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Conjugal reunions: Ovid’s Orpheus and Eurydice and Euripides’ Alcestis

Sergios Paschalis

Ovid’s primary source for the story of Orpheus’ recovery and second loss of Eurydice in the Metamorphoses (10.1-85) is Virgil’s Georgics (4.453-527). The main thesis propounded in this paper is that, although Virgil is undoubtedly Ovid’s main interlocutor, he nevertheless diverges from his predecessor at many points and draws instead on Euripides by fusing the Virgilian account with the Alcestis. Although there are several correspondences between the myths of Alcestis and Eurydice, the intertextual engagement of Ovid’s story with the Euripidean play has been entirely overlooked by criticism. The main parallel of the two narratives is that both Admetus and Orpheus bring about their wives’ death, the former by having Alcestis assume his place in Hades and the latter by gazing back at Eurydice before they exit the underworld. Exploiting the traditional affinities of the two myths Ovid’s narrative evokes many aspects of the Alcestis.

First of all, the characterization of Orpheus is highly reminiscent of that of Admetus and the Roman poet draws in fact on the figure of the Thessalian king in order to deviate from the Virgilian portrayal of the Thracian bard. Orpheus is depicted as hypocritical and cowardly in contrast to his Virgilian counterpart and recalling instead Admetus, in that they both initially claim that they will follow their wives in Hades by committing suicide, but do not live up to their pledge. Furthermore, both heroes reject love and marriage after their spouses’ demise on account of an oath of celibacy they have taken. A means by which Orpheus and Admetus attempt to cope with their bereavement is by constructing an erotic statue-fantasy. The Euripidean hero asks that an effigy in the semblance of Alcestis be placed on his bed, while one of the stories sung by the Ovidian bard is that of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fashions the statue of a woman with which he falls hopelessly in love. Moreover, in his attempt to convince the lords of Hades to permit him to bring Eurydice back to life Orpheus cleverly utilizes commonplaces about death’s inescapability so as to actually overcome death temporarily. This constitutes an ironic reversal of the standard consolatory and protreptic functions of these rhetorical topoi in the Alcestis.

For the most part of the twentieth century the almost unanimous consensus of scholarship (Bowra 1952, Segal 1972, Thomas 1988) was that the prevalent pre-Virgilian version of the Orpheus myth related his ultimate success in bringing Eurydice back to the world of the living, while the tragic version involving the second death of Eurydice due to Orpheus’ backward gaze attested by Virgil and Ovid was attributed to a lost Hellenistic model. John Heath (1994), however, challenged this predominant theory by contending that a scrutiny of the extant sources reveals that the assumed happy-ending version does not in fact exist. He argues that according to the textual evidence Orpheus’ “triumph” is limited only to the initial persuasion of Pluto and Persephone by means of his song to return to him his wife. As I will argue in this paper, Ovid’s depiction of a blissful marital life in the underworld for Orpheus and Eurydice alludes not to a hypothesized happy ending version of the myth, but to the joyful conclusion of the Euripidean play. Just as in the tragedy’s denouement Heracles brings Alcestis back to her husband after rescuing her from Thanatos, in an analogous manner after Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Thracian maenads his shade descends to Hades and happily rejoins his beloved wife. The essential difference between the two situations is that whereas the Euripidean couple is reunited in real life, the Ovidian pair finds its happy ending in the afterlife. Hence, by giving his narrative a blissful finale Ovid “corrects” the tragic ending of the Georgics, where it is explicitly stated that the lovers will be eternally separated.

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Ovidian Poetics, Ovidian Receptions

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