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ORPHEUS & EURYDICE
(A Sad Love Story)

 

ORPHEUS & EURYDICE

The very earliest musicians were gods and their skill was unmatched. Gods such as Apollo, Athena and Hermes drew sounds so harmonious during their lavish banquets that their fellow deities on Mount Olympus forget all else, even their petty jealousies. Next to these gods came a few mortals who were so admirable in their art that they almost equaled the great gods.

One of these gifted mortals was Orpheus, son of the Muse Calliope and a Thracian king named Oeagrus. Orpheus was given the gift of music by his mother and that gift was nurtured in the land of Thrace where he grew up. The Thracians were the most musically inclined peoples of Greece. The great Apollo presented him with a lyre and the Muses taught him to use it, so that Orpheus was unparalleled in skill when it came to mere mortals, his only rivals were the gods.

His music was enchanting; no one and nothing could resist him. He had the ability to control both animate and inanimate objects, subduing wild beasts and making the trees and rocks move from their places in their eagerness to follow the sound of his music.

Little is known about Orpheus prior to his marriage, but it is known that after a visit to Egypt he sailed with the Greek hero Jason on the ship called the Argo. He was quite useful on this Quest for the Golden Fleece, because when the heroes were weak and weary or the rowing was immensely difficult he would play his lyre to arouse the freshness in the heroes and thus allow them to continue the voyage. Orpheus also saved the Argonauts from the Sirens, playing his lyre so exquisitely as to hypnotize the feared monsters and drive out all thoughts save the longing to hear more of his sweet music. The Argonauts than sailed off and set their course, avoiding certain death thanks to the sweet song of Orpheus.

It is not told where he met his wife and how he courted her, but surely no maiden Orpheus desired could have resisted the power of his music. The by now renowned poet and musician chose a beautiful woman named Eurydice, whom some called by the name Agriope, and they had decided to settle down and raise a family among the savage Cicones of Thrace.

Sadly immediately following the wedding as Eurydice walked in a meadow with her bridesmaids, a serpent stung her and she died. Others say that a brute named Aristaeus tried to force her near Tempe, in the valley of the river Peneius. Either way, his beloved new bride was dead and the grief of Orpheus was so great that he vowed to venture down to the Underworld and try to bring Eurydice back, a feat very few had managed.

Orpheus used the passage which opens at Aornum in Thesprotis and boldly descended into the realm of Hades. He charmed with his song the ferryman Charon and gained the other side, even though he wasn't dead. As he played his lyre, Cerberus the three-headed dog relaxed his guard and the three Judges of the Dead were mesmerized by the sound. Even the tortures of the damned were temporarily suspended: The wheel of Ixion stood motionless; Sisiphus sat at rest upon his stone; Tantalus forgot his thirst; for the first time the faces of the horrific Furies were wet with tears.

No one under his spell could refuse him. Hades and his queen Persephone granted Orpheus’ wish and summoned Eurydice and gave her to him, but upon one single condition: that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they reached the upper world and were safely back under the light of the sun.

As they exited the Underworld, passing through the great doors of Hades to the path that would take them out of the darkness, Orpheus knew Eurydice was close behind him, following the sound of his lyre, but he longed to make sure. The moment that he joyfully stepped out of the darkness into the light he turned back, but it was too soon, for Eurydice still hadn’t exited the cavern and was still in the shadows of Hades. He saw her in the dim light, and he held out his arms to clasp her, but she slipped away from him. As Orpheus reached for the hand of his beloved wife Eurydice disappeared with one last word: "Farewell."

And she was gone forever.

Totally dismayed he attempted to rush after her, but the gods would not consent to allowing Orpheus to enter the Underworld a second time, while he was still alive. Forced to return to earth alone and overcome with grief, he forsook the company of men and wandered through the wild playing his melodious lyre. Only the creatures of nature and the rocks, rivers and trees were fortunate enough to hear the sad strains of his lyre, singing of his heartbreak.

When the god of wine Dionysus invaded Thrace, Orpheus failed to properly honor him and taught other sacred mysteries, much to the chagrin of the slighted deity. At last, a band of Maenads, who were frenzied nymphs in the service of Dionysus, came upon him,  and they mutilated Orpheus, tearing him limb from limb, flinging his head into the swift river Hebrus.

The Muses discovered his intact unchanged head at the Lesbian shore, where it had floated, still singing. Tearfully they found and collected his limbs,  and placed them in a tomb at the foot of Mount Olympus. To this day, the nightingales there sing more sweetly than anywhere else.

The murderous Maenads were turned into oak trees by Dionysus to save their lives from the furious Olympian gods, who were distraught at the loss of such a great musician. The Maenads had attempted to cleanse themselves of Orpheus' blood in the river Helicorn, but the River-god did not want to be accessory to murder and dived under the ground, disappearing for nearly four miles, finally emerging with a different name, the Baphyra.

What about the head of Orpheus? A jealous Lemnian serpent attacked it but Apollo at once turned the snake into a stone. The head was laid to rest in a cave at Antissa, where it prophesized so accurately that Apollo's oracles at Delphi, Gryneium and Clarus were becoming deserted, as people flocked to Orpheus day and night. This would not do! So Apollo ordered Orpheus' head to cease talking or singing, and the head fell silent. The Muses had found Orpheus' lyre, which had likewise drifted to Lesbos, and had dedicated it in a temple of Apollo. Eventually the lyre was placed in heaven as a Constellation.

Another account of the death of Orpheus says that Zeus killed him with one of his fearsome thunderbolts because Orpheus had revealed divine secrets involving the Mysteries of Apollo in Trace; those of Hecate in Aegina; and those of Demeter at Sparta.

 

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