The myth says that the happiness of Eurydice and Orpheus came to an end when a snake bit and poisoned one of her feet and she died and descended to Tartarus, the realm of the dead. He followed her, alive.
The myth says that Hades and Persephone were so moved by Orpheus’ songs of loss that even the tortures of the damned were halted while he was in Tartarus; and Cerberus stopped his demented barking. Orpheus was permitted to negotiate Eurydice’s return. She was to return so long as he did not turn round on the path out of the underworld. He was not to check that she was following him.
Orpheus turned round when he reached the upper world. Eurydice disappeared into the shadows. Orpheus was later torn to pieces by maenads, the maddened followers of Dionysius.
The myth is thousands of years old and is many layered and many versioned with bits and pieces added and subtracted over the millennia.
One version says that Orpheus could not hear Eurydice’s footfall. Anxious, he turned round and she vanished into the dark. This has to be a late version because the Ancients were not far removed from Nature as we tend to be. They knew that the footfall of all mammals is without sound unless we choose otherwise. A matter of survival against predators.
Another earlier version says that the gods did not believe that Orpheus wanted to save Eurydice. They did not believe he loved her. What he loved was the lyre and the songs which it brought out of him.
The gods, it seems, understood that Orpheus did not follow conventional rules for human behavior in which we are to grow up and get married and go to work and go to bed, sober, by 11 pm every evening. Lots of evidence that sobriety is not up there among the things poets hold dear. Percy Bysshe Shelley; Verlaine who shot Rimbaud; Dylan Thomas; the Beat Poets.
The gods were endlessly jealous throughout their long hegemony. Here is Dionysius: the god who filled the spaces Apollo left blank and is the great upholder of wine as the proper accompaniment of song, jealous because Orpheus was a disciple of Apollo. Demeter: mad as hell because her daughter, Persephone, is forced to return to live with Hades through winter months while Eurydice, a mortal, the only one, has a very rare chance for a second life. Orpheus never touched a woman again and sang the praises of homosexuality which angered Aphrodite.
This version says that the gods punished Orpheus.
They deluded him into thinking that he had descended into Tartarus when he had never left the surface of the earth. After years of wandering, lyre in hand and songs streaming from his mouth, Orpheus was killed by the the maenads at the bidding of the gods.
Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence as Orpheus. His lyre is in his hands and the dog Cerberus is becalmed.
Painted by Angelo Bronzini, 1503-1572. Oil on panel. Philadelphia Musuem of Art.
Another version of his death says that Zeus killed Orpheus with a thunderbolt because he, with his songs, had divulged the cult mysteries of Apollo, Demeter and Hecate. These mysteries teach men and women how to handle life, sex, and death, a function reserved to the gods.
Until Orpheus, a mortal, came with his mysterious songs.
After Orpheus was ripped to pieces, his head, thrown into a river with his lyre, went on singing.
Submerged head at The Folly, Chanticleer, Wayne, Pennsylvania
Orpheus was finally laid to rest on land. He continued to reveal prophecy in Apollo’s name. These prophecies became so widely known and were so potent that Apollo asked him finally to cease and desist so that the god’s traffic and offerings could pick up again at his oracular shrines across Greece. Delphi was practically abandoned.
So now people are abandoning some of the sites of the organized religion of the day for the poet’s words.
Not to say that poetry and organized religion are opposed to one another. That is apples and oranges. Poetry in the context of organized religion is as potent as poetry outside it. Witness the 1611 King James Authorized Version of the Bible.
However, here we are, thousands of years later. And a certain pattern is repeating.
Organized religion is in steep decline in the West and the poets are multiplying. There are even beginning to be bookshops dedicated to poetry in the United States. Rap, a poetic form, has overtaken the world. And haiku and other forms of poetry published on the net are selling in copies of hundreds of thousands. The poems of Jalal ad-Din Rumi are sold by the million in bookshops every year. And today for the first time I received a solicitation for membership from the Poetry Foundation.
As to Orpheus’ lyre, the muses, who had taught Orpheus the lyre, finally persuaded Jupiter to place it as a constellation (Lyra) among the stars.
Bruce Nauman, American, born 1941. The True Artist…..Neon. Philadelphia Musuem of Art, 1976.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Austrian, 1875 – 1926, Sonnet V of The Sonnets to Orpheus. Translated by Willis Barnstone
RAISE NO MEMORIAL STONE. Although we miss
him, let the rose bloom every year for him.
He is Orpheus, and his metamorphosis
is everywhere. We needn’t scan the rim
of forests for more names. Once and for all
it is Orpheus when there’s song. He comes
And isn’t it a marvelous windfall
when he stays a few days longer than a rose?
For you to know him he must disappear!
Though he was terrified of vanishing
and while his word transcends his being here,
he has gone already where you cannot go.
His hands are not ensnared in lyre string
and he obeys, stepping beyond us now.