The son of the Muse Calliope and the god Apollo, Orpheus was the greatest bard in all of Greece. His passion for music was just as deep as his love for his wife, a wood nymph named Eurydice. Unfortunately, on their wedding day Eurydice was chased into a forest by an amorous pursuant (accounts say either by a satyr or one of the guests at the wedding, who intended to rape her). In her attempt to escape the young bride accidentally stepped on a viper, which bit and killed her. Without Eurydice, Orpheus was heartbroken. Unbalanced by grief, the musician made the fateful decision to go to the Underworld and bargain with its king, Hades, for the return of Eurydice (in one version, seeing that Orpheus was saddened, Zeus sent Hermes to instruct Orpheus on how to get his wife back). Orpheus journeyed into the Underworld through a secret entryway. On the shores of the Acheron his song moved even the heart of Charon, who allowed him passage despite being alive. His lyre lulled the three-headed dog Cerberus to sleep. Even the Damned stopped and harkened to Orpheus's music, forgetting all else. Those receiving the worst torments forgot their pains and listened intently, pitying the young man.
When Orpheus finally stood before Hades, the god of the Underworld, Orpheus demanded Eurydice's return. To press his case Orpheus tried to persuade Hades with his music. In some versions of the story, after hearing Orpheus' music Persephone (the wife of Hades and queen of the Underworld) begged her husband to meet the mortal's demands. In other versions Hades himself was so unexpectedly touched by Orpheus that he silently wept in sympathy. In the end Hades consented to release Eurydice but told Orpheus that he was not to look back while leading his wife from the Underworld, or else she would be forced to stay.
At first Orpheus followed Hades' command but he started to doubt if Eurydice was really behind him, given Hades's reputation for allowing no soul to escape him. His doubts grew until, nearly out of the Underworld, Orpheus turned his head to see if she was really there. She was, but by looking back before they both left Hades's realm, he failed in his quest of returning his wife to the world above. Eurydice gave a final farewell to her husband before she was forced to return to the Underworld forever.
Orpheus would never be happy again. He sang tunes of sadness once more and refused the love of all others. This time, however, his music attracted the lust of two Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus. The two nymphs wanted to join Orpheus, but he ignored their request. In a drunken rage the Maenads tore Orpheus limb from limb, killing him. His head and lyre, which still sung songs of sorrow, floated to the Island of Lesbos, where it was given a proper burial. In some stories, in honor of his musical talents his lyre was placed in the sky as the constellation Lyra.
Due to the fact that he impeded the fulfillment of God's Will by trying to bring back the dead, Orpheus was damned to Hell. Lucifer then punished him by forever separating him from Eurydice, until Dante arrived and absolved him.
- In The Inferno, Orpheus isn't found on the Shores of Acheron, but is instead one of the many virtuous pagan shades whom Dante meets and speaks with during his journey through Limbo. He is not condemned for attempting to revive his wife, but is instead given honor for his musical gifts.
- The myth of Orpheus mirrors Dante's own quest to find and rescue his fiancee, Beatrice.