By many accounts, Orpheus is one of the most well known and recognizable figures associated with Western classical mythology. The son of Apollo and a Muse, Orpheus was taught by his father to play a lyre from a very young age. Orpheus grew up to become the most talented singer, and musician, in all of Greece. According to legend, his music was so enchanting that even trees and stones were “ sensible to his charms.” Although Orpheus is also famous for aiding Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the golden fleece, he is most famous for his pilgrimage to the underworld, or Tartarus, to retrieve his recently deceased bride, Eurydice. After the death of his wife, and in defiance of fate, Orpheus ventured to the stygian realm to do what no one else had done before: enter the house of the dead, and return alive. Aided by the intoxicating power of his music, Orpheus pleaded his case before the King of the dead, and lord of the underworld, Pluto. Orpheus’ music had its intended effect, and Pluto--his stone heart now softened--granted Orpheus his request to return with his bride to the land of the living. Although Pluto granted his request, he had one stipulation. Pluto decreed that if Orpheus should turn back see the shade of his wife, while leading her out of the underworld, then they would remain forever separated as long as Orpheus continued to call the earth his home. As the ill-fated couple approached the outlet leading into the “cheerful upper world,” however, Orpheus glanced back at his bride in a moment of thoughtlessness, thus permanently securing her doom, and ultimately, his own. This story resonates with readers for many reasons. For one, it falls neatly into Aristotle’s classical definition of tragedy. For example, Orpheus is the quintessential tragic hero. Despite good intentions, he suffers a reversal of fortune due to his hamartia, or character flaw. In Orpheus’ case, this is his dangerous curiosity and incapacity for faith. For the audience, Orpheus’ fate culminates in feelings of pity, and later, in emotional catharsis. This piece is perfect as part of a lesson on Greek mythology, and on the conventions of classical theatre. In addition, this piece, because of its simple plot elements, is perfect for teaching students about the different sequences of a typical narrative structure.

Standards Addressed:


Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).


Before Reading

Think about a story where a character you like is responsible, inadvertently or not, for their own unhappiness or setbacks. While thinking about this character, what kind of feelings are provoked? Would you feel differently about bad things happening to a character you didn’t like? Why or why not?


During Reading

Thinking back to the beginning of the story, what event foreshadowed Eurydice’s death? (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.9)

 How is the story resolved? Do you think this is a satisfying ending?


After Reading

Considered the ultimate inspired singer, Orpheus is one of the most significant figures of classical mythology in Western culture, portrayed or alluded to in countless forms of art and popular culture including poetry, opera, and painting. Relate Orpheus to a contemporary figure--be sure to make parallels between specific instances in this text and the contemporary person’s life.

 According to Aristotle’s conception of the tragic hero, the hero’s ultimate undoing is due to a character flaw. Based on a close reading of the text, how would you describe Orpheus’ character flaw? Use details from the text to support your answer. Note: there is more than one right answer.

 According to Plato’s reading of this story, Orpheus is punished, not for looking back at his wife, but for cowardice. From Plato’s point of view, Orpheus is a coward for not choosing to take his own life, and thus failing to reunite with his wife in the after-life. What do you think about Plato’s reading of the text? Do you agree or disagree with him? Which version of the story do you prefer, and why?


Connections In Text

Compare the plot arc of “Orpheus and Eurydice” with another folk tale in the Books That Grow library. Are the plot structures similar or different? In the other folk tale, identify the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion.


Further Readings

For Teachers:

This link provides teachers with some background information on the cult of Orpheus, and the “orphic mysteries.”


For Students: 

This link provides students with an in depth analysis and description of the various phases of a conventional story or narrative arc.



G9 Challenging Vocabulary:

promontory (9) aloof (8) omen (7) complaint (7)

G7 Challenging Vocabulary:

appeal (7) ravish (7) detail (7) temperamental (7) carnage (7) lyre (6) dwell (6) anxious (6) despiser (6) sweet (6) ceremony (5) fate (5) bitter (5) region (5) rage (5) 

G5 Challenging Vocabulary:

ceremony (5) fate (5) bitter (5) festive (5) charm (5) witness (4) optimism (4) desire (4) tough (4) resound (4) attend (3) cliff (3) couple (3) dismiss (3) entertain (3) fright (3)  hobble (3) must (3) realm (3) roam (3) round (3) world (3) venom (3

G3 Challenging Vocabulary:

cliff (3) couple (3) entertain (3) fright (3) must (3) realm (3) round (3) venom (3) beauty (2) expressed (2) mood (2) perform (2) resist/resistance (2) young (2) celebrate (1) decided (1) fresh (1) learn (1) music (1) wild (1)