Son of Apolloand the Muse Calliope, Orpheus was a wonderful musician from Thrace who was married to the beautiful Eurydice. He played the lyre and sang so well that the wild animals were tamed and the rivers stopped to listen. He was believed to have invented the hexameter.
During early Christianity Orpheus surrounded by the wild animals was a symbol for Christ, and this motif was often used in the catacombs.
The most famous story about Orpheus is about his wife's death. Eurydice was bit by a snake and descended into Hades. Orpheus then followed her to the kingdom of death, and managed to soften Hades heart with his beautiful music. Hades agreed to let Eurydice go, if Orpheus promised not to look at her until they had reached daylight. When they were almost there, Orpheus thought he could no longer hear his wife's footsteps, and looked back, only to see the screaming Eurydice being pulled back into the underworld.
Shattered by grief, Orpheus wandered the forests of Thrace, singing his wife's lament, and was attacked by the maenads (Dionysus orgiastic women) who tore him to pieces. His singing head floated down the river, and all was lost. Eventually the head floated ashore on Lesbos, and that's how the island became the centre of poetry.
Orpheus was also one of the Argonautsin Jason'sexpedition for the Golden Fleece. He manage to save the crew from the terrible Sirens by singing more beautifully than them.
When he died, his lyre was turned into the star constellation the Lyre. One of the great mystery-cults of Ancient Greece was the Orphic one, where its followers believed in purification and reincarnation. They worshipped Dionysus-Zagreus, and thought humans consisted of equal portions of good and evil. They saw the soul as immortal and that one would either live in bliss or torment after death depending on one's acts on earth. For this reason, they thought it very important to lead an ascetic life with many cleansing rituals as well as not eating meat or sacrificing animals. This cult was to become popular in the south of Italy as well.