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


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.


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