Tag Archives: myths

Orpheus, from Greece to Brazil

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

From tales of wood nymphs transformed into trees or rivers, to gods arbitrarily helping or abducting humans, the Greek myths embody tragedy and comedy, love and hate, beautiful beings and repulsive ogres, and nature in all its unfathomable splendor. Of all the myths, the story of Persephone and the story of Orpheus must be the saddest. In Persephone, the young goddess of spring is abducted by Pluto and carried off to Hell. In Orpheus, two lovers are torn apart not once but twice, as Eurydice slips back down into the Underworld.

What is most extraordinary is that the myths were such brilliantly crafted tales and personifications, perhaps most lovingly interpreted by Ovid. The story of Orpheus was first penned by the Greek poet, Apollonius Rhodius, in The Voyage of the Argo, in the third-century, B.C.. Both Virgil and Ovid, two Roman poets from the Greco-Roman time period, continued the Orpheus tale with Orpheus and Eurydice

In this way, Apollonius passed along the historia of Orpheus, in the written tradition, influencing other ancient writers, who enlarged and enhanced the story, allowing the aeons to transform it into mythology for the world’s enjoyment and interpretation.

As the story goes, Hermes, the messenger god, invented the lyre and handed the instrument down, first to Apollo, the “magical musician”, and then to Orpheus. Apollo, the god of light and truth, was the father of Orpheus. Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, was his mother. Hence, Orpheus came from an exceptionally melodious lineage.

Of the Muses, Hesiod is quoted as saying:

He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.

The Story of Orpheus

It was said that Orpheus could sing and play music more sweetly than any mortal in all of Thrace. Indeed, he could move rivers, rocks and trees and attract the birds and animals to his side.

Half-human, half god, Orpheus also attained the adoration of the nymphs and Naiads: from beautiful maidens and lesser deities of the woods, rivers, trees and meadows, to the formidable, maenads, worshipers of the Bacchante, who, in Ovid’s version, ultimately destroy Orpheus out of jealousy.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus is married to Eurydice;

The new-wed bride,
Roaming with her gay Naiads through the grass,
Fell dying when a serpent struck her heel.

And in so dying, Eurydice is whisked away to the Underworld, much like Persephone, to the place of death, in Greco-Roman mythology, where all souls go in the final end. But the love of Orpheus and the loss that he feels is so great, that he travels to the Underworld and pleads his case before Hades to have his wife, Eurydice returned to life.

He plays upon his lyre and sings to all the host of the Underworld;

So to the music of his strings he sang,
And all the bloodless spirits wept to hear…
Then first by that sad singing overwhelmed,
The Furies’ cheeks, it’s said, were wet with tears…

Orpheus wins his wish. Hades grants that Eurydice return to the upper-realms with her husband, but with the stipulation that he is not to look back at her as they ascend to the light, Orpheus leading the way.

As the tragic tale goes, Orhpeus, in a fit of concern, does look back just as Eurydice is about to step up into the earthly realm, and the ill-destined bride descends, like mist, back down the dark tunnel into the Underworld again.

And now they neared the edge of the bright world,
And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,
He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.

He stretched his arms to hold her – to be held –
And clasped, poor soul, naught but the yielding air.
And she, dying again, made no complaint
(For what complaint had she save she was loved?)
And breathed a faint farewell, and turned again
Back to the land of Spirits whence she came.
The double death of his Eurydice,
Stole Orpheus’ wits away.

And so Orpheus is left to sing and play beautiful, sad songs in the forests and meadows, by the rivers and under the trees, for the next three years, loved by many women, but loving none in return.

Then, Ovid continues the tale in The Death of Orpheus, wherein the Maenads, those jealous, pleasure seekers of Bacchic’ orgies, explode into a frenzied rage and destroy Orpheus with the violence of a pack of wolves.

Of Thracian women, wearing skins of beasts,
From some high ridge of ground caught sight of him.
‘Look!’ shouted one of them, tossing her hair
That floated in the breeze, ‘Look, there he is,
The man who scorns us!’

Re-telling the Myth

Many poets and writers have since developed and retold the myth, using the themes of ill-fated love and the immortals in such stories as Pyramus and Thisby or Romeo and Juliet. And Orpheus has found his way into opera, art, theater and film as well.

In the film, Black Orpheus, the setting is Rio de Janeiro during the wildly colorful and musical celebration of Carnival, which takes place during Lent. This makes for a brilliant tableau for the ancient tale. Since the Brazilians feel connected to the Greeks and make up a multi-faceted culture of strongly Catholic beliefs, with people of indigenous-Indian, Italian, Portuguese, German, French and African descent, their story is rich with the traditions of these combined groups.

From the film, Black Orpheus

From the film, Black Orpheus

This softly colorized film-version of the myth of Orpheus was directed by Marcel Camus, using a cool, samba musical score by bossa nova jazz legends, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa. Lots of symbolic detail can be deciphered from the beginning until the ending scenes. Through personifications of Hermes, the Muses, “Mira” – a jealous maenad, and Death or Fate, the Brazilians express their love of the Greeks, revering their stories and retelling their myth.

Yet, the Brazilians celebrate the illumination of the human spirit through the music and dancing of Carnival. Innocence shines through in the joy of their faces. And the very enchanting children of this film embody the true essence of dance. The bright colors and natural, instinctual rhythm of their remarkable “African beat” becomes that of a folk religion, mixing the Christ, Greek Mythology and African mysteries into one.

The festival costumes represent the Greco-Roman as well as the French, with Orpheus and Eurydice wearing Greek garments of a Golden Era, while the Maenads are dressed up in the flamboyance of French Versaille, illustrating the excesses of Marie Antionette and Louie XVI alongside street urchins and the very poor.

In the end, Mira, the frenzied Maenad, hurls a stone at Orpheus, as she does in the mythology. Camus remains true to Ovid by bringing Orpheus and Eurydice ultimately back together in death, but through the perspective of this romantic, creative, Brazilian film medium.

Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960. Moreover, the film brought wide recognition and popularity to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

References:The Metamorphoses by Ovid

(A version of this post originally appeared in my HubPages blog.)

Goddess Season

fog in park

In the short story, “Demeter” by Maile Meloy, the writer draws parallels between a modern-day woman named Demeter and the ancient goddess of the harvest in Greek mythology. “The Rape of Persephone,” one of the most sorrowful tales in mythology, is the story of a young girl torn from her mother, Demeter, by a great, colossal fiend – Pluto, the king of hell. In some of the mythical versions, Persephone is a maiden and in other versions she is a goddess in her own right – the goddess of spring.

As the myth is told, Persephone was picking flowers in a vast, summery field among her friends, when Pluto, the king of the underworld, snatched her up and brought her down to Hades to be his wife and his queen.

Terrified,

In tears, the goddess called her mother, called

Her comrades too, but oftenest her mother;

And, as she’d torn the shoulder of her dress,

The folds slipped down and out the flowers fell,

And she, in innocent simplicity,

Grieved in her girlish heart for their loss too.*

The myth, while portraying Pluto as a monster, also allows for the fact that Venus, the goddess of love, had arranged for the coupling by instructing Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart with an arrow that had Persephone’s name on it.

Meloy’s short story brilliantly translates the sorrow of the Persephone myth into an everyday tale of relationships and divorce, linking the modern world to the myth of antiquity. Here, Demeter’s daughter, Perry is fourteen, perhaps a couple of years older than her mythological counterpart. And her real name is Elizabeth, an intimation of the name-confusion in the Roman vs. the Greek. For example, Persephone and Demeter in the Greek version are named Proserpine and Ceres in the Roman.

As a somewhat sporty, straight-forward and logical girl, Perry hardly mimics the nature-loving, flower child who, rather anemic, rises from the dead every spring, like Persephone – and Perry is spared from actually being abducted, but she fits well into the narrative of a young girl torn between two worlds. In her parents’ divorce-settlement, Perry is to live with her father for half the year and her mother the other half, a harrowing division of the year.

Meloy begins:

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.** 

This correlation with the annual division of the seasons stands out as the most telling, connecting theme. In Meloy, Perry disappears into her father’s house: The dark interior of the house engulfed her. The screen door slammed shut.

Meloy sprinkles her story generously with such tropes that hearken to the original tale. Perry refuses to eat Demeter’s ultra-healthy, organic food: It’s not real food! I will not eat millet! she shouts – a nod to Persephone’s seven pomegranate seeds. Perry’s parents, Demeter and Hank, are at opposite extremes, just as the goddess of grain, who gives life and vitality to the earth vs. the king of hell, who lives in a dark, cold land underground.

mv stream

Hank is a scuba diver, and though he is not really a hateful character, death clings to his preoccupation with the extreme. The premise of plunging underwater or swimming works well in Meloy as both symbols of death and transformation – two key ideas that fill the Greek myths.

While Hank’s scuba diving conjures death in Meloy’s story; for instance, their friend, Duncan – Demeter’s lover – drowns on a scuba diving expedition lead by Hank, conversely, Meloy uses swimming as a platform for transformation and healing with Demeter. Just as Arethusa transformed into a beautiful, streaming pool in Ovid, the modern Demeter transforms as she swims in the local swimming pool:

It was her favorite moment of swimming, the passage from dry to wet, her skin shedding tiny bubbles of air as she kicked. It felt as if the world were washing off her. She was starting over, newborn.**

Among many brilliant references to the gods, the celestial-constellations, lightening bolts and “thundersnow,” Meloy supplies her Demeter with plenty of similarities to the character of Demeter in the ancient myth. Both women are the quintessential earth mother; one can imagine each of them cultivating the earth, barefoot – long, wavy hair billowing in the flower-scented air. At her most subtle and brilliant moments, Meloy brings the two together in spirit:

As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Demeter had stopped smoking pot. She started meeting the black-coated Hutterites in their truck to buy chickens and eggs. She bought vegetables at the farmers’ market from the Hmong refugees, who coaxed green shoots from the ground so much earlier in the year than anyone else. She ordered milk from the dairy and made baked eggs and cream with Hmong chives. She didn’t worry about getting fat – she was supposed to get fat.** 

The goddess Demeter can be inserted into this scenario of natural, culinary, food preparation with these nomadic, pastoral peoples. As well, both Demeters bear powerful feelings and emotions: the tormented, inner thoughts of the modern Demeter often match the violent responses of the sometimes angry, ancient mother-goddess.  And, of course, they both suffer with the tragedy of separation – the consequence of their unbreakable ties to a young daughter.

Meloy’s story is a tale of grief and loss, just as sorrowful as the original mythological tale. Demeter’s feelings emerge in waves over the separation with Perry as much as for the death of Duncan. And the writer brings us ever closer to Demeter’s loss, by degrees, to the culminating moment in the pool when Demeter tries to imagine, while swimming, what Duncan may have felt as he drowned. Then, the whole universe seems to react to Demeter’s slight flirtation with drowning. Annie, the lifeguard who also happens to be Duncan’s eighteen-year-old daughter by his marriage, becomes the sentry amidst all of nature’s omnipresence – blowing her whistle and clamoring down the ladder.

pool storm

And as in the Greek, Meloy ends with a measure of justice – but with an almost joyful portion of hope. Scenes in which Demeter frolics in the snow with the teenagers, after the summer snowstorm of mythic proportions, symbolize a christening or a blessing of eternal hope – perhaps even Duncan’s blessing. The complications and challenges within a lifetime have brought Demeter to middle age, yet Annie represents the next generation, and she does so with a sense of anticipation. Annie includes and accepts Demeter where Perry, her own daughter, had always shunned and marginalized. Yet, Annie also lightly ridicules her own mother – such is the way of mother/daughter relationships in the modern world.

Meloy renders a beautiful ending worthy of the goddess who promotes the continuation of all life. Whether you are a mother, a daughter, and/or a lover of mythology, you will love and appreciate this story.

* Metamorphoses by Ovid, Translated by A.D. Melville.  Book V, The Rape of Proserpine.

** “Demeter,” by Maile Meloy, appeared in The New Yorker, November 19th, 2012.

The Hero, Perseus

The Goddess Athena Alongside Him

Ovid begins the story of Perseus roaming the “balmy skies,” high among constellations, holding up the severed head of Medusa. The Gorgon’s head is dripping blood so that when each drop falls to earth the blood transforms into snakes, thus populating the land with Medusa’s curse. It isn’t Perseus’s intent to propagate deadly serpents on random islands, but the viperous Gorgon, Medusa, is nearly as dangerous dead as she was alive.

Also, Perseus has his mind on other things. Now that he’s done the job of killing the Gorgon, he must bring her head back to the king, who wanted nothing more than to own Medusa’s head. But actually, the king has sent Perseus on a dangerous mission for the single purpose of getting rid of him.

Ovid’s myth, which he knew from the Greek tales, is told with epic imagery and lots of dramatic landscapes, mindlessly-homicidal monsters and shape-shifting gods. The lines are poetic and flowing – penned in elegiac couplets:

“Thence through the firmament the warring winds propelled him like a rain-cloud back and forth.
From heaven’s height he gazed down on the lands
Far, far below and flew the whole world over.”

Perseus, the son of Zeus, flies with winged shoes and carries an invisible wallet, (not a wallet for holding money but a “wallet” in which to drop Medusa’s cutt off head,) and he wears an invisibility cap and magic sword. All of these magical items, Perseus obtains from the nymphs, those divine creatures that frequent rivers and forests and often favor young men like Perseus. In this case, the god, Hermes, and the goddess, Athena, also favor Perseus, as they assist him in the job of defeating Medusa. Perseus has to sever the head while not looking directly at Medusa, for to do so would turn him into stone. This is how powerful one look from Medusa would be. So the goddess, Athena, lends Perseus her breast-shield to use as a mirror in which to peer instead of looking at the Gorgon directly.

The Greek gods, like Hermes and Athena, are often depicted as being unpredictable, unavailable, or even vengeful, but when the gods are on your side, you cannot lose! As a reward, Perseus obtains Pegasus, the winged horse, finally a non-threatening animal, who springs up from Medusa’s blood.

Once he has the Gorgon’s head in hand, Perseus is on his own, but he is tired and needs a rest. This is when he comes upon, the giant, Atlas, something of a gentle giant, of whom Perseus asks the favor of lodging for the night. Plot-turns such as these seem a bit out of context: why would a hero with the powers to fly around the world as fast as Superman need to ask for a place to sleep? But, this is how the tales were formed, and Ovid was the best at interpreting and enhancing details for the sake of posterity as well as poetry!

The giant, Atlas, refuses Perseus because of something the giant heard about Zeus’s son from an oracle. Perseus tries politely to entreat the giant again, but Atlas still says no, so Perseus makes use of Medusa’s head and, turning his gaze away, transforms Atlas into a mountain with trees, cliffs, stones…

And on his shoulders rested the whole vault
Of heaven with all the innumerable stars.

In Ovid, nature is an intrinsic part of the story. The Greeks were unfathomably close to nature: forests, rivers, seas, the sky and even the winds are beautifully personified. Thus, the ancient narrative has a lingering quality that urges us to read on to the next mythic adventure.

Next post: Perseus and Andromeda

Excerpts: Book 4 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by A.D. Melville. This includes all 15 “books” and over 100 myths.