Why does the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice speak of mistrust in humanity rather than love? We find out in this new episode of the Narrabilia column!

February is a particular month: it is shorter, but the lengthening of the days begins to be noticed. It is capable of giving you tremendous bursts of cold, but you can also breathe spring. It is the beginning of the most moody period of the year, it is the antechamber of Lent, it is the period of Carnival.
And then it's the month of love.

Which puts me in an awkward position, because I've never understood anything about love stories - especially romantic love stories. So choosing what to tell you in this column was not easy.
But then I thought: what famous love story tells us about death, the afterlife, beheading and mystery cults? And so I decided to tell you about Orpheus and Eurydice.
So let's go back to the address book Narrabilia, in which we tear up stories to better understand their meaning and origins!

Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1861)
Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1861)

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: what is it about?

That of Orpheus and Euridice is a Greek myth well known, which you will surely have heard of at least once - especially if you have recently played Hades. But, for those who missed it, let's summarize it for a moment before going to see it in detail.

Orpheus, the cantor, is married to Eurydice, the Dryad. It is a great love, enlivened by his songs, so sweet as to appease even the wild beasts and to make the trees bend to listen to him.
Everything is fine until Eurydice is bitten by a viper e muore - because in Greek mythology it often goes like this.
Orpheus then descends into the Underworld, managing to enchant with his lyre Cerberus, Charon and the same Hades and Persephone. The gods then agree to return Eurydice, but on one condition: going back to the light, Orpheus will never have to look back at his wife who follows him.
Do I need to tell you how it ends? Obviously the man turns around, losing her again. Not long after, Orpheus will also die - electrocuted by Zeus or dismembered, depending on the version.


A myth about the hybris, and what else?

A first reading of this story suggests a recurring theme of Greek mythology: do not disobey the gods. There hybris, or hubris, is the worst thing one can get tainted with in the Greek world - and is in fact the engine of every tragedy worthy of the name. Ask any classicist. Or better, ask Oedipus.
Orpheus himself, during his journey into the Underworld, will meet two characters who, due to the hybris, are not doing well at all: Sisyphus and Tantalus, whose tortures have now become famous rhetorical and philosophical figures. Here, to make you understand the level of Orpheus' music, even the two damned are momentarily distracted by their pains during his singing.
But to fully understand what the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice tells us, we must first tear it to pieces - like its protagonist.

Orpheus and Eurydice in the award-winning Hades video game by Supergiant Games
Orpheus and Euridice in the award-winning video game Hades, by Supergiant Games

Eurydice: an ancillary figure who exists as a function of others

Let's start with what history has left us less information about, Eurydice - because Greek mythology is interesting, not feminist.
Eurydice, first of all, it means quite right, but he is not a character who is given particular justice. Eurydice is one of the Dryads, that is the nymphs of oaks - and subsequently of trees in general - that live in the woods and represent their luxuriance.

The "problem", if we want to call it that, with the character of Eurydice is that exists, acts and dies according to someone else's story. Her being her Dryad has much more to do with Orpheus, whose music enchants humans, gods, animals and plants alike, than with herself.
If Orpheus symbolizes the artist par excellence, Eurydice represents the object of art: just as Orpheus loves spirituality and nature, in the same way he is loved by it.

The other versions of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: Aristeo, Apollo and Daphne

Even Eurydice's death has more to do with other stories than hers: it is her death that gives life to the most famous piece of the myth of Orpheus, but not only. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in fact, is reported by many sources, being particularly well known since ancient times.

The Roman Virgil could not miss the party, who in the XNUMXst century BC inserts the myth in the XNUMXth book of his Georgics. Here however is a digression within the myth of Aristeo, a son of Apollo.
He is so "in love" (there are not enough quotes in the world to convey my sarcasm) with Eurydice that he is constantly chasing her - or attacking her, it depends on your point of view. And it is precisely during one of her nymph's attempts to escape that she beats the viper that will bite her, killing her. In case you were wondering, Aristeo will get away with offering some cattle to the other nymphs, a little pissed off by it. In the ancient world it goes like this.

On the other hand, Aristeo's own father, Apollo, experiences a similar episode with Daphne, a Naiad, or a freshwater nymph. Her god bothers her to such an extent with her "loving ardor of her" that Daphne begs her gods to save her - and they turn her into laurel. Yes, this is why Apollo is associated with laurel. But, as you can see, it is another story.

The death of Orpheus, by Émile Jean Baptiste Philippe Bin (1874)
The death of Orpheus, by Émile Jean Baptiste Philippe Bin (1874)

Orpheus: a figure between spirituality and Dionysian mysteries

Returning to us, it is Orpheus' turn: who is he? The Garzantine opened his voice saying: "The myth of Orpheus is one of the darkest and most full of symbolism that Hellenic mythology knows". And this already catches our attention.

There are many things to say and all intertwined, as in the best mythological tradition. Thracian, son of Eagro and, according to most, of the Muse of epic poetry Calliope, the highest in dignity of his group. Orpheus represents THE singer, THE musician, The poet. But since this isn't cool enough, it's also part of the expedition of Argonauts, for which he performs a function similar to that of a priest.
Spirituality is a key element of the myth of Orpheus, which even ended up influencing early Christian iconography. But even before that, the spiritual aspect of the myth of Orpheus is linked to an important mystery cult: theOrphism, built around the sixth century BC

Orphism: what do you believe in?

If among you there is someone who also follows my Dionigi Podcast project, you will know that I mentioned in the past the connection between the figure of Orpheus and that of Dionysus. Of course, I talked about it because I never miss an opportunity to tell a good story of beheading. But there is so much more here.
Orphism has many points of contact with the precedents Dionysian mysteries, based on two fundamental doctrines.

The first is the belief in divinity, therefore inimmortality of the soul. This would have "fallen" due to the original fault of the Titans, who would have devoured Dionysus in his first incarnation. It is precisely the dismemberment of the god and his transformation into a meal for the Titans that leads to the birth of men. Zeus, angry, throws a bolt of lightning against them: humanity comes to life from this combustion and mixing with the Dionysian part.
The second doctrine of Orphism is a consequence of the first: it is necessary avoid the loss of the immortality of the soul, avoiding the continuous rebirth in states of suffering. To do this, one must lead an entire life of purity, ending up entering a happy afterlife world. And here the ears of the leaders of most of the existing cults are ringed.

And to make the ears ring even to those of you who have played at Hades, in the Orphic version of the myth, the child who is devoured by the Titans and who is reborn as Dionysus is called… Zagreo. And yes, in this version he is the son of Hades, but that's another story.

The points of contact (and dismemberment) between Orpheus and Dionysus

To resume our discourse, being the Orphic mysteries a 2.0 version of the Dionysian mysteries, the links between the figure of Orpheus and that of Dionysus are numerous (although Orpheus has a strong Apollonian component).
Both in symbiosis with nature, both descended into the Underworld, both dismembered.

Yes, because according to a popular version of the myth, Orpheus literally loses his head by the death of Eurydice.
According to this trend, the Tracian women, offended by the cantor's inattention to them out of fidelity to his missing wife, kill him. Then they tear it apart, they nail their heads to the lyre e they throw it into the river.
And the head goes away, singing, reaching the sea and finally arriving in Lesbos. I have never quite understood how this fact is compatible with the idea that Orpheus' soul is taken to the Elysian Fields, where he sings for the Blessed. In short, either you are a head singer on the beach of Lesbos or you sing among the Blessed.
However, this point is quite important for Orphism. According to the cult, Orpheus would have brought back from the Underworld the information that allows the soul to reach the land of the Blessed, avoiding the obstacles that would otherwise await her after death.

Orpheus and Euridice, imagined by Danlin Zhang
Orpheus and Euridice, imagined by Danlin Zhang

Orpheus and Euridice: the love story that doesn't really talk about love

And you will tell me: beautiful, eh, but what does this have to do with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice? Yes, I digressed a bit, that's true, but only because Greek mythology is an intertwining in which it is easy - and beautiful - to get lost. Anyway, it has to do with it.
If we read it in this light, the story also takes on another meaning. No longer just the classic “don't disobey what the gods say”.

Eurydice dies bitten by a snake, which represents the knowing false. This leaves her trapped in the afterlife, the world of ignorance.
Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld symbolizes his lead humanity itself out of darkness, guiding her towards light and bliss. But she didn't go very well, why?
According to some versions of the myth, Orpheus ends up turning around because all the time he does not hear Eurydice's footsteps behind him, doubting his own presence (and the word of Hades and Persephone). Orpheus therefore does not place trust in humanity - and it is precisely this lack of confidence in the ability to understand of the human soul to sanction its condemnation.
(Told you there was Christianity here!)

So: Orpheus and Euridice. Love story? Could be.
Of course, it is the story of a man who, having lost his woman, loses everything. But there are many such stories, so that's not what makes it interesting. This is not what drives us to tell it again after so many centuries.
Whether you know it consciously or not, this is a myth that speaks of us: in the Apollonian and the Dionysian, in the spiritual and the bestial, in life and in death. And then there's a singing head in the middle of the sea, which, if you ask me, doesn't hurt at all.