Ancient History & Civilisation

Orpheus and Eurydice:
Into the mouth of hell for his mate

Orpheus was a musican, and a good one. He wrote music, too. He not only had rhythm, he could also charm wild beasts, sway the trees, and even change the course of rivers with his songs. No wonder Eurydice fell for him.

He was a kind and gentle guy, not one of those rowdy troubadours on the make. His mother was a Muse—the source of his musical roots; his dad, a prince from Thrace. Or maybe a king. He’d also mumbled something about being the son of the god Apollo.

She couldn’t even remember how and where they met, but it was love at first glance. Orpheus wooed her with stories of his adventures with the Argonauts, and how he’d played his lyre when their ship passed the islands of the Sirens. His wild and beautiful music had kept the men from hearing the bewitching siren songs and crashing upon the evil rocks around their shores. A hero, that’s what he was.

She learned he was a prophet, and had practiced the magical arts. He’d been around; he’d even been to the Underworld and back, he said.

Finally, after he’d told her all his stories, he said, “Eurydice, will you marry me?”

Of course she would, and did. Their wedding took place among her people, the Cicones. An outdoor affair. Afterward, she went for a stroll among the tall grasses in the glow of the sunshine. She was so happy. And then it happened: one of those damned satyrs showed up—they were always crashing weddings, the horny little creeps—and started chasing her. She ran fast, and was pulling away from him, looking for Orpheus, when suddenly she stumbled and fell, right into a nest of writhing vipers! Terrified, she scrambled out, but one snake bit her on the heel as she made her escape.

Oh, Orpheus …

He’d only been gone from her for a few minutes, half an hour tops; he’d just gone to have a congratulatory bump with the boys. Where could she be? When he found Eurydice, she was lying in the grasses, a calm smile on her beautiful face. She looked as though she was taking a nap, awaiting his return. Her bloody heel, the hiss of the nearby snakes, told the rest of the story.

His new bride, dead. Orpheus thought his heart would split in two with sorrow. Numbly, he picked up his lyre and began to play. His song, heavy with grief, wafted out into the world. Hearing the notes of his music, all of the gods and goddesses began to weep.

He played for hours, grieving in his own way. Finally, one of the gods whispered to him, “Go down to the Underworld, boy, and fetch her back. You alone can persuade Hades and Persephone to release your new bride.”

Drying his tears, Orpheus once again took the fearsome journey into the Underworld. Although fear made him icy cold, he struck the strings of his lyre and began to sing. “In the end, every lovely thing goes down to you, O Hades, you are the debtor who is always paid. But I seek one who came to you too soon. I only ask one small thing, that you lend her back to me, for my love is too strong a god.”

His pleading song was so eloquent it made tears of iron run down Hades’ cheeks. “Your wish is granted, just stop that dreadful wailing,” Hades said. “You may take Eurydice back into the light of day, under one condition.”

Orpheus, trembling with happiness and fear, asked, “What must I do, O King of Tartarus?”

“Have her follow you—but do not look back at her until you reach the upper world.”

Orpheus exploded with joy at these words, and at the sight of his beloved’s ghostly form. The two lovers went through the great doors of Hades’ kingdom and began the trek to the earthly world. It was a long journey, uphill of course, dark and torturous; by the time Orpheus reached the sunlight, he’d grown anxious. Was Eurydice still behind him? He needed to see her! He turned, holding out his arms for her; and there she was, smiling—but still in the shadows of the Underworld.

In desperation he lunged after her, but it was too late. He thought he heard her whisper, “Farewell,” and she was gone. Orpheus cried out to Hades for another chance, but he was only met with silence.

Stunned, disconsolate, Orpheus began to wander through the wilderness of Thrace, playing his music, his only comfort. At length some Ciconian women of Eurydice’s people happened upon him. They were already unhappy about the whole Eurydice affair, and started throwing sticks and stones at him to shut him up. But the music of Orpheus was so haunting that even the inanimate objects refused to hit him.

Well, that did it. The women, who were already wearing their maenad gear for an upcoming Dionysian orgy, tore Orpheus to shreds and decapitated him.

They threw him into the river—his body, head, and lyre—but even as they floated out into the great sea of the Mediterranean, Orpheus’s head and his lyre kept on singing and playing. All of his parts floated to the island of Lesbos, where locals reverently gathered them up and built a shrine in his honor. The Orpheus head became an oracle that gave prophesies until the god Apollo got into a jealous snit and silenced it.

There were as many variations on the Orpheus and Eurydice story as there were Greeks, making the Orphic literature rich as well as contradictory.

Centuries later, in Plato’s time, certain men became wandering beggar-priests of what was called the “Orphic life,” practicing vegetarians who abstained from eggs, beans, and sex in order to pass along the ancient teachings and exquisite musical poems of Orpheus.

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A maenad might look harmless but a band of them in full riot gear tore Orpheus the musician to shreds.

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