The story of Orpheus always bothered me. The man braves the underworld to find his lost bride, but then he can’t follow a simple instruction. Don’t turn around. How hard is that? He turns around, though, and loses Eurydice forever.
Of course, I know that the structure of this sort of story is that the one command that’s most important to follow turns out to actually be impossible to follow. That’s the way this sort of tragedy works.
Often, though, writing from mythology is about me providing possible answers to questions that have always tugged at me. So, in The Snake and the Lyre, I set out to portray what makes Orpheus turn around.
I also like to take secondary characters and give them more agency. In the versions of the myth that I’ve read, Eurydice doesn’t have much of a personality. She’s a prize to be won or lost by Orpheus.
In my story, however, Eurydice is burning with longing. Her desires are dark and deep and seem unlikely to be met by her self-absorbed betrothed. In this version, when Eurydice finds her death, she is in some ways seeking it. After she finds her death, she embraces it.
What’s the point of the rule forbidding Orpheus from turning around to look at Eurydice? In my version, the rule is made by Hades himself in response to a special request from Eurydice. “Don’t let him see me like this,” she begs the lord of the underworld.
Hades replies with compassion: “Child, don’t look so fearful. This place differs from the land under the sun. We do not flinch from our desires here, but we keep our secrets with the most sacred respect.” He goes on to suggest that Demeter would “blight the earth in eternal cold fury” if she could see what Persephone gets up to during the six months she visits.
I’d always previously viewed the Orpheus story as a tragedy, but after writing this exchange between Eurydice and Hades, I began to feel that Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice might have been for the best.
After all, Eurydice and Orpheus don’t seem well-suited for each other. He is lofty and abstract, absolutely caught in his music. He wants her as an appreciative listener, but in my version he’s much more enamored with the Lydian mode than with the details of the body of his bride to be. Eurydice, on the other hand, is sensual and earthy, unafraid to face up to her darkest desires, and ultimately able to let go of shame and embrace what she needs.
In this way, when Orpheus’s mistake forces her to remain in the underworld, it’s hard for me to say that she’s been doomed.
Anthologies which include this story: