Orpheus: First romantic hero

Today, a story about trust — the need for it, and the horrible consequences of losing it. The lesson comes wrapped in the myth of Orpheus.

So far in this evolving thread on heroes and heroism, I’ve looked at the brute archetype of a hero (Hercules), the more refined classical archetype (Theseus), and a more complex and ambiguous hero (Jason). They were all not only Greeks but also Argonauts — ie, they boarded the ship Argo to accompany Jason on his quest to get the Golden Fleece. The main purpose of that ship, besides conveying Jason on his quest, seems to have been precisely that: to establish who did and did not count as a hero.

Therefore it is clear that the Greeks considered Orpheus, also on board, a hero as well. And thereby the pattern of increasing complexity in the idea of heroism continues. Orpheus, I would say, was the first “romantic hero” in the history of storytelling.

Not strong but gifted

Who was Orpheus? A Wunderkind. He had the best singing voice in the world, the best musical ear, the most sublime talent for moving humans (and even animals and trees and rocks) with sound. He may have been the son of Apollo, the god of (among other things) music, and Apollo personally taught Orpheus to play the lyre. Whenever Orpheus filled the air with sound, nature relented and sighed and swooned.

That’s the first sign that he was a romantic hero — he was not known for his strength, as Hercules was, but for a talent.

Nonetheless, he was also brave, or at least bold. But his heroism had a different motivation. Orpheus did something heroic not because he could (Hercules) or because he had a public duty (Theseus) or because he wanted to reclaim a throne and power (Jason) but because he … loved.

He loved a woman named Eurydice and they married and lived in bliss. But one day (her wedding day, in some versions), Eurydice was walking through a meadow when a venomous snake bit her. She died and went to Hades, the underworld of shadows.

Orpheus was inconsolable. He decided that he could not live without Eurydice, so he set out to do something very bold: He went down to Hades, as a living human visiting the dead, to plead with Hades to give Eurydice back.

To get down there, he used his talent. When Cerberus, the huge three-headed dog who guarded the underworld, blocked his path, Orpheus sang so sweetly that Cerberus wagged his tail and let him pass. When Orpheus reached the dark and stinking river Styx, he sang again and Charon, the ferryman, was moved to bring him across.

And so he arrived among the ghosts and shadows of the dead, keeping fear at bay by thinking only of his beloved. He appeared before King Hades and his queen, Persephone, and there sang and played his lyre more beautifully than he ever had before (pictured above).

Persephone in particular was moved that a man could love a woman so much, and Hades, also touched, relented. He would give Eurydice back to Orpheus — ie, make her alive again — on one condition.

The difficulty of trusting

That condition was simple: Eurydice would follow behind Orpheus up to the world of the living, but Orpheus was not to turn around to look at her.

So she was called and Orpheus began the long way upwards toward the surface of the earth. He could not hear footsteps behind him, but of course he knew that Eurydice was still a shadow and had no weight yet.

Orpheus kept climbing and looking forward with determination and focus. At last, he saw the first rays of light at the top.

But doubt seized him. What if Eurydice was no longer there? What if she had never been behind him to begin with?

Orpheus forgot himself and … turned.

And as he turned, he got one last glimpse of his beloved. Eurydice had indeed been behind him all this time, just as Hades had promised. But now, because Orpheus had turned, she dissolved back into the darkness. With a look of unbearable sadness in her eyes, she returned to Hades — this time forever.

So Orpheus returned to the world of the living alone. But who calls this living? He was a broken man. His songs and music were henceforth desperate and made animals and plants cry.

Eventually, a group of women (or nymphs or beasts) who could not bear it anymore tore him to pieces and threw his lyre and body parts into a river.

Nymphs (above) saw Orpheus’ head floating downstream, still singing its mournful song of love bereft and trust betrayed. Perhaps his shadow, when it arrived in Hades, found Eurydice’s at last.

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37 thoughts on “Orpheus: First romantic hero

    • Why was Orpheus a hero?

      Ah, but it is for you to decide whether he was.

      the Greeks seem to have thought so, because he was on the Argo (a boat reserved for heroes).

      And he did something boldly heroic — he penetrated the underworld of the dead as a living man.

      But perhaps heroism is something else. That’s what this thread is investigating.

      Do tell me if you think he was NOT a hero.

    • OK, couldn’t remember if you’d already settled on a working definition of hero. Just off the top of my head with general characteristics: valour, courage, effectiveness, leader of others?, special relationship with doubt? (I’m thinking of our dear Shack here:)

      Is one of the prereqs of a hero that they be effective in their task? I think I think so, and somehow this may not be exactly the same as success.

      And he did something boldly heroic — he penetrated the underworld of the dead as a living man.

      Maybe Orpheus erred precisely because he sought to usurp the authority of the gods, eg, in going into the underworld, and in not obeying the instruction? Maybe this is the obvious lesson from his story and everyone knows it … sorry, don’t know a lot about it. What I mean is: does usurping the gods rule one out as a hero in the ancient world?

      Also, one other question: do the ancients actually use the concept of “hero” (or some equivalent concept)?

    • 🙂 ha! i think you think so also

      no the thread begins with the classical heroes of antiquity

      for which the definition of hero, is i think: “wealth, strength, health, and power”, count as good; while bad is associated with the “poor, weak, sick, and pathetic” (wiki cheat, since i being forced to recall high school learning @ this point).

  1. Myths, like fables and stories throughout time, have some moral lesson. What was this myth’s lesson? Trust Evil and forge ahead? Trust in your love? Or Murphy’s Law?

    On another note, I think of the Argo’s crew of heroes as an ancient form of Legion of Superheroes.

    • Legion of Superheroes: Bingo.

      There is something about associations (clubs, teams, colleges, fraternities) that bestows legitimacy and identity.

      The “lesson” (I always put that word in quotes at the moment, because I am in the process of distilling “lessons” from my book for a mass audience with a five-second attention span, so I am aware of how difficult this can be):

      I think it is: Sometimes in life you really should not turn back but keep looking forward. That sounds dumb, but if you alter it to fit your situation, it might make more sense.

    • I think it is: Sometimes in life you really should not turn back but keep looking forward. That sounds dumb, but if you alter it to fit your situation, it might make more sense.

      It does. Yet it would seem, as Orpheus learned, difficult to keep one’s eye on the “prize” when it’s behind you, following.

    • anderas, the time line? biblical similarity to a Babylonian pillar of salt, if you are talking of trust?

      o.k. time to break it down to easy to digest bites… where did i read you have been impressed and influence by Nietzsche?

      you most certainly have a more defined definition of heroism than the Socratic, “you tell me what you think?” belies.

      did Orpheus fit the greek definition of hero? he would fit the Nietzschean definition, yes?

      Jason did not seem to fit any definition of hero, antiquity nor modern so i made no comment since i felt uninformed. he would fit the Nietzschean “will to power” definition. Although i would not go so far as to say Nietzsche considered this trait heroic.

      i am confused by the timeline and the mix of definitions of Hero, since they most certainly change with the paradigm of the time.

      topic for another thread might be: the four separate definitions of hero according to the four timelines you wish to explore?


      come out of the closet with your agreement or disagreement with Nietzsche, Malthus. Darwin and the horrible way they are misrepresented in posts? (pet peeve, that such great thinkers can be twisted to such bad ends)

      these thinker all contain clues to your definition of heroism.
      i will try to connect the tangents later – they do relate to others posts – including those about governance.

      “Wherever progress is to ensue, deviating natures are of greatest importance. Every progress of the whole must be preceded by a partial weakening. The strongest natures retain the type, the weaker ones help to advance it. Something similar also happens in the individual. There is rarely a degeneration, a truncation, or even a vice or any physical or moral loss without an advantage somewhere else.” – Neitzsche, All too Human

    • It seems that you are trying to tie all threads on The Hannibal Blog together in one single comment. 😉

      I can’t quite follow how they are all related HERE, but I’ll try.

      First, to the Greeks all the people in my hero thread are “heroes”. At one level, that probably meant simply “protagonist in a timeless adventure”, which Jason certainly was. What intrigues me about them all, I suppose, is that the Greeks never suffered from our delusion that some people, even heroes, must be above reproach. All the heroes had their shortcomings. By telling these stories, I’m really just setting up precedents for much more complicated heroes to come down the ages.

      Nietzsche: yes, he influenced me a great deal when I took courses on him in college. But his main influence was to get me to see beyond the hypocrisy in accepted “values”. I’m not sure he had a specific opinion about Orpheus. He did love the “Dionysian” personality (which revels in worldly pleasures with abandon) above the “Apollonian” (which cerebrally sits aloft them), and he did love the ancient Greeks and their unspoiled morality as a whole. In that way, too, he influenced me.

      The timeline: As long as we’re talking about Greek heroes there is none. Which is to say that they all exist in mythical time, where even chronologies don’t make sense. But the stories probably predate Homer and Hesiod, to some time in the the second millennium BCE.

      Nietzsche, Malthus, Darwin: Very different thinkers. Nietzsche had a big influence on me, as I said above.

      Malthus had none whatsoever, except as a warning how wrong one can be. He predicted (with impeccable logic) that world population would outstrip the available food supply and that humanity would thus self-destruct — and he did this at just the moment when the world’s population began its uninterrupted growth ALONG WITH global food supply.

      Darwin: “influence” is too weak a word. He was the first to understand the process that drives change and life and that shaped also our human nature. But he had nothing to say about heroism.

    • i would consider your first line a compliment if my post were more coherent.

      not trying to force connections, just “compulsively” seeing connections between your threads – even though i have only read a few. your own opinions/influences are very consistent, as are mine if anyone can follow them.

      perhaps i am jumping in my mind to the “more complicated heros” down the line without the steps in between.

      Nietzsche, Malthus and Darwin indeed are very different thinkers but all had a great influence on how i would “ultimately” define hero.

      my mind makes a connection between their ideas – human nature being my common denominator.

      Nietzsche’s quote on human nature. Malthus failure to figure human nature into his calculations (neither humanities capacity for to evolve, nor or capacity to self-anihilate). Then flip to Darwin, beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival — a process known as “natural selection.”

      must not human nature evolve into heroic behaviors that aid in survival? and then my tangent circles back to Nietzsche’s Uberman.

      please tell me my parents did not waste their money on my education 🙂 have i misunderstood them so very much?

    • Ah, but remember that Darwin’s natural selection is about ADAPTATION, not “progress”. There’s nothing heroic about the members of a population who pass on their alleles to the next generation more than others.

      Ironically, Nietzsche had a similar twist: he would say that it’s the mediocre, not the heroic, who win (via slave morality).

    • darwin was not only about DNA. both Nietzsche and Darwin’s ideas were twisted to very bad ends.

      they both speak to human nature. isn’t that what motivates human behavior? thus influencing a heroic act? darwin and Nietzsche both addressed the obvious link to human behavior their theories inspired: within their lifetime: and adamantly spoke out against the “bad ends”. (eugenics, social darwinism)

      the terms “survival of the fittest” and “ubermeunsch’ have both been horrifically misunderstood.

      the quote i chose by Nietzsche shows an overlap with the idea that both shared as you point out a respect, even a biological/moral imperative for frailty. an adjective NOT classically associated with HERO.

    • douglas,

      post a link to you blog or email, i will read it. i don’t understand your point. neither the meek nor the strong will inherit anything without life affirming behaviors.

    • My website is linked to my name and you already should have my email. I am referring to the New Testament

      Matthew 5:5

      “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

      It is also in Psalms 37:11

      “But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”

      I would not think that life affirming behaviors are precluded by the meek.

    • @douglas

      thanks, yes i know the quote, i did not understand That is also one of two twists I put on “the meek shall inherit the earth.” The other twist is rather dark. the twist?

      the explanation seemed like it might be lengthy so i suggested you might wish to email what you meant by the two twists. or not. apologies if i hit a nerve.

      as laborious as my posts are to READ they are even more laborious to glue together because of my aphasia.

    • I was actually replying to Andreas’ comment:

      Ironically, Nietzsche had a similar twist: he would say that it’s the mediocre, not the heroic, who win (via slave morality).

      The “meek” in my reply being the “mediocre” in his comment. Meek is a stretch of a definition of mediocre (some might say quite a stretch). The dark twist would be that the biblical quote means the meek shall die (or fail in the worst sense).

      No nerve hit, Dafna, I was puzzled because you already had both my website link and my email address.

    • @ andreas,

      um, well slave morality was not covered as well as some of Nietzsche other ideas in philosophy 101 😦

      i would not use the word “mediocre”, but perhaps “weak” v.s “strong” (master) – it would seem this master slave morality theory directly contradicts the above quote in his writings from All Too Human

      i want my tuition money back.

    • Be happy about spending your tuition money.

      Nietzsche once said that he wants his readers to be like cows: ruminating on his words, vomiting them up for redigestion seven times at least. that’s why he wrote in aphorisms, and often intentionally contradicted himself. He clearly made you think, so he would consider you one of his best readers. (If he also made you furious without losing you, he would really love you. ;))

      You’ve raised a lot of issues here. Perhaps we might break those down in bite-sized posts in the future. I’ll put my thinking cap on.

  2. Something struck me while considering myths and legends (and, by extension, heroes). I recall, vaguely, reading that there were only a certain number of story plots and that all novels, all stories, were merely variations upon these plots. The story of seeking the hero’s rightful position of power, as in Jason’s quest for his throne (and Beowulf). Dafna brought up the biblical story of Lot’s wife in comparison to Orpheus’ love. That theme being repeated many times in novels and plays (maybe even in Romeo and Juliet). And, of course, the similarities in myths and legends.

    Are we programmed to see only certain patterns/storylines as acceptable, like multitude of Golden Means?

    I may not be expressing this well.

    • You expressed yourself perfectly well, Douglas. You have just discovered, through your own reasoning, Ur-Story or Monomyth theory. Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is the book to read, but it is based on Carl Jung’s archetypes.

      In short, exactly as you said: We tell each other the same stories again and again, in ever generation. We just swap different details and circumstances. But the underlying characters and plots remain remarkably stable.

  3. Orpheus turned his head around because he experienced doubt – the most human of emotions.

    A theme of the film “Doubt” (based on the eponymous play) is that having doubt is what connects us all. We are, all of us, uncertain, unsure, filled with doubt about everything, but we mustn’t show this to the world.

    It is thus Orpheus’s doubt which connects us to him.

    I don’t know how heroism fits into this. Perhaps it’s not meant to. If we do go looking for “heroism” in this story, because, by golly, it’s got to be in there somewhere, we’ll miss the point of the story.

    • If we look at the story of Orpheus as at a dream, we might see that Hades represents the Unconscious. When Orpheus (the Masculine) loses Eurydice (the Feminine part of him) he is a split person. So he must search for the missing Eurydice, and thus regain Wholeness, by entering into his Unconscious (Hades) to find her.

      In Hades (his Unconscious) Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice (the missing Feminine). While bringing her back up to to the surface (the Conscious) he loses her again irrevocably through doubting.

      Realising he can never again be Whole (to again be Individuated) Orpheus is condemned to a living death. This realisation “shatters” him, and he breaks into the pieces which the Nymphs throw into the river.

      Orpheus’s music becomes thereafter sad old echoes of what it once was, as does Orpheus himself.

      Our world is filled with shattered Orpheuses, that we encounter every day. And we might be one of those shattered Orpheuses too.

    • phil,

      is this freud?

      Orpheus was considered a hero by the greeks as stated. being no expert on mythology, how many people ever returned from Underworld? i do not recall the Underworld being associated with “evil”, simply a place where the dead reside. so the separation anxiety makes sense to me. Orpheus would rather be with his beloved than without.

      is it not heroic (even by modern standards) to go against convention, to stand up for something you believe which is against the popular belief system, to succeed in convincing and persuading the powers that rule to release their grasp? at least it is part of the modern definition.

      Orpheus pushed aside his doubts to enter the Underworld, but his frailty / his doubt won out in the end when he showed an entirely instinctual distrust of Hades and turned around, ultimately failing in his goal. so all heros have doubts, but does doubt win out?

      SGx pretty much sums it up in her second post.

    • re the matter of heroes going to the underworld: Yes, it was something of a hero trope. Aeneas, Odysseus, theseus, Hercules all went to the underworld and came back alive.

      And yes, you’re right. Hades was not a place for evil, just a place of shadows.

    • Is this why we elevate those who seem to dispel doubt? Or, at least, seem to have no doubts about their ability to achieve goals (political promises)?

  4. Orpheus–one of my favourites and, as usual, you’ve done a great job of telling the story. As always, I’m saddened that general knowledge of these myth stories is dying out–aside from insights into the human condition, they are also critical for understanding great literature.

    I might add to the discussion above by asking the question of whether the Orpheus story was not a way to explore the issue of doubt, but rather was another way for the people who encouraged the dissemination of these stories (the ‘mode of production’ in Das Kapital) to demonstrate the importance of faith. Just as the pillar of salt story and Moses tapping his staff three times on the rock are (I believe) intended to show the importance of faith, so may the Orpheus story. Whether it was faith in the gods or in the leadership, one moral of the story is “shut up and do what you are told.”

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