Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Orpheus and Eurydice

The son of the Thracian King Oeagrus, Prince Orpheus, seemed to many who met him an unremarkable man, neither tall of stature like Hercules, nor divinely handsome as Adonis. He was not a renowned warrior, as Achilles, or even notably silver tongued as Odysseus. The son of a King, and the Muse Calliope, Orpheus did however possess two qualities so rare in the great men of his time. For the Thracian Prince was blessed with a heart of gold, and was gifted lyre player, a trait handed down from his mother and grandfather - the god Apollo. Both of these things would be his greatest asset, and his ultimate ruin...

Orpheus serenades the Nymphs of the Forest
Painting by Charles Jalabert
While the lyre was the creation of the god Hermes, it was Orpheus who perfected it. As a young child Apollo gifted his favoured grandson with a lyre of burnished gold, and his mother, the patron of lofty poetry, taught him many a verse of heroic lore, and the Prince set it all to heart-warming music. Any doubts old King Oeagrus may have had at his son's disinterest in military pursuits were at once silenced the moment young Orpheus began to play, for the hearts of the King and all his court were moved by the heavenly notes. Many a summer's afternoon would young Orpheus spend in the wild forests of Thrace, his refuge of body, his music, his sanctuary of mind. Oblivious he was too, to the enchanting power of his tunes. The nymphs of the forest lay all around, entranced by the Prince's songs, as they had been for his brother Marsyas. The beasts of the glades, boars, wolves and the like all stood alert and spellbound. Even the stones of the forest floor lent their attention to the sound that soothed the air, such was the power of the music that Orpheus created. The Prince's quiet life, however, did not endure for long. As a young man, Orpheus volunteered to join Jason and his fellow Argonauts on their arduous quest to the ends of the Earth for the Golden Fleece (a story which shall be told in the future on this site). The crew of heroes, including mighty Hercules himself, grew to respect and admire Orpheus, whose humble demeanour and beautiful compositions came to their rescue on many an occasion when morale was low, saving the lives of the whole crew when faced with the deadly Sirens.

When at last the voyage was over, Orpheus returned a grown man to his native Thrace, desiring a quiet life as of old. He soon grew to care for a nymph, Eurydice, a spirit who once admired his songs deep in the forest. Over time both Orpheus and Eurydice became deeply attached to one another, and the Prince was overjoyed when she agreed to wed him. The day arrived, and it was wondrous to behold, such was the array of beings present. Apollo made the rays of the Sun touch all the fields and faces that day, his grandson's wedding day. In their tens and hundreds the dryads and naiads marched forth from their abodes, bedecked in garlands and fine robes. It was a happy day, and even high on Olympus the joy was felt. Alas that such calamity would strike utopia that day. In the commotion and revelry, a drunken Satyr chased the bride through the party. Eurydice, surprised, fled into the fields, but ruinous was her fortune. Into the long grass of the meadow she fled. She turned to try and catch a glimpse of her pursuer, but in that moment she felt a lethal pain in her foot. She screamed and looked for the source of her doom. There at her feet, a viper. A glance she stole at Orpheus, face white with raw terror, before death moved to claim her on her wedding day.

The River Styx
Painting by Joachim Patinir
Devastation was the mere beginning of feeling which struck Orpheus now. Holding her close to him, he grieved terribly, and the whole world grieved with him. Shattered as a man, for an age after, a new song pierced the air, but it was not the tune of joy which touched the soul, it was a lament, a tearful mourning indeed. The spirits of the forest could restrain their pity no more. His heart afire with longing and despair, Orpheus refused to accept his loss of Heaven. At the urging of the nymphs, he decided to take the dark road to Hades himself and plead for mercy. So the Prince set off on his morbid journey, one fraught with danger. Seldom had a mortal ventured into the land of the dead and ever seen the light of day again. But even the hearts of the gods on high were with him that day. At his approach, fearsome Cerberus skulked away in the darkness at the gates of death. Eerie silence fell on the Prince's ears. Such a heavy silence the greatest musician in the world had never before heard, and it saddened him. Taking out his lyre, he did the only thing he knew, he played. Even the monstrous guardian of Hell was soothed by the song, and allowed his passage. Charon, the ferryman of the dead, taking pity too, granted him a journey across the River Styx, the true boundary between the Overworld and Hades. The smell of decay grew overwhelming, and at last, to the throne room of the god of the dead himself he came in humility. Hades and his Queen Persephone were astonished at the sight of the broken man, his robes defiled with filth and tears, and heard his call.

Orpheus came forth and spake his mind, "I come not curious to explore thy domain, nor come to boast... My wife alone I seek, for her sake these terrors I support, this journey take". The gods high on Olympus, powerless in the abode of death, wept for Orpheus. The Prince, wavering at the fearsome gaze of Hades, continued:

             " A hope within my heart prevails...
               Let me again Eurydice receive,
               Let Fate her quick spun thread of life re-weave...
               She, when ripen'd years she shall attain,
               Must, of avoidless right, be yours again:
               I but the transient use of that require,
               Which soon, too soon, I must resign entire... "
                  - ORPHEUS' PLEA TO HADES

Orpheus leads Eurydice
Painting by Jacopo Vignali
The Prince's fingers moved toward his lyre, he couldn't help it, it was his only solace now. He began to play, and even the bloodless shades of the dead turned to see. Far in Tartarus,  Sisyphus laid down his mighty burden to listen, far above Ixion squirmed for a glance, and away in the pool Tantalus forgot his hunger and thirst. Even the vengeful Furies relaxed their snarls, tears stinging their ferocius cheeks. The hand of Queen Persephone tensed. Too well did she know what it was like to be torn from a dear one. To her husband, the lord of death did she intercede, asking pity this one time. Not even the cold heart of Hades remained unmoved that day. To the grieving Prince the son of Kronos turned, and declared that he would grant his wish, and restore Eurydice to life, but upon one condition. The rules of the cosmos were absolute - Hades commanded Orpheus to return to the Overworld, but until both he and Eurydice had crossed the threshold of the land of the living, he was forbidden to look behind him into the deadlands. If he did, the pact would be forfeit, and he would lose Eurydice forever. The Thracian Prince nodded gently, and Hades snapped his fingers. A troop of deathly shades approached from the darkness, bearing in their midst the shadowy form of the his beloved. Wincing slightly from the deadly bite, she stopped perfectly still at the sight of her Prince, joy spreading through her body, reviving now with breath, though as yet unable to speak. It was as though her wretched misfortune had never befallen her, as Orpheus, crying with joy, moved to embrace her. Alas they passed through her, for the ritual was not yet complete. Thanking the dead god and his Queen from the deepest chamber of his heart, Orpheus bid Eurydice come with him quick before the Sun set that day, so they might enjoy anew an evening upon the Earth. Leading the way Orpheus put his first foot upon the deathly stairs, rising high above the Halls of Hell.

Immediately his resolve was tested to breaking point, such was his desire and the temptation to look behind. Lost and again found, alas that he was forbidden to look back at his beloved and that he must lead the way!

                     " Now thro' the noiseless throng their way they bend,
                       And both with pain the rugged road ascend;
                       Dark was the path, and difficult, and steep... "
                              - ORPHEUS' ESCAPE

Orpheus found the dread silence agony to bear, unbroken by song. For the laws of the cosmos decreed it easy for a man to enter the realm of the dead, but far harder to leave, and both hands did the Prince require on the ascent. As the sweat poured from his brow, he fought his urge to turn and assist, terrified of breaking his oath. He called to her, naught but heavy silence replied. Not until restored fully to life would breath pass her lips again. Trying desperately to cast his thoughts away from horrid visions of his beloved lost far below in the darkness, Orpheus continued his climb.

Eurydice lost
Painting by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein
At last, after what seemed days of silent struggle, the black shroud seemed to ease all around. Colour could be seen again, and the harsh, jagged rocks around the tunnel. They seemed as teeth of the jaws of some infernal beast, binding the dead within that realm, never to leave. Orpheus' excitement grew - at last, redemption lay just over the crest! For hours and hours he toiled against the rock, alone to his ears. As the light grew, hand in hand with it walked his paranoia. Was Eurydice still there? Had Hades deceived him? The desire to look grew painful to resist. With every reserve of will, Orpheus forced his head forward. Up and over the last precipice, the rays of the late afternoon Sun struck his forehead, embracing him with their reassuring heat. Ecstatic, he hauled himself up and over, and rushed into the cool air, blazing with light. In that moment his happiness was absolute, unbroken and willed to live for ever. Puzzled he was, however, when the cry of freedom at his side he could not hear. Doubt racked his mind again - was she there? He wheeled around, seeking Eurydice. There she stood after all, she had followed him all the way from the root of the Earth, but something was amiss. He glimpsed her fair face, near full again, but the expression upon it he would never forget. White as snow, a look of terror on her face, a visage to freeze the soul. The joy of Orpheus stopped dead in its tracks. Cold dread flooded every inch of him, as he saw too late his folly. A mere footstep it was from the mouth of the Underworld his beloved stood. Behind it. His legs and arms began to shake, a soft no all he could utter, and his eyes welled up. The word of Hades rang in his ear, and for the second time Death claimed Eurydice, this time for good. One last look of hopeless longing she gave him, before the darkness took her spirit, as Orpheus fell to his knees...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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