Orpheus and Eurydice

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Orpheus and Eurydice Summary

"Orpheus and Eurydice" is a Greek myth in which a bereaved musician named Orpheus travels to the underworld in hopes of reviving his recently deceased wife, Eurydice.

  • Orpheus and Eurydice's marriage is doomed from the beginning. Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, doesn't bless their wedding, and Eurydice dies soon after the nuptials.

  • Devastated, Orpheus travels to the Underworld and make a deal with Hades: if Orpheus can walk  to the surface without looking back, Eurydice will return to life. Orpheus fails.

  • Orpheus goes mad with grief and is murdered by a group of maidens. Deaths finally reunites him with Eurydice.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

In most versions of the ancient Greek myth, Orpheus is said to be the son of the god Apollo, a son of Zeus, and the muse Calliope, a daughter of Zeus. He is from Thrace. When he is young, his father gives him a stringed instrument called a lyre, and Orpheus turns out to be such a gifted musician that no mortal can resist the sound of his music. His gift seems to be divine. In fact, his voice and playing are so beautiful that not even an immortal can resist his music, and even trees are said to move themselves in order to come closer to him while he plays.

People gather from near and far to listen to Orpheus play and sing, and one day, a beautiful wood nymph named Eurydice is a member of the audience. The two fall in love at first sight, and soon they cannot bear to be apart. Their wedding is a lovely day, but the god of marriage, Hymenaios, delivers an ominous warning that their happy union will not last. One day, while Eurydice is in the forest, she steps on a nest of snakes; a deadly viper bites her, and she dies. In some versions of the story, she is dancing in the woods with other nymphs when she is bitten; in other versions, she is being pursued by a jealous suitor and is bitten while trying to escape. In any case, it is always a snake bite that kills Eurydice.

Orpheus’s grief is overwhelming after his wife’s death. He decides to go to the underworld to speak with Hades, the god of the dead. He marches into the underworld and states his purpose, begging Hades to return Eurydice to him. He plays and sings for Hades and his wife, Persephone, who weep when they hear his beautiful voice. Hades is so moved that he tells Orpheus that he can return with Eurydice to the world of living. However, Hades stipulates that, as they leave the underworld, Orpheus must trust that Eurydice is behind him and not look back at her until she reaches the light; if he looks back while she is still in darkness, he will lose her again.

On their way, Orpheus resists the urge to turn and embrace Eurydice until he reaches the light. As soon as he reaches the light, however, he doubts that she is behind him and turns to look. Eurydice has been behind him all along, but she is still in darkness when he turns around, and so she is pulled back down into the underworld forever. When Orpheus attempts to follow her, he is prevented from crossing the River Styx by Charon, the ferryman of the dead.

Devastated, Orpheus returns to the upper world, where he sings and plays songs so sad that plants and animals share in his grief. One day, a group of maidens worshipping the god Bacchus attack Orpheus in a frenzy, tearing him limb from limb. After meeting this bloody end, Orpheus is finally able to reunite with his beloved Eurydice in the underworld.

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