It was the perfect wedding, the guests thought. The groom was Orpheus, the greatest of all poets and musicians. The bride Eurydice, a wood nymph. Anyone could tell the couple was truly and deeply in love. Suddenly, Eurydice stumbled, then fell to the ground. By the time Orpheus reached her side, she was dead, and the snake that had bitten her was slithering away through the grass.
Following Eurydice’s funeral, Orpheus was overcome with a grief the human world could not contain, and so he decided he would journey to the land of the dead, a place from which no living creature had ever returned, to rescue his beloved. When Orpheus reached the gates of the underworld, he began to strum his lyre. The music was so beautiful that Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the dead, lay down as Orpheus passed. Charon, the ferry captain who charged dead souls to cross the River Styx, was so moved by the music that he brought Orpheus across free of charge.
When Orpheus entered the palace of Hades and Persephone, the king and queen of the dead, he began to sing. He sang of his love for Eurydice, and said she had been taken away too soon. The day would come when she, like all living creatures, dwelled in the land of the dead for all eternity, so couldn’t Hades grant her just a few more years on Earth? In the moment after Orpheus finished, all hell stood still.
Sisyphus no longer rolled his rock up the hill. Tantalus did not reach for the water he would never be allowed to drink. Even the Furies, the demonic goddesses of vengeance, wept. Hades and Persephone granted Orpheus’s plea, but on one condition. As he climbed back out of the underworld, he must not turn around to see if Eurydice was following behind him. If he did, she would return to the land of the dead forever. Orpheus began to climb. With each step, he worried more and more about whether Eurydice was behind him.
He heard nothing— where were her footsteps? Finally, just before he stepped out of the underworld and into the bright light of day, he gave into temptation. Orpheus tried to return to the underworld, but was refused entry. Separated from Eurydice, Orpheus swore never to love another woman again. Instead, he sat in a grove of trees and sang songs of lovers. There was Ganymede, the beautiful boy who Zeus made drink-bearer to the gods. There was Myrrah, who loved her father and was punished for it, and Pygmalion, who sculpted his ideal woman out of ivory, then prayed to Venus until she came to life.
And there was Venus herself, whose beautiful Adonis was killed by a wild boar. It was as if Orpheus’s own love and loss had allowed him to see into the hearts of gods and people everywhere. For some, however, poetry was not enough. A group of wild women called the Maenads could not bear the thought that a poet who sang so beautifully of love would not love them. Their jealousy drove them to a frenzy and they destroyed poor Orpheus. The birds, nature’s singers, mourned Orpheus, as did the rivers, who made music as they babbled. The world had lost two great souls.
Orpheus and Eurydice had loved each other so deeply that when they were separated, Orpheus had understood the pain and joys of lovers everywhere, and a new art form, the love poem, was born. While the world wept, Orpheus found peace, and his other half, in the underworld. There, to this day, he walks with Eurydice along the banks of the River Styx. Sometimes, they stroll side by side; sometimes, she is in front; and sometimes, he takes the lead, turning to look back at her as often as he likes.