Orpheus: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Sarah Burges Watson

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The texts and translations relating to this guide have been prepared by Sarah Burges Watson.

Orpheus is the archetypal musician of Greek myth, whose singing enchants all of nature and even the realm of the dead. His mother is Calliope, Muse of epic. His father Pind. fr. 128c 11-12 Pind. Pyth. 4.176-7 Schol. Pind. Pyth. 4, 313a is sometimes Apollo, but usually the Thracian Oeagrus—a river god, according to Servius Serv. in Aen. 6.645. By the classical period, Orpheus is known as the author of mystical hexameter poetry and founder of mysteries [Apollod.] Bibl. 1.3.2 Damag. Anth.Pal. 7.9 Diod. Sic. 5.64.4 Ar. Ran. 1030-6 [Eur.] Rhes. 941-7 [Dem.] 25.11 Diod. Sic. 4.25.1, most importantly at Eleusis (Graf 1974). Accounting for the relationship between his mythical, mystical and authorial identities proves a challenge for the many interested parties.

The Antiquity of Orpheus

Our earliest evidence for the ‘kitharode’ (lyre-singer) is a fragmentary relief from Delphi, dated to ca. 575 BCE, on which he appears beside the Argo. A scholion to Apollonius Schol. Ap. Rhod. Arg. 1.23 says that it was a matter of scholarly dispute why Orpheus, who lacked strength, had sailed with the heroes. Apollonius Ap. Rhod. Arg. 1.23-34 gives him first position in the catalogue of Argonauts, accepting the tradition, probably recounted in early epic (West 2005), that Orpheus accompanied the Argonauts to ensure them safe passage past the Sirens. Orpheus’ Argonautic status gives him indisputable priority over Homer, since the Argonauts belonged to the generation before the Trojan War. An apparently canonical sequence — Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod, Homer Hippias of Elis 86 B6 D-K Ar. Ran. 1030-6 Pl. Ap. 41a — is attested in several authors from the classical period onwards, but already in the classical period doubts were expressed about authorship of Orphic poems, some of which were thought to have been written by Pythagoreans Clem. Al. Strom. 1.21.131 Suda s.v. Orpheus. Aristotle Arist. Gen. an. 2.1, 734a16 Arist. De an. 1.5, 410b27 Phlp. in De an. 1.5, 410b27, who speaks of the ‘so-called’ Orphic poems, probably believed (as Cicero Cic. Nat. D. 1.107 attests) that Orpheus had never existed. Sextus Empiricus Sext. Emp. Math. 1.203 and Josephus Joseph. Ap. 1.12 asserted that there were no written works before Homer. Some Schol. Ap. Rhod. Arg. 1.23 thought that there were two or more Orpheuses. The Suda Suda s.v. Orpheus lists seven. Popular opinion Paus. 9.30.4-12, fortified and/or created by the political clout of Eleusis, apparently judged him a historical figure.

Orpheus and the Underworld

By the early classical period, Orpheus’ power to lead rocks, trees and animals with his music is a well-established tradition Ap. Rhod. Arg. 1.23-34 Simon. fr. 62 Aesch. Ag. 1629-32 Eur. IA 1211-15 Eur. Bacch. 560-4 Eur. Alc. 357-62. This is no ordinary music-making, but psychagogia, which extends to the souls of the dead. A remarkable papyrus found in the 1960s at Derveni in Thessaloniki offers an allegorical interpretation of an Orphic poem in conjunction with a ritual to appease the dead (see Most and Obbink 1999, Betegh 2004, Kouremenos, Parássoglou, and Tsantsanoglou 2006). Orpheus’ conquest of the Sirens already points in this direction; katabasis poetry in his name was probably circulating by the early classical period (see West 1983: 12-13, Herrero 2011). Virgil (G. 453-558) and Ovid (Met. 10.1-85) immortalized the story, first attested in Euripides, that Orpheus descended to Hades to fetch his wife [Apollod.] Bibl. 1.3.2 Damag. Anth.Pal. 7.9 Diod. Sic. 4.25.1 Paus. 9.30.4-12 Eur. Alc. 357-62 Isoc. Bus. 10.8 Pl. Symp. 179d Conon, Narr. 45. But no extant version is unequivocal about the success of Orpheus’ mission (see Heath 1994, Sansone 1985). On Polygnotus’ painting Paus. 10.30.6 of the underworld (ca. 460 BCE), Orpheus was shown without his wife; his earliest associations are with male groups (Graf 1987, Bremmer 1991). A fragment of the Hellenistic poet Phanocles Phanocl. fr. 1 describes how Orpheus was decapitated by Thracian women because he introduced homosexuality to Thrace. Orpheus’ death at their hands is the most popular story about him in fifth-century iconography (see Lissarrague 1994); of the available explanations, sexual jealousy fits best with the images.

Orpheus’ Talking Head

The famous story that Orpheus’ head travelled to Lesbos, still singing, after his death is first attested in Phanocles Phanocl. fr. 1, where it serves as an aition for the musicality of Lesbos. Lucian Luc. Ind. 11-12 connects Orpheus with a Lesbian shrine of Bacchos; Philostratus Philostr. Her. 28.8-11 Philostr. VA 4.14, with a Lesbian oracle. But Orpheus’ burial [Apollod.] Bibl. 1.3.2 Damag. Anth.Pal. 7.9 Paus. 9.30.4-12 Conon, Narr. 45 [Eratosth.] Cat. 24 is usually located in Pieria or Thrace and another story existed, in which the head remained on the mainland, dictating oracles and poetry to his pupil (or son), Musaeus. A late-fifth-century cup illustrates the process. Euripides’ Alcestis Eur. Alc. 962-72 (438 BCE) contains a remarkable reference to charms on Thracian writing tablets which ‘the voice of Orpheus wrote down’. Almost exactly contemporary is a beautiful hydria, now in Basel, showing a naked man consulting the head in the presence of six Muses. The scene may be inspired by Aeschylus’ Bassarides, in which, as we know from a summary in Ps.-Eratosthenes [Eratosth.] Cat. 24, Orpheus was dismembered by Thracian followers of Dionysus because of his exclusive allegiance to Apollo. Following his death, his limbs were gathered up by the Muses. It is likely that they (and perhaps also Apollo) predicted the head’s future as an oracle. (See Burges Watson 2013. On the Bassarides, see West 1990, Di Marco 1993, Seaford 2005, Burges Watson 2015).


Di Marco has argued plausibly that the tragedy served as an aetiology for Orpheus’ connection with Bacchic mysteries. This probably begins with his supposed authorship of poetry used in Orphic/Bacchic rites, which Herodotus Hdt. 2.81 considers Egyptian and Pythagorean (on Orpheus’ connection with Bacchic rites and Pythagoreans see especially Burkert 1977, 1982, 2006). The name Dionysus appears on bone tablets from Olbia in the Black Sea in conjunction with a reference to ‘Orphics’ and juxtapositions equating the soul with truth and the body with falsehood (see Orph. 463-5 Bernabé, West 1982, Zhmud’ 1992). The only story about the god with which Orpheus was connected in the classical period is the myth of Dionysus Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, who was dismembered and eaten by the Titans, man’s ancestors (see Bernabé 2002, Henrichs 2011). Man is imprisoned in the body in punishment for this crime. Pausanias Paus. 8.37.5 ascribed the myth to Onomacritus, who edited the Homeric poems in the Peisistratid era and was accused of forging oracles of Musaeus. Gold leaves with instructions for the afterlife, some of which seem to refer to the myth, have been found in tombs across the Mediterranean. (See Graf and Johnston 2007, Bernabé and San Cristóbal 2008, Edmonds 2011.) In Plato’s Meno Pl. Men. 81a-c, Socrates says that the myth is interpreted by wise priests and priestesses as an allegory about reincarnation. In the Cratylus (400c), he attributes to ‘followers of Orpheus’ the doctrine that the soul is imprisoned in the body as a punishment for certain crimes. The Phaedo’s dualism draws on the same mystical environment (61e-62c, 69c-d with Xenocrates fr. 21 Isnardi Parente=Orph. 38. On Plato and Orpheus, see Bernabé 1998, 2011).

Orpheus in Late Antiquity

Reincarnation is a doctrine associated principally with Pythagoras; it is unlikely that it was ever taught at Eleusis, where Orpheus seems to have been known as the author of eschatological poems (Graf 1974). As early as Herodotus, the Greeks equated the stories of Demeter and Dionysus with those of Isis and Osiris; hence Herodotus’ assertion that Orphic rites are really Egyptian. Diodorus Diod. Sic. 4.25.1, following Hecataeus of Abdera, says that Orpheus brought the mysteries from Egypt. Hellenistic Jews such as Artapanus Euseb. Praep. evang. 9.27.3 said that he had been taught by Moses (= Musaeus—the previous teacher-student roles are reversed) and composed an Orphic poem proclaiming monotheism. Christian apologists embrace both this Egyptian tradition and Orpheus’ Argonautic credentials, making him the fount of all pagan wisdom whose positive elements thereby acquire a Biblical source. More frequently, however, apologists portray Orpheus as the quintessential theologian of polytheistic falsehoods. His music is almost never mentioned: in a rare reference, Clement of Alexandria Clem. Al. Protr. 1.31.1 makes him the singer of deceitful mysteries. (On Christian attitudes to Orpheus, see Herrero 2010). Late Neoplatonists, on the other hand, adopt Orpheus as the champion of Greek religion, who provides divine authorization for their own teachings, elicited through allegorical interpretation of his poetry. Proclus Procl. Theol. Plat. I 5 states that all Greek theology is based on Orphic teachings, drawing a direct line from Orpheus, via Pythagoras, to Plato. It is through the Neoplatonist tradition that Orpheus is adopted in Renaissance Florence as the symbol of music’s centrality in the cosmos. He becomes a figurehead for the Florentine Camerata, who assure him a key place in the burgeoning genre of opera.


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