Why Music is Key in the Greek Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus is often hailed as one of the world’s first musicians in Greek mythology (whether or not he actually existed is a different story). For those unfamiliar with his story, Orpheus was told to be the king of Thrace and the son of Muse. He was given his first lyre by the god Apollo, and learned to create music so beautiful and entrancing that animals and women naturally flocked to be in his presence.

At a young age, Orpheus married Eurydice, one of Apollo’s daughters. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice was bitten by a snake and killed; her soul went down to the land of the dead, the Underworld, controlled by the god Hades. Orpheus, beside himself with grief, ventured after Eurydice. Playing a beautiful and deeply emotional melody from his lyre, Orpheus convinced Hades to allow Eurydice to venture back to the world of the living. He sent one condition, however: Orpheus and Eurydice were not allowed to look back during their journey out of the Underworld. They agreed, and began their ascent. As soon as Orpheus made it out of the land of the dead, he eagerly looked back to see his wife, who promptly vanished.

Interestingly enough, the story of Orpheus is not the only one of it’s kind. The story line is nearly identical to a myth told by the Tachi Yokut, a Native American tribe. The myth is called either “The Visit to the Dead” or “The Man’s Wife”, and follows the journey of a man who’s wife suddenly dies (some versions of the story say that the man accidentally killed her). The man was so distraught at her death that he stayed by her grave for several days, unable to eat or sleep. After two nights of this, the man sees his wife’s soul emerge from the grave and began traveling towards the “island of the dead”. He follows her on her journey, and when they reach the island, he convinces the Chief of the dead to allow him to stay with his wife. He stays for several days, but does not fit in with the dead souls around him. The version of the story told by Theodora Kroeber in her book “The Inland Whale” then says the Chief allows the man to bring his wife back to the land of the living under the condition that they will not have sexual intercourse for ten days. Both the man and his wife agree, but one night on the journey home, the man is overcome by his desires and makes love to his wife. The next morning, he awakes to find that she has disappeared, her soul returned to the island of the dead. 

The two stories clearly share many similarities. The both have a common theme of avoiding temptation and send the message that we are better off accepting the way things are supposed to be rather than fighting natural occurrences. The distinct separation between the myth of Orpheus and the Tachi Yokut’s story comes from the element of music. The man in “The Visit to the Dead” is portrayed as somewhat pathetic; he is so broken up over his wife’s death that he waits by her grave, unable to live his life without her. Orpheus, on the other hand, is portrayed in a more heroic light. His valiant efforts to save his wife from the Underworld and his ability to woo anyone (even Gods) with his music makes the reader naturally more attracted to his story over the man in “The Visit to the Dead”. It is easier to root for Orpheus and Eurydice because of Orpheus’ musical ability and talent with his lyre. The element of music is seemingly subtle, but completely changes the overall feel of this ancient story.

If you are interested in reading more about the myth of Orpheus, here is a great informational page: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Orpheus-Greek-mythology

And if you would like to read more about Native American legends, this page has 1400 different tales from different tribes: http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/Legends-AB.html

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