Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Orpheus’s Descent to Hades

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Jul 1st, 2009

In numerous articles on this site, we have discussed how non-narrative works of art can recall a myth to mind and prolong a viewer’s acquaintance with that myth. (Take a look at the Myth Beyond Words topic for a list of such articles.) It is fascinating to consider how this might work if the artist knew a different version of the story than the viewer. In this regard, I would like to consider a work of sculpture from the late fifth century BCE. Three copies of this sculpture survive; the best preserved copy is in the National Museum of Naples, while the others can be found in Paris (the Louvre) and in Rome (Villa Albini). The one in Naples has three names carved into it, identifying the characters: Hermes, Eurydice, and Orpheus. These names are probably not original, but they appear to be ancient additions.

Relief Representing Hermes, Eurydice, and Orpheus. Naples.
Relief Representing Hermes, Eurydice, and
Orpheus. Circa 500-400 BCE. Source »

Orpheus’s failed attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld is one of the most popular and moving stories to survive from ancient Greece and Rome. The oldest extant written version of the story is found in Virgil’s Georgics (29 BCE), around four hundred years after the sculpture at Naples was created. In Virgil, Orpheus descends to the underworld and persuades the gods with songs on his lyre. They allow Eurydice to return with him on one condition: he must lead her out of the underworld without looking back himself. At the last moment, as they were nearing the light of day, he looked back — and lost her forever.

Those familiar with this version of the story often identify the scene in the sculpture at Naples with the moment Orpheus turned back. Let’s briefly look at two examples among many occurrences of this, one from an academic and one from a poet. First, archaeology professor Frank Bigelow Tarbell in his A History of Greek Art (1910) writes:

Tenderly, sadly, [Orpheus and Eurydice] look their last at one another, while Hermes, guide of departed spirits, makes gentle signal for the wife’s return. In the chastened pathos of this scene we have the quintessence of the temper of Greek art in dealing with the fact of death. (Tarbell 205)

Second, many authors, artists, and poets have created works drawing on the myth of Orpheus over the centuries. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) provides possibly the most extensive work of this kind in the twentieth century (Segal 118). Rilke most likely saw all three of these sculptures during his lifetime (Freedman 207), and his poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” (1904) was probably inspired by viewing the one in Naples (Strauss 172):

[…] If only he might
turn once more (if looking back
were not the ruin of all his work) […]
the quiet pair, mutely following him:
the god of errands and far messages, […]
the beating wings at his ankle joints;
and on his left hand, as entrusted: her

[…] suddenly
the god stopped her and, with anguish in his cry,
uttered the words: ‘He has turned round’ […]

For Tarbell, Rilke, and countless others, viewing this sculpture recalled to their minds the myth of Orpheus’s failure to return from Hades with Eurydice to which they had already been introduced. But looking back through what little evidence we have about the myth of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld, it is not at all clear that Orpheus failed in the version of the myth in existence at the time the sculpture was created. Euripides’s play Alcestis (438 BCE), written around the same time that the sculpture at Naples was created, contains the oldest surviving literary evidence concerning the outcome of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld. Admetus makes a passing reference to Orpheus when talking about his own love for his recently-deceased wife Alcestis:

Had I the lips of Orpheus and his melody
to charm the maiden daughter of Demeter and
her lord, and by my singing win you back from death,
I would have gone beneath the earth […]
[…] I would have brought you back
to life. (357f.)

This play does not explicitly state that Orpheus successfully brought his wife back to life: it merely states that Orpheus’s song charmed the gods of the underworld. It does not even mention that he descended to the underworld in order to rescue a woman. Even so, this reference would be horribly out of place if Orpheus had attempted but failed such a rescue. Admetus wished that he could sing like Orpheus so that he could bring his wife back from the dead, and many scholars see this reference as proof that a version of the story in which Orpheus successfully returned would have been familiar to Euripides’s audience (Robbins 16).

Plato mentioned Orpheus in the following century in the dialogue Symposium, his great work in praise of love (written around 360 BCE). Plato had one of his characters criticize Orpheus:

But Orpheus […] [the gods] sent empty away, and presented to him an apparition only of her whom he sought, but herself they would not give up, because he […] did not dare […] to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter Hades alive. (Symposium 179d)

In this version, Orpheus’s descent to the underworld is now clearly associated with an attempt to rescue a woman — though Plato does not give her name. Orpheus’s mission is admittedly a failure, but it seems that Orpheus returned successfully with what the gods gave him (the phantom of his wife). Instead, Orpheus failed to persuade the gods to give him what he sought. This substitution of a phantom for his real wife turns Orpheus’s otherwise-successful return into a failure; this substitution only makes sense as a variant of a version in which Orpheus did successfully return with her.

Around 330 BC, still three hundred years before Virgil, the poet Hermesianax of Colophon wrote three books of elegiac poetry dedicated to his mistress Leontion. Only a fragment of these books survive: one hundred lines or so were quoted in Athenaeus, an author writing in Egypt over five hundred years later. This fragment includes a version of Orpheus’s descent in which Orpheus returned successful. Athenaeus introduces the story with these words: “Hermesianax […] gives a catalogue of love affairs in the following manner”:

Armed only with the lyre, [Orpheus] brought back [the Thracian Agriope] from Hades. […] Yet Orpheus, though girded for the journey all alone, dared to sound his lyre beside the wave, and he won over the gods of every shape. […] By his song, Orpheus persuaded the mighty lords that Agriope should recover the gentle breath of life. (Athenaeus XIII)

The wife of Orpheus in this version of the story finally has a name (Agriope), though it is different than the name to be found in Virgil three hundred years later. Hermesianax celebrated the power of love, citing Orpheus’s successful rescue of his beloved from the underworld as evidence.

These three pieces of evidence show that it is a real possibility that the sculptor of the bas-relief at Naples was not intending to depict a failed attempt by Orpheus to rescue Eurydice from Hades. If this were the case, I would imagine that the sculptor intended to portray the moment of Orpheus’s triumph: still holding his lyre, Hermes brings his wife to him so that he might lead her out of the underworld. It is difficult to say with any certainty, though. While a non-narrative work of art has an undeniably strong connection to its corresponding narrative that evokes powerful resonances and reactions in its viewers, these responses can vary greatly from person to person. The fact that Plato, Hermesianax, and Virgil would all have experienced this same sculpture quite differently reveals just how complicated that connection can be.

This is one of the fascinating aspects of how myths work. Storytellers alter and shape the stories they tell to suit their own purposes: they might change a significant detail they find objectionable, or they might alter some minor details to shift the emphasis. Over time stories grow and evolve as the needs of the storytellers and their audiences change, taking on an organic life of their own. A story might affect an artist (like the fifth-century scultpor of the bas-relief at Naples)  in one way, while his work might affect a future storyteller (like Rilke) in a completely different way.

Works Cited

One Response »

  1. Randy, I had missed this when you first posted it, so I’m glad you linked to it from Myth Cafe! I’d no idea that the possibility — even probability — of a successful Orpheus journey existed. If so, that puts an interesting spin on some things; I’ve come to the conclusion that Perseus is the only Hero to have gotten a happy ending in mortal life (Heracles got rewarded on Olympus, but his moral life was anything but filled with happy endings). Orpheus’s success would say that more than one Hero did well in the mortal world, which might have interesting implications regarding those other tales. Were all Heroes so tragic in life, or did some stories give other Heroes happy endings after all?