Orpheus and Eurydice

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

The ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice concerns the fateful love of Orpheus of Thrace, son of Apollo and the muse [Calliope], for the beautiful Eurydice (from Eurudike, "she whose justice extends widely"). 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]

Versions[edit]

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]

Plot[edit]

Apollo gives his son Orpheus a lyre and teaches him how to play. Orpheus played with such perfection that even Apollo was surprised. It is said that nothing could resist his beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts. Even trees and rocks were entranced with his music.

Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of unique beauty and grace, whom he married and lived happily with for a short time. However, when Hymen was called to bless the marriage, he predicted that their perfection was not meant to last.

A short time after this ominous prophecy, Eurydice was 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 was merely dancing with the Nymphs. In any case, while fleeing or dancing, she was bitten by a snake and died instantly.

Orpheus sang his grief with his lyre and managed to move everything living or not in the world; both humans and gods were deeply touched by 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, protected by the gods, went to Hades and arrived at the infamous Stygian realm, passing by ghosts and souls of people unknown. He also managed to charm Cerberus, the monster known to have three heads. Orpheus presented himself in front of the god of the Underworld Hades (Pluto) and his wife Persephone.

Orpheus played his lyre, melting even Hades' cold heart. Hades told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice with him but under one condition; Eurydice would 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 would lose her forever. If Orpheus was patient enough he would 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 was in fact 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 turned to see Eurydice behind him, but her shadow was whisked back among the dead, now trapped in Hades forever.

Orpheus tried to return to the Underworld, but a man cannot enter the realm of Hades twice while alive. According to various versions of the myth, Orpheus started playing a mourning song with his lyre, calling for death so that he could be united with Eurydice forever. Orpheus is ultimately 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 would reveal the secrets of the Underworld to humans.

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

Works employing this legend[edit]

Literature[edit]

Film and drama[edit]

Music and ballet[edit]

Visual arts[edit]

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

Video games[edit]

  • The Battle of Olympus, NES and Game Boy video game by Infinity
  • Don't Look Back (video game), Atari VCS-styled Flash game by Terry Cavanagh
  • Persona 3 playstation game originaly designed for the ps2 in japan Orpheus appears as the protagonist's persona fitting as he explores Tartarus and always listens to music

Comics[edit]

References[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. ^ "Staying Serious, to a Joyful Beat". The New York Times. 29 October 2013. 
  7. ^ http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_362591/Antwerp-School/Orpheus-Searching-Eurydice-In-The-Underworld-%28Met.-10-11-63%29

External links[edit]

Media related to Orpheus and Eurydice at Wikimedia Commons