Friday, November 5, 2010
Orpheus and Eurydice: Love in the Land of the Dead
One of the most popular Greek myths is the story of Orpheus,the musician, and Eurydice. He falls madly in love with her, but she dies after getting stung by a poisonous bee. Crazed by grief, Orpheus incites the pity of the gods who agree to restore her to life. Hermes, the messenger God, takes Orpheus to the land of Hades to recover his bride. The one stipulation is this: do not look behind to see if she is there until you have reached the sunny side of earth. It seemed like a reasonable request at the time.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of sonnets based on Orpheus. His language is incredible; he writes lines like "You are lonely, my friend....How can fingers point out a smell?-Yet of the dark forces that lurk at our side, you feel many...you know the dead, and you shrink away from the magic spell." What does this mean? Did Eurydice become more desirable as she seemed less attainable? When she no longer was the wife he came home to every day, did she become larger than life? Did he obsess over her love? Did he wonder if she had ever loved him or were all those words, all those letters a lie? Did his life become meaningless unless he found a way to bring her back by his side?
Orpheus is often portrayed as a man who truly loved his woman, one who would go to the ends of the earth for her. And of course he did. Orpheus could not survive without his Eurydice, and the gods took pity on his burden. Have you ever felt the same kind of love? Have you ever felt that you could not make one more step unless you knew that this person, this love object, was somehow ready to meet you and share those feelings with you? Did the pain just wrench at your heart until you lost the will to live? Did you find your whole being shrinking away because that person was gone from your life? Where could you go, what could you do to win them back?
We all confront the land of the dead when we fall in love. It is not morbid or unhappy. It becomes the parallel to the joy you feel. The libations of the dead keep you drinking until you see the emptiness that your love has become. But that doesn't mean that it is gone. Nor does it mean that it can't be saved. It just means it will have to fight for survival.
Orpheus was determined to win Eurydice back. But how can one live with a woman who has lived in the land of the dead. What training in post-traumatic stress would Orpheus have to learn? Eurydice has seen things that the living cannot know. How can she be the happy girl that he once loved? She has been scarred, embattled; she has seen the dead in all their shapes and forms. What can she communicate to Orpheus that he would really want to share? How can the dead come to life and stay alive?
Orpheus died soon after he lost his wife. He made an enemy of a god and was struck by countless arrows. Many couples experience such a phenomenon: one dies and the other follows, usually from grief." Killing too is a form of our ancient wandering affliction, says Rilke. What tightens into survival is already inert. Here, in the realm of decline...be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang." Do we rejoice in the love that burned brightly, just as Orpheus did for his brief time with his beloved? What do we mourn when the love sinks down into the earth, the loss of the person, the loss of the love or the loss of the person we once loved and no longer do? Rilke sees hope for his Orpheus, even when the myth does not. When he tries to comfort him, he is really telling us that love will always be there, even when it comes in the form we least want. Consider his final words:" And if the earthly no longer knows your name, whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing. To the flashing water, say: I am." The death of our love is not the death of life. There is no such thing. Even in the paths of the dead, our lives will always go on.