ORPHEUS ET EURYDICE
Virgil, Georgics, IV.464-527
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Listen to the Poem
A wonderful reading of Virgil's Orpheus et Eurydice. The recital is of lines 1-50 of the Anthology selection, i.e. lines 464-513 of Georgics IV.
Orpheus plays his lyre while singing songs or reciting poetry. Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, about 450 BC. Attributed to the Orpheus Painter; in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
The scene of Orpheus taming wild animals with music was very well known in the imperial Roman world. It visually expressed the Roman cultural idea that the Arts (music, literature etc) were an important part in bringing civilisation to barbarous parts of the world.
This mosaic, dating to c. AD 175, originated around the ancient Antioch area (now Antakya in Turkey) and is an especially distinguished example of the painterly tradition in mosaics. Now in the Dallas Museum of Art, USA.
Mosaic floor with Orpheus charming the aniamls with his lyre.
In Palermo Archaeolgical Museum, Sicily.
Sculpture in relief showing Hermes (Mercury) on left waiting to escort Eurydice down to the Underworld as soon as she's said her farewell to Orpheus (with lyre).
Roman copy of a 5th-cent.BC Greek original, the earliest representation of Orpheus and Eurydice. This version, one of several, is in Naples Archaeolgical Museum.
Women with rocks and a spit attack Orpheus who tries to defend himself with his lyre.
Vase by Hermonax, c.460 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris.
"...and just because I wouldn't marry any of you!"
Click Image 2 to see the reverse of this bell-krater by the Curti Painter, c.440 BC; in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Boston, USA.
Orpheus' severed head, still singing, was washed up on the shores of the island of Lesbos. The islanders built a temple over the buried head which became famous for its prophecies
Greek vase, c.440, now in the Antikenmuseum in Basel, Switzerland: a local of Lesbos retrieves Orpheus' head while Orpheus' mother, Calliope, leans forward on her lyre.
This picture of O & E was painted in 1869 by the English Victorian artist George Frederick Watts. He painted eight different versions of this subject; this one features on p.1 of the Cambridge Latin Anthology.
In Aberdeen Art Gallery, UK.
"Now remember, Orpheus dear, don't look back..."
Orpheus und Eurydike (1810) by Friedrich Rehberg in Munchen Residenz, 40.
"ooops...sorry honey...I looked back!" Evocative painting of 1806 by G. Kratzenstein-Stub; in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark.
"Sorry Orpheus - no more second-chances!"
Despite the warnings, Orpheus looks back at Eurydice during his rescue of her from the Underworld, thus losing her forever. Hermes (Roman Mercury), acting as the Guide of Dead Souls, restrains him from going back down to Hades.
Painted in 1994 by Elsie Russell.
"I'll see you later then..." Drawing by Adam Shaw, 2005.
Small ivory statuette depicting the moment after Eurydice has been bitten on the foot by the snake and, in her last moments before death, gazes lovingly at Orpheus.
Made in 1716 by J.L.Baur; in the V&A Museum, London.
"I can't believe I looked back!"
By the famed Italian neo-classical sculptor, Antonio Canova, 1775. In Museo Correr, Venice.
The nymph slipping away after being bitten by the snake. By Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-90), an Austrian, and a favourite sculptor of Queen Victoria.
In the V&A Museum, London.
In their ecstatic revelry, maenads (followers of the god Bacchus/Dionysos) fall upon Orpheus for his rejection of other women after the death of his beloved Eurydice.
By 19th-century French artist Emile Levy; private collection.
"Prophetic Head and Lyre of Orpheus", 1866, in the Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
Moreau's poetic yet haunting imagination was naturally drawn to the myth of Orpheus, whose violent death exemplified woman's destructive power over man - a recurring theme with French Symbolist painters.
"Head of Orpheus", c.1905, by French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon. In Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
English Translations and Latin Texts
The Cambridge Latin Anthology's selection Orpheus et Eurydice is one short story embedded in a long poem on farming by the Roman poet Virgil. Although written in Latin, Virgil gave his poem the title Georgicon, Greek for "agriculture", but it is better known in English as the Georgics.
(Incidentally the name George means "farmer").
The Anthology selection corresponds to Georgics, Book IV, lines 464-527.
A free-flowing, modern poetic translation of Orpheus et Eurydice. The CLA extract begins at line 464 ("Orpheus, consoling love's anguish, with his hollow lyre").
Read the whole, wonderful poem online here in a modern translation by A.S.Kline.
Admired and imitated, the Georgics is one of the supreme achievements of Latin poetry. This is a great little book!
The whole of the The Georgics online.
is written in a poetic form or "meter" known as dactylic hexameter
Find out more about the forms of Roman poetry in the section LATIN POETRY: Meters, Rhythms & Scansion
on the Verse Authors
NOTES & ANALYSIS
The simplest lyre had a tortoise-shell sounding-box and wooden or horn "arms"; the number of strings varied from 2 to 7.
This reconstruction is in the British Museum.
There are more links and information about the various types of lyres on this webpage
The Greek and Roman Underworld was the subterranean land of the dead, ruled by the god Hades and his queen Persephone (more commonly known as Pluto and Proserpina to the Romans). It was conceived as a chill and sunless place, watered by five rivers, the River Styx being the most famous. Hermes (Mercury) escorted the dead souls down to the boundary of the Underworld: the River Styx or the River Acheron. If they had received a proper burial, the aged ferryman Charon carried them across the waters in his boat, charging a fee for his trouble. The gates were guarded by the fearsome watchdog Cerberus. The souls lived a shadowy existence on the plain of Asphodel.
According to later writers, Elysium was a part of Hades where a few of the blessed mortals, through the favour of the gods, lived an afterlife of blessed ease. The place of punishment for wrongdoers was Tartarus and also sometimes thought to be part of Hades.
Entrances to the Underworld included Taenarum in southern Greece and Lake Avernus near Naples in Italy.
Taken from the excellent Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Jenny March.
Lord of the Dead and King of the Underworld - a dark and sinister god - was known to the Greeks as Hades (possibly meaning the "Invisible" or "Dark One") as well as Pluto, meaning the "Rich One", referring to all the riches (crops, metals etc) that come from underground.
The Romans too used the name Pluto as well as Dis which in Latin was short for dives again meaning "rich".
Erebus (meaning "darkness") was a part of the Underworld; the Romans also gave this name to Pluto.
The Romans also called Pluto, as well as the Underworld itself, Orcus, deriving from the word arca, "prison".
This painting, c.1570, by Christoph Schwartz, depicts the moment Hades abducts or "rapes" Persephone (Roman Proserpina) and carries her away in his chariot pulled by four black horses while the Sicilian water-nymph Cyane vainly implores him to stop. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
Brief descriptions of the five main rivers of the Underworld.
The deepest and gloomiest part of Hades was the dungeon of torment and suffering. While almost all the dead were said to go to Hades, the gods cast defeated gods and the very worst mortal sinners into Tartarus for endless punishment. Virgil's description of Tartarus in the Aeneid influenced later Christian ideas of Hell.
This painting by Cornelis van Haarlem, 1588, depicts the Titans being flung into Tartarus after their defeat by Zeus and the other Olympian gods. In the National Art Gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Based on the descriptions of the ancient authors, this map shows the main rivers draining into Lake Acheron over which dead souls must pass, and other important areas. Remember though, that there was never any established consensus of how the Underworld looked, just as today different people have different ideas of heaven and hell.
The map also features Odysseus' and Aeneas' routes into the Underworld.
So what happens when you die? Here's a good description of the main Greek and Roman beliefs of the journey to the Underworld.
Detailed website, peppered with ancient quotations, on Greek and (Greek-inspired) Roman ideas of the Underworld and the Afterlife. Includes sections on the Underworld, its rivers, Tartarus and Elysium.
The dwelling place of a few priviliged mortals after death, where through the favour of the gods they lived forever in blissful ease. Elysium is first mentioned by the Greek poet Homer in Odyssey IV.561-8 as being near the stream of Ocean at the ends of the earth, and never sees snow or rain. Hesiod calls this happy place "The Isles of the Blessed". Later writers, including the influential Roman poet Virgil, make Elysium a particular area of Hades (the "Underworld") set apart from the dreary areas inhabited by the souls of ordinary mortals.
Aside from location, the chief point of difference between Homer's Elysium and Virgil's is that Virgil's paradise is not only open to those of divine descent but to all those whose merits qualify them; Virgil also regards Elysium as a "holding area" before the worthy souls are reborn.
As for the image this link takes you to... it's the Elysium Plain on Mars, rendered by Kees Veenenbos.
Also known as the Furies or Dirae, these "Kindly Ones" (!) were the goddesses of retribution who exacted punishment, on living and dead souls, for murder and other serious crimes. In art they are usually depicted as winged, their hair entwined with snakes, and carrying torches and scourges.
Their names, when in course of time their number had come to be fixed as three, were Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone.
In this dramatic 1862 painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau, "Orestes pursued by the Furies", Orestes is immediately hounded and driven mad by the avenging Furies for taking the life of his own mother, Clytemnestra. In the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, Virginia, USA.
Learn more about the monstrous dog who guarded the entrance to the Underworld.
And this extra link takes you to loads of ancient references
Modern computer image of Cerberus; and here's an ancient image
from a Greek vase from Cervetri in Italy dating to c.530 BC; now in the Louvre, Paris.
The story of Ixion, the first human to kill a relative.
The three great sinners of Classical myth who were cast into Tartarus. This Roman relief was part of a stone coffin or sarcophagus; now in the Vatican Museums and also depicted on p.96 of CLC Bk I.
You're hungry and thirsty... and you're forever tantalised by food and water just out of reach! Bit of a downer, eh? This guy had to suffer that...
The "original rock and roller"...
And this digital image
by American photographer Gerald Bybee rocks!
Proserpina, known as Persephone to the Greeks and better known in English as Proserpine, was Queen of the Underworld.
There are images within this detailed, hyperlinked biography, but check out this terrific painting, "The Abduction of Proserpine"
, painted c.1570 by German artist Christoph Schwartz, showing Hades/Pluto in his chariot riding away with a distraught Proserpina while the Sicilian water-nymph Cyane vainly implores the god of the Underworld to stop. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.
Here's Proserpina, reconciled to being Hades' wife and Queen of the Underworld
, looking a lot happier while listening to Orpheus play music; painted c.1650 by Francois Perrier, and now in the Louvre.
The aged ferryman of Hades who carried dead souls in his boat. This entry from Wikipedia details why sometimes he ferries across the River Styx and sometimes across the River Acheron.
Greek pot used for funeral ceremonies, c.450 BC, showing Charon and the god Hermes who led the souls down to the ferryman; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
This English Pre-Raphaelite painting
depicts Charon taking his payment from the mouth of Psyche; by J.R.S.Stanhope, c.1873, private collection.
Here's a haunting illustration
by Troy Howell, and finally...
a modern cgi 1
and cgi 2
Good article about this famous volcanic-crater lake near Naples in Italy that was considered one of the entrances to the Underworld. Here's a sunny photo
of this once terrifying spot.
Adjective derived from Styx, the river; hence also meaning dark and gloomy.
The Strymon River is in Thrace in northern Greece. It flows into the Aegean Sea at Amphipolis. Another view
A mystical, magical land in the far north of the world peopled by the Hyperboreans. In some tales, the sun never stopped shining, reflecting the reality of summers towards the North Pole. Its Greek name means "Beyond the North Wind".
Information, maps and photos of the the River Tanais, now known as the River Don, which rises near Moscow in Russia and flows into the Black Sea. The river was usually regarded as being the boundary between Europe and Asia.
An imaginary mountain range, thought of as being the northernmost mountains of the world and from where the north wind blew - hence their name meaning "gusty" in Greek). On their northern side were thought to live the Hyperboreans (see separate link).
Different authors placed them in different areas, and they were "moved" further and further north as geographical knowledge increased. The Romano-Greek geographer Ptolemy (c.85-165AD)located them on his map
in the imprecise area of the modern Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
The Cicones or Ciconians were a real tribe who lived in the south-west of Thrace in Greece. The painting in the main link is by the 19th-century French artist Emile Levy; private collection.
Here's a Greek vase from c.470 showing the death of Orpheus
One of the best, short webpages on the god Bacchus, also known as Dionysus.
Learn more about the painting, "Bacchus and Ariadne" by Titian - one of the most famous paintings in the world.
The female followers of Bacchus were known as Bacchants or Maenads (meaning "Frenzied Women"). Dressed in animal skins, they carried a magical "wand" known as a thysus
. This wonderful image of a maenad is from the inside of a Greek cup by the Brygos Painter, c.490 BC.
Their ecstatic revelries could turn into murderous frenzies
as Orpheus - and here Pentheus - discovered; Greek cup, c.480 BC attirbuted to Douris and in the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Here's a lengthier description of Bacchants or Maenads
For depictions of the Death of Orpheus, see Images section above.
The father of Orpheus and King of Thrace. In the absence of his image, here's the next best thing: a painting of Orpheus' mother - the muse Calliope.
By Raphael, 1509-10, in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.
The River Hebrus (Evros in modern Greek) flows through the eastern part of ancient Trace into the northern Aegean. Its location
means that today it forms part of the modern border between Greece and Turkey.
Orpheus' severed head, still singing, was carried down the Hebrus into the Aegean and washed up on the shores of the island of Lesbos. The locals buried it and set up an oracular shrine over it, that became famous for its prophecies. The Muses gathered up the other pieces of his body and buried them in Pieria, where the nightingale was said to sing more sweetly than anywhere else in Greece.
The image is from a Greek vase, c.440, now in the Antikenmuseum in Basel, Switzerland: a man retrieves Orpheus' head from a beach on Lesbos while Orpheus' mother, Calliope, leans forward on her lyre.
Orpheus and Eurydice: other versions & parallel tales
The first reference in ancient myth to Orpheus and Eurydice is in the Greek play Alcestis, written in 438 BC, by Euripides.
In lines 357-62, Admetus mourns his dying wife, Alcestis, saying:
"Ah! If I had the tongue and song of Orpheus so that I might charm Demeter's Daughter or her Lord, and snatch you back from Hades, would go down to hell; and neither Pluto's dog nor Charon, Leader of the Dead, should hinder me until I had brought your life back to the light!"
In a parallel with Eurydice, Alcestis is also brought back from the Underworld.
A well-known "modern" painting of this myth by Cezanne; in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.
English translation of this Roman poet's version in his Metamorphoses Book X.
This 1762 Italian opera proved revolutionary for opera.
And here's a sample of the most famous bit of the opera, the aria "Che faro senza Euridice?"
- "How can I live without my Eurydice?" as sung by Luciano Pavarotti.
In another version, it is sung by Janet Baker. This clip
is taken from a performance of the opera; note the emotion of Orpheus in the way he embraces the lifeless Eurydice.
Brief account of the Japanese sky-god Izagani who went to the underworld to try and retrieve his dead wife Izanami.
The legend of Orpheus isn't just about his loss of Eurydice. His poetic powers, his expedition with the Argonauts and his tragic death were subjects for classical and post-classical arts.
In his 1590's play The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Act III.ii.78-81) Shakespeare muses:
For Orpheus' lute was strung with poets' sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.