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Orpheus and Eurydice

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.

When 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. They 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.

Death of Orpheus; 5th c. Attic neck amphora, Louvre, Paris
Death of Orpheus

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 tattoos. 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.

Comments on the Concepts of Gay and Homosexual:

The book The Gay Greek Myths restores the homosexual and homoerotic content of the Greek myths. But Gay Greek Myths, indeed "gay mythology" in general, is a misnomer. "Gay" as a sexual identity is a recent development, emerging only in the 20th Century and our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape. In the time of the Greeks there was no such identity as gay - or straight - and they did not compartmentalize their sexuality into homosexual and heterosexual. Their homosexual passions were part of their erotic expression as sexual beings. They would not have considered their love for boys as gay or homosexual, as separate from other sexual expressions, and the worth of the relationship was judged not by the gender of the person one loved, but by its results. Nevertheless, throughout this site you will see the use of the words gay, homosexual and homosexuality when referring to ancient practices. Indeed this very section is titled "Homosexual Greek Myths." This is done for practical purposes, so we can easily describe the sexual relations of the ancients with familiar vocabulary. Things, however, were much more complex then the words might indicate.

Mythographer's Comments

These Greek myths are based quite closely on ancient fragments, materials until now passed over by modern mythographers. The sources range from poets to historians to playwrights and early Christian polemicists. Thus the form of the stories should be seen as a late one, incorporating in many cases Roman sensibilities.

Of course there has never been any one "true" version of any of these stories, as they were told and retold over a span of at least two thousand years across a region ranging across three continents, from the Black Sea to the shores of North Africa, an area now occupied by such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and others. Nonetheless, the myths collectively reflect a world view in which male love was wholly compatible with living life in a sacred way, a path to heroism and divinity.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Greek Mythology",
Orpheus and Eurydice, 1999 <>

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