Study Guide

Orpheus and Eurydice Summary

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How It (Supposedly) Went Down

The Short Story

Ready? Go. Orpheus and Eurydice get married, but later that night, Eurydice is bit by a snake and dies. So far, so terrible. Overcome with grief, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to bring her back to life. He convinces Hades and Persephone to let Eurydice go, but her release comes with a catch: Eurydice must walk behind him as they ascend to the upper world, and Orpheus is forbidden from looking at her. Seems easy enough, right?

Unfortunately, Orpheus is overcome with passion just as they reach the exit. He turns to look at Eurydice and she is immediately sent back to the Underworld – forever. Orpheus is devastated (again) and roams around Greece playing sad songs. Eventually, he is ripped to shreds by a group of drunken mad women.

The Less Short Story

  • We start off with a pretty typical boy-meets-girl story. And after they meet, Orpheus (who's a famous musician) and Eurydice fall in love and get married. The end.
  • Oh wait.
  • Hymen, the god of marriage, is present at the wedding ceremony. He refuses to offer any words of encouragement or even crack a smile. We'd say this is a pretty bad sign for the future of the marriage.
  • After the wedding, Eurydice decides to get some fresh air. She takes a walk through a nearby meadow, dancing and laughing with her bridesmaids (the Naiads). Natch.
  • In some versions of the myth, the lustful shepherd Aristaeus (son of Apollo and Cyrene) surprises Eurydice. He's pretty hot for her, and he chases her along a nearby riverbank.
  • Desperate to avoid his sexual advances, Eurydice stops looking where she's going and stumbles across a poisonous viper. Uh oh.
  • Sure enough, the snake bites Eurydice's ankle and she dies. The end.
  • Nope, still not.
  • Orpheus is (obviously) overcome with grief at his wife's death. And just like any good musician, he expressed himself by singing the blues. Literally.
  • Fed up with his depression, Orpheus decides to take action. His plan? Travel to the Underworld and ask Hades to let Eurydice go. Seems straightforward enough.
  • As he enters the Underworld, Orpheus uses his music to charm the spirits and monsters who live there. Ever get serenaded by a cute guy with a stringed instrument? Hard to resist, right?
  • Even animals love him. Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the entrance, stands motionless and lets Orpheus pass. Everyone else is moved, too: the grotesque Furies weep, Sisyphus stops moving his rock, the vulture stops pecking at Tityus' liver, and the souls of the dead gather to hear him play. So yeah, guess he chose the right song.
  • In any case, Orpheus finds Hades and Persephone, the King and Queen of the Underworld. Now the convincing begins.
  • He makes a grand speech and plays his lyre to try to persuade these two to let Eurydice go. His strategy? He reminds Hades that he fell in love once, too (with Persephone). Also, since everyone dies eventually, they'll eventually get her (and his!) soul back anyway. So why not let Eurydice live for a few more years?
  • Orpheus' eloquent speech melts the hearts of Hades and Persephone. Surprise, surprise. And – success! – they agree to free Eurydice.
  • But there is a small catch. Hades says Eurydice must walk behind Orpheus as they travel back to the upper world – Orpheus is forbidden from looking back at Eurydice until they have exited the Underworld.
  • Doesn't seem too tough, right? Who doesn't love a little delayed gratification anyway?
  • So Orpheus agrees, and the couple begins their ascent.
  • Orpheus can hear Eurydice's footsteps behind him and before long, he can see the exit. He steps out of the cave and into the light. He made it!
  • But (yes, there's a but – we know you saw it coming) due either to excitement for having escaped or concern for his wife, Orpheus totally forgets about Hades' warning and turns to look at Eurydice.
  • NO!
  • Eurydice is just on the verge of exiting the cave, but she hasn't quite made it out.
  • We repeat: NO!
  • At that moment, three loud noises echo throughout the Underworld, signaling that something is very, very wrong.
  • Orpheus and Eurydice lock eyes for a split second. Eurydice just barely manages to say "Farewell!" before she is sucked back down to the Underworld.
  • Orpheus reaches for her – but he's grabbing at air. (How sad is this?)
  • Our guy is stunned. What should he do? He tries to enter the Underworld a second time, but this time the Ferryman on the River Styx won't let him pass.
  • Now it's time for more wallowing. For somewhere between seven days and seven months (depending on what version you read), Orpheus sits weeping on the banks of the River Styx.
  • Ugh.
  • Eventually, he wanders back to Thrace, still bemoaning the loss of Eurydice and singing the blues (literally).
  • Things aren't going well for this guy, and sure enough, for the rest of this life, Orpheus spurns the romantic advances of all other women. Now that's loyalty.
  • Among Orpheus' rejected lovers are the Maenads, a group of women who worship the drunken god Bacchus. They're a pretty unruly bunch, and when Orpheus turns them down, they are not happy campers.
  • The Maenads try to throw sticks and stones at him, but the objects refuse to hit Orpheus because they're enchanted by his music. This guy is even moving sticks and stones not to break his bones – impressive.
  • On to plan B: the Maenads rip Orpheus limb from limb, and scatter his body parts across the land. They also tear off his head and throw it in a river.
  • Well, then.
  • Even as Orpheus' head floats down the river, he calls out for Eurydice. How's that for romantic/creepy?
  • Orpheus' head eventually washes up on the island of Lesbos, where it's discovered by the Muses. They also find his limbs and give them a proper burial.
  • According to some accounts of the myth, the spirits of Orpheus and Eurydice end up finding each other in the Elysian Fields, which is the nicest part of the Underworld. Aw.
  • But some party pooper accounts don't agree that they are ever reunited. We like to think the first way is what really happened.

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