Sunday, June 29, 2008

To Hell and Back: Orpheus and Eurydice

The first of our two myths concerning a decent into the underworld is that of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Hailing from Greco-Rome the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice” can be found in the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphous (c. 1st-Century C.E.). The entire poem is a mere 122 lines long, but it tells one of the most powerful and poignant tales in all of world mythology.

Orpheus and Eurydice as retold by Justin M.

Orpheus was born in the kingdom of Thrace, the son of a mortal king and Calliope; the muse of epic poetry. Yet despite his regal parentage Orpheus was not proud. He chose to live a simple life amongst nature and its beauty where he could enjoy his two greatest loves. One of these two great loves was music. Orpheus loved to play the lyre, and when he did it is said that birds and beasts of the forest grew still, trees swayed in his direction, rocks danced and rivers changed their course so as to run towards him. But even Orpheus’ love of music could not compare to that of his other great love, his greatest love, his bride Eurydice.

Orpheus and Eurydice loved one another as few people in the history of the world have ever loved one another. Theirs’ was a pure love; untainted by lies, selfishness or insecurity. It was a love that should have lasted for all of eternity. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. It was not long after Orpheus and Eurydice’s marriage that disaster struck. Eurydice was out in the meadow picking flowers to weave into her hair when she ran across the satyr Aristaeus who attempted to rape her. While fleeing from the satyr Eurydice accidentally stepped on a snake which bit her. The snake’s venom rushed into Eurydice’s veins and killed her.

Orpheus was devastated.

Try as he might, Orpheus could not bring himself to let Eurydice’s spirit go. He lamented both her fate and his and cursed the gods for being so cruel as to take her away from him. It was then that Orpheus decided that the only course of action he could take was to confront the deities of the dead themselves; Hades and his queen Persephone.

Armed with his lyre Orpheus traveled to the Gates of Sparta were he could gain entry into the land of the dead. When Orpheus arrived at the rive Styx, which separates the realm of the living from that of the dead, he was stopped by the ferryman Charon who refused to allow Orpheus to cross over, as he was not dead. Orpheus, however, simply struck a few cords on his lyre making a sound so sweet that Charon was compelled to let him pass simply so that he could hear more of the beautiful music on the ride over.

Finally, Orpheus arrived in the underworld. Surrounded by the shades of the dead and the tortured souls of sinners, Orpheus made his way to the thrones of Hades and Persephone where he pleaded his case before them in song. He sang of love and loss, of gods and men, of his fair Eurydice and his quest to retrieve her soul, and finally of how in times past even the Lord of the Dead has been swayed by the power of love.

So powerful were the words of Orpheus’ song that the very underworld itself came to a grinding halt. For the first time in the history of Hades the dead wept, Tantalus felt full, Ixion’s wheel ceased to spin, the vultures no longer gnawed at Prometheus’ liver, Sisyphus sat upon his stone, and the vengeful Furies – the most merciless of spirits – cried.

Terrified at the anarchy being unleashed upon his realm Hades conceded to Orpheus’ request and decreed that Eurydice could return to the land of the living…on one condition; Orpheus could not look upon the face of Eurydice until both of them were fully out of the netherworld. Orpheus quickly consented to Hades’ terms, for what did it matter; there would be no light to see Eurydice’s face with until after the two had reached the surface.

So with Eurydice behind him, Orpheus began his accent to the land of the living. As he walked he plucked the strings of his lyre so that Eurydice could follow the sound. However, as Orpheus continued walking and playing he suddenly found himself seized by doubt. He began to wonder why Eurydice had not spoken to him on their way up – Hades had not forbidden conversation. Orpheus also began to wonder why he could not hear Eurydice’s footsteps behind him – was it because she was still a ghost or because she was not there at all.

As Orpheus neared the surface he felt his heart begin to race with anticipation, he could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel now. Soon Eurydice would be back in his arms. Closer and closer he drew to the exit, light shown down upon his face and he realized that if Eurydice was truly there – if Hades had not played him for a fool – that he could see her now, even if they were not fully out of the realm of the dead. So he glanced, just once, over his shoulder, just long enough to see his greatest love, his beautiful, beloved Eurydice, pulled back down into the depth of hell.

Realizing what he had done, Orpheus collapsed unto the floor and wept bitterly, cursed the gods and himself, and then went off to spend the rest of his days in sad exile awaiting the day he to would die and finally be with Eurydice again.

At Top: Stone relief of Orpheus and Eurydice as they ascend from Hades.

Center: Orpheus pleads his case to Hades and Persephone in another stone relief.

Sources: Titans and Olympians: Greek & Roman Myth (1997) by Tony Allan and Sara Maitland, Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2004), and The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2007) by Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm

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