Orpheus and the animals

The Pietra Dura cabinet from the Saloon at Chirk Castle

Orpheus, son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope - from whom he drew his mastery of music and song  - had a divinely gifted voice, that could charm anyone who heard it. Quickly mastering the lyre which was given to him as a childhood present, no god or mortal could resist his music and even the rocks and trees would move closer to him to hear his songs.

It is said that the strange and ecstatic music of Orpheus had the power to intrigue and broaden the mortal mind to new, unusual theories.

In addition to his musical genius, Orpheus also had an adventurous character – he took part in the Voyage of the Argonauts with Jason, and played a vital part in soothing the Hydra to sleep whilst Jason stole the Golden Fleece; he also saved the Argonauts by playing his charmed notes to the Sirens, distracting them from their murderous intent.

At a gathering to hear his music, he saw the beautiful woodland nymph, Eurydice: normally shy, she had been drawn to Orpheus by his enchanted music and mellifluous voice, and when the two met, they instantly fell in love. All were delighted for the couple, apart from a shepherd, called Aristaeus, who had worshipped Eurydice for years.

Their wedding day followed swiftly, and after memorable hours of feasting and laughter, the couple set off for their new home. Aristaeus lay in wait, determined to ambush the newly-weds and kill Orpheus – but Orpheus sensed his presence and quickly grabbed Eurydice’s hand, running with her through the forest.

Aristaeus followed them doggedly, but Justas Orpheus and Eurydice seemed to be putting space between them and their would-be attacker, Eurydice slipped and fell . . .on a nest of snakes! Repeatedly bitten, Eurydice died.

Without his beloved Eurydice, Orpheus sank into the deepest despair, until he formed the plan of actually going into the Underworld to plead with Hades for the return of his wife. His father, Apollo, arranged an audience with the King of the Underworld, and Orpheus began his descent.

Armed only with his lyre and his beautiful voice, Orpheus sang to King Hades and Queen Persephone of his inconsolable loss, and begged for Eurydice’s release from the World of the Dead.  Moved by his pleas, the weeping Hades promised Orpheus that she should be allowed to return to the Land of the Living, and that she would follow him as he returned. However, he warned Orpheus that if at any moment he should turn back to look at her while she was still in the dark, she would return to the Underworld, this time forever.

Elated, Orpheus began his ascent out of the Underworld: he could hear the footsteps of his beloved wife approaching him, but he managed to control his urge to turn round and embrace her – the moment he stepped into the light, he could contain himself no more, and he wheeled round to look at her . . . sadly, he saw but a glimpse of his love, for when he turned, she was still in the darkness! She faded back into the cold blackness of the Underworld of the Dead.

Shrieking with grief at what he had done, Orpheus approached the Underworld again, but this time he was denied entry – the gates were shut to him.

Realising that he had broken the only rule which had been given to him, and that he would never see his wife alive again, he began to wander, disoriented, in total despair – there was no consolation for his grief. Tormented by his loss, and near madness, he abstained from the company of women, eventually shunning all contact with them. He continued to sing, but his songs were now deeply mournful.

However, a group of women, furious that Orpheus should have scorned them, attacked him as they found him sitting alone and sad: he offered no resistance as they ripped him to pieces, throwing his head and his lyre into a river.

Still singing, the head was carried along by the current until it was recovered by the Muses, and Orpheus was given a proper funeral: he descended to Hades, where he was finally reunited with his beloved Eurydice.