The great singer Orpheus – son of the river god Eager and the muse Kaliopa – lived in distant Thrace. Orpheus’ wife was the beautiful nymph Eurydice. The singer loved her dearly. But Orpheus did not enjoy a happy life with his wife for long. Once, shortly after the wedding, the beautiful Eurydice was picking spring flowers with her young restless nymph comrades in a green valley. She did not notice a snake hidden in the thick grass and stepped on it. The snake bit the young woman of Orpheus by the legs. Eurydice cried out loudly and fell into the arms of her running comrades. She turned pale, her eyes narrowed. The venom of the snake broke the thread of her life. Eurydice’s friends were horrified and their sorrowful cry spread far and wide. Orpheus heard it. He runs into the valley and there he sees the cold corpse of his tenderly loved wife. Orpheus was overwhelmed with despair. He could not accept that loss. He mourned his Eurydice for a long time; and all nature, listening to his sad singing, wept with him.

Finally, Orpheus decided to descend into the dark realm of the souls of the dead to persuade Lord Hades and his wife Persephone to return his wife. Orpheus descended through the gloomy cave at Tenar to the banks of the sacred river Styx.

Orpheus is standing on the bank of the Styx. How to cross to the other shore opposite, where the dark kingdom of Lord Hades is located? Shadows of the dead crowd around Orpheus. Their moans are barely audible, as if falling leaves rustle in the woods in late autumn. There was a clatter of oars in the distance. The ship of Charon, the bearer of the souls of the dead, approaches. Charon stops the boat ashore. Orpheus begs to carry him with the souls to the opposite shore, but the stern Charon refuses. No matter how Orpheus begged him, Charon’s answer was the same, “no!”

Then Orpheus rattled the strings of his golden lyre, and its sounds like a wide wave spread along the shore of the gloomy Styx. Orpheus enchanted Charon with his music; he listens to the playing of Orpheus leaning on the oar. To the sound of music, Orpheus entered the boat; Charon pushed her with the oar from the shore and she swam through the dark waters of the Styx. Charon crossed the Orpheus River. Orpheus got out of the boat and, playing the golden guitar, went through the dark realm of the souls of the dead to the throne of the god Hades; he was accompanied by the souls that flew in, attracted by the sounds of his guitar.

Playing the guitar, Orpheus approached the throne of Hades and bowed to me. He hit the guitar strings harder and sang; he sang about his love for Eurydice and how happy his life had been with her during the bright, clear days of spring. But the days of happiness passed quickly. Eurydice perished, Orpheus sang about his misfortune, about the sorrows of his broken love, about his grief over the dead. Everyone in the kingdom of Hades listened attentively to the singing of Orpheus, everyone was fascinated by his song. He rested his head on his chest, and the god Hades listened to Orpheus. She leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder, listening to Persephone’s song; Tears of sorrow flickered on her lashes. Bewitched by the sounds of the song, Tantalus forgot the hunger and thirst that tormented him. Sisyphus stopped his hard, fruitless work, sat on the stone that climbed the mountain, and thought deeply, deeply. Fascinated by the singing, the Danaids stood; they forgot about their bottomless vessel. Even the terrible three-faced goddess Hecate covered herself with her hands so that the tears in her eyes could not be seen. Tears glistened in the eyes of the ruthless Erinyes; even Orpheus touched them with his song. But the strings of the golden guitar sound quieter and quieter, Orpheus’s song grows quieter, and it fades away, as if a barely perceptible sad sigh.

There was a deep silence. The god Hades violated him by asking Orpheus why he came to his kingdom, what he wanted to ask him for. Hades swore by the inviolable oath of the gods – in the waters of the river Styx, that he would fulfill the request of the wonderful singer. Orpheus replied to Hades:

“Oh, mighty Lord Hades, you receive into your kingdom all of us mortals when the days of our lives are over. I did not come here to see the horrors that fill your kingdom, I did not come to take away as Heracles the guardian of your kingdom – the three-headed Cerberus. I came here to ask you to put my Eurydice back on the ground. Bring her back to life; you see how I suffer for her! Think, my lord, how much you would suffer if your wife Persephone was taken away from you. And you won’t get Eurydice back forever. She will return to your kingdom. Our life is short, Lord Hades. Oh, allow Eurydice to experience the joys of life, because she came down to your kingdom so young!”

Orpheus mourns Eurydice, Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice, 1814 painting by Ary Scheffer

The god Hades pondered and replied to Orpheus:

“All right, Orpheus! I will return Eurydice to you. Take her back to life, to the sunlight! But you must fulfill one condition: you will go forward after the god Hermes, he will lead you, and Eurydice will follow you. But as you walk through the underworld, you do not have to look back. Remember! If you turn around, Eurydice will leave you immediately and return to my kingdom forever.”

Orpheus agreed to everything. He hurries to leave. Hermes, as fast as he thought, cast the shadow of Eurydice. Orpheus looks at her with delight. He wants to embrace Eurydice’s shadow, but Hermes stops him by telling him:

“Orpheus, you only embrace a shadow. Let’s go faster; our path is difficult.”

They left. Hermes goes ahead, followed by Orpheus, and behind Orpheus the shadow of Eurydice. They quickly passed the kingdom of Hades. Charon led them across the Styx with his boat. Here is the path that leads to the surface of the earth. The road is difficult. The path winds steeply upwards and is full of stones. All around – thick twilight. The figure of Hermes walking forward is barely visible in the twilight. But then a light began to see through the distance. There is a way out. And around the passengers it seemed brighter. If I turn around, Orpheus thinks, I will see Eurydice. But was she the first after him? Has it not remained in the dark kingdom of the souls of the dead? Maybe she stayed; the road is so difficult! Eurydice must be lagging behind and will be doomed to wander forever in the dark. Orpheus steps more slowly, listens. Nothing is heard. Can the footsteps of a disembodied shadow be heard? Orpheus became increasingly worried about Eurydice. More and more often he stops. And it’s getting brighter all around. Now Orpheus would clearly see his wife’s shadow. And forgetting everything, he stopped and turned. Almost next to him he sees the shadow of Eurydice. Orpheus held out his hands to her, but the shadow receded, receded, and sank into darkness. Orpheus stood numb with despair. He had to relive Eurydice’s death for the second time, and he was to blame for that second death.

Orpheus stood like that for a long time. As if he were lifeless; as if a marble statue stood there. At last Orpheus moved, took one step, took another, and headed back to the shores of the gloomy Styx. He decided to return to the throne of Hades, to be begged again by Orpheus – the pleas of the singer did not touch the hard-hearted Charon. For seven days and seven nights the sad Orpheus sat on the bank of the Styx, shedding tears of sorrow; he forgot to eat, he forgot everything, grumbling against the gods of the dark realm of the souls of the dead. It was not until the eighth day that he decided to leave the shores of the Styx and return to Thrace.

Exposed according to Ovid’s poem “Metamorphoses”