Just in case you hadn’t been paying attention, it is a musical time of year. More than any other time of year, the whole world (and by “the whole world” I mean everywhere I go) is playing holiday music. As long as they avoid the singing chipmunks (yes, I know there’s a new movie, and no, I don’t plan to go see it) and the barking dogs, I’m pretty happy with holiday music.
Speaking of musicians (I wasn’t really, but it would be polite of you not to bother pointing that out), Once Upon A Time, there was a musician named Orpheus. He was a Greek and famous (you can tell he was Greek because of the “pheus” and you can tell he was famous because I’m talking about him lo these many years later).
Orpheus was the greatest of all mortal musicians (remember, dearest, that one doesn’t want to boast about being better at anything than the gods). Not only did people stop whatever they were doing to listen to him, animals did as well. Even the rivers stopped running and the rocks stopped rocking to sit still and listen when Orpheus sang.
Orpheus sailed on the Argo, and performed all sorts of musical magic on that voyage, but that’s not today’s story.
Eventually, Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice (she was a wood nymph but Orpheus was in love and didn’t care about her habit of being part tree), and Orpheus and Eurydice decided to get married.
On their wedding day (either right before or right after depending on which version you read), Eurydice was bitten by a viper (ouch) and died. But Orpheus was in love and didn’t care about her habit of being dead, so he decided to go to the underworld and get back his bride.
Taking his lyre (he was a most extraordinary musician you will remember), Orpheus set out for the underworld.
What I don’t understand is how all these heroes managed to find the underworld. It’s not like they had GPS back then. And there weren’t a lot of signs saying “This Way to the Underworld” like there would have been if the entrance to Hades was in Las Vegas.
Back to our story. While he was wandering around, Orpheus the Brokenhearted was playing sad, sad music. So sad that the gods got together and said “This is worse than barking dogs Christmas carols! Someone show him the entrance to Hades!”
Down to the underworld went Orpheus. At every obstacle, he played his lyre and sang beautifully and charmed the pants off his way through. Eventually, he got to Hades and his wife Persephone (it was that time of year and she was in residence). Orpheus played for them and they agreed that he could take Eurydice back to the Land of the Living.
But (you knew there had to be a “but” right? This is Greek mythology and happily ever afters aren’t in huge supply). But there was a condition. Eurydice would follow Orpheus on the long and treacherous hike back up, BUT he must not look back at her along the way. Not even once. Not even a tiny peek. No matter how much he wanted to. No peeking at all.
This seemed like a no brainer to Orpheus mostly because he didn’t have a choice. Off he set, playing his lyre to keep the scary things away and to let Eurydice know where to follow.
Have you ever been told not to do something? Have you ever been told not to do something that is the One Thing In the World, Nay, the Universe that you want to do more than anything else? It’s hard not to do. It gets harder the longer you have to refrain from doing it. It gets even harder if you don’t really trust the people who told you not to do the Thing. Orpheus was having a hard time.
He strained to hear Eurydice behind him. He heard nothing (mostly because shades don’t make any sound when they walk) and partly because he had to keep playing. Orpheus kept walking.
He really, really, really wanted to look back and make sure Eurydice was there. But he didn’t dare because he knew he would lose her forever if he so much as peeked. Orpheus was having a Really Tough Day.
Finally, finally Orpheus reached the entrance (or in this case the exit) to the underworld and stepped out into the glorious sunshine. (Trust me. If you’ve been to the underworld, even a gloomy day will seem like glorious sunshine.)
As soon as he stepped out, Orpheus spun around to see Eurydice. BUT (you knew there was a “but” right?) she was still on the path in the cave. He had turned too soon, and no sooner had he seen her when—whoosh—away she faded, murmuring “farewell.”
Orpheus (of course) tried to rush after her and (of course) was not allowed to (one trip to the underworld per live musician).
Life pretty much went downhill for Orpheus from there. He wandered around the world (and by “the world” I mean ancient Greece) avoiding people and playing for the animals, trees, and rocks. This was wonderful for the animals, trees, and rocks, but rocks are rarely asked their opinion and almost never listen to when they give it. Which makes them perfectly qualified to be music critics.
Eventually, the Maenads ripped him limb from limb. His head went on to be an oracle and the Muses buried his body at the base of Olympus where—to this day—the nightingales sing more sweetly than anywhere else.
If you happen to be traveling by the base of Mount Olympus, be sure to stop and listen to the nightingales.
In the meantime, hope you hear good music today.