Dimitris P. Kraniotis

The figure of Orpheus: Between the Myth and the Moment

by Dimitris P. Kraniotis

The myth of Orpheus is one of the popular Greek myths. Perhaps one of the most inspiring figures of classical mythology was Orpheus. He was a son of Apollo and Calliope, one of the Muses. As a youth, he was taught to play the lyre, by his father, patron of the arts. So, with such a pedigree and upbringing, great things were expected of him.

The myth is about Orpheus' going to Hades to take his wife back from Pluto – the ruler of the underworld. He uses his fascinated music and charming voice to make Pluto and his wife feel sympathy and persuade them to release Eurydice back to the living world. The most compelling scenes were Orpheus made a commitment with Pluto that Eurydice will follow him behind, and he should not look back until they reach the living world, because Pluto wants to test Orpheus for the faith he has in Eurydice. Unfortunately, Orpheus has turned back to look at Eurydice one step too early, because he does not sure if she has been following him behind. Eurydice turns back to shadow, and Orpheus will never be able to see her again.

The world’s greatest musician came to a bad end, partly as a result of his intractable melancholy. A group of nymphs — in the throes of a Dionysian celebration — noticed him, and wished him to sing a more playful tune. He ignored them, continuing to play a mournful air, still consumed by his grief. They became frenzied, and even angry. One of them hurled a spear at him; charmed by his music, though, the spear fell harmlessly to the ground before him. At this, the frenzied nymphs went wild; they screeched at him, drowning out his music. Thus, he was rendered defenseless, and they rent him apart, scattering him through the wild.

Orpheus’s shade, like Eurydice’s before him, came down to Hades. There, the two lovers reunited; in that dark and gloomy realm, they know, again, happiness in each other’s arms, and Orpheus now sings a repertoire of joyous music.

Scholars know Greek mythology as a collection of tales regarding gods and heroes alike, detailing specifically the interactions between human beings and gods and the interactions of the gods themselves. Supernatural phenomena at the hands of the gods became the human explanation for natural events. While some critics and literary historians view the role of human beings in Greek mythology as that of simply pawns in the gods’ design, there are others still that argue on the side of humanity’s importance in the myths, giving them more dignity and their roles more purpose. Humans often were used as a control or contrast for the power and might of the gods. Those familiar with the myth of Orpheus, for example, may question whether he was simply a tool used by the gods, constructed simply to show the power of the gods and death or if his paradigm was meant to glorify his kind.

In order to come to a conclusion regarding this question, examination into Orpheus’ life, story, and role must be made. The tale of Orpheus has been retold throughout history, and the critical views and opinions of generations since have changed with the centuries a propos his presence as a figure in Greek mythology. Intellectuals name Orpheus as the son of the Muse Calliope, the patron of epic poetry and fluency. His paternity oft disputed, usually his father is described as either Apollo, god of music and light, or Oeagrus, a king of Thrace. Like some other humans in Greek mythology, gods invested Orpheus with supernatural powers. Orpheus turned out to be the greatest musician of all. He played and sang so well, that trees uprooted themselves and crowded around him; stones softened and moved under his feet, to cushion them. Animals stood in awe of his music.

What lesson is there in the story of Orpheus? What does it mean for those suffering from depression? Well, Orpheus was clearly the most famous victim of depression, in the classical world. His melancholy (that’s the Greek term for depression) was borne of his pure love for Eurydice, and his longing for her.

The myth of Orpheus inspired a vast school of mysticism. Greco-Roman mystics understood Orpheus to have achieved the height of his art, as a result of his melancholy. Out of his grief, they believed, came great beauty enough to move even the heart of gods. In so many words, they acknowledged the connection between depression and creativity, between sadness and inspiration.

The melancholy of Orpheus inspired many to achieve excellence. Pythagoras, the famed mathematician and philosopher, emulated Orpheus, dwelling apart from others for long stretches, in deep contemplation. In turn, many other scholars were inspired by him. Pythagoras established a school of philosophy based upon the ideals of Orpheus.

Based on the above, someone can realize that the literary myth of Orpheus is thematically complex and it doesn’t have a single form or character.  It is transplanted in different kinds of art and literary genre and receives plenty of signaling (real or symbolic).

In this way the myth creates the new meanings that the creator needs to give. The passage from the mythic narration to the literal or artistic reality is done in various ways and its elements are magnified, reduced or are modified by the creator, according to his aesthetic or ideological preferences.

It is up to the creator to decide how he will treat the elements of the mythical narration, in order to define its stable points, its variables and furthermore to define the faithful reproduction or the modernization of the myth. So, the myth of Orpheus sometimes is reproduced faithfully and some other times is differentiated by receiving various symbolisms.

Finally, through the myth of Orpheus, we come to the issues of love, happiness, suffering, life, and death. There are many film directors, artists, musicians, composers, poets and authors borrow the myth of Orpheus to show their beliefs in the context of humanity and man's issues.


Dimitris P. Kraniotis, Greece


The project “International Festival of Poetry “ORPHEUS” – Plovdiv 2018” was realized with the financial support of “The Cultural Programme for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2018” of the National Culture Fund.


Bulgarian Presidency
of the Council of the European Union

© 2018 International Poetry Festival „Orpheus” – Plovdiv
Международен фестивал на поезията „ОРФЕЙ” – Пловдив