Orpheus and Eurydice

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most famous tales in Greek mythology due to its tragic nature. Evident in the story is a dichotomy between the lives of individuals and the forces that surround them—whether it be maniacal suitors or powerful deities. These two segments of the mythological universe are constantly at odds with each other.

The two titular lovers simply want to be married and to love each other, but external forces constantly create obstacles that prevent them from living out their dream. First, Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, does not validate their wedding, and without his blessing the two lovers cannot make their union official according to their customs. This leads (in some versions of the myth) a jealous suitor, who is obsessed with Eurydice, to pursue her. Through a modern lens, this suitor could be considered an obsessive stalker: his behavior is predatory, and he likely intends to assault Eurydice once he has caught up with her. His pursuit of Eurydice leads to the snakebite that takes Eurydice’s life and introduces the first tragedy in the story.

When Hades offers Orpheus a deal that would allow him to bring Eurydice back to life, this is another example of how gods and other forces of the external world constantly intervene in the lives of mortals and demigods. In this instance, Hades, the ruler of the underworld, is moved by Orpheus’s plight because of the beautiful music Orpheus produces through his lyre. This shows that gods and goddesses have human characteristics and emphasizes that the division between mortals and deities is very thin.

The second tragedy of the story is when Orpheus makes the mistake of looking back at Eurydice when he is climbing out of the underworld, unaware that Eurydice has not fully exited into the upper world yet. This shows that passion can skew one’s reasoning; Orpheus was too impatient to reunite with his beloved, and this impatience caused her second entrapment in the underworld. Orpheus’s decision to look back could also be interpreted as a failure of trust, either of Eurydice or of Hades.

Another example of external forces fatally intervening in the lives of mortals is when Orpheus (in some versions of the story) is brutally dismembered and murdered by a group of jealous and drunken Maenads, worshippers of the god Dionysus. The two lovers are finally reunited for good when Orpheus goes to the underworld. However, the lovers’ individual deaths highlight the dangers of becoming too jealous or obsessive. The predatory suitor indirectly led to Eurydice’s death, and the spiteful Maenads directly killed Orpheus. Interestingly, it is Hades, the ruler of the underworld—a god who is a literal ruler over the land of death—who is the least evil antagonist in this story.

It is also important to note that this is not always the case in all versions of the myth, meaning that different iterations of the story are imbued with different messages about the nature of love and obsession.

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