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.