Many tales in Greek mythology continue to inspire works of art today. While many legends of ancient Greece focus on monstrous beasts, bloodshed, and the almighty power of the gods, some appeal to softer emotions of the heart.
One example is the story of Eurydice. Eurydice is more of a supporting player in the grander scheme of the mythos. She’s the wife of the famed musician Orpheus. While the mythology doesn’t focus on Eurydice’s perspective, her story is so captivating that it continues to inspire artwork, plays, operas, and more.
The Origins of Eurydice
Eurydice is most often remembered as an Auloniad nymph. As a minor figure, there’s not a ton of information out there about where she comes from or her lineage. Some retellings offer slight differences in the details. For example, some poets mentioned a Dryad rather than an Auloniad. Dryads were woodland nymphs, while Auloniads occupied mountain pastures.
It’s not until Eurydice meets Orpheus that her story begins.
Eurydice’s marriage to Orpheus
Orpheus is a well-known figure in Greek mythology. Originating in Thrace, he’s one of many sons of Apollo. While Eurydice and Orpheus shared a father in some versions of this tale, romantic relationships between shared lineage are relatively common in Greek mythology.
Scholars recognize Apollo as the god of archery, music, dance, truth, and prophecy. His powers of music are what’s most important here. According to Orpheus’ tale, Apollo gives his son a legendary lyre. The god teaches Orpheus how to play.
It didn’t take long before Orpheus became one of the most skilled musicians around. His skills rivalled even that of the gods! Orpheus could play melodies that captivated audiences, earning him attention from everywhere.
Despite his many options, he fell in love with Eurydice. He was enamoured by her beauty and grace. Their relationship was beautiful, and the two lived happily for a short period.
However, trouble began when Hyman came to bless their marriage on their wedding day. Hymen was the god of marriage ceremonies, festivities, and songs. Upon seeing the two, he predicted that their union would not last.
The Death of Eurydice
There are a couple of different versions of Eurydice’s death. The earliest retellings gave no reason for her death at all. However, poets shaped the story further with each iteration.
Most say the events occurred shortly after Hymen’s prophecy. Eurydice was wandering through the forest.
Some authors say that she was dancing and playing with naiads, nymphs who lived in forest springs and waterfalls. During her bouts of joy, she stepped on a viper snake. The beast quickly bit her, and Eurydice died of poisoning.
A more detailed series of events involve the shepherd Aristaeus. According to this version, Aristaeus saw Eurydice as she walked through the forests with the nymphs. Like most men who encountered Eurydice, he couldn’t help but notice her beauty. Unfortunately, Aristaeus took to more violent measures rather than trying to win her over like others.
The shepherd made advances towards her. When she refused, he attempted to force himself on her. Eurydice fled as Aristaeus gave chase. As she fled, she stepped on a viper that ultimately bit and killed her. Some versions that involve Aristaeus say that he chased her in the form of a swarm of bees!
Either way, the outcome is always the same. Eurydice dies of a snakebite. Orpheus soon found her and began to mourn.
He coped with the death of his wife the best way he knew how: Through music. His once beautiful songs were now full of sorrow. He sang so mournfully that even the gods of Mount Olympus couldn’t help but notice his grief. His music reportedly brought both nymphs and deities to tears.
That emotional display ultimately worked in Orphesus’ favor. The nymphs told him to venture into the Underworld to retrieve Eurydice and bring her back into the land of the living. He obliged, but not before getting some help.
Orpheus in the Underworld
While Orpheus did have some divine lineage, he was not a god. That presented some problems for his plans. Any mortal who dared to enter the Underworld would not come out alive.
However, Orpheus received from many gods. Some poets say that gods like Hermes, Apollo, and more cast protection over him so that he did not instantly die the moment he crossed the threshold. Their protection worked, and he arrived at the Stygian realm.
If you know anything about the Underworld, you know that it’s a vast realm full of obstacles to overcome. Many rivers cross the land of the dead. The most well-known is Styx. The only way to cross the river Styx is to pay the ferryman Charon.
There are only a couple of instances when Charon granted passage over the River Styx. Orpheus was one of them. According to the legend, Orpheus won Charon over with his songs.
The same goes for Cerberus. Cerberus was a massive three-headed dog that guarded the Underworld. Again, anyone daring enough to approach the beast would certainly die. But Orpheus, once again, used his musical abilities to his favor. He played his lyre and lulled the beast to sleep!
Eventually, Orpheus made his way to Hades’ palace. There, he begged the god of the Underworld to let him take Eurydice. Of course, Hades was notoriously strict about letting souls go once they entered his realm. Even his wife, Persephone, was hesitant.
Orpheus used his music to plea. The songs captivated the king and queen of the Underworld. They felt his pain and sorrow with every note. Even the Erinyes, or Furies, were brought to tears! It was a rare instance where Hades showed compassion.
Surprisingly, Hades granted Orpheus permission to take Eurydice. Finally, the two were reunited! However, Hades had one stipulation. The two could not look back as they ventured out of the Underworld. Some versions of the story say that Orpheus could not gaze upon his wife. However, most iterations say that Hades forbade them to look back at all.
Some scholars believe that this story has an innate connection to Lott’s wife in the bible.
The Journey Home
With permission from Hades, Eurydice was able to do something that no other soul could: Leave. At first, Orpheus was delighted. He thanked Hades and Persephone, took his wife Orpheus, and made his way to the entrance of the Underworld.
What happens next varies from one version to the next. However, most accounts say that Orpheus and Eurydice made it very far. They reportedly got steps away to the threshold between the Underworld and the land of the living.
Orpheus was a few steps ahead of Eurydice. Upon making it through the exit, he excitedly looked back at the wife he worked so hard to rescue. Unfortunately, she was still a few steps behind and had not crossed the threshold. In an instant, Orpheus broke Hades’ stipulation, and Eurydice vanished into the Underworld.
Other versions are grimmer.
One says that Orpheus was doubtful of Hades’ permission. As he made his way out, he feared that the god of the Underworld had tricked him. He could not hear Eurydice’s footsteps, so he looked back at her. Eurydice was there, but she was still a shade spirit and had to cross into the light to become human again. But of course, Orpheus broke Hades’ rules, and Eurydice disappeared.
Another version says that Orpheus and Eurydice made it close to the exit. But as he neared the land of the living, Orpheus grew doubtful if he loved Eurydice. So he looked back for reassurance, only to make her disappear. This iteration isn’t as widespread, as it paints the relationship as weaker than most believe it was.
Orpheus attempted to go back into the Underworld to save Eurydice again. However, he was unable to because a mortal couldn’t enter the realm of Hades twice and make it out alive both times.
After escaping from the Underworld, he mourned her loss. Some poets say he killed himself for failing his only shot to save Eurydice. Others say that beasts tore him apart.
Of course, Orpheus has a larger tale than his story with Eurydice. He reportedly became an ancient Greek prophet, wrote the Orphic hymns, and established the Orphic mysteries. Later in life, Orpheus was killed by the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus.
When he died, he could finally reunite with his love Eurydice. While not exactly a happy ending, Eurydice spent the rest of eternity with her true love.
The Greek myth of Eurydice stood the test of time! She appeared in many historical depictions. Artists used her as inspiration for art, sculptures, and more.
Later, she was the topic of Metropolitan operas and Broadway shows. Some of the most popular include “Orfeo ed Euridice” and “The Orphic Trilogy.”
Even in modern times, she’s inspired movies, television shows, and books. Popular works from Mary Zimmerman, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Aucoin, Sarah Ruhl, and more cover her story.
Eurydice was an Auloniad, a unique nymph found in vales and mountain pastures.
Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus, a skilled musician, and prophet.
A snake bit Eurydice shortly after her marriage to Orpheus. She died, setting off the events of the famous “Orpheus and Eurydice” tale.
Orpheus went into the Underworld to save Eurydice. He managed to convince Hades and Persephone to let her go.
While initially successful in his question, Eurydice was mere steps away from the exit of the Underworld when she disappeared.
When Orpheus was ultimately killed by the Maenads, he reunited with Eurydice in the Underworld.
Eurydice’s tale is told by many poets. The most famous version is from Virgil. However, retellings by Ovid, Plato, and more are popular as well.
Eurydice is the inspiration of many works of art. She’s a central figure in Orphean operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Charpentier, Offenbach, and more.
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