A Thracian Minstrel, son of the Muse Calliope, whose playing was said to charm wild beasts, trees and even stones. He was the supposed founder of the enigmatic cult of Orphism which flourished in the 6th century BC. He travelled with Jason on the Argo (see Golden Fleece) and saved the ship's crew by drowning out the song of the Sirens; when his wife Eurydice was bitten by a snake he went to Hades to reclaim her, charming the dead with his music and winning her a reprieve which he lost again by looking back too soon as he emerged from the Underworld.
Orpheus is a key symbolic figure handed down by Classical Mythology to literary fantasy, especially in relation to the power of Music. "Orpheus in Mayfair" (1909) by Maurice Baring describes the effect of Orpheus's playing on an unwary politician. His ill-fated journey into the Underworld has been frequently recast and reinterpreted; one of the earliest examples of such a reconfiguration is the 14th-century poem Sir Orfeo, which replays the story in the context of Anglo-Norman feudalism, and it became a favourite subject for Operas, including Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607), Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). Another notable dramatic reconfiguration is Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1927); Cocteau directed his own movie version, Orphée (1949). Stories involving similar reworkings include "The Miracle" (1921) by J D Beresford (1873-1947), which reverses the sex-roles, the third of "The Centenarist's Tales" in The Salzburg Tales (coll 1934) by Christina Stead (1902-1983), The Golden Age (1975) by Constantine FitzGibbon (1919-1983) and The Medusa Frequency (1987) by Russell Hoban. Sf transfigurations include Wolfhead (1978) by Charles L Harness (1915-2005) and Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985) by Tim Powers. [BS]