Photo: still shot from clip of Hadestown (0:41)
Orpheus as a Muse
By Maggie Yuan
What do a tragic love story, the Can-Can, and a critique on industrialization have in common? All are rooted in the ancient tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Everybody loves a good love story, and as far as the Greeks were concerned, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice represents a version of true and pure love devoid of any ill intentions. At the core of the story, however, is the importance of divine faith, even over such passion. Because of Orpheus’ failure to listen to gods, the myth ends in tragedy. With themes of love, loss, and persuasion, it is no wonder that the story has been adapted time and time again from ancient antiquity to modern times. Let it be in literary, musical, or artistic portrayals, Orpheus and Eurydice have gone through many variations in their journey to escape the Underworld. While they may not have gotten their happy ending, their love has withstood the test of time, reaching the modern audience in a variety of forms.
The OG: Ovid and Vergil
Though by no means the first version of the myth, Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides a comprehensive review of the story in his distinct poetical style. The story begins at the wedding of musician Orpheus and the nymph Eurydice, where the omens were far from favorable. The son of Apollo and the muse Calliope, Orpheus had musical abilities that were unmatched. His marital celebration turns into a funeral when Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Rather than mourn his wife and accept her death, as is the proper custom, Orpheus channels his grief into a more proactive solution. He travels to the Underworld in search of his wife, playing his lyre to convince Pluto in the hope she would be released. Ovid includes a detailed description of how Orpheus’ music was so touching that it “made the pale phantoms weep” (10.41). Pluto and his wife, Proserpina, promise to release Eurydice on the condition that Orpheus not turn back to look at her until they reach the Earth’s surface.
The story takes its tragic turn when Orpheus, either too impatient to see her, or distrustful that she was truly following him, “looked back in love” (10.57). Eurydice’s shade then returns to the land of the dead. Mourning his wife for the second time, Orpheus travels through the countryside, rejecting every woman he comes across. The Maenads, the followers of Bacchus, stumble upon the grief-stricken musician and tear him apart limb from limb. The tragedy ends on a note of hope; in death Orpheus can reunite with Eurydice at last. No longer is Orpheus forbidden from gazing upon his love, but in the Underworld, he “may, with perfect safety, / Look back for his Eurydice” (11.66-67).
From Virgil’s Georgics, we receive a different version of Eurydice’s death, made all the more tragic by its circumstances. Instead of being bitten while dancing, Eurydice dies by snakebite as she flees from the pursuits of the beekeeper Aristeus. Rather than focusing on Orpheus, however, Virgil chooses to tell the story from the perspective of Aristeus. In an attempt to remedy the famine affecting his land, Aristeus wrestles with Proteus, the old sea god, until he is willing to tell Aristeus why he is cursed. Thus, Proteus launches into the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, whose tragedy may directly be blamed upon Aristeus. From there, the story proceeds through the same events as Ovid’s version, ending in death for both Orpheus and his beloved.
The Opera: Orpheus in the Underworld
Offenbach’s opera Orpheus in the Underworld represents a deviation from the interpretations of the myth that come before it. Premiering in Paris in 1858, the comedic opera takes the original tragic story and transforms it into a satire of sorts. In this version, Orphée (Orpheus) is no longer the premier musician of Greece, but instead is portrayed as a foolish violinist. However, the bigger twist lies in the romance between Orphée and Eurydice, or rather, lack of romance between the two. In fact, Eurydice pines for the very man who led to her death in the original myth: Aristeé (Aristeus). In this version, rather than Aristeé being the cause of her death, Eurydice’s downfall is now orchestrated by Orphée, who lays traps around the meadow in hopes that the lovers Eurydice and Aristeé would step on one. In yet another plot twist, Aristeé turns out to be Pluto, the god of the Underworld himself. Through this revelation, Eurydice now plays a dual role in the opera, serving as a symbol for Proserpina, the wife of Pluto as well as Orphée’s famed lover. Forced by the personified Public Opinion to rescue his wife, Orphée journeys to the heavens, rather than Hades, to plead his case in front of Jupiter. The king of the gods announces that he himself will go to the Underworld to investigate. Once there, fitting the comedic nature of the opera, Jupiter transforms into a fly and successfully seduces Eurydice. Pulling on the original myth, Jupiter, in order to keep Eurydice for himself, strikes a deal with Orphée that Eurydice would only return back to earth if Orphée did not look back. In this version, Orphée’s fatal mistake proves to be accidental, as he only turns around due to Jupiter’s trickery with a lightning bolt. The opera ends did not end happily for Eurydice, who, scorned by all the gods and men that had previously pined for her, is turned into a Bacchant.
Listening to the opera, I could hear from the tone of the singers just how comic the lyrics were. The accent that they sang in reminded me of French cartoons — a high-pitched, bright tone that directly contradicted the tragedy of the original story. Indeed, the only song that I could recognize from the opera was the famous Can-Can theme, which was popularized by Offenbach. After reading the English translation of the lyrics, I realized just how much the opera twists the original story. Its transformation from a tragedy to comedy provides Offenbach the ideal platform to ridicule the politics and society of his own era. The gods, far from being represented in their glamorous classical form, are ridiculed at levels that not even Ovid would stoop to. In fact, through the gods, Offenbach rendered the French dictatorship and the bourgeoisie in an unflattering light — their blasé, corrupt actions mirrored that of French society. Yet, by placing such heavy criticism within a comedic opera, Offenbach could shield himself from some condemnation.
The Musical: Hadestown
One of the more recent adaptations of the myth, the musical Hadestown debuted on Broadway in March of 2019. Prior to its on stage debut, Hadestown was a concept album released by folk artist Anais Mitchell. Hadestown tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice through the context of an industrializing society wrought with famine. Orpheus, a poor musician, woos Eurydice with a song that he says will bring back spring. Though hesitant to believe him, Eurydice eventually falls in love with him. The two live in perpetual hunger, as Orpheus remains a penniless musician, relying on nothing but their love for each other. Enter Hades, the wealthy boss of the underground factory Hadestown, who promises Eurydice a secure life free from hunger. Enticed by this offer, Eurydice signs a contract with Hades, trapping her to work forever in his factory and doomed to be forgotten by all. Orpheus, upon hearing this news, descends to Hadestown to rescue his beloved. The story closely follows the original myth, where Hades offers Orpheus a deal in which he cannot look back, but Orpheus is overcome with doubt and turns around, leading Eurydice to remain forever in Hadestown.
Upon first listen, the word that struck me as the most fitting was “soulful.” Through its masterful lyrics and haunting melodies, the musical goes well beyond the realm of entertainment and transforms the myth into a story that modern audiences can relate to. Hadestown goes well beyond the source material, taking great pains to develop the characters of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this retelling, Eurydice exercises her own autonomy, making the decision herself to go down to Hadestown. Perhaps more interestingly, the messenger god Hermes plays an important role in the musical. As the adoptive father of Orpheus, Hermes supports Orpheus’ endeavors while simultaneously acting as the narrator for the audience. The three Fates also act as narrators of sorts, sowing the seeds of doubt into Eurydice that lead her to accept Hades’ deal. The story is also laden with criticism of modern society. The Fates and Hades represent the temptations of wealth, while Hadestown represents the repetitive and confining nature of industrial labor. Interestingly, Hades was a symbol for wealth in Classical times, making this depiction especially fitting. By retaining that aspect of Hades, Mitchell crafts a brilliant representation of modern society wrapped up in the symbolism of antiquity.
As Classical mythology travels through time, it is crafted to fit the political and moral sentiments of the era in order to provoke a reaction from its modern audiences. Greco-Roman mythology, though no longer believed in the capacity that it was during antiquity, still serves an important role in art through its ability to provide commentary on modern society. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice, through all its many adaptations, highlights the pervasive influence of the Classics within our world today. No longer is Orpheus the impassive musician simply playing a role in his own story, but now he is reimagined as a Muse himself, providing inspiration for future generations of creators.
Maggie Yuan (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and International Relations.