Orpheus was a musician, poet and prophet in ancient Greek mythology. Like the Hindu Tumbura and Narada, his music was thought to be so delectable as to melt rocks, coax animals into submission, and to divert the course of rivers. Some versions of the Jason myth name Orpheus as one of the argonauts.
However, Orpheus’s most famous story is one of love and devotion to his wife, Eurydice. He is said to follow the shade of Eurydice into the underworld with the intention of bringing her back to Earth. He plays the lyre throughout his journey, leaving swooning nymphs and weeping Goddesses in his wake. Why, even Charon, the tightfisted ferryman who carries souls of the dead over River Styx, is said to have let out a wistful sigh or two while listening to Orpheus’s notes.
This myth has strong parallels with the story of Savitri, and how she negotiates with Yama, the God of death, for the life of her husband, Satyavan. But the two stories end differently. While Savitri succeeds in outsmarting Yama, Orpheus loses Eurydice to the underworld when, at the cusp of reaching the surface, he breaks Hades’s condition and looks over his shoulder to see if Eurydice is indeed following him.
Two images in this tale fascinate me. One is that of the thin shade of Eurydice following Orpheus through the dark shadows of Tartarus. Orpheus looks resolutely ahead, his fingers plucking at the strings of his lyre, and with each step they take, the smoky form of Eurydice becomes more real. Colour returns to her skin. Flesh covers her bones. A smile fills her face.
And then that fatal moment in which Orpheus, perhaps not quite trusting Hades’s word, turns to take one quick glance at his wife, only to see her pale before his very eyes. The smile dissolves first into a look of puzzlement, then pain. She reaches out to him, only to be pulled back into a vortex of swirling grey clouds. As the gate closes on his face, Orpheus himself looks like a shade, all life drawn out from him, his lyre hanging off his dry fingers by the strings.
Some cynics say that this is a story of the Gods punishing Orpheus for not being pure enough in love to follow Eurydice into the underworld the ‘normal’ way – i.e. by dying himself. He chose to instead worm his way into Tartarus with his lyre, they say, in the hope that he could change the rules of Hades’s realm. The condition, the apparent success of the mission, and its final failure, are all part of Hades’s plan to teach vain Orpheus a lesson.
But maybe it’s the romantic in me winning over the thinker, but I always think of this tale – and the tale of Savitri – as not one that tells of humans fighting with Gods and winning or losing, but of love and longing.