Classical Mythology in English Literature: A Critical Anthology

By Geoffrey Miles | Go to book overview

4

ORPHEUS

INTRODUCTION

The ancient Orpheus

For obvious reasons, the legend of Orpheus has always had a particular appeal for writers. Orpheus is the archetypal poet and the archetypal musician; beyond that, he can be seen as the embodiment of 'art' in its widest sense, of all kinds of creative activity, all human attempts to find or create harmony and order in the world, through literature, music, art, philosophy, science, politics, or religion. In his unsuccessful attempt to reclaim his wife Eurydice from death, and his own death at the hands of an angry mob, he embodies the limitations of art in the face of mortality and human irrationality. On a less abstract level, the Orpheus legend is a wonderful story. Dramatically structured, movingly tragic and ironic, it invites constant retelling and constant reinterpretation of the motives and feelings of the two principal characters. 1

The legend in its classic form can be quickly summarised. Orpheus came from Thrace, the wild region to the north of classical Greece. His mother was Calliope, one of the nine Muses; his father was either Oeagrus, an otherwise obscure Thracian king, or the god Apollo. Orpheus sang and played on the lyre with such beauty and skill that he enchanted not only humans but even wild nature: animals and birds flocked to hear him, rivers paused in their courses, even trees and stones uprooted themselves and lumbered to follow his voice. He sailed with the Argonauts on the quest for the Golden Fleece, where he caused fish to leap out of the water to hear his music, and outsang the seductive songs of the Sirens.

He married the nymph Eurydice, but lost her on the very day of their wedding when she was bitten by a snake and died. The grieving Orpheus descended to the underworld and played before Hades and Persephone, begging to be allowed to take his wife back to life. They agreed, on one condition: that he should go on ahead, and not look back to see if she was following. Orpheus had reached the very verge of the upper world when, overcome by love or fear, he looked back, and Eurydice was lost again, this time irretrievably. Inconsolable, Orpheus retreated into the wilderness to sing his songs to animals and trees, abandoning

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Classical Mythology in English Literature: A Critical Anthology
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xii
  • Part 1 1
  • 1 - The Myth-Kitty 3
  • Notes 19
  • 2 - A Rough Guide to the Gods 20
  • 3 - A Mythical History of the World in One Chapter 35
  • Notes 58
  • Part 2 59
  • 4 - Orpheus 61
  • Notes 74
  • 5 - Venus and Adonis 196
  • Other Versions of Venus and Adonis 329
  • 6 - Pygmalion 332
  • Notes 345
  • Bibliography 450
  • Index of Mythological Names 453
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