The story of Orpheus has resonated through the millennia and has been a popular subject of art, music and literature for more than 2,500 years. The Greek legend was flourishing by the mid-sixth century B.C., and variations of his story appear in the ancient writings of Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Apollodorus, Virgil and Ovid. According to one version of the myth, Orpheus was the son of the muse Calliope. Given a lyre (a form of ancient harp) by the god Apollo and instructed in its use by the Muses, he became so skilled at creating music with it that he was able to charm and placate elements of both the natural and supernatural world. Animals, trees, rocks and even some of the gods themselves were moved by the music from his golden harp, and ancient images of him often depict scenes in which Orpheus is surrounded by a variety of tranquil creatures, both real and mythical.
The power of Orpheus’s music led Jason and his fellow Argonauts to seek his aid on their quest for the Golden Fleece, but the primary story associated with Orpheus concerns his wife, a nymph named Eurydice. According to legend, she was killed after being bitten by a poisonous snake. Devastated by her death and determined to recover his lost love, Orpheus descends into the underworld, where he uses the power of his music to charm Charon, the ferryman who brings the dead across the River Styx, in order to gain passage to the underworld. As he continues, he also enchants the monstrous guardian of the gates to the underworld, the three-headed dog Cerberus.
His music and grief so moves Queen Persephone that she pleads with her grim consort, Hades, to release Eurydice and allow Orpheus to bring his wife out of the underworld. The god of the underworld grants this request, but only on the condition that Orpheus trust that Eurydice is following him; he must not look back at her until they pass beyond the realm of Hades’ domain and into the world of the living. Their escape is depicted in Sir Edward John Poynter’s dramatic 1862 oil-on-canvas Orpheus and Eurydice. At the last moment, Orpheus is unable to resist looking back at his love, and thus he is forced to watch as she is once again transported back to the world of the dead.—S.K.Y.