In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a musician who sang and played so beautifully that even animals, rocks, and trees danced to his tunes. He was the son of Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, and of the god Apollo*. It was Apollo who gave Orpheus his first lyre, the instrument that he always played.
Orpheus accompanied Jason* and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece* and used his music several times to ease their journey. On one occasion, he calmed the sea with his playing; another time, he saved the Argonauts from the deadly Sirens by playing so loudly that they could not hear the Sirens' songs. He also stopped the Argonauts from quarreling with a song about the origins of the universe.
Orpheus fell in love with the nymph Eurydice. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. The grieving Orpheus refused to play or sing for a long time. Finally he decided to go to the underworld to find Eurydice. His playing enchanted Charon, the ferryman who carried the souls of the dead across the river Styx into the underworld. Charon agreed to take Orpheus across the river, even though he was not dead. Orpheus's music also tamed Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the underworld. Even Hades and Persephone, king and queen of the underworld, could not resist his playing. They agreed to let him take Eurydice back to earth—on one condition. He was not to look back at her until they had both reached the surface. Orpheus led his wife from the underworld, and when he reached the surface, he was so overjoyed that he looked back to share the moment with Eurydice. Immediately she disappeared into the underworld.
Muse one of nine sister goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences
lyre stringed instrument similar to a small harp
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
underworld land of the dead
Orpheus spent the rest of his life grieving for his lost wife. In time his grief infuriated the Maenads, a group of women who worshiped the god Dionysus*. To punish Orpheus for neglecting their
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
attentions, they tore him to pieces. The Muses gathered up the pieces of his body and buried them, but the Maenads threw his head and his lyre into the river Hebrus. The head continued to sing, and the lyre continued to play, and both eventually floated down to the sea, finally coming to rest on the island of Lesbos. The head became an oracle that rivaled the oracle to Apollo at Delphi*. The gods placed the lyre in the heavens as a constellation.
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken