The Imagination of Romantic Love - A Commentary on Orpheus and Eurydice
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
Originally published by Fact and Fiction, UK’s premiere storytelling magazine, May 2017. ©Andreas Kornevall
In this world there is a mystery that pervades all of our relationships and all of our actions: romantic love; it is an arrow that appears from the blue sky and shakes our lives to our innermost. This love-arrow is shot from the bow of Eros and all Gods fear it. The Greek world had many names for other aspects of love, names such as: Philia (kinship and family) or Ludus (being amongst friends), or Pragma (maturing love), and Agape, (unconditional love), or Philautia (self-love). Self-love was crucial as without it you were unable of loving someone else. Many of our major religious traditions speak of transforming the power of Eros and focussing instead on the other aspects of love as mentioned above, this is not an easy proposition as the love that is mostly highlighted in our society is the obsidian-arrow point of romantic love, the one that includes a sexual partner and all the foolish and uncontrollable liveliness that is brings out in us; the meetings in empty alleyways, the bottles of wine drunk on a Tuesday at lunch time, the crumpled picnic blankets under the willow tree (when you are supposed to study for exams or be at work). All this activity is a primal energy that makes up most of our art and music and I suspect it has been the case since we first gazed upon the sun. Eros was not a minor deity in the ancient world, he was the one who brought the very life force of the cosmos: procreation. In the Orphic tradition he was a primal being born from the world-egg: a first born miracle without a parent. Eros and Creation are one and the same, as the dance of procreation is everywhere, simply put: our world is erotic. Eros is in every blade of grass and behind every motion. Mainly due to their prickly nature, the arrows of Eros can hurt: a family can be displaced, a community torn apart and a Kingdom reduced to ashes. The irresistible force of romantic love is a dangerous energy to the structures of society and has always been concealed and locked up within cultural taboos. We do not “rise” into this kind of love, when we are shot by Eros, we “fall” into love, when struck, treacherous waters are stirred. When Orpheus falls in love, he takes the first steps towards the trembling veil between this world and another, first in elation and then in anguish. His journey stands in the opposite direction to Iracus, his is a downward journey, the journey of soul (descent) as opposed to spirit (ascent). However, the tragic loss of his Eurydice spurs Orpheus on to bestow romantic love a full redemption, making it the crown in the created cosmos, and through his music and endeavours, he raises love above the cold hand of death. His actions alert us that this love, when felt deeply enough, can lead us to the undying lands, the blessed isles, but only if we are prepared to go through the high-risk paths that love confers to us. As our story begins we meet Orpheus offering his music to the dawn, it is a gesture, a libation of beauty to the creation around him. Alchemy suggests dawn to be a moment that is split between heaven and earth, and in that split consciousness is born. The dawning of the day becomes the birth of consciousness as well as the triumph of light over dark. This myth is retold by the sun every twenty four hours as the sun’s light reveals the landscape and paints it with its divine light. Dawn is named Eos - she is a beautiful young girl who wears saffron and rose tinted robes as she declares the arrival of her brother Helios (the Sun) before he passes through the gates of heaven. As Orpheus plays his Lyre to Eos, we hear the original unity of creation and all creatures recognise their origin and are drawn to his music. Orpheus seeks that which stands behind his music, he wants to see the one that drives him to create his melodies. The etymology of music comes from the word Mousikē’ (art) of the Muses’, from Mousa ‘Muse’. In ancient Greece artists would call and invoke their “muse” before any performance. Orpheus wanders through the wilds of Greece to seek his muse, to seek the one who is the foundation of his art. He happens to come across the river nymphs; the word nymph in Greek also means “bride”. Upon seeing Eurydice his fate is sealed and his heart receives a sovereign Queen, which is reciprocal in Eurydice as she receives him as her King. The inner sovereignty of love can be terrifying if this is not met in reciprocal terms. How many of us have not been awake possessed with the idea of loving someone who has no interest in loving us back? Many have to endure this cruelty of Eros’ arrows. Eros aimed right for both of them and what follows is the elation that love brings: a joy which shakes the silken tapestries of Mount Olympus itself. As a blossoming cherry tree, their joy is short lived when the terrible separation strikes: the fangs in the grass bite into Eurydice heel and all the joy and elation that was with Orpheus is now transformed into an ocean of smouldering ash. Orpheus’ heart has suddenly become a lump of coal in an endless pit of despair. The break between the old cosmos and the merging new one begins after the fire consumes Eurydice. Eliade writes, “it is through fire that nature is changed.” Orpheus decides to journey down into the funereal tunnels of his soul, and as a true mythological hero, he goes where no mortal has dared go. Orpheus cannot simply take his own life and join Eurydice in the afterlife, this is forbidden, as all those who pass the raven-coloured waters of the Styx river lose their memories to join the drifting hosts of the dead. To rescue his beloved, he has to enter the afterlife world as a mortal and carry the memory of her as a precious cargo. Why is the land of the dead a place of forgetfulness? Death can be said never to be a reality, it is non-existent when we are alive, and non-existent after we die, there is no memory that survives for the one who passes into the land of the dead, this is what Orpheus fear. When he stands in front of the gates, the guardians appear, they are all that which hold us back: Grief, Anxiety, Disease, Old Age, Fear, Hunger, Death, Agony, and Sleep. Closer to the entrance there are many other beasts: Centaurs, Gorgons, the Lernaean Hydra, the Chimera, and Harpies, and there is also an Elm tree who carries false dreams hanging under every leaf. Here we discover that the same guardians await us today, our psychology has not changed since this story has been told. We wield nuclear weapons with the same mindset that wielded our bronze swords back then - we have not evolved psychologically, the stories, therefore, told in the bronze age have the same psychological truth and insight that concerns us today: their imagery speaks directly to our present time. Orpheus enters through playing his Lyre, each note tames the restless spirits by the gate, the quality of his music plays to the highest theogony of the Gods. Once in the underworld, he goes through the orchard of rotting fruit, revealing the nature of death and decay, which follows by nearly drowning in the overwhelming depths of the waters he is under: the rivers of tears that spring from each eye in the world and the rivers of blood from all battles and conflict. He finally meets Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Clad in rags, he is the one who carries souls across the river. If you are unburied and you do not have the coin to pay him, such as an obolus or danake, then you risk wandering the shores for hundreds of years. Again it is his muse that helps him across, it is what he loves that becomes sufficient payment to take him across the river. All of time flows in these waters, and the sufferings of the world are unveiled to him when he steps onto the other side as a mortal singing in Hades to the drifting hosts of the dead. Upon meeting Hades and Persephone, he begs in supplication to free Eurydice, and he is given a chance one condition: he must not turn back to look at Eurydice as they walk through the valley of death, or else the concession they are being offered will count for nothing. But his doom lingers and he fails. He turns before the sun is shining upon his brow. Eurydice is swept back into the tenebrous caves and he loses her for the second time. He is now the “twice bereaved” - a fate which leaves him as a nightingale singing through his sorrow across the river. Upon walking out of Hades he is a changed man who can now see all the sufferings of the word. With his broken heart beat he makes a miracle which is the pinnacle of the teachings of this story: he does not fall into despair, he returns to the world of the living and makes beauty from his sorrow. This is true magic, taking difficult emotions and transforming them into beauty. He makes such beauty that women from all the corners of the world seek him out, his music now woven with silver light from his own tears. Such beauty, such alchemy makes the women feel as if the music is for them alone, for each of their own hearts, they are unable to share their love for Orpheus, their love for him turns to an irrepressible vibrancy: they must have him. How many people which we put up on the great stages of the world suffer a similar fate? Here love becomes an obsession which results in his death, and now, not even his music can save him. The Maenads trance-like state tears his body apart and he finally succumbs to the order of the Greek cosmos, his own soul-shadow is taken back into Hades for the third time, and now he come to be part of the great forgetting. The flames of his love smouldered by the cool infinity-waters of the Styx river. He joins the drifting ghosts of the dead. Persephone, whom Homer describes as “the formidable, venerable majestic princess of the underworld…” she is the personification of vegetation, she is green shoots from the ashes, that which open the wells of fertility, all that which carries sheer possibility within. She is a custodian for love that is regenerative and restorative, the love which is the source of life. Only memories can recall the self, and with Orpheus and Eurydice, their memories have ceased, and are receding into the underworld where time has lost its purpose. From the well of memory they are enabled to see again, we do not know from Ovid’s Metamorphose whether this is Persephone who has felt pity to intervene, but their souls flow with life giving waters towards a fate that ends amongst the undying lands. They are reunited with their love and their existential victory over forgetfulness and death. They transform to emblems of mortal love, such as Romeo and Juliet and all the lovers that come after them, all finally redeemed in the Elysian lands where immortal birds sing in praise of love. Romantic love is the fierce arrow head of Eros, and if we are to follow our hearts, the colours of an afterlife can been glanced in the eyes of the one we love.