This painting, by the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (c. 1829-1880), was inspired by the sad and tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The instrument-wielding man on the left is Orpheus, a superstar musician of ancient Greek mythology who had the power to entrance everything in creation (animate and inanimate, mortal and divine) whenever he chose to play and sing. Following behind Orpheus is Eurydice—a nymph who fell in love with the legendary musician. As Orpheus reciprocated her love, the two decided to become married. Yet, before they could live happily ever after, tragedy unfairly struck their love story. On or around their wedding day, Eurydice was heartbreakingly bitten by a venomous snake and she died from the wound. Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, described this mythical death scene:
“The outcome was even worse than foreshadowed: the newly-wed bride,
while taking a stroll through the grass with her band of attendant naiads,
suddenly fell down dead with the fangs of a snake in her ankle.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.8-10)
This sad event, no matter how tragic it was on its own, was actually just the prelude to a much more elaborate myth—which happens to be the myth depicted above in Anselm Feuerbach’s painting. It is the story of Orpheus journeying into the underworld in an attempt to bring Eurydice back from the dead. A concise summery of the myth was recorded by a scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), who wrote:
“[Calliope, the muse of poetry, bore] Orpheus, who practised the art of singing to the lyre, and set rocks and trees in motion by his singing. When his wife, Eurydice, died from a snake-bite, he went down to Hades in the hope of bringing her up, and persuaded Pluto to send her back to earth. Pluto promised to do so, provided that on the way up Orpheus never looked round until he had arrived back at his house. But Orpheus failed to obey him, and turning round, he caught sight of his wife, and she had to return below” (Apollodorus, Library, I.3.2).
Such, then, is the myth that inspired Anselm Feuerbach’s painting. In the artwork, Orpheus can be seen leading Eurydice out of the darkness, guiding her toward the glimmer of light. Yet, as the quote above conveyed, Orpheus tragically broke his deal with the god of the dead. Orpheus, sadly, could not stop himself from taking a peek to make sure that Eurydice was following him out of the underworld. She, indeed, was right behind him, but as soon as Orpheus broke the rules by taking an early glimpse, he had to traumatically watch Eurydice be dragged back to the realm of the dead. After losing his wife for this second time, Orpheus withdrew into depressed seclusion, seemingly shunning all contact with anything besides the flora and fauna of nature.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.