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Authors: Robert Silverberg

Tags: #Fantasy

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BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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“Now, Orpheus,” said Apollo, when I had caught my breath and begun to encompass within my mind the new things that were pouring into it, “see, if you will, how the laws of music are the same as the laws that rule the cosmos.”

He asked me what governed the sounds that the strings of my lyre made, and after a long moment’s thought I replied that the tuning was controlled not by the thickness of the cords or by the materials from which they were fashioned nor the tension with which they are strung, but by a set of proportions reflecting the length of the strings. Strings under the same tension, I said, are stopped differently to sound different notes, according to the ratios 2:1 for the octave, 3:2 for the fifth, and 4:3 for the third, and so forth. “Yes,” Apollo said. “This is true. And the tuning of the worlds? Is that not the same? Listen to their music, Orpheus! Listen to it! The heavens themselves follow the laws of number that your lyre obeys!” 

And so they did. I felt a kind of ecstasy spread through me as I seized upon the understanding that music was not just a series of pleasant sounds, but the epitome in sound of the balance and order of the universe. That music and that order are the work of the One God whom men know by many names, by which everything is connected to everything, issuing forth the endless continuous song that is the harmony of the cosmos. 

My dream went on and on. Apollo showed me much else, things that I may not share with you in any detail, for they border on the Great Mysteries that only an initiate in the highest order may know. I will tell you that he revealed to me planets not yet known to the wisest sages of Hellas, ice-shrouded worlds that lie far out beyond Saturn, but are subject to the same laws that govern those we know. He took me up into the domain of the blazing stars and taught me things about them that would astonish you, if I dared reveal them here. I heard their song also. The star-song would make you weep if you could hear it, so beautiful is it, so noble. He took me down then into the realm of the infinitely small, where the same musical laws prevail that dictate the motions of the planets and the stars. By the time he was done with me I was numb with joy, and my head swam with wonder at the grandeur of the great creator-god whom we have called by so many names. 

Then I awakened and looked about me, gasping in amazement at the memory of all that I had seen. My head was full of swirls of blazing light—the myriad colors of the fiery stars, the radiance of the planets—but above all it swam with the blessed music of the spheres, a music that would stay with me always. 

From that moment on the doorway to true knowledge lay open to me. I knew the nature of the divine framework that our world and all the other worlds are strung upon, and realized that it was my task to bring the heavenly harmonies down to our world through my playing and my singing, to maintain the reason and beauty and wholeness that are Apollo through the art of music, and thus to sustain my portion of the great harmonic structure. And it became clear to me that in the proper performance of my task I must travel widely, and suffer greatly, and strive unendingly, and give my life again and again, for the sake of helping to uphold the miraculous structure that the gods have built.


I will try to tell the tale in what you, poor mortal Musaeus, would think of as the proper fashion, a beginning, a middle, an end, although you must attempt to understand that for me such concepts have very little meaning. 

I will tell, all in proper order, of my visit to Egypt, and of my kingship in Thrace, and my voyage to Colchis with the Argonauts, and of such other things as are harmonious parts of my tale. But I should begin with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, since that is the one for which I am best known. 

That story begins when I was still only an idle wandering princeling and maker of pretty songs. A time came when the gods decided that I needed to know love, which until then had been absent from my life. Nobler music was required of me than I as yet had the art to create, and for that it was necessary for me to experience love. Love, after all, is the great force that drives creation, and what can be more important to the gods than creation, which is the reason for their own existence? How could I sing of love without knowing it? For me to sing of it in a true way I needed to know what it was, truly to know, and so the gods in their infinite wisdom led me to Eurydice. And the gods decreed also that I had to learn not only love but the suffering that comes with the loss of one’s beloved, and to experience the redemption that comes after the most acute and profound pain. 

So the gods gave me Eurydice; or, rather, they placed Eurydice in my path and caused me to choose her, although I believed then that I was choosing her of my own free will. Let us say that I did choose her of my own free will, since I know that there are those who believe that such a thing as free will actually exists in this universe. Why, then, you might ask me, would I choose Eurydice, above all other women? 

And I would tell you that I perceived her as song made flesh, and there is nothing I love more than song.


Eurydice was the daughter of King Creon, not the Creon who would one day be king in Thebes at the time when Oedipus was there, but another and earlier one, who ruled on the shores of the swift-flowing river Peneius in the green and lovely valley of Tempe that lies between Olympus and Ossa. He had promised her in marriage to Aristaeus, who is said by some to be one of Apollo’s many sons. Of that paternity I know nothing, nor can I tell you anything of the man, and certainly nothing good; but I do know that this Aristaeus was one who traveled widely, visiting such places as Sardinia and Sicily, and had several wives and begot a number of sons, and even had paid a call at my own Thrace and been initiated into the Mysteries of Dionysus. But all that happened long after he caught the eye of Creon and was affianced to that king’s daughter. If the gods were more gentle than they are, he would have married Eurydice as her father intended and they would perhaps have grown old together and been fated to be forgotten entirely by the makers of songs and plays. But the gods are not gentle. 

So it came to pass that I happened to be traveling through Tempe at the time of the betrothal of Eurydice and Aristaeus and sang at their betrothal-feast. Perhaps she bore no great love for Aristaeus, or, very probably, none at all; but like an obedient daughter she was fully intent on the marriage until the moment that her eye fell on me, and mine on her. 

I had sung often enough before that time of the shafts of Eros, and how they strike people all unawares and transform their lives in an instant. But until that moment my verses of Eros were mere verses, as any songmaker will make from time to time out of the materials that lie readily at hand, whether he has had experience of their meaning or not. Now everything changed. Eros, that wild boy with golden wings, who shows no respect for anything but the wanton commands of his mother Aphrodite, and sometimes does not respect even those, flew down upon us and pierced us both with his barbed arrows. The shaft made its way deep into my breast like a red-hot rod. It sent an intense throbbing sensation coursing through me, as painful as it was pleasurable, that kindled an unquenchable conflagration instantly within me. Eurydice’s sudden gasp told me that she had been struck as well; and Eurydice and I looked upon each other and I felt what I felt and she felt what she felt and in that moment the marriage of Aristaeus and Eurydice was brought to its end before it had even begun. 

Her father was troubled when she bore the news to him, for he knew that to disrupt a betrothal was a serious matter that often had somber consequences. But he was neither unwise nor cruel, and would not force her into a loveless match; and so Aristaeus was dismissed and the new betrothal was announced. 

Like any fond lover I believed that Eurydice was the fairest of all women, the equal of golden Aphrodite herself, and I made songs that said just that, knowing that Aphrodite would understand that I spoke as lovers speak and would not bear a grudge against my Eurydice for my rash comparison. In truth I have never beheld Aphrodite, but if she is more beautiful than my Eurydice was, she is beautiful indeed. For Eurydice was tall and slender, with gleaming golden hair and a delicate rosy bloom in her cheeks and skin softer than the silk
the women wear in the empire of the yellow-skinned folk, and eyes of a brilliance and a clarity and a sheen that even a goddess might envy, and there was nothing about her that was not perfect. Thus I made the first song of Orpheus and Eurydice, which told of the accident of our meeting and the power of Eros’ shaft and the delight of our new love; and I think it is the happiest of all songs ever made. Certainly it is the happiest of mine. 

But, as I say, the gods are not gentle. Bleak omens hovered over our marriage from the start. At the wedding, the torch that the priest of Hymen carried smoked and sputtered, fouling the air and bringing tears to the eyes of all the guests. Old Creon tried to make light of it, telling us that the omen was propitious, that these were tears of joy. But I knew better, and, I am sure, so did he. 

If I had taken my bride back to Thrace at once, perhaps all would have been well. But that was not how things were meant to be. Thus King Creon asked us to tarry awhile at his court before we took our leave, and I agreed, and Eurydice and I lived in his palace as man and wife and in her arms I tasted all the joys that you mortals know so well. Everything was exactly as I knew it would be, and nevertheless each day was a fresh time of surprise and wonder. That is the paradox of my life, that I march constantly onward into that which is ordained for me and which I have experienced so many times before, and as each event befalls me it is both new and old, a recapitulation that is also a discovery. 

And all during that time the brooding Aristaeus, that dark and lustful man, was lurking in the woods nearby, nursing the wound of his rejection and planning his revenge. One morning when Eurydice was wandering in the meadows with her maids, he emerged from a thicket and seized her by the arm, and would have flung her down and taken her then and there. The maids clustered close, shrieking at him and pummeling him, and Eurydice wrested herself free of him and ran. But it was all to no avail, for in her frantic flight she trod upon a venomous serpent nesting hidden in the grass, and was bitten on the ankle and perished in a moment. 

I have never felt so much like a mortal as I did in the hour when her maids came to me, bearing lifeless Eurydice. With her I had experienced the wondrous ecstasies of love and now I experienced the bitter pain of grief. These are mortal things; and whatever part of me is mortal was shaken by them the way a tree is shaken in the storms of winter. 

So I put away my bright wedding clothes and donned the black cloak of mourning, and as the flames of her funeral pyre rose toward the heavens I sang a dirge for my lost Eurydice that brought torrents of rain from the sky; but the fire burned on and on even so, until the last of my Eurydice was consumed and I was left alone with my despair. 

I could find nothing to console me for my loss, neither in the philosophies of Egypt nor in the serene wisdom of Apollo nor even in my own music. Distraught, I drifted from land to land, singing the sad song of lost Eurydice over and again. But my singing gave me no solace. Nor was it welcomed by others. I wept, and everyone about me wept also. I cast such a pall of gloom over all who heard me that men feared my coming, and word traveled ahead of me that all should flee, for the bleak-hearted Orpheus was approaching, singing a song that would rend the heart of any listener just as the death of Eurydice had rent his own. They say the gods themselves wept for me. They say even rocks shed tears at the sound of my lyre, and the sorrowing trees cast their leaves to the ground even in the green days of summer. Of weeping rocks and grieving trees I will tell you nothing. There are many stories that are told about me. I do not confirm; I do not deny. 

Then one day a nymph appeared before me—a messenger from Zeus, surely, a shimmering golden beam of sunlight breaking through my darkness—and said, “You are so foolish, Orpheus, roaming about like this constantly singing your somber song. What good does such a song serve? The woman you loved is dead, yes. But you will not bring her back with a song like that.” 

I knew the part I was meant to play in this little colloquy. Dutifully I said, “What kind of song, then, should I sing?” 

“A song to soften the hearts of those who keep her now,” replied the nymph. “A song of the sort that only Orpheus can sing. Go to the Netherworld, Orpheus. Sing for Hades and his wife Persephone. Enchant them into restoring your bride. It is the only way. Strike your lyre, Orpheus! Plead for her return! Ask the gods of the Netherworld to relent, and they will! They will!”


The Netherworld has many gates, but the one that was best for my purpose was situated at Tainaron in the far southern Peloponnese, which is a back entrance to Tartarus close by the palace of King Hades and Queen Persephone, and that was where I made my descent. The preparation for the journey took me many days. One does not go lightly into the Netherworld. I fasted; I bathed; I sequestered myself in a house of fire and steam and sat by the heat until every pore of mine had opened. Then I went to the sacred grove of Persephone and dug a trench and sacrificed a young ram and a black ewe to the Queen of Hell, and their blood ran down into the earth and was received below. I felt the cold wind blowing upward toward me out of the kingdom of Hades and the gate opened for me. 

BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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