Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910
The longest and most familiar version of this myth is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), and Ovid may well have been inspired by Vergil’s less florid account, carefully placed at the dramatic end of his Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589). In Vergil’s...
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The longest and most familiar version of this myth is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), and Ovid may well have been inspired by Vergil’s less florid account, carefully placed at the dramatic end of his Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589). In Vergil’s work, Eurydice is bitten by a snake as she flees the lustful rustic deity, Aristaeus. There, the Orpheus-Eurydice theme is most appropriate to Vergil’s subject of rebirth and fruitfulness through sacrifice and discipline; indeed, this myth, perhaps more than any other, illustrates that humanity can never achieve victory over death without divine aid and that human immortality can be gained only through art.
Through extraordinary powers of music, Orpheus is able to perform unnatural feats, such as moving beasts, trees, and even rocks, and ultimately to obtain a rare favor from the rulers of the dead; yet his lack of discipline, that is, his inability to obey the command of Proserpine and Hades to the letter, results in his failure to achieve victory over death for Eurydice. (Even if he won, however, one must assume that death would eventually come again for them both.) Nevertheless, there is a hopeful side to the myth: Eventually the two lovers are permanently united in death.
This may be satisfying romantically, but it is less important than Orpheus’s literary legacy, symbolized by his severed head continuing to sing his beloved’s name, harmoniously echoed by sympathetic nature. Orpheus, therefore, achieves ultimate victory over death: His art gives him the life after death he seeks for Eurydice. This is further symbolized in his burial by the Muses near Olympus, in Apollo’s petrifying his head on Lesbos (an island renowned for its poets), and finally by the transformation of Orpheus’s lyre into a constellation of stars. Vergil, if not Ovid, has this victory in mind, since their versions break with the tradition in which Orpheus succeeds in rescuing Eurydice from death.
Both parts of the original myth—the retrieval of Eurydice and the death of Orpheus—probably originated in preclassical poetry, perhaps in cultic Orphism. Orpheus himself was believed to be the earliest of poets, along with Musaeus (his son), Homer, and Hesiod. He is given a place among Jason’s Argonauts. His remote Thracian origins lend mystery to his myth, and no doubt this had a bearing on the relatively restricted popularity of Orphism, which seems to have been more of a philosophy than a religion. The aim of the Orphics was to lead a life of purity and purification, so that eventually the successively reincarnated soul, having purged itself of the Titanic (or earthly) element, would be pure spirit divinely born of Zeus through his son Dionysus and thus would be released from the cycle, eternally to wander the Elysian fields.
Exactly how Orpheus is connected with this cult is unclear and indeed confusing. In Ovid’s version, Orpheus refuses to love any woman other than Eurydice; furthermore, he turns his attention to boys, which is why the Thracian women murder him. However, these women are bacchants, that is, Dionysian orgiasts, and, in other versions, Dionysus himself directs them to kill Orpheus because the bard, in his devotion to Apollo the sun god, prevents the wine god’s acceptance in Thrace. On the other hand, the oracle established in Lesbos in honor of Orpheus is suppressed by Apollo. If Orpheus is the poet-priest-prophet of Apollo who refuses the frenzy of Dionysus, it may well be that he became the cultic model whose sacrifice ironically inspired others to accept Dionysus. Orphic mysteries seem to have resembled the orgies of Dionysus, but whereas the Dionysiac is striving for that momentary ecstatic union with the god, the Orphic is striving for eternal peace.
The descent of Orpheus into the Underworld obviously symbolizes an Orphic’s death, which will be followed by a new life, repeated until the cycle is complete. Other symbolic interpretations aside, the descent and return would be frightening were they not so entertaining. Having given readers a whirlwind classic tour of the Underworld, including introductions to the king and queen, Ovid slowly leads readers back along the murky upward path until suddenly Orpheus’s concern for Eurydice outstrips his easy promise. The pathos of this second separation is intensified by its swiftness and by Orpheus’s inability even to regain passage across the Styx, much less to see or to hear his love again.
Few love stories from classical antiquity made such an impression on succeeding ages. This myth became the subject of the first secular drama in vernacular, Orfeo (1480), composed in the era of the Medici family by Angelo Poliziano. In 1600, the first Italian opera, Euridice, was composed. Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice (1762) is considered the first “modern” opera for its balance of music and tragic drama, although a happy ending was supplied: Amore (Love) brings Eurydice back to prevent Orfeo’s suicide. Twentieth century playwrights have adapted the story to their own settings and purposes, among them, Jean Anouilh and Tennessee Williams. Composers such as Jacques Offenbach, Darius Milhaud, and Igor Stravinsky have borrowed the theme. In film, Vinicius de Moraes’s Brazilian masterpiece, Black Orpheus (1957), takes place in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival and deftly uses the primitive color of the celebration to heighten the frenzy of Orpheus’s search for his love, who vainly tries to elude her stalking killer costumed as Death.