The Orpheus myth appears around the 6th century B.C. but has remained vivid to this date in western imagination thanks to three stories central to modern perception of Art, Love and Spirituality. Difficult to be more universal than that!
The Orpheus meaning has been reinterpreted across the centuries, shading new light and new shadow on the weakness of human nature. Let's start with the basic story:
First is the coming of age of Orpheus as an artist. The lyre of Orpheus was a gift from Apollo (some say his father), the Greek god of sun and music. His mother, Calliope the muse of epic poetry, taught him to make verses for singing. With this upbringing, Orpheus emerged as a talented (some say cocky!) artist able to charm all things, from wild beasts to rivers and stones, through his music, poetry and singing.
Then comes the age of Love between Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the great Greek mythology love stories. But tragically, Eurydice died on her wedding day from a viper’s bite. Overcome with grief, Orpheus in the underworld,where he had followed Eurydice. played such sad and mournful songs that he softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone. The Greek gods of the underworld agreed to the return of Eurydice on earth but at one condition: he should walk in front of her, not looking back, until they both had reached the upper world. In his angst, he turned too quickly after reaching the upper world and Eurydice vanished forever.
Finally, the story ends with Orpheus’ own death. After the Eurydice tragedy, Orpheus stopped worshiping the primitive wine and nature god Dionysus for the ascetic cult of Apollo, god of sun. He developed purification rituals including vegetarianism and abstention from the love of women, which attracted resentment from the Dionysus devotees. Some women threw sticks and stones at him as he played, but his music was so beautiful even the rocks and branches refused to hit him. Infuriated, the women tore him apart. Only the head and the lyre of Orpheus remained intact, floating down the river to the sea, still singing mournful songs.
The three stories are linked by the power of art. In addition to giving comfort and joy, the songs and the lyre of Orpheus can sometimes open new doors, like the one to the underworld. He makes things happen, stirring what appears to be dead, like a rock, into life. “By portraying the world creatively, heightening our perception and enriching our understanding of things as they are, art makes sense of life,” said the art critic Terry Teachout.
The most gifted artists take the ability to imagine, adapt, empathise and collaborate to another level through practice, discipline and courage (from the Australian Cultural Policy). Poets aim to overwhelm ordinary people with the force of emotions, making everything more beautiful, offering new interpretations, opening transcendental meanings, and perhaps transform mentality as a result.
Still, “No artist desires to prove anything,” says Oscar Wilde in the Picture of Dorian Gray, without being an ideologue or displaying “an unpardonable mannerism of style.” Per Akira Kurosawa, “the role of the artist is to not look away.” He must show the world as he sees it, and not as he wants other to see it. This “not to look away” resonates with the “not looking back” in the Orpheus myth stories, and we explored this theme in our SpareTag video, this temptation of Orpheus in the underworld to transcend life and death, to keep a foot in both worlds.
What is an artist is defined by the Orpheus myth: poets through the centuries have felt strong connection to Orpheus, the misunderstood radical voice brutally silenced. His singing head floating down the river symbolizes that arts live on after the poets have passed away. Poetry becomes permanent to the point that for Rilke “there is ultimately only one Poet,” a spirit or a force that passes among living poets.
At first glance, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth represents the power of true love, and the power of art, to overcome death. But the recovery effort failed, which raises many questions about the force of true love, the true character of Orpheus as well as the trueness of gods.
What is true love? Do we love a person for meeting our ideal of beauty and perfection? In our SpareTag video, we took the view that the artist Orpheus was in love with life, personified in Eurydice, but encompassing the broader force. “I loved beauty. I loved loving. I loved the world mysteries”. So he looks back to satisfy his “selfish love for Life”.
For Plato, Orpheus is a coward -- on top of being cocky?! His love was not "true," as he did not want to die in order to be with the one he loved. Instead, he provoked the Greek gods’ ire by singing his way to Hades to get Eurydice back alive. The Greek gods punish him by first giving him only an apparition of his former wife that fades in the sunlight of the upper world, and then by being killed by women.
Oh, we love this conspiracy theory in the Orpheus myth and built it in the core of our SpareTag video, with plots and vengeance in the pure tradition of Greek mythology love stories.
The myth represents, too, the journey of souls, which must descend to the lowest point before it is purified, and can ascend again. It is the same cycle than nature: the seed ripping in the sun, falling down into the darkness of earth to grow up into the light again; the seed Orpheus singing lazily in the sun before going to the underworld and rising again as an ascetic worshiper of the sun god until death, when Orpheus becomes part of nature.
The fight of good against evil is an integral part of the myth. For the Medieval theologians, the desire of purity, symbolized by the return of Orpheus in the light, is clearly tested as he looks back longingly at the lower world. This good-vs-evil fight, expressed by the not looking back theme, can also be found in the Biblical story of Lot's wife when escaping from Sodom.
Of course, religion is never far away. Orpheus was a shaman able to speak to animals and visit the underworld. His rejection of the pagan Dyonisus cult for a single loving god is a prelude to Christianity. There is a parallel with the figure of Jesus: the son of a God, a miracle maker that returned from the realm of death, a misunderstood new cult teacher executed by the non-believers and a savior.
The interpretation evolved in the 20th century, when psychoanalysts saw in the recovery trip to Hades, a failed attempt to resurrect the past of a dead love. A doomed attempt per Oscar Wilde since “each man kills the thing he loves.” One step deeper, the Jungians saw in the Orpheus and Eurydice tale an act of separation of the Self from the Other.
Still all is not dark. According to some accounts, the spirits of Orpheus and Eurydice end up finding each other in the Elysian Fields, the paradise in the Underworld. Our SpareTag video also ends on a happy note where Orpheus brings love and peace to the Elysian Fields.
What’s not to like about a good Creation myth!
SpareTag.com revisits the Orpheus myth to explore what is an Artist, passion in Greek Mythology Love Stories and the Journey of Souls.
SpareTag took some liberty with the traditional Orpheus myth to emphasize the artist selfish temptation, create additional plots and vengeance, and finish with a happy afterlife ending.
Famous sculptures and paintings animated by SpareTag to create this version of the Orpheus myth. By order of apparition:
Frans Pourbus - "Orpheus bezaubert Bäume und Tiere"
Joseph Edgar Boehm - "Orpheus and Eurydice"
Auguste Rodin - "The Thinker"
"The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth" Jean Cocteau
Selection of classical
This beautiful and
will certainly keep
you in the mood of
the lyre of Orpheus.
Among all the Greek mythology love stories, the one of Orpheus and Eurydice captures the most sympathy. Not looking back!
love story of Orpheus
and Eurydice is reset
in "modern" Rio
The trip of Orpheus in
the underworld with
its voodoo incantations
will stick in your mind like a fever-induced dreamy journey of souls. Black Orpheus is magical with great music, dancing, photography, and acting.
The book is divided
into seven chapters,
each representing a
"string" of the lyre
of Orpheus. The "Fifth
string: Death" sees
Eurydice as his own
"lower self", or
maybe death itself.
In evocative prose Wroe shows the influence of the Orpheus myth on society for millennia.