In both “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “Savitri and Satyavan”, a spouse must descend into the underworld to retrieve the soul of their departed lover. Both make a deal with the god of the underworld. One fails, one succeeds. Why?
First off, both of these stories tell us a lot about the cultures that composed them. “Orpheus and Eurydice” tells us that the Greco-Roman point of view on death was very final. Once you died you were resigned to the underworld where you were expected to stay. In the land of the dead, the living were not welcomed, just as the dead were surely not welcomed in the land of the living. “Savitri and Satyavan” paints a similar picture for us except for the fact that we see that death is not always permanent; Savitri does manage to win back her husband’s soul and return him to life. This undoubtedly reflects the Hindu world of view in which the predominate form of afterlife belief is that of ‘reincarnation’ which hold that after death many of us will go on to living new lives, being reborn again and again.
Lastly, I feel that without a doubt the most loaded issue of any to be found here in both of these tales is that of the role of the women in them. I believe that this facet of these stories is of great importance not only because of what it has to say about women is both the ancient and modern world but because it can also provide one with the answer as to why Orpheus fails in his mission while Savitri succeeds in her’s.
This is, of course, in sharp contrast to “Savitri and Satyavan”, where Savitri doesn’t merely want the return of her husband’s soul but needs it. As Savitri notes in both my retelling of the story and the original version, that in Indian society it was a wife’s dharma – sacred duty – to care for her husband and bear his children. Without a husband Savitri would not have been able to fulfill her dharma and as a result would not have been able to join her husband in heaven as she would have to be reincarnated in an attempt to fulfill her duty as a woman and a wife in a another life. For some women readers this may not seem much better a situation than that Eurydice, however, I would ask those readers to keep in mind that Savitri is essentially just trying to be faithful to her vows as a wife, the same type of vows that western women make on their wedding day. Also, take stock in that fact that not only is Savitri the protagonist and hero of her story but also a shinning example of a smart, strong and determined woman who was not about to let her husband second guess her womanly intuition or let a male death god tell her what she could and could not do, all of which is far superior to poor little Eurydice who doesn’t have but a single line of dialogue in her entire tale.
With that in mind, I would also like to point out what these two myths can teach us today. Both myths teach us about the power of love, which is one of the greatest powers in the world, however, they also teach us what can happen when love is misguided. I personally think that in modern western society today there are a lot of Orpheuses out there. Talented young men who are desperately and recklessly pursuing women who they do not need but merely want, because to them women are nothing more than possessions to be had. Likewise there are a lot of young women out there who have let themselves become helpless little Eurydices, following there own Orpheuses all the way to the top only to have them foolishly cast them away with a backwards glance. While “Orpheus and Eurydice” is without a doubt one of my favorite myths from all of Greco-Roman mythology I do believe that from a social standpoint it is not one that needs to be imitated but rather learned from, a cautionary fable. Rather what we in the west need are more women like Savitri and more men like Satyavan who, in spite of their own piggishness, can learn to respect and trust their wives, girlfriends or lovers.
At Top: The title sheet for classical composer Monteverdi's 1607 opera The Legend of Orpheus. The myth of "Orpheus and Eurydice" has had a strong impact on western culture, having been adapted into poems, songs, novels, plays, operas, movies, comics and more. Visit Wikipedia's page on Orpheus for a very comprehensive list.