Written by Bobby Kennedy, Director of Artistic Development
Eurydice: “I don’t know.”
–Eurydice, Sarah Ruhl
If you’ve never encountered the story of Orpheus and Eurydice before, you may want to stop here. And lucky you for getting to experience this celebrated classic without knowing how it ends.
If you know the myth or one of its many retellings, then you know the essential story beats. Soon after marrying renowned musician Orpheus, Eurydice dies. Heartbroken, Orpheus decides to descend to the Underworld and convince Hades to let him bring his wife back to the land of the living. Hades agrees, provided Orpheus walks in front and does not turn back to look at Eurydice until they are both safely above ground. Moments away from safety, Orpheus does turn and look back at Eurydice—and she is lost to him forever.
This is the tale that has captivated readers and inspired artists to revisit and reinterpret it for over 2,000 years—especially the climactic final moment. The action is so simple, the consequences so tragic, and the motivations unclear. Why did Orpheus look back, when they were so close to making it out?
Although there are mentions of both Orpheus and Eurydice in several surviving Greek works, the only accounts of Eurydice’s death and Orpheus’s journey to the underworld were written down by two Roman poets. Virgil includes the story in his poem, Georgics, which dates to ~29 BCE. In this telling, Eurydice was running to escape another man, Aristaeus, when a snake bit her. Ovid’s version of the story appeared in his poem, Metamorphoses, from 8 CE, and while Eurydice still dies of a snake bite, she was dancing with her naiad friends on her wedding day at the time.
There are differences in the poets’ accounts of the ending as well. Virgil describes “a sudden madness” of “reckless loving” seizing Orpheus, leading him to look back at his wife. In the translation by Kimberly Johnson, Eurydice cries out to her husband,
O Orpheus, what has ruined wretched me and you,
what utter madness? Behold – again the cruel Fates
call me back, and darkness shrouds my swimming eyes!
And now, farewell – I am carried off cloaked in endless night,
stretching toward you helpless hands, O! yours no more!
In the translation of Metamorphoses by Allen Mandelbaum, Ovid provides more detail about Orpheus’s journey and his persuasion of Hades. Orpheus is again seized by a longing to see his wife, but Eurydice has fewer words in response in this version:
And as she died again, Eurydice
did not reproach her husband. (How could she
have faulted him except to say he
loved her indeed?) One final, faint ‘Farewell’—
so weak it scarcely reached his ears—was all
she said. Then, back to the abyss, she fell.
A sign of its power, the Orpheus and Eurydice story outlived the Roman empire that immortalized it in words. An English retelling, Sir Orfeo, was written in the late 13th century, combining the original source material with Celtic folklore. By the 17th century, the story was being adapted to the stage. The earliest surviving opera is Jacopo Peri’s Euridice from 1600, which based its libretto on Ovid’s account. Over the next few centuries, many other composers would write their own operatic retellings, including Monteverdi (L’Orfeo, 1607), Christoph Willibald Gluck (Orfeo ed Euridice, 1762), and Jacques Offenbach (Orphée aux enfers, 1858).
Visual artists also began to represent the tragic lovers in paintings and sculpture, drawing inspiration from many different moments of the myth. Italian painter Titian depicted both the snake biting Eurydice and the moment in which Orpheus looks back at her in one of his early paintings (Orpheus and Eurydice, 1508). Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens chose the beginning of the couples’ ascent from the Underworld (Orpheus and Eurydice, 1638) whereas French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot instead illustrated the two nearing the exit (Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861). Others avoided scenes from the Underworld altogether, with French artist Nicolas Poussin depicting Orpheus playing his lyre to a gathering of fans as an unnoticed snake in the grass approaches Eurydice (Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, c1650-53), whereas another Frenchman Gustave Moreau painted Orpheus grieving his failed attempt to bring his wife back (Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice, 1891). French sculptor Auguste Rodin carved a haunting depiction of the lovers in 1893, with Orpheus covering his eyes and Eurydice emerging out of the rock behind him, moments before the tragic glance back.
And yet, despite all of these artistic explorations of the story, no one had shown much interest in exploring Eurydice’s perspective on the events until Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In his poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”, Rilke spotlights the character and explores how she might have changed in her time apart from Orpheus, as demonstrated in this selection from Franz Wright’s translation:
She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
Who once had echoed through the poet’s songs
No longer the wide couch’s scent and island
And that man’s property no longer.
She was already loosened like long hair,
Poured out like fallen rain,
Shared like a limitless supply.
She was already root.
And when, abruptly,
The god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
With sorrow in his voice: He has turned around—,
She could not understand, and softly answered
Rilke’s fascination with the myth would continue. After hearing of the death of his daughter’s playmate, he wrote a cycle of 55 sonnets in 1922 he titled Sonnets to Orpheus, which again explore themes of loss and memory. Five years earlier, the American poet H.D. had written “Eurydice,” which speaks from the title character’s perspective immediately after Orpheus’s glance at her:
So you have swept me back
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;
So for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;
if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.
The poems by Rilke and H.D. were key inspirations for playwright Sarah Ruhl, who wanted to focus on Eurydice in her play as well and explore the elements of the story still untouched. What was Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship like before their wedding? What were the circumstances of Eurydice’s death? What was Eurydice’s experience of the Underworld before Orpheus came to rescue her? How did she feel about the prospect of leaving? And what if she had something to do with the fateful moment Orpheus turned to look at her?
Ruhl’s fascination with Orpheus and Eurydice continues to be shared by many artists working today. The story has appeared across genres and media in recent years, from plays (Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses) to musicals (Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown) to films (Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to novels (Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet) to graphic novels (Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman) and even video games (the roguelike Hades). All are different in their tellings and interpretations, but all share a belief in the timeless power of the myth. While the farewell between Orpheus and Eurydice is final, we regularly have opportunities to revisit the couple again and ponder a fresh answer as to why the story must end the way it does.