning of initiation rites.[76]

Post-classical interpretations

Classical music

The Orpheus motif has permeated Western culture and has been used as a theme in all art forms. Early examples include the early 12th century Breton lai Sir Orfeo and musical interpretations such as Jacapo Peri's Euridice (1600, although titled after his wife, the libretto is based entirely upon books X and XI of Ovid's Metamorphoses, so Orpheus' point of view is predominant).

Subsequent operatic interpretations include L'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi (1607), L'Orfeo by Luigi Rossi (1647), La descente d'Orphée aux enfers H 488, 1686 by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (he also wrote a cantata, Orphée descendent aux enfers H 471, 1683),

Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Joseph Haydn's last opera L'anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (1791), Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Orpheus (1854), Igor Stravinsky's ballet Orpheus (1948), and two operas by Harrison Birtwistle:

The Mask of Orpheus (1973-1984) and The Corridor (2009). The Bulgarian Opera Ruse commissioned and performed Orpheus: The Masque by John Robertson (2015).[77] Italian composer Fabio Mengozzi released his electronic poem Orpheus in 2022.[78][79]


Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) is based on the myth of Orpheus. Poul Anderson's Hugo Award-winning novelette, "Goat Song," published in 1972, is a retelling of the Orpheus story in a science fiction setting. Some feminist interpretations of the myth give Eurydice greater weight. Margaret Atwood's Orpheus and Eurydice Cycle (1976-86) deals with the myth and gives Eurydice a more prominent voice.

Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice also presents the story of Orpheus' descent into the underworld from Eurydice's perspective. Ruhl removes Orpheus from the center of the story by linking his romantic love to the paternal love of Eurydice's dead father.[80] David Almond's 2014 novel A Song for Ella Gray was inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and won the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction in 2015.[81] Richard Powers' 2014 novel Orfeo is based on Orpheus.

Dino Buzzati adapted the motif of Orpheus in his comic book Poem Strip (1969). Neil Gaiman portrays his version of Orpheus in the comic book series The Sandman (1989-2015). Gaiman's Orpheus is the son of Oneiros (the Dream Lord Morpheus) and the muse Calliope.[82]

The poet Gabriele Tinti composed a series of poems inspired by the myth of Orpheus, read by Robert Davi at the J. Paul Getty Museum.[83]

Film and stage

Vinicius de Moraes' play Orfeu da Conceição (1956), later adapted by Marcel Camus in the 1959 film Black Orpheus, tells the story in the modern context of a carioca favela during carnival. Jean Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy - The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1959) - was filmed over thirty years and is based in many ways on the story.

Philip Glass adapted the second film for the chamber opera Orphée (1991), part of a triptych paying homage to Cocteau. Nikos Nikolaidis' 1975 film Evrydiki BA 2O37 is an innovative perspective on the classic Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Anaïs Mitchell's 2010 folk opera musical Hadestown retells the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice with a soundtrack inspired by American blues and jazz, portraying Hades as the brutal boss of an underground mining town. Mitchell, along with director Rachel Chavkin, later adapted his album into a multi- Tony Award-winning stage musical.

Popular music

Australian band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released their critically acclaimed double album Abbatoir Blues / the Lyre of Orpheus in 2004. Canadian band Arcade Fire released their album Reflektor in 2013, where there are mentions of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - mainly in the songs It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus) and Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice).


Because of the spread of the Orpheus myth, many interpretations are in dialogue with earlier interpretations as well: the dance-opera Orpheus und Euridike by Pina Bausch displays original choreography set to Gluck's Orpheus ed Euridice .

Baz Luhrmann, in DVD commentary on his 2001 film Moulin Rouge !, characterizes the film as, in part, the story of an orphic hero (in this case, a composer) who embarks on a visit to the underworld (in this case, the demi-monde around Paris' Montmartre) in search of his fortune and, ultimately, to attempt the rescue of his doomed love.

The film adapts a widely known piece from Jacques Offenbach's comic operetta Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in Hell), identified with the once popular can-can music hall dance. Offenbach's own operatic work parodied the classic tale of Orpheus' attempt to rescue Eurydice from Pluto (Hades).

Don Shirley composed piano variations of the piece on the album Orpheus in the Underworld (1956). Gavin Bryars' music for Édouard Lock's ballet Dido and Orfeo (2011) reworks music from the operas Dido and Aeneas (Purcell) and Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck) for a small ensemble of saxophone, viola, cello and piano. In 2019, Sara Bareilles released her sixth studio album Amidst the Chaos, which features a song titled "Orpheus."