Never was there a tale of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. Wrong! There were plenty of tales of similar woe that predated Romeo and Juliet, many disturbingly similar to it, in fact. These three obscure tales of the lovelorn give that old dusty tale a run for its money in the category of tragic romance.
Orpheus and Eurydice
The earliest account of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice comes from about 530 BC, told by the lyrical poet Ibycus.
As the tale goes, Orpheus was a talented musician living in Thrace, he was said to have gotten his musical talent from his father Apollo and his mother the muse Calliope. Orpheus was not just a famous musician, but an adventurous young lad. He appears in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts several times using his musical talents to charm many a beast.
At one of his many enchanting performances, his eyes fell on the shy and beautiful wood nymph, Eurydice. He became enchanted by her beauty and she became enchanted by his music. They fell deeply in love and became unable to spend a moment apart.
Soon after their wedding day, a shepard by the name of Aristaeus began to covet Eurydice and wanted her for his own. Aristaeus plotted to jump from a bush and kill Orpheaus and take Eurydice for his own. However, as he sprang from the bush, Orpheaus grabbed his wife's hand and took flight into the woods. As they ran, Eurydice stumbled and the shepard saw what had happened and left. Eurydice had stepped in a nest of snakes and was bit by a deadly viper.
While mourning the death of his wife, Orpheaus came up with a plot. Orpheaus convinced his father Apollo to talk to Hades and accept an audience with him. Orpheaus armed himself with his lyre and headed into the Underworld. When he stood in front of Hades and his wife Persephone, he played such a sad song that the God of the Underworld openly wept. Hades returned Eurydice to Orpheaus with one stipulation, that he did not look back at her until they both reached the light of the upper world.
Orpheaus behaved all the way back until he took his first steps into the mortal world. However, as he returned to the mortal world, he could not control himself any more. He turned around only to see Eurydice briefly in the darkness. She had not been touched by the light of the upper world yet. Her image faded back into the Underworld.
Orpheaus was never the same again, he wandered day and night in a disoriented haze until his brutal and violent death.
(He was cut apart by irate women who were upset he was not enchanted by their beauty and tossed in a river, but that is another story.)
Pyramus and Thisbe
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is recorded by Ovid in his Metamorphoses which was completed in 8 AD.
This tale follows Pyramus and Thisbe who were neighbors in the ancient city of Babylon. The two fell in love over time, but their fathers would not consent to a marriage. They continued their affair by whispering to each other in a crack in the wall.
They eventually agreed to run away together. They decided to meet that night outside the walls of the city by the tomb of Ninus, one of the ancient kings of Babylon. Thisbe snuck out that night and waited by a mulberry tree. Illuminated in the moonlight she saw a lioness nearby with bloodied jaws coming to drink from the stream. She fled in fear to a near by cave, however, she dropped her veil.
The lioness played with the veil for awhile before growing bored and wandering away. When Pyramus arrived, he found no sign of his lover, except for her long torn bloody veil. He deduced that the lion had eaten his love.
In his grief, Pyramus drew his dagger and sunk it deep into his flesh. The blood spurted up onto the white mulberries, painting them a deep purple. Thisbe came out from her cave, confused as to why the mulberries had gone from white to purple. She saw her lover just as his limbs twitched for the final time.
Thisbe ripped out her hair in grief and called out for her parents to bury them in the same grave and the mulberries to always bear those dark purple berries to commemorate their death. Thisbe sunk her lovers' dagger into her chest.
Thier parents did indeed bury them in the same urn and from then on, mulberry berries were the same deep purple.
Layla and Majnun
This is an old Persian love story, popularized by the poet Nizami Ganjavi in his collection of lyrical poems the Khamsa, publish sometime between 1150 AD and 1200 AD.
The story follows a young man called Qays (Majnun) who fell in love with an unremarkably average girl named Layla at school. His spark of love soon burned into a fire for her. He would stare longingly at the school gates if she was late for school and all the other children mocked him for it. Soon, Layla began to reciprocate his love. They saw no one but each other. Children would point them out at school and the teachers began to worry that they were crazed.
Layla's parents removed her from school but she could find no rest without Majnun. Majnun was soon removed from school as well, his parents called all the physicians, but they said there was no cure for his love sickness.
As a last resort, his parents banished him into the desert where he lived among the animals. The locals soon referred to him as Majnun, which translates into madman. Majnun neglects to eat and become emaciated.
It is in this desert he befriends an old Bedouin who is moved by his tale of intense love and vows to win him his lovers' hand. The Bedouin attack and defeat Layla's tribe, but her parent still refuse to marry the two because of Majnun's mad behavior. They soon marry her to another man. After he husbands' death, the old Bedouin sets up a meeting between the two. They were never able to be together in life, but in death they were buried side by side.