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(myth) Greece

Orpheus - Canova

Poet, musician, and the first man to love boys


In ancient times there was a King of Thrace by the name of Oeagrus. Not satisfied with mortal women, he fell in love with the Muse Calliope. She found him to her taste, and of their union was born a boy, whom they named Orpheus.

Calliope had the divine gift of song, and she taught her son well. So beautiful was the boy's singing that the god Apollo himself was charmed, and made him a gift of a lyre that played so sweetly it made even the stones weep.

OrpheusWhen he grew older, a herald came to tell him of Jason's quest to bring back the Golden Fleece. Willingly he joined the other braves of Greece on the voyage, using his music to help them overcome many hardships along the way. But he was eager to get back to Thrace, for he was in love with a beautiful maiden called Eurydice. Fate however was not kind to them: right after they were married she stepped on a viper, and was bitten, and died.

Orpheus was inconsolable. His harp in hand, he took the path of the spirits of the dead, and started down to the Lower World. He charmed his way past all the guardians, all the way to the abode of the god Hades, Lord of the Underworld. He begged Hades and Persephone for his Eurydice, and swore that he either would return to earth with her, or else remain in the realm of the dead forever.

Their hard hearts softened by his singing, the gods relented. They told him to go back up to the Upper World, and his wife would follow him, but not to look back or else he would lose her forever. Just as he reached the surface he turned to make sure she had not gotten lost in the thick fog.

She was right behind him, but had not yet stepped into the open air. Hermes the messenger, who had been sent to follow them unseen, reached out to pull her back into the realm of the dead. Orpheus had only a moment to lift her veil, to gaze upon her face one last time, then she was gone.


Heartbroken, Orpheus could not bear to look at another woman, and for the next three years he served as priest in Apollo's temple. Girls still chased after him, but he turned them all away, leaving them furious for being spurned.

Not that he became a stranger to the ways of desire, not at all. It's just that now his passion was the love of youths. He taught the men of Thrace the art of loving boys, and revealed to them that this love was the way to feel young again, to touch the innocence of youth, to smell the flowers of spring.

Lovers he had many. Of all, he loved young Calais the best, winged Calais, son of Boreas, the North Wind, his friend and companion on the Argos.

But his love for Calais was fated to come to a sudden end. It was in early spring, during the Dionysian festival. That was the time when Thracian women took on the role of Maenads, the wild and crazy attendants of Dionysus, the god of wine, passion and abandon.

OrpheusThey hated Orpheus for turning them away when they desired him, for keeping to himself the boys they lusted after, and for mocking them for being free with their love. That day they came upon him while he was singing so sweetly that even the birds had grown quiet and the trees had bent down to listen.

He was singing of the gods who had loved boys, of Zeus and Ganymede, of Apollo and his lovers, of how even gods can lose their beloveds to the claws of death.

Lost in his music he did not notice the angry Maenads at the edge of the forest. In a fit of rage, they stormed down on him. "No time for us sweet man, pretty man?" cried one. "Have our bodies, our voices, no power to charm you, unnatural man?" cried another.

"Know then the fury of what you scorn!" shouted all, and they beat him to the ground with tree branches, and tore him limb from limb and threw his remains in the river.

Orpheus, the gentlest of men, died, but his head and his lyre floated away on the river Hebros, still singing, and drifted all the way to the island of Lesbos. There on the beach a great snake rushed to eat him, but it was turned into a stone by Apollo.

The head was placed in a sacred cave where it prophesied for a long time. His lyre, at the request of Apollo and the Muses, was flung by Zeus into the heavens, where it can still be seen today as a constellation.

Orpheus in the mean time found himself back in the underworld, this time for good, and there he strolled thorugh the Elyssian Fields, once again inseparable from his Eurydice.

Plutarch tells us that the Maenads who killed Orpheus were punished for their deed by their husbands, who branded them by covering their legs and arms with tattoo.

Other say that the gods were angry with them and were going to kill them for their deed, but Dionysus punished them first by binding them with roots and plunging them feet-first into the ground and turning them into oak trees.


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