‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
But there is no response to Orpheus’s invocation. This is the underworld; the Muses’s singing, their dancing, their playing of the lyre and the flute – none of it can pierce the deathly veil.
So Orpheus must sing alone. And he must not stop. So Hades, Lord of the Dead, has warned him.
For Orpheus’s song is not merely a guide, a candle in the dark for his wife, darling Eurydice, to follow as they wind their way back past the rivers and the forests, and out of the underworld entirely.
No. His song is the only thing that gives Eurydice form. Clarity. Its familiar tune is the only thing to separate her from the fog. From the formless dead: revenants, little more than whispers and curling vapour.
And if Orpheus stops for even a moment, she will fade again. And forever. He dares not even look back at her for fear of distraction.
But without the Muses’s inspiration, what will Orpheus sing of?
‘Sing of your journey to my kingdom,’ instructs Hades. ‘Sing a dirge, a keen, a coronach. Sing a paean to the underworld itself.’
Where else could Orpheus’s paean to the underworld begin but with a death.
It is not a glorious hero falling in the melee. It is not a great king betrayed in his palace. No, it is a more quotidian cruelty. An accident. A misstep in the forest. A youth breathing her last as a snake’s venom floods her veins. That is how his wife, darling Eurydice, dies.
It is Hermes who comes to her first.
A soul is to the body as a message is to the words that convey it, and so who better to guide souls to the underworld than the messenger of the gods. Distance is meaningless to him; rolling fields, towering peaks – they pleat like fabric beneath the god’s feet, till their journey to the edge of the world is but a single step from grass onto the muddy riverbank of the Styx and a footprint that pools with liquid gold.
For Orpheus, the journey is not nearly so quick. By boat, by horse, by carriage and wagon, for ten years, he barters his way with songs until he stands upon the bank too and leaves his own footprints in the mud.
Orpheus’s paean continues with the waters of the Styx, a river still as any mirror. And then its glass begins to shift, to bend, to warp its form like quicksilver.
A rowboat rises from the reflection. Her hull is all withered wood and rusted rivets, but she sails true.
It is the same for her oarsmen. The flesh clings to his bones like wax to an armature, but just one pull of the oars brings him straight to the bank. His face is so weathered it almost seems to blur. His eyes are to their sockets as distant constellations to a clouded night.
He is Charon, death’s ferryman.
He speaks no words – the ghastly tongue hardly looks capable of them – but when he stretches out the shadow of a hand, the demand is clear: payment.
Orpheus is not deterred. Songs have charmed him halfway across the world; why not off the edge of it too.
His voice brings clarity. It is like the grinding of a mirror, the polish of bronze. Charon’s wan visage becomes something fixed and firm, his eyes blazing stars.
The ferryman’s hand lowers to a beckon.
‘An invitation across the veil of death,’ Orpheus’s paean continues. And for a moment, he fancies he hears an echo from the fog behind.
‘…across the veil of death.’
Charon is not the underworld’s only gatekeeper.
As Orpheus rows deeper, all manner of creatures sense the intrusion of something living, something corporeal. In the dark, they come to harry him with wing and tooth and talon. But Orpheus whistles a tune, and his music is a charm.
The creatures cease to be mere shadow; they become the thing that casts it, and they revel in their newfound clarity. Even Cerberus, the great three-headed guard dog, abandons his post.
And so the boat passes out of darkness and into that meander where the river Styx divides, a great delta flowing into endless Oceanus. Each distributary bears a name: the oily Acheron, the bubbling Phlegethon, the silted Lethe and a hundred others.
The delta plays host to a great forest of mangroves too. It is amidst their dripping branches that the dead make their homes, their villages, their towns and cities.
But it is a fleeting habitation. This necropolis in the canopies is only for the newly dead.
A soul is to the body as a message is to the words that convey it; without those words, the message loses meaning. The inhabitants begin to fade. First their identities, then their sanity, and finally their form altogether. They sink into the endless sweltering fog that lingers about the forest floor and settles over the rivers. Indivisible. Amorphous. Meaningless.
‘But I was not daunted,’ Orpheus sings to Eurydice as they head back up the Styx, ‘I set my eye upon the furthest island of the delta and the ashen timbers that stood upon it, pale as bone. The Hall of Hades.’
And this time, he is sure; a voice in the fog behind him repeats it.
‘The Hall of Hades.’
The rivers of the underworld are not silent: they babble, they trickle. And so Hades knows to expect his visitor. He greets the musician with interest. His arrival is novelty: the first mortal to pass the veil of death still living.
Orpheus graces Hades’s hall with his song, hoping to charm the Lord of the Dead as he has the underworld’s other denizens, but there is no clarity to sing into being. Hades is not shadow. He is substance. He leaves footprints that pool with liquid gold.
You see when Zeus and his brothers divided up the world, Hades was named the underworld’s custodian and its king. But while he may direct its rivers, tend its forests, and manage its structures and bureaucracies, he is not of the underworld.
He is not of death.
And so what is resurrection to a deathless god? Nothing more than a curiosity.
That is why Hades allows Orpheus his attempt to save Eurydice. That is why he instructs and warns him: curiosity.
And the fog’s echo is agreement: ‘Curiosity.’
As Orpheus nears the end of his song on the banks of the Styx, it is all but a duet. The voice behind him echoes every line.
And though he has not heard her for ten years, he knows it is Eurydice. How could he ever forget that voice that would sing with him, soothe him, placate him, plan with him, whisper in the dark of their bed to him?
Is it not proof? Proof that Orpheus has done as Hades instructed. Proof that he has drawn her from the fog like his fingers would draw a tune from the lyre.
He has brought his darling wife back from death itself. Whole and living.
So, surely now Orpheus can stop singing.
Surely now he can turn and look at her.
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse