Love is a powerful motivator. It can make people do irrationally amazing things ("look, honey, I baked a giant cake in the shape of your face!") and irrationally stupid things (see first example). In the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, we find instances of both amazing and stupid things done in the name of love.
Orpheus is so heartbroken when he loses Eurydice that he travels to the Underworld for her, which is irrational and awesome. But then, as they make their way to the upper world, he turns around to look at her. This is irrational and way less awesome, since he knows that doing so will send his wife plummeting back to Hades.
This second example is definitely an exercise in trusting the ones we love. Orpheus can hear his wife's footsteps, but he's never quite sure that she's there. Had he been able to hold out, and simply trust that Eurydice was behind him, they might have made it back to Earth and lived happily ever after.
Questions About Love and Trust
- Why do you think Hades made a rule that Orpheus was not allowed to look at Eurydice until they reached the upper world?
- Different versions of the myth give different reasons for Orpheus turning around. Some say that he got excited and forgot his instructions. Others say he was plagued with doubt, and needed to make sure that Eurydice was still there. Why do you think Orpheus looked back?
- If you were Eurydice, would you forgive Orpheus for turning around?
- Some endings of the story imply that Orpheus and Eurydice never see each other again, while others say that they are reunited in the Underworld after Orpheus dies (specifically, in the beautiful Elysian Fields). Which ending is more powerful? Why?
…Perhaps one of the most inspiring figures of classical mythology, was Orpheus. He was a son of Apollo and Calliope, one of the Muses. As a youth, he was taught to play the lyre, by his father, patron of the arts. So, with such a pedigree and upbringing, great things were expected of him. In fact, Orpheus turned out to be the greatest musician of all. He played and sang so well, that trees uprooted themselves and crowded around him; stones softened and moved under his feet, to cushion them. Animals stood in awe, even the most vicious wolves and bears, transfixed in awe of his music.
Orpheus fell in love with another student of Apollo, the beautiful nymph Eurydice. He asked for her hand in marriage, but she was uncertain whether or not the match would be a good one — so she refused. Undaunted, Orpheus sat down and began playing. She resisted as long as she could, but eventually, his wonderful music tugged open her heartstrings, and at last, she relented.
The god of marriage himself, Hymenaeus, performed the ceremony — but he predicted that the marriage would not last. Everyone hoped he was wrong, but he wasn’t.
Orpheus accompanied the hero Jason on the Argus’s voyage to find the Golden Fleece. During his absence, some of the other fellows who’d been enamoured of Eurydice, tried to take advantage of the situation. Fleeing one of them, she stepped on a snake, who bit her ankle. Within moments the fair Eurydice died, and her shade drifted down to Hades’ realm.
Orpheus returned from the voyage, to discover his wife had died. He mourned her piteously, playing dirges on his lyre, and pining for Eurydice. Eventually, he hoped that somehow he might see her; so, lyre in hand, he traveled to the places of the dead, to the banks of the River Styx. Charon, the ferryman, did not ordinarily grant passage to the living; but so moving were Orpheus’s songs, that the cold-hearted ferryman consented to take him across.
Orpheus then made his way to Hades’ halls, and there plead his case to any and all who would hear. He played his lyre and sang more skillfully, and mournfully, than anyone ever had before, and Hades was moved to tears. He agreed to allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living, but on one condition only: that Orpheus not look back at her, while he was still in Hades. He agreed, and Eurydice came to him.
They made their way carefully back to the River Styx, where Charon ferried them across. As they stepped off the boat and climbed up toward the land of the living, Orpheus could not hear Eurydice behind him; so as a reflex, he glanced back to see if she was there. She was, of course, but not for long, for the shadowy servants of Hades appeared to take her back — for Orpheus had broken violated the condition of her release. He returned to the living, but was never the same again. He wandered the wild, playing and singing love songs to his late wife.
The world’s greatest musician came to a bad end, partly as a result of his intractable melancholy. A group of nymphs — in the throes of a Dionysian celebration — noticed him, and wished him to sing a more playful tune. He ignored them, continuing to play a mournful air, still consumed by his grief. They became frenzied, and even angry. One of them hurled a spear at him; charmed by his music, though, the spear fell harmlessly to the ground before him. At this, the frenzied nymphs went wild; they screeched at him, drowning out his music. Thus, he was rendered defenseless, and they rent him apart, scattering him through the wild.
Orpheus’s shade, like Eurydice’s before him, came down to Hades. There, the two lovers reunited; in that dark and gloomy realm, they know, again, happiness in each other’s arms, and Orpheus now sings a full repertoire of joyous music, once more.
What lesson is there in the story of Orpheus? What does it mean for those suffering from depression? Well, Orpheus was clearly the most famous victim of depression, in the classical world. His melancholy (that’s the Greek term for depression!) was borne of his pure love for Eurydice, and his longing for her.
The myth of Orpheus inspired a vast school of mysticism. Greco-Roman mystics understood Orpheus to have achieved the height of his art, as a result of his melancholy. Out of his grief, they believed, came great beauty — beauty great enough to move even the coldest-hearted of gods. In so many words, they acknowledged the connection between depression and creativity, between sadness and inspiration. This is a lesson we’ve only just begun to learn again.
The melancholy Orpheus inspired many to achieve excellence. Pythagoras, the famed mathematician and philosopher, emulated Orpheus, dwelling apart from others for long stretches, in deep contemplation. In turn, many other scholars were inspired by him; in fact, Pythagoras established a school of philosophy based upon the ideals of Orpheus…
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