The First Sodomite

Der Tod des Orpheus,(The Death of Orpheus), Ferraresischer Meister, 1470 -1490


Der Tod des Orpheus, Albrecht Dürer, 1494


In this Albrecht Dürer‘s 1494 drawing, the banner hung in the tree reads: Orfeus der erst puseran (“Orpheus, the first sodomite”). The word puseran(t) derives from the Italian “buggerone”, which in its turn derives from Latin “bulgarus” from which come also the terms “bugger” in English and “bougre” in French. Though the drawing could be taken as a Northern European reaction to sodomy, it is actually based on an original, now lost, by the Florentine Italian master Andrea Mantegna.

Greek mythological figure, the son of the muse Calliope, noted for his magical art in music and poetry. Whether Orpheus was a historical personality is disputed, but if so he lived in the generation before the Trojan War, therefore in the thirteenth century B.C. Orpheus in Antiquity. A number of important aspects of the career of Orpheus are recounted by ancient Greek writers. Of Thracian origin, Orpheus possessed musical skill that could enchant animals and plants and cause them to do his will. Trees would transplant themselves for him, while birds and even fish gathered to hear his song. As a member of the expedition of the Argonauts, he beat time for the rowers and stilled harsh winds.

When his wife Eurydice died of the bite of a poisonous snake and was taken to Hades, Orpheus obtained her release by giving a concert for the ruler of the Underworld. Warned not to look at Euridice on the trip home, Orpheus yielded to temptation and lost her forever. Orpheus then gathered around him a group of Thracian young men, to whom he introduced the new practice of pederasty. Greek vase paintings show this ephebic entourage enchanted by the splendors of his song. Yet Orpheus’ influence provoked resentment among the forsaken female companions of his new lovers. The women-sometimes identified with the maenads of the Dionysiac cult-ganged up on him, attacking the musician with spears, axes, and stones. Orpheus was dismembered, his head separated from the rest. Eventually the head floated away, still singing, together with his lyre. Orpheus’ head washed ashore on the island of Lesbos, where it received the honor of a shrine. The shrine could still be visited in ancient times, and reputedly the head might be heard faintly singing. Some scribes claimed to have taken down the words, which then presumably provided the texts for the Orphic hymns. Around these hymns developed a religious cult, Orphism, whose role and significance are still the object of debate by historians. Most images of Orpheus in Greek and Roman art are either representative depictions of him as singer or dramatic scenes of his later career-his leadership of the male band in Thrace, his death, and the survival of the head. These last events were important to the Greeks not only because they laid the foundation for his influence after death, but because he was regarded as the inventor of pederasty. Although he was not the only candidate for this honor, his nomination reflects the Greek penchant for attributing significant cultural achievements to particular individuals. The Eurydice episode, which in modern consciousness has become virtually synonymous with Orpheus, was less important to the Greeks, and may even be a later grafting onto the earlier torso of legend.

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