Wednesday, July 9, 2008

To Hell and Back: Conclusions

There are many things that we can learn from the tales of “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “Savitri and Satyavan”, things about ourselves, about our culture, ancient culture, death, and the role of women in society. In my last entry I asked readers to think about why it is that Orpheus fails where Savitri succeeds and what this has to say about a variety of issues, most of which were just mentioned in the previous sentence. This is a question that I have dwelled on for quite some time now. I find both of these myths utterly fascinating, especially because they are both so similar and yet so different. So in conclusion, here’s what I think…

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.

Secondly, the deals which both Orpheus and Eurydice strike with their respective underworld gods are also interesting, especially because they serve as a prototype for later Christian legends concerning Faustian deals with the devil. In the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice”, however, it is Hades who apparently wins the beat, as Orpheus fails to keep his eyes off of Eurydice until after the two have left the underworld. There are those who feel that Hades’ tricked Orpheus, however, I disagree, believing instead that Hades, if anything, was simply banking on the fact that Orpheus’ inherent human weakness would get the better of him. As for Savitri’s deal with Yama, I think it’s pretty clear that in this case Savitri did trick Yama into giving her Satyavan’s soul. The type of ‘loop-hole logic’ which Savitri employs here is also fairly common in both myths and fairy-tales, especially in Arabian mythology were it is often employed by djinn’s who want to get the better of their masters. Ultimately, what the story of “Savitri and Satyavan” is trying to tell us here, I believe, is that being quick witted is a virtue; for one who is fast on their feet may even be able to outwit the gods.

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.

The key difference between Orpheus and Savitri, I feel, is ultimately motivation. Orpheus wants Eurydice while Savitri needs Satyavan, and this all has to do with how women were viewed in ancient Greco-Rome and India. Ancient Greece and Rome as well as India were patriarchal societies; men ran almost everything. This is still true today in modern India as in modern western society which has been largely modeled off the Greco-Roman prototype. However, there is one crucial difference. In Greco-Roman patriarchal society women were viewed as objects, literally second class citizens who could be owned by their husbands. This was in contrast to eastern patriarchy where women were still not as socially powerful as men but nevertheless still had many of the same freedoms and rights that men enjoyed, a fact which is still true today.

Now, while one who is sufficiently familiar with the tale of “Orpheus and Eurydice” would never question whether or not Orpheus truly loves Eurydice – he does – one does need to take note of the fact that Orpheus’ love for her is framed within a Hellenistic context, meaning that to him Eurydice is a ‘possession.’ And this is exactly the tone that one picks up on when re-reading the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Following Eurydice’s death Orpheus acts like he has just had something stolen from him, like a prized trophy or a new car. He then descends into the underworld to essentially demand the return of his property from Hades, albeit in song. The problem with all this is that the cold truth of the matter is that, from a social standpoint, Orpheus doesn’t need Eurydice, he simply wants her. Had this story been reversed with Eurydice having lost Orpheus and then failing to win back his soul, she would not have then been able to continue on with life by herself in perpetual morning – the way Orpheus does. She would have been expected to marry someone else; in fact, she probably would have been married off to someone else by her father in the weeks following Orpheus death, because that is what happened to women in ancient Greece and Rome.

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.


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