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,...
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