December 20, 2021

#08-167: Orpheus and Eurydice

Eurydice following Orpheus

Note: The legend of Orpheus lives on in words like "orphic," meaning "entrancing," and "Orphism" (or "Orphic Cubism"), a form of abstract art.

Get Ready: To rescue is wife from the underworld, Orpheus was forbidden one thing (to turn around and look at her as they fled). This is a common motif in literature. Can you think of other stories in which a character is given "One Forbidden Thing" and does it anyway?

The Sun God Apollo (also a god of music, and often shown with a lyre) and the Muse Calliope (her name means "beautiful-voiced") had a son, named Orpheus. Apollo gave him a lyre and taught him to play it; nothing, nothing could withstand the charm of his playing and his voice: wild beasts were tamed by him; trees moved closer to hear him; and the very stones were softened at his sound.

Orpheus fell in love with a beautiful nymph named Eurydice, and they planned to be married. Now, no marriage could be thought blessed without the approval of Hymen, another son of Apollo. But when Hymen attended their wedding ceremony, he predicted misfortune for the couple.

And sure enough, soon after the wedding, Eurydice attracted unwanted attention from a shepherd named Aristaeus, and as she was fleeing him she stepped on a snake and received a fatal bite.

Orpheus sang his grief to gods, men, and lower beings. At last he resolved to locate his lost love in the regions of the dead, and descended into a cave that led to the realm of Pluto and Proserpine.

He sang to them of his loss, and implored them to let Eurydice go. The sweetness of his sound affected all within its reach: Tantalus, who was doomed forever to be thirsty, stopped for a moment his striving to get water; the burning, spinning wheel bearing Ixion stood still; the vultures stopped for a moment their eternal tearing at the liver of Tityus; the daughters of Danaus rested from carrying water in leaky pots; and Sisyphus stopped pushing his rock up the hill and instead sat on it to listen. For the first time, even the Furies were seen to have cheeks wetting with tears.

At last Eurydice herself appeared, still limping from the snakebite.

Moved by his song, Proserpine and Pluto agreed to his request--but with one important condition. As Orpheus trod the upward path to the world of men, Eurydice was to walk behind him, and he was not under any circumstances to turn around and look at her. If he did, she would be whisked back to the underworld, never again to live above.

Orpheus gladly agreed, and the couple took their leave. But as they walked her feet made no sound. Just as they were about to emerge into daylight, Orpheus, fearing that the gods of the underworld had tricked him, turned to ensure she was still there, and instantly she was borne away. The couple longingly stretched their arms toward each other, but it was too late.

Orpheus, of course, pleaded to try again, but he was denied a second entry into Hades.

And so Orpheus spent his days wandering the earth and singing his complaint until all creation was moved. A group of female devotees gathered around him and tried to seduce him; when he continually rejected them they tried to kill him, but their weapons were ineffective in the atmosphere created by his music.

In the end they raised a scream so loud it drowned out his sweet sounds: their spears and rocks at last reached him, and soon they tore him limb from limb in a frenzy.

The spirit of Orpheus returned again to Tartarus, where, reunited with Eurydice, he roams the happy fields. His lyre can still be seen where Zeus placed it among the stars, as the constellation Lyra.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. charm
  2. descended
  3. devotees
  4. frenzy
  5. implored
  6. limb from limb
  7. lyre
  8. nymph
  9. whisked
  10. withstand

  1. into many pieces
  2. appeal; attractiveness
  3. moved quickly
  4. a hand-held stringed instrument similar to a harp
  5. resist; hold out against
  6. fans; followers
  7. a minor nature goddess
  8. went down
  9. begged; pleaded
  10. a fit of madness

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 20, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. h; 3. f; 4. j; 5. i; 6. a; 7. d; 8. g; 9. c; 10. e