The Song of Orpheus

When I was a child I was fascinated by myths, and especially those concerning the underworld, what we sometimes call journeys into hell. It is difficult to account for why these sort of stories appealed to me, although now – at the later end of my life – it’s all very clear. Having been to hell – my 3 months hospitalization and battle with cancer, the source of inspiration for The English Cantos themselves – then obviously my fascination was a sort of premonition of my own descent.

All cultures have stories of heroes who descend into hell; it seems to be one of the most universal stories. I am fascinated by all of these versions, but some of the most intriguing to me are the myths of the Ancient Greeks, not in the least for the psychological realities they reveal. Many of their heroes stormed hell – Heracles, Theseus, Odysseus to mention only three, three who returned. Of course, some – like Pirithous – failed to make it back.

But of all the heroes who explored hell, the greatest – the one who descended furthest – was ironically not a great warrior at all: the poet and musician Orpheus went deeper into the Underworld than even Heracles, and did it through his music and poetry alone. What is the significance, then, of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth?

First, the desire to enter hell arose not from a compulsion for heroics but because his beloved wife, Eurydice, had died as a result of a snake bite. Thus Orpheus resolved to enter hell in order to bring his wife back to life.

In facing all the dangers and perils of hell, Orpheus’ solution was the same: to play his music and sing his song. So Charon, the ferryman, rowed him across the Styx without the obligatory payment; so Cerberus, the three headed dog that was virtually impossible to subdue, except by Heracles, was charmed into sleeping by the music; so all perils and obstacles yielded to the music. Till at last, Orpheus stood in the very throne room of Hades, lord of death and hell, himself.

There, before Hades and his queen, Persephone, Orpheus reached the climax of his song and struck the notes. It is said for the first and only time Hades wept – tears of molten tar. But more remarkable still, being in the throne room itself meant that the sound within its box vibrated throughout the whole domain of hell itself. All in hell heard the song of Orpheus.

Thus it was that the damned, Ixion at his wheel, Tantalus striving for his water, and Sisyphus fruitlessly and endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill only to find it roll back down each time, suddenly froze. They heard the music and their pain lifted. Their dull animal instincts to repeat and repeat their pointless activities – like rats in a maze – gave way to the return of human cognition.

For a moment they experienced relief and were enthralled by beauty – the beauty of Orpheus’ singing.

And then it ended – and the damned returned to their endless damnation. Hades was grateful for the entertainment and said he would grant whatever Orpheus wished for; Orpheus requested the return of the life of Eurydice. This was granted but with one tiny condition:  that she follow him some twenty paces behind and that he must not turn to look at her before reaching sunlight again. Orpheus eagerly agreed.

So Orpheus retraced his happy steps, knowing Eurydice was right behind him, following him back to life. But then tragedy struck – within sight of daylight at the end of the tunnel leading up to the world, Orpheus needed to check she was still there. He turned, looked, and even as he did so her form, which had gained substantiality on the way up, now began to de-compose; she waved one last despairing wave, and was gone, forever. His journey had achieved nothing, and he returned alone to the world of sunshine above ground.

But had he achieved nothing? It seems to me two important lessons emerge from the tale. The first is by asking the question, why did he fail? The answer is clear: he failed because of his unbelief – his lack of faith – he did not take the god at his word. The god, who was delighted with the song and the singer, had no reason to lie, and yet Orpheus in turning refused to believe him.

And this is our problem: we do not believe the god who speaks within us – what Jung called the Self – the deeper part of us that incorporates the unconscious and the archetypes. We rationalise and we think our egos know all the truth – and then as we disbelieve the god we are struck down with our own specific tragedies.

The second lesson, however, is far more optimistic. It is to contemplate how hell itself began to turn into heaven as the song was sung; and that reminds us that the universe – the uni (one) – verse (song or poem) is precisely that. All life, all joy is in the music, the pattern, the structure that underpins all that is. And so, even hell is transformed if we can sing our own song.

Are you Orpheus? Are you singing your song – being your own poem? Or are you someone who will die with their music still unsung and inside them? The message is clear: get singing – who knows – you may well rescue your own Eurydice from the depths.

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