Orpheus: the Singular Lives and Work of Poets


The myth says it was the Muses who taught Orpheus the lyre and that he excelled and that even Apollo was taken with his skill.


The happiness of Eurydice and Orpheus came to an end when a snake bit and poisoned one of her feet and she died and descended to Tartarus, the realm of the dead.  He followed her, alive.


The myth says that Hades and his captured queen, Persephone, were so moved by Orpheus‘ songs of loss that even the tortures of the damned were halted while he was in Tartarus; and Cerberus stopped his demented barking.






Orpheus in Hades, oil on canvas, 1877, and detail, with light interference.  Pierre Amédée Marcel-Beronneau, 1869-1937, French. 

Loaned to the Metropolitan Museum, NY in 2017 by Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille for an exhibition on Symbolism in art.



Orpheus was permitted to negotiate Eurydice’s return.  She was to return so long as he did not turn round on the path out of the underworld. He was not to check that she was following him.


Orpheus turned round when he reached the upper world.  Eurydice disappeared into the shadows.  






Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian, 1875 – 1926, Sonnet V of The Sonnets to Orpheus.  Translated by Willis Barnstone



RAISE NO MEMORIAL STONE.  Although we miss

him, let the rose bloom every year for him.

He is Orpheus, and his metamorphosis

is everywhere. We needn’t scan the rim 


of forests for  more names.  Once and for all

it is Orpheus when there’s song.  He comes

and goes.

And isn’t it a marvelous windfall

when he stays a few days longer than a rose?  


For you to know him he must disappear!

Though he was terrified of vanishing

and while his word transcends his being here,  


he has gone already where you cannot go.

His hands are not ensnared in lyre string

and he obeys, stepping beyond us now.





The myth is thousands of years old and is many layered, many visioned, and many versioned with bits and pieces added and subtracted over the millennia.


One version says that Orpheus could not hear Eurydice’s footfall.  Anxious, he turned round and she vanished into the dark.

The footfall of mammals is without sound unless they choose otherwise.


Another earlier version says that the gods did not believe that Orpheus wanted to save Eurydice.  They did not believe he loved her. Or the world.  They did not believe he loved them, the gods, Apollo excepted.  


What he loved was the lyre and the poetry which it streamed out of him.


The gods, it seems, understood that Orpheus did not follow conventional rules for behaviour and that, to him, everything – including the lives of the gods – was subject matter for his lyre and his songs.


This version says that the gods punished Orpheus.


They deluded him into thinking that he had descended into Tartarus when he had never left the surface of the earth.  After years of wandering, lyre in hand and songs streaming from his mouth, Orpheus was killed by the the maddened maenads of Dionysos at the bidding of the gods.





Cosimo I  de Medici, Duke of Florence as Orpheus. 

His lyre is in his hands and the dog Cerberus is becalmed.

  Angelo Bronzini, 1503-1572. Oil on panel. Philadelphia Musuem of Art.




Another version of his death says that Zeus killed Orpheus with a thunderbolt because he, with his songs, had divulged the cult mysteries of Apollo, Demeter and Hecate. 


These mysteries teach men and women how to handle life, sex, and death, a function reserved to the gods.



Cosimo 1 de Medici as Orpheus-1

Detail of Cosimo I  de Medici, Duke of Florence as Orpheus.

Angelo Bronzini, 1503-1572. Oil on panel. Philadelphia Musuem of Art



Until Orpheus, a mortal, came with his mysterious songs.  His skill was so great that he mastered this most difficult function of poetry.  Very costly to him.


After Orpheus was ripped to pieces, his head, thrown into a river with his lyre, went on singing.




The Folly, Chanticleer, PA-1

Submerged head at The Folly, Chanticleer, Wayne, Pennsylvania



Orpheus was finally laid to rest on land where he continued to reveal prophecy in Apollo’s name.


These prophecies became so widely known and were so potent that Apollo asked him finally to cease and desist so that the god’s traffic and offerings could pick up again at his shrines across Greece.  The god’s oracular temple at Delphi had practically been abandoned……….. 


But he has never ceased nor desisted and it is the Orpheic tradition which has survived and the temple at Delphi which is a ruin and Apollo closeted on Olympus even if he continues to transmit his pinpoint bright sunlight.


As to Orpheus‘ lyre, the muses, who had taught Orpheus the lyre, persuaded Jupiter – it took them aeons because he was so angry with Orpheus –  to place it as a constellation (Lyra) among the stars. 


As to the muses, they still govern poets and will undoubtedly remain until our species is done.












3 thoughts on “Orpheus: the Singular Lives and Work of Poets

  1. It looks like Orpheus’s turned too far in the painting. I often see paintings of a person looking over their shoulder and my head doesn’t turn that far. It makes me think their neck is broken. Do you think that was deliberate on the part of the artist? And is the head too small for the body? I had to look twice.

    1. I can see why you wonder if the head is too small for this body and it may be. Especially since Cerberus’ head is bigger! I imagine that this was a tribute painting by the artist for a powerful patron, a Medici. I do not think that Bronzini would have done anything to offend Cosimo’s sensibilities. So I imagine that the painter meant to emphasize the ruler’s body: all that white flesh and all those muscles!

      I never thought about why our species cannot turn our heads round without turning our bodies. From an evolutionary point of view, it would have been so useful to be able to twizzle the head around. I do think the turn of Cosimo’s head is somewhat exaggerated. But not overly so. Again, that may have been to attribute unique ability to an agile ruler. It may be that Cosimo’s head was not in proportion to his body, in real life.

      I have always liked this painting even though I know that there is something dissonant between the idea of the powerful and brutal Medici and Orpheus who was a mortal and was ripped apart by the gods.

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