Ovid’s version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Metamorphoses 10.1–85; 11.1–66) is translated in full in M/L, Chapter 14. The other classic version is by Vergil, at the end of his Georgics (translated below). It is rewarding to compare the poetic emphasis of each and analyze the reasons for variations in incident, drama, and purpose; both, in different ways, immortalize the theme of tragic love and devotion. The most important “factual” difference in Vergil’s treatment is that he holds ARISTAEUS, the keeper of bees, responsible for Eurydice’s death, a detail absolutely essential for the incorporation of the Orpheus myth into the thematic material of his Georgics, a work about farming.
Vergil (Georgics 4. 453–527) tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in profound and moving poetry, comprising some of the most poignant lines ever written about human loss. The context involves ARISTAEUS (the son of Apollo and Cyrene) who, desperate because all his bees have died, consults his mother Cyrene and she sends him to the seer Proteus that he may provide a solution for his problems (this first section of the episode is translated in Chapter 5). Proteus tells Aristaeus that the anger of Orpheus has led to the loss of his bees; Eurydice died of a snake bite, incurred while running away from Aristaeus’ advances. Here then is Vergil’s Orpheus and Eurydice, as Proteus tells Aristaeus the reason for his distress:
“No god’s anger makes trial of you. You are atoning for great wrongs. Orpheus, wretched, though undeserving of it, stirs up these punishments against you, unless the fates should oppose it; he rages terribly for his wife who has been snatched from him. The truth is, while she was running from you in headlong flight along the rivers, her death almost upon her, that girl did not see in her path the monstrous serpent keeping to the banks in the tall grass. But a chorus of Dryads, all alike, filled the mountain tops with their cry. The Rhodopeian heights wept and lofty Pangaea, the warlike land of Rhesus, the Getae, and Attic Orithyia.
Assuaging his bitter love with a hollow tortoise-shell, he sang of you, his sweet wife, he sang of you to himself on the lonely shore, he sang of you at the day’s coming and at its departing. He entered the Taenarian maws, the lofty portals of Dis, and the grove shadowed in black dread and approached the souls of the dead, their fearful king, and hearts not known to soften at human entreaty. But moved by his song there came from the deepest regions of Erebus flitting shades and spectral images of those who have departed from the light, in number like many thousands of birds who seek cover in the leaves of the trees when evening or a winter rain drives them from the mountains. There were mothers and husbands and the bodies of great-souled heroes which had departed from life, boys and unmarried girls, youths who were placed on the pyre before the eyes of their parents. And around these the black muck, the unsightly reed of the Cocytus, and the hateful swamp with its sluggish water binds, and the Styx, circling nine times around hems them in. Yes, the palace itself was dumbstruck, so too the inmost Tartarean reaches of death, and the Furies, their hair plaited with dark green snakes. Gaping Cerberus held his jaws tight, and even the turning of Ixion’s wheel had ceased with a breeze.
Orpheus withdrew his step and escaped every misfortune, and Eurydice, now restored, was approaching the upper world, following him behind; for this was the condition Proserpina had demanded. Suddenly a madness took hold of the incautious lover (certainly forgivable, if the infernal world knew how to forgive). He stood still. Unmindful of the condition and overwhelmed by passion he looked back at Eurydice, who was at that very moment verging on the light. There all his effort was wasted and the agreement of the pitiless tyrant broken. Three times a shattering was heard throughout the Avernian fens. And Eurydice spoke:
‘What terrible madness has destroyed both you and me. Hear! A second time the cruel fates call me back and sleep covers my swimming eyes. Farewell. Stretching out my powerless hands to you, I am borne away, enveloped in endless night, yours no longer.’
And Eurydice disappeared from before his eyes, scattered in different directions, like smoke caught in a gentle breeze. She never saw him again, though he tried in vain to take hold of her spirit, wanting to tell her more. The ferryman of Orcus did not permit him to cross any more the barrier lake.
What was he to do? Where could he go now that his wife was stolen from him again? What tears, what utterance could prevail upon the dead or the guardians of the dead? She, now cold, was sailing in the Stygian craft. They say that he wept for seven whole months in succession under a lofty crag beside the waters of the deserted Strymon and that he unfolded his story beneath cold caverns, soothing tigers and stirring oaks with his song, as Philomela, grieving under the shade of a poplar tree, laments her lost young, which a rough plowman saw unfeathered in their nest and removed. But she weeps through the night, and perched on a branch, renews her mournful song and fills up the countryside with sorrowful lamentation. No Venus, no marriage rite turns his thoughts. Alone he surveys the Hyperborean ice, snowy Tanais, and fields never bereft of Riphaean frost, bewailing his lost Eurydice and the ineffectual gift of Dis. Because the women of the Cicones had been spurned by him, amidst the rites of the gods and the nocturnal orgies of Bacchus they tore the youth apart and scattered him in pieces over the broad fields. Even then, when the Oeagrian Hebrus in the midst of its current bobbed and pitched his head, torn from his smooth, white neck, that same voice and cold tongue called the name Eurydice—Alas wretched Eurydice!—even while his soul was in flight. And the banks reechoed Eurydice along the course of the entire stream.”