The tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the great love stories of Greek mythology. While many marriages and love affairs were one-sided or violent, the poet and his bride were a couple who truly had love for one another.
The pair were doomed, however, to never be able to enjoy their life together. Just as they were united by marriage, they were torn apart by death.
The image of Orpheus descending into the Underworld to bring back his lost love is one of the most enduring and romantic in Greek mythology. His love, and the beautiful way in which he expressed it, had the power to move even Hades to mercy.
The sad story of Orpheus and Eurydice is more than just a romantic tale, however. It was also a central tale in the founding of one of the most influential and intriguing secret groups in the ancient world!
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is best-preserved in the works of Roman poets. Ovid and Virgil both wrote the tale in its entirety, with minor variations.
Historians know, however, that the story was told long before their time. Orpheus himself appears in many other works and there are references to his love for Eurydice in several ancient Greek texts.
Apollo was the god of music and had been given his instrument, the lyre, by his half-brother Hermes. Poets in the ancient world typically played the lyre as part of their recitations, so Orpheus inherited an affinity for music and poetry from both of his parents.
Recognizing that his son was naturally inclined toward performance, Apollo gifted Orpheus with a lyre when he was a young child. He quickly mastered its use and his mother taught him to write beautiful words to go with his playing.
Orpheus soon earned acclaim as the world’s foremost musician and poet. His acclaim spread, particularly among those who were devoted to Apollo.
One of these devotees was Chiron, the wise centaur who mentored many heroes and demi-gods. When he learned that one of the princes he had fostered, Jason, was about to embark on an epic sea voyage, Chiron advised him to include Orpheus among the crew.
Chiron told Jason that he would need the musician’s services when he sailed by the island of the Sirens. The Argo and its crew only passed by this island because they were driven thousands of miles off course, so Chiron may have been inspired by Apollo’s prophetic powers to suggest Orpheus as an Argonaut.
Jason heeded the centaur’s advice and asked Orpheus to accompany him. The musician became one of the many heroes aboard the Argo, including Heracles, the Dioscuri, Atalanta, and Telamon.
As Chiron had predicted, the Argo passed by the Sirens’ island on its meandering return journey. Orpheus picked up his lyre and began to sing a song of his own, drowning out the sound of the alluring sea monsters.
After his adventures aboard the Argo, Orpheus encountered a beautiful young woman named Eurydice. They fell deeply in love with one another and prepared to live a long life together.
Ancient sources give two accounts for the misfortune that befell Eurydice. Most accounts said that she was in the countryside with a group of nymphs when she met with tragedy.
Some accounts claimed that Eurydice was so blissfully happy in her marriage to Orpheus that she danced constantly. While she danced through a field with her nymph companions, she failed to pay attention and accidentally stepped on a viper.
Other stories, however, say that she was bitten by the snake while fleeing rather than dancing. Some said that a satyr was overcome with lust for her, while others claimed that her husband’s half-brother Aristaeus was her pursuer.
However she came across the snake, Eurydice almost immediately died from its venom.
Orpheus expressed his grief in the manner that came most naturally to him. He sat with his lyre and composed a poem of such heartbreaking beauty that every living thing mourned along with him.
Later versions of the story added another layer of tragedy to the death of Eurydice. Some writers claimed that Orpheus lost his bride on their wedding day.
Ovid wrote that Hymenus, the god of marriage, personally oversaw the ceremony that united Orpheus and Eurydice. Although the pair were deeply in love, the marriage god sadly predicted that their union and the joy that it brought to them would not last.
In this account, Eurydice was killed during the celebrations held for her wedding. Orpheus lost the woman he loved before they had the chance to live as husband and wife.
Orpheus was so consumed with grief that he resolved to get Eurydice back.
Many versions of the story do not recount how Orpheus made the decision to go into the Underworld in search of his bride. Some, however, claimed that Apollo or one of the nymphs convinced him to make the journey.
Few people in Greek mythology successfully entered the Underworld before their own deaths, and even fewer survived to return to the land of the living again. Orpheus threw caution to the wind, however; without Eurydice he did not care if he died.
Orpheus entered the Underworld through a gate near the town of Taenarum. The cavern there was one the same gate that Heracles had used on his quest to bring Cerberus out of the realm of Hades.
Orpheus descended through the darkness until he crossed the river that marked the Underworld’s border. Once he entered the land of the dead, he began to sing.
All things are due to you, and though on earth
it happens we may tarry a short while,
slowly or swiftly we must go to one
abode; and it will be our final home.
Long and tenaciously you will possess
unquestioned mastery of the human race.
She also shall be yours to rule, when full
of age she shall have lived the days of her
allotted years. So I ask of you
possession of her few days as a boon.
But if the fates deny to me this prayer
for my true wife, my constant mind must hold
me always so that I can not return—
and you may triumph in the death of two!
Rather than wander through the Underworld in search of his lost bride, Orpheus stood in place and sang a poem as he composed it.
In his poem, he called on the denizens of the Underworld to help him in his quest. He assured them that he meant to harm, although he recognized that his appearance in Hades’ realm may have been unlawful, but he was forced to visit them because of his unbearable grief.
As he sang of his love for Eurydice and the pain he felt since her death, the residents of the Underworld became entranced by his music. Those that could gathered around as he played, while others strained to hear the beautiful and heartbreaking song.
Among those who listened to Orpheus sing in the Underworld were:
- Ghosts – Hades’ realm was largely populated by formless spirits of the dead. Ovid claimed that they all stopped their aimless wandering and wept when they heard Orpheus sing.
- Cerberus – Many sources said that the hound of Hades was among the first to be attracted to Orpheus. The enormous three-headed dog sat by the poet’s side, lulled into calm by the music.
- Tantalus – Tormented by constant hunger and thirst, the wicked king stopped grasping at the food and water that were just out of his reach, forgetting his torture because of Orpheus’s song.
- Ixion – The poet’s song was so captivating that the flaming wheel, which Ixion had been bound to for attempting to assault Hera, stopped spinning.
- Tityus – The giant who had threatened Leto had his liver ripped out by vultures in the Underworld. Both he and the vultures stopped to listen to Orpheus’s lament.
- The Danaids – Forty-nine daughters of Danaus had been sent to Tartarus for murdering their husbands, forced to fill a pool using only leaking jugs. They forgot their labor as well while Orpheus played.
- Sisyphus – The wicked king, according to Ovid, sat on the rock he endlessly pushed to listen to the song.
- The Furies – For the first and only time, the Furies wept at the sadness and injustice of a death.
Finally, Persephone and Hades approached the musician. The queen of the Underworld was greatly moved by his sad words and beautiful playing.
Persephone called the ghost of Eurydice to them so Orpheus could see her once again. Unable to deny his wife’s request for mercy, Hades agreed to allow Eurydice to return to the land of the living with her husband.
Allowing a shade to leave his realm was almost unheard of, however, so Hades imposed one condition on the couple. As a sign of his faith and obedience, Orpheus had to lead his bride to the surface without ever turning back to look at her.
Orpheus quickly set out for the world of the living. Eurydice trailed a few steps behind him and he was careful to never glance back at her. Although the path was steep, he did not risk breaking his agreement with Hades by turning back to help her climb.
As they got closer and closer to the surface, however, Orpheus became more concerned. Eurydice was climbing behind him in silence, and he worried that she might have fallen behind.
Ovid said that the pair were nearly to the gate when Orpheus’s concerns overwhelmed him and he turned back to make sure Eurydice was still behind him. Others said that he reached the surface and excitedly turned back, forgetting that his wife was a few steps behind him and thus still in the Underworld.
By turning around, Orpheus broke his agreement with Hades. Eurydice was pulled back into the Underworld once more.
Ovid railed at the loss and tried to make his way back into the Underworld to try again. Charon and the other guardians of Hades’ realm would not let him pass again, however, and he was forced to admit that he had lost Eurydice forever.
According to many writers, Orpheus never recovered from the pain of losing his beloved wife twice. He shunned women and became a reclusive figure.
His mother Calliope had married the king of Thrace, so Orpheus spent his later years near her. Although he lived in his mother’s kingdom, however, he took little consolation from being near her.
The most well-known account of his death said that Orpheus shunned the gods as well as other people.
The poet was angry that none of the gods of Olympus had intervened to save Eurydice. While he had once composed beautiful hymns in honor of the gods, he turned his back on all of them except Apollo.
One morning, Orpheus went out to pay his respects to Apollo as the sun rose. He did so near an oracle of Dionysus, however.
A group of Thracian Maenads, in a frenzy from their worship of the god of wine, recognized the musician who had once honored their god as well. Furious that he had abandoned his worship of Dionysus, they tore him to pieces.
Another story of his death also included a group of Thracian women, but their reason for killing him was much different.
This story claimed that Orpheus had, in fact, become a devoted follower of Dionysus in his later years. The wine god’s cult allowed him to forget his pain.
Orpheus spread the cult of Dionysus to many places, including Thrace. The women there not only embraced Dionysus, but were attracted to the beautiful music and poetry of Orpheus as well.
After the death of Eurydice, however, Orpheus had sworn off the love of women. While he had some affairs among the young men of Thrace, he paid no attention to the women that surrounded him.
The Thracian women were unaccustomed to this type of inattention and were infuriated by it. Enraged, they killed him for refusing their advances.
While the details of these stories differed, both ended with his death at the hands of Thracian Maenads. After he was torn to pieces, his head and lyre floated downriver toward the sea.
Although he had died, Orpheus continued to create his beautiful, sad music. Lyre playing and singing were heard as his remains floated by.
The people of Lesbos recovered his head and built a shrine around it. When Apollo learned of this, he finally silenced his son’s songs.
The remains of Orpheus were eventually returned to the Muses. They made his lyre a constellation and buried what was left of his body at the foot of Mount Olympus.
The poet’s soul returned to the Underworld, where he was granted a place in the Isles of the Blessed. There, he was finally reunited with Eurydice, never to be parted from one another again.
A third, less common, version of the poet’s death claimed that he was killed by Zeus.
When Orpheus returned to the world of the living, he had knowledge that no one else did. He was the only man alive who had seen the Underworld and spoken to its inhabitants.
Orpheus began to tell people about the things he had seen and learned in the realm of Hades. Because this violated the natural laws that separated the living from the dead, Zeus struck him down for sharing these secrets.
The secret wisdom of Orpheus would become the basis for some of the most well-known cults in the ancient world.
Most of the well-known Greek myths were widely shared in temples and public spaces of the ancient world. The poems, plays, and books that we base our knowledge off were widely-read and based off of stories that most Greek people would have been familiar with.
Another, more secretive version of Greek religion existed in the ancient world, however. In addition to the mainstream religion, several sects preached different versions of the myths and gods of their neighbors.
These groups were known as the mystery cults. Several such schools existed throughout the Greek world during the Classical and Hellenistic eras.
Many of these cults were intensely focused on the secrets of the Underworld and what happened to people after death. As someone who had descended to the land of the dead and survived, Orpheus was an important figure in their teachings.
One school, Orphism, claimed that their sect had been established by Orpheus himself. They claimed that their secrets, which were not shared with anyone outside of their group, had been given to them by the poet.
Orphics claimed that Orpheus was a follower of Dionysus. He had reformed the god’s worship, however, to put emphasis on wine as a symbol rather than an intoxicant.
Some historians believe that early Orphic teachings may have seen the poet as an aspect of Dionysus. While more traditional myths closely tied Orpheus to Apollo, the Orphics emphasized his connection to Dionysus.
To them, Dionysus was a god of the Underworld. They taught that he had been incarnated twice; his first incarnation was the son of Zeus and Persephone.
Seeing Zeus and Hades as aspects of the same god, this made the god of wine the offspring of the god and goddess of the Underworld. Orpheus revered him not for the wine he made, but for his ties to Persephone and the realm of the dead.
Many historians also believe that the involvement of Eurydice in the story may have been a later element that was not original to Orphic belief. Instead, they think that he may have gone into the Underworld for another reason, possibly to bring Hecate into the world of the living.
The Orphic mysteries are attested from at least the 5th and 6th centuries BC. It was one of the most well-established and widely-followed mystery cults of the ancient world.
In fact, many well known writers of the Classical Era included elements of Orphic teachings in their works. While members of the mysteries were forbidden to disclose all that they knew, many people seem to have been aware of at least some teachings of the Orphics.
Plato, Socrates, Herodotus, and Euripedes all included some Orphic beliefs in their writings. While they often approached these legends from a philosophical point of view rather than as doctrinal proof, their familiarity with the material suggests that they had some grounding in the Orphic tradition.
Some scholars believe that known Orphic texts may have been written by some of these figures. Pythagoras in particular is linked to many of the cult’s works.
The teachings of Pythagoras so closely mirrored those of the Orphic mysteries that many historians through the ages believed that it was obvious that he had been initiated into the cult. Some even claimed that he wrote many of the texts that survive today.
While the Orphics claimed that their poems and hymns had been written by the mythical poet himself, many have credited at least some of them to other notable Greek writers. Whether or not Pythagoras and other well-known philosophers wrote the Orphic hymns may never be known, but historians believe that they were generally familiar with the teachings of the mystery cult.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a skilled poet and musician. He was usually said to be the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope.
He was brought on as one of Jason’s Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece. By playing his lyre and singing loudly, he drowned out the song of the Sirens and saved the crew from being tempted by them.
After returning from his voyage, he fell in love with a young woman named Eurydice. They were married, but she was tragically killed by a snakebite on the day of their wedding.
Bereft, Orpheus descended into the Underworld to find his lost love. He sang a lament of such beauty and sadness that the residents of the Underworld were moved to pity.
Even Hades was inspired to show mercy after hearing the poet’s song. He agreed to release Eurydice back to the world of the living.
To retrieve her, though, Orpheus would have to lead her back to the surface without turning around to look at her. When he violated this agreement just before they were both safe in the world of the living, Eurydice was taken back to the realm of Hades forever.
Various legends existed regarding the poet’s own death. The most common stories have him being killed by Thracian Maenads, either for neglecting the rites of Dionysus or for refusing their advances.
Orpheus and his descent into the Underworld were popular in mainstream Greek religion, but they were particularly important stories to the secretive mystery cults that proliferated in the 5th and 6th centuries. One of these, Orphism, claimed that the poet had revealed the secrets of death to his followers.
While these cults were secretive by nature, the writings of several prominent philosophers demonstrate a familiarity with Orphic teachings. Whether men like Pythagoras and Socrates were initiated into the cult may never be known, but their writings show that Orphism was an important aspect of ancient belief.