The Portrayal of Love in Orpheus and Eurydice - by Lucy Moore


Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice. Ary Scheffer, 1814
Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice. Ary Scheffer, 1814

Key Terms

  • Eros: Romantic love

  • Ludus: Playful love

  • Storge: Unconditional love

  • Philautia: Self love

  • Pragma: Love of companionship and commitment

  • Agape: Universal love

  • Stygian Realm: Belonging to the River Styx

  • The Maenads: The frenzied female followers of Dionysus

  • The Muses: Inspirational goddesses of literature

Despite the patriarchal and misogynistic norms and values of Ancient Greece, the topic of love was highly regarded as quintessential to a happy life. This could be seen in all aspects of society: love of art, love of food, love of the army, and love of myth – just to name a few. The Greeks had seven distinct types of love that they celebrated: eros, philia, ludus, storge, philautia, pragma and agape. This is indicative of the importance of love to the Greeks: it was valued and it affected everyone.


The topic of love played a huge part in the ancient mythic cycle too: many myths revolved their plots around either a good or a bad presentation of love. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice depicts love, courage, heartbreak, and death. The primary source for the myth is Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10-11 but there are a number of other depictions. On the surface, it can be disregarded as a silly tale of two lovers who make a mistake, but when you truly analyse the bridge of the myth, it encapsulates the lengths one will go to for someone they love.


The Story: Falling in Love


One day, Orpheus was gifted with a lyre from his father Apollo; the god of music taught Apollo how to play it until he was perfect. It was not long until the nymph Eurydice stumbled across Orpheus’ playing and became enchanted by his music; the connection was mutual, with Orpheus becoming enchanted with the grace and beauty of Eurydice.


After Orpheus saved the Argonauts from the Sirens’ music by playing his more powerful, all-consuming melody, he returned back to Thrace and married Eurydice. However, the wedding was not to be a day of celebration. The wedding-god Hymen struggled to light his torch in order to bless the newlyweds which therefore foreshadowed an ominous future for the couple.


Eurydice’s Death


There are a few versions of Eurydice’s death: in one she was out dancing in the forest with nymphs when she was bitten by a snake and died instantly. In Virgil’s Georgics, she was pursued by Aristaeus for her beauty and fell into a serpent’s nest when trying to escape. Regardless of the version, there was no hope or chance for Eurydice’s survival.


Orpheus lamented for days over the death of his wife. He played sorrowful music on his lyre and gained the sympathy of all that surrounded him, especially the gods who took pity on Orpheus and were moved by his grief.


Orpheus’ Katabasis


After it was suggested by Apollo and the other gods offered their protection, Orpheus decided to use katabasis (a descent into the Underworld) to seek empathy from Hades and try to bargain for Eurydice’s return to the living world. His descent to the Underworld began in Laconia where he used an earthly portal to enter the land of the living dead.


Orpheus arrived at the Stygian realm and used his lyre to play sorrowful music in an attempt to evoke sympathy. His music playing was a success. Orpheus was able to pacify Cerberus, soothe Charon, cause Tantalus to forget about his thirst and hunger, prevent the Dainads from filling their pitchers with water, stop the vultures eating Tityus’ organs, freeze Sisyphus in a trance on his stone, and pause the Wheel of Ixion.


Most importantly, both Hades and Persephone were moved by Orpheus’ playing and agreed to let Eurydice return on one condition – he could not look at his wife until they returned back to the land of the living, or risk losing her forever.


Orpheus believed that this would be an easy task and beamed with glee as he thanked the gods and left, followed by his wife.


Losing faith


When leaving the Underworld, Orpheus began to grow anxious with the worry that he had been tricked by the gods because he could not hear the footsteps of Eurydice; however, she was travelling as a shade and would not return to her physical state until the pair had finished their journey.


At a short distance from the exit, Orpheus completely lost his faith in the gods and the agreement between him and Hades. As he turned around, the walls of the Underworld wallowed a ‘farewell’ and the shade of his wife was pulled back into the land of the living dead and was trapped forever.


Regret


Orpheus knew he could not return back to the Underworld alive again and began to lament tirelessly. He used his lyre to play sorrowful music, calling for death so he could be united with his wife once again. He found himself idle at the River Styx for seven days. When he returned to Thrace, he was just a shadow of the man who left. He shunned all women and turned instead to young men.


Death of Orpheus


The Maenads (the frenzied female followers of Dionysus) were the ones who accepted Orpheus’ call for death due to their frenzied resentment for the way he was acting. They tore his limbs apart and threw the pieces into the River Hebrus.


Afterwards, the Muses retrieved the limbs of Orpheus (after all, he was the son of the muse Calliope). There are different versions of the gathering of Orpheus’ head. In some, the Muses could not find his head as it had already reached Lesbos after being tossed into the river; It is said the people of Lesbos then buried his head and this was the catalyst for the birth of the poets in the years to come: perhaps a nod to the connection of Orpheus and the lyre, and Sappho’s talent with her lyre. But in other versions of the myth, the Muses found Orpheus’ head and kept it so it could continue to create his melodies and entertain those around it.


In his death, it was said that the nightingales sang more beautifully upon his grave than in any other place. One can hope his spiritual self was reunited with Eurydice; however, he may have been punished for his lack of faith in the gods and denied a reunion.


Conclusion: The Portrayal of Love


Overall, despite general criticism of Orpheus’ ignorance, his actions were borne from consideration and adoration for his wife. The myth demonstrates the all-consuming nature of love. Orpheus sacrificed what he could for the one he loved and had faith in their marriage, despite the ominous reading from Hymen.

Orpheus and Eurydice may have faced a tragic ending, but their role and importance as a couple is paramount. They encapsulate all the ideals of a perfect relationship: dedication, protection, and love for one another ­– but even they are not immune from rebellion, and like all those who distrust the words of the gods, they are punished. The emotion presented in the myth shows how love can be both a rewarding and devastating journey.

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