Orpheus & Eurydice

Orpheus and the Animals, by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Orpheus was the son of one of the Muses and the king of Thrace. From a very early age, his musical talents were clear. He was singing before he could speak and dancing before he could walk. Every night he would sing himself to sleep and each morning, the singing from his crib woke the household. It was a sweet start to each day and no one complained.

Being the god of music, among other things, Apollo kept his eye on young Orpheus and whispered words of encouragement in his ear as he slept. When Orpheus was still just a toddler, Apollo gave him a lyre. In no time, Orpheus was a virtuoso, bringing tears of joy to all who heard him play. His music was intoxicating and so powerful, Orpheus need only play to bend anyone and anything to his will. The shyest animals would leave their dens and dance in the open fields. Trees would uproot themselves. Rivers would change their course. Fortunately, Orpheus was a good soul and never dreamed of using his power for ill.

One day, when Orpheus was entertaining the woodlands, the beautiful nymph, and daughter of Apollo, Eurydice, was drawn to the music. The pair fell instantly in love and after a short, blissful courtship, they were married. Sadly, their joy was short-lived. While dancing in a meadow with her bridesmaids, Eurydice was bitten by a venomous snake and died instantly.

Orpheus was devastated. The easy joy he had known his whole life turned to bitter grief. The music, which once made hearts soar, now pierced them with desolation. There was no life for Orpheus without Eurydice, so he resolved to bring her back. Against the pleas of his parents, he went to the gates of the Underworld and asked to be let in. It wasn’t normal practice for living mortals to enter the world of the dead but, mournful as it was, Orpheus’ music had not lost its powers of persuasion and the gates opened to him. There, before the throne of Hades, Lord of the Underworld, Orpheus expressed his anguish in song. Now, Hades really wasn’t a bad guy; he didn’t make the rules but he was meant to enforce them and his personal reputation suffered from it.
In this case though, he was so moved by Orpheus’ devotion and courage and enchanted by his music, he made an exception. He would allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living with Orpheus on one condition – neither of them look back before they were fully in the light. How hard could that be? Well, apparently too hard for Orpheus. They were so close, the dazzling, golden light of the living was in his eyes, only a few steps more and they would be home, together. But, just then, Orpheus looked back. Eurydice was there behind him…then she was gone.

Orpheus and Eurydice, by Edward John Poynter

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