Orpheus and Eurydice in Art

“‘Where does our story take place, and when?’ asked Cocteau at the start of Orphée. ‘It’s the privilege of legends to be ageless. Comme il vous plaira. As you please.” Ann Wroe, Orpheus: The Song of Life

(Painting : Edward John Poynter, Orpheus and Eurydice)

In the upcoming weeks, I will be studying the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Art (poetry, literature, painting and music). Here is a collage of excerpts from different articles I found around this theme, serving as a the first building blocks of this exploration.

The Myth

(Text taken from Wikipedia.)

Apollo gave his son Orpheus a lyre and taught him how to play. It had been said that “nothing could resist Orpheus’s beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts.” Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of beauty and grace, whom he married and lived with happily for a short time. However, when Hymen was called to bless the marriage, he predicted that their perfection was not meant to last.

A short time after this prophecy, Eurydice was wandering in the forest with the Nymphs. In some versions of the story, the shepherd Aristaeus saw her, and beguiled by her beauty, made advances towards her and began to chase her. Other versions of the story relate that Eurydice was merely dancing with the Nymphs. While fleeing or dancing, she was bitten by a snake and died instantly. Orpheus sung his grief with his lyre and managed to move everything, living or not, in the world; both humans and gods learnt about his sorrow and grief.

At some point, Orpheus decided to descend to Hades to see his wife. Any other mortal would have died, but Orpheus, being protected by the gods, went to Hades and arrived at the Stygian realm, passing by ghosts and souls of people unknown. He also managed to attract Cerberus, the three-headed dog, with a liking for his music. He presented himself in front of the god of the Greek underworld, Hades and his wife, Persephone.

Orpheus played his lyre, attracting Hades. Hades told Orpheus that he could take Eurydice back with him but under one condition: she would have to follow behind him while walking out from the caves of the underworld, and he could not turn to look at her as they walked.

Thinking it a simple task for a patient man like himself, Orpheus was delighted; he thanked the gods and left to ascend back into the living world. Unable to hear Eurydice’s footsteps, however, he began to fear the gods had fooled him. Eurydice might have been behind him, but as a shade, having to come back into the light to become a full woman again. Only a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus lost his faith and turned to see Eurydice behind him, sending her back to be trapped with Hades forever.

Orpheus tried to return to the underworld but was unable to, possibly because a person cannot enter the realm of Hades twice while alive. According to various versions of the myth, he played a mourning song with his lyre, calling for death so that he could be united with Eurydice forever. He was killed either by beasts tearing him apart, or by the Maenads, in a frenzied mood. His head remained fully intact, but still sang as it floated in the water before washing up on the island of Lesbos. According to another version, Zeus decided to strike him with lightning knowing Orpheus might reveal the secrets of the underworld to humans. In this telling, the Muses decided to save his head and keep it among the living people to sing forever, enchanting everyone with his melodies. They additionally cast his lyre into the sky as a constellation.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope – Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx
The myth in Art

THE MYTH of Orpheus and Eurydice has always been one of the most popular of the classic myths. Virgil’s fourth Georgic first immortalized it. In later ages it became a moral lesson, in Boethius, and a romance, in the Middle English poem Sir Orfeo. In the Renaissance it provided the subject for the first secular drama in a modern language, Politian’s Orfeo. Later it became a sort of blueprint for operatic composition, in the experiments of the Florentine Camerata and the monumental operas of Monteverdi and Gluck. Among the German Romanticists the myth symbolized the poet’s attempt to penetrate the mysteries of deaths -a tradition which was inherited by Rainer Maria Rilke and many modern symbolist poets in France, England and America. The meaning Orpheus and Eurydice have for the men of any age is largely conditioned by the way in which that age uses myth. The myths of primitive peoples are often re-classified as myth proper (an explanation of natural phenomena), legend (the forerunner of history) and folklore (a purely imaginative narration). It is extremely difficult, however, to categorize Greek myths along these lines, as many of them partake of the nature of myth, legend and folklore at one and the same time. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is certainly one of these. It has been assigned a number of mythical origins because of its possible connection with the Orphic mysteries, and because it fits well into the general class of underworld descent-myths which express the conflict of day and night, of summer and winter, of life and death. It was treated, even in ancient times, as legend because its hero was one of the legendary founders of Greek civilization. It can safely be classed as folklore because the climax of its action -the backward look – is a part of the folklore of the world. Thus the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice meant at least three things to the ancient world: it symbolized the eternal struggle of elemental forces; it recounted the legendary power of a great civilizer: it told a tragic love story. Each level of myth had something to contribute to the richness of the resulting whole. And as the story continued to appear in literature, part myth, part legend, part folklore, it came to grips with three subjects: the mystery of life and death and rebirth; the all-compelling power of poetry and song; the tragic destruction of love and beauty when human emotion is not properly controlled. Source

Frederic Leighton; Orpheus and Eurydice

“Perhaps he makes a choice. He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.”

Céline Sciamma

Over the centuries, the Orpheus myth has been crucial to the definition of the artist in society. Artists of our own time have recognized both the affirmation of the creative spirit and the fatal vulnerability of their own place in society that the Orpheus myth symbolizes. Their perceptions have been manifested in a great variety of expressive means. From the optimistic illustrations by Raoul Dufy for Apollinaire’s Bestiaire to the anguishing torture depicted by André Masson and Mark di Suvero, artists have responded to the deep emotional resonance of the Orpheus myth. Source

“Eurydice, forgive the Winds, forgive the Sun, forgive the Moon, forgive the Stars, forgive the Rain, for never loving you as I will.” 

― Michan Bakhuis, Lament to Eurydice

Even in its earliest known versions, the Orpheus myth encompasses nearly half a dozen archetypically potent situations, and the range of its associations swells with each generation’s retellings. In his most positively suggestive roles, Orpheus is celebrated as the mystical priest, founder and patron of the Orphic cult; the consummate poet, whose song can charm trees, stones, and even the dark denizens of the Underworld; and the great romantic hero whose love transcends and, briefly, conquers death. On a less triumphant note, however, he is also remembered as the overambitious quester whose failure to rescue Eurydice has come to symbolize the futility of trying to outwit death. As the dismembered victim of jealous Maenads, he represents, even more ambivalently, both the imperfect mortal whose song has failed to charm and the deathless poet whose music issues even from the lips of his decapitated head. In this final manifestation he becomes, like his Egyptian counterpart Osiris, a physically incoherent being who yet retains all the integrity of identity–thus enacting, as twentieth-century writers as diverse as Cocteau, Anouilh, Rilke, and Blanchot have recognized, the situation, anguished yet articulate, of the modern poet. To a poetic generation frantically scrambling to shore fragments of meaning against its spiritual ruins, Orpheus guarantees, in Walter Strauss’s analysis, “the possibility of reassembling the shattered fragments” of the fractured self. Source

Orpheus embodies both the powers of art and the limitations of art- both the possibility of conquering death and the futility of the attempt. It is the very ambivalence of the myth he inhabits that accounts for its tremendous potency. As intercessor between life and death, between humanity and the gods, between “the radiant solar enlightenment of Apollo and the somber subterranean knowledge of Dionysus,”* Orpheus is the ultimate go-between, the fallible hero who nonetheless attempts to fuse irreconcilable opposites and to bridge the gap between the possible and the forbidden. His characteristic moment, symbolizing both his success and all his failures, is located in his turn, his enigmatic backward glance at Eurydice: the gesture by which he attempts, and necessarily fails, to embrace the world of light and the world of darkness in a single all-encompassing regard. Source

From Eurydice’s point of view, of course, Orpheus’ turn, however admirable and ambitious its motivations, has an unambiguously unpleasant result: she is packed off to the Underworld, refused the chance at life that moments before had been so tantalizingly dangled before her. Bearing none of Orpheus’ symbolic baggage, defined and manipulated by his powerful gaze, Eurydice is, comparatively speaking, a mythological nobody. Her only obvious archetypal significance resides in a negative role: that of woman-as-Other, woman-as-death, woman as the *dark continent” that Freud found both so threatening and so irresistible. If, as many scholars believe, the Orpheus/Eurydice myth originally ended with Orpheus’ successful completion of his mission, then Eurydice must at one time have personified, like Persephone, rebirth and regeneration: the successful passage from winter into spring and from death into life.* But by the time she finds her way into Virgil’s Georgics and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the earliest recorded versions of the myth,- Eurydice has already been demoted from a death-defying figure of fertility to an impotent pawn of the powers-that-be, forever relegated-except in such happy-ending revisions of the tale as the operas by Peri, Monteverdi, and Gluck- to the underground realm of darkness and death.Source

George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice

If, for many readers, Eurydice’s fate may seem frustrating and unfair, for others it has provided the very secret of her appeal. Rainer Maria Rilke saw Eurydice as the embodiment of feminine mystery, possessing powers of self-fulfillment inaccessible even to her archetypal poet-husband; while Maurice Blanchot, in his 1944 essay “Le Regard d’Orphée,” takes the level of abstraction even further by identifying Eurydice not as a flesh-and-blood woman, not even as an archetypically representative one, but rather as the nocturnal center at the core of all artistic endeavor: “Eurydice is the greatest extreme that art can attain, she is, beneath a name that conceals her and a veil that covers her, the profoundly obscure point toward which art, desire, death, and night seem to strain. Yet as long as Orpheus leaves Eurydice behind in the Underworld, the Orpheus/Eurydice myth must be understood not only as a fable of artistic ambition but also as an account -as Klaus Theweleit has noted in an essay on Gottfried Benn’s Orphic pretensions- of deep-seated gender conflict. Writers like Rilke, Benn, and especially Blanchot, reducing Eurydice first to “the eternal feminine, then to a silent Other, and finally to a core of unattainable darkness, only take to its logical extreme a process of abstraction already thousands of years old. Their accounts mask the complex emotional dynamics of the story, replaying, in fact, the very terms of the conflict by doing so; Orpheus’ transformation into the paradigmatic modern poet takes place only, so to speak, over Eurydice’s dead body.Source


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