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Orpheus playing the lyre, from a southern Italian Greek vase. 330 B.C. Canossa, Italy. Munich Antikensammlung. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Orpheus (OHR-fee-us or OHR-fyoos). Supremely gifted minstrel who attempted to rescue his dead wife from the Underworld. Orpheus had been taught to play the lyre by Apollo, and such was his skill on the instrument, together with the sweetness of his singing voice, that he could charm wild animals and even cause trees to uproot themselves and follow in his steps. Jason and the Argonauts took him along when they quested after the Golden Fleece, and Orpheus saved them from shipwreck by drowning out the treacherously alluring voices of the Sirens with his own musical stylings.

Orpheus fell in love with a nymph named Eurydice and blissful was their life together until one day she was pursued by a son of Apollo, the minor deity Aristaeus. In her headlong eagerness to escape, she stepped on a poisonous snake, was bitten and died. Disconsolate, Orpheus found a cave which lead to Hades and followed Eurydice to the Underworld. Here his musical charms were so persuasive that the King of the Dead permitted the minstrel to take his sweetheart home with him - on one condition.

This condition was so simple that it takes some explaining to account for Orpheus's failure to heed it. Perhaps he could not bear to keep his eyes off their beloved object for a moment longer. Perhaps he wanted to share his rapture at birdsong and sunshine as they approached the mouth of the cave. Or maybe he wanted Eurydice to hear the latest lick that he had worked out on his lyre. In any case, he did the one thing he had been forbidden. He turned around and looked at Eurydice, and she was lost to him forever.

Orpheus swore he would never love another, and it may have been the steadfastness of this vow which caused certain wild women of Thrace to tear him limb from limb in a fit of jealousy. They threw his head into a river, and it kept on singing all the way to the sea.

Another picture.