Orpheus and Eurydice are the main characters in one of the most famous ancient love stories. The son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope, Orpheus was the finest singer and musician in Greek mythology. His music was so magnificent that it had the power to tame wild beasts and make rocks and trees move. According to legend, Orpheus accompanied Jason and the Argonauts on their voyage to capture the Golden Fleece. Orpheus’s singing and playing of the lyre (a harplike instrument) calmed the stormy seas and saved the Argonauts by drowning out the voices of the Sirens, whose songs often lured sailors to their death on treacherous rocks.
On his return to Thrace after saving Jason and his men, Orpheus married his beloved Eurydice. However, shortly after their wedding, Eurydice was fatally bitten by a snake while she tried to escape from an unwanted admirer. Orpheus was so overcome with grief that he stopped singing and playing his lyre. Eventually, he decided to go to the underworld* to find Eurydice. Orpheus’s beautiful music persuaded the ferryman, Charon, to ferry him across the River Styx to the entrance of the underworld. With his song, he also charmed Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates to the underworld. Having gained admittance to the land of the dead, Orpheus was able to charm Hades and Persephone, rulers of the underworld, into allowing him to take Eurydice back to earth. There was, however, one condition— namely, that he must lead her out of the underworld without looking back until he reached the surface. But just as their journey was almost completed, Orpheus had an irresistible urge to turn around and look at his wife’s beautiful face. As soon as he did so, she vanished back into the underworld. Orpheus tried to return, but this time he was not allowed to pass.
In his misery, Orpheus hid himself away from everyone. The maenads, female worshipers of the god Dionysus, were angry at his refusal to share their company. They found him and tore him to pieces, leaving only his head intact. The head—still singing—floated down a river and out to the Aegean Sea, finally landing on the island of Lesbos. The people of Lesbos buried it and established a shrine to honor Orpheus. They were rewarded by the Muses with the gift of lyric poetry.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
After rescuing Jason and the Argonauts from disaster at sea, Orpheus returned to Thrace, where he married his beloved Eurydice. He is shown here playing for the Thracians.
Orpheus became the central figure of a mystery cult, Orphism, established around 600 B.C., and many poems and oracles were attributed to him. The legend of Orpheus has been a popular theme for artists, musicians, and poets through the ages. (See also Cults; Myths, Greek.)