Orpheus and Eurydice

Published February 19, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Several of these myths just sort of overlap.  So, technically speaking, the majority of this one goes in the ten years between Apollo’s year as a slave and the near-death of Admetos.


No one could sing as beautifully as Orpheus.  Even the birds stopped singing to listen to him.  His mother, after all, was Calliope, one of the Muses.  Some said his father was Apollo, and others said his father was the King of Thrace.  But no matter who his father was, Orpheus was the most beautiful singer and the finest lyre-player among all mortal men.

His singing was greatly admired by all who heard it, and kings all across Hellas paid him well to play at their court, and even though he could do nothing but sing, he more than pulled his weight when he traveled on the Argo with Jason.

Not long after he returned to Thrace from Colchis, Orpheus found himself falling in love.  Eurydice was a beautiful girl who came to listen to him sing every day, and always smiled so happily.  She would close her eyes and just listen and listen and listen, with that sweet, happy smile.  Almost before he knew it, Orpheus had asked her to be his wife.

They were soon married, and lived very happily in a home filled with song.  They had not been married long before that day.  It was a lovely day, and Orpheus decided that they should go eat on the slopes of the most beautiful mountain in Thrace, which happened to be very near their home.  After they ate, they sat in the shade of a tree, and Orpheus played his lyre and sang for Eurydice.  In the middle of the afternoon, they became tired, and settled down for a brief nap.

But when Orpheus awoke, he could not arouse Eurydice.  No matter how he shook her shoulder, she would not stir, and her flesh was cold.  When he picked her up, a snake slithered out from underneath her skirts.  There were marks on her leg, where the snake had bitten her.

Orpheus fell into despair at his wife’s death, and would not be consoled.  Everyone tried to cheer him up, but all he would do was weep, and sing songs of lament for his beautiful Eurydice.  His songs were so beautiful and tragic that everyone and everything that heard him wept; even rocks and statues were crying for poor Eurydice.

Apollo himself wept to hear the songs of grief, and he spoke to Orpheus through one of his weeping statues, telling him to seek a particular cave in the mountains, where he would be able to enter the house of Hades and see his wife again.  Orpheus was delighted at the idea, and set out for the cave at once.

The passage underground was dark and dank and dismal, but Orpheus kept the thought of Eurydice in his heart, and he did not falter in his journey.  When he reached the entrance to the underworld, the three-headed dog Cerberus began barking and snarling at him, menacing him.  But Orpheus was not afraid, and sang sweetly to the dog, which was soon wagging its tail like a pet greeting its master at the door.

Orpheus continued his journey through the realm of the dead, singing at the shades to convince them to part and allow him past.  He kept on singing until he reached the throne room where Hades and Persephone sat upon their chilly thrones.

Hades sighed.  “Not another one!  How many mortals are going to prance in here as if they belonged?!”  He glanced behind Orpheus, and saw that Cerberus had followed the bard, and was still wagging his tail happily.  “Worthless mutt,” he grumbled.  “I ought to replace you with a locked gate!  That at least might keep a few mortals out!”

“Oh, leave the poor little puppy alone!” Persephone exclaimed.

“He isn’t a ‘poor little puppy.’  He’s a vicious guard dog!  Or he’s supposed to be,” the god added, with another cold look at the three-headed dog, whose ears wilted sadly at the rebuke.

“Tell us what brings you here while you’re still alive,” Persephone said, turning toward Orpheus.  “I doubt you came just to bring us a little much-needed cheer.”

Orpheus shook his head, and sang his tragic song of his lost love.  By the time he was finished, Persephone was weeping hysterically in her husband’s arms.  If Hades was touched by the song, it did not show on his face.  “Very tragic,” he admitted, “but that does not explain why you have come here while you still breathe.  If you miss her that much, you could always kill yourself and be reunited with her.”

“Please, just let me have my Eurydice back again,” Orpheus begged.  “In life, so that we can have children and grow old together.”

“If I allowed every grieving husband to revive his wife, there would very soon be no women left in this realm,” Hades answered, shaking his head.  “She came to the end of the time the Fates allotted her.”

“Have you no sympathy in you at all?” the mortal man wailed, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Sympathy I have, but I also have the strength of will not to act on it,” the god replied.  “The dead must remain so, if there is to be any order in the world.”

“You can let just this one woman go!” Persephone exclaimed, looking up at her husband.  “Think how little time they got to spend married!”

“Persephone…”

“Are you claiming that you would have stood by and accepted it if I had been taken away from you forever so soon after our marriage?” the goddess countered.

“Of course not!  But we’re gods and they’re only mortals!”

“That’s no excuse,” Persephone insisted.

Hades sighed deeply, then looked back at Orpheus.  “Very well,” he said.  “Since my own wife is so insistent upon it, I shall give you the chance to earn the restoration of your bride.”

“Earn?” Orpheus repeated.

“You are asking me to defy the Fates whose powers hold sway even over gods like myself.  I cannot take such an action lightly.  So you must prove that you are worthy of such a great boon.”  Hades paused a moment, frowning.  “When you leave my realm, Eurydice’s shade will be following you.  With every step, she will become less a shade and more alive.  If she makes it all the way back to the surface, she will once more be alive.  However, if you turn to look at her even once while she is in that state, halfway between shade and living mortal, then she will return to being only a shade again, and you will have lost your chance to have her returned to you.  Is that clear?”

Orpheus nodded, and thanked the gods profusely for their kindness in agreeing to return his beloved Eurydice to him.

Hurrying as quickly as he could, Orpheus set out to return to the land of the living.  He was eager and confident as he left the house of Hades, but with every step he took towards the surface, he began to worry.  Was Eurydice really behind him?  Would he really have her restored to him?  What if she wasn’t there?  What if she thought he wasn’t looking at her because he didn’t care?

He tried to slow his pace, hoping she would catch up to him.  But he heard no footsteps behind him.  What if she wasn’t there?  What if the gods had lied to him?

By the time the cave mouth was distantly visible, the anguish was too much for Orpheus.  He had to know if Eurydice was with him!

Orpheus glanced over his shoulder, hoping that it was not enough to violate the command of the god of the dead.

For one brief moment, he saw Eurydice’s face, then she vanished from his sight, and Orpheus was alone.

He tried to run after her, but found the cavern walls suddenly blocking his path downward.  There was nothing Orpheus could do but return to the surface and grieve.

As he returned to Thrace, feeling alone and desolate despite the beauty all around him, Orpheus found that he could no longer stomach the sight of women:  they were not his Eurydice.  So he began to spurn women, and accepted only the company of men.  For companionship, friendship and love, he would no longer consort with women, and the women of Thrace began to feel hatred for the bard whose beautiful melodies they had once adored.

Most Thracian women did nothing over the way Orpheus was jilting their entire sex, but the Maenads, the wild followers of Dionysos, they were willing to act where other women were not.  A band of them, enjoying thir usual drunken frenzy, chanced upon the bard one night.

He told them to leave, but they would not.  They invited him to join their dance, but he would not.  He tried to leave their company, but they would not let him.  They told him he should worship Dionysos with them, as he once had done, but he would not.

Their conversations became more and more strained, until Orpheus began to shout at them, weeping and wailing, ordering them to leave him be.  They shouted back, cursing him for disdaining women.  When he replied that there was no curse worse than being with women, one of the Maenads could take it no longer.  She grabbed his wrist, and began to tug.

The other Maenads quickly joined in.  They grabbed him by his hands, by his feet, by his hair.  They began to pull and pull, as if they were children quarreling over a toy.  They tugged and tugged until they had pulled Orpheus apart.

The Maenads flung most of the pieces of Orpheus on the ground where he had stood, except for his head.  That they flung into the river Hebron, where it floated along in the current, still singing laments for his lost Eurydice.


Hmm. I wonder if I should have kept the last bit where his head floated all the way to the island of Lesbos, where it became an oracle, speaking prophecies so accurate that Apollo grew jealous and hit it with a thunderbolt?  (Funny thing about how many gods other than Zeus get to throw his thunderbolts…)

Anyway, now that I’m done with the Hades myths–apart from his brief appearance in one of the Twelve Tasks of Heracles–I’m not sure what to tell for next week.  Hmm…I think I’ll decide that after I’ve been to tonight’s class, so I’ll know just how much time I’ll need to dedicate to writing that paper.  He said something about “next week’s research paper” in the assignment for this week, but I don’t know if the whole paper is due next Thursday, or if next Thursday is for working on it and it’s actually due the week after.  Don’t know, off-hand, how long it is, either.  (Though since I’m a graduate student, I do know it’s probably a lot longer for me than it is for the undergrads.  That’s the annoying thing about a mixed graduate and undergraduate class…)  Anyway, if the paper looks to be something really massive/time-consuming, I’ll probably do a very short myth for next week.  Otherwise…hmm…not sure what to do next.  I want to do the other myths I’ve referenced in the ones I’ve already written, but there are actually a lot of those…

 

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