Monday, March 5th, 2012
Most of the heroes in ancient Greek myth were known either for their exploits in war or their victories over terrifying monsters. But two of the most famous ancient figures made their mark in other ways—Daedalus, the master craftsman, and Orpheus the great musician. I love the stories of both of these men, but thanks to the excellent suggestion of reader Simon, I’m going to start with Orpheus.
Orpheus’ origins are obscure. He was associated with the region of Thrace, north and east of Greece, and was most often said to be the child of the muse Calliope. In some versions of the story his father is a king of Thrace, in others it’s Apollo, god of music himself.
Orpheus was born with a god-like gift for music, able to sing and play the lyre so beautifully that even the rocks themselves wept. It was a popular trope in art, both ancient and modern, to show the great musician surrounded by formerly savage animals made tame by the sweetness of his music.
Orpheus was also a favorite subject of poets, especially since in the ancient world poems and songs synonymous. That’s why Homer asks the muse to “sing of the rage of Achilles,” and why Vergil tells us he is going to “sing of arms and a man.” The Iliad literally means “the song of Troy” (“Ili” means Troy, and “ad” here is the ancestor of our modern word “ode”). Orpheus was the incarnation of a writer’s power, proof that you don’t need a club, or magic sandals–you could change the world with your words alone.
Of course, any author who did take on Orpheus’ story had a true artistic challenge—were they going to try to create an example of one of Orpheus’ legendary songs? I always find this a fascinating moment in art, when a character who is meant to be a genius at something must finally reveal their work. Characteristically, Ovid dares to write for Orpheus—Vergil, ever modest, does not. I love both of those ancient poets, but I have to say that if I were forced to pick one of them for the voice of Orpheus it would be Vergil. I would believe it that he made the stones weep.
Orpheus falls in love with the beautiful nymph Eurydice, and the two make plans to wed. But on their wedding day, Eurydice steps on a snake, which bites her. In some versions of the story, she doesn’t see the snake because she is dancing with her handmaidens; in Vergil’s version, she is fleeing Aristaeus, a young demi-god attempting to rape her. Either way she is killed, and Orpheus is stricken with terrible and all-consuming grief.
Vergil’s description of the mourning Orpheus is hauntingly beautiful, as he sits alone on the shore singing to his lost wife. Part of what makes it so arresting is that Vergil addresses Eurydice herself, “he was singing to you, sweet wife” making the reader, Orpheus and Vergil all one. He also echoes the sound of the “you” (“te,” in Latin) throughout the line, mirroring the repetitive nature of Orpheus’ longing. It’s the type of effect that is nearly impossible to capture in translation, so here are the lines, in Latin, with the “te” sounds highlighted:
te, dulcis coniunx, te solo in litore secum,
te veniente die, te decedente canebat.
You, sweet wife, he was singing of you, by himself on the lonely shore,
you as day was coming, you as day was departing.
Orpheus decides on a desperate course of action—he will go into death itself to try to retrieve Eurydice. Armed only with his lyre and his beautiful voice, Orpheus makes his way past every terrifying danger the underworld holds, from Cerberus to the crossing of the river Styx. Finally he arrives at the court of Hades and Persephone, and begins to sing. Ovid has an amazing description of the whole underworld stopping to listen—even those eternally tormented souls in the pit of Tartarus. Tantalus no longer reaches for food and water, and Sisyphus sits upon his rock. Moved to tears, the king and queen agree to release Eurydice on their one, famous condition: that as he leads Eurydice up to life again, he not turn to look at her.
As a child, I always found this part inexplicable—why couldn’t he look at her? Were they just being cruel? But as I got older I began to appreciate its allegorical resonance, like the story of Psyche, about human nature, and doubt, and trust. It’s easy to say I would not have looked. But if I really think about it, I can name half a dozen times in my life when I did, metaphorically, look back. Fortunately, I have never had to suffer the consequences Orpheus did for my fears.
Just as they are almost safely away, Orpheus is overcome with doubt about whether she is truly behind him. Without thinking, he turns to look. Her faithful shade immediately vanishes, and the devastated Orpheus attempts to return to Hades and rescue her again. But this time the boatman Charon refuses to carry him across the river. He sits on the shore starving, hoping for death, so that he may join Eurydice. But the gods will not let him die. Reluctantly, he returns to the upper world, finding solace only in his music. I am no musician myself, but I know how often I have turned to songs for comfort and understanding. I love that this has been a part of humanity for as long as our myths go back.
Ovid adds an interesting twist to the story at this point. He says that many women sought to replace Eurydice in Orpheus’ affections, but that Orpheus spurned them all, and turned instead to men, which was the origin of homosexuality in Thrace. A fascinating detail, that he doesn’t delve into further. But it does give him a transition to Orpheus’ unfortunate, grisly end. A group of Maenads, female followers of Bacchus, are enraged by Orpheus’ rejection of women, and in their wine-sodden frenzy decide to tear him to pieces–a version of “if we can’t have him, no one can!”
As they approach him, Orpheus doesn’t run, only keeps playing his beautiful, mournful songs. The Maenads throw rocks at him, but even the rocks are in love with Orpheus, and fall far short. It is only when the Maenads begin to scream and beat their drums, drowning out Orpheus’ song, that they are able to attack him—and literally tear him apart. Ovid, never one to spare a gruesome image, has Orpheus’ head float down the river, still singing.
Eventually, all ends well. Orpheus is reunited with his Eurydice in the underworld where, Ovid says, they may walk together, leading or following, and looking back as they please. In framing the story this way, Ovid doesn’t use the allegorical resonance of looking back as a failure of trust. Instead, he makes the story about the cruelty of life that can keep lovers apart. Here, in the underworld, there is no bar to love.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired numerous artists working in film, on the stage, and in print. Most recently, I enjoyed Sarah Ruhl’s play “Eurydice” which takes the perspective of the story’s heroine, and adds the character of Eurydice’s dead father. Eurydice is poignantly torn between life and her lover, and staying with her beloved father.
I wish you all a very happy start to March, whichever direction you happen to be looking.
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto
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