Orpheus was regarded in antiquity as the founder of mystery-religions; the first to reveal to men the meaning of rites of initiation (W.K.C. Guthrie). His father was Apollo (or Oeagrus, a Thracian river god) and his mother Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. His magic power was his perfection of music – with his song and lyre, he “allured the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks, to follow him” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11). He is also one of the Greek heroes who visited and returned from the Underworld. He is chiefly regarded as a human figure – a prophet of Dionysus/Bacchus; however his story is so blended with mythology that is is impossible to say whether or not he ever truly existed.
According to Jan Bremmer in The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, Orpheus was a mythological figure developed as a mouthpiece for certain developing ideas: “Orphism was a product of Pythagorean influence on Bacchic mysteries in the first quarter of the fifth century…but Pythagoras belongs to history, and Orpheus to myth” (Bremmer, 24).
The story of Orpheus:
The most famous story about Orpheus concerns his wife, Eurydice (also known as Agriope). While she was escaping from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), she feel into a nest of vipers and was bitten on the heel. Orpheus mourned her with a song that was so touching that all the gods and nymphs wept. At their insistence, he traveled to the Underworld to try and save his wife, using his music to soften the hearts of Persephone and Hades (as well as Charon, the boatman of the river Styx, and Cerberus, the 3 headed dog). They allowed him to retrieve Eurydice from the dead, but on one condition: she was to follow behind him and he must refrain from turning around and checking on her. He was so anxious that he turned around too early, and she disappeared forever.
The descent to the Underworld of Orpheus is paralleled in other versions of a worldwide theme: the Japanese myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the Akkadian/Sumerian myth of Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, and Mayan myth of Ix Chel and Itzamna. The Nez Perce tell a story about the trickster figure, Coyote, that shares many similarities with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The mytheme of not looking back, an essential precaution in Jason’s raising of chthonic Brimo Hekate under Medea’s guidance, is reflected in the Biblical story of Lot’s wife when escaping from Sodom. The warning of not looking back is also found in the Grimms’ folk tale “Hansel and Gretel.” More directly, the story of Orpheus is similar to the ancient Greek tales of Persephone captured by Hades and similar stories of Adonis captive in the underworld. However, the developed form of the Orpheus myth was entwined with the Orphic mystery cults and, later in Rome, with the development of Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orpheus)
Orpheus met his death at the hands of Thracian Maenads for failing to honor Dionysus (apparently, at the end of his life Orpheus worshiped only one god: Apollo). In another version, the Ciconian women, (also Dionysus’ followers), were angry at him for refusing their advances (he’d forsworn women after the death of Eurydice) and threw sticks and stones at him. At first, his beautiful music stopped the projectiles like a magic shield, but the enraged women tore him apart. (Just like Pentheus in Bacchae of Euripides). The Muses gathered up his pieces and buried them beneath Mount Olympus. His head floated to the island of Lesbos, where it prophesied until it was silenced by Apollo.
Orpheus the musician
The power of Orpheus’ music most likely has roots in the Pythagorean belief that the universe was made up of vibrations, as in a musical chord: different frequencies produced different states of matter, different colors, etc.
“Orpheus plays the same instrument as his father Apollo, symbolizing the music of the seven planets and the universal laws of septenary manifestation whose knowledge gives magical power over all created things. Orpheus could charm beasts, plants and even the denizens of the Underworld, i.e. he understood the laws of sympathy and harmony that link every level of creation, and was able to put them to use.” (Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, 146)
Guthrie suggests that his attribute was the root of Jesus’ similar power over nature: “The common representation of him sitting playing his lyre surrounded by beasts wild and tame who are lulled into amity by his music suggests naturally the picture of the lion and the lamb lying down together.” (Guthrie, W.K.C. Orpheus and Greek Religion, 23)
His music also allowed him to perform miraculous feats, without which Jason and the Argonauts could never have returned with the Golden Fleece (Orpheus muted out the Sirens’ seductive call with his own music, and, according to some accounts, also calmed the dragon to sleep so that Jason could retrieve the fleece.) (Guthrie, 28). (The snake, tree, golden fleece (ram/sheep) symbolism will be explored later).
Orphism, a new religion that emerged around 600BCE, claims to have at its core the revelations given by the head of Orpheus in the cave of Lesbos, after it had been detached from his body. “The records – known as the Orphica – contain hymns, poetry, and commentaries.” (C. Scott Littleton, Gods, goddesses, and mythology, Volume 5, 1061).
Orphism developed an elaborate cosmogony (a theory explaining the creation of the universe) that focused on the killing and eating of Dionysus by the Titans and Zeus’s subsequent destruction of the Titans, from whose ashes arose the human race, part Dionysiac (divine and good) and part Titan (earthly and evil). Through initiation into the Orphic mysteries, and by living an ascetic life of abstention from meat, wine and sexual activity, individuals sought to suppress their earthly nature. Full liberation of the divine soul could be achieved only through a cycle of incarnations.”(C. Scott Littleton, Gods, goddesses, and mythology, Volume 5, 1061).
Further, Orpheus’ round-trip into the underworld opened up the possibility of rebirth and widened the mystery of death.
The secrets of Hades were in his possession. He could tell his followers what the fate of their souls would be, and how they should behave to make it the best possible. He had shown himself capable of melting the hearts of the powers below, and might be expected to intercede again on their own behalf if they lived the pure life according to his precepts. That was the important thing. The reason which once took him there was secondary. (Guthrie, 29)
Plato mentions traveling priests, from 400BC or earlier, selling spells and initiation rites into the ‘Orphic way of Life’. Initiates were taught to control their passions, have respect for all life and refrain from eating meat (because of their believe in reincarnation), in an attempt to free their souls from the cycle of incarnation – once freed they could ascend up to “ultimate bliss on the Isles of the Blessed or in the realm of the starry ether.”“(C. Scott Littleton, Gods, goddesses, and mythology, Volume 5, 1062). Jan Bremmer, in The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, argues that Christian ideas concerning the afterlife stem from this Orphic conception:
“It is in the fifth century, then, in Orphic-Pythagorean milieus that the contours of the later Christian distinction between heaven and hell first become visible” bremmer 5
Likewise, the term Orphics used to refer to the soul of the dead, “psyche”, was taken over by Jews and Christians. Revelations 20.4 authors sees the psychai of those beheaded in heaven. (Bremmer, 4).
Further, in Orphic teachings, “man is suddenly promoted to the climax of creation. Moreover, we can observe that the diversity of the Greek pantheon has been reduced to a virtually monotheistic rule by Zeus, although Dionysus, whose position in the normative Greek pantheon was more ‘eccentric’, is also indispensable” (Bremmer, 22).
Orphics dressed in white to demonstrate their aspirations to purity, and followed strict rules of propriety. Free will and personal responsibility were also essential and important parts of the Orphic code. (Guthrie, 183)
Orpheus and Jesus Similarities
What distinguishes Orpheus from other pagan heroes is his meekness and humility:
The influence of Orpheus was always on the side of civilization and the arts of peace. In personal character he is never a hero in the modern sense. His outstanding quality is gentleness amounting at times to softness. (Guthrie, 40) (like Jesus)
Although Orpheus cannot be said to have resurrected or come back from the dead (at least not since the first time he did it, when rescuing Eurydice), we do of course have the curious prophecies of his disembodied talking head, which gave the bulk of his teachings after he’d been violently murdered.
Strikingly, Christianity has its own version of a miraculous talking head:
Herod’s stepdaughter, to whom the name Salome was later attributed, is said in Matthew 14:8 and Mark 6:25 to have asked him for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and the presentation of his severed head often appears in art.
In medieval times it was rumored that The Knights Templar had possession of the talking head of St. John, and multiple records from their Inquisition in the early 1300s make reference to some form of head being worshiped by the Knights.
Most telling, of course, is the adoption of Orpheus by the Christians, which was only a continuation of a previous adoption by Jews.
It was easy to see in the characteristic picture of Orpheus not only a symbol of the Good Shepherd of the Christians (and we remember the Orphic bukoloi), but also parallels to the lore of the Old Testament. It too had, in the person of David, its magical musician playing among sheep and the wild beasts of the wilderness, and the resemblance did not pass unnoticed. (Guthrie, 264)
“As an allegory, the pagan story even found its way into early Christan iconography. In the catacombs of Jerusalem, for example, Jesus was depicted in the guise of Orpheus with the lyre. In some later Christian tombs, Orpheus is shown delivering the Sermon on the Mount or acting as “the Good Shepherd” (C. Scott Littleton, Gods, goddesses, and mythology, Volume 5, 1058)
The Christian apologists on the whole regard Orpheus with anger and contempt, as an imposter. They were certainly not willing pupils. He appears mostly as the champion of polytheism and superstition. Yet the passage of Justin, of which a part was quoted in the previous passage, shows that the similarity was noticed in his time between the myth of Dionysus and the story of the Christ sufficiently close to constitute a danger and necessitate a warnings against confusion between these two representations of a suffering son of God. (Apo.1;54 – Dionysus and Jesus) Guthrie266
Cyril against Julian “Of Orpheus son of Oiagros they say that he was the most superstitious of men, and that he anticipated the poetry of Homer, that is to say that he was older than him in time, and that he made up songs and hymns to the false gods and obtained no mean glory thereby; that then he condemned his own teaching, realizing that he had wellnigh left the highway and wandered from the true road, and turned to better things and chose truth instead of falsehood and spoke thus about God… (Shows what a serious threat Orpheus was…and how powerful to make him an ally)Guthrie 256
A final bit of interesting trivia is Orpheus’ personal antagonism towards women, and their resentment of it leading to his violent death, which was used to justify sexist cultural practices. Women were banned from Orphic mysteries (although apparently not from the rites of Dionysus…)
Similarly the practice of tattooing among Thracian women was said to be the punishment inflicted on them by their husbands for the murder of Orpheus. To Plutarch indeed it does occur to protract the punishment thus far shows a certain lack of proportion: ‘we can find no praise for the Thracians, that they brand their wives to this day to avenge Orpheus’. (Guthrie, 50)
Thus, we have women being blamed and punished for a mythological event; not unlike Christianity’s subordination of women – ‘the weaker sex’ – for Eve’s fall and the temptation of Adam. (To carry the theme further, we can argue a mythical parallel between Eve, falling into sin and Adam following after her – into Sin and Death – with Orpheus pursuit of Eurydice into the Underworld.