Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who was Orpheus?

Orpheus is one of the premiere bardic figures from Hellenic times. He was a spinner of tales, a poet, a musician, a lyricist and a well-respected performer. He was also a highly proclaimed scholar and religious innovator.

His listed parentage varies. In one version of his story, his father is Oaegros, King of Thrace and his mother is Kalliope, the Muse of Music. In another, his father is Apollo himself. Some say he invented the lyre, though this invention is typically attributed to Hermes, who offered it to Apollo in restitution for stealing his cattle. One thing is clear no matter his lineage: his musicianship was beyond measure. According to lore, his talents landed him a place among the Argonauts on their journeys during which his music and quick moving wit kept the Sirens from destroying them (Kerenyi, Heroes, 253-256). His music and words were so powerful that the plants, animals and even the nymphs were set to dancing by his playing. So great was his talent and the emotion he instilled in his listeners that he set the very Queen of the Underworld to tears and convinced her to allow his deceased wife, Eurydike, to return to him from the Land of the Dead. Unfortunately, he looked back upon her before she was fully returned to the realm of the living, and she vanished back into the Underworld forever.

It is said that after Orpheus lost his beloved Eurydike a second time he kept the company of only men, particularly satyrs and adolescent boys. He is also the founder of a mystery religion, teaching the lessons he brought back from the Underworld with him. Over time, he grew callous, judgmental and intolerant. He began to criticize the ways of those who did not follow his own, denouncing such acts as animal sacrifice, which flew in the face of Civic Law. Eventually, he went so far as to spurn Dionysos and his followers for their lascivious ways, resulting in his destruction. Dionysos set his Thracian Maenads to destroy Orpheus—which they accomplished by tearing him limb from limb while he yet lived. (Kerenyi, Heroes, 279-286)

Orphism, ironically, was later called the Reformed Dionysianism, a more intellectual and controlled form of practice seeking immortality through divinity. The Orphics tended to view the body as profane, tainted, while the soul was divine, and only through bodily purification could one attain salvation. The soul would be required to pass into another form, and another, and another upon death until purity was obtained—the main reason the Orphics are considered the first advocates of reincarnation. Followers were vegetarians, including egg and bean, who abstained from all sexual activity—a far cry from the predecessors who followed the orgiastic ways of Dionysos! (Orphic Religion, 2010)

Today, Orpheus is often called in Hellenic rites for Bardic Inspiration. Whether as a Deity, Demigod, Hero appointed to Deity status, or even as an Ancestor, Orpheus and his talents are still inspiring the world.


Encyclopedia Britannica. "Orphic religion" Encyclopedia Britannica Online: 2010. 21 Feb 2010 Web.

Kerenyi, Carl. The Heroes of the Greeks. Thames and Hudson. London: 1959. Reprint: 1997. Print.

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