The Death of Orpheus

The Death of Orpheus

Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus, by John William Waterhouse, 1900

Following the heartbreaking second loss of his bride, Eurydice, to the darkness of the Underworld, Orpheus attempts to cross the Styx yet once again, to plead for his beloved, but Charon refuses to ferry him across a second time. The gods of the Underworld give orders that Orpheus not be allowed entrance again until his death. Deeply distraught, he sits on the shore of the great river for seven days, taking no sustenance. His tears and troubled thoughts are his only companions.

From this moment on, he rejects female companionship. He returns to his music, but it becomes threnodial, mournful, and deeply distressing. Orpheus is inconsolable. Wandering through the wilderness of Thrace, he plays and sings his lamentable songs. The rivers, rocks, and trees listen closely, and then grieve with him.

Is it that the song of Orpheus heaps scorn upon women; is it that his lyrics offend Dionysus and his Maenads? Perhaps so, for one day they fall violently on him, rock-battering him until the stones are red with his blood. In their furious attack, they mutilate 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 continues to sing and prophesy as it is carried down the river to the sea. It comes to rest on the island of Lesbos, where it is found by nymphs.

So, Orpheus becomes a shade, and makes his way back to the ferryman. This time, there is no forbiddance. Charon brings him across the Styx and leads 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 gives the backward glance, and she, when she slips 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 is following his ego when he journeys to Hades’ realm to beg for Eurydice’s release. Even though they are moved to weeping at the sound of his music, the gods of the Underworld know Orpheus will look back and lose her again. It is necessary for his transformation. In his grief, he finds 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 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 attempts to be heroic in his quest to resurrect his wife from the dead. The gods desire 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 opens the door of salvation, not only for himself, but also for her. For, in that moment, she experiences the freedom of no longer being his possession. So, discovering the power of their own souls, Orpheus and Eurydice become one with soul, and thus with the world, the Unus Mundus.

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