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The marvellous musician

Last updated: 13 October, 2011
Padma Ganapati

LEGEND RETOLD

When Orpheus came to the River of Death, Charon barred his way. Orpheus then took up his lyre and played such haunting music that Charon had to relent

Long, long ago, there lived in the glorious country of Greece, a musician named Orpheus. He was no ordinary musician. He played his lyre with such extraordinary skill that even birds and animals, trees and rocks were enchanted by it and responded to it with feeling.

The people were so charmed by his music that while he played, they shed all their wicked thoughts and became as pure as the sounds that sprung from his lyre.

Orpheus dearly loved his wife Eurydice. She was as good-natured as she was beautiful. She never had a bad thought. She was always pleasant, kind and loving.

One not so fine day, Eurydice and a few young girls were in a field, collecting flowers. All of a sudden, a snake emerged from the leaves of a thick bush. Before Eurydice could step back, the hissing reptile bit her foot.

The girls with her were very frightened and began to cry when Eurydice fell to the ground in a swoon. They carried Eurydice† home. Orpheus was terribly distressed. He did all he could to save her, but his efforts were in vain. After a brief struggle, Eurydice died.

Orpheus was heartbroken. He could not bear the sorrow of losing Eurydice. To him, a life without Eurydice was empty. Even music had lost its charm. If at all he played the lyre, the strains were so tragic that even the rocks and trees wept for him.† His sorrow and loneliness became so unbearable that he decided to go the Underworld to find Eurydice.

It wasn’t an easy task. After a long and exhausting journey, he reached a mountain in which there was a cave. He entered it and saw a dark tunnel that led to Hades. It was the land of the dead, ruled by Pluto. In order to reach Hades, the souls of the dead had to cross the River of Death. It was Charon’s job to ferry the souls of the dead in a boat.

When Orpheus came to the River of Death, Charon barred the way. No amount of pleading would shake Charon’s resolve.

†Orpheus then took up his lyre and played such haunting music that Charon relented. Mellowed by the music, he was ready to row Orpheus to Hades.

There was another obstacle at the entrance of Hades – Cerberus, a huge, ugly monster of a dog; a dog with three heads and three pairs of blood-shot eyes, three snarling mouths each with a pair of long, pointed fangs. It would have pounced on Orpheus and torn him to bits but was calmed by his music. The subdued dog lay at his feet, as docile as a lamb.

Such was the power of Orpheus’ music that it could tame the wildest of creatures.

Thus Orpheus was able to enter Hades. Making his way through the dark and twisting passages, he presented himself before Pluto. The King of Hades was amazed to see a living man in his Underground World.

Even before Pluto could react, Orpheus knelt before the ruler and began to play his lyre. In the most touching manner, he used his music to narrate the tragic loss of his beloved wife.

His music included a request to take Eurydice back with him to earth. So moved was Pluto by what he had heard that he granted the boon Orpheus had asked for.

However, Pluto laid down one condition: Orpheus was not to look back at his wife until they were well out of Hades. Delighted, Orpheus agreed. He began to make his way back through the long, winding, pitch-dark passages with Eurydice just behind him. Just as they had reached the entrance, Orpheus was seized by panic. Was Eurydice really following him? Unthinkingly, he turned his head to ensure that she was right behind. In doing so, he had broken the condition laid by Pluto. Eurydice vanished from his sight and returned to Hades from where Orpheus, with his great love and glorious music, had nearly rescued her.

After a long and extremely sad life, Orpheus died. He crossed the River of Death in Charon’s boat. Cerberus, the frightening dog, made way for him.† He entered Hades, after negotiating the dark, winding passages one more time. There stood Eurydice, with arms outstretched, to welcome him. Finally, the two were united. They would never be parted again.


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