Orpheus and Eurydice

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE(1)

ORPHEUS was the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope (2). He was presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it, which he did to such perfection that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow-mortals, but wild beasts were softened by his music. They gathering round him, set aside their fierceness, and stood enchanted with his lay. Even the very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their hardness, softened by his notes.

Hymen(3) had been called to bless the marriage of Orpheus with Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears into their eyes. This was a negative prognostication. Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with her companions the nymphs, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck by her beauty and made advances to her. She fled and stepped upon a snake in the grass. She was bitten in the foot and died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men. After finding is cry unheard, he resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus(4) and arrived at the Stygian realm (5). He passed through crowds of ghosts and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. Accompanying the words with the lyre, Orpheus sung, "O deities of the under-world, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for they are true. I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus, nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog (6) with snaky hair that guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought an untimely death. Love has led me here, Love, a god all-powerful with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the thread of Eurydice's life. We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beg of you. If you deny me, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."

As he sang these tender notes, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus (7), in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition, that he should not turn around to look at her till they should have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded on their way, he leading, she following. Through passages dark and steep, in total silence, when they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness and insecurity, cast a glance behind him. At that moment she was instantly taken away. Stretching out their arms to embrace each other, they grasped only the air! Dying now a second time, how could she condemn her husband whose impatience was only to behold her? "Farewell," she said, "a last farewell,"- and was hurried away, so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.

Orpheus tried with all his might to follow her, and sought permission to return and try once more for her release. But the stern ferryman (8) rejected him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about the river’s shore, without food or sleep until he bitterly cursed the cruelty of the powers of Erebus (9). He sang his complaints to the rocks and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks from their stations. He held himself away from womankind, dwelling constantly on the memory of his sad misfortune. The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he repulsed their advances. They stayed with him as long as they could, but finding him insensible one day, excited by the rites of Bacchus, (10) one of them exclaimed, "See over there our despiser!" and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the spears reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade (spirit) passed a second time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced her with eager arms. They roam the happy fields of the underworld together now, sometimes he leading, sometimes she. Now Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer receiving a penalty for a thoughtless glance.


Footnotes


[1] Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology (1855). This section is on “The Age of the Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes.”[2] Apollo is the god of Music, the mun, and medicine; Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. [3] Hymen, goddess of marriage. [4] The highlands of Mount Taenarus[5] Refers to the river Styx, the boarder between living and dead.[6] Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the land of the dead. [7] Tantalus, banished to the underworld for stealing ambrosia from the gods, standing always in a pool of water that would recede when he tried to drink. Ixion was punished to madness for patricide, symbolized by being tied to an always-spinning wheel. The daughters of Danaus were 50 Egyptian maidens who killed their husbands and were forced to carry water in sieves for eternity. Sisyphus was punished to eternally push a rock up a hill for disobeying the gods. [8] Charon, boatman of the river Styx.[9] Erebus, god of darkness, one of the primordial deities of Greek mythology.[10] Bacchus (Dionysus), god of wine, ritual ecstasy, and chaos.