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The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses


by Ovid

Orpheus Timeline and Summary

  • We first meet Orpheus in Book 10, when he calls for Hymen, the god of marriage, to preside at his wedding.
  • When Hymen gets there, however, he wears a sour expression that puts a damper on the wedding celebrations. This is a bad omen.
  • This bad omen plays out in real life, when Orpheus's new bride dies in a freak accident: she steps on a poisonous snake that bites her.
  • But Orpheus loves her so much that he goes down to the Underworld to get her back.
  • When he comes up to Proserpina and Pluto, he pulls out his lyre and begins to sing. In his song, he asks for his wife back; her name, we now learn, is Eurydice.
  • Orpheus reminds Pluto that it was love that made him carry of Proserpina, so why can't he have a heart now? After all, he says, she and I will die someday anyway; why not let us live a little longer together?
  • All of the terrible inhabitants of the Underworld are moved by Orpheus's song – including Pluto and Proserpina. They give the word for Eurydice to come forward.
  • When she arrives, they tell Orpheus he can lead her away – on one condition: he can't look back at her. If it does, she will be lost.
  • Orpheus and Eurydice make their way to the upper world. Just when they are almost home free, however, Orpheus looks back – he wants to make sure his wife is still there – and Eurydice vanishes once more into the Underworld.
  • At first, Orpheus is so stricken with grief that he can't move. Then he tries going back down to the Underworld to again bring Eurydice back. But Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx, won't let him cross. Finally, Orpheus goes wandering in the mountains.
  • When he plays music in the wilderness, the sound is so powerful that even the trees gather round to listen more closely.
  • One day, however, Orpheus is approached by some Bacchantes – crazed female followers of the god Bacchus.
  • Enraged that Orpheus won't sleep with him, they kill him in brutal fashion.
  • Orpheus's head and lyre fall into the River Hebrus. As they float down its waters, the lyre keeps playing notes and the tongue keeps singing. Meanwhile, Orpheus's spirit is rejoined with that of Eurydice in the Underworld and they live – not the right word, we know – happily ever after.