This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Greek mythology has captured people’s interest for centuries, in stories and art of all kinds, including oral tradition, theater, poetry, novels, and more. Specific myths have been adapted more than others.
The myth of Eurydice and Orpheus and the relationship between Hades and Persephone are commonly referenced in Greek mythology, as well as retold in other mediums. Orpheus is one of the best-known mythological musicians, while Hades and Persephone serve as rulers of the Greek afterlife.
Though the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is tragic, in a way it echoes Hades and Persephone’s story. The strength of these relationships is powerful in and of itself; it shows that love is worth doing something solely on faith.
The 2019 Broadway musical Hadestown by Anais Mitchell retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is set in a post-apocalyptic, American Great Depression-era setting. There are few jobs or food, and the only possible promise of such things is in a mystical city below the ground called Hadestown, run by the god Hades and reluctantly visited by his wife Persephone.
The Fates see everything and comment to the audience like a Greek chorus. The god Hermes is the show’s narrator, as well as Orpheus’ foster father. Orpheus is a musician who dreams of a better world, while Eurydice is more practical, becoming frustrated when Orpheus’ music doesn’t pay for desperately-needed food and firewood.
And so Eurydice accepts Hades’ shady offer of a job in his city….
The Greek Underworld: past and present
In Greek mythology, Orpheus is the son of Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry, and alternately either the god Apollo or the Thracian king Oeagrus. Ancient poets venerated him and his skill to “allure the trees, the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks, to follow him”, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (bk. 11, ln. 2-3).
He is often depicted playing the lyre in mosaics and calling animals to him. Orpheus is also known as a prophet in the Orphic mysteries which were inspired by him. They revere Dionysus and Persephone, who also both journeyed to, and – importantly – returned from the underworld.
Not as much is known about Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife. In the ancient myth, she is bitten by a viper on her wedding day, and dies immediately. Orpheus’ grief causes him to travel to the underworld to bring her back. Orpheus uses his music to make his case to Hades and Persephone, rulers of the underworld, though it is mainly by Persephone’s intervention that Hades acquiesces. Hades allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out of the underworld, but proclaims that he must not look back until they have both reached the surface. Orpheus is tempted and looks back before they reach the exit, losing Eurydice, who is pulled back into the underworld.
Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 play Eurydice tells the same story, though in a vaguely contemporary setting, and from the perspective of Eurydice herself. The play deals more with memory and the act of remembering and forgetting. The 2019 romantic film Portrait of a Lady on Fire uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as an effective motif throughout. The possibility of losing one you love a second time simply because of your own doubt and impatience is painful to contemplate.
Hades, in mythology, is the king of the underworld and the god of the dead, and Persephone is his queen and the goddess of spring. Also known as Kore, Persephone is often worshipped with her mother Demeter as figures of the Eleusinian mysteries, which may have promised rewards after death. Her abduction by Hades is first fully described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Hades is said to erupt from a cleft in the earth and carry Persephone off with him; art featuring Persephone often depicts this moment.
Hades, meanwhile, is the first-born son of Kronos, the youngest Titan, and his sister-wife Rhea. Hades draws the lot of the underworld when he and his younger brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, divide up the world. Hades is therefore chosen by Fate to rule the underworld, while Zeus and Poseidon rule the sky and the sea, respectively. All together, the three brothers rule the entire world.
Hades often serves as the bearer of a quest object, such as during the Twelve Labors of Herakles when Herakles is asked to capture his guard dog Cerberos. Though Hades supervised the wicked after death, he was not a judge of the dead, and was seen as passive rather than evil. Other than that, Greeks didn’t speculate, afraid of attracting Hades’ attention.
Emily Whitman’s 2009 young adult novel Radiant Darkness portrays the relationship between Hades and Persephone as that of equals, since he is the only one who treats her as an adult. Instead of her capture being a rape, as it is clearly described in the Homeric Hymn, Persephone feels trapped by her mother, and Hades’ invitation is an opportunity for escape. Radiant Darkness depicts an innocent romance between two gods who are first understood by each other.
“Way down Hadestown”
Vermont musician Anais Mitchell composed her musical Hadestown, which she described as a “D.I.Y. theater project”, in 2006. It later became a concept album, and in 2012, she began to adapt and rewrite it into the version of Hadestown that premiered on Broadway in 2019. The concept album maintains the broad strokes of the retold myth, but the musical version more fully fleshes out the characters’ motivations and relationships.
Eurydice wants a better life for herself in Hadestown’s version of the myth. She loves Orpheus, but expects him to pull his own weight in the interests of their survival. When he doesn’t, and she receives what she thinks is a better offer in Hadestown, she takes it.
The Fates, speaking as a chorus, even question the audience’s presumed negative reaction, saying that near starvation guided her more than reason. “Wouldn’t you have done the same?/In her shoes, in her skin/You can have your principles,” they sing, “When you’ve got a bellyful/But hunger has a way with you/There’s no telling what you’re gonna do.”
It’s only after she arrives in Hadestown that Eurydice realizes she signed her life away, and despairs for the choice she made. Hades’ other workers have forgotten who they are, and Eurydice fears the moment that this happens to her as well.
Orpheus, on the other hand, sees the bigger picture, and is working on a way to bring the world back together through song. Hades is keeping Persephone longer each year in Hadestown, and it’s effectively causing climate change. Orpheus is a dreamer, but he rescues Eurydice when he thinks she’s in danger.
What it ultimately comes down to for this couple is doubt. Eurydice left, once, and when he’s walking with her behind him, Orpheus can’t stand the possibility of not knowing she’s really there. He turns a hair’s breadth too early, causing them both to be alone once more.
During Hadestown, the audience learns through Orpheus’ songs that Hades and Persephone used to have a passionate relationship; their marriage, which happened “when the world began”, was consensual in this retelling. Over the millennia, they got stuck somewhere along the way. Persephone drowned herself in drink, and Hades in projects to both improve Hadestown and entice his wife back to his side.
Consequently, Persephone would much rather be in the world above, finding Hades’ improvements to be an eyesore. She asks, “In the coldest time of year/Why is it so hot down here?/Hotter than a crucible/It ain’t right and it ain’t natural,” while Hades replies, “Lover, you were gone so long/Lover, I was lonesome/So I built a foundry/In the ground beneath your feet.” He comes for her too early every year, constantly afraid that she’ll refuse to come back. Hades and Persephone once had a deeply romantic relationship, but time and circumstances have turned it into a deeply destructive romance that needs fixing before it can grow into something better.
Hadestown twists Greek mythology into a capitalist tragedy featuring characters who have different life philosophies. Orpheus is a musician who can “see how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is,” while Eurydice is a survivalist who happens to fall in love along the way. Somehow, for a while, they make it work.
In the world of gods, Hades is a capitalist who makes improvements to his town in order to use those changes to convince his wife to stay longer, despite the fact that after millennia, Persephone is numb to all of his misguided attempts at preserving their relationship. He treats his workers like children, and forestalling a riot among them is why he won’t allow Orpheus to take Eurydice cleanly, but insists on his not turning back to be sure she’s following. Hades and Persephone drift apart for a long time, though Orpheus’ bravery inspires them to try to restart their relationship over the next year.
Hadestown breathes new life into Greek mythology through the depth of the relationships portrayed and strength of the retelling. Doubt and distance, respectively, drive the two romantic relationships throughout Hadestown.
Myths are often created to attempt to answer questions about the universe that people want answers to. They persist in being told and retold because they are worthy stories. People relate to the truths they reveal, which is part of the reason Hadestown has been so successful. Who hasn’t experienced doubt when in a relationship, or been distant from a loved one? The musical’s bittersweet ending allows Hades and Persephone’s relationship the possibility of being repaired, while Orpheus is doomed to walk the earth without Eurydice by his side.
Theater allows reactions to the same story with variations in performances again and again due to being a live, recurring medium. Hadestown has thrived because people cannot accept that moment of held breath, right when Orpheus might or might not break his promise and turn around to see Eurydice, one heartbeat too soon.
After all, don’t we retell stories to experience them anew? “To know how it ends,” Hermes sings, “And still begin to sing it again/As if it might turn out this time/I learned that from a friend of mine.”