Two great tales in these chapters: Orpheus & Eurydice and the less famous Ceyx & Alcyone.
Orpheus & Eurydice
|Edward Poynter, Orpheus and Eurydice. 1862.|
This story starts with the Hymen, god of marriage, arriving at the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice. Already there is a bad sign:
Though Hymen came to help him at the feast
And waved his torch, its fires guttered out
In coiling smoke that filled the eyes with tears.
The morning after the wedding, Eurydice trips on a deadly snake and is bitten. Orpheus sings of his loss so that everyone on earth can hear, and goes to the underworld through the gates of Taenarus. (Taenarus was a real town in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese; a nearby cave was the legendary entrance to the underworld.) Charon, the boatman who transports the souls of the dead, takes him across the Styx, the river that separates Earth from the underworld, and sings before Hades and Persephone.
However much I took her loss serenely,
A god called Love had greater strength than I;
I do not know how well he’s known down here,
but up on Earth his name’s on every tongue,
And if I’m to believe an ancient rumor,
A dark king took a princess to his bed,
A child more beautiful than any queen;
They had been joined by Love.
That is a much more romanticized description than the way it came across in Book V. I can see how Orpheus would want to stay on Hades’s good side, though. 😏
… Since these pathetic words were sung to music,
Even the blood drained ghosts of hell fell weeping:
Tantalus no longer reached toward vanished waves
And Ixion’s wheel stopped short, charmed by the spell;
Vultures gave up their feast on Tityus’s liver
And cocked their heads to stare; fifty Belides
Stood gazing while their half-filled pitchers emptied,
And Sisyphus sat down upon his stone.
Ixion was king of the Lapiths, the most ancient tribe of Thessaly. He murdered his father in law and was shunned as an outlaw. When Zeus had pity on him and brought him to Olympus, but while there he lusted after Hera, so he was expelled from Olympus. Zeus ordered Hermes to bind Ixion to a fiery wheel, in some stories a solar wheel in the sky, but in Ovid transferred to the underworld.
Tityus: According to Wikipedia: “Tityos was the son of Elara; his father was Zeus. Zeus hid Elara from his wife, Hera, by placing her deep beneath the earth. Tityos grew so large that he split his mother’s womb, and he was carried to term by Gaia, the Earth. Once grown, Tityos attempted to rape Leto at the behest of Hera. He was slain by Leto’s protective children Artemis and Apollo. As punishment, he was stretched out in Tartarus and tortured by two vultures who fed on his liver, which grew back every night. This punishment is comparable to that of the Titan Prometheus.”
The fifty Belides are also known as the Danaides, the fifty daughters of Danaus. According to Wikipedia: “Ovid refers to them as the Belides after their grandfather Belus. They were to marry the 50 sons of Danaus’ twin brother Aegyptus, a mythical king of Egypt. In the most common version of the myth, all but one of them killed their husbands on their wedding night, and are condemned to spend eternity carrying water in a sieve or perforated device. In the classical tradition, they came to represent the futility of a repetitive task that can never be completed (see also Sisyphus).”
Eurydice is allowed to return from the underworld as long as Orpheus does not look at her until they are back in the upper world. He cannot resist the temptation to look at her, and she fades away into the underworld. He tries to cross the Styx again but cannot. He sits in rags and mud for a week, not eating or drinking. Then he goes to Thrace, where he will not sleep with women but teaches the men of Thrace the art of making love to boys. One day he tells a series of stories: the tales that make up the rest of Book X.
The Death of Orpheus
Orpheus is attacked by a crowd of raging women. I think these are meant to be the followers of Bacchus (the Bacchae, aka Bacchante or Maenads) who appeared in the story of Pentheus (Book III). They are attacking him because he has rejected the company of women: “Look at the pretty boy who will not have us!“
The saddened birds sobbed loud for Orpheus;
All wept: the multitude of beasts,
Stones, and trees, all those who came to hear
The songs he sang, yes, even the charmed trees
Dropped all their leaves as if they shaved their hair.
Orpheus’s head lands in the River Hebrus, along with his lyre. His head continues to sing and the lyre continues to play until both are washed up on the island of Lesbos.
The poet’s shade stepped down from earth to Hades;
To stroll again the places that it knew,
It felt its way toward fair Elysium.
There Orpheus took his Eurydice, put arms around her
Folding her to rest. Today they walk together,
side by side– or if they so wish, he follows her, she, him,
But as they move, however they may go,
Orpheus may not turn a backward look at her.
Hadestown, a musical based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, won a Tony Award for Best Musical this year. I listened to the recording, and I recommend it if you can find it. (I checked it out from the library.)
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice inspired a Middle English version which I read last year (in translation.)
Ceyx & Alcyone
Ceyx is the son of Lucifer (the morning star) and a friend of Peleus (the father of Achilles). He plans a voyage to Delphi. It is a dangerous journey, and his wife Alcyone pleads with him not to go, or to take her with him. His ship is destroyed in a storm.
So the waves struck port and starboard of the ship,
Or as great lions charge at hunters shields,
So waves that rode the winds crashed the ship’s sides,
And mounted at their will. Then decks began
To crack, pitch, wax, and ropes gave way, boards broken,
Sides gaping, while Death’s sea poured in the hold.
The story is: he raised his face to hers,
Though love had given them a strange mutation.
I had never heard of this tale before, but I’m guessing that Alcyone was an inspiration for Tolkien’s Elwing.
This is definitely one of the highlights for me, maybe because of the vivid descriptions.
the death of Achilles
Book XII includes several stories from the Trojan War and ends with the death of Achilles. The sea god Neptune, whose son Cygnus was killed by Achilles, speaks to his nephew Apollo:
Agamemnon called all the Greek leaders together to decide between them.
And Tartarus is not the place for him.