Mythology Monday: Orpheus Can’t Follow Simple Instructions

This week, we’re going to go back to Greece and a tale that has some familiar elements if you’ve been reading these posts for a while.

So we start off our story with Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope and Apollo. Orpheus is ludicrously good at playing the lyre. Basically, if he were a D&D character he’d be a bard. Anyway, Orpheus is going along and encounters Eurydice. The two of them hit it off, and end up getting married.

Things are going pretty well, but the god Hymen, who blessed the wedding, made a prediction that their bliss was to be short-lived. And I was today years old when I learned that the Greek god of marriage is called Hymen. Also, that his brother, Priapos, is the god of boners. But I’m getting a little off topic.

Anyway, the predicted misfortune occurs when Eurydice takes to the woods to go and hang out with some nymphs. Now, here’s where the story diverges a bit depending on which version you’re looking at. So Eurydice either dances with the nymphs, or runs from an amorous shepherd. Either way, she ends up getting bitten by a snake and dies.

Now Orpheus, as you can imagine, is quite heartbroken over this. So much so, in fact, that he plays a song on the lyre that basically bums out the rest of creation. It gets to the point where his dad basically says, “Son, please just go to the underworld and get her back, you’re harshing everyone’s buzz right now.”

So Orpheus takes Apollo’s advice, and schlepps himself on down to the underworld. He stands in front of Hades and Persephone and pleads his case, to which Hades responds, “Um, no.” Then Orpheus plays him a tune that impresses him, so then he’s like, “OK, fine, you can take Eurydice back with you, but you can’t turn and look at her until your topside.”

Orpheus is like, “Sweet,” and goes to fetch his wife.

So he’s making his way back up, but kind of starts to think that Hades is fucking with him for some reason because he can’t hear her behind him. However, he manages to resist looking back until they’re almost out of the underworld. Turns out that she was behind him the whole time, and is like “You had one joooooooooooooooooob” as she’s pulled back to the underworld for good.

Orpheus tries to get back in, but the underworld has this policy that you can only visit once if you’re still alive. So he sits on a rock and plays his lyre until a bunch of Maenads come by and quite literally tear him apart.
So earlier I mentioned that parts of this story may sound familiar. What I was referring to was the Japanese creation story that I talked about a few months ago, where Izanagi tries to bring back his wife and basically makes the same mistake as Orpheus. Actually, a lot of cultures have stories where the hero goes to the underworld or some other realm to rescue a loved one, though not all of them have such a downer ending.

I think we can all agree that the lesson here is if the gods tell you not to do something, maybe you shouldn’t do that thing, though.

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