Orpheus and Eurydice
The account of Orpheus with the Argonauts is told only by Apollonius
of Rhodes, a third-century Greek poet. The rest of the story is told
best by two Roman poets, Virgil and Ovid, in very much the same style.
The Latin names of the gods are therefore used here. Apollonius
influenced Virgil a good deal. Indeed, any one of the three might
have written the entire story as it stands.
The very earliest musicians were the gods. Athena was not
distinguished in that line, but she invented the flute although she
never played upon it. Hermes made the lyre and gave it to Apollo who
drew from it sounds so melodious that when he played in Olympus the
gods forgot all else. Hermes also made the shepherd~pipe for himself
and drew enchanting music from it Pan made the pipe of reeds which
can sing as sweetly as the nightingale in spring. The Muses had no
instrument peculiar to them, but their voices were lovely beyond
Next in order came a few mortals so excellent in their art that they
almost equaled the divine performers. Of these by far the greatest
was Orpheus. On his mother's side he was more than mortal. He was the
son of one of the Muses and a Thracian prince. His mother gave him
the gift of music and Thrace where he grew up fostered it. The
Thracians were the most musical of the peoples of Greece. But Orpheus
had no rival there or anywhere except the gods alone. There was no
limit to his power when he played and sang. No one and nothing could
In the deep still woods upon the Thracian mountains Orpheus with his
singing lyre led the trees, Led the with beasts of the wilderness.
Everything animate and inanimate followed him. He moved the
rocks on the hillside and turned the courses of the rivers. Little is
told about his life before his ill-fated marriage, for which he is
even better known than for his music, but he went on one famous
expedition and proved himself a most useful member of it. He sailed
with Jason on the Argo, and when the heroes were weary or the rowing
was especially difficult he would strike his lyre and they would be
aroused to fresh zeal and their oars would smite the sea together in
time to the melody. Or if a quarrel threatened he would play so
tenderly and soothingly that the fiercest spirits would grow calm and
forget their anger. He saved the heroes, too, from the Sirens. When
they heard far over the sea singing so enchantingly sweet that it
drove out all other thoughts except a desperate longing to hear more,
and they turned the ship to the shore where the Sirens sat, Orpheus
snatched up his lyre and played a tune so clear and ringing that it
drowned the sound of those lovely fatal voices. The ship was put hack
on her course and the winds sped her away from the dangerous place.
If Orpheus had not been there the Argonauts, too, would have left
their bones on the Sirens' island. Where he first met and how he
wooed the maiden he loved, Eurydice, we are not told, but it is clear
that no maiden he wanted could have resisted the power of his song.
They were married, but their joy was brief. Directly after the
wedding, as the bride walked in a -meadow with her bridesmaids,
a viper stung her and she died. Orpheus' grief was overwhelming.
He could not endure it. He determined to go down to the world of
death and try to bring Eurydice hack. He said to himself,
With my song
I will charm Demeter's daughter,
I will charm the Lord of the Dead,
Moving their hearts with my melody.
I will bear her away from Hades.
He dared more than any other man ever dared for his love. He took the
fearsome journey to the underworld. There he struck his lyre, and at
the sound all that vast multitude were charmed to stillness. The dog
Cerberus relaxed his guard; the wheel of Ixion stood motionless;
Sisiphus sat at rest upon his stone; Tantalus forgot his thirst; for
the first time the faces of the dread goddesses, the Furies, were wet
with tears. The ruler of Hades drew near to listen with his queen.
Gods who rule the dark and silent world,
To you all born of a woman needs must come.
All lovely things at last go down to you.
You are the debtor who is always paid.
A little while we tarry up on earth.
Then we are yours forever and forever.
But I seek one who came to you too soon.
The bud was plucked before the flower bloomed.
I tried to bear my loss. I could not bear it.
Love was too strong a god. 0 King, you know
If that old tale men tell is true, how once
The flowers saw the rape of Proserpine.
Then weave again for sweet Eurydice
Life's pattern that was taken from the loom
Too quickly. See, I ask a little thing,
Only that you will lend, not give, her to me.
She shall be yours when her years' span is full.
No one under the spell of his voice could refuse him anything. He
Drew iron tears down Pluto's cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek.
They summoned Eurydice and gave her to him, but upon one condition:
that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they
had reached the upper world. So the two passed through the great
doors of Hades to the path which would take them out of the darkness,
climbing up and up. He knew that she must be just behind hi, but he
longed unutterably to give one glance to make sure. But now they were
almost there, the blackness was turning gray; now he had stepped out
joyfully into the daylight. Then he turned to her. It was too soon;
she was still in the cavern. He saw her in the dim light, and he held
out his arms to clasp her; but on the instant she was gone. She had
slipped hack into the darkness. All he heard was one faint word,
Desperately he tried to rush after her and follow her down, but he
was not allowed. The gods would not consent to his entering the world
of the dead a second time, while he was still alive. He was forced to
return to the earth alone,. in utter desolation. Then he forsook the
company of men. He wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace,
comfortless exnept for his lyre, playing, always playing, and the
rocks and the rivers and the trees heard him gladly, his only
companions. But at last a band of Maenads came upon him. They were as
frenzied as those who killed Pentheus so horribly. They slew the
gentle musician, tearing him limb from limb, and flung the severed
head into the swift river Hebrus. It was borne along past the river's
mouth on to the Lesbian shore, nor had it suffered any change from
the sea when the Muses found it and buried it in the sanctuary of the
island. His limbs they gathered and placed in a tomb at the foot of
Mount Olympus, and there to this day the nightingales sing more
sweetly than anywhere else.
Return to The Stories