One of the great tragic love stories from Greek mythology, the tale of the musician Orpheus and his wife Eurydice features love, death, poetry, and the afterlife. But as with the tale of Echo and Narcissus, this is a doomed love story made more famous through Roman writers (Ovid, Virgil) than Greek originals. Before we analyse the meaning of the Orpheus myth, it might be worth summarising the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Who was Orpheus?
Orpheus was a lyrist (a player of the lyre), singer, and poet. Thracian in origin, Orpheus is, in many ways, the archetype of the musician and poet in Greek mythology. He was said to live near Mount Olympus, and could often be found singing there. His singing was so beautiful that wild beasts would tamely follow him, seduced by the power of his song. Indeed, so closely intertwined is Orpheus’ name with the tradition of lyric poetry (so named because it was originally sung to musical accompaniment courtesy of the lyre), that a tradition later grew up that both Homer and Hesiod, the two greatest poets of ancient Greece, were descendants of Orpheus.
What is less well-known is that Orpheus was also one of the crew who accompanied Jason on his voyage to find the Golden Fleece: Orpheus was one of the fabled Argonauts. What’s more, when the ship passed the island on which the Sirens sang and played their fatal melody, Orpheus sang loudly to drown out their song, to save Jason and the rest of the crew from running aground and becoming Siren-food, although one of the unfortunate Argonauts, Butes, did succumb and was whisked off by Aphrodite.
This story of Orpheus, however, is less well-known than the tragic love story involving his wife Eurydice.
Orpheus and Eurydice: summary
The lyrist Orpheus fell in love with the beautiful Eurydice, only for her to die shortly after; Orpheus made the journey into Hades, the Underworld, to try to bring his beloved back. His wish was granted – but on the condition that he mustn’t look back at Eurydice as she followed him out of Hades, until they were both safely back in the land of the living. Orpheus couldn’t resist one quick glance … and Eurydice was lost to him forever.
This is the short version of the tale, but there’s a bit more to it than this. Eurydice was a nymph – a dryad, specifically (a nymph associated with the forests) who married Orpheus. One day, while she was out among the Thracian countryside, she was pursued by a shepherd, Aristaeus, who wanted her. As she fled from him, she stood on a serpent which reared up and bit her on the leg, killing her with its venom.
Orpheus grieved at the loss of the love of his life. But the one thing he had was his song, and so he went to the Underworld (or Hades, or, if you like, Hell) to beg for the return of Eurydice to the land of the living.
Orpheus used his lyre and his beautiful singing to charm the demons of the Underworld. His singing even charmed Hades, the god of the Underworld, and his wife (for half the year, anyway), Persephone, goddess of the Underworld. Perhaps because Hades and Persephone knew, as husband and wife, what it was like to love someone, they were moved not only by Orpheus’ music but by his petition as well; they certainly agreed to his request, and allowed Eurydice to return with Orpheus to the land of the living. Orpheus’ song, and his perilous journey into the Underworld, were proof of his love and devotion to Eurydice.
However, Hades and Persephone imposed one condition: Orpheus was to lead the way out of the Underworld, with Eurydice following behind him – but on no account was Orpheus to turn back and look at his wife until they were clear of the Underworld and back in the world of the living.
Orpheus agreed, but as he was making his way back from the Underworld, he was gripped by a terrible doubt. What if Hades and Persephone had tricked him, and he was leaving his wife behind? What if she wasn’t behind him at all? Eventually – when he was not far from exiting the Underworld – Orpheus couldn’t resist any longer, and turned back to see his wife, Eurydice. He shouldn’t have doubted.
But in looking back, he had broken the one condition Hades and Persephone had laid down: not to glance back until they were both out of the Underworld. And so he had to watch in horror and despair as Eurydice was taken back down into the Underworld – all because he looked back at her. So, Eurydice died a second time – this time thanks to her husband.
Orpheus tried to return down into the Underworld to plead with the gods again, but he found the entrance to Hades barred – this time for good. Not even his song could gain him entry.
Orpheus and Eurydice: analysis
The Orpheus and Eurydice myth is often slightly simplified when told, and thus it loses some of its force and meaning. Why, when he has successfully negotiated the seemingly impossible – persuading the gods to bring his wife back from the dead – does Orpheus blow it all at the last moment by foolishly going against their instructions and looking back at Eurydice before they are safely back in the world of the living?
It’s often said that it’s devotion or love that is Orpheus’ downfall: he’s so desperate to take one quick, besotted glance back at his wife as she follows him out of the Underworld that he turns round and, in doing so, condemns her (back) to death.
But as the summary above reveals, it’s actually a far more understandable emotion that prompts Orpheus’ folly: doubt. Orpheus doubts whether his wife really is behind him on the return journey, and eventually this doubt eats away at him until he cannot resist turning back to check.
In many ways, his doubt is well-placed: the Greek gods and goddesses were not above tricking mankind. And Orpheus’ determination to bring his wife back from the dead was so great that he wanted to make sure he wasn’t leaving the Underworld without her. After all, this is the Underworld we’re talking about: you can’t just pop back if you’ve forgotten something, like the supermarket.
So, in the last analysis, although his love for his wife played a part, Orpheus’ decision to turn and look back at his wife was born of a fear that if he did look back, his wife wouldn’t be there – and if that were the case, he didn’t want to return to life without her. Rather than curiosity or idle, naïve, love-stricken besottedness, the main emotion driving Orpheus was fear and doubt.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.
Image credit: Dosseman, via Wikimedia Commons.