Orpheus and the Orphic Tradition
Orpheus, one of the best loved ancient heroes, was born in Thrace. The ancient Greeks believed that he was the son of the river god Oeagrus and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry.
A magnificent poet and singer, Orpheus rivalled even the god of poetry and music Apollo. His heavenly voice cast a spell on everything, animate and inanimate, and having joined the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, he helped them escape the Sirens by singing so sweetly that he drowned out their perilous song. He was often portrayed playing the lyre, which Apollo gave him, and his music enchanted the trees and rocks and tamed wild beasts, and even the rivers turned in their course to follow him.
Greek myth also tells us about Orpheus' ill-fated marriage to the lovely wood nymph Eurydice. Soon after the wedding the bride was stung by a viper and died. Orpheus determined to go to the underworld and try to bring her back. Hades, the ruler of the underworld, was so moved by his playing that he gave Eurydice back to Orpheus on the condition that he not look back until they reached the upper world. Orpheus could not control his eagerness, however, and as he gained the light of day he looked back a moment too soon, and Eurydice vanished.
In his despair Orpheus forsook female company and was killed by a fierce band of Thracian women, maenads or bacchantes, during a bacchanalia, an orgiastic rite in honour of Bacchus (i.e., Dionysus). This story points to an earlier mythological source. It is certain that Orpheus was of Thracian origin; ancient art invariably portrays him in the traditional Thracian costume. He must have played an important role in the Thracian religion, of which little is known today. It would seem that in Thracian lore Orpheus was a priest or magician wielding supernatural power. Scholars believe that a philosophical cult, Orphism, was drawn from his teaching and songs. It must have originated in Thrace at the beginning of 900 BC and later spread across ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. Among its followers were even some Roman emperors.
Orphism was a distinctly aristocratic concept based on the Dionysian rites. It was a cult of the primogenitor king, fountainhead of fertility, high priest and anthropodemon. Only unmarried men initiated in the cult could perform the Orphic rites. They were known as abi?tikos ('not of life'), for theirs was not the life of ordinary men. The rites took place away from intruding eyes in deep mountain gorges and caves (such as one finds in the eastern Rhodope, the Strandzha and Sakar). The participants enacted a pantomime and a chorus sung the narrative. The high point in the ritual was the enactment of the death of the King Priest - an allusion to the archetypal myth in which the Titans dismember and devour the young god Dionysus - and the conception by the Mother Goddess. The former involved a blood sacrifice of a bull, horse or goat, or sometimes even a human; and the latter, indiscriminate mass copulation, which prompted the ancient Greek historian Herodotus to denounce the Thracians' sexual wantonness. Much later, the Orphic rites transcended into the Roman bacchanalia marked by orgiastic revelry and drunkenness in honour of Bacchus.