Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

Orpheus and Eurydice

U PON the heights of Mount Helicon, by the spring of water called Hippocrene, and upon the peak of Parnassus, whence flows forth the fountain of Castalia, dwelt the Muses—the nine gracious goddesses whose gifts to men are music, poetry, painting, eloquence, and all the pleasures of the mind. The Muse who had the sweetest voice was named Calliope; and she had a son named Orpheus, who grew up to be the most wonderful musician that ever was known. When he sang and played, it was as if his mother's voice were singing to Apollo's lyre, so that he charmed gods as well as men.

But though he thus charmed all, he cared for nothing in the whole world but his art, until he met with a girl named Eurydĭce, with whom he fell passionately in love, and who loved him with her whole heart in return. They married, and for a long time were perfectly happy. But one unlucky day Eurydice, while running through some long grass, was stung by a poisonous snake in the foot; and she died.

To Orpheus it was like losing his own soul; and it was indeed bitterly cruel to have lost Eurydice in the midst of their happiness together. Nothing could comfort him. He could only wander out among the hills and streams with his lyre, lamenting Eurydice, and imploring her to come back to him, in such heart-broken passionate music that the very rivers and mountains and winds seemed to find a voice, and to join with him in his ceaseless prayer of "Eurydice! come back to me, even from the grave." And so for days and nights he wandered, singing the same song to his lyre, with all his heart and soul, till it seemed impossible that Death itself should be deaf to such a prayer.

At last a very strange thing befell. So desperately sweet did his music grow that the earth could bear it no longer, but opened; so that he saw before him the black waters of the Styx, and Charon's boat filled with its freight of souls. His wonderful music, made more wonderful still by love and sorrow, had opened to him the very gate of Hades, where Eurydice had gone. Hope rose in his heart. Still playing, he stepped into the boat and crossed the Styx, none hindering him, or even asking him for his fee. Minos, Æacus, and Rhadamanthus, the three stern judges of the dead, let him pass unquestioned—even they forgot their duty in the music of his voice and lyre. As he played and sang there floated round him, drawn by his music, thousands of souls like flocks of birds. The sound of his lyre reached into Tartarus itself. Cerberus crouched harmless; the Furies felt a thrill of pity; for one whole instant Tantalus forgot his thirst, the wheel of Ixion ceased whirling, and the stone of Sisyphus stopped rolling down-hill.

Thus Orpheus played his way into the very presence of Pluto and Proserpine. Pluto pitied him; but it was Proserpine who, no doubt remembering her own mother's sorrows and wanderings, thought of a way to help him.

"You may have back your wife," said she; "but on one condition. You have conquered Death; but that is not enough. You must conquer even Love, for her sake. Go back to earth, playing and singing as you came, and Eurydice shall follow behind you. But if, until you pass the gate of Hades, you turn your head to look at her; if you give even a single glance behind you to see if she is there, then you shall never see her again."

You may think that Eurydice might have been given to him back without any conditions. But Hades was ruled by strict laws, which not even the king and queen could break; and nobody could be allowed to conquer death without showing that he could conquer temptation. Orpheus was overjoyed. Singing a hymn of thanks, he went back the way he came; and presently he could hear a faint sound behind him, as if the whisper of a footfall were keeping pace with him. Was it indeed Eurydice? He longed to look round and see; but he remembered Proserpine's condition, and he did not let his eyes wander from the chink of daylight which presently began to gleam before him. As he came nearer and nearer to the upper world of light, and life, and day, the footfall behind him grew more and more distinct, until he knew it to be Eurydice's: it was as if a silent phantom were gradually putting on its body again as it followed him. If he could but once look round—not to look was almost more than he could bear. But he might listen; and now he heard her breathe, deeply and gladly, as the breath of life came back to her. His music was indeed bringing her back from the grave!

At last he saw, full in sight, the sunlit hills of the upper world. Forgetting that the gate of Hades had not yet been passed, he, in his impatience, turned round to clasp Eurydice to his heart—only to see her change back again into a pale, cold ghost, which, with a wail of love and sorrow, faded away forever.

So Orpheus came back again from Hades heart-broken and alone. Once more, doubly hopeless, and hating himself for his own weakness, he wandered among the mountains and forests with his lyre. But while he was broken-hearted, his music became more wonderful than ever; for had he not seen with his eyes all the marvels of the under-world? Lions and tigers followed him as he sang, and became as gentle as lambs. The strongest oaks bent down to listen—nay, even the very mountains bowed their heads, and the swiftest rivers stood still to hear. He sang of Love and Death and Sorrow, and of all the mysteries of the world above, and of the world below, so that men looked upon him as a prophet, and came to him to learn wisdom.

But his own heart remained broken and dead within him. He had no more love left to give to any human being. The noblest and fairest women in the land sought to win his love, but he was deaf and blind to them all. So their love turned to hate; and at last a number of them, enraged by his coldness, fell upon him and slew him, and threw his head into the river Hebrus. And, as his head floated away, the dead lips were heard to murmur:—

"Eurydice! Eurydice!"

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