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Eurydice in Classical Myth

From Bulfinch’s Mythology

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope. He was presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it, which he did to such perfection that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow-mortals, but wild beasts were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their hardness, softened by his notes.

Hymen had been called to bless with his presence the nuptials of Orpheus with Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears into their eyes. In coincidence with such prognostics, Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristæus, who was struck by her beauty and made advances to her. She fled, and in flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot, and died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Tænarus and arrived at the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung. "O deities of the under-world, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for they are true. I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus, nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky hair who guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought to an untimely end. Love has led me here, Love, a god all powerful with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the thread of Eurydice's life. We are all destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."

As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition, that he should not turn around to look at her till they should have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark and steep, In total silence, till they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away. Stretching out their arms to embrace each other, they grasped only the air! Dying now a second time, she yet cannot reproach her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her? "Farewell," she said, "a last farewell,"--and was hurried away, so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.

Orpheus endeavoured to follow her, and besought permission to return and try once more for her release; but the stem ferryman repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind, dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance. The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they could; but finding him insensible one day, excited by the rites of Bacchus, one of them exclaimed, "See yonder our despiser!" and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre ito the river Hebrus down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced her with eager arms. They roam the happy fields together now, sometimes he leading, sometimes she; and Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty for a thoughtless glance.

Robert E. Bell

Eurydice was a nymph who was married to the poet Orpheus, son of Oeagrus and Calliope. She was sometimes called Agriope. She and Orpheus were very happy and well adjusted to the savage surroundings of Thessaly, where they had settled. Once, Eurydice was pursued by the god Aristacus, who tried to rape her. In her efforts to elude him she stepped on a poisonous serpent, which bit her. She died and was within hours transported from a blissful state to the gloomy caverns of Hades.

Orpheus was disconsolate and went in search of her. He entered the underworld from Thesprotia, and whenever he found his way blocked he played his lyre and sang plaintive songs that suspended activity and opened doors to him. He charmed Charon, the ferryman; Cerberus; the judges of the dead; and even Persephone. He finally was granted his Prayer, and the infernal deities told him to walk back to the upper world and that Eurydice would follow him. On no condition, however, must he look behind him until both had fully gained the sunny upper reaches. Everything went well for a while, but Orpheus began to have doubts that Eurydice really was behind him, or perhaps he heard threatening noises. Finally he looked behind him, and Eurydice instantly vanished. This time nothing could move the stony hearts of the guardians of the shades. Orpheus was even barred from entering, and the implacable infernal spirits were impervious to his lyre.

With Eurydice gone, Orpheus fell from the popularity he had enjoyed. The women of the region resented his obsession with her. Orpheus rejected women and turned to men; he was even said to have invented pederasty. The women eventually fell upon him and tore him to pieces.

From Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. Copyright © 1991 by Robert E. Bell

Pierre Brunel

In the famous painting by Ingres Orpheus is shown in right profile on a rock, holding a lyre (Orphée, private collection, Montauban). It is hard to escape from this conventional image. At best we can try to outwit it: thus we have Orpheus as the conductor of the choir of Thebes, playing the violin, and performing a concerto that seems interminable to Eurydice, in the comic opera by Hector Crémieux and Jacques Offenbach, Orphée aux Enfers (two-act version 1858, four-act version 1974); or represented by the harp in Liszt's symphonic poem, Orphée (1853); or even playing a twelve-stringed guitar in Tennessee Willams's play Orpheus Descending (1957) -- the guitar carries the signatures of the greatest American singers of the day, Bessie Smith and Woody Guthrie, and when Orpheus (alias Val Xavier) is arrested by the sheriff and his men, he fiercely forbids them to touch it. Orpheus is not only the figure of the musician; he is music's lover, and the lyre he holds in his hand is his mistress. Eurydice takes exception to this in Victor Ségalen's drama, Orphée-roi (1916): she detests her rival, the 'enchanted mistress', who possesses Orpheus and holds him in her spell. In Orpheus Descending, the guitar physically comes between Val and Lody when they first meet, and Carol dreams of eventually caressing Val in the same way that he caresses his instrument. The presence of this rival ought to inhibit the presence of any woman, which is why the original Orpheus in Greek mythology may have been agamos (without a wife). In a crucial article, Jacques Heurgon took care to remind us that 'there is no evidence of Eurydice's existence on the fifth-century vases, the Petelia tablets, the frescoes at Pompeii, or the paintings in the catacombs'.

For us, however, Eurydice has become as essential as the lyre. At the end of Gluck's opera (1762), Orpheus' famous song 'Que fara senza Euridice?' (‘I have lost my Eurydice') expresses more than a situation of mourning. It expresses a necessity, which has become a necessity for us too. Orpheus and Eurydice are indissociable, yet dissociated: even Virgil in canto VI of the Aeneid describes Orpheus as a solitary figure advancing amidst the shades of the blessed (‘Threicus longa cum ueste sacerdos'), and Rilke, in his first great Orphic poem, 'Orpheus, Eurydike, Hermes' (Neue Gedichte, 1907) imagines a Eurydice who is longing to return to death, where she had at last found her roots. This situation is no more astonishing than the separation of Tristan and Iseult, or that of Claudel's lovers, which was finally accepted. Human love is all the stronger and more poignant because it includes the scandal of separation, and if the myth brings some consolation, it is through the continuity of Orpheus' song, which in its appeal preserves at least the name of the beloved, if not her presence. 'Euridice, Euridice', Orpheus' repeated cry in Gluck's opera, could be used by Nerval as an epigraph for the second part of Aurélia (1853).

Orpheus' love for Eurydice may seem self-evident to us. Yet it survives the darkness of absence (in the first known versions), of the underworld (in the classical versions), and perhaps most importantly of desire. As Maurice Blanchot observed in L ‘Entretien infini (1969), we are dealing with 'separation which becomes attractive in itself', 'the interval which becomes perceptible', 'the absence which reverts to being a presence', night that becomes day.

The embargo on looking back has been interpreted a number of ways. The most pedestrian version indicts Orpheus as a prey to his sensuality, and Eurydice can be portrayed as a flirtatious, even irritating woman who, because of her insistent request (in Gluck's Orfeo), or through her quarrelsome nature (in Cocteau's play Orphée, 1927), carries a considerable share of the blame for the final catastrophe. Moreover, it is hardly a catastrophe if they are such an ill-assorted pair: in Anouilh's Eurydice (first staged in 1941), when Orpheus turns to look back at her, Eurydice announces that she has been Dulac's mistress. But it is more interesting to conceive of this embargo as a truly religious one. As Jacques Heurgon notes, the backward glance must originally have had some other meaning than the simple, loving look which inspired André Bellessort to lyrical couplets in Virgile (1920). Neither Orpheus nor Eurydice had the right to turn back towards the gods of the underworld. Servius in Virgil's Eighth Bucolic recalled that 'the divinities do not want to be seen' (nolunt enim se videri numina). The backward glance is sacrilegious, just as it is sacrilegious to break the silence. This was suggested by the author of the Culex, who was using Hellensitic sources. In a broader sense, Orpheus, like Don Juan, is prohibited from disturbing the silence of the dead. His call upsets Rilke's Eurydice: like Nietzsche Rilke opposes all looking back when it is necessary to go forward, to say yes even to death, and to anticipate every farewell ('Sei allem Abschied voran', Die Sonnette an Orpheus, 1923, II).

The fact that the denouement of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is left open partly explains the extraordinary literary posterity of what is really no more than an episode in the myth. The first theatrical version was by Angelo Poliziano: his Fabula di Orfeo, a 'commedia', 'egloga', 'festa', 'rappresentazione' or 'favola pastorale', was composed in Mantua in June 1480 ‘in two days, amidst a continual tumult, in the popular style' for a celebration by the Gonzaga family. The work was published, perhaps without the author's consent, a few months before his death in September 1494. Though very short (401 lines), it is in five acts: 'The Shepherds’, ‘The Nymphs', ‘The Heroes,' ‘The Dead' and 'The Bacchantes'. They show respectively an evocation of the pastoral setting, Eurydice's original death when she is bitten by a snake, the descent into the underworld, Eurydice's second death, and the death of Orpheus. It is a tragic version. The pact imposes a limit on Orpheus' desires ('Therefore learn how to moderate the burning of your desires,' Pluto tells him, 'otherwise your Eurydice will immediately be taken from you'), but Orpheus at once sings out his joy and his victory, calls to Eurydice, turns back towards her and loses her. As Eurydice says, he has been the victim of his excessive love ('gran furore'), and the violence affecting them is none other than the violence of love.

Excerpted from a longer essay in Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes. Ed. Pierre Brunel. Copyright © 1996 by Routledge.

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