Orpheus and Eurydice

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Egyptian tapestry roundel with Orpheus and Apollo, 5th–6th century CE

The ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice (Greek: Ὀρφεύς, Εὐρυδίκη, Orpheus, Eurydikē) concerns the fateful love of Orpheus of Thrace for the beautiful Eurydice. Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. It may be a late addition to the Orpheus myths, as the latter cult-title suggests those attached to Persephone. It may have been derived from a legend in which Orpheus travels to Tartarus and charms the goddess Hecate.[clarification needed][1]


In Virgil's classic version of the legend, it completes his Georgics, a poem on the subject of agriculture. Here the name of Aristaeus, or Aristaios, the keeper of bees, and the tragic conclusion, was first introduced.[2]

Ovid's version of the myth, in his Metamorphoses, was published a few decades later and employs a different poetic emphasis and purpose. It relates that Eurydice's death was not caused by fleeing from Aristaeus, but by dancing with naiads on her wedding day.

Other ancient writers treated Orpheus' visit to the underworld more negatively. According to Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium,[3] the infernal deities only "presented an apparition" of Eurydice to him. Plato's representation of Orpheus is in fact that of a coward; instead of choosing to die in order to be with his love, he mocked the deities in an attempt to visit Hades, to get her back alive. As his love was not "true"—meaning that he was not willing to die for it—he was punished by the deities, first by giving him only the apparition of his former wife in the underworld and then by having him killed by women.[3]


Apollo gave his son Orpheus a lyre and taught him how to play. It had been said that "nothing could resist Orpheus's beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts." Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of beauty and grace, whom he married and lived happily with for a short time. However, when Hymen had been called to bless the marriage, he predicted that their perfection was not meant to last.

A short time after this prophecy, Eurydice had been wandering in the forest with the Nymphs. In some versions of the story, Aristaeus, a shepherd, then saw her, was beguiled by her beauty, made advances towards her and began to chase her. Other versions of the story relate that Eurydice is merely dancing with the Nymphs. In any case, while fleeing or dancing, she was bitten by a snake and died instantly. Therefore, Orpheus sung his grief with his lyre and managed to move everything, living or not, in the world; both humans and gods learnt about his sorrow and grief.

At some point, Orpheus decided to descend to Hades to see his wife. Ovid's version of the myth does not explain this decision,[4] while other versions relate that the gods and nymphs[citation needed] or Apollo himself, Orpheus' father,[citation needed] suggest that he make this journey. Any other mortal would have died, but Orpheus, being protected by the gods, goes to Hades and arrives at the Stygian realm, passing by ghosts and souls of people unknown. He also managed to attract Cerberus, the three-headed dog, with a liking for his music. He later presented himself in front of the god of the Greek underworld, Hades (Pluto in Roman mythology), and his wife, Persephone.

Orpheus played his lyre, attracting Hades. Hades told Orpheus that he can take Eurydice with him but under one condition: she would have to follow him while walking out to the light from the caves of the underworld, but he should not look at her before coming out to the light or else he might lose her forever. If Orpheus is patient, he might have Eurydice as a normal woman again by his side.

Thinking it a simple task for a patient man like himself, Orpheus was delighted; he thanked the gods and left to ascend back into the world. Unable to hear Eurydice's footsteps, however, he began fearing the gods had fooled him. Eurydice might have been behind him, but as a shade, having to come back into the light to become a full woman again. Only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus lost his faith and turns to see Eurydice behind him, but her shade was whisked back among the dead, now trapped with Hades forever.

Orpheus tried to return to the underworld, but it would be assumed that a person cannot enter the realm of Hades twice while alive. According to various versions of the myth, he started playing a mourning song with his lyre, calling for death so that he can be united with Eurydice forever. He was killed either by beasts tearing him apart, or by the Maenads, in a frenzied mood. According to another version, Zeus decided to strike him with lightning knowing Orpheus may reveal the secrets of the underworld to humans.

In any case, Orpheus dies, but the Muses decided to save his head and keep it among the living people to sing forever, enchanting everyone with his melodies and tones.



Film and stage[edit]

Music and ballet[edit]

Visual arts[edit]

Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, 1814 painting by Ary Scheffer

Video games[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books Ltd., London (1955), Volume 1, Chapter 28, "Orpheus", p. 115.
  2. ^ M. Owen Lee, Virgil as Orpheus: A Study of the pundis', State University of New York Press, Albany (1996), p. 9.
  3. ^ a b Symposium 179d-e.
  4. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses X
  5. ^ "Cocktails with Orpheus by Terrance Hayes". 4 November 2016.
  6. ^ Reeser, Todd W. (12 February 2018). "The Anti-Orpheus: Queering Myth in Ducastel et Martineau's Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau (Paris 05:59)". Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature. 42 (2): 1–19. doi:10.4148/2334-4415.1989.
  7. ^ Monahan, James (1957). Fonteyn, A Study of the Ballerina in her Setting. New York, New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation. p. 102. OCLC 952072044.
  8. ^ https://davidmaslanka.com/works/orpheus-1977-12/
  9. ^ "Staying Serious, to a Joyful Beat". The New York Times. 29 October 2013.
  10. ^ http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_362591/Antwerp-School/Orpheus-Searching-Eurydice-In-The-Underworld-%28Met.-10-11-63%29

External links[edit]