Having persuaded Hades and Persephone to release Eurydice, Orpheus leads the way as they both climb toward the opening to the land of the living. Orpheus emerges, and finding himself bathed in the sunlight of the upper world, his impatience gets the better of him and he turns around to make sure Eurydice is behind him. It’s too soon. Eurydice had not yet fully emerged. Orpheus watches her shade retreat to the Underworld, her arms outstretched, her voice crying out a plaintive “Farewell.” His attempt to grasp her fleeting image fails.
Grief-stricken once again, Orpheus tries to re-enter the Underworld but is barred entrance. He pleads with the gods and then rages against them when they refuse him. He wanders aimlessly day and night, heart-broken and in despair. He continues to play his mournful songs and shuns the company of women, perhaps out of loyalty to his marriage vow to Eurydice.
Versions of Orpheus’ death vary. In one version of the myth, he is killed by the women of Thrace, angry at his rejection of them. In another version, the god Dionysus instigates the maenads to kill him in a jealous frenzy since Orpheus prefers to worship the god Apollo. And in a third version, Zeus has him killed to prevent him from revealing the secrets of the Underworld.
In all versions Orpheus experiences a violent death. He is attacked, his body torn from limb to limb, and its pieces scattered. His head and lyre float down the river to Lesbos as he continues to sing and play his music. The Muses collect his dismembered pieces, bury them, and place his lyre in the heavens as a constellation. Upon his death, Orpheus enters the Underworld and reunites with his beloved Eurydice.
The myth of Orpheus has survived the centuries because it is a tale that resonates with the experience of being human. We shall see just how it does that in my subsequent posts.