FOR MOST HUMAN BEINGS, life is managed by practicality and quantification — but we also, of course, continually wrestle with meaning. A great story is a kind of immense invisible temple where this process occurs, a temple without dogma or creed but one in which we can confront our most burning questions. Such narratives can influence how we live, how we treat each other, even how we see ourselves and the world. And the story of Orpheus is uniquely powerful among them.
Son of a Thracian king and the Muse of epic poetry, Orpheus showed astonishing power as a musician — charming animals, human beings, even the forces of nature. His beloved Eurydice, however, was bitten by a serpent on their wedding day, so he journeyed into the underworld to bring her back. There his songs swayed even Hades, Lord of the Dead, who agreed to let Eurydice return — but on the condition that Orpheus not glance behind him as she followed him out. Orpheus, however, eventually turned to see her and she was instantly spirited back into Death, this time forever. Some years later, a group of maenads — female followers of the god Dionysius — set upon Orpheus and tore him limb from limb, throwing his head into a river from which it traveled to its final resting place on the isle of Lesbos.
Consider the astonishing popularity of this story. One of the oldest Greek myths, it was referenced by Plato as well as by early mystery cults, reinterpreted by medieval Christians and Jews, and given particular turns by Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic artists; Christopher Gluck’s version was the most frequently performed opera in the second half of the 18th century. The tale has also been deconstructed in our own time (see the 1986 British opera The Mask of Orpheus), and even more recently championed by goths and retold in comic books, rock songs, movies, and onstage. (Orpheus rides a motorcycle into Hell, for example, in Reza Abdoh’s 1990 play The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice.) As it passed through millions of lives over thousands of years, the story continued to find itself, its complexities re-examined in various iterations.
At one distant point Orpheus was probably seen as a shaman. In the Classical period he accompanied Jason and the Argonauts to win the Golden Fleece. He was also regarded as a mystical saint to whom songs and theologies were dedicated, was followed as a spiritual teacher, revered as an oracle, became the Christian knight Sir Orfeo in the Middle Ages, and has been both believed in literally and considered mere symbol or allegory.
But of all the iterations of the Orpheus figure it's the god-like musician who haunts us most, seeking his beloved in the Land of the Dead. And this is still the case, after a centuries-long process of repeated storytelling. As the Greek Mythology Index says, "[...]it is evident that works so perfect in their kind are the end, and not the beginning, of a course of poetical development." So why have we fixated for so long on the essence of this story? What does the figure of Orpheus mean?
One way to consider Orpheus’ legacy is to chart the way he’s been a flashpoint for debates about love, sexuality, and gender. Ovid tells us that after losing Eurydice the second time, Orpheus abjured women and turned to pederasty. This has never seemed to me a good solution to the problem death creates for Orpheus: a younger male lover could be snatched away just as Eurydice was. But even so, Ovid’s account spurred a general tradition of associating Orpheus with the “introduction” of homosexuality to the Greeks — a tradition often evoked in homophobic tones, but one that also informs several recent projects to tell a longer gay and lesbian history.
More prominently, though, the Orpheus myth has been fruitful for feminist thinkers. This is partly because Eurydice is so often depicted, even in some modern versions, as a passive and voiceless character. Bernard Evslin’s The Greek Gods (1966), for instance, portrays her — “so much like a child still” — as willing to be Orpheus’ slave. Illustrator Charles Mikolaycak’s visually stunning 1992 version asserts that Orpheus won Eurydice “for his heroic deeds” with the Argonauts and dubs her a “treasure more precious than gems or a fine estate […] a woman as gentle as the petals of a rose.” Unsurprisingly, some women writers have tried to cast her in a new light. In H. D.’s 1917 poem, for example, Eurydice accuses Orpheus of “arrogance” and “ruthlessness” for assuming that he should restore her to life and then failing to do so. (As Helen Sword points out, the poem was written during the painful disintegration of the poet’s marriage to Richard Aldington and can be read as a “personal cry of rage and despair against an unfaithful husband, also a poet and once a mentor.”) But as compelling as these renderings may be, I think such sexism is part of the general cultural backdrop rather than inherent to the story, which ultimately centers on the utter equality of absolute lovers. If Eurydice had sung to save Orpheus, nothing essential to plot or theme would be disturbed.
Both H. D. and some of the male interpreters with whom she’s in dialogue use the Orpheus myth to reflect particular understandings of conflict in relationships, and in so doing stray from the internal logic and psychological essence of the story. In this they’re like medieval Christians who identified Orpheus with Christ — a glaring distortion since, in contrast to the Resurrection, Orpheus’ final powerlessness in the face of death is one of the story’s necessary components. I see similar distortion in viewing Orpheus’ backward glance as a sign of renunciation, as medieval scholar John of Garland did in the 13th century, or as a symbol of the artist’s individuation, which found favor with Mallarmé.
Of course there’s great subjectivity in all this. But there must be limits to interpretation — or why not, for example, write a version in which Orpheus steals Hermes’ sandals and flies to, say, Wichita? Some have claimed Orpheus was a student of Moses, or have held up Eurydice as a symbol of lust. But what is there in the characters or plot, even at their most inchoate, that reasonably leads to such conclusions? “Clearly,” medieval scholar John Block Friedman writes in Orpheus in the Middle Ages, “the earliest versions of [the] story contained many features that are not central to, or even relevant to, the highly selective myth of Orpheus we know today.” Artists make choices that may strengthen or weaken a story’s core, and the Orpheus myth, like any successful narrative, has a discernible core after all. And variations that conflict with this core can help us identify the story’s essence, especially when they dull its overall effect.
Some versions err by robbing the story of what I call “the weight of the real.” One illustrator inexplicably shows some of the dead in Tartarus carrying parasols. Another presents Orpheus as smiling broadly as he plays for Hades. And how about vultures flying over the River Styx — since only incorporeal spirits enter that realm, what could the vultures possibly feed on? A writer tells us that after losing Eurydice, Orpheus “moped.” Another changes the maenads into a male-female mob who kill him because he won’t play a song, only returning later to dismember him. Another says that on seeing Eurydice’s corpse, Orpheus was “dissatisfied with the way she looked [as] when he set a wrong word in a verse […] He would have to correct it,” adding that he then conveniently “entered Tartarus at the nearest place.” The otherwise remarkable children’s book author Cynthia Rylant presents him as one of “those sons who [refuse] to seek their father’s [sic] better wisdom before stepping into disaster,” and accuses Orpheus of not being able to “face reality.” Contrast all this with a perfect vitalizing detail like Thomas Bulfinch’s eloquent description of Eurydice’s ghost when Hades calls her: Her pale figure emerges from the ranks of the dead — limping.
I think it’s also a mistake to impute too much power to Orpheus’ music, as in Namm’s Greek Myths, which tends to turn the hero into a magician rather than an artist. When Edith Hamilton, writing in 1942, says that “no maiden he wanted could have resisted the power of his song,” she makes it seem as if Eurydice is tricked into loving him, which makes Orpheus, as the current saying has it, “a little creepy.”
Some writers also err when discussing motivation for the backward glance — and here we find ourselves at the very heart of the story. In the Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden version, for example, both lovers have already emerged when Hades snatches Eurydice back — the day is overcast, so she’s not technically “in the sun,” the stipulation for the point of freedom; this version trades existential struggle for a trifling plot twist. The timing of the glance is also essential: if it comes too early, Orpheus seems either dim-witted or horribly weak, as he does in a 1962 version by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, who put the turn in an underground passage, as does the otherwise-haunting illustration in Candlewick’s Mythology. Marcia Williams has Orpheus turn before stepping into Charon’s boat. Orpheus is meant to be a hero; surely he would have greater self-control, especially with so much at stake.
I think it makes more sense to have Orpheus turn when he emerges from the cavern. Momentarily overwhelmed by the beauty and goodness of the living world, as well as by his relief at saving Eurydice, he’s distracted, not realizing she’s still in darkness. This is a mistake we can all understand, even sympathize with. Ultimately, Orpheus doesn’t lose Eurydice so much because he fails as because life and death are so profoundly incompatible; as readers we’re forcefully reminded of the abyss between them. But we’re also reminded — and uplifted, even in this moment of horror — by the realization that what Orpheus and Eurydice feel for each other is truly death-defying.
Some storytellers render the great myth pointless by imposing an ending whereby the lovers reunite happily after Orpheus’ murder. But, revealingly, imposed “happy endings” actually reduce the ultimately positive power of the narrative. Besides, if that was all he needed, why didn’t Orpheus just kill himself and join her earlier? And what would a lovers’ reunion mean in the desolate and terrifying Underworld? Consider the famous passage from the Odyssey in which the ghost of Achilles bemoans death:
No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man —
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive —
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
It’s no accident that Eurydice dies purely by mischance; part of this story’s power is its presentation of the full, brutal reality of death. If we alter that in a merely self-consoling way, we undermine the very darkness out of which the myth makes light.
And yet Gluck opted for the happy reunion, turning Tartarus into a kind of lovers’ grotto, as did many Greco-Roman versions. In our time, Livo’s Troubadour’s Story Bag, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myth, the Usborne Illustrated Guide to Greek Myths and Legends, and many other versions meant for children take this route. But the desire to shelter young readers is misapplied here, since this ending dodges mortality, which is not only essential to the story — it’s something all children but the youngest instinctively if unconsciously understand. Besides, many books for younger readers don’t include the happy ending, like Turnbull’s Greek Myths, Williams’s Greek Myths for Young Children, Jilly Hunt’s Greek Myths and Legends, and Candlewick’s Mythology. Equally unhelpful is Mikolaycak’s inclusion of “a forgiving smile on [Eurydice’s] lips” at the moment she’s “swept back into the Underworld.” One lover forgiving another out of loving compassion? Yes. But in that terrible moment itself? This is hardly believable.
Many visual artists, of course, have taken up the story too. Nineteenth-century French artists have been, to me, especially successful. Among superb renderings by Charles Jalabert, Francois Lafon, and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, I find those of Francois-Louis Francais, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Edmund Dulac to be especially moving. (There’s also a surprisingly forceful black-and-white contemporary version by a concept artist and illustrator called STALEH4ND.)
But in one contemporary image, a 2004 poster (see illustration above) done by Irish illustrator P. J. Lynch for Gluck’s opera, I found a deeper way to understand the story.
Lynch exemplifies how some interpretations, working with rather than against the story, can be revelatory. For he, like 18th-century Danish painter Kratzenstein-Stub and 17th-century Italian painter Varotari before him, gives curvilinear movement to the moment of the turn. Eurydice, veiled in voluminous shroud-like white, reaches half-skeletal hands toward Orpheus; we can almost hear her anguished howl. Inches away, Orpheus simultaneously reaches for her even as his eyes seem to register the futility of it all — for without her he’s as much a dead soul as she is, even in the living world.
And yet they see nothing in the universe except each other. And the sinuous lines of their bodies, their clothes, even of the cavern-mouth itself, wordlessly sing of a oneness of life and death beneath their present helplessness. That power, of course, is love, greater even than the astonishing power of music that gave Orpheus entry into Death’s kingdom to begin with. This is sacred mystery at its highest level, and Lynch’s understated impulse jibes perfectly with what we all feel beneath our vicarious heartbreak in that moment.
We encounter the same idea as the story ends with Orpheus’ severed head singing Eurydice’s name over and over as it flows downriver and out across the Aegean. For Zeus then raises the musician’s lyre to the heavens as a constellation, making it one with all things. In the end, even the maenads’ savage crime doesn’t matter — because love is simply too deep, too real, ever to be destroyed.
Mikolaycak writes, “In the end nothing remained of the young musician and his songs of love for his dear wife.” Nothing, that is, but one of the most powerful narratives humanity has ever known. For a story so weighted with violence, tragedy, and the burden of mortality, the Orpheus myth is and will no doubt continue to be surprisingly beloved. Its final power lies in the balance it strikes: between mortality and hope, transcendence and matter, love and extinction — between our very real fears and sorrows and the mysterious force within us that senses something beyond the life we know.