Some stories haunt us constantly, and yet we hardly know why. The story of Icarus, who dared to fly too near the sun and whose wax wings melted away; the tale of Oedipus, who cannot help killing his father and marrying his mother; the fable of the Babes in the Wood, who try to mark their trail with crumbs that are eaten by the birds, and who in the end are softly buried by them, leaf by leaf.
Yet perhaps no tale has haunted humanity as Orpheus’s has: the musician who sang so sweetly that he persuaded the powers of death to give him back his wife, and then lost her. Poets, from Virgil and Ovid to Mallarme and Rilke, have written his story. Composers from Monteverdi to Gluck, to Stravinsky, to Philip Glass, have told it in music. Rubens, Giorgione, Klee and Corot have painted it; Jean Cocteau has turned it into film. Only last year, I saw his story staged as a musical by players who were crippled or blind, and they acted it with such fervor that it was clearly fountain-fresh to them, at the start of the 21st century. They acted out his life as though it was theirs. And in a way it is.
His character is immensely old. Though he emerges by name in the 6th century B.C., I have seen an Orpheus figure on a vase seven centuries earlier, in the museum at Heraklion in Crete: a man with a giant lyre who is headed and beaked like a bird, and to whom the charmed birds fly down. He may have come originally from India, a fisher-god pulling up souls, or from Asia Minor, a vegetation god, not long after the dawn of civilized time. Yet ancient as he is, lost in the mist of ages, he lingers. It seems often that Orpheus still wanders through the world, like the traveling musician he possibly was, reminding us of something, tapping at the window glass, refusing to be forgotten. Mention the name Orpheus to almost anyone, and they will immediately say: “In the Underworld”—a phrase that is shorthand for a whole life of singing, and mystery, and love, and loss.
It also suggests the dark. And it is right that it should, for Orpheus’s name, most scholars think, means darkness, the state of being orphaned or exiled, separation from light. Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld has been taken as a metaphor for many things, but at its most fundamental it is the journey of the seed in the earth: from light into dark, and up to light again. A few decades ago a cluster of bone tokens were found at a site sacred to followers of Orpheus in Olbia, by the Black Sea. They date from the 5th century B.C., and are scratched with the words “Life: Death: Life: Truth.” Light goes to dark, goes to light again. Orpheus’s ordeal is the cycle of Nature, and his song is the song of life.
The life of Orpheus that artists know and love seems to fall into three distinct parts. He is painted first, in the ancient world and later, as a wondrous singer, poet and teacher. When he plays his lyre and sings, always in the open air, he draws the trees to follow him and animals, even the fiercest, to lie down beside him. Glittering rivers are pulled from their beds, and rocks rush towards him. Even objects supposed inanimate cannot resist his song.
He is not a god, however. His mother is Calliope, the Muse of epic song; his father is either Apollo, the god of song and the sun, or Oeagrus, a river god and also the god of the bitter sorb-apple tree, and a king of Thrace. These sound like heavenly parents, but most of them are not Olympian. At best, Orpheus is sometimes called a semi-god. He is a shaman, a priest with magical powers, which include the ability to speak the language of animals, to fly, and to go down under the earth. And this too is how he may have originated—as another shaman, among many. His home is Thrace, specifically the Rhodope Mountains that lie on the border of modern Greece and Bulgaria, and the vast plains just north of them. These are still called “Orpheus’s mountains”, and to the people there—scraping a living among the rocks and the pine forests with their cats and cows and clunky Russian cars—it is right to name the schools and roads and hotels after him, because he is still there, among the folk song and birdsong, the pelting mountain streams and the murmuring trees.
Only last year, I saw his story staged as a musical by players who were crippled or blind, and they acted it with such fervor that it was clearly fountain-fresh to them, at the start of the 21st century.
The Orpheus we see in Roman mosaics and in 17th-century Dutch paintings is this one. He sits on a rock throne in a wild landscape, a harbinger of peace, playing his lyre within a sacred circle or mandala of enraptured beasts. And this, of course, is Shakespeare’s Orpheus too:
Orpheus with his lute made trees
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves, when he did sing;
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart,
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.
Shakespeare reminds us that for many people, not least the ancient Greeks, song is the most important thing about Orpheus. He sings; and that is his story. He does nothing else, but that is enough. Through music and words he makes magic in the world: more magic than any other poet since, and there was, the Greeks believed, no poet before him. From him came all their holy stories, all their theology and philosophy; alphabets, calendars, crop-compendiums, nature studies, the secret names of the gods and the names of the stars. Orpheus travelled with the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece, because only he could sing his way past the Sirens, and lull asleep the Dragon who guarded the Fleece on the tree. He replaced the primitive worship of the wine-and-nature god Dionysus with the civilizing cult of Apollo; blood sacrifice with libations of milk and honey; wild savagery with measure and order; cacophony with notes of music and the shining strings of the lyre. He taught that Zeus had made man from the ashes of the Titans, the earth-giants, and the lightning with which Zeus had killed them: ashes and fire. For the first time in human thought, man was body and soul. And all that, you’ll agree, would be more than enough to fix Orpheus in our human memory.
But we’re mostly acquainted with another Orpheus, who fell in love. His love, Eurydice, died almost at once, perhaps even on their wedding day, during the dances of celebration, before they had even consummated their passion for each other. Of snakebite, as the legend was. And he went down to Hades to recover her. Such a journey went against all the laws of men and gods; but his music was so lovely that the gods of the underworld, Pluto and Persephone, gave in to him. He was allowed to take Eurydice, as long as he did not look at her until they were once again in the sunlight of the upper world. But he turned round just a moment too soon, and lost her.
It was essentially two Roman poets, Ovid and Virgil, who gave us this tragic and terrible story. The Greeks, though they knew it, were indifferent to it. Eurydice drifts into Orpheus’s story by the 5th century B.C., and is given her name a few centuries later, but no one particularly cares about her. Going down to the underworld alive was something Thracian shamans just did, as natural as singing along the forest paths. If Orpheus went down there, the earliest writers thought, it was probably to commune with Persephone, the queen of darkness; since Orpheus himself was associated with the dark, she made a more fitting love for him. Eurydice’s name, which meant ruling or wisdom, may well have referred to the wisdom conferred with death. Her role as simple love interest became important in more sentimental or more feminist times. She’s important to us; in the 20th century, poets and playwrights even began to tell Orpheus’s story from her point of view. Here’s Carol Ann Duffy’s Eurydice on life with a dreamy, self-centered male poet, the first of ever so many:
Girls, I was dead and down
in the Underworld, a shade,
a shadow of my former self,…
picture my face in that place
of Eternal Repose,
in the one place you’d think a girl would be safe
from the kind of a man
who follows her round
while she reads them,
calls her His Muse,
and once sulked for a night and a day
because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.
Just picture my face
when I heard—
A familiar knock-knock at Death’s door.
And so it goes on. The lovely conceit of the poem is that Eurydice wants to make Orpheus turn round; she’s longing to get rid of him; and she does so by saying, “Orpheus, your poem’s a masterpiece; I’d love to hear it again.” I might add to that that, among the very few imaginings from ancient times of what Orpheus’s character might have been like, several writers mention his pride. He knew he was good, the ancients say. He was so gifted that he could have won any hymn-singing competition, so he never bothered to enter them. Instead he went on making music for the birds.
So Orpheus sings, and Orpheus loves, in the end losing terribly; and then he dies. This is the third time the poets and painters catch him. First, they picture him as he sings in the woods; second, at that terrible turning point in the chasms of the underworld, as Eurydice fades from his outstretched arms; and then in a field of blood. This, incidentally, is the part of the story the ancient Greeks focus on. After years of mourning Eurydice, of teaching and singing and flirting with homosexuality (at least in Ovid’s telling), Orpheus is attacked for his strangeness and exclusiveness, his aloofness and his pride. His killers were women devotees of the old, displaced cult of Dionysus, who tore him apart. Only head and lyre remained intact, floating down the River Hebrus from Thrace to the sea. Poets through the ages have felt a grim sympathy with that end: the new, radical voice misunderstood, and brutally silenced—though even in death, the Roman poets tell us, the head still sang to the heartbreaking music made by the wind in the lyre.
That closing image is hauntingly beautiful. But how strange it is. Why should we remember it, or remember him? The essence of this tale is failure. Its theme seems to be the weakness of human nature. No beauties, poetical or musical, have been passed down to us from any actual man called Orpheus. The world contains a body of works attributed to him—they’re listed under his name online and in libraries—but they are all more or less unreadable, as well as dating from much later. A set of formulaic hymns about the gods; an account of his voyage with the argonauts to find the golden fleece; a book about the magical properties of precious stones; and fragments of his rhapsodic theogony, or song of creation, which was apparently his masterwork, and from which a whole intricate cosmology was constructed by the neo-Platonists much later. There’s little here to delight us. Everything Orpheus wrote was in hexameters, which he was said to have been given by his father Apollo as the metre of the gods, but in English they make a dull march for poetry. His music has disappeared completely—though experts surmise, intriguingly, that in its chromatics and quarter tones it was probably closer to Indian music than anything we know in the West (and it’s fascinating that his teachings, too, of the creating, preserving, and destroying principles of multiple gods within One God, stray nearer to Hinduism than to any Western creed). We might conclude that the only thing of beauty that remains of him is the shape of his lyre in the stars.
Yet the three parts of Orpheus’s life, the song, the love, and the death, go very deep. His songs are never just a commentary on the world. They make things happen. They change the landscape, and stir what appears to be dead into life. Plato believed that Orpheus’s seven-string harmony restored the connection between the soul and the seven-sphered heaven from which the soul had fallen, but once that link is restored it is not a passive thing. A two-way flow is established of energy and life. To put it as Marsilio Ficino did in the 15th century (believing he was channeling Orpheus at the time), creation is returned in song to the creator, but in the process it is changed. It is viewed differently, interpreted differently, and so it is recreated into something else. This godlike activity is what poets do. Even the most lowly of them, scribbling on a scrap of paper in some beer-stained corner of the pub—or the man in the beret who writes, in purple felt pen, on the top deck of my morning bus—is deploying a divine power of making things new, of bringing things alive. For Shakespeare, Bacon, and the artists of the Renaissance, this is why Orpheus is important. He is the origin and patron of all poetry: that “alchemy,” as Shelley called it, which can transmute even the humdrum and ordinary into beauty, into fascination, into gold; which can make the dry stones hop like birds or gleam like jewels, as Orpheus could, and turn the common or garden trees into nymphs, or witches, or dancers by the shore. And though we know so little about Orpheus’s music, all we do know suggests that he danced to it, figuring the patterns of creation as though the world should dance with him.
Orpheus also contains within himself two sides of the poetic character. This was something Nietzsche discovered. Traditionally, Orpheus was first a priest of Dionysus and then a priest of Apollo; he linked the cults within himself. Dionysus represents the disordered madness of poetic inspiration, in which the poet loses himself and becomes one with the god; Apollo represents sobriety, order, individuation, and separation. One side of the poet is totally immersed in nature, beauty, or terror; the other side looks on from afar, and re-creates the world out of longing and loss.
When Orpheus makes his journey to the underworld, the meaning of his myth seems at first to become clearer. He represents the power of love, and the power of art, to overcome death. He challenges the shades and overcomes them with the loveliness of his song. He represents, too, the journey of the soul, which must descend to the lowest point, through realms of punishment—as he was apparently the first to teach—before it is purified, and can ascend again. Light, to dark, and back to light. But of course, he doesn’t tread this victory path for long. The fact that in the end he turns round and loses his love makes his story much more puzzling and much more complex. Especially because, in the beginning, he didn’t fail. Orpheus saved Eurydice. He was pictured bringing her safely back to sunlight on Roman tombs, even as, at the same time, Ovid and Virgil were establishing the story of the fatal turning-round. He was pictured saving her by early Christians, who made him a type of Christ harrowing Hell. Indeed, in the early Church, Orpheus was regularly used by writers and preachers to accustom Greeks to the figure of Jesus: the son of a God, the gentle harmonizer of Nature, a man of miraculous powers and, above all, a savior.
Even much later opera composers—including Gluck and Monteverdi—found it essential, from an artistic point of view, to end Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld on a note of success. Monteverdi in his Orfeo of 1607 introduces a rather silly cloud machine from which Apollo comes to rescue his erring son; in 1764 Gluck has the figure of Love changing his mind, and letting Eurydice live. You can’t send the audience home miserable, said one reviewer at the time. After all, love and music have to triumph over the dark.
But I think the myth gains its staying power because, as far as modern interpreters are concerned, Orpheus does fail. And that bothers us. After all his trials and difficulties, there’s this almost careless act of turning round, of looking back. What does it mean that he loses all he has come for? What is this story saying? Medieval theologians were the first to wrestle with it, taking Orpheus as the soul that cannot leave earthly passions or material things behind, and on the brink of union with God in the light looks back longingly at the lower world. Fairly soon afterwards, painters imagined that this was the search for beauty, with Orpheus as the artist losing beauty even as he glimpses it, because it is ungraspable. It represented, too, the mystical journey in search of God, the via negativa in which all sensory distractions are stripped away but in which God, in the end, may still choose not to reveal Himself.
All these are abiding dilemmas of the human condition. But it is the artists and psychoanalysts of the 20th century who have tunneled most busily into the myth, endeavoring to explain its power over us. For them—as for some ancient Greeks, indeed—Orpheus’s journey was understood as a psychological one, into the mind and dreams. For modern analysts, it is often to do with memory: the inevitably doomed attempt to go back and recover the past, to remake it and correct it, to utter that perfect riposte or re-sit that examination, to resurrect that love.
In this theory Eurydice represents all the memories, thoughts, good ideas which we almost retrieve, which are almost brought up into the light, but in the end cannot be. We love them too strongly, too impatiently; we look at them too hard. I’m reminded always of those words of Oscar Wilde: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”
Yet sometimes, in our endless rummaging through this story, Orpheus’s turning back is seen as deliberate. It may be, as Rilke supposed, an effort to embrace death as the unseen side of life: an attempt to step over in full awareness to the other side. Or it may be, as Jungians think, an act of deliberate separation from the Other, a statement of the autonomy of the Self and a generous release of the Other into a liberated state. Oddly enough, two millennia before, Ovid seems to hint at that idea in his own description of the fatal scene: Eurydice cries that her hands are fading away from Orpheus’s, “my hands that are yours no longer”. The union is broken; one becomes two. Again, the Self find its own voice, but at a price. And Rilke, whose reading of the myth (for reasons we shall see) is more acute than anybody’s, expresses that necessary separation in a wonderful image of an arrow at the moment of release:
Is it not time that, in loving,
We freed ourselves from the loved one, and, shivering,
Endured: as the arrow endures the string,
To become, in the gathering out-leap, something more than itself?
For staying is nowhere.
—from the first Duino Elegy
The drama in Hades, however, is not the end of the story. We are given a third scene, the death of Orpheus, in which the body is scattered and the head and lyre, singing still, are carried down the River Hebrus to the sea and to the island of Lesbos, which becomes the source of all the lyric poems in the world. Again, the meanings go very deep. One is the survival of art: poets may die, but their works live on, and the case of Orpheus his death-lay provides the germ of all lyric song down through the ages. Another meaning reverts to Orpheus’s original role as a vegetation god: he is the grain that is thrashed, winnowed, and scattered so that seed is released, and the cycle of Nature can renew itself. His death was meant to take place in autumn, when the harvest was gathered and, especially, the grapes were pressed. As in Christianity, bread and wine become the symbols of crushed and risen life.
Yet this is not all his scattering signifies. In death, Orpheus becomes part of nature. This means more than the simple truism that his body, or its fragments, turns back into earth and dust from which new growth comes. As a poet, his life has connected with the life of living things, calming or energizing them as his music, his magic, ebbs and flows. After death, his life and voice flow out into all life. Everything reflects him and contains something of him. This may seem extraordinary and exaggerated, but it is something that Shelley, for example, entirely understood. When a poet looks at the world, involves himself with it, describes it in words, that world changes. In Dylan Thomas’s wonderful words, “The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.” The poet may die, but he also remains. Thus Shelley wrote, most beautifully, of Keats:
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely …
And in 1922 they were repeated, more or less exactly, by Rilke:
But they finally tore you apart, those maddened avengers,
While yet the sound of you lingered in lions and boulders,
Lingered in birds and in trees, where you still sing today.
Only because you were butchered in terrible anger
—O you lost God! O divine, indestructible trace!
Are we ears that can hear and a mouth for what Nature can say.
The lines suffer from translation; Rilke is notoriously difficult to render into English. But they are important for a different reason. They came in the course of perhaps the most extraordinary poetic possession of modern times, when Rilke for a few days in February 1922 was completely taken over by Orpheus, and wrote—at his urgent dictation, as he believed— two sets of sonnets, 56 in all. He received, in other words, the most astonishing proof that Orpheus, poetic power personified, was still acting in the world—even in his own tiny, tranquil corner of the French Alps. After days of being rent and ravaged like a tree in a storm, unable to eat or sleep or do anything but obey, he came to the conclusion that “there is ultimately only one Poet, that infinite one, who makes himself felt here and there through the ages.” That poet was a spirit or a force, rather than a man; yet Rilke heard him speak out of the deep space within himself; and if he had to be named and given a face, as at the very dawn of time when all the forces of creation were given a human shape, the name that came to him was Orpheus.
But surely, you may say after all this, Orpheus is just a myth? Surely he never lived? Well. Some Bulgarian archaeologists will tell you confidently that he did, that he was a Thracian king of the second millennium B.C., a noble ruler who tried to make peace among warring tribes and was killed when he failed. They will point out his tomb on a mountain top at Tatul, near the Turkish border, where tourists climb and swarm in case some of his magic can rub off on them, and show you a pinnacle of rocks at Plovdiv, high above the Thracian plain, where he made his morning prayers to Apollo, his father, the god of the sun. They will produce a tiny figurine of a lyre-player found at Tatul, and a scarab beetle, found in a Thracian burial, a memento perhaps of the years Orpheus was meant to have spent in Egypt absorbing the mysteries there. Yet in the end none of it proves anything. There are no certain links or attributions. The mists of history roll across the scene.
Orpheus is real because he lives in human minds. We imagine him, and therefore we recreate him, as divine or as human as we choose. I began to write because I wanted to recreate, somehow, the Orpheus who tasted barley bread, tuned up his lyre by holding it close to his ear, wore fox fur and soft-leather Thracian boots, carried a special stone on the Argo to ward off sea-sickness—but who also, always, can do magic, who has godlike power. He is man and god, and the most fundamental and revolutionary part of his teaching that every one of us, equally, is part human, part god. Ashes and fire. What seems to be failure or catastrophe, in the world’s terms, is redeemed by unexpected power. We can create too. We can do magic too. After death, rebirth follows. As long as Orpheus goes on haunting us, so too does that message of exhilaration and inspiration. For his song is our song; and his life is our life.