Orpheus was a legendary hero, poet and musician from ancient Greek mythology. Being different from the other Greek heroes, he was not distinguished for his warrior accomplishments, but instead he owned his fame, above all, to his divine musical skills. His proficiency in playing the lyre, charmed savage beasts, coaxed trees and rocks into dance and even diverted flowing streams.
According to some versions of his myth, Orpheus had Thracian origins. He was the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. Other myths state he was the son of the god Apollo, who gave him the lyre and to whom he owed his musical talent.
On ancient artefacts Orpheus is commonly presented with his main attribute – a lyre or a cithara. His divine songs were more powerful than any weapon and many times the music was what helped him to escape from dangerous situations. When sailing with the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, Orpheus used his music several times to ease their journey. On one occasion, he calmed the sea with his playing; another time, he saved the Argonauts from the deadly Sirens by playing so loudly that they could not hear the Sirens’ bewitching songs.
On this silver kylix, dating to 420-410 BC, we could see the mythical poet-singer, dressed in a Thracian fashion, playing his cithara before a young companion in an indoor setting. Orpheus’s usual representation on vases is normally taking place in an outdoor environment where he is sitting on a rock and playing music, surrounded by enchanted Thracian warriors. In contrast, on the kylix, he is portrayed supposedly at a symposium, which offers a never seen before iconographical treatment of the Thracian hero.
The mythical poet Orpheus was famous for introducing cults and mysteries into the Greek and Thracian world in which only men were allowed to participate. By some ancient authors, he was considered the one who introduced homosexuality to Thrace.
After an unsuccessful attempt to bring back his beloved wife Eurydice from the Underworld, the musician got into solitude and turned away from women, rejecting the love of female altogether. The excluded Thracian women got furious and eventually plotted Orpheus murder. Once they secretly took their men’s weapons, stoned the musician to the ground and ripped him to pieces. On one of the sides on this silver kantharos, dating back to 420-410 BC, we witness the moment of Orpheus’s being killed by the Thracian women. We recognise the hero by the chiselled inscription Ὀρφεύς’. He is leaning back, avoiding the attack of the vicious women, trying to protect himself with a lyre held in his hand. One of the women is raising her hand to throw a stone at the mythical poet, and another one is attacking him with a doubled axe. Her limbs are decorated with tattoos: stars on the arms and zig-zag lines on the forearms and lower legs. The tattoos are a notable attribute of the Thracian women, and their function and symbolism can range from signs of nobility to punishment marks for the Orpheus’s murder.What we have here is a silver rhyton with a goat protome and death of Orpheus. The ancient vessel is dating back to 420-410 BC. The horn was hammered, some of the details were chiselled, punched, and gilded. The protome was cast and partly gilded.
The rhyton is a horn-shaped vessel with a spout at its lower part from which wine flowed out in a thin stream. Rhyta were not used in everyday life, rather they were ceremonial vessels, used for libations during drinking parties. These wine vessels usually terminate with a forepart or a head of an animal. A figural scene below the rim of the rhyton represents the murder of Orpheus. The musician is the central figure, fallen to his right knee, flanked by three attacking Thracian women. He holds a six-string lyre on his right hand and with his left one, wrapped in his mantle, a knobbed wooden stick, with which he tries vainly to protect himself. On the left, behind him, a Thracian woman has seized him by the hair with her left hand and prepares to sever his head with the sword in her right hand. Behind her another Thracian woman rushes in, with a pelte on the left arm and a spear on the right hand. The third woman faces Orpheus, whose mantle she has grabbed with her right hand, and threatens him with a stone in the left one. The brutality of the scene is very powerfully rendered, equaling or even surpassing some more explicit representations of the moment of his decapitation on vase-painting.
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