Once upon a time there was a man called Orpheus. He was an artist—a poet, a singer, a lyre-player (which is sort of like a harpist without the drama). His music was ethereal. He was so talented, when he played his lyre and sang his songs, the trees lifted their roots and moved to be closer to him. The rocks rolled over too, drawn by his melody and magic. Of course animals gathered. People were transfixed. He was a World Singer: he cast spells on the world with his songs. The child of Calliope (the Muse of Epic poetry and the reason that “epic” means “great”) and Apollo (the God of Music and Light and Healing and Civilization and Just About Everything Light Can Symbolize), he seems like he should have been a god himself, but he was nevertheless wholly mortal. And he was phenomenal.
Orpheus loved Eurydice. He loved her with the kind of love they tell about in stories (like this one). The day he married her was the happiest day of his life–and the saddest. When the ceremony was over, Eurydice, on her way to the celebration, stepped on a viper, and it bit her heel. She died on the spot. Orpheus was undone.
He more than mourned. He wasted. For months.
Then he mobilized and strategized. He was not the kind of hero to challenge the gods. Not the kind of hero to undertake a katabasis—underworld journeys were not his style. His strength lay in his music, not his muscles. He was no Hercules. Still, his love fueled his imagination, bringing images to his eyes and songs to his lips, and he went to Hades to get her back.
They heard him coming. His music compelled everyone there to listen and react, to draw near him, to respond to him. His song was so sad and so consuming, all who heard it wept. Persephone was a fountain of tears from the moment he stepped off the ferry, rivers of tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping on to her dress. The river Styx swelled with tears the dead shouldn’t have been able to cry. The Furies, who had never wept before and who have never wept again, cried burning tears they could not control. Hades relented. He would give this Orpheus his wife; of course he would. But he named one condition: Orpheus must walk out of the Underworld ahead of Eurydice, leading her out, but without looking back to be sure she followed. If he looked back, she would go back to Hades, where she belonged, and Orpheus would never get back in to try a second time.
Of course he looked. He tried, honestly he tried, and he made it quite far, really. He walked up a long staircase that wound around the curves and crevices of the rocky walls of hell, and he kept a slow, steady, rhythmic pace, so that she could certainly keep up. He had to trust that she would follow, that she could follow. He had to trust that nothing would grab her, that her injured foot didn’t slow her down, that the climb wasn’t exhausting, that Hades wasn’t lying. That’s a lot to trust. And his love made him vulnerable. What if she had fallen behind? This was his only chance. Of course he looked.
When he did, she began slipping down, her near-solid form losing its substance and floating down the steps away from him. He reached and tried to grasp her hand, but only closed a fist. He shot his arms out to embrace her one last time, and there was nothing to embrace. Her voice filtered up from the depths, saying she loved him, she forgave him, she would remember him. She loved him. And he lost her. Twice.
Anger possessed him. He swore he would never love another woman like that again, and he didn’t. He couldn’t open himself up to that kind of pain again, and he couldn’t forget Eurydice anyway. He kept the pain like a memento, and instead he turned to young boys to satisfy his body and his music to satiate his soul. And he loved her.
The women of Thrace grew to hate him for his love. It was irrational. There were lots of lovely Thracian girls and women who should have been able to give him a good life. He chose none of them. His shunning women entirely and turning to boys was the last straw. One hellish night during the Bacchanale, they turned on him. They came for him with their wild, ivy-strewn hair and their tattered dresses, lifting a thyrsus in the air and shrieking. “There he is!” they yelled, “the one who spurns our love!” They swung their staffs, and Orpheus started playing. They threw rocks, and the rocks fell at his feet, rolling gently toward him, looking oddly repentant. The spears they threw changed direction in mid-air, avoiding him at the last second.
But more women came. Throng after throng, and while the first ones fell in his power, the growing number of howling women eventually drowned out his song. He sang louder, but more women arrived. The last to arrive heard nothing but their sisters’ screeching, and they got near and ripped and tore at Orpheus. Their sacred staffs were used as weapons–sacrilege and murder and madness all together. They mauled him like a pack of savage predators. They pulled him limb from limb, harp from hand. They threw his head and his lyre in the river and exulted as they bobbed in the stream. Orpheus was dead. But his head kept singing, and the lyre made music on the waves.
And all Creation wept.
As his head tumbled near the shore, a snake opened its mouth and poised to strike. Apollo, mourning father, froze the snake in stone; it gapes still. Orpheus’s severed head kept singing.
Finally, though, his journey ended. On the shores of the Styx, he crossed with purpose, leaning out over the side of the ferry, anxious to find his Eurydice. She was there. She smiled. She took his hand and led him over the fields, and they walk there still, taking turns leading and following, neither worried that the other will fall behind.