Woman with the Head of Orpheus

The history of the extant productions of Greek literature begins with the Homeric poems. But it is evident that works so perfect in their kind are the end, and not the beginning, of a course of poetical development. This assumption is confirmed by innumerable traditions, which record the names of poets before the time of Homer, who employed their music for the civilization of men and for the worship of different divinities. In accordance with the spirit of Greek mythology, the gods themselves stand at the head of this succession of poets, namely, Hermes, the inventor of the lyre, and Apollo, who received the invention from his brother, and became the divinity presiding over the whole art of music. With Apollo are associated, still in the spirit of the old mythology, a class of subordinate divinities — the Muses. The earliest human cultivators of the art are represented as the immediate pupils, and even (what, in fact, merely means the same thing) the children of Apollo and the Muses. Their personal existence is as uncertain as that of other mythical personages, and for us they can only be considered as the representatives of certain periods and certain kinds of poetical development. Their names are no doubt all significant, although the etymology of some of them is very uncertain, while that of others, such as Musaeus, is at once evident. The chief of these names are Olen, Linus, Orpheus, Musaeus, Eumolpus, Pamphus, Thamyris, and Philammon.

Of these names that of Orpheus is the most important, and at the same time the one involving the greatest difficulties. These difficulties arise from the scantiness of the early traditions respecting him, in tracing which we are rather impeded than aided by the many marvels which later writers connected with his story; and also from the very different religious positions which are assigned to him. On this last point it may be remarked in general that the earliest opinions respecting him seem to have invariably connected him with Apollo; while his name was afterwards adopted as the central point of one system of Dionysiac worship.

One of the most essential points in such an inquiry as the present is, to observe the history of the traditions themselves. The name of Orpheus does not occur in the Homeric or Hesiodic poems; but, during the lyric period, it had attained to great celebrity. Ibycus, who flourished about the middle of the sixth century BCE, mentions him as "the renowned Orpheus" (ὀνομακλυτὸν Ὄρφην1). Pindar enumerates him among the Argonauts as the celebrated harp player, father of songs, and as sent forth by Apollo:2 elsewhere he mentioned him as the son of Oeagrus.3 The historians Hellanicus and Pherecydes record his name, the former making him the ancestor both of Homer and of Hesiod;4 the latter stating that it was not Orpheus, but Philammon, who was the bard of the Argonauts,5 and this is also the account which Apollonius Rhodius followed. In the dramatic poets there are several references to Orpheus. Aeschylus alludes to the fable of his leading after him trees charmed by the sound of his lyre;6 and there is an important statement preserved by Eratosthenes,7 who quotes the Bassarides of the same poet, that "Orpheus did not honor Dionysus, but believed the sun to be the greatest of the gods, whom also he called Apollo; and rising up in the night, he ascended before dawn to the mountain called Pangaeum, that he might see the sun first, at which Dionysus being enraged sent upon him the Bassaridae, as the poet Aeschylus says, who tore him in pieces, and scattered his limbs abroad; but the Muses collected them, and buried them at the place called Leibethra:" but the quotation itself shows the impossibility of determining how much of this account is to be considered as given by Aeschylus. Sophocles does not mention Orpheus, but he is repeatedly referred to by Euripides, in whom we find the first allusion to the connection of Orpheus with Dionysus and the infernal regions: he speaks of him as related to the Muses;8 mentions the power of his song over rocks, trees, and wild beasts;9 refers to his charming the infernal powers;10 connects him with Bacchanalian orgies;11 ascribes to him the origin of sacred mysteries,12 and places the scene of his activity among the forests of Olympus.13 He is mentioned once only, but in an important passage, by Aristophanes,14 who enumerates, as the oldest poets, Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod, and Homer, and makes Orpheus the teacher of religious initiations and of abstinence from murder:

Ὀρφεὺς μὲν γὰρ τελετάς θ᾽ ἡμῖν
κατέδειξε φόνου τ᾽ ἀπέχεσθαι.

Passages exactly parallel to this are found in Plato,15 who frequently refers to Orpheus, his followers, and his works. He calls him the son of Oeagrus,16 mentions him as a musician and inventor,17 refers to the miraculous power of his lyre,18 and gives a singular version of the story of his descent into Hades: the gods, he says, imposed upon the poet, by showing him only a phantasm of his lost wife, because he had not the courage to die, like Alcestis, hut contrived to enter Hades alive, and, as a further punishment for his cowardice. He met his death at the hands of women.19 This account is quite discordant with the notions of the early Greeks respecting the value of life, and even with the example quoted by Plato himself, as far as Admetus is concerned. Plato seems to have misunderstood the reason why Orpheus' "contriving to enter Hades alive," called down the anger of the gods, namely, as a presumptuous transgression of the limits assigned to the condition of mortal men: this point will have to be considered again. As the followers of Orpheus, Plato mentions both poets and religionists,20 and in the passage last quoted, he tells us that the followers of Orpheus held the doctrine, that the soul is imprisoned in the body as a punishment for some previous sins. He makes several quotations from the writings ascribed to Orpheus, of which one, if not more, is from the Theogony,21 and in one passage he speaks of collections of books, which went under the names of Orpheus and Musaeus, and contained rules for religious ceremonies.22

The writings mentioned in the last passage were evidently regarded by Plato as spurious, but, from the other passages quoted, he seems to have believed at least in the existence of Orpheus and in the genuineness of his Theogony. Not so, however, Aristotle, who held that no such person as Orpheus ever existed, and that the works ascribed to him were forged by Cercops and Onomacritus.

Proceeding to the mythographers, and the later poets, from Apollodorus downwards, we find the legends of Orpheus amplified by details, the whole of which it is impossible here to enumerate; we give an outline of the most important of them.

Orpheus, the son of Oeagrus and Calliope, lived in Thrace at the period of the Argonauts, whom he accompanied in their expedition. Presented with the lyre, by Apollo, and instructed by the Muses in its use, he enchanted with its music not only the wild beasts, but the trees and rocks upon Olympus, so that they moved from their places to follow the sound of his golden harp. The power of his music caused the Argonauts to seek his aid, which contributed materially to the success of their expedition: at the sound of his lyre the Argo glided down into the sea; the Argonauts tore themselves away from the pleasures of Lemnos; the Symplegades, or moving rocks, which threatened to crush the ship between them, were fixed in their places; and the Colchian dragon, which guarded the golden fleece, was lulled to sleep: other legends of the same kind may be read in the Argonautica, which bears the name of Orpheus. After his return from the Argonautic expedition he took up his abode in a cave in Thrace, and employed himself in the civilization of its wild inhabitants. There is also a legend of his having visited Egypt.

The legends respecting the loss and recovery of his wife, and his own death, are very various. His wife was a nymph named Agriope or Eurydice. In the older accounts the cause of her death is not referred to, but the legend followed in the well-known passages of Virgil and Ovid, which ascribes the death of Eurydice to the bite of a serpent, is no doubt of high antiquity, but the introduction of Aristaeus into the legend cannot be traced to any writer older than Virgil himself.23 He followed his lost wife into the abodes of Hades, where the charms of his lyre suspended the torments of the damned, and won back his wife from the most inexorable of all deities; but his prayer was only granted upon this condition, that he should not look back upon his restored wife, till they had arrived in the upper world: at the very moment when they were about to pass the fatal bounds, the anxiety of love overcame the poet; he looked round to see that Eurydice was following him; and he beheld her caught back into the infernal regions. The form of the myth, as told by Plato, has been given above. The later poets, forgetting the religious meaning of the legend, connected his death with the second loss of Eurydice, his grief for whom led him to treat with contempt the Thracian women, who in revenge tore him to pieces under the excitement of their Bacchanalian orgies. Other causes are assigned for the fury of the Thracian maenads; but the most ancient form of the legend seems to be that already mentioned as quoted by Eratosthenes from Aeschylus. The variation, by which Aphrodite is made the instigator of his death, from motives of jealousy, is of course merely a fancy of some late poet.24

Another form of the legend, which deserves much more attention, is that which was embodied in an inscription upon what was said to be the tomb, in which the bones of Orpheus were buried, at Dium near Pydna, in Macedonia, which ascribed his death to the thunderbolts of Zeus:

Θρήϊκα χρυσολύρην τῇδ᾽ Ὀρφέα Μοῦσαι ἔθαφαν,
ὃν κτάνεν ὑψιμέδων Ζεὺς ψολόεντι βέλει.25

After his death, according to the more common form of the legend, the Muses collected the fragments of his body, and buried them at Leibethra at the foot of Olympus, where the nightingale sang sweetly over his grave. The subsequent transference of his bones to Dium is evidently a local legend.26 His head was thrown upon the Hebrus, down which it rolled to the sea, and was borne across to Lesbos, where the grave in which it was interred was shown at Antissa. His lyre was also said to have been carried to Lesbos; and both traditions are simply poetical expressions of the historical fact that Lesbos was the first great seat of the music of the lyre: indeed Antissa itself was the birth-place of Terpander, the earliest historical musician.27 The astronomers taught that the lyre of Orpheus was placed by Zeus among the stars, at the intercession of Apollo and the Muses.28

In these legends there are some points which require but little explanation. The invention of music, in connection with the services of Apollo and the Muses, its first great application to the worship of the gods, which Orpheus is therefore said to have introduced, its power over the passions, and the importance which the Greeks attached to the knowledge of it, as intimately allied with the very existence of all social order, — are probably the chief elementary ideas of the whole legend. But then comes in one of the dark features of the Greek religion, in which the gods envy the advancement of man in knowledge and civilization, and severely punish any one who transgresses the bounds assigned to humanity, as may be seen in the legend of Prometheus, and in the sudden death, or blindness, or other calamities of the early poets and musicians. In a later age, the conflict was no longer viewed as between the gods and man, but between the worshippers of different divinities; and especially between Apollo, the symbol of pure intellect, and Dionysus, the deity of the senses: hence Orpheus, the servant of Apollo, falls a victim to the jealousy of Dionysus, and the fury of his worshippers. There are, however, other points in the legend which are of the utmost difficulty, and which would require far more discussion than can be entered upon here. For these matters the reader is referred to Lobeck's Aglaophamus, Müller's Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie, and Klausen's article in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopädie. Concerning the localities of the legend, see Miller's Literature of Ancient Greece, p. 26, and Klausen.


On ancient monuments Orpheus can be seen wearing an eastern-style attire and a Phrygian cap; in later times the style is more Hellenistic, such as on the relief from the time of Phidias (ca. 420 BCE) of which the Roman copy is in Naples. This relief shows Orpheus, holding a lyre, saying farewell to Eurydice who is about to return to Hades. An Attic red-figure krater depicts Orpheus in Greek attire seated on a rock playing the lyre. A wreath is resting on his head and Thracian soldiers wearing long robes are listening, some with their eyes closed.

Orpheus surrounded by wild animals listening to him in fascination is one of the few heathen motifs used in early Christian art, such as in the catacombs (symbol of Christ the Teacher and the Good Shepherd).




  • Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.

This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.