Orpheus, the Thracian bard, the great initiator of the Greeks, ceased to be known as a man and was celebrated as a divinity several centuries before the Christian Era. "As to Orpheus himself," writes Thomas Taylor, "scarely a vestiage of his lifem is to be found amongst the immense ruins of time. For who has ever been able to affirm any thing with certainy of his origin, his age, his country, and condition? This alone may depend on, from a general assent, that there formerly lived a person Orpheus, who was the founder of theology among the Greeks, the institutor of their lives and morals; the first of prophets, and the prince of poets,; himself the offspring of a Muse; who taught the Greeks their sacred rites and mysteries, and from whose wisdom, as from a perennial and abundant fountain, the devine muse of Homer and the sublime theology of Pythagoras and Plato flowed."
Orpheus was founder of the Grecian mythological system which he used as the medium of the promulgation of his philosophical doctrines. The origin of his philosophy is uncertain. He may have got it from the Brahmins, there being legends to the effect that he was a Hindu, his name possibly being derived from opovaios, meaning "dark." Orpheus was initiated into the Egyptian Mysteries, from which he secured extensive knowledge of magic, astrology, sorcery, and medicine. The Mysteries of the Cabiri at Samothrace were also conferred upon him, as these undoubtedly contributed to his knowledge of medicine and music.
The romance of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the tragic episodes of Greek mythology and apparently constitutes outstanding features of the Orphic rite. Eurydice, in her attempt to escape from a villian seeking to seduce her, died from the venom of a poisonous serpent which stung her in the heel. Orephus, penetrating the very heart of the underworld, so charmed Pluto and Persephone with the beauty of his music that they agreed to permit Eurydice to return to life if Orpheus could lead her back to the sphere of the living without once looking round to see if she were following. So great was his fear, however, that she would stray from him that he turned his head, and Urydice with a heartbroken cry was wept back into the land of death.
Orpheus wandered the earth for a while disconsolate, and there are several conflicting accounts of the manner of his death. Some declare that he was slain by a bolt of lightning; that failling to save his beloved Eurydice, he committed suicide. The generally accepted version of his death, however, is that he was torn to pieces by Ciconian women who advances he had spurned. In the tenth book of Plato's Republic it is declared that, because of his sad fate at the hands of women, the soul that had once been Orpheus, upon being destined to live again in the physical world, chose rather to return in the body of a swan than be born of woman. The head of Orpheus, upon being torn from his body, was cast with his lyre into the river Hebrus, down which it floated to the sea, where, wedging in a cleft in a rock, it gave oracles for many years. The lyre, after being stolen from its shrine and working the destruction of a thief, was picked up by the gods and fashioned into a constellation.
Orpheus has long been sung as the patron of music. On his seven-stringed lyre he played such perfect harmonies that the gods themselves were moved to acclaim his power. When he touched the strings of his instrument the birds and beasts gathered around him, and as he wandered through the forests his enchanted melodies caused even the ancient trees with mighty effort to draw their gnarled roots from out of the earth and follow him. Orpheus is one of the many immortals who have sacrificed themselves that mankind might have the wisdom of the gods. By the symbolism of his music he communicated the divine secrets to humanity, and several authors have declared that the gods, though loving him, feared that he would overthrow their kingdom, and therefore reluctantly encompassed his destruction.