Throughout history, every culture has developed its own formula for the ideal love story. Nowadays, most of our favorites start with “Once upon a time…” and end with a happily ever after. But these stories differ greatly from those that came before them, especially if we are talking about Greek mythology – their great love stories rarely end well. You may ask yourself, what is the point? Let us first look at some of the most famous lovers in Greek mythology.
Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus was the most talented lyre player in all the lands, and had just married the lovely Eurydice – his life was perfect. But that did not last long, as Eurydice was bitten by a viper in a field and died shortly after. Orpheus, desperate to bring back his wife from the Underworld, travels to Hades and begs him to return her in exchange for a song. Moved by his talent, Hades agrees to let Eurydice go, under the condition that Orpheus does not turn around to look at her until they arrive at the surface. On the way up, however, doubt creeps into Orpheus’ heart and he turns around to check on his wife – therefore damning her to return to the Underworld forever.
Pyramus and Thisbe
Pyramus and Thisbe were children of warring families, making their love impossible and forcing them to try and run away in search of a peaceful life with each other. Having agreed upon a meeting place under a mulberry tree, the two lovers snuck out at night. The first to arrive was Thisbe, who found a lion there with his latest kill and ran away in fear, leaving her veil behind. When Pyramus found her bloodied veil under the tree he thought she had been the lion’s victim and threw himself on his sword. Thisbe returned to find her lover dead and followed his example, making this a precursor for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Apollo and Hyacinth
Not only mortals have love troubles in Greek mythology, gods sometimes do, too. The god Apollo and the mortal Hyacinth were lovers, but their happiness was interrupted by the wind god Zephyros who, jealous that Hyacinth had only eyes for Apollo, struck the mortal dead with a discus. Devastated, Apollo took the blood that dripped from Hyacinth’s wound and crafted it into a flower that would henceforth bloom in his memory, staining the petals with his godly tears. Even today that beautiful flower carries the name of Apollo’s lover, Hyacinth.
Eros and Psyche
Psyche was so beautiful that even Aphrodite was jealous and wanted to curse her with never finding a husband. The goddess sent Eros to carry out the curse, but Eros was so enchanted that he mixed up the potions and poked them both with his arrows, falling in love with Psyche. After being unable to find someone to marry her, Psyche’s parents learned that there was in fact a creature willing to take her as a wife, so they sent her up the mountain to its lair. The creature turned out to be a wonderful husband, treating her with love and devotion but never permitting Psyche to see his face. Psyche disobeyed and discovered her husband was Eros, enraging Aphrodite, but Eros stood by Psyche, which in the end granted her immortality and a rare happy ending for them both.
What is the role of love?
Most of the Greek lovers have a tragic ending and even those who don’t need to overcome vicious obstacles before they can live happily ever after. In most of Greek mythology, love is the driving force behind a character’s action, the reason why the plot unfolds the way it does, and those actions are almost always relatable, be it a god or a mortal. The role of love here can be viewed as a teaching device, teaching us trust, devotion, forgiveness, and a way to deal with loss. The function of these myths about love is to teach us about life.
Edith Hamilton. Mythology; Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. 75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition. Hachette UK, 2017.