While Orpheus has never been as instantly recognizable in today's popular culture as a mythological figure like Heracles, he still had all the makings of a classic Greek hero. Like so many others, he was not of entirely mortal origins—being the son of a king of Thrace (though, other versions have the god Apollo as his father) and the muse Calliope. One story even has Orpheus accompanying the Argonauts on their epic quest, where it is only his music that allows them to pass the island of the Sirens unharmed. At the same time, though, Orpheus was never a warrior, like Heracles or Jason. He was a musician and a poet—one who, thanks to his mother's influence, was capable of playing music of almost supernatural beauty (it was, after all, commonly held in ancient Greece that, while the god Hermes had invented the lyre, Orpheus' instrument of choice, it was Orpheus who first perfected it).
With that in mind, it seems fitting that the story that Orpheus is best known for is not one of epic adventure, but one of lost love.
Orpheus had met, and quickly fallen in love, with a nymph named Eurydice. As the love between them grew, the two were practically inseparable—and, were due to be married. However, their growing love was destined to be suddenly and tragically cut short.
While fleeing from the unwanted advances of another who claimed to love her, Eurydice had the misfortune to step on a snake that was hidden from view in the long grass. She was bitten, and the snake's potent venom took hold almost instantly. Eurydice quickly passed away.
Orpheus was devastated by the loss—as were Eurydice's sister nymphs, who accompanied Orpheus on his desperate plan to win her back. As they travelled, Orpheus sang of his grief for all to hear—and, it was a song of such supernatural perfection that, it was said, every living thing fell silent as he passed.
In time, their journey took them to the very entrance to the Underworld, itself. Here, Orpheus left the world of the living behind him as he set off to plead his case before Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. As he travelled, he continued to sing his song of grief and mourning. And, the souls of the dead, much like the living of the world above, fell silent as he moved by.
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As he presented himself to Hades, Orpheus begged the Lord of the Underworld to allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living. He played music of such profound beauty that even the Hades was moved. In time, Hades agreed that Eurydice should be allowed to live once more. Though, he still placed a condition on his offer. Orpheus was to leave the Underworld, and the spirit of Eurydice would follow him—though, he was strictly forbidden from looking back as he travelled.
Perhaps it was intended as a test of faith—but, whatever the reason, Orpheus was required to leave the Underworld without knowing whether or not Eurydice truly followed. He simply had to trust that Hades truly intended to keep his word. And, as he set off, that is exactly what he did—plucking on the strings of his lyre as he walked, so that the spirit of Eurydice could follow. In this way, Orpheus made his way back to the entrance to the Underworld, and the land of the living. And, unknown to him, the spirit of Eurydice followed in his wake.
Perhaps it was simple desperation to finally see her once more that lead to Orpheus finally giving in to temptation and looking back. Or, perhaps, he had begun to grow suspicious of Hades, and feared that he was the victim of some cruel trick. In was in the very moment that Orpheus had crossed the threshold back into the world of the living that his fears and his suspicions finally got the better of him. He looked back, hoping to finally catch sight of Eurydice—not realizing that, trailing behind him as she was, she would still technically be in the realm of the dead. When he looked back, Orpheus did, indeed, finally see proof that the spirit of Eurydice had been permitted to follow him. It was only to be that one single glimpse, though. By looking back, Orpheus had broken the one rule that Hades had set.
Orpheus was able to look upon his beloved Eurydice one final time as she was pulled back into the Underworld, and was lost to him once more. As he tried to enter the land of the dead, to present himself to Hades once more, he found that he was refused entry—and, in the end, Orpheus was forced to return to the world of the living alone.
© 2016 Dallas Matier