This is a post for my March book challenge, #marchmonthofmythology.
Orpheus was the son of the Muse Calliope and the Thracian king Oeagreus (or, in another version, Apollo). He was famous for his song and regarded by the ancient Greeks as the best poet and singer of all time. His music could charm not only humans, but also animals, plants and rocks. He achieved incredible feats by playing the lyre and singing.
When Jason gathered heroes to help him on his quest to get the Golden Fleece, Orpheus was one of them. His music helped them pass the Sirens, dangerous creatures who looked like birds with women’s heads. They lured sailors to their deaths with beautiful, enchanting song; but when Jason’s ship, the Argo, got near them, Orpheus started playing and singing more loudly and more beautifully than the Sirens. His music drowned out their song and the Argo was able to pass without any trouble.
Many people know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the dead. I might make a more detailed post about just this story in the future, but for now this will suffice. Orpheus walked into the Underworld singing and playing his lyre, and he was able to pass the three-headed dog Kerberos, as well as the ferryman Charon without any problems. His song convinced Hades and Persephone to give him a chance to bring back his wife. She would follow him on his way out, as long as he didn’t look back at her before they’d left the Underworld. We all know how hard it is not to look at something when you really want to, and have been told not to look… They almost made it out, but Orpheus glanced behind him and Eurydice was gone.
Death by angry fans
Orpheus could not return to the Underworld after this, at least not until his time on Earth was up. Mourning the loss of his wife, he left society behind to live in the wilderness, where his music was only heard by the plants and rocks and the occasional animal. He’d always been a hit with the ladies, being a famous musician and probably handsome too (he was of divine descent after all), but he was not interested in any kind of attention from humans anymore. This gained him the reputation of a woman-hater. In some other versions he angered women because he was only interested in boys – in any case, his female fans felt ignored. Orpheus didn’t really care because he lived alone in the wilderness, far away from any human interaction.
Unfortunately he wasn’t the only human who liked to spend time in nature. One day, when Orpheus was singing in a clearing, surrounded by trees and rocks who’d gathered in a nice little circle to listen to his music, a group of Bacchants happened upon him. Bacchants were female worshippers of Dionysos who would go into the woods in a sort of trance induced by wine and possibly other things to get in touch with their wild side, so to speak. There are stories of them ripping apart wild animals with their bare hands and eating them raw, and milder ones of them just dancing in a way their husbands and fathers would probably find inappropriate. Anyway, this group found Orpheus singing in the woods, and instead of enjoying his beautiful voice, they became violent. They threw rocks, hit him with sticks, and started tearing him apart.
Just keep singing
Somehow, after this violent death, Orpheus’ severed head kept singing. It had landed in a stream, which brought it, still singing, to the sea, where it floated around until it finally found rest at Lesbos – the island that would later become famous for housing the school of poetess Sappho. Orpheus’ spirit, meanwhile, had reached the Underworld, where he was finally reunited with Eurydice.
Orpheus – enchanting poetry (World Poetry Day)
I love poetry, but I feel like I’m not reading enough of it. I don’t even know what my favourite poem is! (Well, I could say it’s the Odyssey or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They are technically poems, even if they’re thousands of verses long.)
Maybe you’re wondering why Orpheus is connected to poetry if all he does is sing and play music. That’s because ancient Greek poetry used to be accompanied by a lyre or a flute (depending on the genre). Sometimes it was sung, and sometimes it was recited. In any case, Orpheus was a poet as well as a musician.