The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is the ultimate tragic love story. Perhaps one of the most famous Greek myths, it has inspired many important painters, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolas Poussin. Moreover, many operas, songs and plays have been composed to honour these two great lovers who tragically lost the chance to enjoy their love. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told in many versions with a few differences between them. The earliest account comes from Ibycus (circa 530 BC), a Greek lyric poet. Hereby we present you a mixture of these various versions.
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Discover the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus, talented at playing music
Orpheus is known as the most talented music player of the ancient times. It is said that god Apollo was his father, from whom took his extreme talent in music, and the Muse Calliope was his mother. He was living in Thrace, on the northeastern part of Greece. Orpheus had a divinely gifted voice that could charm everyone who heard it. When he was presented first the lyre as a boy, he had it mastered in no time at all. The myth says that no god or mortal could resist his music and even the rocks and trees would move themselves to be near him.
According to some ancient texts, Orpheus is accredited to have taught agriculture, writing and medicine to the mankind. He is also attributed with having been an astrologer, a seer and founder of many mystic rites. The strange and ecstatic music of Orpheus would intrigue the mind of people to things over natural and had the power to broaden the mind to new unusual theories.
However, apart from a musical talent, Orpheus also had an adventurous character. He was believed to have taken part in the Argonautic expedition, which is the voyage of Jason and his fellow Argonauts to get to Colchis and steal the Golden Fleece. In fact, Orpheus played a vital role during the expedition because, playing his music, he put to sleep the "sleepless dragon" that was guarding the Golden Fleece and thus Jason managed to get the Fleece. Moreover, the music of Orpheus saved the Argonauts from the Sirens, the strange female-like creatures who were seducing men with their nice voice and then they were killing them.
Love at first sight
Orpheus used to spend much of his early years in the idyllic pursuits of music and poetry. His skill had far surpassed the fame and respect of his music. Humans and beasts alike would be enchanted by it and often even the most inanimate of objects would yearn to be near him. Well into his youth he had mastered the lyre and his melodious voice garnered him audiences from near and afar. It was at one such gathering of humans and beasts that his eyes fell on a wood nymph. The girl was called Eurydice, she was beautiful and shy. She had been drawn to Orpheus enamored by his voice and such was the spell of beauty in music and appearance that neither could cast their eyes off each other. Something inexplicable tugged the hearts of the two young people and soon they feltl dearly in love, unable to spend a single moment apart. After a while, they decided to get married.
Their wedding day dawned bright and clear. Hymenaios, the god of marriage, blessed their marriage and then a great feast followed. The surroundings were filled with laughter and gaiety. Soon the shadows grew large, signaling an end to the revelry that had lasted much of the day and the wedding guests all took leave of the newly-weds, who were still sitting hand-in-hand and starry eyed. They soon both realized that it was time they were on their way and departed for home.
However, things would soon change and grief would ensue happiness. There was one man who was despising Orpheus and desired Eurydice for his own. Aristaeus, a shepherd, had plotted a plan to conquer the beautiful nymph. And there he was, waiting in the bushes for the young couple to pass by. Seeing that the lovers were approaching, he intended to jump on them and kill Orpheus. As the shepherd made his move, Orpheus grabbed Eurydice by the hand and started running pell-mell through the forest.
The chase was long and Aristaeus showed no signs of giving up or slowing down. On and on they ran and suddenly, Orpheus felt Eurydice stumble and fall, her hand slipping from his grasp. Unable to comprehend what had just happened, he rushed to her side but stopped short in dismay, for his eyes perceived the deathly pallor that suffused her cheeks. Looking around, he saw no trace of the shepherd for Aristaeus had witnessed the event and had left. Few steps away, Eurydice had stepped on a nest of snakes and had been bitten by a deadly viper. Knowing that there was no chance of survival, Aristaeus had abandoned his try, cursing his luck and Orpheus.
A supernatural plan
After the death of his beloved wife, Orpheus was no more the same carefree person he used to be. His life without Eurydice seemed endless and could do nothing more than grief for her. This is when he had a great but yet crazy idea: he decided to go to Underworld and try to get his wife back. Apollo, his father, would talk to Hades, the god of the Underworld, to accept him and hear his plea.
Armed with his weapons, the lyre and voice, Orpheus approached Hades and demanded entry into the underworld. None challenged him. Standing in front of the rulers of the dead, Orpheus said why he was there, in a voice both mellifluous and disquieting. He played his lyre and sang out to King Hades and Queen Persephone that Eurydice was returned to him. Not even the most stone-hearted of people or Gods could have neglected the hurt in his voice.
Hades openly wept, Persephone's heart melted and even Cerberus, the gigantic three-headed hound guarding the entry to the underworld, covered his many ears with his paws and howled in despair. The voice of Orpheus was so moving that Hades promised to this desperate man that Eurydice would follow him to the Upper World, the world of the living. However, he warned Orpheus that for no reason must he look back while his wife was still in the dark, for that would undo everything he hoped for. He should wait for Eurydice to get into the light before he looked at her.
With great faith in his heart and joy in his song, Orpheus began his journey out of the underworld, joyful that he would once again be reunited with his love. As Orpheus was reaching the exit of the Underworld, he could hear the footfalls of his wife approaching him. He wanted to turn around and hug her immediately but managed to control his feelings. As his was approaching the exit, his heart was beating faster and faster. The moment he stepped on the world of the living, he turned his head to hug his wife. Unfortunately, he got only a glimpse of Eurydice before she was once again drawn back into the underworld.
When Orpheus turned his head, Eurydice was still in the dark, she hadn't seen the sun and, as Hades had warned Orpheus, his sweet wife was drowned back to the dark world of the dead. Waves of anguish and despair swept over him and shuddering with grief he approached the Underworld again but this time, he was denied entry, the gates were standing shut and god Hermes, sent by Zeus, wouldn't let him in.
The death of Orpheus
From then on, the heart-broken musician was wandering disoriented, day after day, night after night, in total despair. He could find no consolation in anything. His misfortune tormented him, forcing him to abstain from contact with any other woman and slowly but surely he found himself shunning their company completely. His songs were no more joyful but extremely sad. His only comfort was to lay on a huge rock and feel the caress of the breeze, his only vision were the open skies.
And so it was that a group of irate women, furious for his scorn towards them, chanced upon him. Orpheus was so desperate that he did not even try to repulse their advances. The women killed him, cut his body into pieces and threw them and his lyre into a river. It is said that his head and his lyre floated downriver to the island of Lesvos. There the Muses found them and gave Orpheus a proper burial ceremony. People believed that his grave emanated music, plaintive yet beautiful. His soul descended down to Hades where he was finally reunited with his beloved Eurydice.
The comparison to a Bible scene
If you observe the above myth closely, you will find a comparison between this ancient Greek myth and a scene from the Bible. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is similar to the story of Lot. The analogy of "not looking back" is of great importance to both stories.
In the Book of Genesis, when God decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities drowned in sins, he ordered a good man, Lot, to take his family and leave the area. God told them to head for the mountains without looking back the city being destroyed. While they were leaving the city, Lot's wife couldn't resist and turned around to see the burning cities. She was immediately transformed into a pillar of salt! This may be inferred as a direct and terrifying consequence of disobedience towards God.