Orpheus was the son of a god. He was handsome and strong, and a musician of great renown. Only his father, Apollo, could play the lyre better. When he plucked the strings everyone stopped to listen.
Eurydice was the daughter of a god. She was beautiful and gentle and everybody loved her. When the two met, they fell head over heels in love.
Their wedding day was a joyous occasion with good food, good company and plenty of music and dancing. They felt truly blessed… But just a few short weeks later, disaster struck.
As Eurydice was out one day, she caught the eye of a shepherd called Aristaeus. He didn’t care that she was already married to Orpheus – he wanted he wanted her as his own wife. He chased her and she fled. In her haste to get away she didn’t watch her step, and she disturbed a deadly snake. It reared up and bit her, injecting it’s fatal venom into her blood. She died almost instantaneously.
Orpheus was distraught. He played such sorrowful songs on his lyre that even the rocks and rivers wept for him. He travelled all the way to Mount Olympus and begged an audience with the gods. He played for them and they were so moved by his desolate tunes that they agreed to let him travel to the Underworld to plead with Hades for the return of his wife.
Gaining entry to the Underworld was not an easy task. First Charon, the ferryman, had to agree to a safe passage across the River Styx, and on the other shore, the gates were guarded by Cerberus, a fierce, three-headed dog. Neither would usually allow a living person to enter the kingdom of the dead, but Orpheus played his lyre so beautifully they both allowed him to pass.
Even the frozen heart of Hades himself was melted by Orpheus’s mournful melodies, and he agreed that Eurydice could return to the land of the living.
However, he did not give up his souls so easily, and so of course there was a condition attached… He instructed Orpheus to leave the kingdom and to play his lyre on the way. When Eurydice heard it, she would be allowed to follow him, but Orpheus was not to look behind him.
Orpheus headed to the living world, and as he played all the lost souls stopped to listen, but Eurydice never seemed to be amongst them. Eventually he heard footsteps behind him. Yes! That was her! He would recognise her light, quick footsteps anywhere. On he walked, never daring to pause in his playing, and on the footsteps walked behind him. But the closer Orpheus got to the exit from the Underworld, the greater his doubts grew. Was that really his beautiful wife behind him? Would Hades really give up one of his souls so easily? Could he have sent a phantom in her place? What if he reached the living world and discovered that it was not his beloved behind him? It would be too late, and he wouldn’t be allowed to visit the Underworld a second time. She would be trapped down there without him, and he would be trapped up here without her…
At last he could bear it no longer. With only a few more steps to go until he reached the living world, he turned to make sure it really was his wife behind him. Eurydice stretched out her arms to him, pleading with him to save her. Too late! Hades’ laughter echoed all around. Unseen hands carried Eurydice back to the depths of the Underworld and Orpheus was left to return to his own world…alone.