There are numerous stories of love and the ones that catch our fancy are those about unfulfilled love. Here’s one from Greek mythology that is one of the most well-known love stories, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. There are different versions of this myth, but here’s a digest of the most common ones.
A musical gift
Orpheus was a young man who was extremely talented in music. He possessed a lovely voice and had mastered the art of playing the lyre at a very young age. His mother was one of the Muses, Calliope. When he sang and played, all would stand still to listen to him, man or beast; trees would uproot themselves to come closer, the rivers would change course and the breeze would blow through the music, taking the lovely strains of his music far and wide.
During one such musical rendition, Orpheus noticed a shy wood nymph, Eurydice, and fell in love with her. It was love at first sight for both, and soon they were married. After the daylong celebrations, it was time to leave the two newlyweds alone. But such are not the ways of love, right?
In the shadows was Aristaeus, a shepherd, who secretly loved Eurydice and couldn’t bear the sight of Orpheus and Eurydice happily married. He hid in the bushes intending to kill Orpheus when they passed by. As soon as they came close, he pounced on Orpheus, but sensing danger, Orpheus caught Eurydice’s hand and ran. This resulted in a chase, Orpheus and Eurydice running from danger they knew not and Aristaeus pursuing Orpheus’ death.
In the wild chase, Orpheus and Eurydice stumbled and before anyone realised what had happened, they were separated. In her flight, Eurydice had stepped on a deadly snake that bit her and soon she was dead. Seeing this, Aristaeus fled, leaving the inconsolable Orpheus alone with the dead Eurydice.
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Into the gates of Hell
Orpheus couldn’t come to terms with the separation and soon the lovely music had turned soulful. But Orpheus wasn’t giving up. He decided to follow his love to the Underworld. The gates of the Underworld opened for Orpheus where he sang and played such soulful music that Hades, the god of the Underworld and Persephone, his queen, were moved to tears. So moved was Hades with Orpheus’ sad music that he allowed him to take Eurydice back with him. However, he shouldn’t look back until her soul had crossed the darkness of the Underworld and emerged in the light of the upper world. If he did try to see her in the darkness, she would leave him forever and no power could unite them ever.
Orpheus was thrilled, and soon he could feel Eurydice’s presence and started his journey from the Underworld. He could hear her footsteps and his joy knew no bounds and he wanted to look back and hug her, but was reminded of Hades’ condition. As soon as he reached the gates of the Underworld and could see the rays of the Sun, he couldn’t hold back and turned around. Alas, Eurydice hadn’t emerged out of the dark shadows of the Underworld and all Orpheus caught was a glimpse of her sad face and she was gone. The gates closed on Orpheus and this time, he couldn’t get into the Underworld.
The lovers were separated forever. Orpheus never managed to sing songs of joy and soon became a recluse. He stayed away from all women, as every woman reminded him of his love. The Maenads were the attendants of Dionysus, the god of wine and passion, and they longed for Orpheus. Soon the scorn and neglect got the worse of them and they pounced on him and killed him in rage. (Some versions say that he played such sad music calling for death, that all the animals who heard him killed him, weeping all the while!)
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The Maenads threw his body in the river, and his head and his lyre floated down to the island of Lesbos, where the Muses gave him a decent burial. The islanders believed that music could be heard from his grave, where after death Orpheus and Eurydice were united in the Underworld, thus ending the saga of love, separation and torment.