Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

Lost by Looking Back

Apollo had a son named Orpheus, who was a great musician. His lyre, or small harp, was a present from his father, who taught him how to play upon it, so that it charmed all who heard. When he played in the woods the trees began to dance, rather stiffly to be sure. When he passed near rocks with his lyre they did not exactly melt, but their hard hearts were softened. The savage beasts lost their fierceness, and the timid ones laid aside their fears. They came out from their dens and followed him, lions and tigers, wolves and rabbits, bears and stags.

In his youth he was one of the crew of the ship Argo, and at his playing the vessel launched herself. He married Eurydice, and they were very happy, but one day she trod upon a snake hidden in the grass. It bit her in the foot, and she died.

Her husband's music changed entirely. Before that he sang of hope and joy and peace and love. Now his only song was one of sorrow for his great loss.

He thought if he went down to the underworld he might coax Pluto to let him have his wife again. He found a deep cave and went down and down, until through the deep darkness he saw a dim light. He knew that he had reached the kingdom of the dead. He played to old Charon and sang of his dead wife, until the boatman said, "Come aboard! I will take you over!"

He went up to the palace and found king Pluto and his queen. He played upon his lyre and sang to them.

"Oh, you, who love each other and are happy," he said, "think of my grief and pity my sorrow. She who was the light of my eyes is in darkness here. She who made me happy goes lonely here among these pale ghosts, while I walk mourning upon the earth. When I sang her sweet voice answered me; now I hear it no more. Others praised me, but her praise was dearer than that of all beside.

"I do not come to break up your kingdom. She has died before her time. We must all come to you, O mighty king! If you give her back to me now, she and I must soon return to this world of shadows. But spare her to me, that we may be happy for a while. Fair queen, speak for me to your dark lord. Remember how your mother went sorrowing for you, and have pity on me in my grief."

Persephone turned to her husband. Her face was wet with tears. "O king and lord," she said, "grant this poor mortal's prayer! We are sorry to be parted from each other for six months when I go to my mother. How sad it must be when parting is forever!"

Tears rolled down the thin cheeks of many ghosts. The kind said, "Mortal, on one condition you may have your wife again. She must follow you to the upper world, and you must not look upon her until you are both in the clear light of day."

Orpheus was glad indeed. He thanked the king and queen and went to the river. Charon ferried him and Eurydice across, and they began to climb upward through dark caves. They could speak to each other, and that was pleasant for them and kept them cheerful. When they had gone a long way Orpheus saw a faint light far ahead. They were almost in safety. Eurydice could only follow slowly, for, ghost as she was, her foot hurt her.

Her husband was so glad to be near the upper world that he forgot Pluto's warning. "Eurydice," he said, "Do you see the light? Are you coming?"

He looked around and saw his wife smiling, but only for a moment. "Eurydice!" he called. A weak voice answered, "Farewell! Farewell forever!" She was gone; carried back to the place of shades.

He went to the underworld again as fast as he could. She had already crossed the river. He tried to get into the boat, but Charon drove him back.

"You had your chance and lost it," the old boatman cried. "Those who cannot keep what they get must expect to lose."

For seven days Orpheus wandered up and down on the banks of the river until everybody was tired of hearing him sing and cry. Then he went back to the sunlit world. All his song was about his loss and sorrow. The maidens of Thrace pitied him and would have been glad to comfort him, but he would not listen to them. One name was on his lips, one darling was in his thoughts. "Eurydice!" he cried. "So near, so far! Lost, lost, by my own folly!"

A feast of Dionysus, or Bacchus, came on. A company of women went dancing and singing in worship of the god. "Look!" said one of them. "There is the man who hates us all!"

She threw a spear at Orpheus. He struck a few notes upon his lyre, and the spear did no harm. But the whole company of women cried out and tore their hair and ran at him. They took away his lyre, and he was powerless. With shouts and screams they beat him until he was dead, then tore him into pieces which they scattered on the river.

The Muses gathered up his remains and buried them. Zeus took the silent lyre and placed it among the stars. The song of nightingales over the musician's grave was sweeter then anywhere else in Greece.

His shade or ghost went down to the underworld. Charon said, "Now you have come to stay you may get into the boat." On the other shore Eurydice was waiting for him. Thus they were united never again to part.