Orpheus, a mythical Greek personage, the chief of a circle of poets, embracing Linus, Musaeus, Eumolpus, and others, to whom were attributed various hymns and poems inculcating religious conceptions different from those of Homer and Hesiod. An ante-Homeric antiquity was assigned to these apocryphal writings, and they were received by the Greeks as a sort of divine revelation. The name of Orpheus does not appear in Homer or Hesiod. He is mentioned by Ibycus in the 6th century B. C. as the "renowned Orpheus;" by Pindar as son of Oeagrus, one of the Argonauts, and the father of songs; by Hellanicus as the ancestor of both Homer and Hesiod; by Aeschylus as leading the trees after him to the sound of his lyre; by Eratosthenes as worshipping Apollo rather than Bacchus; by Euripides as related to the Muses, as charming by his song the rocks, trees, wild beasts, and infernal powers, as connected with the Bacchanalian orgies, as founder of the sacred mysteries, and as living amid the forests of Olympus; and by Aristophanes as one of the oldest poets and the teacher of religious initiations. Though Plato quotes from the Orphic writings, he evidently regarded them as spurious; but he seems not to have doubted the existence of Orpheus or the genuineness of his peculiar theogony.
Aristotle held that Orpheus was altogether a fictitious personage. Later accounts make him a Thra-cian bard in the era of the Argonauts, to whom Apollo gave a lyre, in the use of which he was instructed by the Muses, and who on account of the miraculous charm of his song was engaged as one of the Argonauts. On their expedition the power of his lyre held back the moving Symplegadre, which threatened to crush the ship, lulled the Colchian dragon to sleep, and rendered other important services. On his return he applied himself to the civilization of the rude inhabitants of Thrace, was reputed to have visited Egypt, and according to the legends sought his deceased wife Eurydice in Hades, where the music of his lyre suspended the tortures of the damned, and won back his beloved on condition that he should not look round at her till she reached the upper world, lie violated the condition, and saw her vanish. In his despair he treated the Thracian Mamads with contempt, who avenged themselves by tearing him to pieces in their orgies.
According to another legend, he perished by the thunderbolts of Jupiter. The remnants of his body were gathered by the Muses, and buried at the foot of Olympus, where a nightingale sang above his tomb. - The earliest of the Orphic compositions are now usually ascribed to Ono-macritus, who lived at the court of Hipparchus. About the same time the Orphici, or associations of the followers of Orpheus, transformed the Dionysiac worship, making it ascetic and mystical rather than orgiastic. This worship was further modified, and its influence on the Greek religion increased, by the union of Orphic and Pythagorean societies and doctrines. According to the Orphic cosmogony, which has an oriental pantheistic character, Cronos (time) was the first principle, from which proceeded Chaos and Aether. The former was an infinite and shapeless mass, which, in condensing under the influence of the latter, assumed an ovoid form, containing in its centre the cosmical germ. From this germ sprang the gold-winged Eros or Phanes, the first manifestation of intelligence or light, who in union with Nyx (night) created the heavens and earth. Ericapaeos was the creative word which gave birth to the gods. The soul was brought to the surface from the depths of matter.
Zeus had four predecessors, and among his progeny was Zagreus Dionysus. From the latter were expected a golden age, the liberation of souls, and a state of beatitude at the end of all things. The Orphic writings increased in honor during the declining centuries of paganism, and by both the Christian and pagan Neo-Platonists of the 3d and 4th centuries were believed to be the most ancient summary of the Greek faith. They then received a large accession of forgeries by Christian philosophers. The apocryphal productions included under the title of Orphica are: a poem on the Argonautic expedition, in 1,384 hexameters; a collection of hymns in hexameters, evidently of Neo-Pla-tonic origin; Lithika, better than either of the preceding, and treating the properties of stones and their uses in divination; and fragments, chiefly of the theogony, containing the only remains of the early Orphic literature. The best edition is that of Hermann (Leipsic, 1805).