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The Real Meaning of Orpheus and Eurydice

A psychiatrist and philosopher interprets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Key points

  • The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired countless paintings, poems, novels, ballets, operas, and films.
  • Although generally interpreted as a love story, it is, in fact, an anti-love story.
  • Important themes include mortality, meaning, heroism, art, and happiness.
Source: E Poynter / Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Source: E Poynter / Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The earliest mentions of a supreme musician called Orpheus date back to the sixth century BCE, and in the fourth century BCE the philosopher Plato commented specifically on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Today, the main sources for the myth are Virgil’s Georgics and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The Myth

Apollo gave his son Orpheus a lyre of gold and tortoise shell. Orpheus mastered the instrument so completely that no one and nothing could resist his playing and singing: The animals of the forest gathered around him, the trees bent toward him, and the streams and rivers came out of their beds to greet him.

Orpheus fell head over heels for Eurydice, and she readily returned his love. Hymen, the god of marriage ceremonies, presided over their wedding, but, in a terrible omen, his torch spluttered and spat and marred the feast with bitter fumes.

Eurydice ventured into the nearby woods, where the shepherd Aristaeus espied her dancing with the dryads. Enraptured by the scene, he began to chase her. As she beat back through the bushes, she tripped on a nest of vipers and died from a snakebite to the heel.

Orpheus sang of his grief from earth to heaven, moving the gods and all of creation. So little did life seem without Eurydice that he resolved to go and see her in Hades—and, if possible, return her to the land of the living.

Orpheus entered Hades through a cave of poisonous vapours and, by his lyrical song, made it unmolested to the palace of King Hades and Queen Persephone. His lament entranced the ferryman Charon and the ordinarily fierce three-headed hound Cerberus, and even Hades himself, who, for the first and last time, shed a black and sooty tear.

With Persephone leaning heavily upon him, Hades declared that Orpheus could leave with Eurydice, as long as he did not look at her until they had both crossed into the land of the living—but should he break this one condition, Eurydice would forever remain in the underworld, where few of the living can enter, and none twice.

Orpheus led Eurydice back the way he came, resisting the urge to turn around and meet her doe eyes.

But then he noticed that he could no longer hear her footsteps behind him, and began to fear that Hades had tricked him.

As soon as he saw the light of the sun, he glanced over his shoulder and glimpsed his beloved. But Eurydice had not yet crossed the threshold and was whipped back in a whirl into the bowels of the Earth.

Orpheus sat in a clearing and played mournfully on his lyre, spurning the many maidens who called upon him. According to Ovid, he was “the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys.” The scorned women threw sticks and stones at him, which fell back to the ground at the sound of his mesmerizing music. In the end, the Maenads, in a state of Dionysian frenzy, tore him apart from limb to limb.

Orpheus’ lyre and dismembered head, still dolefully singing, floated down the River Haebrus to the sea and washed up on the isle of Lesbos, which became famed for its poets. The muses found his head and buried it in a cave, over which the nightingales sang more prettily than in any other part.

As for his lyre, it can still be seen in the constellation Lyra.

Interpretation of the Myth

Orpheus is a personification of music, poetry, and art in general. In modern times, he has inspired countless paintings, poems, novels, ballets, operas, and films. More curiously, he became the patron of an ancient religious cult called Orphism.

In Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus says that, rather than a great man, Orpheus was, in fact, a coward. In arguing that the mark of true love is the readiness to die for it, Phaedrus contrasts the chicanery of Orpheus in seeking to cheat death to be reunited with Eurydice with the willingness of Alcestis to lay down her life for her husband Admetus when not even his elderly parents would do so. Alcestis was permitted to return alive from Hades, a rare reward indeed, whereas Orpheus returned empty-handed to be torn apart by women.

Although Orpheus traveled through Hades like a hero, he missed the mark of a hero. His anxious doubting, his turning to boys, and his being torn apart by women all point, in the Ancient Greek mind, to a lack of virility.

The gaze objectifies the beloved: If Orpheus had truly loved Eurydice, he would not have needed to look back upon her. Indeed, he would readily have died to be reunited with her and would never have found himself in such a predicament.

The descent into the nether regions, or katabasis, is found in mythologies from all over the world. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is strikingly similar to the Japanese myth of Izanagi and Izanami: Izanagi travels to the underworld to retrieve his wife Izanami, who warns him not to look at her. But so ardent is his desire that he lights a torch and casts his gaze upon her, only for it to be met by a rotting corpse.

By blurring the line between life and death, the katabasis explores themes of mortality and immortality. It is, by extension, a means of explaining natural cycles, especially the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life, as symbolized also by the viper that undid Eurydice.

We might wonder whether Eurydice, beautiful but not much else, is something of a MacGuffin: an insignificant or irrelevant quest object that serves merely to motivate the adventure, like the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend or the ring in Lord of the Rings.

Far more fleshed out than Eurydice in the myth is the power of art. No one and nothing remained unmoved by Orpheus’ song. For all his might, Hercules did not travel so easily through Hades. Even after his death, Orpheus’ severed head carried on singing, symbolizing that art, as well as being powerful, is immortal.

With such a gift, Orpheus had far more than most to be happy and, better than happy, useful. Yet he squandered it all for the mortal Eurydice, unable to understand that, for all her beauty, she was, like Izanami, never more than a decaying corpse.

How much better for him, and for all, if he had learnt to be happy on his own or with his one true love, music.

Instead of looking back on Eurydice, he ought to have been looking ahead, like a real hero, paying no heed to his own selfish, self-absorbed, self-indulgent happiness—the kind of happiness that, like Eurydice, dies in the moment that it is held.

Read more in The Meaning of Myth.

More from Neel Burton M.A., M.D.
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