We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Chapter 16: Orpheus and Orphism: Mystery Religions in Roman Times


Read the Commentary on Chapter 16.


Investigate the images of the death of Orpheus from the Perseus Vase Catalog.

View Waterhouse’s Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus.


Read Pausanias’ accounts of Orpheus.

Read Cocteau’s play Orphée. Compare his treatment with the Orpheus myth. You may also wish to view Cocteau’s Orpheus on video (see below) and compare it with his own stage version.

Analyze Rilke’s “Orpheus, Eurydike, Hermes,” a retelling of the story, but seen from the eyes of Eurydice.

What use does Tennessee Williams make of the ancient myth in his play Orpheus Descending?

Study these verses from Shakespeare (Henry VIII, Act 3, Scene 1), which so beautifully describes Orpheus’ enchantment: “In sweet music is such art.”

Orpheus with his lute made trees
Everything that heard him play,

And the mountain tops that freeze
Even the billows of the sea,

Bow themselves, when he did sing:
Hung their heads, and then lay by.

To his music plants and flowers
In sweet music is such art,

Ever sprung; as sun and showers
Killing care and grief

There had made a lasting spring.
Fall asleep or hearing, die.

One of the most beautiful renditions of this song is by the American composer William Schuman. Listen to “Orpheus with His Lute.”

For a scholarly treatment of Orphism, read W. K. C. Guthrie’s Orpheus and Greek Religion.

In conjunction with your research into the Orphic movement, it is worthwhile to have some familiarity with the surviving Orphic hymns. Consult M. L. West’s The Orphic Poems.

Compact Discs and Videos

Out of the many operas of the eternal legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, one might begin with Gluck’s melodic Orpheo ed Euridice. Performances are also on video. It is fascinating to study and compare the various treatments, beginning with that of Jacopo Peri; important are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo andTelemann’s Orpheus (the latter not discovered until the 1970s and now recorded).

Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux Enfers) is an absolute delight.

The following movies are of great interest:

Black Orpheus. A retelling that illuminates the universal immortality of the legend.

The Fugitive Kind. Based on Tennessee William’s play, Orpheus Descending.

Orpheus. A masterpiece, by Jean Cocteau, from his play, Orpheus.


Read the story of Aristaeus from Vergil’s Georgics. What is his connection with Orpheus and Eurydice?


Explain hymeneal and the meaning of hymen.


View the constellation Cygnus.

Essay Questions

  1. How might Plato’s Myth of Er and Vergil’s underworld indicate the influence of the Orphic tradition?

  2. What is a mystery cult? What are some of its typical features?

  3. What are the elements in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that make it so influential and universal?

  4. What does Christianity have in common with other mystery religions of antiquity (particularly that of Dionysus and Orpheus) in their teachings, ritual, and conception of deity?

  5. Compare and contrast the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as told by Vergil and Ovid. Which do you prefer and why?

Legal Notice | Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy
Please send comments or suggestions about this Website to custserv.us@oup.com