Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope. He was presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it, which he did to such perfection that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow-mortals but wild beasts were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by their fierceness and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their hardness, softened by his notes.
Hymen had been called to bless with his presence the nuptials of Orpheus and Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears into their eyes. In coincidence with such prognostics Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristæus, who was struck with her beauty, and made advances to her. She fled, and in flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot, and died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men, and finding all unavailing, resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Tænarus and arrived at the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung, "O deities of the underworld, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for they are true. I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus, nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky hair who guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought to an untimely end. Love had led me here, Love, a god all powerful with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the thread of Eurydice's life. We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She, too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."
As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaüs rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition, that he should not turn round to look at her till they should have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark and steep, in total silence, till they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away. Stretching out their arms to embrace one another, they grasped only the air! Dying now a second time she yet cannot reproach her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her! "Farewell," she said, "a last farewell," and was hurried away so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.
Orpheus endeavoured to follow her and besought permission to return and try once more for her release; but the stern ferryman repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind, dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance. The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they could; but finding him insensible, one day, excited by the rites of Bacchus, one of them exclaimed, "See yonder our despiser!" and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced her, with eager arms. They roam the happy fields together now, sometimes he leading, sometimes she; and Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty for a thoughtless glance.
The story of Orpheus has furnished Pope with an illustration of the power of music, for his Ode for St. Cecilia's Day. The following stanza relates the conclusion of the story:
- But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;
- Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
- How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
- No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
- Now under hanging mountains,
- Beside the falls of fountains,
- Or where Hebrus wanders,
- Rolling in meanders,
- All alone,
- He makes his moan,
- And calls her ghost,
- Forever, ever, ever lost!
- Now with furies surrounded,
- Despairing, confounded,
- He trembles, he glows,
- Amidst Rhodope's snows.
- See, wild as the winds o'er the desert he flies;
- Hark! Hæmus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries.
- Ah, see, he dies!
- Yet even in death Eurydice he sung,
- Eurydice still trembled on his tongue:
- Eurydice the woods
- Eurydice the floods
- Eurydice the rocks and hollow mountains rung.
The superior melody of the nightingale's song over the grave of Orpheus is alluded to by Southey in his Thalaba:
- Then on his ear what sounds
- Of harmony arose!
- Far music and the distance-mellowed song
- From bowers of merriment;
- The waterfall remote;
- The murmuring of the leafy groves;
- The single nightingale
- Perched in the rosier by, so richly toned,
- That never from that most melodious bird
- Singing a love song to his brooding mate,
- Did Thracian shepherd by the grave
- Of Orpheus hear a sweeter melody,
- Though there the spirit of the sepulchre
- All his own power infuse, to swell
- The incense that he loves.
Read the poem Orpheus I Am, Come from the Deeps Below
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|"Prometheus and Pandora" is reprinted from The Age of Fable. Thomas Bullfinch. Boston: Lothrop, 1894.