The Story of Orpheus

As told by Ovid, from Metamorphoses X/1-152 and XI/1-48

Orpheus, son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope, was a Thracian minstrel. Some say that Apollo taught Orpheus to play the lyre. He became so adept at music that his playing and singing charmed wild animals and caused stones and trees to follow him when he wished. Orpheus married a Naïad nymph, Eurydice. Shortly after their marriage, she was chased by the amorous Aristaeüs and, in her eagerness to escape him, stepped on a snake and was bitten. Orpheus mourned her death, then determined to bring her back from Hades. Guided by Hermes, he slipped past Cerberus, the dog who guards the entrance at Taenarum [the Underworld]. Then he sang and played so movingly that the spirits came in hordes to listen, the damned forgot their labors for a moment, and even the cold hearts of Hades and Persephone were melted. They granted Orpheus’ plea that he be allowed to take Eurydice back with him, provided that he promise not to look at her until they reached home. Orpheus led his wife up to the entrance of the Underworld, then, overcome with fear that she might not be following, turned to look. Eurydice instantly faded away to become once again only a shade. When Orpheus tried to reenter Hades, his way was inexorably barred. Grief and mental anguish and tears of sorrow were his nourishment.

Then lamenting the cruelty of the gods, he went back to lofty Rhodope in Thrace and soon met his own death there, torn to pieces by Ciconian women raging as maenads on a mountain. As he reached the apex of the hill, he began to sing to Eurydice, and the frenzied women of Thrace caught sight of Orpheus from the top of the hill. One of the women cried, "See, see, there is the one who scorns us!" Then she hurled a spear at Apollo’s bard (Orpheus) as he sang, but it was buried in foliage and left a mark without wounding him. Another’s weapon was a stone, which was overpowered in mid-air by the melody of his song. At length, the rocks grew red with the blood of the bard they could no longer hear, as the women rushed at him, some throwing clods of earth, others branches stripped from trees, some hurling stones.

The reason for their enmity is variously explained: they were inflamed by Dionysus because Orpheus had not properly honored that god, or had preferred the worship of Helius; they were angry because he remained faithful to Eurydice’s memory by abjuring love altogether, or by becoming the first man to love boys; or each of the women wanted him for herself and they tore him apart in the resulting squabble. The Muses gathered the scattered pieces of Orpheus’ body and buried them at his home in Pieria, except for his head. This, and perhaps the lyre as well, floated down the river Hebrus and across the sea to Lesbos, where the people kindly buried them. Orpheus rewarded the people of Lesbos by making them adept at music. Many say that the Muses immortalized the lyre by placing it in the sky as the constellation Lyra.

The sorrowful birds wept for you, Orpheus, the wild beasts mourned you, and the stones and the trees that had gathered so often to listen to your songs wept for you. They say the rivers, too, swelled their banks from their own tears.