Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope and the sun god Apollo, was a famous musician and poet in the land of Thrace. His songs and melodies were well-known and had such an wonderful power that it was said that when he sang and played his lyre, the rivers would stop flowing, the gods and goddesses would all listen, and wild beasts and enemies alike would gather around to peacefully and happily listen to his songs.
For it was said that:
“Nothing could resist Orpheus’s beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts.”
The Marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice
When Orpheus married Eurydice, he invited Hymen, the god of marriage, to attend as a guest at the wedding and bless them in their union. Though he was present in the marriage ceremony, for some reason he remained silent the entire time. Moreover despite the fact that he held the wedding torch, no flame was radiating from it, as it only emitted a weak smoke. Hymen neither uttered any words of encouragement nor did he place any blessing upon the newly wed couple.
Shortly after the wedding it became apparent to why the god of marriage behaved and acted like he did during the wedding. As it happened one day when Eurydice was out wandering on a blossoming meadow, she was stung by a viper in her heel and died. Orpheus found her and was devastated and overwhelmed with sorrow and grief.
Journey to the Underworld
In this great sorrow, he felt that he could not for the life of him stay in this world of the living, so he decided shortly after to journey on the long and treacherous path down to the underworld, with only one goal in mind, to find his deceased wife and bring her back. When he arrived to the realm of Hades, he went up to Persephone and her shadowy consort, where he played his lyre and sang an gripping and heartfelt song about his unfathomable grief, a song that was also a pleading prayer to their divine powers. He asked of them to show mercy over his tragic fate and to return him the beloved wife which he lost and could not live without. It is told that even the shadows of the underworld were weeping because of his sad fate. Even the criminals and sinners who were in Hades being punished for their sins got a moment of rest and relief as he sung; and the wheel of Ixion itself stopped for a while, and even Sisyphus briefly rested on his boulder which he was eternally cursed to roll up the steep hill.
Hades and Persephone were deeply moved by the song of Orpheus, which resulted in Persephone pleading to Hades to let Eurydice return with her husband back to the world of the living above, which Hades in turn granted.
However Hades would only allow it on one condition, namely that Orpheus would not turn around to look at her, until they emerged to the daylight above. Knowing that he was a patient man, Orpheus accepted. So grasping the hand of Orpheus, they went back the long and shadowy path back to the light above.
With only a short distance remaining to the surface, he started sensing that the grip of his beloved was getting weaker and weaker, fading like a phantom, and suspecting that he had been deceived combined with the unbearable longing to see her, he couldn’t help himself but to turn around. But in that same very moment, she descended like a shadow back into the dark depths. Orpheus reached his arms out to her in disbelief and desperation as he only could catch one last glimpse from her eyes.
Everything was over now. Hermes, the one who guides the dead souls, had already guided her back to her eternal abode in the underworld.
Orpheus tried to return on the same path down to the realm of Hades but couldn’t go any further as the ferryman Charon denied him passage over the rivers Styx and Acheron, the rivers that separate the world of the living from the dead.
It was also assumed that no living man could enter the underworld twice. So there he sat frozen and paralyzed by sorrow, for seven whole days, after which he decided to return back to Thrace. When he returned his life ended suddenly as he was torn apart by the mad and frenzied Maenads.
Morals in the Myth
- I remember my grandmother once told my mother to be wary of “keeping things, especially people, too dear in your heart”. This stuck with me as pure wisdom, wisdom which can certainly be applied to the fate of Orpheus and his overwhelming love and attachment to Eurydice. Some may view this love as something great to strive for in your own life, while others would view it as an unnatural attachment and denial of the workings of life and nature.
- For some unknowable reason, sometimes sadness and sorrow seems to be the prerequisite, that which gives rise to the most beautiful things in life, especially when its about music like in the case of Orpheus.
- Don’t turn back, only look and move forward, and trust the gods… or should you? If Orpheus would but stay on his path without looking back he might have had Eurydice in his embrace again. But to what price, what if was an apparition like Plato claimed. Would it be the same? A shadow of her former true self. Would it be the same?
What do you think? I’m eager to hear your thoughts!
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized that he was made of immaculate and timeless consciousness when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history, philosophy, egyptology and western esotericism at Uppsala Universitet. He’s also currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.