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Greek legendary hero who sang and played the lyre so beautifully that animals, trees, and rocks danced around him. When his wife, Eurydice, was killed by a snake, he went to the underworld in search of her, and his music and grief so moved Hades that he agreed to let Orpheus take Eurydice back to the land of the living on the condition that neither of them look back as they left. On seeing the Sun, Orpheus turned to share his delight with Eurydice, and she disappeared. Orpheus was later torn to pieces by maenads, and his head, still singing, floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established. By the 5th century BC, a Hellenistic mystery religion (the Orphic mysteries), based on Orpheus's songs and teachings, had arisen. His story became the subject of some of the earliest operas.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on Orpheus, visit Britannica.com.