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Classical Mythology

Undying Love: Orpheus

Not all who visited the Underworld suffered eternal torment, but few ever returned happy. The saddest of all was the poet and lyrist Orpheus, perhaps the greatest of all the musicians in Greek mythology. The son of Apollo, the god of music and poetry, and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, Orpheus became such a master of the lyre that his playing enchanted every living thing. His playing not only soothed the savage breast, taming the wildest of beasts, but moved all of nature as well. Rivers silenced their flowing, trees bent, and mountains moved—all in order to listen.

As a young man, Orpheus joined the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts). His playing was often all that kept the fractious crew from attacking one another. On the return voyage of the Argo, Orpheus did more than merely keep the peace. His lyre-playing saved the ship from the Sirens, bird-women who lured sailors to their destruction with hauntingly sweet songs. As the ship passed the island of Anthemoessa, off the coast of Italy, Orpheus drowned out the singing of the Sirens by playing loud and fast on his lyre. The confusion of sounds that resulted significantly reduced the allure of the Sirens.

Near the end of their voyage, when the Argo became stranded in Lake Tritonis, Orpheus suggested offering the gods the bronze tripod that Apollo had given him. In response to this offering, Triton (a son of Poseidon) appeared and guided them to the sea—and home.

Following Love to Hell and Back

When Orpheus returned to his homeland of Thrace, he fell deeply in love with a young girl named Eurydice, married her, and enjoyed a happiness that eclipsed all joy that had come before. Yet their marriage—and Orpheus's happiness—did not last long. A beekeeper named Aristaeus, a son of Apollo like Orpheus, lusted after Eurydice, too. Aristaeus soon attempted to ravish the girl. While fleeing from his advances, Eurydice stepped on a poisonous serpent, which bit her on the foot. Within minutes, Eurydice died from the wound.

Heartbroken, the mourning Orpheus found he could not live without his bride. He quickly resolved to do everything he could to bring her back from the Underworld. Carrying his lyre with him, Orpheus descended to the Underworld.

Even in the dark despair of the Underworld, the music of Orpheus proved enchanting. The ferryman Charon, the guard-dog Cerberus, and the three Judges of the Dead all let him pass. The spirits of the dead crowded around to hear Orpheus play and sing.

Mythed by a Mile

Some taletellers insist that these women tore Orpheus apart not because they were inflamed by the vengeful Dionysus, but because each wanted him for herself and none would give up her claim. Others suggest that his continuing fidelity to Eurydice—and his renunciation of love forever—enraged the women of Thrace. Still others say that Orpheus gave his love solely to young boys—and for this reason the women tore him to pieces.

Even the damned received release from their tortures while he played. Sisyphus, for example, took a break from his labors and Tantalus forgot his hunger and thirst.

Orpheus's art softened Hades and Persephone, too. They agreed to restore Eurydice to life. There was a catch, however. As he traveled back to the surface of the earth, Orpheus was forbidden to turn and look back upon her even once—not until both of them were safe in the light of the sun.

Orpheus began the long ascent from the Underworld, and Eurydice silently followed the enchanting sound of his lyre. Several times, he feared she was no longer behind him, but resisted the temptation to look back. But as he caught the first glints of sunlight before him, Orpheus could contain his doubts no longer. He turned his head, only to see his beloved fade away, becoming a shade once again. Orpheus had lost Eurydice forever.

Life After Death

Mythed by a Mile

No, no, no! That's all wrong. The head of Orpheus, some tellers of the tale insist, indeed came to rest on the island of Lesbos. But unburied, it prophesied day and night, drawing worshippers away from Apollo's oracles, until that god, Orpheus's father, ordered the head to be silent forever more.

Orpheus tried to return once more to Hades, but found he could not pass that way again. Anguished, he returned to Earth.

Without Eurydice, Orpheus did not live long himself. He established a rite of sacrifice to his father, Apollo, hailing him as the greatest of all gods. Dionysus, angered by Orpheus's refusal to honor him, sent the maenads (his female devotees) to punish Orpheus. The raving maenads tore the musician to pieces—and then murdered their own husbands.

After the death of Orpheus, his mother and the other Muses collected the scattered pieces of his body. They buried all but the head in Pieria—Orpheus's birthplace and one of the chief haunts of the Muses. The head of Orpheus, still singing, and his lyre floated across the sea to the island of Lesbos. The people of Lesbos, who buried his head, were rewarded forever after with a gift for music. His lyre became part of the heavens: the constellation Lyra.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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