Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal. His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry. Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams. Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice. Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care. He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love. Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.
In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her. Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise. She was dead. Her spirit had fled away.
Then Orpheus went mad with grief. He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead. Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned. Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.
The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow. Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked. Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips. The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed. Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.
Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition: Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld. Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.
Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards. Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange. In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him. He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer. As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him. For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld. All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”
The world held no joy for Orpheus. Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy. Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.
The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang. Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills. The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies. They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus. His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river. Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.
So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows. He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest. Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that). The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness. Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.
It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal. Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans. Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back. Only art can surmount death.
I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art. His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity. His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology. Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure. He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.
This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them. The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.
There is no underworld. It is all made up. There are no deities there (or probably anywhere). Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get. But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us. We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be. Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning. The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).
Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.