Updated: Aug 18, 2022
A tree rose from the earth. O pure transcendence - Orpheus sings: O tall oak in the ear! All was still. And then within that silence he made the sign, the change, and touched the lyre. One by one they crept out from the wood, emptying each set and form and lair; and looking in their eyes, he understood they’d fallen quiet in neither stealth nor fear but in their listening. Maria Rilke’s Sonnets of Orpheus (1923). The hard calluses on the hands of Orpheus were not formed by wielding the axe handle, pulling the reins of the oxen, or from using a heavy scythe. Rather, they were shaped by the careful twisting of silver threads around the tuning pegs of his lyre, which he turned, and pulled with great effort until the wood creaked and he was fully satisfied with the pitch, vibration and sound.
Tuning the lyre was an observance Orpheus made each day Selene, Goddess of Moon, faded into the West.
When the first light of the sun revealed the wilds of Greece, a high toppled wave of harmonious melody emerged from his strings. Birds swooped down from the heavens to sing alongside his music, and the tamarisk, oak, chestnut, pine, cypress, carob and evergreen plane tree, all heaved their roots out of the ground and began to fill the valleys with an old arcane tree dance, swaying with their woody and leafy limbs; whales rose from the deep and their blowholes filled the air with mist and vapour as they swam close to the sea-shore to listen; all animals that see in the dark, swim, fly and crawl, were drawn in from all directions to hear his music and just for an instant, during the dawn hour, all those that gathered heard the unity in all of creation.
When the music stopped, the trees sank their roots back into the ground as the whales sank below the waves, the birds and animals found their nests and burrows. The trees stopped where they were and configured standing tree-circles, from those circles were brought into existence the sacred groves of the ancient world, places where people carry their offerings and libations to the Gods of Olympus.
Orpheus wandered all over ancient Greece and played his music. His wanderings took him high over the mountains of Rodopi and deep into the oak forests in Peloponnese. A wheel inside of him was in constant motion, it was a wheel that turned in longing to be with his muse that so inspired his music, the one who had given him his art. He had never seen her; he had never met her face to face.
One morning as he sat by water born from the glaciers of the mountain range of Pindus; he could feel the presence of the river nymphs. There he called out for her.
"My mind is flooded with longing to see you, the source of my song!"
His voice trailed across the surface of the river. The water rippled as she answered him. She surged up to meet him from deep currents. She was water, she was river and he witnessed her for the first time.
Nothing could have prepared him for this meeting.
She was not the muse from the rose garden or the cultivated earth, she was from the wild murmuring, purling and cascading river, born from a deep current. His heart trembled when he beheld her soul-seeking eyes. At the moment of their meeting, Eros shot his love bow and emptied his quiver of arrows into both of their hearts. From that day she was forever the sovereign Queen of his heart, and he the sovereign King in hers. It was love with a scent of honeysuckle which drifted unhindered on a southern breeze up to mount Olympus itself, there it loosened the silken tapestries of the Gods and streamed into the wide bronze halls. A fragrance of joy infused Olympus, the Gods were in awe as they gazed below and saw their affection, tenderness and yearning.
During the time of their first meeting, Orpheus and Eurydice were protected from the world as they laid together upon the wild thyme, free of care, free of sorrow. The music of the lyre poured out songs of such supernatural symphony and sensual elation, that few, even amongst the Gods, had ever known such pleasure under the broad-bladed leaves. The forests and glades were their delight and open meadows their resting place.
But the stars of the great zodiac moved and a new time approached. Orpheus and Eurydice left the wild to share their love with the people and community of Athens.
Next to the fountain sacred to the Muses, Orpheus and Eurydice wedded. The High Priest of the Gods, Hymen, was called down from Mount Olympus to take the proceedings and oversee the ceremony. Musicians travelled from all directions to join the celebrations and people who drank from the fountain received blessed inspiration, happiness and long life. The wedding night was pregnant with the sound of music, cicadas, laughter; the satyrs of the woodlands led the dances, and poured out the wine from the sunny vineyards of Dionysus. Animals and mankind celebrated their pledge of love side by side.
But as Hymen uttered his prayers during the ceremony, a dark smoke wafted from the incense bowl and stung his eyes.
There was something in the smoke that caught the back of his throat just at the time of pronouncing his last blessing. Once his throat cleared, he turned to his priests and whispered:
"A hungry spirit entered the temple, this is a bad omen."
Indeed it was.
The next morning, Eurydice decided to rise alone to greet Helios. She was in joy as she held in her heart all possibility for a future with Orpheus. Her movements were of delight, each step was a bright motion of feeling.
But in the grass something slithered towards her in rippling tremors.
Eurydice was unaware of the danger and until the snake was within striking distance. It bit into her ankle and injected all the lethal poison that it contained within its body, then it vanished.
Her colour left her face, the fluid movement of her dance went stiff, she collapsed to the ground.
Orpheus found her lying in the grass as a broken-necked swan, he gathered her up in his arms and carried her limp and lifeless body back to his chamber. He tried to revive her with the healing arts as he invoked the Goddess of cures. She heard his prayers but the eyes of Eurydice remained open and unanimated, her gown was wet and soaked from his tears.
He knew that it was too late. Eurydice's soul had fled her body.
When the news spread across Athens, the heralded flag of the King was brought down, horses were kept in their stables, markets were emptied, Piraeus' harbour with its large galleys was silent - people sunk into sorrow.
The only sound that could be heard was a lonely funeral drum which struck a terrible blow to summon the funeral procession. People hummed laments as Orpheus laid Eurydice's veiled body onto a bed of carnations. An ox-driven chariot was pulled through the streets. People walked alongside her body bringing oil lamps from their homes, forming a necklace of light that progressed all the way towards the Acropolis.
On the south eastern slope of the Acropolis a pyre made of wood was prepared by the high priest. Orpheus placed Eurydice's body on top of the kindling. Two gold obol coins were laid down on her eyelids as payment for Cheron, the ferryman, to take her soul over the dark river. The double-headed bronze axe fell and the white ox was felled, his warm blood flowing into the ground to the chthonic Gods beneath.
When the sacrifice was over, the sacred meat was cut and shared amongst Gods and people. The sound of mourning echoed in the Acropolis for a night and a day, until Hyman held up a torch high above his head and recited the funeral hymn and placed the keen flame amongst the kindling, the fire's hunger devoured Eurydice's body.
Orpheus bent his head as the flames engulfed his beloved, the fire burnt until only the white dust from her bones remained. When the dirges and the drum beat faded, a large pit of debris remained in the scorched heart of Orpheus. He took a step forward and touched the ashes of Eurydice, this act was an offence to the ruling house of Zeus and Hera. Then he grabbed a handful and raised his hand and poured the ashes over his face and reached down to the libation of ox blood and smeared it over his brow.
He turned to the mourners, raised his head up and made a covenant to the people of Athens:
"I will only return to this world, if I can bring Eurydice back. To do that, I will go and find the caves of Taenarum and challenge the King of Death in the world beyond light and beyond life. I pledge on Eurydice's white ashes that I will find a passageway into the land of the dead."
With those words, Orpheus walked out of Athens and went into the wild, the waters there were now cold and dark, emptied of the spirit of his muse. The cold stark light of day hurt his eyes and exposed his broken spirit; he longed only for night.
He wandered many years lost in grief. His days were spent tracking the scent of his beloved, with his hands into the soil, he looked for her spirit-tracks, each hour he seized at her memory.
Taenarum's cave is strictly forbidden for any mortal man to enter. Orpheus knew that only the spirits of shadow would know of its orientation. During auspicious moon cycles, and using the thaumaturgical arts, he lifted his left hand to his heart and with his right index finger, inscribed circles, letters and names into the soil and uttered words of incantation to wraiths living beyond the light.
"Spirits of the world of shadow, I am Orpheus, I am looking for the old passage to the mouth of Taenarum's cave, please grant me the wish to find it, please aid me!"
As the years passed, his prowess at tracking gained momentum and his dark arts waxed more elaborately. Until the powers answered him:
"For your request at finding the tracks of the dead leading to Taenarum, there is a high price to pay. Only your very own heart can be used as payment if you are willing to journey into the darkness of the world."
To this he responded:
"You can gorge yourselves at my heart, as long as you can leave some life in it to continue my journey, so that I can continue to remember the face of my beloved when I cross the dark river of forgetfulness"
They agreed to his price.
Invisible spirits pierced his breast and his chest was ripped open. When it was done, life was only thin inside Orpheus. The Goddess of cures came to his aid. A medicine-spell was made, he was able to continue on his journey. At night he read the star constellations and the movements of the Zodiac, and by the seven stars of the Corona Borealis he received the wisdom that was promised. His eyes received the skill to see the spirits and the faint visible tracks of the dead leading to the twilight world.
He tracked onwards.
The faint ghost-tracks was all he could see now. Until one day arrived when the yawning abyss of Taenarum stood before him.
In courtly manners, he crossed both his hands upon his breast, and bowed his head to the nine guardians of the entrance: Anxiety, Agony, Disease, Death, Fear, Grief, Hunger, Old Age and Sleep.
He bowed his head whilst he spoke.
"Guardians of the caverns of the twilight world, where the souls of unrest live, my fate has been spun to be hunted by a great sorrow. I assure you this gift as payment if you let me pass: for each moon that waxes and wanes, a song will be made in the dark places to ease those smitten with sin, punishment and despair."
The guardians held firm and refused him entry, the Guardian of Fear held him back.
Then for the first time since leaving Athens, he rolled his silver strings over the tuning pegs of his lyre and tightened them. The wood creaked and groaned under the pressure and when he was satisfied with the strings' most delicate vibrations, he started to play.
He praised the heavens, he praised Apollo and all of the Gods of Olympus. There was no more discord in the air, all harmonies of the world were conceived through his music. The nine guards were subdued. He moved through each one of them unharmed, until finally, he walked into the caverns, lost to the breath of life.
There he journeyed down and down. The passages went left and right, left and right. He arrived in the Valley of Avernus, the Valley of Death. There he wandered under overhanging crags and above chasmic pits. There was no wind, no birdsong, no sense of smell, only a silent brooding.
Invisible spirits whispered to him. "do not carry your broken heart amidst the world of the dead."
"My only fear is forgetfulness." Orpheus responded.
Orpheus's first hindrance was an overgrown forest of giant sharp thorns, which stung and cut him and left him with opened wounds across his body. He managed to wrap himself in some of his clothing to stem the flowing of blood. Then he walked into an orchard where rotting fruit were filled with poison; there under the bony fingered branches of dead trees he wandered for days. Further down still he journeyed until he heard the sound of water, and his parched lips bent down to drink, but it was not water to replenish his thirst, this water was made of salt. He was drinking the tears from the well spring of each eye of every living mortal. He waded through the tears when a deep current dragged him under. The river of tears was the longest river in the underworld. He managed to swim to the other side.
A second river stopped him from proceeding further, the widest river flowing in the underworld, the river of blood from war. Blood washed over him and he struggled in the whirlpools. Finding a calm current, he clamoured to a rock.
The third river was the darkest and the deepest: the river Styx, the water all souls must pass.
There he sat and for the second time he played with all of music's persuasive keys and sang:
"My will is unbent when my tongue has a song
Where light is lost, I sing
When free, no prayer can tame love's flight
In my loneliness I grasp the lyre
And weave songs from life's kernels
I step on the lifeless path and I sing
where dark blossoms grow around lonely nests"
His music floated over the river and reached Charon the ferryman, who pulled his old boat towards him. Orpheus did not have the gold necessary to get himself across, without gold as payment his fate would be to wander up and down the shore as a forgotten spirit. As the boat made a dull thump on the river bank, Charon croaked:
"I do not know who you are, but your music so enchants my ears that I will waive the payment and carry you across the river, it will be free of charge as long as you play your music."
As he sat on the boat and played, he perceived ghostly semblances of eyes in the dark water, eyes of those who had finished with the service of life; unwedded girls looked at him from the depths of that water, and many youths who had been put into the funeral pyre before their fathers. Through his music, they found a glimpse of rest.
He sang until Ixion's wheel stood still, until the Furies wept real tears; Tantalus forgot his fleeting pool of thirst, the vultures halted the pecking of Tityos liver; and Sisyphus sat on his boulder, listening. The three headed dog Cerberous with his coat of adders slept peacefully.
He traversed the river and arrived on the other side as a mortal living soul onto the land of the dead. There all the drifting ghosts gathered around him, and he continued to play for them whilst he made his way towards the citadel of the King of Death.
Orpheus sank into faltering footsteps before he entered the lofty halls of the subterranean Zeus.
Inside those halls time had lost its purpose. At the far side, there were two thrones, in that domain a starlight was found in the dark. Persephone was positioned next to the Shadow, giving hope to the many guests of the underworld. Only the dark eyes of the old King were seen, his body is indeterminate.
The light of Persephone contained within its strength and within Hades, was the endings of light, both were wed.
Orpheus faced them as a living man:
"Fate has led me hither to this hall of infinite silence
Please show pity for my forsaken and barren heart
I have faced shadows no mortal should bear
I have walked across mountains without stars
For the Earth, the Sky and the Waters
Allow Eurydice, my love, to once more be unmade from this cold abyss.
For our love rouses the rivers, seas and lakes
In my anguish I have learnt of love's true mystery
That darkness is the mother of light
Therefore, I beg you please to awaken my love into light once more
To allow mortal love to survive the passing of time
And for I to take Eurydice back to the land of the living heart"
His song entered the halls. His melodic incantation was heard and received.
"The arrows of Eros have flown true and straight into you Orpheus, as prophesied, love has carried you to our threshold"
She turned to the shadow and his death-chilled tongue spoke:
"You have shown me allegiance, possessing perfection in the arts, and traversing obstacles worthy of Herakles himself. Indeed as darkness takes away, it also brings forth. The third sister of the fates will find the thread of Eurydice's life to mend, but she will do it only on one condition: as Eurydice returns with you back through the Vale of Avernus, you must never turn your head and look upon her, and you must be silent, or else this concession will be broken and it will fail. You must only look upon her once the sun has risen in the east and shines onto the land and upon your brow."
Orpheus stood with his head bowed before the King of the Underworld, there was a silence in the hall. He bade his courtly farewell.
Carefully, he walked backwards and only when outside of the halls did he turn his back to the throne and walk from where he came. He did not turn back and he did not look back. He stepped into Charon's boat, but he did not turn back. When he could feel the breath of Eurydice on his neck, he did not turn back.
Having his beloved behind him, the thought of hope flooded his mind. They both waded and swam through the rivers of tears and blood, their love and steadfastness was their strength and their determination. They walked through the orchard of the rotting fruit. Orpheus could hear her limping as she was still hurt from the sting of the serpent. They crossed the crags and precipices of the valley of Avernus, Orpheus always walking in front and Eurydice walking behind. He did not turn back, they did not speak.
They journeyed through the valley and they entered the dark passages that led them back to the world of the living. The funereal tunnels took them left and right, until they could see in front of them the silver stars of the night.
As they walked out of the cave, they arrived before dawn, with the air full of the dropping dews. Orpheus took a deep breath, inhaling the night air, and as he did, he heard Eurydice behind him as she tripped onto a stone. By instinct and care for his beloved, he turned his head.
There she was, a pearl under the stars. She stretched her hands out and his scarred and wounded hands responded. She touched his face,
"Is it really you?" She whispered.
But he had turned too early. He felt her body disintegrating as he embraced only air. He looked up and only a faint word of "farewell" echoed around him as Eurydice sank back into darkness.
He stood and shivered in a swoon, slain by both the bliss of seeing his beloved and the distress of embracing her emptiness. The nine guardians of the cave mouth approached as the perfume of Eurydice still lingered in the air:
"No!" he cried to them, no! He wanted to cast his soul from his body and follow her down.
He entered the cave mouth for a second time.
Back down into the valley of Avernus, he followed her shadow, and walked through the rotting orchards grasping at shadows. His body was frail, the cuts were open, his hair hung lifeless over his face. He swam through the waters and he faced the dark ebony Styx river. Charon did not hear his call, his lyre was out of tune. The only music that could be heard was the barking of bloodthirsty Cerberous from the other side.
For seven months he sat under an overhanging crag of the Valley of Avernus, his sustenance was suckling at shadows. There he sang with the plaintive wail of a nightingale; a nightingale that had lost her featherless chicks from her nest. Since this time, nightingales always sing before dawn, in mourning and in honour of Orpheus, the twice bereaved.
When he stepped out of the cave of Taenarum he was unrecognisable. His eyes saw the sorrow of all living souls.
He wandered to the windswept Haemus hills, where he built a simple house of stone. Inside the stone house, he crafted a temple dedicated to the God Apollo.
There during each sunrise he would play to the memory of Eurydice.
Women who heard his music started to follow the sound. In each song there was love and grief which they felt belonged to them. From all over Greece and beyond, women started to travel towards his music. Not before long, they stood and witnessed him playing under the stars. All fell in love with Orpheus as they believed that he played directly to their own hearts.
Orpheus turned them all away.
But as time passed, he was surrounded by women whose longing for Orpheus overwhelmed them. He sang to their own river, to their deep soul current, and they longed for such divine love. In his music was the memory of those flowery glades where once he had laid with Eurydice. His music rose like a shimmering bell each morning.
The followers of Dionysus, the Maenads, heard this music and fell into a trance, their desire for Orpheus and for his love was unstoppable. They climbed up the hills to listen. Each one wanted his kisses, they wanted his affection. Bloodthirsty fighting began amongst them, trance turned into obsession, their eyes turned hostile as they looked upon him. Why was he courting an unseen spirit and not I? Each one would ask themselves. They screamed for his attention and started to throw rocks and mud towards him. His music protected him from the stones as the harmonies provided an invisible barrier. The anger mounted, and the screaming grew louder until his music no longer could be heard and then it failed to protect him. The Maenads took tools from a nearby farm, and with scythes and spades attacked Orpheus with a ravening force infused by their sentiment of being rejected and abandoned by love. Their force was such that they tore his head from his body and ripped his body to pieces which they scattered around the hillside.
They cast his head and lyre into the river of Hebrus.
The head and lyre floated down the river towards the Aegean sea.
The waters washed over the brow of Orpheus' head and rejuvenated him, his eyes opened and he started to sing. As the head sang, the leaves from the trees dropped, the rivers swelled and flooded the valleys.
The head and the lyre floated out to the Aegean sea and ended up reaching the blessed island of Lesbos. People who live on the island of Lesbos have since always welcomed guests blown in from the difficult tide of the times. They took his head and set it high onto an altar, where the head spoke to them of prophetic hymns of the Gods and instructed the people in poetry, arts, and of the mystery schools.
But on the eve of midsummer the soul of Orpheus passed on.
The people buried his head in Antissa, on Lesbos, where to this day, the nightingales can be heard to warble the same notes from the Lyre of their master.
As for the remains of Orpheus on the Haemus hillside, the Muses, all nine of them: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polyhymnia and Urania collected his bones and built a lonely cairn, where they laid the gold obol pieces on his behalf and gathered violets and planted them amongst the stones.
As for the lyre of Orpheus, Apollo himself took the shape of a mortal man and visited the island of Lesbos to recover it. He strung the remaining threads to the highest musical pitch, and cast it into the night sky and created the constellation of the Lyre, for all mortals to behold in the night sky, next to the constellation of Cygnus the Swan.
The God Dionysus punished the Maenas for their wrath and crime, their bodies grew bark, their legs roots and their arms tree boughs, in a state of timeless terror they remain today, lashed by cruel winds.
The spirit of Orpheus took the long journey for a third time and met Charon the ferryman. The muses had paid for this passage.
This time as he crossed the river, he could no longer sing to those in distress, now he himself finally forgot everything, his fear had come true, he forgot his grief, he forgot his music, he forgot Eurydice.
He became part of the drifting ghosts of the dead and he floated through a twilight world where time was lost to its own purpose.
Persephone witnessed this from her throne. His heart had been abandoned by the Gods to a cruel destiny. She had heard his mortal song, she cried tears for price mortals have to pay for love.
Persephone collected all the memories for Orpheus. When she returned to Hades, she touched Orpheus's brow with the gathered memories. She went to Eurydice and whispered all the memories to her brow, and she too regained her memory of Orpheus.
Since this time, Persephone gathers all memories from lovers who have been separated by the cruel fate of the world.
Together, Orpheus and Eurydice remembered again as they gazed upon each other. In his hunger and in his thirst Orpheus never gave up, and when his love was only a shadow in his arms, he was the miracle who loved.
Together Orpheus and Eurydice walk together, in the white isles, where immortal birds forever sing in praise of love.
(artwork from the prompts in the text through midjourney)