Don’t Look Back: Orpheus and Eurydice

Imagine this: you are a poet, a singer, and a harpist. Perhaps your father was a Thracian king; perhaps he was Olympian God Apollo Himself, either way, your mother was Calliope, chief among the Muses; Your name is Orpheus, and your artistic gifts border on the magical.

If I had the eloquence of Orpheus, my father, to move the rocks by chanted spells to follow me, or to charm by speaking anyone I wished, I would have resorted to it.

Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis

Orpheus once playing the lyre drew together trees by his songs, drew together the beasts of the fields.

Euripides, Bacchae.

This is why Jason invited you to join his crew on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.

But that’s a different story.


When your wife dies on your wedding night (probably from a snake bite, though there are various accounts), you do the only thing you can:

You brave the Underworld to find her.

Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, Ary Scheffer (1814)

Upon arriving, you find Hades, and his consort Persephone.

You play them a lament, a plea, a song of heartbreak and loss that moves them both.

Eurydice, they decide, will be set free…

on One Condition:

She has to follow you back to the Upper-world, and you can’t look back.

Got it?

You Can’t. Look. Back.


Even if you’re not familiar with story of Orpheus and Eurydice, you can probably guess what happens next.

Yup, as soon as he crosses the threshold, right before she can return to the world of the living, Orpheus turns around.

*Poof* and Eurydice evaporates away.

Orpheus glances back at Eurydice, oil painting -Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein Stub (1806)

The story doesn’t get any better for poor Orpheus. Suffice it to say, but his fate – which ends with his head floating down the river (still singing a harrowing melody as it bobbed along) – is another story.

I want to get to the point of this myth. What were these ancient bards trying to tell us?

What’s the takeaway?


Looking back is one of our most natural human characteristics, whether we are looking back in fear, jealousy, rage, distrust or hope.

Looking forward requires trust.

I think – and this is just conjecture – that Orpheus’ undoing was his lack of trust.

Maybe that inability to trust rides companion with ego, even if that ego feels justified, as it would in the case of a genius like Orpheus.

Once again, this is just conjecture.

Here’s the real question:

Given Orpheus dies at the end, do you think Eurydice forgives him in the Underworld? Just pondering…

Orpheus and Eurydice, Edward Poynter (1862). Poynter painted several mythic themes, including The Siren, The Cave of the Storm Nymphs, and Psyche in the Temple of Love.

Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis. E. P. Coleridge, Ed.
Euripides, Bacchae. T. A. Buckley, Ed.
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca.

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