The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most beautiful and sad in Greek mythology. In the story, Orpheus, the greatest poet, and musician in history tries to reclaim his wife, Eurydice, who has passed away.
To save his loved one, Orpheus will travel to the underworld and back. How far would you go for love?
Who Was Orpheus?
Orpheus is one of the most fascinating figures in Greek mythology. His name remained consistently surrounded by mystery just like his cult. Even the Greeks were not sure when he was born or whether he actually existed.
Orpheus is famous as the greatest poet and musician of all time. A series of early hymns and texts are attributed to him as well as the epic Argonautica Orphica.
His worship, called Orphism, included mystical rites which influenced the development of the Greek religion and the Pythagoreans.
Orpheus was the son of the Thracian King Oeagrus or, as Pindar wrote, of the sun-god Apollo. The muse Calliope was commonly referred to as his mother, although the ancient authors did not agree on the matter.
Orpheus was said to have learned the lyre from Apollo but to have surpassed his teacher. It was also said that his music could calm even the wildest beasts and control animals and inanimate objects like rocks or rivers.
Orpheus is also found as a companion of Jason in the Argonautica adventure. According to a story, he saved the argonauts from certain death when he covered the voices of the deadly sirens with the sound of his lyre.
One of the most disturbing stories in Greek literature is Orpheus’ death. According to a version of the story, he had stopped taking women as lovers, possibly because he was sworn to Eurydice. Some Thracian female followers of Dionysus enchanted by his music and enraged by his rejection, tore him to pieces with their bare hands during one of the orgiastic Dionysian mysteries.
In another version of the story, the women killed Orpheus because he only acknowledged Apollo as his god.
The Story of Orpheus And Eurydice
Orpheus And Eurydice Fall In Love
The story begins when Orpheus fell in love with a nymph called Eurydice. Orpheus played his lyre while his wife danced and the two of them led a happy life.
They were so madly in love that soon they got married by the Hymenaios, the god of marriage himself. However, at this moment of pure bliss, Hymenaios prophesized that happiness had an expiration date.
Eurydice was a nymph of uncontested beauty. According to Virgil’s Georgics, this great beauty did not go unnoticed. A minor god named Aristaeus attacked Orpheus and attempted to snatch Eurydice right after the wedding.
The nymph ran into the forest, where a venomous snake bit her. Hymenaios’ prophecy came true. In Ovid’s version, Eurydice was bit by the snake after recklessly dancing with other nymphs in the woods while celebrating her wedding.
In both versions the result was the same, Eurydice was dead and Orpheus had lost his soulmate.
“Soothing his love-pain with the hollow shell [I.E.The lyre],
Thee his sweet wife on the lone shore alone,
Thee when day dawned and when it died he sang.”
Orpheus Visits The Underworld
After Eurydice’s death, Orpheus was devastated. He understood that without her, life on earth was meaningless and decided that he was ready to do whatever it takes for his beloved. He then took his lyre and went to claim her back from the dead.
In Hades – the underworld of the Greek religion – Orpheus managed to go through the three-headed guardian-hound Cerberus by enchanting him with his music. He then began wandering amongst the souls of the dead until he reached the thrones of Pluto and Persephone, the king and queen of the Realm of the Dead.
When they asked him what he was seeking, Orpheus played his lyre and sang. His song was the saddest and most beautiful song to be ever played in the underworld. Orpheus sang about his love for Eurydice and her tragic death. He then sang about his sorrow and how he wished to get his wife back.
“While he sang all his heart said to the sound of his sweet lyre, the bloodless ghosts themselves were weeping, and the anxious Tantalus stopped clutching at return-flow of the wave, Ixion’s twisting wheel stood wonder-bound, and Tityus’ liver for a while escaped the vultures, and the listening Belides forgot their sieve-like bowls and even you, O Sisyphus! sat idly on your rock! Then Fame declared that conquered by the song of Orpheus, for the first and only time the hard cheeks of the fierce Eumenides were wet with tears: nor could the royal queen, nor he who rules the lower world deny the prayer of Orpheus”. (Ovid, Metamorphoses)
Orpheus And Eurydice Get A Second Chance
Orpheus was successful in convincing the Gods of the underworld to return him to his wife. However, Pluto and Persephone asked him to follow one simple rule. Orpheus would lead the way out of Hades but he would not be allowed to look behind him until Euridice had left the underworld completely.
Orpheus did not hesitate for a second and accepted the proposition. Pluto then presented him with Eurydice and Orpheus began the long ascension to the world of the living.
The Tragic End
Orpheus managed to remain calm and did not look back throughout the whole trip. However, the closer they were getting to the light of the world of the living, the more enthusiastic and impatient he was getting.
When the first beam of light touched his face, Orpheus immediately turned around to hug his beloved. At that moment he realized his terrible mistake. He was standing in the world of the living but Eurydice was still standing in the dark world of the dead.
As Virgil wrote, Orpheus immediately understood that “Poured out was all his labour, broken the bond”. In horror he took a final look at Eurydice:
“Her last word spoken was, “Farewell!” which he could barely hear, and with no further sound she fell from him again to Hades.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses)
Hermes – the soul guide – took Eurydice with him back to the underworld forever.
In some alternative versions of the story, Orpheus successfully saves Eurydice, and the two lead a happy life together. Nevertheless, the canonical version of the story is the one with the tragic ending.
Orpheus Without Eurydice
Pausanias (9.30.6) claims that Orpheus committed suicide right after he lost Eurydice for a second time.
Most ancient sources though disagree. The most common narrative is that Orpheus went on with his life but never forgot his one true love. It is even said that he stayed true to his word and never got with another woman. Since this is ancient Greece though, Orpheus found a way around that and, as Ovid writes, “the only friendship he enjoyed was given to the young men of Thrace”.
Orpheus would sing everywhere about his sorrow and lost love until he met his own end and was reunited with Eurydice in the underworld.
The Myth’s Reception In Antiquity
Generally, Orpheus has been considered a heroic figure carrying out a noble, romantic deed in the name of love. However, Plato, known for his negative stance on art, did not view Orpheus’ myth in the same light. In contrast, he thought that Orpheus was a coward for not dying to meet Eurydice right away:
“But Orpheus, the son of Oeagrus, the harper, they (the gods) sent empty away, and presented to him an apparition only of her whom he sought, but herself they would not give up, because he showed no spirit; he was only a harp-player, and did not-dare like Alcestis to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter hades alive; moreover, they afterwards caused him to suffer death at the hands of women, as the punishment of his cowardliness.” (Plato, Symposium)
Others see in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice a clear link with a chthonic mystical tradition. Besides, there is an ancient source arguing that Orpheus founded the mysteries of Dionysus, and it is not a secret that Orpheus’ cult was closely linked with religious mysticism, as evident from the Orphic hymns. This interpretation would also help decipher the meaning of the descend to the underworld, a common theme in ancient mythology, and surely a central aspect of the so-called Orphic rites. The last played a major role in the development of other mystical cults like those of Adonis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus.
On another note, the theme of not looking back is not unique to this story. In the Bible, Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt after looking back at Sodom.
The Story Of Orpheus And Eurydice In Art
It is almost impossible to list all the artworks inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In antiquity, Orpheus was commonly depicted playing his lyre or attacked by maenads and Thracian women. However, Eurydice is rarely depicted. The earliest depiction of the myth is a Roman reproduction of a relief which is thought to have been part of the altar of the 12 gods of the agora of Athens. The original relief is now lost but survives through later Roman reproductions.
In antiquity, the myth was more influential in literature and must have surely been interwoven with the mystical religiosity that the Orphic cult encouraged. The first literary mention to the story belongs to the Roman poet Virgil. Ovid’s version followed the original a few decades later.
In post-classical times the story has been adapted and retold multiple times. It inspired artists from all over Europe interested in the classical world like Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Guido Reni, Auguste Rodin, Nicolas Poussin, and many more.
Famous is also Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo, as well as Raine Maria Rilke’s 1904 poem Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes. Overall the myth has exerted a strong influence in the arts. The descent into the underworld, the songs of Orpheus, the romantic love of Orpheus and Eurydice have all been subjects that have inspired artists to create new artworks in every form. Maybe that is where the myth’s contemporary value lies today, in its ability to let us travel to a reality where love may not finally win but can certainly inspire.