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The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

For two thousand years poets, writes Michael Grant, composers and painters have drawn upon the great archetypal myth of Orpheus—one of the myths that will always stir humanity.

If ancestry counts for anything, Orpheus was destined to become the greatest of singers. For his mother was one of the Muses, Calliope in most versions, and his father, if not as some said a Thracian king Oeagrus, was Apollo himself: with whose instrument, the lyre, Orpheus charmed all nature.

He owed a great part of his fame as a singer to religious reasons. In the late archaic period of Greece—roughly comprising the sixth century B.C.—the easier religion of Homer was superseded by a complex guilt-laden series of doctrines, stressing the transmigration of souls and rewards and punishments after death. These beliefs assumed such importance that the body was thought of as a mere temporary impediment, which had to devote itself to ritual and moral purity in this life in order to prepare for the next.

The doctrines did not exactly amount to a religion, for a peculiarity of the Greeks was that, even more than most people, they had no objection to assembling all manner of doctrines, however contradictory, and respecting them all simultaneously; anyone who tries to work out the Greek-based theology of Virgil’s Sixth Aeneid, when such beliefs were back in fashion, will see what I mean.

Together with elaborate tales of the Passion of the god Dionysus or Bacchus—slain by the Titans—and stories of how gods and men came into existence, and how men contain both good and evil, this mixed yet not entirely heterogeneous body of doctrine was incorporated in a great many poems that are now lost. These were called ‘Orphic’, taking Orpheus as the legendary source of their inspiration.

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