The Rest of the Story
Orpheus’ story, as with so many others, begins a couple generations before him.
When Dionysos came through Thrace on his way to conquer India he was opposed by Lykourgos, king of the Edonians. During that conflict one of the king’s subjects – a man by the name of Charops – defected to the side of Dionysos and provided vital information that allowed him to defeat the king. For this betrayal Charops was awarded two things: rule of what was once Lykourgos’ kingdom and possession of the bakcheia, mystic ceremonies of Dionysos.
Both of which were awarded his son Oiagros.
Oiagros was a rival of Apollon for the affections of the Muse Kalliope. Although he succeeded in supplanting the God, it didn’t go so well for him. She is immortal, and he was not. Upon birthing their sons she gave the two mortal boys to their father for keeping and was not seen by them again.
Linos and Orpheus were good children, smart and clever with a natural aptitude for the arts – but they proved difficult for the man to rear alone. So he sent them off to receive instruction from the Centaur Cheiron. He was an excellent teacher, but emotionally distant and a harsh taskmaster. He relentlessly drove his pupils, instructing them in the arts, astronomy and war. Orpheus thrived under the Centaur’s tutelage, but his brother did not. In fact there was a terrible accident and Linos’ life was taken prematurely. The boy was commemorated in the linos-song, a dirge that was later transferred to the crops at harvest time.
Orpheus completed his course of studies and then returned home to take up the reins of his father’s state, a path he was ill-prepared for. He cared only for his music, and longed to spend time alone in the forest performing for the trees and rocks and beasts, shunning the company of his fellow men. This, obviously, did not go over well with his father.
Fortunately for Orpheus Jason put out the call for heroes and princes to join him in his quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece. News of this was brought by Herakles who had been his companion at the training school of Cheiron. (And also, indirectly, responsible for the death of Orpheus’ brother Linos.) And though Orpheus was entirely ill-suited for such heroics, he agreed to go along with them since it had been prophesied that the journey would not be successfully completed without him.
Even with the prophecy the other Argonauts taunted Orpheus relentlessly because he was small, and soft and in no way a warrior. And yet over time he began to prove himself. His songs brought harmony among the men when they began to squabble. He interceded with various land-spirits and Gods and monsters they encountered, devising a variety of rites of appeasement and placation for the Argonauts to perform. He also helped convince Medeia to abandon her family and join them.
Medeia was, in every way, Orpheus’ double. They bonded over their shared interest in drugs and magic and mystic rites. Indeed, she passed on to him much important plantlore which is why the two of them are honored as patrons of the Green Way in our tradition. Not only were they compatible intellectually and spiritually, but they shared a similar personality and she was the only person he had yet met who truly appreciated him and didn’t expect him to wear a mask and pretend to be something other than what he was.
Unfortunately her heart belonged to another. Jason, a brawny, clueless warrior who cared nothing for the woman beyond how he could use her to further his own agenda. He was suspicious of her knowledge and power, and routinely treated her like shit while Orpheus could do nothing but watch. Eventually Jason even cast his barbarian consort aside in favor of a local Greek girl since his people would not accept Medeia over them, setting in motion the tragic series of events which culminate in her murder of their children.
Orpheus was long gone by then.
Upon the successful completion of the Argonauts’ journey Orpheus continued his wanderings, heading south into Egypt and thence to various parts of the Middle East and possibly even India in search of wisdom. He was always treated with scorn as an alien outsider, rarely staying long in any one place and finding no friends or lovers anywhere.
Eventually he returned to his Thracian homeland, where he shunned the company of his fellow man, living in the wilds with the beasts and Spirits. One of these, a flower Nymph (who reminded him greatly of Medeia) by the name of Agriope or Eurydike, fell in love with him. Their love was passionate, boundless – and short-lived. On their wedding day she was nearly sexually assaulted by Aristaios. As the brute chased after her she was bitten on the ankle by a poisonous creature (some say a snake, others a scorpion or spider) and fell into delirious agony. All through the night she howled her pain, and neither Orpheus’ enchanting song or his mastery of drugs was able to save her.
And that’s where the rest of the story picks up.
After his descent into the underworld, his successful wooing of the King and Queen Below winning back the soul of his wife, and that fateful, fretful backwards glance which cost him everything Orpheus wanted nothing more to do with life. Unfortunately, having crossed that threshold once already he could not return, no matter how many times he tried to kill himself. For a time he even sat in a cave like an ascetic, eschewing food, water and all the other necessities of the body.
Eventually he overcomes his grief and returns to the people, forming a warrior society with mystic initiations. Those who were not permitted entry grew jealous and plotted against him.
Or else he invented homosexuality and horny wives sought revenge.
Or else a group of Bassarai found him in the cave.
And he was torn to pieces, his still-singing head alone preserved.
Who can say whether his skill came from his patrimony or his grief?