Orpheus-Poet, Philosopher, Sacrificial Victim

Orpheus, the legendary poet, is now well-known for his failed attempt to bring his wife Eurydice back from the underworld (Vergil, Georgics 4.545 and Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.8 love this tale. Here’s the version from Apollodorus.). Classical Greece, however, seems to offer little evidence of the popularity of this tale. Instead? Orpheus was a philosopher!

From Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Preface

“Those who attempt to credit philosophy’s discovery to the barbarians also offer as proof Orpheus the Thracian, claiming that he was a philosopher and that he was the oldest, but I do not know if it is right to call him a philosopher when he professed such things about the gods—and what is it right to call a man who refuses to attribute all human suffering to the gods and even the shameful things done by the words of just a few men? The story is that Orpheus was torn to pieces by women. But there is an epigram at Dion in Macedonia that says he was struck by lightning:

The muses interred here golden-lyred Orpheus
Whom Zeus on high killed with a sizzling bolt.

Οἱ δὲ τὴν εὕρεσιν διδόντες ἐκείνοις παράγουσι καὶ ᾿Ορφέα τὸν Θρᾷκα, λέγοντες φιλόσοφον γεγονέναι καὶ εἶναι ἀρχαιότατον. ἐγὼ δέ, εἰ τὸν περὶ θεῶν ἐξαγορεύσαντα τοιαῦτα χρὴ φιλόσοφον καλεῖν οὐκ οἶδα, <οὐδὲ> τίνα δεῖ προσαγορεύειν τὸν πᾶν τὸ ἀνθρώπειον πάθος ἀφειδοῦντα τοῖς θεοῖς προστρῖψαι, καὶ τὰ σπανίως ὑπό τινων ἀνθρώπων αἰσχρουργούμενα τῷ τῆς φωνῆς ὀργάνῳ. τοῦτον δὲ ὁ μὲν μῦθος ὑπὸ γυναικῶν ἀπολέσθαι φησί· τὸ δ’ ἐν Δίῳ τῆς Μακεδονίας ἐπίγραμμα, κεραυνωθῆναι αὐτόν, λέγον οὕτως (A. Pal. vii. 617)·

Θρήϊκα χρυσολύρην τῇδ’ ᾿Ορφέα Μοῦσαι ἔθαψαν,
ὃν κτάνεν ὑψιμέδων Ζεὺς ψολόεντι βέλει.

The bit about Orpheus’ death confused me too, so I did a little digging and found an explanation in Eratosthenes’ Star Myths 1.24:

“After he went into Hades for his wife and saw that things were there, he honored Dionysus no longer, even though he was famous because of him, and he worshipped Helios beyond the other gods, one he also called Apollo. He would wake every night before dawn, climb a mountain named Pangaion, and await the sun’s rays so that he might see Helios first. Dionysus was mad at him over this so he sent the Bassarides against him, as the tragic poet Aeschylus records. They tore him apart and scattered his limbs. The muses gathered him up and buried him at the place called Leibethra.

διὰ τῆς ᾠδῆς· διὰ δὲ τὴν
γυναῖκα εἰς ῞Αιδου καταβὰς
καὶ ἰδὼν τὰ ἐκεῖ οἷα ἦν
τὸν μὲν Διόνυσον οὐκ
ἐτίμα, ὑφ’ οὗ ἦν δεδοξα-
σμένος, τὸν δὲ ῞Ηλιον μέ-
γιστον τῶν θεῶν ἐνόμισεν,
ὃν καὶ ᾿Απόλλωνα προση-
γόρευσεν· ἐπεγειρόμενός τε
τὴν νύκτα κατὰ τὴν ἑω-
θινὴν ἐπὶ τὸ ὄρος τὸ κα-
λούμενον Πάγγαιον <ἀνι- ὼν> προσέμενε τὰς ἀνατο-
λάς, ἵνα ἴδῃ <τὸν ῞Ηλιον>
πρῶτον· ὅθεν ὁ Διόνυσος
ὀργισθεὶς αὐτῷ ἔπεμψε τὰς
Βασσαρίδας, ὥς φησιν
Αἰσχύλος ὁ τῶν τραγῳδιῶν
ποιητής· αἳ διέσπασαν αὐ-
τὸν καὶ τὰ μέλη ἔρριψαν
χωρὶς ἕκαστον· αἱ δὲ Μοῦ-
σαι συναγαγοῦσαι ἔθαψαν
ἐπὶ τοῖς καλουμένοις Λει-
βήθροις.

K20.7Kalliope
Kalliope, collecting Orpheus’ Head

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