The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is probably one of the best known of the Greek myths.
Still, I’ll share it here with you, because there is more than Eurydice here - and there has been so much inspiration from the story, which I will also share.
Orpheus was a king of Thrace. His mother was the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, who taught her son. Apollo gave the boy his first lyre. She had another son, Linus, also a genius with a lyre, but he was killed accidentally by his klutzy pupil Heracles.
Orpheus’s music was so beautiful that it could get animals and birds to stop and listen, and even the trees danced. Shakespeare wrote this for his play Henry VIII.
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.
I’d say the Bard of Avon describes the Bard of Greek Myth pretty well.
Did you know Orpheus was an Argonaut? He was very useful on that voyage, especially when the Argo passed the land of the Sirens. Odysseus had his crew plug their ears to avoid the fatal singers luring them on to shore, and had himself tied to the mast so her could listen without risking death himself.
None of that was necessary with the Argonauts; Orpheus just played them through. His music was so much more beautiful than theirs that nobody needed earplugs or tying up. He drowned them out.
Afterwards, he married the beautiful Eurydice. When she was killed by a snakebite, he grieved so much for her, he went to the Underworld to get her back. His music charmed both the ferryman of the Styx river, Charon, and Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the realm of Hades, so that he got through.
Hades was so touched by his music that he said, “Okay. You can take her back on one condition. Neither of you can look back till you reach the light.” I don’t think anyone has explained why, but there is always one deal breaker, whether in mythology or folk tales. Orpheus agreed and his wife followed him back towards the light.
You know what happened next. Poor Orpheus. Poor Eurydice.
But life goes on. And Orpheus’s did. Thrace was a pretty wild land, very committed to Dionysus, god of wine, whose followers were crazy women, the Maenads. They had a tendency to literally tear their victims apart in a fit of madness. And Orpheus, that follower of Apollo, was not popular. A bunch of Maenads ripped him apart, a very painful way to go.
His head was undamaged, though, and when it was thrown in the water, with his lyre, it floated away to Lesbos, still singing. There, it was given a shrine and did oracles for some time. The lyre was placed in the stars, becoming a constellation, Lyra. The Muses, his aunts, gathered up the rest of him and buried them. Orpheus became the subject of a mystery religion. The story of the head rather reminds me of the one in the Mabinogion, with the head of Bran the Blessed, which went right on talking to his followers for eighty years after his death.
He has inspired a lot of art, music and film. There was an opera by Gluck, and the delightfully funny operetta by Offenbach, which you can find on YouTube. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nbv8idUiASQ&t=7s
In that version, Eurydice is not keen on his music and is attracted by a handsome shepherd who is not what he seems, and runs off with him. Orpheus really doesn’t want to go after her, but is forced to go by Public Opinion. The can-can tune so familiar to all of us is a dance of the gods.
A 1959 film, Black Orpheus, tells the story set in Brazil, during the Rio Carnival.
Finally for this post there is Sir Orfeo, a Middle English poem translated by, among others, Tolkien. That version is set in England, of course, Winchester to be specific, which the poet explains was called Thrace in those days.
Eurydice, his Queen, is called Herodis, and is kidnapped by the King of Faerie, after sleeping under an “ympe tree”. The grieving Orfeo goes into the wilderness, leaving his kingdom in the charge of a steward. One day, he sees a Faerie hunt going by, with his wife among the riders. He manages to get into the Otherworld - the world of Faerie, which is also the Underworld. Outside the castle of the Faerie King, he sees people as they were when they died. Herodis is asleep under that tree. Inside, he plays movingly for the King, who offers him a wish. You can guess what he wishes.
But this is where the ending changes. There is no condition attached and the lovers get back safely to Winchester - er, Thrace - where he leaves his wife in the town, while he goes to find out what has happened since he left.
He sees the steward ride by and the steward sees his harp. Orfeo is a bit shabby after all these years, so isn’t recognisable, but the steward says, “I see you’re a musician like my old master. For his sake, do come back to the castle and have something to eat.”
Back at the castle, Orfeo is entertained and the steward says, “That harp looks familiar, where did you get it?”
Testing him, Orfeo says, “I found it with a dead body out in the wilderness.”
The steward bursts into tears, Orfeo now knows he is loyal and reassures him, then sends for his lovely Queen and everyone lives happily ever after.
Pity the myth didn’t end that way.
See you on Monday, when P is for Prometheus!