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Orpheus and Eurydice


Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, while sporting in the fields, with other Nymphs, is bitten by a serpent, which causes her death. After having mourned for her, Orpheus resolves to go down to the Infernal Regions in quest of her. Pluto and the Fates consent to her return, on condition that Orpheus shall not look on her till he is out of their dominions. His curiosity prevailing, he neglects this injunction, on which she is immediately snatched away from him, beyond the possibility of recovery. Upon this occasion, the Poet relates the story of a shepherd, who was turned into a rock by a look of Cerberus; and that of Olenus and Lethæa, who were transformed into stones.

Thence Hymenæus, clad in a saffron-coloured robe, passed through the unmeasured tract of air, and directed his course to the regions of the Ciconians, and, in vain, was invoked by the voice of Orpheus. He presented himself indeed, but he brought with him neither auspicious words, nor joyful looks, nor yet a happy omen. The torch, too, which he held, was hissing with a smoke that brought tears to the eyes, and as it was, it found no flames amid its waving. The issue was more disastrous than the omens; for the new made bride, while she was strolling along the grass, attended by a train of Naiads, was killed, having received the sting of a serpent on her ancle.

After the Rhodopeïan bard had sufficiently bewailed her in the upper realms of air, that he might try the shades below as well, he dared to descend to Styx by the Tænarian gate, and amid the phantom inhabitants and ghosts that had enjoyed the tomb, he went to Persephone, and him that held these unpleasing realms, the Ruler of the shades; and touching his strings in concert with his words, he thus said, “O ye Deities of the world that lies beneath the earth, to which we all come at last, each that is born to mortality; if I may be allowed, and you suffer me to speak the truth, laying aside the artful expressions of a deceitful tongue; I have not descended hither from curiosity to see dark Tartarus, nor to bind the threefold throat of the Medusæan monster, bristling with serpents. But my wife was the cause of my coming; into whom a serpent, trodden upon by her, diffused its poison, and cut short her growing years. I was wishful to be able to endure this, and I will not deny that I have endeavoured to do so. Love has proved the stronger. That God is well known in the regions above. Whether he be so here, too, I am uncertain; but yet I imagine that even here he is; and if the story of the rape of former days is not untrue, ’twas love that united you two together. By these places filled with horrors, by this vast Chaos, and by the silence of these boundless realms, I entreat you, weave over again the quick-spun thread of the life of Eurydice.

“To you we all belong; and having staid but a little while above, sooner or later we all hasten to one abode. Hither are we all hastening. This is our last home; and you possess the most lasting dominion over the human race. She, too, when, in due season she shall have completed her allotted number of years, will be under your sway. The enjoyment of her I beg as a favour. But if the Fates deny me this privilege in behalf of my wife, I have determined that I will not return. Triumph in the death of us both.”

As he said such things, and touched the strings to his words, the bloodless spirits wept. Tantalus did not catch at the retreating water, and the wheel of Ixion stood still, as though in amazement; the birds did not tear the liver of Tityus; and the granddaughters of Belus paused at their urns; thou, too, Sisyphus, didst seat thyself on thy stone. The story is, that then, for the first time, the cheeks of the Eumenides, overcome by his music, were wet with tears; nor could the royal consort, nor he who rules the infernal regions, endure. To deny him his request; and they called for Eurydice. She was among the shades newly arrived, and she advanced with a slow pace, by reason of her wound.

Illustration by Edward Poynter, 1862. Orpheus, holding his instrument, walks along holding Eurydice by the hand. He looks straight ahead. They walk in a rocky, forbidding landscape with cloudy skies and snakes at their feet.Illustration by Edward Poynter, 1862

The Rhodopeïan hero receives her, and, at the same time, this condition, that he turn not back his eyes until he has passed the Avernian vallies, or else that the grant will be revoked. The ascending path is mounted in deep silence, steep, dark, and enveloped in deepening gloom. And now they were not far from the verge of the upper earth. He, enamoured, fearing lest she should flag, and impatient to behold her, turned his eyes; and immediately she sank back again. She, hapless one! both stretching out her arms, and struggling to be grasped, and to grasp him, caught nothing but the fleeting air. And now, dying a second time, she did not at all complain of her husband; for why should she complain of being beloved? And now she pronounced the last farewell, which scarcely did he catch with his ears; and again was she hurried back to the same place.

No otherwise was Orpheus amazed at this twofold death of his wife, than he who, trembling, beheld the three necks of the dog, the middle one supporting chains; whom fear did not forsake, before his former nature deserted him, as stone gathered over his body: and than Olenus, who took on himself the crime of another, and was willing to appear guilty; and than thou, unhappy Lethæa, confiding in thy beauty; breasts, once most united, now rocks, which the watery Ida supports. The ferryman drove him away entreating, and, in vain, desiring again to cross the stream. Still, for seven days, in squalid guise did he sit on the banks without the gifts of Ceres. Vexation. And sorrow of mind, and tears were his sustenance. Complaining that the Deities of Erebus were cruel, he betook himself to lofty Rhodope, and Hæmus, buffeted by the North winds. The third Titan had now ended the year bounded by the Fishes of the ocean; and Orpheus had avoided all intercourse with woman, either because it had ended in misfortune to him, or because he had given a promise to that effect. Yet a passion possessed many a female to unite herself to the bard, and many a one grieved when repulsed. He also was the first adviser of the people of Thrace to transfer their affections to tender youths; and, on this side of manhood, to enjoy the short spring of life, and its early flowers.

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