35. HOW ORPHEUS WENT DOWN TO THE WORLD OF THE DEAD
There were many minstrels who went through the world, telling men the stories of the gods, telling of their wars and their births. Of all these minstrels none was so famous as Orpheus who had gone with the Argonauts. No one could tell truer things about the gods, for he himself was half divine.
However a terrible thing happened to Orpheus, a grief that stopped his singing and playing on the lyre. His young wife Eurydice was taken from him. One day, while walking in the garden, she was bitten on the heel by a serpent, and straightway she went down to the world of the dead.
Then everything in the world was dark and bitter for the minstrel Orpheus. He couldn’t sleep and food had no taste. Then Orpheus said, “I will do what no mortal has ever done before. I will do what even the immortals might shrink from doing. I will go down into the world of the dead, and I will bring back to the living and to the light my bride Eurydice.”
Then Orpheus went on his way to the valley of Acherusia which goes down into the world of the dead. He would never have found his way to that valley if the trees had not shown him the way. As he went along Orpheus played on his lyre and sang, and the trees heard his song and they were so moved by his grief, and with their limbs they showed him the way to the deep valley of Acherusia.
Orpheus went down winding paths through that deepest and most shadowy of all valleys. He came at last to the great gate that opens onto the world of the dead. The silent guards, who keep watch there for the rulers of the dead, were frightened when they saw a living being, and they would not let Orpheus approach the gate.
But the minstrel, knowing the reason for their fear, said, “I am not Heracles returning to drag up from the world of the dead your three-headed dog Cerberus. I am Orpheus, and all that my hands can do is to make music on my lyre.”
Then he took the lyre in his hands and played it. As he played, the silent watchers gathered around him, leaving the gate unguarded. As he played the rulers of the dead, Aidoneus and Persephone came, and listened to the words of the living man.
“The reason I have come to such a dark and frightening place,” sang Orpheus, “is to try to gain a fairer fate for Eurydice, my bride. All that is above must come down to you at last, rulers of the most lasting world but Eurydice has been brought here before her time. I have tried to endure her loss, but I cannot bear it. I come before you, Aidoneus and Persephone, brought here by Love.”
When Orpheus said the name of Love, Persephone, the queen of the dead, bowed her young head, and bearded Aidoneus, the king, bowed his head also. Persephone remembered how Demeter, her mother, had searched for her all over the world, and she remembered the touch of her mother’s tears on her face. Aidoneus remembered how his love for Persephone had led him to carry her away from the valley in the upper world where she had been gathering flowers. He and Persephone bowed their heads and stood aside, and Orpheus went through the gate and walked amongst the dead.
He still played on his lyre. Tantalus who, had been condemned to stand up to his neck in water and yet never be able to quench his thirst for his crimes heard, and for a while did not try to put his lips toward the water that always flowed away from him. Sisyphus who had been condemned to roll a stone up a hill that always rolled back heard the music that Orpheus played, and for a while he sat still on his stone. Even those dreaded ones who bring to the dead the memories of all their crimes and all their faults, even the Eumenides had their cheeks wet with tears.
In the crowd of the newly dead, Orpheus saw Eurydice. She looked at her husband, but she did not have the power to go to him but slowly she came when Aidoneus called her. Then with joy Orpheus took her hands in his.
No mortal had ever been given such a privilege before. They could both leave the world of the dead together and stay for a longer time in the world of the living. There would be one condition—that on their way up through the valley of Acherusia neither Orpheus nor Eurydice should look back.
They went through the gate and met the watchers that are around the entrance. These showed them the path that went up through the valley of Acherusia. They went that way, Orpheus leading Eurydice.
They went up along the darkened paths. Orpheus knew that Eurydice was behind him, but he never looked back at her. But as he went, his heart was filled with things to tell—how the trees were blossoming in the garden she had left; how the water was sparkling in the fountain; how the doors of the house stood open, and how they, sitting together, would watch the sunlight on the laurel bushes. All these things were in his heart to tell her, to tell her who came behind him, silent and unseen.
They were nearing the place where the valley of Acherusia opened onto the world of the living. Orpheus looked up at the blue sky. A white-winged bird flew by. Orpheus turned around and cried, “Oh Eurydice, look at the world that I have returned you to!”
He turned to say this to her. He saw her with her long dark hair and pale face. He held out his arms to clasp her. But in that instant she slipped back into the depths of the valley. All he heard was a single word, “Farewell!” It had taken long for Eurydice to climb so far, but the moment he turned around she had fallen back to her place amongst the dead.
Orpheus went down through the valley of Acherusia again and again he came to the watchers of the gate. However, now he was not looked at or listened to, and, in despair, he had to return to the world of the living.
The birds and the trees and the stones were his friends now. The birds flew around him and mourned with him; the trees and stones often followed him, moved by the music of his lyre. But a savage gang killed Orpheus and threw his severed head and his lyre into the River Hebrus. It is said by the poets that while they floated in midstream the lyre gave out some mournful notes and the head of Orpheus answered the notes with song.
As he was no longer one of the living, Orpheus went down to the world of the dead, not by that steep descent through the valley of Acherusia, but going straight down. The silent watchers let him pass, and he walked amongst the dead and saw his Eurydice in the crowd. Orpheus and Eurydice were together again, and as they went through the place that King Aidoneus ruled over, they had no fear of looking back at each other.