Monday, May 11, 2020


            Ovid wasn’t there. So we don’t know what happened. We do know this much. Everyone knows this. When Orpheus played Apollo’s lyre and sang his own songs, all Reality stopped to listen, rapt. When someone threw a stone at him, he sang to the stone and it fell at his feet. No wonder Eurydice loved him and what she must have been to draw his heart from all the world! But on their wedding day she was stalked by the lustful cheesemaker Aristaeus. She eluded him but stepped on a snake and died. Grief-stricken, Orpheus sang because that’s what he did. Hearing his heartrending song, the gods wept and sent him to the Underworld to reclaim his bride. This much we know.

            Ovid tells us a plausible but not entirely convincing story. Orpheus’ songs moved Hades, Persephone, and the Furies to tears. (Oddly no word of what Eurydice might or might not have felt. No one asked her what she wanted. Does this silence signify?) Supposedly the dark gods gave the couple permission to return to the mortal, transitory, lovely mirage of a world called Life, provided Orpheus walked in front and did not look back until they reached the surface. Odd, but things generally seem odd down there. So, they set out, but at the last possible moment, Orpheus looked back only to see Eurydice falling away, away, down, and down back to Hades’ grim realm. She fell because Orpheus faltered but he faltered out of love. It was his love that damned them both. Maybe it happened that way. I wasn’t there either. If it did, then we see, as Wilde taught us from his jail, love and sorrow are into a single fabric woven. 

            But are those the facts? I wonder how Eurydice felt. Did his lyre still touch her heart? Or had death changed her, altered her love? I wonder if perhaps she had made a comfy home in the Underworld. Think of Bonivard, imprisoned in the Castle of Chillon. Byron’s “Prisoner” had made peace with imprisonment. He had, as Eric Fromm said, “escaped from freedom” with its attendant stress.

                “These heavy walls to me had grown 
A hermitage—and all my own! 
With spiders I had friendship made . . .
We were all inmates of one place, . . . 
My very chains and I grew friends, 
So much a long communion tends 
To make us what we are . . . .”

I wasn’t there either. But I have invited so many people into life and received their RSVP regrets. I wonder if when Orpheus looked back it was because he sensed Eurydice’s reluctance to follow him into the light. I wonder if when he turned his anxious head she was not there because she had thought better of it and returned to her familiar misery, the gloom that she felt herself to be.

            We do know what happened next. Orpheus renounced womankind, dallied at times with young men, and sang sad songs of love lost, songs that moved the hearts of Maenads with longing that turned to wrath when their love was scorned; so they set out to tear the poet limb from limb. Some say they got him, and various disposals were made of his head and lyre. The truth is this: to escape their passion, he turned to stone, perhaps having foreseen Stoic philosophy. We know that much.

            But what happened next is another question. John Chrysostom wasn’t there either. But, like Ovid, he has his story of the Underworld, this one featuring Jesus, how the Savior/ Liberator, having paid the bloody price of his admission ticket, ran amok and harrowed Hell, sprung the inmates, led them out like Jews from Egypt, broke the hinges open so that now the gates swing both ways like saloon doors – no locks – how Hell was reduced to a tourist spot where we can go to hide awhile when the blessedness of life becomes too much. But it is no longer a max facility. 

            If John Chrysostom is right, then Jesus found Eurydice there. Because she’d grown attached to her condo in the Underworld Kingdom, and perhaps because she was beautiful and reminded him of mad Magdalene, Jesus was patient with her. He let her leave last, but on one condition. No, she didn’t have to follow a man at 10 paces. Instead, he gave her a ladder, a paintbrush, and a can of red paint, and told her when she went out the gates to look at the sign, then do what seemed to her to be right and true. When Eurydice saw the inscription above the gates, “Leave all hope ye who enter here” she climbed up to draw a single crimson stripe through “Leave” and wrote “Embrace” above. 

            Eurydice reborn wandered the earth listening in vain for the magic lyre. No one had told her of the Maenads’ revenge. So day and night, year after year, from East to West, she wandered. As Odysseus sought a place, she sought a sound, but it was long since silenced. At last she came to a craggy shore in Turkey and there she saw the eroded once-poet stone. She embraced him, pressed her warm again body against his cold adamantine corpse, and wept hot tears, salt on granite. Did it melt him? Did her grief restore his lyric love? Or did Eurydice remain forever wrapped in that love/sorrow garment? Whatever happened, did it happen in an instant? Or is the contest between love and stone one of endurance, tested over who knows how long. Some claim to have walked discreetly past Eurydice there, seen her still clinging to Orpheus and to have heard her singing something like, “Embrace all hope ye who enter here.”