Elka Dimitrova


Introductory Lecture

So, who was Orpheus?

A singer and a poet, capable of conquering the living nature with his songs and of awakening the dead one to life? (This, of course, is the myth which – in its different versions – will be discussed in more detail further down in this text.)

A healer surrounded by followers who used to treat by unusual methods – herbs, songs, spells? (There is evidence of Orphic medical tables.)

A charismatic priest who built a community of followers, with their cults, rituals and a specific way of life? A central figure in a community that confessed some versions of ancient Greek and Thracian paganism, rearranged the pantheon, engaged the Olympic gods in relationships different from the previously known – thus forming the most significant heretical movement within Ancient Greece and Ancient Thrace? Or a priest, who left Dionysus in order to turn to Apollo, and was torn apart by the Maenads/Bacchantes, the Dionysus followers? (These hypotheses are based on written sources, too.) The followers of Orphism did not eat meat or drink wine – to them, wine was only a symbol, which resembles Christianity; they lived ascetically and relatively separated from the world of the others; they believed in the ecstatic connection (“enthusiasm”) with God, thereby acquiring mystical knowledge – which reminds of the dervish teaching and of some other religious practices. Typical for Orphism was its sōma – sēma, or body – tomb concept, which saw the body as a prison or tomb in which the soul – a divine element akin to the gods – is incarcerated (another, this time – conceptual, analogy with the future religion of Christianity). In short, the Orphics created an ascetic mystical sect. A later adept and reformer of its was the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, the way Orpheus was most likely a reformer of Dionysian religion. Through Pythagoras, elements of Orphism have entered into Plato's philosophy and into some subsequent mystic-religious philosophies.

And finally – maybe Orpheus was a Thracian king who had threatened the power of the Greek poleis by his project to unite many Thracian tribes? Maybe that was why the act of his mythologizing went in the direction of art, not in the direction of the political power, because it was safer to glorify him as a singer and to keep his political power shadowed.



What is the most remembered from the story of Orpheus is probably what is the farthest from the truth – the loving singer who descended into the underworld in order to return his beloved back to life... he failed, saddened and the maenads tore him into pieces.

According to some – a son of god Apollo, according to others – a son of the Thracian king Oeagrus: as early as in the very beginning of the story, a fundamental hesitation is set – as if resembling a metaphor of the urge by which Orphism rearranges the ancient Greek mythology into new kinship relations between its gods. And we, in the very beginning, should note that there are two (though quite interlaced) sets of stories about Orpheus – a Greek and a Thracian one, and that the variations most often reveal their origin themselves.

According to Pindar (517 – 438 BC) and Apollodorus (180 – 110 BC), he was the son of Eagar. Interestingly, while writers and poets seem to be inclined to the human explanation of Orpheus’s origin, the historian Diodorus Siculus (90 – 30 BC) feels obliged to sum up the other thesis as an equal one – the thesis of the divine origin, – while explaining the supernatural abilities of the hero as inherited from Apollo – the god of art and the healer, and of course – the god associated with the sun and light, which will become the key symbols of Orphism.

This connection also explains the extraordinary golden lyre of the hero – received from the divine father-patron. (Although even in the version with Oeagrus as a father, the relationship with Apollo remains, through Orpheus’s mother, the Muse Calliope who took him to Parnassus, to his sisters, where he receives the Apollo’s gift. Apollo’s lyre, on its behalf, contains indications of another essential connection: it was invented by Hermes and was perfected by Orpheus who added two more strings to it – from seven they became nine, so that they matched the number of Muses.)

The version about Apollo being his father slightly conflicts the stories about the priest hypostasis of Orpheus – as these stories (having been documented to a big extent) represent him as a priest who had been a follower of Dionysus and later turned to Apollo, for which he paid with his life to Dionysus’s followers, the Maenads. Probably, the most logical opinion is yet Horace’s explanation that in the old times, poets were just called “Apollo’s sons”. Or maybe the turn to Apollo (both religious and ideological) had left the stamp of the father-and-son relationship in the mythical story?

As about the mother, there is no doubt – she was nobody else but the Muse Calliope, the patron of the epic poetry and eloquence. As Orpheus’s son the hero Musaeus is mentioned (according to Diodorus). The farther origins of the Thracian singer went back to the kingdom of king Haemus and queen Rhodope, turned by the angry gods Zeus and Hera into mountains, because of the hubristic boldness of the two mortals to call each other the names of the Olympic rulers. However, there were many places claiming to be native to the mythical-legendary hero – from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace to Pimpleia near Olympus. As it has already been said, Orpheus was also associated with Parnassus, the mountain where the Muses lived. And some sources say that he had studied in Egypt. Here, of course, the mythologems (in the emblematic places of the Muses and Apollo) intertwine with the grains of truth in the legends. However, the most persistent sobriquet for Orpheus remains “the Thracian Singer”, which makes us think that he was most likely related to the Thracian lands. Virgil, for instance, described the Dryads weeping for Eurydice in the territories from the area of Epirus and the river of Hebrus (Maritsa) to the lands of the Getae (the lower Danube region). But there is a hypothesis that the story about Eurydice was later adhered to the legend of Orpheus, and that his descent into the underground kingdom (Tartar) was aimed at enchanting the goddess Hekate (to enchant the goddess of magic – another element of hubris, even though connected to the belief of Orpheus being a founder of the cult of Hekate). The very name of Eurydice, “She whose justice extends widely”, recalls the headline phrases of later cults to Persephone, a fact that also works for this thesis.

Investigated as a priest, Orpheus is considered to be the founder of the Hekate cult in Aegina (the mysteries of Hekate), and in Laconia – as a founder of the cult of Demeter Chthonia and of the Kóres Sōteíras (“Saviour Maidens”, the Games of Salvation, Soteria). Also, in Taygetus, a wooden image of Orpheus was said to have been kept by Pelasgians in the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter.

The earliest literary reference to Orpheus is a two-word fragment of the sixth-century BC lyric poet Ibycus: onomaklyton Orphēn (“Orpheus famous-of-name”). He was not mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. Older sources (except for Aristotle) ​​hold on to his historical existence. There are also hymns from the Orphic Mysteries documented – Orphic hymns. The sanctuaries which have preserved relics of Orpheus are considered to be oracles; i.e. Orpheus had been attributed prophetic gifts as well.

A constant passage in the mythic stories about Orpheus is his participation in the Argonauts' Journey to Colchis to fetch the Golden Fleece (around 1400 BC), which puzzles a little, if we take into account that the first images of the hero are from 600 BC and that he is often dated in 7-6 BC (because of the latter, it is logical that Homer and Hesiod did not mention him). During the Argonauts' Journey, his presence was particularly important, because his song set the rhythm of the rowers, but more importantly, the sounds of his music drowned the enchanting songs of the Sirens, thus rescuing Orpheus’s companions from the devastating charm of the magic creatures. When it comes to this epic event, one of the ancient Argonauticas (poems describing the Journey) was also attributed to Orpheus.

And, of course, the story about Eurydice, which will be talked a lot about during this meeting... Here, I will only emphasize the interesting discrepancies in the explanations of that fatal turning back. Eurydice, Orpheus's beloved, while she was walking on their wedding day with her Cicones (a Thracian tribe which lived between the valleys of the Mesta and Maritsa rivers) was set upon by a satyr. In an attempt to escape, she fell into a nest of vipers and was lethally bitten on her heel. (According to another version, Eurydice was chased by Aristaeus, the hero beekeeper – so is in Virgil's “Georgics”. And there is also a version saved by Ovid, according to which the snake bit her while she was dancing with the naiads.) Orpheus, crushed by her death, sang such sad songs that he made all the gods and nymphs cry, they advised him to try to make the gods of the underworld feel sympathy and return Eurydice back to him. And so it happened – his song made compassionate both the ferryman Charon, who led him through the river of Styx, and Hades and Persephone, who agreed to return his beloved, but on one condition – he should not turn back until they came out of the underground kingdom. And he really stood and did not turn back, until he came to the upper ground – then he turned back, underestimating the fact that the condition was for the two, and Eurydice was following him – that is, she had not gone out yet. This logic trap in history is very impressive. There is, of course, a simpler version – that Orpheus turned to help Eurydice on a dangerous section of the path. In this consequence, Plato's analysis seems to be particularly interesting for its criticism. There, according to Phaedrus (in “Symposium”), the infernal gods only “presented an apparition” (shadow/reflection) of Eurydice. Plato interprets Orpheus as a coward who, instead of deciding to die in order to be with his beloved in the underground kingdom, tries to soften the hearts of the gods, so that they give her back to him in the world of the living. As his love was not real, he did not want to die for it. That is why he was punished by the gods: first – by having been given to see only her shadow in the underworld; and then – by being killed by women (the Maenads).
According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus’s play Bassarids (the original of which was never found), Orpheus, towards the end of his life, made a radical change of his religious views, disdaining the worship of all gods except the Sun, whom he called Apollo. One morning, he went to the oracle of Dionysus on Mount Pangaion – to honour his god, and was torn apart by the Thracian Maenads for his betrayal to their master. This legend says that he was buried in Pieria. (But the Greek traveler and geographer from the 2nd c. Pausanias wrote that Orpheus met his death and was buried in Dion.) Since Greek mythology has preserved similar stories (about Pentheus and Dionysus Zagreus, who also descended into the underworld and were torn by Maenads thereafter), there are hypotheses that the murder of Orpheus might have been a ritual sacrifice to Dionysus; and it has been speculated that the Orphic mystery cults regarded Orpheus as a parallel figure or even as an incarnation of Dionysus.

There are, however, alternative versions of the story, as it concerns the motive of love. According to the ancient Greek poet Phanocles, Orpheus, during the Golden Fleece Journey, suffered a desperate love to the young Argonaut Calais. Ovid's interpretation in Metamorphoses also stresses on this element, explaining the hero's death by his indifference to the Thracian women, which, in its turn, was due either to his bad experience or to his vow – this is what the Roman poet exiled in the Thracian lands implied. So, there are two main versions of Orpheus's death. The first one is that he was torn apart by the Maenads, because, being immersed in sorrow for Eurydice, he refused to play cheerful melodies to their orgy; but then they were in turn punished by Dionysus who transformed them into trees. The second version is that he was torn apart by Thracian women from the tribe of the Cicones because of his indifference to women (with or without the motives of the lost wife); in this case, the husbands punished the women by tattooing them, which explains the custom of some Thracian tribes to tattoo the women. Pausanias gives a third (at least) version of the punishment of the Maenads – after their crime, the river Helicon sank underground, when the women that killed Orpheus tried to wash off their blood-stained hands in its waters.

His head and his lyre, with mourning songs, floated along the Hebrus river (Maritsa) to the Mediterranean Sea. They arrived at the island of Lesbos, where the local people ritually burned Orpheus’s head (that was the form of the burial in those times at those places) and built a shrine near Antissa in his honour, where people came to consult the oracle.

His lyre was taken by the Muses to Heaven and placed among the stars, thus Lyra constellation appeared. The Muses also gathered the pieces of his body and buried them at Leibethra, at the foot of Olympus, where the nightingales sang at his grave. And the soul of Orpheus descended into the underground kingdom and finally reunited with his beloved Eurydice. After the river Sys flooded Leibethra, the Macedonians took his bones to Dion – which caused the legend of Orpheus’s death in Dion (near Pydna in Macedon).

This mythologized death, though, has yet another version, which strongly moves the stress of the plot from the Thracian to the Greek culture. According to it, Orpheus was killed by Zeus because he had lied to people about the stories and mysteries of the Olympic gods, and also for giving them knowledge (here we see the scheme of the myth of Prometheus) – it is about the medical, hygienic and cultural enlightening tendencies of Orphism. This version clearly demonstrates the struggle against the heretic priest who professed a religion that reformed the official paganism.



A large number of hymns in which the deities of nature were praised have been attributed to Orpheus – the so-called Orphic hymns. They contain prayers and words of reverence for the gods. They are supposed to have had a teaching function – most probably through them Orpheus taught people how to worship the ancient deities. The Thracian hero has remained famous for creating cults to Apollo and Dionysus.    

It is also supposed that his teaching was, last but not least, an attempt Thracian morals to be enriched and civilized, as well as Thracian people to be taught higher hygiene, their medical knowledge and spiritual culture to be developed. Among the gifts of Orpheus to people, that we should mention, there were: medicine (usually associated with Asclepius and Apollo), writing (traditionally credited to Cadmus) and agriculture (where Orpheus was a mediator of Demeter to humans – a role traditionally attributed to the Eleusinian hero Triptolemus). In parallel with this, the more attractive mythologems of the Prophet and the Sorcerer Orpheus were popularized, of course.

In connection with all this, Orpheus has been considered by the researchers as a reformer of the Ancient Greek/Thracian religious doctrines and royal ideologies. The implications of this concept are the parts of his legend, relating to the underground kingdom, the afterlife, and immortality – all those “violations”, transgressions of the rules of life and death, laid down in the story of the tradition. Perhaps, his reformist activity was, in fact, the real cause of his death.

The first images of the Thracian hero are from 600 BC. Up to now, 92 of his images drawn on vases have been known. Documenting the myths and legends of Orpheus is due to the ancient Hellenes, although it is not clear to what extent in the processes of this documentation the mechanisms of cultural appropriation and the attempts to assimilate the culture of the Thracians have worked.

© 2019 International Poetry Festival „Orpheus” – Plovdiv
Международен фестивал на поезията „ОРФЕЙ” – Пловдив