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, Eurydice. Unfortunately, after being raped by a satyr, she accidentally stepped on a viper, which bit and killed her. Without Eurydice, Orpheus was heartbroken and only sung songs of sadness which made even the nymphs weep. Seeing that Orpheus was saddened, Zeus sent Hermes to instruct Orpheus on how to get his wife back. So Orpheus journeyed into the Underworld; on the shores of the Acheron, his song moved even the heart of Charon, who allowed him passage despite being alive. His lyre convinced 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 he stood before Hades, god of the Underworld, Orpheus demanded Eurydice's return. Hades took this as a joke and refused anyway, so 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 is so unexpectedly touched by Orpheus that he silently weeps in sadness. Hades consents to release Eurydice, but told Orpheus 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 had 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 and killed him. His head and lyre, which still sung songs of sorrow, floated to the Island of Lesbos, where it was given a proper burial.
After his death, Orpheus was reunited with his beloved Eurydice in the Elysian Fields, the blessed and happiest part of the Underworld. Yet at some point after this, Orpheus was removed from this haven for failing to deliver her from hell. He was deemed to have impeded the fulfillment of God's Will by trying to bring back the dead, allowing Lucifer to claim his soul and damn him to Hell. Lucifer then punishes him by forever separating him from Eurydice, until Dante arrives and absolves 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.