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The Writing of Orpheus

'The Writing of Orpheus' cover image

The Writing of Orpheus

Greek Myth in Cultural Context

Winner of the Translation Prize for non-fiction from the French-American Foundation.

Son of a mortal king and an immortal Muse, Orpheus possessed a gift for music unmatched among humans; with his lyre he could turn the course of rivers, drown the fatal song of the Sirens, and charm the denizens of the underworld. The allure of his music speaks through the myths and stories of the Greeks and Romans, who tell of his mysterious compositions, with lyrics that only the initiated could understand after undergoing secret rites. Where readers of subsequent centuries have been content to understand these mysteries as the stuff of obfuscation or mere folderol, Marcel Detienne finds in the writing of Orpheus a key to the thinking of the ancient Greeks.

A profound understanding of ancient Greek myth in its cultural contexts allows Detienne to recover a cultural system from fragments and ephemera—to reproduce, with sensitivity to variation and nuance, the full richness of the mythological repertoire flowing from the writing of Orpheus. His investigation moves from the Orphic writings to broader mysteries: how Greek gods became myths, how myths informed later religious thinking, and how myths have come into play in polemics between competing religions. An eloquent answer to some of the most vexing questions about the myth of Orpheus and its far-reaching ramifications through time and culture, Detienne's work ultimately offers a major rethinking of Greek mythology.