Following the heartbreaking second loss of his bride, Eurydice, to the darkness of the Underworld, Orpheus attempted to cross the Styx yet once again, to plead for his beloved, but Charon refused to ferry him across a second time. The gods of the Underworld had given orders that Orpheus not be allowed entrance again until his death. Deeply distraught, he sat on the shore of the great river for seven days, taking no sustenance. His tears and troubled thoughts were his only companions.
From this moment on, he rejected female companionship. He returned to his music, but it became threnodial, mournful, and deeply distressing. Orpheus was inconsolable. Wandering through the wilderness of Thrace, he played and sang his lamentable songs. The rivers, rocks, and trees listened closely, and then grieved with him.
Was it that the song of Orpheus heaped scorn upon women; was it that his lyrics offended Dionysus and his Maenads? Perhaps so, for one day they fell violently on him, rock-battering him until the stones were red with his blood. In their furious attack, they mutilated his grieving body. Ovid tells us
The birds, lamenting, cried for you, Orpheus; the crowd of wild creatures; the hard flints; the trees that often gathered to your song, shedding their leaves, mourned you with bared crowns. They say the rivers, also, were swollen with their own tears, and the naiads and dryads, with dishevelled hair, put on sombre clothes. The poet’s limbs were strewn in different places: the head and the lyre you, Hebrus, received, and (a miracle!) floating in midstream, the lyre lamented mournfully; mournfully the lifeless tongue murmured; mournfully the banks echoed in reply. And now, carried onward to the sea, they left their native river-mouth and reached the shores of Lesbos, at Methymna. Here, as the head lay exposed on the alien sand, its moist hair dripping brine, a fierce snake attacked it. But at last Phoebus came, and prevented it, as it was about to bite, and turned the serpent’s gaping jaws to stone, and froze the mouth, wide open, as it was (Metamorphoses, Book XI, A.S. Kline translation).
The head of Opheus continued to sing and prophesy as it was carried down the river to the sea. It came to rest on the island of Lesbos, where it was found by nymphs.
So, Orpheus became a shade, making his way back to the ferryman. This time, there was no forbiddance. Charon brought him across the Styx and led him to his final abode. In Hades, he and Eurydice walk hand-in-hand to this day.
The most crucial aspect of the myth is that both Orpheus and Eurydice undergo transformation. He, at the moment he gave the backward glance, and she, when she slipped back into darkness. The soul is constantly being transformed, through both calamity and boon. It seems that the really important metamorphoses come through calamity, the soul’s pathologization. Orpheus was following his ego when he journeyed to Hades’ realm to beg for Eurydice’s release. Even though they were moved to weeping at the sound of his music, the gods of the Underworld knew Orpheus would look back and lose her again. It was necessary for his transformation. In his grief, he found his soul. Many times, the way of the hero is the way of the ego.
In this epoch, we are in the grip of the hero archetype, fueled by ego and selfishness. The hero is best typified in mythology by the Greek god, Hercules. The hero craves victory at all cost. The drive for corporate profit is one of its manifestations. War is another of its pastimes. Sports, yet another. These are all exercises in futility. The ego must be pulled down from its lofty pinnacle. There are other gods who deserve recognition. The pendulum always swings. The Hero/Ego will diminish as other archetypal figures to come to the fore.
Our heroes today, in the quest for victory at all cost, are totally opposed to death and the Underworld. The hero of today is consumed with ego, as in those who think of nothing but money, power, and success. Most of all, they desire to conquer death, as in Christianity (The last enemy to be conquered is Death). They refuse to recognize the underside of things, much to their dismay.
Orpheus was attempting to be heroic in his quest to resurrect his wife from the dead. The gods desired that he be transformed. The soul will always lead one into transformation, if one can successfully ignore the voice of ego. With his look back at Eurydice, he opened the door of salvation, not only for himself, but also for her. For, in that moment, she experienced the freedom of no longer being his possession. So, having discovered the power of their own souls, Orpheus and Eurydice become one with soul, and thus with the world, the Unus Mundus.