The Real Version of Orpheus and Eurydice

In early June, the Center’s Assistant Curator Kevin Adkisson and Collections Interpreter Lynette Mayman hosted the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls students and staff for Greek Day tours around the sculptures of Cranbrook Academy of Art. Today, Lynette explores one of the myths central to the sculpture of Carl Milles: Orpheus and Eurydice.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has many versions, most of them adding and leaving out various details. As in all Greek myths everything has a back story, and everything is linked. If you start to retell one tale, then you end up telling many more, which is how you might have been invited to stay at the palace indefinitely, recounting the myths.

These days many of these myths are known only in part, the grimmer consequences and endings forgotten or deliberately omitted to make them less peculiar and frightening.

Carl Milles’ Orpheus Fountain, well-described elsewhere, does not actually include the massive sculpture of Orpheus, though the model for it, once on display atop the column in the Arts and Crafts Court, is currently on display at Cranbrook Art Museum.

Carl Milles’ Sketch for Orpheus, circa 1926, on display in the Cranbrook Arts and Crafts Courtyard, July 17, 1945. Harvey Croze, photographer. Cranbrook Archives, Center for Collections and Research.

Ancient tellers of the myth include Plato and Virgil, but perhaps the best-known and longest version is from Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) in books X and XI of his Metamorphoses. Ovid is renowned for relishing the lugubrious and not sparing the gory details in lightly tripping dactylic hexameters. He also gives us a rare glimpse into the how and why of tales which were well-known to his readers.

Ovid skips the early part of the myth where Apollo may or not be Orpheus’ father and how Orpheus plays his lyre and sings to the Argonauts to drown out the Sirens; he cuts to the chase, as it were.

It is an ill omen that the marriage torch does not blaze at the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice to the horror of all the guests. Nevertheless, newlywed Eurydice dances about with her band of Naiads and gets bitten by a venomous snake, expiring instantly. Ovid dispatches her in two and a half lines without even naming her: she’s just the bride.

Orpheus mourns loudly and then determines he needs to mourn more publicly to the gods. Ovid is a showoff and loves to parade his knowledge of all the myths so that in his telling of the story, Orpheus protests that he has not come on a quest for the sake of his own glory like Hercules in his twelfth labor. In the battle to accept Eurydice’s death, Love won.

We get a tour of various landmarks on the way into the Underworld as Orpheus approaches Persephone and Pluto and sings to them of his loss. He explains that she is too young to be dead so soon, and she will return eventually. If he can’t have her back then he is willing to stay there with her, the one death becoming two. His words and lyre-playing are so powerful the bloodless spirits weep. The usual stars such as Ixion, Tantalus, the daughters of Danaus cease their punishments, even Sisyphus takes a seat on his rock. The royals of the Underworld are as moved as all the shades of the dead and summon Eurydice who arrives still limping from her snakebite. Orpheus accepts the condition that he must not look back on their return journey to the land of the living until clear of the valley of the dead.

Off they go, slowly and silently ascending. Just as they are getting close, Orpheus fears that she might no longer be there, and, eager to see her, he looks around. Immediately she falls back, and Orpheus’ arms meet empty air as he reaches out for her. Eurydice dies a second time with, as Ovid comments, nothing to complain to her husband about except being loved.

The ferryman will not admit Orpheus again, so he sits by the shore of the river Styx until he finally takes himself off to various landmarks in the living world to mourn. He gives up on love and refuses to have anything to do with the many ladies who seek his attention. The ladies are not impressed.

Sketch for Orpheus, circa 1926, by Carl Milles. Collection Cranbrook Art Museum. Gift of George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth through The Cranbrook Foundation.

Three years pass and Orpheus sits on a hillside and tunes his lyre preparing to sing. His music attracts no fewer than twenty-six different species of tree to gather around him, all lovingly described by Ovid, and in a delicious delaying tactic, Orpheus sings twelve more fatal mythical love stories to warn potential lovers of the perils of Love. If you want to know what happens to Orpheus, or more importantly how Ovid continues the story, you will have to bide your time.

Meanwhile the trees are joined by wild beasts and rocks. The music reaches a neighboring hillside where some Maenads are having a bacchanalian rampage. They react with fury to Orpheus who has scorned love (and therefore them) for so long and go in for revenge. At first the beauty of the song halts the missiles they send, and the birds, trees, stones and animals protect Orpheus. Inevitably the scorned Maenads prevail and tear all the flora and fauna to pieces, and once they get to Orpheus, his voice has no power over them. They do not spare him, hacking him limb from limb with abandoned farm implements. Birds, trees, and rocks weep for Orpheus whose limbs are strewn into different rivers, the head and lyre floating down the Hebrus to the sea still playing and singing.

Orpheus is at last admitted to the Underworld again where he can walk with Eurydice, he following or she following, looking back at each other in safety.

Just in case you were wondering: the Maenads get their come-uppance by being turned into trees by their god Bacchus, who is not pleased by their behavior. Apparently being turned into a tree is not pleasant.

There are many sculptures, paintings, pieces of music, plays, films treating this myth, including the work of Rodin, Titian, Offenbach, Tennessee Williams, Marcel Camus, and, of course, Cranbrook’s own Carl Milles.

Orpheus and Eurydice, circa 1508, by Titian. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As for Orpheus’ musical talents on the lyre? The Latin word for lyre is cithara, from the Greek κιθάρα, which gives us guitar and zither. What was a lyre and what did it sound like? Learn more here.

The next time you’re standing around the Orpheus-less Orpheus fountain at Cranbrook Art Museum, you can remember the oh-so-dramatic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice!

–Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

2 thoughts on “The Real Version of Orpheus and Eurydice

  1. thank you for this… p.s. the linked cranbrook map article implies that booth understood or believed or mistook orpheus to be evil… how confused am i &/or booth &/or that article? i’ve failed to see any other portrayal/etc. implicating orpheus in an sort of evil/ill intent/etc., but i only spent an hour or so on the research, soooo…


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