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Orpheus

Orpheus

Orpheus, according to Greek myth, is one of the few who descended into Hell and lived to tell about it. The son of Oeagrus (King of Thrace) and the muse Calliope, he is famous for his musical and poetic gifts inherited from Apollo and the Muses. His lyre and his odes were so charming that upon hearing them, wild animals became quiet, and trees and rocks started to move.

Orpheus fell in love with the nymph Eurydice and married her, but she died suddenly from a snake bite. In despair, Orpheus followed Euridyce into Hades (Hell) to bring her back. His music and lyrics enchanted Hades' protectors, even the triple-headed dog, Cerberus, and the gods of Hades were persuaded to bring back to life his dead wife. One condition of Eurydices' return was that he could not look back at her until he reached the threshold of Hades. Orpheus looked back to see whether Eurydice was following him and lost her forever.

Orpheus's death is subject to many interpretations, but the most common is that the Thracian women, jealous of his love and fidelity toward his deceased wife and hurt by his indifference, tore his body to pieces and threw his head and lyre into the river Hebre. His remains finally reached Lesbos Island, the cradle of lyric poetry. Orpheus is also considered an initiate, a prophet who retained secrets from the afterlife, having brought back revelations from his descent into Hell.

The Orpheus myth has inspired many forms of artistic representation, among them the vanished Polygnote fresco (fifth century B.C.E.), which presented Orpheus during his descent into Hell, that has now disappeared; Orfeo, a musical drama by Monteverdi (1607); Orph'ee aux Enfers, a spectacular opera by Offenbach (1858) and Le testament d'Orph'ee, a film by Jean Cocteau (1959).

See also: Charon and the River Styx; Operatic Death

Bibliography

Coulter, Charles R., and Patricia Turner. Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2000.

Sacks, David. A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Warden, John. Orpheus: The Metamorphoses of a Myth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

ISABELLE MARCOUX

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Orpheus

Orpheus (ôr´fēəs, ôr´fyōōs), in Greek mythology, celebrated Thracian musician. He was the son of Calliope by Apollo or, according to another legend, by Oeagrus, a king of Thrace. Supposedly, the music of his lyre was so beautiful that when he played, wild beasts were soothed, trees danced, and rivers stood still. Orpheus married the nymph Eurydice. When Aristaeus tried to violate her, she fled, was bitten by a snake, and died. Orpheus descended to Hades searching for her. He was granted the chance to regain Eurydice if he could refrain from looking at her until he had led her back to sunlight. Orpheus could not resist, and Eurydice vanished forever. Grieving inconsolably, he became a recluse and wandered for many years. According to some legends, he became a devoted follower of Dionysus and introduced that god's cult in many places, but the women of Thrace, offended by his inattention, tore him to pieces. Another legend says that Orpheus taught the Thracian men to worship the sun (Apollo) above all other gods; in revenge Dionysus caused the wives of the Thracian men to murder their husbands and tear Orpheus to pieces. It was said that his head was thrown into the river Hebrus and floated, still singing, into the sea to the island of Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established. He was celebrated in the Orphic Mysteries.

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Orpheus

Orpheus in Greek mythology, a poet who could entrance wild beasts with the beauty of his singing and lyre playing. He went to the underworld after the death of his wife Eurydice and secured her release from the dead, but lost her because he failed to obey the condition that he must not look back at her until they had reached the world of the living. It was said that when he was killed by being torn to pieces by maenads, his severed head floated down the river Hebrus and reached the island of Lesbos, which became the home of lyric poetry.

Orphism was a mystic religion of ancient Greece, originating in the 7th or 6th century bc and based on poems (now lost) attributed to Orpheus, emphasizing the mixture of good and evil in human nature and the necessity for individuals to rid themselves of the evil part of their nature by ritual and moral purification throughout a series of reincarnations.

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Orpheus

Orpheus

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 earthon 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.

See also Argonauts; Calliope; Eurydice; Muses.

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

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Orpheus

Orpheus In Greek mythology, the son of Calliope by Apollo, and the finest of all poets and musicians. Orpheus married Eurydice, who died after being bitten by a snake. He descended into the Underworld to rescue her and was allowed to regain her if he did not look back at her until they emerged into the sunlight. He could not resist, and Eurydice vanished forever.

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Orpheus

Orpheus.
1. Sym.-poem by Liszt, comp. 1853–4 as introduction to his Weimar prod. of Gluck's Orfeo.

2. Ballet in 3 scenes to mus. by Stravinsky, comp. 1947, choreog. Balanchine, prod. NY 1948, Hamburg 1962. Other versions choreog. Cranko, Georgi, and others.

3. Ballet in 2 acts by Henze, scenario by Edward Bond. Comp. 1978. Prod. Stuttgart 1979.

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Orpheus

OrpheusBierce, fierce, Pearce, Peirce, pierce, tierce •Fabius, scabious •Eusebius •amphibious, Polybius •dubious • Thaddeus • compendious •radius • tedious •fastidious, hideous, insidious, invidious, perfidious •Claudiuscommodious, melodious, odious •studious • Cepheus •Morpheus, Orpheus •Pelagius • callipygous • Vitellius •alias, Sibelius, Vesalius •Aurelius, Berzelius, contumelious, Cornelius, Delius •bilious, punctilious, supercilious •coleus • Julius • nucleus • Equuleus •abstemious •Ennius, Nenniuscontemporaneous, cutaneous, extemporaneous, extraneous, instantaneous, miscellaneous, Pausanias, porcellaneous, simultaneous, spontaneous, subcutaneous •genius, heterogeneous, homogeneous, ingenious •consanguineous, ignominious, Phineas, sanguineous •igneous, ligneous •Vilnius •acrimonious, antimonious, ceremonious, erroneous, euphonious, felonious, harmonious, parsimonious, Petronius, sanctimonious, Suetonius •Apollonius • impecunious •calumnious • Asclepius • impious •Scorpius •copious, Gropius, Procopius •Marius • pancreas • retiarius •Aquarius, calcareous, Darius, denarius, gregarious, hilarious, multifarious, nefarious, omnifarious, precarious, Sagittarius, senarius, Stradivarius, temerarious, various, vicarious •Atreus •delirious, Sirius •vitreous •censorious, glorious, laborious, meritorious, notorious, uproarious, uxorious, vainglorious, victorious •opprobrious •lugubrious, salubrious •illustrious, industrious •cinereous, deleterious, imperious, mysterious, Nereus, serious, Tiberiuscurious, furious, injurious, luxurious, penurious, perjurious, spurious, sulphureous (US sulfureous), usurious •Cassius, gaseous •Alcaeus • Celsius •Theseus, Tiresias •osseous, Roscius •nauseous •caduceus, Lucius •Perseus • Statius • Propertius •Deo gratias • plenteous • piteous •bounteous •Grotius, Photius, Proteus •beauteous, duteous •courteous, sestertius •Boethius, Prometheus •envious • Octavius •devious, previous •lascivious, niveous, oblivious •obvious •Vesuvius, Vitruviusimpervious, pervious •aqueous • subaqueous • obsequious •Dionysius

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Orpheus

ORPHEUS

ORPHEUS . In the sixth century bce, a religious movement that modern historians call Orphism appeared in Greece around the figure of Orpheus, the Thracian enchanter. The features of this movement, and even its existence, have been subjects of debate since the nineteenth century.

A Concise Survey of the Scholarship

In 1829 Christian Augustus Lobeck (17811890) collected and commented on a huge amount of materials about Orphic literature and religion, in stark opposition to Georg F. Creuzer (17711858), whose monumental work Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (18101812) had produced a great deal of mystification. During the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, however, information about the activities of the Orphics in the classical and early Hellenistic periods was scarce. Some scholars tended to fill the information gap by elaborating a religious pattern for Orphism based on concepts that are characteristic of modern religions. Such authors as Jane Ellen Harrison and Albrecht Dieterich were convinced that the Orphics made up a true church and had a great influence over contemporary philosophy. Vittorio Macchioro and Robert Eisler even argued that Christianity was only a kind of derivation of Orphism. Against these excesses, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff began, around 1930, a hypercritical reaction (followed by Ivan M. Linforth and E. R. Dodds, among others), which denied the existence of Orphism before the late Hellenistic period. This line of research was so dominant that until the 1970s it was believed that Orphism was nothing more than an artificial product of a series of interpretations advanced by Herodotus, as well as by Neoplatonic philosophers and modern historians enamored of pagan mysteries. Some scholars, however, including Erwin Rohde, Otto Kern, Arthur D. Nock, Martin P. Nilsson, W. K. C. Guthrie, Pierre Boyancé, and Ugo Bianchi, managed to maintain a more measured point of view.

During the 1970s Orphism became better known as a result of discoveries that definitely established its presence and importance in the earliest of times. In 1962 the remains of an "Orphic book," dating to approximately 330 bce, were discovered in a tomb at Derveni near Thessaloniki. The text, written around 400 bce and consequently independent of any Platonic influence, is a philosophical commentary on Orphic theogony and cosmogony. The poem that is discussed dates to about 500 bce, and the author of the commentary also refers to certain rites performed by magoi.

In 1978, Soviet archaeologists announced that they had discovered three small bone tablets in Olbia, a Greek town on the Black Sea. The tablets attested the existence in the fifth century bce of a group called the Orphics, who had an explicit interest in the god Dionysos.

Beginning in 1974 a series of Orphic gold leaves dating from between 400 and 300 bce were found in Vibo Valentia in Calabria, in Entella in Sicily, in Pharsalos in Thessaly, and in Pelinna in modern-day Paleoyardíki. The leaves contain brief texts, mainly in hexameters, that describe how the deceased must behave and the words they must speak in the "Other World" in order to achieve perpetual happiness and divine status. Although other gold leaves from Petelia, Crete, and Thurii had been discovered earlier, those found in and after 1974 cast a new light on early Orphism and compelled a reconception of the movement. According to these texts, the religion of Persephone is related to that of the Dionysiac mystai (initiated) and bacchoi (those that have felt an ecstatic trance), and it seems likely that the gold leaves contain fragments of an Orphic hieros logos (sacred discourse) about the travel of the soul in the netherworld. As a result of these discoveries, many scholars came to hold the opinion that for many centuries there existed a religious movement of vague boundaries based on the authority of Orpheus. Its followers believed in the immortality of the soul and in the transmigration of the soul until it reached final liberation.

Difficulties in Marking the Boundaries of Orphism

Orphism occupies an intermediate position between diverse religious and philosophical movements, and it shares certain features with several of them. The Orphics basically believed in the same gods as followers of the Olympic religion that is reflected by such authors as Homer and Hesiod. But while human beings and gods appear categorically separated in the Olympic worldview, the Orphics believed that it is possible for human souls to reach a divine status. The Orphics were also followers of Dionysos, with whom they shared the ecstasy (a state of ecstatic trance, referred to by the verb baccheuein ) that allowed men and gods to join together. However, the Orphics rejected the bloody rites that were characteristic of Bacchic religiosity. Orphism also received some features from Pythagoreanism; Orphics and Pythagoreans both believed in the dualism of the soul and the body, metempsychosis and puritanism, and the associated taboos. But the Orphic ecstasy is not characteristic of the Pythagoreans, and the Orphics had little interest in politics. In addition, Orphism shares with the Eleusinian religion the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the initiatic rites, and a belief in the salvation of the soul. Eleusis, however, was a stable cult, associated with a sanctuary and controlled by certain families, while Orphism lacked sanctuaries and a stable priesthood. Orphism also coincided with certain ideas about divinity developed by such authors as Aeschylos, Pindar, and Heraclitus; these include the proclamation of Zeus as the origin and end of everything. Finally, Orphic texts include features characteristic of oriental religions, such as statements in the gold leaves similar to statements found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In addition, the central role of time in Orphic theogonies is reminiscent of Iranian Zurvan. Orphism, however, is a typically Greek movement, and by no means an imported one.

Orphism is contradictory in that its traditional character resulted in the maintenance of its identity for centuries, but since it was a religion without stable communities or ecclesiastic hierarchy, it allowed from the very beginning a great degree of variation among its believers and transmitters. Although Orphism was without dogma or church, it was open to anybody and responded to the need for comfort and salvation, allowing each follower to find in it something different. On the other hand, Orpheus's prestige results in the attribution to him of beliefs that sometimes contradict those properly known as Orphic. It seems that from the beginning there were different ways of feeling and transmitting the Orphic message, including one branch of the movement that offered quick solutions to problems by means of a rite that assured a better destiny. In certain cases there were also practices that were clearly magical. From the days of Euripides until Athanasius's time, magoi traded with efficient enchantments, which were attributed to Orpheus for the sake of prestige. Another branch tried to refine the Orphic message by giving it a profound philosophical meaning. Between both branches there were, of course, simple believers who participated in rituals called teletai, which they considered effective as preparation for death and which offered them hope for the afterlife.

Orphism, thus, was a complex phenomenon. It embraced a long history, from the sixth century bce to the Neoplatonic exegeses current in Alexandria at the time of Olympiodorus during the sixth century ce. Furthermore, Orphism involved three relatively autonomous types of religious phenomena. First, there were traditions concerning the birth, life, and descent of Orpheus into the underworld, his singing among the Thracians, and his tragic death (he was said to have been torn to pieces by a band of women). Next, there was a literature that included writings attributed to Orpheus, as well as several theogonic accounts. Finally, the Orphic movement included certain practices and rules of conduct, proscriptions, and requirements to be met by those who chose to live in an Orphic manner.

Despite the growing evidence for an Orphic religious movement, scholars such as Luc Brisson are still skeptical about the existence of a specific religious stream with charasteristic rites. Claude Calame has expressed a more moderate (though still skeptical) view. Many beliefs (e.g., the immortality of the soul, the antecedent sin, metempsychosis, the possibility that the soul recovers its divine status), ritual practices (e.g., teletai ), and personal attitudes (e.g., vegetarianism, Puritanism) appear to have been intertwined. They are thus better understood as belonging to the same movement, rather than as separate entities or beliefs. While each feature attributed to Orphic religion may appear in other religious spheres, there is no other known religious movement in which they all coincide. For example, if the gold leaves are not Orphic, it would be necessary to reconstruct an unknown movement with all the features of Orphism.

Who Was Orpheus?

A figure believed to be Orpheus, the citharist and enchanter, first appears around 570 bce on a small black-figured vase. He is shown walking with a determined stride and surrounded by two sirens (great angry birds with the heads of women). A frail silhouette armed with a lyre, he clears a path for himself between these powers and their voice of death, between these hybrids whose sexual identity vacillates between the virginal, the androgynous, and the masculine. But the power of the voice and of song triumphs over the sirens and their fatal spells. Thus, before he becomes the founding hero of a new religion or even the founder of a way of life that will be named after him, Orpheus is a voicea voice that is like no other. It begins before songs that recite and recount. It precedes the voice of the bards, the citharists who extol the great deeds of men or the privileges of the divine powers. It is a song that stands outside the closed circle of its hearers, a voice that precedes articulate speech. Around it, in abundance and joy, gather trees, rocks, birds, and fish. In this voicebefore the song has become a theogony and at the same time an anthropogonythere is the great freedom to embrace all things without being lost in confusion, the freedom to accept each life and everything and to renounce a world inhabited by fragmentation and division.

When representatives of the human race first appear in the presence of Orpheus, they wear faces that are of war and savagery yet seem to be pacified, faces that seem to have turned aside from their outward fury. These humans are Thracian warriors, clad in animal skins and motley colored cloaks, and just as birds leave the sky and fish forsake the sea at the sound of Orpheus's song, so too do the warriors come out of the forests. In the midst of a wild audience, his head crowned with laurel, the enchanter is dressed in Greek fashion; he appears so Apollonian that only the clothing of his Thracian entourage distinguishes him from his father, Apollo the citharist. But it is in full Thracian or oriental dress that the vases of southern Italy depict Orpheus as he descends into the underworld, searches for Eurydice, or makes a daring journey to the heart of the realm of Hades.

Orpheus's followers share in his triumph over death. A large Apulian amphora, published in 1976, pictures Orpheus in the underworld, standing and playing the lyre in the presence of a heroized corpse. That corpse is seated in a pavilion, and in its left hand it clasps a papyrus scroll, without doubt an Orphic book similar to the one unearthed near a tomb at Derveni or to the texts of the gold leaves.

The Altamura amphora presents another powerful image. Orpheus the harpist stands before the Lord of the Underworld, while the daughters of Danaus, damned forever, ceaselessly pour water into a bottomless jar. Only the initiated gain victory over the death that others must suffer, and they alone enjoy the banquet and happiness of the blessed. As a result, they become heroes or even resemble the gods themselves.

The Writings of Orpheus

In Olbia, at Derveni, and in southern Italy, writing was used to prolong Orpheus's voice: the song became a book. According to all sources, books were the main means of transmission of the texts. In Orphism, written literature took the place of oral communication. A container for scrolls formed a part of the Orphic landscape. On an Etruscan mirror (now in Boston) the container stands at Orpheus's feet, while silent beasts encircle the song. Thus, Orphic religion took on features of a "religion of the book."

There were two basic reasons for poets to attribute poems to Orpheus, denying themselves fame as authors. First, for the Greeks, the older an idea was, the more prestigious it was. Plato often refers to Orpheus's works as an "old discourse," which he considers worthy because it is old. Second, the advocates of this new religious doctrine invoked Orpheus's name because if he had returned from the underworld, he would be a reliable witness of what is revealed in the poems.

The oldest poems attributed to Orpheus (from the sixth century bce until the Hellenistic age) focus on the origin and destiny of human life. Some of the Orphic writings are theogonies; others describe Orpheus's descent to Hades (katabasis ) and reveal the fate that awaits souls in the Other World. Some books prescribe a dietary regimen and extend to their readers an invitation to attend unblemished sacrifices and sweet-smelling oblations. Some verses from a book of the latter type, in which a cereal diet is associated with justice, are quoted by Sextus Empiricus. Books of the latter type also include the lost Thuepolikon (How to make bloodless offerings), to which Plato alludes directly in the Republic. Plato also quotes many times a hieros or palaios logos (sacred or ancient discourse) as a source of doctrines about the soul.

Orpheus was also said to be the author of magical texts, which is not surprising, since Orpheus himself has features of a wizard. Later, in the Roman age, Orpheus became a prestigious name, and a diverse series of astrological, botanical, and medical poems were attributed to him, including a complete a poem about stones (Lithica ). From the same period comes a version of Argonautica, told in first person by Orpheus himself. The religious content of these later poems was already far removed from ancient Orphism.

Orphic Way of Life

Plato summarized the strict rules of the Orphic way of life in the Laws : to abstain from all meat and to offer the gods only cakes or fruit soaked in honey, for it is impious and unclean to eat flesh and to stain with blood the altars of the gods. Since the bloody sacrifice was a basic rite of the state religion, these rules would have placed the Orphics outside of the polis.

Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian taboo prohibiting the wearing of wool parallels Orphic and Bacchic observances. In addition, the ecstasy (baccheuein ) was an important aspect of the Orphic way of life. This way of life was not easy to follow and, according to Plato, many people failed: "Many are narthex-bearers, but the bacchoi are few."

The Telete, Orpheotelestai, and Mystai

The transmission of the Orphic message as recorded in books was carried out through a rite called the telete. This rite was probably accompanied by a performance that dramatized the following myth. Zeus decided to appoint his son Dionysos as his successor when Dionysos was still a child. The Titans lured Dionysos away, killed him, and cut his body into pieces, which they boiled, roasted, and ate. In response, Zeus blasted the Titans with a thunderbolt, and human beings were born from the blood and soot of the Titans. Because of the circumstances of their origin, human beings have a divine and positive component, which comes from Dionysos, but their souls retain a "Titanic nature" and the evilness of their ancestors. Human souls can free themselves from their Titanic element by passing through several reincarnations, thus recovering their divine state. Various scholars have doubted the authenticity and questioned the age of this myth. Nonetheless, there are good arguments supporting its status as an ancient myth. Several sources indicate that it was told in the teletai, which would only make sense if this myth was related to the origin and salvation of human beings. (See Bernabé, 2002, for a full discussion of the topic.)

The Orphics believed that these rites, along with the ecstasy and a form of puritanism that consisted in avoiding bloodshed, favored their reintegration with divinity. People taking part in the telete acquired a mystic knowledge and became aware of their place in the world order. They thus learn how to save their souls and achieve a better destiny in the Other World once they have freed themselves from the antecedent (inherited) sin (they inherited their sin from their ancestors, the Titans; see Bianchi, 1966).

The telete was probably performed in various ways, with different types of people participating. Professional initiators (orpheotelestai ), who are contemptuously described as poor and ragged and always carrying a stack of books, performed rites that supposedly freed people from sin and promised a better destiny in the Other World. Nobody ordained them, and they were patronized by superstitious and ignorant people. After the drastic measures announced in the senatusconsultus de Bacchanalibus (186 bce) against those that took part in Bacchic rituals (see Livy 34, 8), the itinerant initiation priest seems to have totally disappeared from Bacchic mysteries. There were also many vagabonds and seers, who are quoted by Plato in the Republic. They were purifiers who claimed that they could heal epilepsy, and were thus reviled by Hippocrates. In addition, beginning in the fourth century, there were people like the commentator of the Derveni papyrus, who respected Orphic poems because they were old, but found some of their content, such as incest and castration, unacceptable. They solved the contradiction by resorting to allegorical interpretations of the texts. Plato refers to them in Meno, and he proposes in Cratylus his own allegorical interpretations of the old texts. This method of interpretation, which was continued by Plutarch and Plotinus, survived until the era of Neoplatonism. Finally, ordinary men and women participated in teletai as mystai. They looked to the rite for comfort and for the promise of a better future life.

The Orphics did not usually form stable communities. As a religion that promised individual salvation, Orphism could have been considered dangerous in Greek society, where religion was a means of social integration in the polis. But the movement's lack of organization ensured that it would never become an alternative to the status quo. Relatively stable Orphic communities have been documented in only a few locations, including Olbia and perhaps Cumae. A fifth-century bce inscription found in Cumae prevented those that had not felt an ecstatic trance from being buried in that place. Taking this inscription as a starting point, Turcan (1986) claims that a relatively stable Orphic Community may have existed in Cumae. This is disputed, however, by Pailler (1995, 109126), though without convincing arguments. A second-century ce inscription from Torre Nova depicts a private Bacchic association organized in a hierarchy, which is more suitable for the Roman world.

But who were these people who were interred with a papyrus scroll in their hands, who abhorred blood, wrote cosmogonies, and dreamt strange tales about the birth of the gods? What did they want with Orpheus and his silent incantations? Actually, they sought one goal: health. They wished to heal themselves and sought to do so by fleeing from the world. The Orphics were renunciants who strove for saintliness. They devoted themselves to techniques of purification in order to separate themselves from others, to cut themselves off from the world and from all who are subject to death and defilement.

By returning to a golden age, to the time of the beginning, the Orphics renounced the blood on altars and rejected the eating of any flesh, and in doing so they rejected the values of the Greek state and that state's religious system, including its discrete divine powers, its differentiated gods, and the sharp distinction that it inevitably drew between the divine and the human. The Orphic way of life implied an uncompromising renunciation that is expressed by the condemnation both of sanguinary food and of the social bond that is established within the state when an animal is sacrificed on the altar and its flesh shared in a common feast.

In contrast with the way of life and patterns of thought associated with the followers of Pythagoras, a similar form of mysticism, the Orphics never attempted political reform or envisaged an alternative state with an alternative political cult. For the devotees of Orpheus, who chose writing and books as an effective symbol of their otherness, renouncing the worldliness of the state meant not only finding in vegetarianism a foretaste of life among the godsthat is, life among the gods who precede this world, with its bloody altarsit also meant recasting, with a great deal of effort, the genesis of the world, and rewriting the entire history of the gods. Like the sacrifice, the gods constituted a single structure in which politics, society, and religion were in perfect balance. When the Orphics renounced the gods of other Greeks, they called into question the whole fabric of social life, including polytheism, to the extent that polytheism pervaded society and played an integral role in politics.

But although Orphism distrusted the polytheism of others, it did not reject it entirely. If it had, it would have been in danger of cutting itself off from all communication with those who were at the point of being healed. The plurality of the gods was unavoidable. The Orphics therefore had to reconceive the divine, to transform the order of the divine forces, and to work out an alternative genealogy of powers.

Orphic Cosmogonies and Theogonies

The evolution of the gods is recounted in a series of poems whose refined styles become evident as they are deciphered from new palimpsests.

The Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius (fifth to sixth century ce) refers to the existence of several Orphic theogonies. These include (1) what he calls "current Orphic rhapsodies," which seems to be the only Orphic theogony directly known by the Neoplatonic schoolit is also the longest and seems to be a conflation of several older poems; (2) a theogony transmitted by Hieronymus and Hellanicus; and (3) a theogony recorded in the Peripatetic Eudemus as being of Orpheus, which seems to be the same as, or similar to, that of Derveni. The parodic cosmogony in Aristophanes' play Birds (414 bce) may also echo an ancient Orphic theogony.

The Orphic gods are bizarre. The firstborn (Greek, protogonos ), the primal generator and generatrix described in the Rhapsodies, is called variously Protogonos, Phanes, Metis, and Erikepaios. Descriptions of this deity offer repeated affronts to the form of the human body: it has two pairs of eyes, golden wings, the voice of a lion and of a bull, and organs of both sexes, one of which adorns the upper part of the buttocks. There is also the Zeus who rules over the fifth generation of gods and who will transfer his power to his son. Instead of being assured of ruling over the gods forever, this Zeus, on the advice of Night, sends the Firstborn straight to the pit of his belly. Thus he becomes a womb, as it were, the shell of an egg whose dimensions are those of the All. In other tales this god cuts an even poorer figure. He marries his mother (Demeter), and as a result of this incestuous union a daughter (Persephone) is born. Zeus then impregnates Persephone, who is both his daughter and his half sister. The church fathers, who assiduously observed so many couplings, turned from crimson to green.

The Orphic cosmogony/theogony contains a virtual orgy of baroque deities and polymorphic monsters, but the profusion of these multifarious gods is neither gratuitous nor insignificant. It gives meaning to their development. In the beginning was the totality, the oneness of the All, the completeness of Phanes within the perfect sphere of primordial Night. In the course of five successive reigns, the ideal unity undergoes the trials of separation and division on its road to differentiation. The succession of rulers passes from Phanesvia Night, so close to Phanesto Ouranos and Gaia, Kronos and Rhea, and finally to Zeus. Zeus, born of Rhea (Demeter or Deo), marries her, and later he becomes the husband of Kore (Persephone), his daughter, who will give birth to Dionysos. Dionysos, who was actually already present in the Firstborn, will institute the sixth and final generation of the gods.

What is the motivating force behind this genealogical descent? Differentiation takes place first through sexual activity, then through marriage, which works toward the separation of the divine powers. To be more specific, the first conjugal union in the world of the gods appears in the third generation: there is no gamos (marriage) before that of Ouranos and Gaia. Nevertheless, Phanes takes from Nightthe second Night, said to be his daughterthe flower of her virginity. This act represents the first appearance of sexuality, but there is not yet any marriage. As Proclus, a good interpreter of Orpheus, writes: "For those who are most united there is no union in marriage."

Sexuality initiates difference; marriage establishes and grounds it by bringing to completion the separation that is in full force until the reign of Zeus in the fifth generation. The Zeus of the fifth generation (in contrast to the Zeus of the fourth) displays two faces; one is the face of degeneracyhis doubly incestuous marriage: the son with his mother, and the father with his daughterthe other is the face of regeneration. Hearkening to Night, he engulfs the Firstborn in his entrails and ushers in the second creation of the world. This Zeus is the pregnant god who realizes within himself both the unity of all things and the distinctiveness of each.

The commentator of the Derveni papyrus confirms this process of differentiation, now in the origin of words and of things, for it deals with the assignation of multiple names to a single god. The vocabulary is philosophical, the vocabulary of Anaxagoras, the vocabulary of separation (diakrisis ). In particular, column twenty-one states that all things already existed in advance, but they received their names only when they were separated. Thus, naming replicateson the level of wordsthe separation and distinctions brought about through sexual activity, in this case the activity of Aphrodite and her father, Zeus. The commentary in the Derveni papyrus attempts to display the truth of Orpheus's words: the linguistic discussion appears as an additional means of conceiving the unity that subsists within the interplay of the figures of separation, a means that is available as a result of the appropriateness of the names bestowed by Orpheus.

In recasting the gods of others, Orphism gives a special meaning to the complicity of two rival powers: Dionysos and Apollo, the two gods who sum up the whole of Greek polytheism. In the various theogonic accountsthe great dramas in which Dionysos is assuredly the protagonistApollo plays the role of a tutelary power. He embodies genuine oracular knowledge in the Delphic landscape that he shares with Night, the daughter of Phanes. He collects and pieces together the scattered limbs of Dionysos and then lays the remains of the executed god to rest in his sanctuary at the foot of Mount Parnassus. Finally, he is identified with another great god, the Sun, who inspires Orpheus to sing his theogonic song.

But Dionysos and Apollo also meet and confront each other in the tragic biography of Orpheus and, in particular, in the indirect manner in which Orpheus is slain. In his first tetralogy based on the legends of Dionysos, Aeschylus presented an Orpheus stricken with the devout love of one god greater than all the rest. Every day, at dawn, Orpheus scales the crags of Mount Pangaeus, the highest mountain in Thrace. He wishes to be the first to salute the Sun, who is for him "the greatest of the gods" and to whom he gives the name Apollo. Dionysos, it is said, is filled with resentment at this daily ritual. He sends to Orpheus women with a barbarian name, the Bassarai. They surround him, seize him, and dismember him, tearing him to pieces immediately. In fact, Dionysos takes an interest in Orpheus's activity because Pangaeus is Dionysos's own domain, an ambiguous region where Lykurgos, the king of the Edonians, is torn apart by wild horses. Pangaeus is also where Dionysos appears as an oracular deity whose prophetess recalls the Pythia in the temple of Apollo. Thus the Dionysos of Pangaeus has two faces, one of which is Apollonian. And the instruments of Orpheus's death are women, the fiercest and wildest representatives of the feminine gender (they appear armed with skewers, axes, stones, and hooks on Attic vases from between 480 and 430). These are women whom the voice of Orpheus is powerless to seduce, to tame, or to restrain. They would even have rejoiced in killing Orpheusone of several details that show that they are outside the control of Dionysos, that they are not bacchanals but ferocious beasts who cause Orpheus to be destroyed by what he most deeply despises: the feminine, which brought to humans the disease of birth and death. In opposition to this feminine, Orpheus embodies the purely masculine, the catharos who is seen also in Apollo, the principle of unity, but Orpheus does so via the multiplicity of forms and by the roundabout path of Dionysian polymorphism.

Traces of Orphism in Non-Orphic Authors

Although Orphic literature was generally scorned in the classical age by writers closer to the religion of the state, some authors were interested in certain aspects of its message. Such philosophers as Parmenides and Empedocles, and above all the Pythagoreans and Plato, as well as lyric poets such as Pindar, seemed to know and accept certain features of the Orphic message. Plutarch claims to have been initiated into the mysteries and mentions several Orphic doctrines. The Orphic influence is present in Neoplatonism during the fifth and sixth centuries ce. There are also traces of Orphism in some Greek magical papyri and in Mithraism.

The so-called Testament of Orpheus reveals an Orphic influence on Hellenized Jews, and the early Christians exhibit two contradictory attitudes toward Orphism. Christians sometimes highlighted common features between Orphic and Christian beliefs in order to make their new message easier for pagans to adopt. Orpheus is represented in early Christian sarcophagi and is identified with the good shepherd in the catacombs. Early Christians also at times directly rejected the Orphic message, renouncing in particular the most reprehensible aspects of the Orphic myths, such as monsters, castration of gods, and incest.

See Also

Apollo; Apotheosis; Baubo; Catharsis; Demeter and Persephone; Dionysos; Dualism; Eleusinian Mysteries; Eros; Hellenistic Religions; Magic, article on Magic in Greco-Roman Antiquity; Music, article on Music and Religion in Greece, Rome, and Byzantium; Mystery Religions; Neoplatonism; Plato; Platonism; Pythagoras; Soul, article on Greek and Hellenistic Concepts.

Bibliography

Editions and Translations of Texts

Athanassakis, Apostolos N., trans. and ed. The Orphic Hymns. Missoula, Mont., 1977.

Bernabé, Alberto, ed. Poetae Epici Graeci, vol. 2: Orphicorum et Orphicis similium testimonia et fragmenta. Monachii et Lipsiae, 2003.

Colli, Giorgio. La Sapienza greca. Milan, Italy, 1977.

Halleux, Robert, and Jacques Schamp, eds. and trans. Les lapidaires grecs. Paris, 1985. French translation of the Orphic Lithica.

Kern, Otto, ed. Orphicorum fragmenta. Berlin, 1922; reprint, Dublin and Zürich, 1972.

Ricciardelli, Gabriella, trans and ed. Inni orfici. Milan, Italy, 2000.

Vian, Francis, trans. and ed. Les argonautiques orphiques. Paris, 1987.

Tablets of Olbia

Dubois, Laurent. Inscriptions grecques dialectales d'Olbia du Pont. Geneva, Switzerland, 1996. See pages 154155.

West, Martin L. "The Orphics of Olbia." Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 45 (1982): 1729. A study of the tablets.

Zhmud, Leonid. "Orphism and Grafitti from Olbia." Hermes 120 (1992): 159168.

Derveni Papyrus

Bernabé, Alberto. "La théogonie orhique du papyrus de Derveni." Kernos 15 (2002): 91129. A reconstruction and analysis of the theogony.

Janko, Richard. "The Derveni Papyrus (Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes Logoi? : A New Translation." Classical Philology 96 (2001): 132.

Janko, Richard. "The Derveni Papyrus: An Interim Text." Zeitschrift zur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 141 (2002): 162.

Laks, André, and Glenn W. Most, eds. Studies on the Derveni Papyrus. Oxford, 1997.

Gold Leaves

Bernabé, Alberto, Jiménez San Cristóbal, and Ana Isabel. Instrucciones para el Más Allá: Las laminillas órficas de oro. Madrid, 2001.

Pugliese Carratelli, Giovanni. Le lamine d'oro orfiche. Milan, Italy, 2001.

Riedweg, Christoph. "Initiation-Tod-Unterwelt: Beobachtungen zur Komunikationssituation und narrativen Technik der orphisch-bakchischen Goldblättchen." In Ansichten griechischer Rituale: Geburtstag-Symposium für Walter Burkert, edited by Fritz Graf. Stuttgart and Leipzig, Germany, 1998. See pages 359398.

Zuntz, Günther. Persephone, Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Oxford, 1971.

Cumae's Inscription

Pailler, Jean-Marie. Bacchus: Figures et Pouvoirs. Paris, 1995.

Turcan, Robert. "Bacchoi ou Bacchants: De la dissidence des vivants à la ségregation des morts." In L'association Dianysiaque dans les societiés anciennes. Actes de la table ronde de l'école francaise de Rome. Rome, 1986.

Overestimations of Orphism

Dieterich, Albrecht. Nekyia. Leipzig, Germany, 1913.

Eisler, Robert. Orpheus the Fisher. London, 1921.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge, UK, 1903; 3d ed., Cambridge, UK, 1922.

Macchioro, Vittorio. Zagreus: Studi intorno all'orfismo. Florence, Italy, 1930. (See partial translation of this work that appeared as "Orphism and Paulism" in the Journal of Religion in 1928.)

Hypercritical Reaction

Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, Calif., 1951.

Linforth, Ivan M. The Arts of Orpheus. Berkeley, Calif., 1941; reprint, New York, 1973.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. Der Glaube der Hellenen. Berlin, 1931; 3d rev. ed., Darmstadt, Germany, 1959.

Measured Points of View

Bianchi, Ugo. "Orfeo e l' orfismo nell' epoca classica." Studi e materiali de storia delle religioni 28 (1957): 151156.

Bianchi, Ugo. "Péché originel et péché 'antécédent'." Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 170 (1966): 117126.

Bianchi, Ugo. Selected Essays on Gnosticism, Dualism, and Mysteriosophy. Leiden, 1977.

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Boyancé, Pierre. "Platon et les cathartes orphiques." Revue des Études Grecques 55, (1942): 217235.

Boyancé, Pierre. "Xénocrate et les orphiques." Revue des Études Anciennes 50 (1948): 218231.

Cumont, Franz. Lux perpetua. Paris, 1949.

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Kern, Otto. Orpheus. Berlin, 1920.

Keydell, Rudolf, and Karl Ziegler. "Orphische Dichtung." Real Encyclopaedie 18, no. 2 (1942): 12211417.

Lagrange, M.- J., Les mystères: L'orphisme. Paris, 1937. A Catholic approach.

Meuli, Karl. Gesammelte Schriften. Basle, 1975.

Nilsson, Martin P. "Early Orphism and Kindred Religious Movements." Harvard Theological Review 28 (1935): 181230.

Nock, Arthur D. Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. Oxford, 1933.

Prümm, Karl. "Die Orphik im Spiegel der neueren Forschung." Zeitschrift für Katholische Theolologie 78 (1956): 140.

Rohde, Erwin. Psyche: Seelencult und Unterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen, 4th ed. Tübingen, Germany, 1907.

Sabbatucci, Dario. Saggio sul misticismo greco. Rome, 1965 (French trans. Essai sur le mysticisme grec. Paris, 1982.)

Turcan, Robert. "L'âme oiseau et l'eschatologie orphique." Revue de l'histoire des religions 155 (1959): 3340.

Turcan, Robert. "L'oeuf orphique et les quatre éléments." Revue de l'histoire des religions 160 (1961): 1123.

New Approaches

Alderink, Larry J. Creation and Salvation in Ancient Orphism. Chico, Calif., 1981.

Bernabé, Alberto. "Platone e l' orfismo." In Destino e salvezza: tra culti pagani e gnosi cristiana. Itinerari storico-religiosi sulle orme di Ugo Bianchi, edited by Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, pp. 3393. Cosenza, 1998.

Borgeaud, Philippe, ed. Orphisme et orphée, en l'honneur de Jean Rudhardt. Geneva, Switzerland, 1991. Papers discussing different aspects of Orphism.

Borgeaud, Philippe, Claude Calame, and André Hurst, eds. "L'Orphisme et ses écritures: Nouvelles recherches." Revue de l'histoire des religions 219 (2002): 379516.

Brisson, Luc. Orphée et l'orphisme dans l'antiquité gréco-romaine. Aldershot, U.K., 1995. A collection of the author's papers about Orphism and the Neoplatonic reception of the movement.

Burkert, Walter. "Craft versus Sect: The Problem of Orphics and Pythagoreans." In Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol. 3: Self-Definition in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Ben F. Meyer and E. P. Sanders, pp. 122. Philadelphia, 1982.

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1987.

Burkert, Walter. Da Omero ai Magi: La tradizione orientale nella cultura greca. Venice, Italy, 1999.

Calame, Claude, "Qu' est-ce qui est orphique dans les Orphica ? Une mise au point introductive." Revue de l'histoire des religions 219 (2002): 385400.

Convegno di studi sulla Magna Grecia. Orfismo in magna Grecia. Naples, Italy, 1975. Papers about Orphism in southern Italy.

Detienne, Marcel. Dionysos Slain. Translated by Mireille Muellner and Leonard Muellner. Baltimore, Md., 1979.

Detienne, Marcel. L'écriture d'Orphée. Paris, 1989.

Graf, Fritz. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit. Berlin and New York, 1974.

Masaracchia, Agostino, ed. Orfeo e l'orfismo. Atti del Seminario Nazionale (Roma-Perugia 19851991). Rome, 1993. Papers discussing different aspects of Orphism.

Parker, R. "Early Orphism." In The Greek World, edited by Powell Anton, pp. 483510. London, 1995.

Tortorelli Ghidini, Marisa, Alfredina Storchi Marino, and Amedeo Visconti, eds. Tra Orfeo e Pitagora. Naples, Italy, 2000.

West, Martin L. The Orphic Poems. Oxford, 1983.

The Myth of Dionysos and the Titans

Bernabé, Alberto. "La toile de Pénélope: a-t-il existé un mythe orphique sur Dionysos et les Titans?" Revue de l'histoire des religions 219 (2002): 401433.

Edmonds, Radcliffe G. "Tearing Apart the Zagreus Myth: A Few Disparaging Remarks on Orphism and Original Sin." Classical Antiquity 18 (1999): 3573.

Marcel Detienne (1987)

Alberto BernabÉ (2005)

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Orpheus

Orpheus ★★½ Orphee 1949

Cocteau's fascinating, innovative retelling of the Orpheus legend in a modern, though slightly askew, Parisian setting. Classic visual effects and poetic imagery. In French with English subtitles. 95m/B VHS, DVD . Jean Marais, Francois Perier, Maria Casares, Marie Dea, Edouard Dermithe, Juliette Greco; D: Jean Cocteau; W: Jean Cocteau; C: Nicolas Hayer; M: Georges Auric.

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Orpheus

Orpheus

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

OR-fee-uhs

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Virgil's Georgics

Lineage

Son of Calliope and Apollo

Character Overview

In Greek mythology , Orpheus is a musician who sang and played so beautifully that even animals, rocks, and trees danced to his tunes. He was the son of Calliope (pronounced kuh-LYE-uh-pee), the Muse of epic poetry, and of the god Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh). It was Apollo who gave Orpheus his first lyre, the musical instrument that he always played.

Orpheus accompanied Jason and the Argonauts (pronounced AHR-guh-nawts) 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. Also, he stopped the Argonauts from quarreling with a song about the origins of the universe.

Orpheus fell in love with the nymph Eurydice (pronounced yoo-RID-uh-see). 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 , or land of the dead, to find Eurydice. His playing enchanted Charon (pronounced KAIR-uhn), the ferryman who carried the souls of the dead across the river Styx (pronounced STIKS) into the underworld. Charon agreed to take Orpheus across the river, even though he was not dead. Orpheus's music also tamed Cerberus (pronounced SUR-ber-uhs), the monstrous three-headed dog who guarded the gates of the underworld. Even Hades (pronounced HAY-deez) and Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee), 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 as soon as he reached the surface, he was so overjoyed that he looked back to share the moment with Eurydice. But she had not reached the surface yet, and she immediately disappeared into the underworld.

Orpheus spent the rest of his life grieving for his lost wife. In time his grief infuriated the Maenads (pronounced MEE-nads), a group of women who worshipped the god Dionysus (pronounced dye-uh-NYE-suhs). To punish Orpheus for neglecting their 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, or being that communicated messages between the gods and humans. Eventually the head of Orpheus rivaled the famous oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The gods placed his lyre in the heavens as a constellation.

Orpheus in Context

Orpheus was much more than a mythological musician to many ancient Greeks. In fact, he was often viewed as a real person who had brought significant religious teachings to his followers. He was said to be the creator of the Orphic Hymns, a body of myth that is similar to more traditional Greek beliefs, but emphasizes the importance of certain figures, such as Dionysus and Persephone. Although very little is known about the details of the Orphic religion, its followers appear to have believed in the eternal nature of the human soul, and an afterlife that was designed to reward the deserving and punish the undeserving. This was different from traditional Greek views of the underworld as a rather dismal place where nearly all dead people went, regardless of their virtue.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the main themes of the myth of Orpheus is the power of true love. After Eurydice dies and passes on to the underworld, Orpheus pursues her out of love. The power of music is also a recurring theme in the stories of Orpheus. The lyre of Orpheus symbolizes this power. Orpheus uses it to drown out the Sirens so the Argonauts do not fall victim to them, and later defuses an argument between the sailors with one of his songs. While pursuing Eurydice, Orpheus uses his lyre to gain entrance to the underworld, and his skill at playing music convinces Hades to let him take Eurydice back to the land of the living. Another important theme in this myth is obedience to the gods. When Orpheus disobeys Hades by looking back at Eurydice before they reach the surface, he breaks his agreement with Hades and Eurydice must return to the underworld.

Orpheus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Over the centuries, the myth of Orpheus has endured as a tragic tale of love lost. Renaissance painters, such as Rubens and Titian, created depictions of Eurydice and Orpheus, and several operas were written about the pair during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The most famous of these is Jacques Offenbach's 1858 burlesque operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, which includes one piece known popularly as the music played during the French dance called the “Can Can.”

More recently, the story of Eurydice and Orpheus was adapted for the 1959 film Black Orpheus by Marcel Camus. The 1997 Disney animated film Hercules used the plot from the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, but instead had Hercules travel to the underworld in an attempt to save his love, Megara. Eurydice and Orpheus also appear in The Sandman, a comic series written by Neil Gaiman.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

In modern times, many schools are cutting back on music and other arts-based programs in order to focus available funds on core classes, such as science and math. Do you think music programs should be considered necessary for schools? Why or why not? Do you think music is more or less important now than it was in past cultures? Why?

SEE ALSO Argonauts; Eurydice; Muses; Underworld

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