The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

From the story of a great sculptor whose artwork was brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite to a famous god who fell head over heels for a woman and had to jump through hoops to be with her, Greek mythology abounds with many love stories. Of all those stories, perhaps the most famous is the one about Orpheus and Eurydice.

Read on to find out how Orpheus, a talented lyre player and poet, journeys to the underworld to bring back his deceased bride Eurydice.

Who is Orpheus?

Orpheus in Greek mythology| Image: Roman Orpheus mosaic shows Orpheus donning a Phrygian cap and is surrounded by the animals charmed by his music

According to the myth, Orpheus was an extremely skilled musician and poet whose gifts made him famous not just among mortals but also among the gods. Orpheus was the son of Oeagrus, the king of Thrace, and a muse called Calliope.

In another version of the myth, Orpheus is the son of Greek god Apollo, while his mother is the muse Calliope.

Such was Orpheus’s musical prowess that the people who listened to his songs proclaimed him as the greatest musician in all of Greece. It was even said that Orpheus was tutored by the Greek god Apollo, a deity known for his passion for music. After Apollo traded his herd of cattle for Hermes’ lyre, he went on to practice the musical instrumental, achieving mastery level far beyond any god or mortal. Apollo then taught Orpheus all that he needed to know about the lyre. This explains how Orpheus was able to become a very excellent lyre player.

Orpheus’s music was so appealing to the ear that they could put mortals, creatures and even gods into a trance. It was said that whenever Orpheus sang or played his musical instrument, trees and animals in the surrounding area would start dancing. One time, while on an expedition with Greek hero Jason’s Argonauts, Orpheus sang brilliant songs that helped protect the expedition team from the Sirens. The Sirens were half-birds, half beautiful maidens that were known for luring sailors that passed by their islands to their death.

It was also said that Orpheus’s music could charm inanimate objects, including stones. He was revered as the founder and an important figure in Orphic mysteries, which are literary works, religious beliefs and practices that emerged from the Thracians.

Who is Eurydice?

Other names of Eurydice are Argiope and Euridice. Image: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Wounded Eurydice, 1868-70, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Born to Apollo, the Greek sun god, Eurydice is a famous member of the Auloniads (i.e. wood nymph). Wood nymphs were said to live in areas in the mountains and rustic regions. As such, they usually hanged out with Pan, the Greek god of nature, shepherd, and rustic music.

Eurydice and her nymph sisters lived in near the Thessalian river Pineios. It’s been said that her name means “true judgment” or “profound judgment”.

Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding

The eagerly anticipated wedding ceremony that celebrated the love between Orpheus and Eurydice quickly turned into a nightmare when the bride Eurydice was bitten by a poisonous snake.

According to the myth, Eurydice had excused herself briefly from the ceremony to take a stroll through a garden. It was in that moment when a lustful Aristaeus, the son of Apollo and the huntress Cyrene, saw Eurydice. While trying to put some amount of distance between herself and Aristaeus, Eurydice unknowingly stepped on a poisonous snake.

All attempts by Orpheus and later his team of physicians to save Eurydice proved futile. Eurydice was dead and had crossed into the realm of Hades (i.e. the Underworld).

The exact place where Eurydice was bitten by the poisonous snake is her heel.

Orpheus was completely devastated by the death of his bride. It’s said that he spent all his time playing very sad music. The nymphs and even the gods were moved to tears by the music Orpheus played.

Taking the advice of the gods, Orpheus decided to do something about his grief. He took a bold decision to journey to the underworld to liberate Eurydice from the biting jaws of Hades. Bear in mind, the Underworld was not a realm that people from the land of the living could go in and make it out alive. Those who attempted were stopped in the their tracks by Cerberus, the fierce three-headed hound that stood guard at the gates of the Underworld.

Orpheus in the Underworld

The Underworld, a pitch black, mineral laden realm of Greek god Hades, was said to be found below the world of the living. Having decided to descend into the Underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, Orpheus came up with a plan. He hoped to use his music to soften the hearts of the inhabitants of the Underworld, especially its rulers Hades and Persephone.

Just before he made it into the Underworld, Orpheus played his lyre and played a song which made Cerberus, the three-headed hound and guardian of the underworld, sleep.

It was also said that Orpheus’s music was so moving that Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, carried Orpheus across the River Styx for free.

Upon arriving at the magnificence palace of Hades and Persephone, Orpheus began to sing and play his lyre. His music caused every figure in the Underworld to be transported to a place never seen before. In other words, hell stood still. The mortal king Sisyphus did not roll his boulder up the hill. The Furies – the demonic spirits of retribution and vengeance – wept upon hearing Orpheus’s music. Similarly, Tantalus paused to listen and did not reach for the water that he was never allowed to sip. Everyone in the realm was simply awe-struck by the Orpheus’s breathtaking music.

Overcome by immense grief, Orpheus journeyed to the domain of Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld. Before he made it past the gates of the Underworld, he strummed his lyre in order to make Cerberus – the three-headed dog and guardian of the underworld – sleep. Even Sisyphus, the mortal king who spends eternity pulling his boulder up the hill in the underworld, got emotionally affected by Orpheus’s music. Sisyphus is said to have paused for just a moment.

Once Orpheus was done playing, he proceeded to explain his reason for making such perilous journey into Underworld. Hades and Persephone were moved by the mortal’s unbridle commitment to his wife, and therefore, Orpheus’s plea was granted on one condition. The rulers of the Underworld demanded that Orpheus walk in front of Eurydice and never look back until he and his wife were safely out of the Underworld. Breaking this condition would result in Eurydice staying in the underworld permanently.

Orpheus began his journey back to the land of living. However, as he climbed further and further out, he became increasingly worried because he could not hear the footsteps of Eurydice. Just as he was a few footsteps out of the Underworld, his anxiety got the better of him. He also suspected foul play by Hades.

In the end, Orpheus gave into the temptation and turned back to gaze upon his Eurydice. Although Orpheus had existed the Underworld, his wife, who was behind him, was technically still in the underworld. And so Orpheus had broken the condition set out by Hades. No sooner had Orpheus looked at Eurydice than did his wife vanish. He tried going back into the Underworld but he was denied entry.

The death of Orpheus

The second disappearance of Eurydice completely shattered Orpheus’s world. He vowed to never love another woman again. The distraught musician spent all his day sat in the woods singing love songs of all kinds. His voice and music were so moving that it brought the mortals, nymphs and gods to tears. One group of people who were completely saddened by Orpheus’s predicament was the Maenids. Known for their wild and abrasive nature, the Maenids had grown very irritated by Orpheus’s constant rejection of their advances, so one day, they ganged up and tore Orpheus to pieces.

Orpheus’s death was mourned by everyone, including the gods. It was even said that the trees wept for the passing of Orpheus.

In another version of the story, Orpheus was killed by the Maenids of Dionysus because he did not worship at the oracle of Dionysus. Orpheus had vowed to worship only the Greek sun god Apollo. Image: The Death of Orpheus, detail from a silver kantharos, 420-410 BC, part of the Vassil Bojkov collection, Sofia, Bulgaria

However, as the world grieved, Orpheus was delighted to be reunited with Eurydice in the Underworld. It’s said that the two often went on walks along the banks of the river Styx. And once in a while Orpheus, who could not shake of the bad experience of the past, would turn to look back at Eurydice as he worried that she was not there.

In another version of the story, Orpheus was killed by the Maenids of Dionysus because he did not worship at the oracle of Dionysus. Orpheus had vowed to worship only the Greek sun god Apollo.

More on Orpheus and Eurydice

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1806, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

It’s been noted how Orpheus and Eurydice’s story is similar to the biblical story of Lot’s wife, who instantly turned into a pillar of salt after she looked back at the burning city of Sodom. In that biblical story, which can be found in the Book of Genesis, i.e. Genesis 19, two angels of god appear to Lot and command him to take his wife and children out of Sodom. The angels order Lot and his family to head for the hills and not look back, lest they be turned into a pillar of salt.

It’s said that after Orpheus died and went to the Underworld, he and his beloved Eurydice spent an eternity together. They would often walk along the banks of River Styx. Once in a while, he would turn to look back just to see if Eurydice was still there with him.

In Greek mythology, Orpheus is the musician, prophet and poet most known for descending into the Underworld to bring back is deceased bride Eurydice. He had such an amazing musical ability that his love songs often left people and gods awe-struck. His mournful songs could bring anyone to tears, including nymphs and gods.

After Orpheus’s death, the birds and rivers in the woods mourned him. They made brilliant music to honor Orpheus.

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