The mystery of Orpheus

Orfeo ed Euridice (Cervelli)The myths associated with the musician Orpheus are some of the best known of the Greek and Roman myths. But underlying the various versions of the myth are contradictions, or complementary opposites, that make Orpheus the uniter of dualities. Orpheus is son of Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, and the ancient Thracian king Oeagrus. Apollo teaches him to play the lyre as a child. His legendary singing and musical skill moves stones and trees and calms wild beasts. Jason recruits Orpheus to join the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece, because Orpheus will be able to silence the beautiful singing of the Sirens so the ship can safely pass without being lured onto the rocks.

After returning from the voyage, his bride, Eurydice, is bitten by a snake during their wedding and dies. Orpheus travels to the underworld, where his doleful music about his loss moves everyone to tears, thus convincing Hades to let Eurydice live again, but only if Orpheus promises not to gaze back upon her until he reaches the upper world. When he turns around during their ascent to make sure she is following, however, she slips permanently back into the Underworld.

The death of Orpheus branches out into different stories that are wildly contradictory. According to one version of the myth, he is so disconsolate with grief over Eurydice that he kills himself. In another version, he turns to the love of young males for consolation. The Thracian women known as the Maenads, initiates of the secret female mysteries of the god Bacchus, are mad with fury at being scorned by him, and attack him. Or, according to another branch, perhaps they attack him because he has gazed upon their secret rites. At first, the sticks and rocks refuse to strike him because those inanimate objects are charmed by his music. But the clamor of the Maenads’ music, with its drums, howls, and flutes made from broken horns, drowns out his gentle lyre, and he is torn limb from limb.

In yet another version of the myth, Orpheus travels to Egypt where he learns about these mystic rites of Bacchus (which are related to the Egyptian rites of Osiris), and introduces the cult to Thrace. Or he brings the rites back from the land of Lydia in the east (now part of Turkey) or beyond. (In Greek musical theory, the Lydian mode, named after the kingdom of Lydia, equates to the notes of the major scale, which became the basis of European music and is now common throughout the world.)

The myth then branches again, and Orpheus was either struck with lightning by Zeus for having revealed the mysteries of the gods to men, or he turned his back on Bacchus and, perhaps to honor the one who gave him music, began worshipping Apollo as the sole deity, which caused a jealous Bacchus to incite the Maenads to kill Orpheus in revenge.

So we have a variety of deaths for a variety of reasons, and the commingling of dualities. This iconic musician becomes associated with both the birth of an exotic cult and death at the hands of an exotic cult. He becomes associated with life — bringing stones to life, stirring men and beasts alike through music — and with death — his visit to the Underworld, the Egyptian cult of Osiris. He becomes associated with tragic love: through the loss of his beloved Eurydice not once but twice, and through sacrificing his life because of his love for men. He becomes associated with worshipping the Apollonian spirit —rational, orderly — and with worshipping the Dionysian spirit — irrational, ecstatic. There is even a polarity between the refined artistry of his playing and the clamorous music of the Bacchants.

A style of poetry developed that was attributed to Orpheus. This Orphic poetry was recited in mystery rites and purification rituals. Plato mentions in “The Republic” a class of vagrant beggar priests who were devoted to these rituals and offered purifications to the rich. Followers of the Orphic way of life often practiced vegetarianism and, interestingly enough, abstention from sex (perhaps they feared the vengeance of the Maenads). It’s also interesting that Bacchants were frequently associated with orgiastic practices, but Euripides makes it clear in his play, “The Bacchae,” that the Bacchants were chaste. So again, we have a contrast between wild abandon and restraint.

All of these polarities coexist in Orpheus. He represents life and death, order and ecstasy, abandon and restraint. And at the heart of it all is music, possessing an almost supernatural power, a gift from the gods.

(Painting of Orfeo ed Euridice by Federico Cervelli – public domain)

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