Story of a myth: Orpheus and Eurydice

Mythology from cultures around the world has produced some of the most beautiful love stories ever told. This is especially true for ancient Greece !
Orpheus and Eurydice, Alexandre Frédéric Charlot de Courcy, 1855 (private collection)
Out of all of the mythic love stories told from this time period, perhaps the one that stands out the most is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
This myth is an epic and ultimately tragic tale about intense love and the lengths to which humans will go to capture it – including defying the gods themselves.

The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice

As the legend goes, Orpheus was the son of Apollo, the Greek god of music. His father gave him a lyre, and from a young age Orpheus could play so beautifully that he even surpassed the ability of his father. It is said that when he played, the objects around him would come to life because his music was so enchanting.

Orphée et Eurydice
Orpheus charming the animals, Roelandt Savery, 1628 © National Gallery, London

Orpheus himself would soon become enchanted. As he was playing his lyre in the woods, a beautiful nymph named Eurydice followed the sound and found Orpheus. It was love at first sight for the pair, who both fell head over heels for each other.

They were soon married, but their happiness was short-lived when Eurydice was killed by the bite of a venomous snake.

Orphée et Eurydice, Nicolas Poussin (around 1648) Musée du Louvre © 2014 RMN-Grand Palais Tony Querrec

In some versions, this snakebite happens out of nowhere as the couple sleep. In other versions, Orpheus and Eurydice are chased by a jealous shepherd who wants her for himself, causing her to accidentally step on the snake.

Either way, Eurydice is tragically killed and Orpheus is left alone. Nothing brings him joy any more, not even playing his music.

Orpheus before the death of Eurydice - Ary Scheffer 1814. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Blois (C) RMN-Grand Palais René-Gabriel Ojéda

Determined to get her back, Orpheus travels down the Underworld – the land of the dead. He manages to charm all of the defenses of the Underworld with his music, until he is finally granted an audience with Hades. The god of the Underworld himself is so moved by Orpheus’s music that he allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice back to the land of the living as long as he follows one rule: he cannot look back for her.

Orpheus descended to the underworld to ask for Eurydice, or The Music, Jean II Restout 1763. Musée du Louvre © 1991 RMN-Grand Palais Gérard Blot

Orpheus was not allowed to look at her until they were both back in the land of the living. He agreed, and began to lead Eurydice away from the Underworld. When Orpheus finally led his wife back to the surface, he was so excited that he turned around to embrace her…only to see that Eurydice had not fully made it out of the Underworld yet. With the rule broken, Eurydice disappeared and was lost forever.

Orpheus and Eurydice, Michel Martin Drolling 1820. Musée Magnin de Dijon (France)

The Impact of the Myth

Orpheus and Eurydice, mosaic from the painter Alfred de Curzon's drawing. (1870-75) in Avant-foyer the Opéra Garnier



This is undoubtedly a tragic tale, but it is a lasting story of true love and the lengths we would go to in order to get it back.

This myth has produced countless works of art, fiction, Opera plays, and remains one of the most well-known stories from that time period.



If you want to discover representations of this myth, join me on a guided tour of the Louvre Museum, or the Orsay, or even the Opera Garnier 😉

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