Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - Greek mythology

Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - Greek mythology


Orpheus and Eurydice
Federico Cervelli (1625 - 1700), Querini-Stampalia Foundation, Venice (Italy)

Orpheus, the most famous poet and musician that history has ever had, who had no equal among men and gods was the son of Eagro, king of Thrace and of the muse Calliope (or according to others of Apollo and Calliope).

The GodApolloone day he gave him a lira and the muses taught him to use it and became so skilled that Seneca himself narrates (Hercules on Mount Oeta): "At the sweet music of Orpheus, the roar of the rapid stream ceased, and the fleeting, oblique water to continue the journey, it lost its impetus ... The inert woods moved, leading the birds up the trees; or if any of these flew, being moved by listening to the sweet song, lost their strength and fell ... The Dryads, coming out of their oaks, hurried towards the singer, and even the beasts ran from their lairs to the melodious song (. ..) ".

He acquired such a mastery of the instrument that he also added two more strings, bringing their number to nine to have a softer melody.

Orpheus plays the lyre
Roman floor mosaic, 2nd century AD, Archaeological Museum, Palermo, Sicily (Italy)

As the first great enterprise Orpheus participated in the expeditions of the Argonauts (1) and when the ship Argo arrived near the island of the Sirens, it was thanks to Orpheus and his zither that the Argonauts managed not to succumb to the pitfalls hidden in the sirens song.

Every creature loved Orpheus and was enchanted by his music and his poetry but Orpheus had eyes only for one woman: Eurydice, daughter of Nereus and Doride who became his wife. Destiny, however, had not foreseen a lasting love for them in fact one day the beauty of Eurydice made Aristeo's heart burn, who fell in love with her and tried to seduce her. The girl to escape his insistence started running but had the misfortune to step on a snake hidden in the grass that bit her, causing her instant death.

Pindemonte narrates (Epistles: "To Giovani Pozzo"): "Among the tall grass he saw no horrid serpent that he imprinted on the white footed death".

Orpheus, maddened by pain and unable to conceive his life without his wife, decided to go down to Hades to try to snatch her from the kingdom of the dead. With his music he convinced Charon to ferry him to the other bank of the Styx; the dog Cerberus and the judges of the dead to let him pass and despite being surrounded by damned souls who tried in every way to grab him, he managed to reach the presence ofHadesisPersephone.

Orpheus and Eurydice 1511
Tiziano Vecellio, Carrara Academy, Bergamo (IT)

Once in their presence, Orpheus began to play and sing his despair and loneliness and his melodies were so full of pain and despair that the lords of the underworld themselves were moved; theErinyesthey cried; the wheel of Ixion stopped and the wicked vultures that devoured the liver of Tom did not have the courage to continue in their macabre task. Tantalus also forgot his thirst and for the first time in the afterlife, piety was known as Ovid narrates in the Metamorphoses (X, 41-63).

Thus it was that Orpheus was allowed to bring Eurydice back to the kingdom of the living on condition that during the journey to earth he preceded her and did not turn to look at her until they reached the sunlight.

Ovid narrates in the Metamorphoses (X, 41-63). «(...) Neither the royal bride nor the one who governs the abyss refused the unhappy one who begged them and called Eurydice. She, who was in the shadows of the recently dead, advanced, walking at a slow pace because of her wound. The Thracian Orpheus got it back, as long as he didn't look back before he left the infernal valley (...) ».

Orpheus, thus taking his bride by the hand, began his journey towards the light.During the journey, a suspicion began to make its way into his mind thinking that he was leading a shadow by the hand and not Eurydice. Thus forgetting the promise he had made he turned to look at her but at the same moment in which his eyes rested on her face Eurydice vanished, and Orpheus watched helplessly at his death for the second time.

Eurydice and Orpheus Mural painting 1st cent. A.D.

Ovid recounts in the Metamophores (X, 61-63): «And she, dying for the second time, did not complain; and what, in fact, should she have complained about if not that she was too loved? She offered her husband the final farewell, which Orpheus barely managed to grasp, and plunged back into the place where he had moved ».

In vain Orpheus for seven days tried to convince Charon to lead him back to the presence of the lord of the underworld but in response he sent him back to the light of life. Orpheus took refuge on Mount Rodope, in Thrace, spending time in solitude and despair. He refused women and received only boys and male adolescents whom he instructed on abstinence and on the origin of the world and of the gods.

The head of Orpheus (1890),
Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
Musée Moreau, Paris (France)

A school of thought (2) instead wants Orpheus after the descent into Hades and having seen the "things down there" I begin to worship Elio (whom he called Apollo) and no longerDionysusand every morning he woke up at dawn to welcome the sunrise. Then Dionysus instigated the Bacchantes (3) who decided to kill him during a Bacchic orgy. When the appointed time came, they rushed at him with savage fury, tore him to pieces and scattered his limbs across the countryside, throwing his head into the Ebro.

There are other versions of the death of Orpheus: it is said that it wasZeusto shock him irritated by the fact that he revealed mysteries that were not supposed to be in the public domain; according to others it wasAphroditeto instigate the Thracian women and arouse in them such a passion that while they contended for him they quartered him because Calliope, the mother of Orpheus, was called as a judge by Zeus to settle a dispute between Aphrodite and Persephone to have the attentions of Adonis who sentenced that the young man was for six months with Aphrodite and six months with Persephone which had infuriated Aphrodite.

Virgil (Georgics, IV) said: «(...) Even then, while the head of Orpheus, standing out from the neck as white as marble, was overwhelmed by the waves," Eurydice! " the voice repeated by itself; and her tongue already cold: "Ah, wretched Eurydice!" he called with his dying voice; and along the banks of the river the echo repeated "Eurydice".

Whatever the way Orpheus died it is certain that every being of creation mourned his death, the nymphs wore a black robe as a sign of mourning and the rivers swelled from too much weeping.

The Muses recovered the limbs of Orpheus and buried them at the foot of Mount Olympus and even today, in that place, the song of the nightingales (4) is more sweet than in any part of the earth.

But the gods who saw and judged everything, decided to send a terrible pestilence throughout Thrace to punish the crime of the Bacchae. The exhausted population consulted the oracle to find out how to put an end to that misfortune and the latter ruled that to put an end to so much pain it was necessary to look for the head of Orpheus and pay him the funeral honors. So it was that his head was found by a fisherman near the mouth of the river Melete and was placed in the cave of Antissa, sacred to Dionysus. In that place the head of Orpheus began to prophesy until Apollo, seeing that his oracles of Delphi, Grinius and Claro were no longer heard, went to the cave and shouted at Orpheus' head to stop interfering with his worship. From that day the head was silent forever.

His lyre was also recovered and brought to Lesbos in the temple of Apollo who, however, decided to place it in the sky so that everyone could see it as a reminder of the charm of poetry and the melodies of the unfortunate Orpheus, to which even nature surrendered, creating there constellation of Lyra.

Dr. Maria Giovanna Davoli

(1) So called, from the name of the ship Argos, the daring princes (including Castor, Pollux and Heracles), who joined Jason to go to Colchis in search of the golden fleece;
(2) Eratosthenes, Catasterisms;
(3) It comes from the voice Bakkai plural of Bakkos, name that was given to those who were followers of Dionysus-Bacchus. During the festivals that took place in honor of the god in Thebes or in the Thracian mountains, they indulged in all kinds of wildness. They represented themselves covered in wild beast skins or completely naked. They were also known by the following names: Maenads, Tiadi, Bassaridi, Bistonidi, Mimalloni, Edonidi;
(4) The nightingales are identified in the Greek bestiary with Orpheus.

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