Orpheus and Eurydice

The ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice concerns the fateful love of Orpheus of Thrace, son of Apollo and the muse Calliope, for the beautiful Eurydice (from Eurudike, "she whose justice extends widely"). It may be a late addition to the Orpheus myths, as the latter cult-title suggests those attached to Persephone. It may have been derived from a legend in which Orpheus travels to Tartarus and charms the goddess Hecate.[1]


In Virgil's classic version of the legend, it completes his Georgics, a poem on the subject of agriculture. Here the name of Aristaeus, or Aristaios, the keeper of bees, and the tragic conclusion, was first introduced.[2]

Ovid's version of the myth, in his Metamorphoses, was published a few decades later and employs a different poetic emphasis and purpose. It relates that Eurydice's death was not caused by fleeing from Aristaeus, but by dancing with naiads on her wedding day.

Other ancient writers treated Orpheus' visit to the underworld more negatively. According to Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium,[3] the infernal deities only "presented an apparition" of Eurydice to him. Plato's representation of Orpheus is in fact that of a coward; instead of choosing to die in order to be with his love, he mocked the deities in an attempt to visit Hades, to get her back alive. As his love was not "true"—meaning that he was not willing to die for it—he was punished by the deities, first by giving him only the apparition of his former wife in the underworld and then by having him killed by women.[3]


Apollo gives his son Orpheus a lyre and teaches him how to play. It is said that "nothing could resist Orpheus's beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts." Thus, he falls in love with Eurydice, a woman of beauty and grace, whom he marries and lives happily with for a short time. However, when Hymen is called to bless the marriage, he predicts that their perfection is not meant to last.

A short time after this prophecy, Eurydice is wandering in the forest with the Nymphs. In some versions of the story, Aristaeus, a shepherd, then sees her, is beguiled by her beauty, makes advances towards her, and begins to chase her. Other versions of the story relate that Eurydice is merely dancing with the Nymphs. In any case, while fleeing or dancing, she is bitten by a snake and dies instantly. Therefore, Orpheus sings his grief with his lyre and manages to move everything, living or not, in the world; both humans and gods learn about his sorrow and grief.

At some point, Orpheus decides to descend to Hades to see his wife. Ovid's version of the myth does not explain this decision,[4] while other versions relate that the gods and nymphs or Apollo himself, Orpheus' father, suggest that he make this journey. Any other mortal would have died, but Orpheus, protected by the gods, goes to Hades and arrives at the Stygian realm, passing by ghosts and souls of people unknown. He also manages to attract Cerberus, the three-headed dog, with a liking for his music. He later presents himself in front of the god of the Greek underworld, Hades (Pluto in Roman mythology), and his wife, Persephone.

Orpheus plays his lyre, attracting Hades. The latter tells the former that he can take Eurydice with him but under one condition: she would have to follow him while walking out to the light from the caves of the underworld, but he should not look at her before coming out to the light or else he would lose her forever. If Orpheus is patient, he will have Eurydice as a normal woman again by his side.

Thinking it a simple task for a patient man like himself, Orpheus is delighted; he thanks the gods and leaves to ascend back into the world. Unable to hear Eurydice's footsteps, however, he begins fearing the gods had fooled him. Eurydice is in fact behind him, but as a shade, having to come back into the light to become a full woman again. Only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus loses his faith and turns to see Eurydice behind him, but her shade is whisked back among the dead, now trapped in Hades forever.

Orpheus tries to return to the underworld, but it is assumed that a person cannot enter the realm of Hades twice while alive. According to various versions of the myth, he starts playing a mourning song with his lyre, calling for death so that he can be united with Eurydice forever. He is ultimately killed either by beasts tearing him apart, or by the Maenads, in a frenzied mood. According to another version, Zeus decides to strike him with lightning knowing Orpheus would reveal the secrets of the underworld to humans.

In any case, Orpheus dies, but the Muses decide to save his head and keep it among the living people to sing forever, enchanting everyone with his melodies and tones.

Works employing this legend


Film and drama

Music and ballet

Visual arts

Video games

  • The Battle of Olympus, an NES and Game Boy video game by Infinity
  • Don't Look Back, an Atari VCS-styled Flash game by Terry Cavanagh
  • Persona 3, a Playstation game originally designed for the PS2 in Japan; Orpheus appears as the protagonist's persona fitting as he explores Tartarus and always listens to music
  • Dante’s Inferno



  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books Ltd., London (1955), Volume 1, Chapter 28, "Orpheus", p. 115.
  2. M. Owen Lee, Virgil as Orpheus: A Study of the pundis', State University of New York Press, Albany (1996), p. 9.
  3. Symposium 179d-e.
  4. Ovid, Metamorphoses X
  5. "Cocktails with Orpheus by Terrance Hayes". 4 November 2016.
  6. Monahan, James (1957). Fonteyn, A Study of the Ballerina in her Setting. New York, New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation. p. 102. OCLC 952072044.
  7. https://davidmaslanka.com/works/orpheus-1977-12/
  8. "Staying Serious, to a Joyful Beat". The New York Times. 29 October 2013.
  9. http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_362591/Antwerp-School/Orpheus-Searching-Eurydice-In-The-Underworld-%28Met.-10-11-63%29

9. “Hadestown”

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