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Orpheus and Eurydice

Quick Facts

Him: Orpheus, the world’s most talented musician

Her: Euridyce, beautiful Cicone woman

Setting: Ancient Greece

 

Background

A traveling and adventurous lyre player, Orpheus falls in love with Eurydice at first sight. They are soon married and, tragically, she is killed by a snake bite on the ankle. Moved by grief, Orpheus traverses the underworld to beg Hades and Persephone to release Eurydice.


Story

Orpheus, a wandering musician highly regarded in the ancient world, crosses paths with Eurydice on a gorgeous Mediterranean day. Her stunning eyes grab hold of his heart and the two young lovers are soon married – but, strangely, without the blessing of the god of marriage, Hymen, who is present at the ceremony.

Shortly after the wedding, Eurydice goes for a walk with her friends in the forest and runs into trouble. Depending on which version of the myth you are reading, she is chased by a wicked shepherd or satyr (pipe player) and, while trying to escape, is poisoned by a viper bite. The venom courses through her veins and kills her, leaving Orpheus distraught when he finds the body.

Stricken with immense sorrow, Orpheus begins playing the lyre and singing songs of heartbreak to get through the pain. According to the legend, the gods and nymphs cried along with him, then convinced him to travel into the underworld to negotiate with Hades for Eurydice’s release. Orpheus agrees, descending into the pit and plucking the lyre with all the skill he could muster.

As he walks along, singing and strumming, the entire realm comes to a halt. Cerberus, the three-headed dog at the gate, is soothed such that Orpheus walks past him without so much as a whimper. Sisyphus stops pushing his rock uphill and the souls of the dead are silenced by the sound of his composition. When he reaches Hades and Persephone, King and Queen of the underworld, his impassioned plea convinces them to release Eurydice – on one condition: Orpheus must walk in front of her and not look back until they have reached the surface.

Orpheus happily says yes and begins leading his love back along the trail to the upper world. Slipping through the opening to the surface, he joyfully turns to gaze upon Eurydice again – but she has not stepped out of the underworld and, consequently, vanishes forever. Mourning her death all over again, Orpheus spends the rest of his days worshipping only the sun and is torn to shreds by women devoted to the goddess Dionysus.

Reputation

There are obvious elements of romance in this famous love story: deep love causes one to do anything – including literally going through hell – to get the other back, for example. For the Greeks, this tragedy is largely seen as a cautionary tale about the inability to control passion, as Orpheus wheels around to see Eurydice before making sure she is on the surface. Only a brief pause would have guaranteed him a full life with her.

One well-known philosopher, in particular, took a different view: Plato called Orpheus a coward, saying that, if he truly loved Eurydice, he would have died to be with her instead of attempting to circumvent the natural order.



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