|Greek and Roman Mythology > Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus and Eurydice
presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it,
and he played to such perfection that nothing could withstand the
charm of his music. Not only his fellow mortals, but wild beasts
were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by
their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the
very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former
crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their
hardness, softened by his notes.
Hymen had been called to bless with his presence the nuptials of
Orpheus with Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no
happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears
into their eyes. In coincidence with such prognostics Eurydice,
shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her
companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck
with her beauty, and made advances to her. She fled, and in
flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot and
died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air,
both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek
his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave
situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus and arrived at
the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts, and
presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine.
Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung, "O deities of the
underworld, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for
they are true! I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus,
nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky
hair who guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose
opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought to an
untimely end. Love had led me here, Love, a god all powerful
with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true,
not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror,
these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the
thread of Eurydice's life. We all are destined to you, and
sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she
shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But
till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me, I
cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."
As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears.
Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his
efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased
to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from
their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his
rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks
of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist,
and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from
among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot.
Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition,
that he should not turn round to look at her till they should
have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded
on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark
and steep, in total silence, till they had nearly reached the
outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment
of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following,
cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away.
Stretching out their arms to embrace one another they grasped
only the air. Dying now a second time she yet cannot reproach
her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her?
"Farewell," she said, "a last farewell," and was hurried away,
so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.
Orpheus endeavored to follow her, and besought permission to
return and try once more for her release but the stern ferryman
repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about
the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of
cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks
and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks
from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind,
dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance.
The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he
repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they
could; but finding him insensible, one day, one of them, excited
by the rites of Bacchus, exclaimed, "See yonder our despiser!"
and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came
within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did
also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a
scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles
reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs
tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the
river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to
which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses
gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at
Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave
more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was
placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second
time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced
her, with eager arms. They roam through those happy fields
together now, sometimes he leads, sometimes she; and Orpheus
gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty
for a thoughtless glance.
The story of Orpheus has furnished Pope with an illustration of
the power of music, for his Ode for St. Cecelia's Day. The
following stanza relates the conclusion of the story:
"But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
Now under hanging mountains,
Beside the falls of fountains,
Or where Hebrus wanders,
Rolling in meanders,
He makes his moan,
And calls her ghost,
Forever, ever, ever lost!
Now with furies surrounded,
He trembles, he glows,
Amidst Rhodope's snows.
See, wild as the winds o'er the desert he flies;
Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries.
Ah, see, he dies!
Yet even in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue;
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks and hollow mountains rung."
The superior melody of the nightingale's song over the grave of
Orpheus, is alluded to by Southey in his Thalaba:
"Then on his ear what sounds
Of harmony arose!
Far music and the distance-mellowed song
>From bowers of merriment;
The waterfall remote;
The murmuring of the leafy groves;
The single nightingale
Perched in the rosier by, so richly toned,
That never from that most melodious bird
Singing a love-song to his brooding mate,
Did Thracian shepherd by the grave
Of Orpheus hear a sweeter melody,
Though there the spirit of the sepulchre
All his own power infuse, to swell
The incense that he loves."