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Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus and Eurydice

Context of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth

Stories that survive the ages must matter. Find out why.

If you've heard of just one Greek myth, this is probably the one. And hey, it's a tragic love story, so we can see why it's so popular. There's a reason we're still reading Romeo and Juliet, after all. But the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was popular long before anyone wrote their story down: way back when, images of the doomed lovers appeared on a variety of Greek pottery, murals, and other works of art. Usually, the couple was depicted at the moment when they get separated from each other for a second time, but images of Orpheus' decapitated head was also quite popular. Yeah.

As with most famous stories, there are many-a-version of this tale. Virgil and Ovid wrote the most famous accounts, but several other poets talked about the myth long before those two literary giants. For example, in Euripides' play Alcestis (438 BCE), King Admetus wishes he had Orpheus' power to bring his wife back from the dead with music. (P.S. That's over a millennium-and-a-half ago. Pretty cool, right?)

About eighty years later, the Greek philosopher Plato name-drops Orpheus in his Symposium. Unlike other versions, which celebrate Orpheus as a hero, Plato paints Orpheus as selfish and cowardly. According to this famous philosopher, Orpheus only travels to the Underworld to see if he can make it there alive. (Whoa, that is a different take on it…) And because Orpheus isn't willing to die for his love, Hades punishes him by presenting him with a fake Eurydice – an "apparition". In Plato's version, when Orpheus is torn to shreds by a bunch of crazy women, his death is treated as a just comeuppance. Which version do you like better?

Next come our heavy-hitters, Virgil and Ovid. Virgil wrote his version first in Georgics (29 BCE), a super-long poem about nature and Greek myths. Ovid followed up roughly forty years later by including the story in his Metamorphoses (roughly 8 CE), another lengthy poem. Both versions tell a similar tale of doomed love, and portray Orpheus as a brave, woeful hero.

But not so fast: there are a few key differences between the stories, namely in what happens before Eurydice is bitten by the snake. Virgil claims that she is chased by the horny shepherd Aristaeus, while Ovid thinks she is dancing joyously in the meadow with her BFFs (a group of forest nymphs called the Naiads). Also, Ovid doesn't include Orpheus' gruesome death in his version. Instead, he writes that the sad musician simply wanders around singing sad songs for the rest of his life, (in an interesting side note) striking up romantic relationships with the young men of Thrace. Overall, we would say that Ovid's version is a bit kinder than Virgil's.

In most retellings of the myth, Orpheus stays faithful to Eurydice long after her death, swearing off the advances of all other women. Such displays of loyalty are actually pretty rare in Greek myths, especially for male figures (think about the number of affairs Zeus had!). We could compare the guy to Perseus, the Greek hero who never cheated on his wife Andromeda. But the closest comparison would be with a loyal woman: Odysseus' wife Penelope stayed true to her husband during his long journey, despite the pleas of a whole host of suitors. Both Orpheus' and Penelope's incredible love for their absent partners prevent them from "moving on." Sad, but majorly noble.

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth has inspired dozens of plays, poems, and films. The movie Black Orpheus sets the tale in the slums outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, while the artsy film Orpheus sets the story in Paris, France. Which do you think is more fitting? Oh, and there are a few ballets based on the myth, as well as a famous classical opera called Orfeo ed Euridice.

The twenty-first century has had its share of fun with the myth, too. In 2003, Sarah Ruhl wrote the play Eurydice, which focuses on Eurydice's time in the Underworld before Orpheus shows up. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone also references the myth: while searching for the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter must use music to put a giant, three-headed dog to sleep, just like Orpheus did. (Bet you didn't catch that when you were reading, huh?)

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