AskDefine | Define Orpheus

Dictionary Definition

Orpheus n : (Greek mythology) a great musician; when his wife Eurydice died he went to Hades to get her back but failed

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. A Thracian musician and poet; failed to retrieve his wife from Hades


Extensive Definition

Orpheus (Greek: Ορφεύς; (OHR-fee-uhs) or /ˈɔrfjuːs/ (OHR'-fews) in English) is a figure from Greek mythology born in the Rhodope Mountains of Thrace (now partly in Bulgaria), king of the Thracian tribe of Cicones. Orpheus was called by Pindar "the father of songs". He was a son of the Thracian river god Oiagros and the Muse Calliope. His name does not occur in Homer or Hesiod, but he was known by the time of Ibycus (c.530 BC).
The Greeks of the Classical age venerated the legendary figure of Orpheus as chief among poets and musicians, and the perfector of the lyre invented by Hermes. Poets like Simonides of Ceos said that, with his music and singing, he could charm birds, fishes and wild beasts, coax the trees and rocks into dance, and even divert the course of rivers. He was one of the handful of Greek heroes to visit the Underworld and return; even in Hades his song and lyre did not lose their power.
As one of the pioneers of civilization, he is said at various times to have taught humanity the arts of medicine, writing (in one unusual instance, where he substitutes for the usual candidate, Cadmus) and agriculture, where he assumes the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus. More consistently and more closely connected with religious life, Orpheus was an augur and seer; practised magical arts, especially astrology; founded or rendered accessible many important cults, such as those of Apollo and the Thraco-Phrygian god Dionysus; instituted mystic rites both public and private; and prescribed initiatory and purificatory rituals, which his community of followers treasured in Orphic texts. In addition, Pindar and Apollonius of Rhodes place Orpheus as the harpist and companion of Jason and the Argonauts.
His son was Musaeus, "he of the Muses".


Several etymologies for the name Orpheus have been proposed. A probable suggestion is that it is derived from a hypothetical PIE verb *orbhao-, "to be deprived", from PIE *orbh-, "to put asunder, separate". Cognates would include Greek orphe, "darkness", and Greek orphanos, "fatherless, orphan", from which comes English "orphan" by way of Latin. Orpheus would therefore be semantically close to goao, "to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell", uniting his seemingly disparate roles as disappointed lover, transgressive musician and mystery-priest into a single lexical whole. The word "orphic" is defined as mystic, fascinating and entrancing, and, probably, because of the oracle of Orpheus, "orphic" can also signify "oracular".


Early life

Orpheus' father was Oeagrus (Οίαγρος) a Thracian king (or, according to another version of the story, the god Apollo); his mother was the muse Calliope. While living with his mother and her eight beautiful sisters on Parnassus, he met Apollo who was courting the laughing muse Thalia. Apollo became fond of Orpheus and gave him a little golden lyre, and taught him to play it. Orpheus's mother taught him to make verses for singing.

Death of Eurydice

According to some versions of the story (notably Ovid's), Orpheus forswore the love of women after the death of Eurydice and took only youths as his lovers; he was reputed to be the one who introduced pederasty to the Thracians, teaching them to "love the young in the flower of their youth."
According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus's lost play Bassarids, Orpheus at the end of his life disdained the worship of all gods save the sun, whom he called Apollo. One early morning he went to the oracle of Dionysus (there are ongoing discussions whether this is Perperikon or Mount Pangaion) to salute his god at dawn, but was torn to death by Thracian Maenads for not honoring his previous patron, Dionysus. Here his death is analogous with the death of Pentheus.
Ovid (Metamorphoses XI) also recounts that the Thracian Maenads, Dionysus' followers, angry for having been spurned by Orpheus in favor of "tender boys," first threw sticks and stones at him as he played, but his music was so beautiful even the rocks and branches refused to hit him. Enraged, the Maenads tore him to pieces during the frenzy of their Bacchic orgies. Later, the story would sometimes be seen from a Christian moralist angle: in Albrecht Dürer's drawing (illustration, right) the ribbon high in the tree is lettered Orfeus der erst puseran ("Orpheus, the first sodomite").
His head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the swift Hebrus to the Mediterranean shore. There, the winds and waves carried them on to the Lesbos shore, where the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honour near Antissa; there his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo (Life of Apollonius of Tyana, book v.14). The lyre was carried to heaven by the Muses, and was placed among the stars. The Muses also gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Leibethra below Mount Olympus, where the nightingales sang over his grave. His soul returned to the underworld, where he was re-united at last with his beloved Eurydice. Another legend places his tomb at Dion, near Pydna in Macedonia. Other accounts of his death are that he killed himself from grief at the failure of his journey to Hades, or that he was struck with lightning by Zeus for having revealed the mysteries of the gods to men, or he was torn to pieces by the Maenads for having abandoned the cult of Dionysus for that of Apollo.

Orphic poems and rites

A number of Greek religious poems in hexameter were attributed to Orpheus, as they were to similar miracle-working figures, like Bakis, Musaeus, Abaris, Aristeas, Epimenides, and the Sybil. Of this vast literature, only two examples survive whole: a set of hymns composed at some point in the second or third century AD, and an Orphic Argonautica composed somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. Earlier Orphic literature, which may date back as far as the sixth century BC, survives only in papyrus fragments or in quotations.
In addition to serving as a storehouse of mythological data along the lines of Hesiod's Theogony, Orphic poetry was recited in mystery-rites and purification rituals. Plato in particular tells of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would go about offering purifications to the rich, a clatter of books by Orpheus and Musaeus in tow (Republic 364c-d). Those who were especially devoted to these ritual and poems often practiced vegetarianism, abstention from sex, and refrained from eating eggs and beans — which came to be known as the Orphikos bios, or "Orphic way of life".
The Derveni papyrus, found in Derveni, Macedonia (Greece) in 1962, contains a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem in hexameters, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras, written in the second half of the fifth century BC. Fragments of the poem are quoted making it "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance". The papyrus dates to around 340 BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, making it Europe's oldest surviving manuscript.

Other music

  • The Herd (UK band) had some chart success with their 1967 single "From The Underworld," a psychedelic arrangement and rather "heavy" autobiographical delivery heralding the schizing of "Progressive rock" music from mainstream popular chart material. The lyrics concentrate on the moment of Orpheus's losing Eurydice in their flight from Hades.
  • Former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett composed in 2005 an opera for guitar and orchestra named Metamorpheus on the classical Orpheus myth
  • Orpheus is a single by the band Ash from their album Meltdown
  • A modernised version of the myth of Orpheus is told in Nick Cave's song The Lyre Of Orpheus from the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
  • Orpheus is a song on David Sylvian's album Secrets of the Beehive; complementarily, a later remaster of the album has the song Promise (The Cult of Eurydice)
  • On his 2007 album Nightmoves, jazz artist Kurt Elling references Orpheus and Eurydice in his vocalese (lyric written for a previous instrumental solo) of Dexter Gordon's famous version of Body and Soul
  • Several Rufus Wainwright songs reference Orpheus.
  • Orpheus in Red Velvet is a song on Marc Almond's album Enchanted
  • Orpheus is mentioned in the Wallflowers song "Nearly Beloved"
  • Orpheus is mentioned in the Spin Doctors song "Laraby's Gang"
  • "The playmate sings/ Like Orphée in some thunder world" appears as a lyric in Peter Murphy's 1988 "Indigo Eyes" (Orphée, the French spelling of "Orpheus," is also the title of Jean Cocteau's famous 1950 film, referenced below, which reinterpreted the Orphic myth in then-contemporary postwar France)
  • Orpheus is also mentioned in the Cruxshadows song "Cassandra"
  • Eurydice, a lament for the woman of the title, is a song by Sleepthief on their album The Dawnseeker
  • "Hey! Orpheus" is a song on The Make Up's collection of 7" singles titled "I Want Some"
  • Italian Progressive Rock band La Maschera Di Cera's album Lux Ade contains a track entitled Orpheus
  • Orpheus - The Lowdown is a multimedia collaboration by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge (of XTC), available as a CD in an oversize package with a lyric book illustrated by rayographs
  • The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the inspiration for the Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia song "Reuben and Cerise"
  • Singer songwriter Warwick Lobban recounts the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in his song Pluto's Toy.
  • Orpheus and Greek Mythology are the key-themes of Gothic Kabbalah, Therion (band)'s most recent album.
  • Ivo Papazov recorded an album titled Orpheus Ascending.


  • The Tennessee Williams play Orpheus Descending is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth set in 1950s America.
  • Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice is an interpretive retelling of the myth of Orpheus from the point of view of his wife, Eurydice.
  • Jean Anouilh's Eurydice (1941) sets the story among a troupe of performers in 1930s France.
  • Wildworks' promenade performance Souterrain is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
  • Mary Zimmerman wrote a play called The Metamorphoses, heavily based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the play, she tells the story of Orpheus twice, first in a way similar to Ovid, and then in a way similar to Rilke.



  • The myth of Orpheus was retold in The Sandman comic books by Neil Gaiman, where he is recast as the son of the titular character.
  • It is retold in the Hugo and Nebula-winning novella, Goat Song by Poul Anderson.
  • Russell Hoban's "The Medusa Frequency" alludes heavily to the Orpheus myth. In fact, the head of Orpheus is a central character, albeit inside another character's mind.
  • Thomas Pynchon's novel "Gravity's Rainbow" uses the Orpheus myth as one structure, with Slothrop as Orpheus and postwar Germany as Hades. There are many references to the afterlife in Slothrop's "descent" into the continent, the yacht the Anubis being one example.
  • The King Must Die, the first of Mary Renault's novelizations of the life of Theseus, features a unnamed master-bard who performs at the court in Troizen. He regales his audience with stories of wide travels, including reference to great stone structures in Britain. Later, Theseus hears he has been killed in Thrace, and a tomb erected to his honor.
  • Salman Rushdie used the Orpheus and Eurydice narrative as a mythic underpinning to the magical realist novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (see also the song of the same name recorded by U2 with lyrics provided by Rushdie).
  • In Fred Saberhagen's short story "Stardust", part of his Berserkers collection of science-fiction shorts, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is retold through his setting of war-torn galactic future.
  • Janette Turner Hospital uses the Orpheus myth, and refers to Orpheus-inspired music by Gluck and Beethoven, in her 2007 novel, Orpheus Lost.
  • Grace Andreacchi uses the Orpheus myth as the centre of her novel Poetry and Fear (2001).
  • The British novelist Jonathan Coe employs the Orpheus myth in his 1994 novel What A Carve-Up! whose principal character, the struggling writer Michael Owen, is obsessed by the myth in the form of the film Orphee by Jean Cocteau. Owen is also obsessed by a single scene in the British film comedy that gives Coe's novel its title, in which a timid male character attempts to resist the temptation to glance at the body of a naked woman in a mirror. This scene is deemed to have an Orphean character in terms of the character's desire to gaze openly at that which is forbidden. Owen's obsession with mirrors and screens, that are derived more from Cocteau than from the original myth, are important to the novel's political themes.
  • In John Banville's The Sea, the narrator describes himself as a "lyreless Orpheus," presumably incapable of expressing internal emotions deriving from his lover's death. (18)
  • Orphée L'Enchanteur (a French book) written by Guy Jimenes is the story of Orpheus and his love, loss, and death.
  • Samuel Delany's Nebula award winning novel The Einstein Intersection (1966/67) is heavily based on the Orpheus myth and can be considered a science fiction retelling of the story.

Orpheus in astronomy

see Giant impact hypothesis In planetary science, Orpheus refers to a proto-planet (also called Theia or Hephaestus) that collided with Earth early in the solar system's history, forming the Moon.

Spoken-word myths - audio files

Orpheus in Pop Culture

  • In the comic The Sandman, Orpheus appears as the son of Dream.
  • Orpheus appears as the main Protagonist's first usable Persona in the video game Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 using his music as attacks and his harp as a weapon. When the main character first summons Thanatos, Orpheus is killed by him from having his body ripped apart and his head being removed first. Orpheus can't speak through his mouth but uses a speaker to talk.
  • In the film Amadeus, Mozart asks which of his colleagues would rather listen to his hairdresser than Orpheus. Mozart goes on to say that Orpheus has a voice so lofty he sounds as if he shits marble.
  • "Orpheus" is one of the achievements in Halo 3; namely completing the mission Cortana with 15000 points. This is most likely a reference to Orpheus rescuing Eurydice from death (ie Gravemind.
  • Orpheus is the last name of the tenants in the west wing of the venture compound in the series The Venture Brothers.
  • The Lyre of Orpheus is a 2004 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a companion to Abbatoir Blues.
  • Orpheus is given a nod in Masami Kurumada's "Saint Seiya: Hades Chapter" in the form of Silver Saint Lyra Orphée, an exceptional musician who was able to charm the anime counterpart of Hades into giving back the soul of his Eurydice. But similarly to the Orpheus of myth, Orphée was tricked and lost the chance to bring his beloved back to the land of the living, choosing to stay with Eurydice as a Saint under the command of Hades.
  • In Hercules: The Animated Series, Orpheus, voiced by Richard Simmons, is a widely popular singer, which appears in the episode "Hercules and the Prom" disputed by both Hercules (to play in his prom), and Hades (to make a show in the Underworld).
  • The popular tv series Pushing Daisies is also quite similar to the Orpheus/Eurydice myth.
  • "Orpheus" is a song by The Walker Brothers from their 1968 album "Images".
  • In Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Orpheus is a worshiper of the god Bacchus and possesses a special lyre given by his god.
  • In the manga and OVA of Angel Sanctuary. It saids that Setsuna Mudo is doing the same thing as Orpheus, as he goes into Hades to get his sister Sara Mudo's soul back, so he be in the world with the one he truly loves.
  • Title of Angel Season 4 episode


  • William Keith Chambers Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion: a Study of the Orphic Movement, 1935.
Orpheus in Bulgarian: Орфей
Orpheus in Catalan: Orfeu
Orpheus in Czech: Orfeus
Orpheus in Danish: Orfeus
Orpheus in German: Orpheus
Orpheus in Modern Greek (1453-): Ορφέας (μυθολογία)
Orpheus in Spanish: Orfeo
Orpheus in Esperanto: Orfeo
Orpheus in French: Orphée
Orpheus in Korean: 오르페우스
Orpheus in Croatian: Orfej
Orpheus in Italian: Orfeo
Orpheus in Hebrew: אורפיאוס
Orpheus in Latin: Orpheus
Orpheus in Lithuanian: Orfėjas
Orpheus in Dutch: Orpheus
Orpheus in Japanese: オルフェウス
Orpheus in Polish: Orfeusz
Orpheus in Portuguese: Orfeu
Orpheus in Romanian: Orfeu
Orpheus in Russian: Орфей
Orpheus in Serbian: Орфеј
Orpheus in Finnish: Orfeus
Orpheus in Swedish: Orfeus
Orpheus in Vietnamese: Orpheus
Orpheus in Turkish: Orfe
Orpheus in Ukrainian: Орфей
Orpheus in Chinese: 俄耳甫斯
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