There is some question about whether Orpheus was an actual historical human being. Most ancient writers, with the exception of Aristotle, believed that he was. However, so many legends grew up around his name that he took on mythical status. It was said that his music and singing would cast a spell on any human, animal, bird, or fish that heard him. He interpreted omens, had visions, practiced magic, and was an astrologer.
The ancient world’s counterpart to our “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” was the tales of Jason and the Argonauts, “The Agonautica.” Orpheus claimed to have been the musician who made it possible for Jason and his men to sail past the Sirens of Sirenum scopuli. He said that he played music that was louder and more beautiful that the charming songs of the Sirens.
Beginning during his journeys with the Argonauts and continuing throughout his life, Orpheus was a sexual molester of young boys. Ovid writes that “Orpheus had abstained from the love of women,…Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys…”
Nevertheless, the best-known story about Orpheus concerns his love for his wife, Eurydice. While she was walking in the grass at her wedding, she was attacked by a lecherous forest god. Fleeing from him, she stumbled and fell into a nest of poisonous snakes. A bite on her heel caused her death. Orpheus was overcome by grief. He sang such mournful songs that no one could bear to hear them. Orpheus travelled to the underworld and with his music he persuaded Hades and Persephone to allow Eurydice to return with him to the world of the living. They agreed on condition that Eurydice must walk behind him and that he could not look back at her until they were both in the land of the living. When Orpheus exited the underworld, he turned around to make sure Eurydice was there behind him. He didn’t realize that Eurydice had not yet exited the underworld. She was taken away from him forever.
Toward the end of his life Orpheus ceased to worship any god except the sun which he called Apollo. This is despite the fact that earlier in his life he had promoted the worship of Dionysus and had called her his patron. Angry at Orpheus for his rejection of Dionysus and for taking only male lovers, the Ciconian women at first threw sticks and stones at him as he played. Subsequently, they ripped him to shreds during a frenzied Bacchic orgy.
What I find interesting about this painting, “Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot is his depiction of the underworld. It is not a place of sulphurous fumes and fires or yawning pits or people screaming in anguish. There are trees growing and lush vegetation. People are standing in groups talking. There is even a pool of water. If this is the underworld, what is it under? This is all Corot’s imagination. It has no basis in Greek mythology. What was he thinking?