The Orpheus Myth: A story that's always happening

The myth of Orpheus is the oldest love story, from ancient Greece — it's the story of the power of art, a story told through opera and film, and poetry. Two thousand five hundred years later, IDEAS contributor Tom Jokinen explores why the myth of Orpheus still has such a hold on us.

2500 years later, the ancient love story of Orpheus and Eurydice still resonates

An 1869 painting by Anselm Feuerbach depicting Orpheus from Greek mythology rescuing his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

*This episode originally aired on October 14, 2021.

The myth of Orpheus is a love story, a ghost story, and a story about how art is made. This is how these old myths work: they never stop telling us what it means to be alive and human, even thousands of years later. 

"He was a reformer, he was a philosopher, he was a leader, a musician, a poet," said Alexander Batchvarov, whose family owns Villa Gela — a hotel in the Bulgarian village of Gela. The hotel is located in the Rhodope Mountains where according to the story, Orpheus once lived, known in the ancient world as Thrace.

"There are areas very close to our house where there are remnants of Thracian fortresses, fortifications, temples and sanctuaries," Batchvarov explained. These remnants go back as far as 5000 B.C. 

Don't look back

Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. An accomplished musician, he played the lyre, a harp-like stringed instrument.

According to the story as Roman poet Ovid told it, in Metamorphoses, one day Eurydice, a young nymph, heard him play. They met and fell in love at once, and were soon married. But myths never end happily, at least not at first glance: the gods would see to it. Eurydice, while celebrating her love for Orpheus, danced in the fields, but was suddenly bitten by a venomous snake, and died. 

Orpheus was heartbroken. He refused to play his lyre. But the people of the village had an idea: find your way to the underworld, they told Orpheus, and play your lyre. The gods will be so charmed that they'll give you back your love, Eurydice. So he went to the mouth of a deep cave. 

The entrance to the Devil’s Throat Cave (Dyavolsko garlo Cave) has been described as resembling 'a devil's head' and a waterfall rushes down its 'throat.' (Shutterstock)

"It is known as the Devil's Throat cave," Batchvarov told IDEAS. "The name comes from the fact that anything that the river brings in, does not come out." 

"He descends to the underworld, the abode of death, to retrieve her," said Allan Pero, an associate professor of Writing and English Studies at Western University in London, Ontario.

"He's granted his wish, but with one proviso: that he not look back upon her, as he leads her back into the world of light of life."

Spoiler alert: even the sons of gods are still only human, with all the baggage and hubris that entails. Given a prohibition, humans — we're reminded through stories and legends — will usually do what Lot's wife did when told not to look back at Sodom, or what Pandora did after she was told not to look into the box, or what Eve did with the forbidden fruit. 

An artist's gaze 

So on their way out of the underworld, Orpheus can't resist. He looks back, and loses Eurydice forever. 

"He can't help himself," said Ann Wroe, obituaries editor of The Economist, and author of Orpheus: The Song of Life. This fatal look, she says, "symbolizes the way the artist, when he's suddenly inspired, when he sees beauty, when something really speaks to him, he loses it when he tries to seize it." 

This is something the philosopher Maurice Blanchot has written about, in his essay The Gaze of Orpheus: the quest for art is a dark and mysterious — even dangerous — pursuit.

"There is no direct line to the masterpiece," said Pero. "If only there were, right?"

Composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, as portrayed by painter Joseph Duplessis. His opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, based on the myth of Orpheus was first performed in Vienna, Oct. 5, 1762. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Artists can only look at their inspiration obliquely, never directly, or else they risk losing it altogether, the way Orpheus lost his love Eurydice by looking at her in the underworld, when he was told not to.

Ask any poet: the lines she has written down never quite match what she had in her head, not exactly. All art is a makeshift representation of its own idea, although some of it, say the music of Gluck or Monteverdi (who both wrote operas about Orpheus) come close.


Another way of looking at the myth in our own time is to view the story as a creation of art, and how, in the end, whatever the artist brings back from the imagination, it's never quite perfect. It's never Eurydice. 

It's a familiar story, when you look for it in contemporary poetry and opera and film, including the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who was particularly interested in what happens in the dark, in the underworld, not as portrayed in haunted house stories, but in the darker corners of the mind. His triumph is Vertigo (1958), based on the novel D'entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac.

"Vertigo [starring James Stewart and Kim Novak] is about getting somebody back from the dead, or trying to get somebody back from the dead," said Steve Vineberg, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massechusetts.

Actors James Stewart and Kim Novak starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film, Vertigo. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

For Vineberg, the film embodies what he calls "the failed project of resurrection." In the film, the obsessed detective Scotty (Stewart), presses Judy (Novak) to look, sound and act like the missing Madeleine. This is a desperately flawed summary of a complex psychological thriller, but enough to say: he is Orpheus and she is Eurydice, and he cannot help himself from looking, even at the risk of death. 

As Ovid told it, the myth doesn't end well for Orpheus. Having lost Eurydice twice, he's abject, miserable and then, to add fatal insult to injury, is torn to shreds by the women of Thrace, who expected more music and less moping from the famous son of Apollo.

But his severed head goes on singing, as it floats down the river in which it's been thrown. And on certain nights in Bulgaria, it's been said, it can still be heard singing. There are also pink flowers at the mouth of Devil's Throat cave, native to the region, known as the Resurrection Plant, but also thought of locally as the Blood of Orpheus. Even after drought they always spring back to life.

"Again," says Batchvarov, "the theme of life, death, duality and continuity."

Guests in this episode:

Alexander Batchvarov's family runs Villa Gella Hotel in Gela, Bulgaria. The hotel is located in the Rhodope Mountains, in what was once known as Thrace, the legendary birthplace of Orpheus. The villa isn't far from the Devil's Throat cave, once seen as a portal to the underworld, where Hades and Persephone dwell. 

Matthew Aucoin is the composer of The Orphic Moment, a dramatic cantata for countertenor, and Eurydice, an opera opening at The Metropolitan Opera in November 2021. 

Monica Cyrino is a professor of Classics at the University of New Mexico. 

Ann Wroe is an obituaries editor for The Economist, and the author of Orpheus: The Song of Life, published by Pimlico. 

Allan Pero is an associate professor of Writing and English Studies at Western University in London, Ont. 

Armand D'Angour is a professor of Classics at the University of Oxford.

Callum Armstrong is a musician who plays the aulos. 

A.S. Hamrah is a film critic for Baffler magazine.

Steve Vineberg is a Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross. 

Jane Cahill, University of Winnipeg Classics, retired. Along with analysis, Jane recited the story of Orpheus and Eurydice by heart.

Poem: Eurydice by Carol Ann Duffy, from the collection The World's Wife, 1999. Faber and Faber. 

* Written and produced by Tom Jokinen.

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