The Power to Soothe the Savage Beast
Orpheus was the Mozart of the ancient world. He was more than that. Orpheus was the Cole Porter, the Shakespeare, the Lennon and McCartney, the Adele, Prince, Luciano Pavarotti, Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar of the ancient world, the acknowledged sweet-singing master of words and music. During his lifetime his fame spread around the Mediterranean and beyond. It was said that his pure voice and matchless playing could charm the beasts of the field, the fishes of the sea, the birds of the air and even the insensate rocks and waters. Rivers themselves diverted their courses to hear him. Hermes invented the lyre, Apollo improved upon it, but Orpheus perfected it.
It is agreed who his mother was but there is less certainty about his father. Here we come to a theme that repeats in many variations in this Age of Heroes. That of double parenthood. Calliope, Beautiful Voice, the Muse of Epic Poetry, was Orpheus’s mother by a mortal, the Thracian king Oeagrus. But Apollo was believed to be Orpheus’s father too, and Orpheus was quite a favourite of the god. In any case young Orpheus romped with his mother and eight Muse aunts on Mount Parnassus and it was there that the doting Apollo presented his son with a golden lyre, which he personally taught him to play.
Soon the prodigy’s skill at the instrument exceeded even that of his father, the god of music. Unlike Marsyas, who may have been his stepbrother, Orpheus did not boast about his prowess, nor did he make the mistake of challenging his divine father to a competition. Instead he spent his days mastering his craft, charming the birds of the air and beasts of the field, causing the branches of the trees to bend down and listen to his lyre and the fishes to jump and bubble with joy at his soft, seductive strains.
His character matched the sweetness of his playing and singing. He played for the love of music and his songs celebrated the beauty of the world and the glory of love.
Orpheus and Eurydice
So great was his fame that when Jason gathered a crew for the Argo and his quest for the Golden Fleece, he knew he had to have Orpheus on board. But more of Jason later. For now, all we need to know if that the gods rewarded Orpheus for his bravery and loyalty in this adventure with the gift of love, in the shape of the beautiful Eurydice.
As might be imagined, the wedding was quite an affair. All the Muses attended. Thalia entertained with comedy sketches; Terpsichore led the dances. Each of the other sisters also delighted the guests with examples of their own particular art. But a strange and uncomfortable incident clouded the happy event in the minds of many who witnessed it.
Among the guests was Orpheus’s half-brother Hymen, a son of Apollo and the Muse Urania. A minor deity of song (he gave us the word ‘hymn’) Hymen served as one of the Erotes, (the young men in the love god Eros’s retinue) with a special responsibility for weddings and the marriage bed. Our words ‘hymen’ and ‘hymenal’ also derive from him. His presence at his half-brother’s wedding was natural and a great compliment, but for some reason – jealousy perhaps – Hymen failed to bless the union. The torch he bore spluttered and smoked, causing everyone to cough. The atmosphere was so acrid that even Orpheus was unable to sing with his accustomed sweetness of tone. Hymen soon departed the feast, but the cold unfriendliness of his presence left a taste in the mouth quite as unpleasant as that of the black smoke from his torch.
Orpheus and Eurydice, this dark note quite banished from their minds, set up a happy house together in Pimpleia, a small town that nestled in the valley below Olympus, close to sthe Pierian Spring, sacred to the Muses.
It was Eurydice’s misfortune, though, to catch the eye of Aristaeus, a minor god of bee-keeping, agriculture and other country crafts. One afternoon, on her way home from the market, she took a shortcut through a water meadow. In the distance she could just hear her beloved Orpheus strumming his lyre as he tried out a new and lovely song. Suddenly Aristaeus burst out from behind a poplar tree and bore down upon her. Frightened, she dropped the bread and fruit she was carrying and fled wildly, zigzagging across the fields. Aristaeus pursued her laughing.
‘Orpheus! Orpheus!’ Eurydice cried.
Orpheus put down his lyre. Was that his wife’s voice?
‘Help me, help me!’ screamed the voice.
Orpheus ran towards the sound.
Eurydice wove this way and that, trying to escape the remorseless Aristaeus, whose hot breath she could feel on her neck. In her blind panic she stumbled and fell into a ditch. Aristaeus closed in, but by now Orpheus had appeared and was running towards them, shouting. Aristaeus knew an angry husband when he saw one and turned away, disappointed.
As Orpheus reached the scene he heard Eurydice cry out again. The ditch into which she had stumbled was the home of an adder which struck out angrily, sinking its fangs into her heel. Orpheus reached her side in time to see her sink back in mortal agony.
He took her in his arms. He breathed into her, sang softly into her ear begging her to return to him, but the venom of the viper had done its work. Her soul left her body.
The cry that escaped from Orpheus struck horror and fear into the whole valley. The Muses heard it, the gods on Olympus heard it. It was the last sound they were to hear from Orpheus for some time.
His mourning was as absolute and unwavering as could be. He put his lyre aside. He would never sing again. He would never smile again, compose a lyric again, so much as hum again. What life was left to him would be spent in pain and anguished silence.
The town of Pimpleia was given over to lamentation, grieving more over the loss of Orpheus’s music than the life of Eurydice, well-loved as she had been. The nymphs of the woods, waters and mountains fell into mourning too. Even the gods of Olympus pined and fretted at the drying up of the music.
Apollo went to visit his son. He found him sitting in the porch, gazing out across the very fields where Eurydice had met her end.
‘Come now,’ said Apollo. ‘It’s been more than a year. You can’t mope like this for ever.’
‘What would persuade you to pick up your lyre again?’
‘Only the living presence of my beloved wife.’
‘Well …’ a thoughtful frown appeared on the golden god’s smooth brow. ‘Eurydice is in the underworld. The gates are guarded by Cerberus the three-headed hound of hell. No one but Heracles has ever penetrated the underworld and returned, and even he didn’t come back up with a dead soul. But if anyone can do it, you can.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Why not go and get her?’
‘You just said, ‘No one has ever penetrated the underworld and returned’.’
‘Ah, but no one has ever had the power you have, Orpheus.’
‘The power of music. If anyone could tame Cerberus and charm Charon the ferryman it is you. If anyone could melt the hearts of Hades and Persephone, it is you.’
‘You really think …?’
‘Have faith in what music can do.’
Orpheus went into the house and retrieved his lyre from the dusty cupboard into which he had thrust it.
‘String it with these,’ said Apollo plucking from his head twenty-four golden hairs.
Orpheus restrung the lyre and tuned it. Never had it sounded more beautiful.
‘Now go, and come back with Eurydice.’
Orpheus in the Underground
Orpheus travelled all the way from Pimpleia to Cape Tainaron in the Peloponnese, the southernmost point of all Greece, where could be found a cave that formed one of the entrances to the Underworld.
The path from the cape sloped down, after many mazy turns, to the main gate guarded by Cerberus – the slavering, shuddering, slobbering three-headed dog, offspring of the primordial monsters Echidna and Typhon.
At the sight of a living mortal daring to enter the halls of hell Cerberus wagged his serpent tail and drooled in anticipation. Only the dead could pass him, and in order to dwell in peace in the Meadow of Asphodel they would know to bring with them a piece of food with which to placate him. Orpheus had no sop for Cerberus other than his art. Inwardly quaking but outwardly assured, he brushed the strings of the golden lyre with his fingers and began to sing.
At the sound of the song, Cerberus – who had bunched himself up ready to bound forward and savage this presumptuous mortal – gave a whining gulp and froze in his tracks. His huge eyes rounded and he began to pant with pleasure and an inner joy that he was entirely new to him. He dropped down on his haunches and curled himself on the cold stone of the gateway, like a huntsman’s favourite hound dreaming by the fire after a long day in the field. Orpheus’s song slowed into a gentle lullaby. Cerberus’s six ears flopped down, his six eyes closed, his three tongues passed across his chops with a great slap and his three massive heads dropped into a deep and happy sleep. Even the snake of his tail drooped in peaceful slumber.
Orpheus climbed over the snoring form and, still humming his lullaby, he headed along the cold dark passageway until his progress was blocked by the black waters of the River Styx. Charon the ferryman poled his way towards him from the further bank where he had just deposited a new soul. He stretched out his hand for payment but quickly withdrew it when he saw that the young man standing before him was alive.
‘Hence! Avaunt!’ cried Charon in a hoarse whisper.
In reply Orpheus strummed his lyre and began a new song, a song praising the overlooked profession of ferryman, glorifying the unrecognised diligence and industry of one ferryman in particular – Charon, the great Charon, whose central role in the vast mystery of life and death should be celebrated the world over.
Never had Charon’s ferry skimmed the cold waters of the Styx with such alacrity. Never before had Charon, his skiff now beached, put an arm round a fare and helped them gently to disembark. And for sure, never, not in all eternity, had such a stupid, fatuous smile played over the ferryman’s habitually gaunt and unrelenting features. He stood supporting himself on his pole, his adoring gaze fixed on the person of Orpheus who, with a final wave and strum of the lyre, was soon swallowed up by the darkness of the passageways that led to the palace of Hades and Persephone.
On entering the palace’s great hall, Orpheus found himself facing the three Judges of the Underworld, Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, enthroned in a grim semicircle. The light of Orpheus’s living spirit dazzled their eyes.
‘How dare the living invade the realm of the dead?’
‘Summon Thanatos, lord of death, to suck the insolent soul from his body!’
Orpheus took up his lyre and before the last command could be obeyed the three judges were smiling, nodding their heads and tapping their sandaled toes in time to the intoxicating strains.
Their retinue of ghoulish servants, sentries and attendants had not heard music for so long that they could not remember how to respond to it. Some clutched at the air as if the sounds they heard were butterflies that could be caught in their hands. Some clapped, clumsily at first, but soon in time to the beat of the lyre’s chords. An awkward shuffle turned into a rhythmic stamp that became a frenzied dance. Within minutes the whole chamber was alive and echoing with singing, dancing and cries of joy and laughter.
‘What is the meaning of this?’
At the sight of Hades, King of the Underworld, himself and his pale consort Persephone, the hall fell into an instant and guilty silence. As in a game of musical chairs they froze to a halt with a thuds and skids. Only Orpheus appeared unmoved.
Hades curled a beckoning finger. ‘If you wish to avoid an eternal punishment more excruciating than those of Ixion, Sisyphus and Tantalus combined, you had better explain yourself, mortal. What possible excuse could you have for this indecent display?’
‘Not an excuse, sir, but a reason. The best and only reason.’
‘A pert reply. And what is this reason?’
Hades replied with the barrage of bleak barks that was the closest he came to laughing.
‘My wife Eurydice is here. I must have her back.’
‘Must?’ Persephone stared at him in disbelief. ‘You dare use such a word?’
‘My father Apollo –’
‘We do no favours for Olympians,’ said Hades. ‘You are mortal and you have trespassed into the realm of the dead. That is all we need to know.’
‘Perhaps my music may change your mind.’
‘Music! We are immune to its charms here.’
‘I tamed Cerberus. I charmed Charon. I bewitched the Judges of the Underworld and their retinue. Are you perhaps afraid that my songs might enchant you also?’
Queen Persephone whispered briefly in her husband’s ear.
Hades nodded. ‘Fetch Eurydice!’ he commanded. ‘One song,’ he said to Orpheus. ‘You may sing one song. If it fails to delight, the relentless agony of your torture will be the talk and terror of the cosmos till the end of time. If your music moves us, well – we will allow you and your woman to return to the world above.’
When Eurydice’s spirit floated into the hall and saw Orpheus standing so boldly before the King and Queen of the Dead, she let out a great cry of joy and wonder. Orpheus saw the shimmering form of her shade and called out to her.
‘Yes, yes!’ said Hades, testily. ‘Most affecting. Now. Your song.’
Orpheus took up his lyre and gave a deep breath. Never had an artist asked more of their art.
The moment his hands touched the strings everyone present knew that they were going to hear something entirely new. Nimbly Orpheus’s fingertips flew up and down, the strings causing a cascade of trilling notes so quick and pure that everyone caught their breath. And now, out of the golden ripple emerged the voice. It asked everyone to think of love. Surely, even here, in the dark caverns of death, love still sat in their souls? Could they remember for the first time they felt the sweeping rush of love? Love came to peasants, kings and even gods. Love made all equal. Love deified, yet love levelled.
Persephone’s hand tightened around Hades’ wrist as she recalled the day his chariot erupted into the meadow where she had been gathering flowers. Hades found himself thinking of the bargain he had struck with Demeter, Persephone’s mother, allowing him access to his beloved for six whole months in every year.
Persephone turned to look at her husband, the man who had taken her by force but kept her by his steadfast love. Only she understood his dark moods and the honest passions that boiled within. He returned her gaze. Could that be a tear she saw welling up in his eye?
Orpheus reached the climax of his song to Eros. It wound its way along the passageways and through the chambers, galleries and hallways of hell, binding all who heard it – the servants of Hades, the emissaries of death and the souls of the departed – in a spell that took them, for as long as the music played in their ears, far away from the remorseless miseries of their endless captivity and into a kingdom of light and love.
‘Your wish is granted,’ boomed Hades huskily as the last notes faded away. ‘Your wife may depart.’
At his words Eurydice’s shade took on the substance and form of quick and breathing life. She ran into her husband’s arms and they held each other tight. But a frown was forming on Hades’ brow. The loss of just one dead soul tormented him. When it came to the spirits doomed to spend eternity in his kingdom, he was a hoarder, a miser of the meanest kind.
The moment Eurydice had returned to flesh and blood, Orpheus had stopped playing and singing and the powerful spell of the music began to weaken its hold. It was a memory, a keen and a beautiful one, but the transcendent mood it engendered, like all the keenest pleasures, vanished like steam the moment the closing notes died away. Hades now regretted bitterly that while imprisoned in the bewitching coils of Orpheus’s song he could have been so weak as to agree to Eurydice’s release. How foolish he had been to give his word in front of so many witnesses. He leaned across for a whispered consultation with Persephone. Nodding, with a small smile of triumph, he kissed her cheek and pointed a finger at Orpheus.
‘Let go of the woman. Turn and leave us.’
‘But you said …’
‘She will follow. As you make your way to the upper world, she will remain ten paces behind. But if you turn round to look at her, if you cast so much as the briefest backward glance in her direction you will lose her. Trust, Orpheus the musician. You must show that you honour us and have faith in our word. Now go.’
Orpheus took Eurydice’s face in his hands, kissed her cheek and turned to leave.
‘Remember!’ Persephone called after him. ‘Look back for just one instant and she will be ours. No matter how many times you return, and how many songs you sing, you will have lost her forever.’
‘I won’t be far behind. Have faith!’ said Eurydice.
Orpheus reached the door that led to life and freedom.
‘Faith!’ replied Orpheus, his eyes fixed resolutely ahead of him.
And so he began to make his way along the slowly rising stone corridors and passageways. Hundreds of flitting souls acknowledged him and breathed messages of good luck as he passed. Some alarmed him by begging to be taken to the upper world with him, but Orpheus waved them away and kept resolutely to his course, upwards and ever upwards. Gates and doors opened mysteriously before him as he went.
To encourage Eurydice, but mostly to reassure himself, he called out continually.
‘Still there, my darling?’
‘Always ten paces behind. Trust me.’
‘So close now.’
Indeed, over the last two hundred or so paces Orpheus had become aware of a cool breeze fanning his face and fresh air filling his nostrils. Now he saw light ahead. Not the underworld’s light of rush torches, pitch lamps and burning oil, but the pure light of living day. He quickened his step and pressed forward. So close, so fantastically close! In just fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve steps they would be free, free to live their lives again as husband and wife. Free to have children, to travel the world together. Oh, the places they would visit. The wonders they would see. The songs and poetry and music he would compose.
The mouth of the cave opened wide as Orpheus strode on with joy and triumph in his heart. One more step – out of the shadows and into the light.
He had done it! He was out in the world, the sun was warming his face and its light was dazzling his eyes. Ten more steps forward to be sure, and now he could turn and take his beloved in his arms.
But no! No, no, no and no!
Orpheus had not known it, but his last twenty or so steps had accelerated into a run. Eurydice had quickened her own pace to try to match his, but when he turned round she was still too far behind, still in shadow, still in the realm of the dead.
Her eyes, filled with horror and fear, caught his for a second before the light inside her seemed to die and she was pulled back into the darkness.
With a cry of anguish Orpheus ran into the cave but she was flying away from him at tremendous speed, no longer flesh and blood but an immaterial spirit once more. Her unhappy cries echoed as Orpheus ran blindly into the blackness after her. The doors and gateways that had opened to let them leave now slammed shut in his face. He beat his fists against them until they bled, but to no avail.He could no longer hear her cries of despair, only his own.
If he had waited just two blinks of an eye before turning they would have been united and free. Just two heartbeats.
The Death of Orpheus
Orpheus’s later life was a sad one. After a long second mourning period he picked up his lyre again and continued to compose, play and sing for the rest of his life, but he never found a woman to match his Eurydice. Indeed, it is reported in several sources that he turned away from women altogether and lavished what affection he had left on the male youths of Thrace.
The Thracian women, the Ciconians, followers of Dionysus, were so enraged at being overlooked that they threw sticks and stones at Orpheus. However, the sticks and stones were so charmed by his music they just hung in mid-air, refusing to hurt him.
At last the Ciconian women could bear the degradation and insult of being ignored no longer and, in a Bacchic frenzy they tore Orpheus to pieces, pulling off his limbs and wrenching the head from his shoulders. The golden harmonies of Apollo were always an affront to the dark Dionysian dances and dithyrambs.
Orpheus’s head, still singing, was cast into the river Hebrus where it floated out into the Agean. Eventually it found its way onto the beach at Lesbos; it was taken up by the inhabitants of the island and placed in a cave. For many years people came from all over to the cave to ask the head of Orpheus questions, and it always sang the most melodious prophecies in reply.
At last Orpheus’s father Apollo, perhaps jealous that the shrine was threatening the supremacy of his own oracle at Delphi, silenced him. His mother Calliope found his golden lyre and carried it heavenwards, where it was placed amongst the stars as the constellation Lyra, which contains Vega, the fifth brightest star in the firmament. His aunts, the eight other Muses, gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, below Mount Olympus, where nightingales still sing over his grave.
Finally at peace, Orpheus’s spirit descended once more into the underworld where he was at last reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Thanks to Offenbach they still perform a joyful cancan together in the realm of the dead every single day.