by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the greatest love stories in all of Greek myth, and possibly one of the greatest ever told. This story has been enormously influential from the classical world through to today. The story concerns the tragic love story of Orpheus, the archetypal artist, and his wife Eurydice.
Orpheus was widely believed to be of Thracian origin, but some claim he was of Arcadian origin. He is not mentioned in the works of Hesiod or Homer. From an early date, the singer was considered the archetypal poet and musician. It was believed that Orpheus perfected the art of the lyre, and that his singing could charm the birds from the trees. According to legend he was the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope. Another story claims that he was the son of a Thracian king. It was also claimed that Orpheus was one of the Argonauts under Jason who travelled to Colchis. His beautiful singing drowned out the Sirens’ song, which sought to lure the adventurers to their death. Orpheus was associated with lyric poetry, which was sung accompanied by the playing of the lyre, and he was considered to be a forbearer of Homer. Eurydice was a wood nymph, a spirit of the forest and very beautiful.
The Tragic Love Story of Eurydice and Orpheus
One beautiful day, Orpheus was alone in the forest playing his lyre. Eurydice heard the beautiful music, and when she saw Orpheus, she fell in love with him at first sight. When Orpheus saw the wood nymph he too fell in love. They soon got married, but the god of marriage who blessed their nuptials predicted that it was not to last long, despite their deep love for one another.
There are several versions of what happened next. According to one, a shepherd tried to abduct Eurydice, and as she tried to escape, she trod on a snake who bit her, and she died. Another account says that she was bit by a snake when dancing with the other nymphs or Naiads. Orpheus was grief-stricken and could not even play his lyre.
Mosaic of Orpheus
Mosaic of Orpheus
Orpheus in the Underworld
In his grief, he asked his father Apollo for help. The god beseeched Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, to let his son retrieve his beloved from the realm of the dead. Hades agreed after he heard Orpheus playing his lyre. The God of the Underworld told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice back to the world of the living, but could not look upon her in the Underworld.  If he did his wife would stay in the Underworld for all time. Orpheus found Eurydice but he did not look at her. He began to lead her out of the Underworld. As he neared the light and the land of the living, he become excited. When he left Underworld, he could not restrain himself and he looked upon his wife. She was still in the darkness of the Underworld. When he looked upon her and tried to embrace her, she was returned to the depths of the Underworld, for all eternity. Orpheus had lost his love for all time, and Eurydice was condemned to wander the realms of the dead.
The husband of Eurydice was only one of a few heroes who was able to return from the realm of Hades. The son of Apollo wandered the world forlorn, until he was torn to pieces by followers of Dionysus. In one account he was killed by women whose attentions he had spurned. Legend states that his head was thrown into a river, and it was singing as it floated away.
Statue of Hades
Statue of Hades
The Meaning of the Myth
Like many myths, there was a moral to the story. Namely that the gods should be obeyed totally, and in every way. Because of his failure to fully obey Hades’ commands, Orpheus lost his beloved. Some believe that the story relates to the cult of Persephone. In another tradition, Orpheus was a religious reformer or prophet, and he was believed to be the founder of a mystery-religion. Several religious poems in hexameters attributed to Orpheus have been found. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is regarded by some as being related to the teachings of the mystery-religion of Orphism.
An 18th century engraving of Orpheus and Eurydice
An 18th century engraving of Orpheus and Eurydice
The Cultural Influence of the Myth
Many great literary figures wrote about the myth, including Ovid and Vergil. Ovid’s version of the myth in his Metamorphoses is perhaps the best known version. The story remained popular in the Middle Ages, and is featured in several poems. Since the 17th century there have been many operas based on the myth, the most popular being Orfeo and Euridice by Gluck (1762). Stravinsky wrote a ballet on the myth. Many poets have adapted the myth including the great modern German poet Rilke. In recent times, Neil Gaiman references the myth in the popular Sandman comics.
So, despite the antiquity of the tale, it clearly has resonated across the centuries, and moves us still. It has it all: poetry, gods, and heroism.
But really it comes down to one thing: there’s nothing like a love story…
Graves, Robert (1980). The Greek Myths. London: Pelican.
Ovid (2000). The Metamorphoses. Hamondsworth: Penguin.