Friday, August 07, 2009

Orpheus & Orphée

In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the Thracian musician who was so talented that he could charm wild animals and trees and even rocks with his music.

He went with Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece and had a novel way of deactivating the dangerous song of the Sirens: he played his music to drown out theirs.

One day Orpheus (pronounced or-fee-uss) fell in love with a beautiful girl called Eurydice, (pronounced yoor-id-iss-ee). On their wedding day she was running through the grass when a deadly viper bit her foot. She died in the arms of Orpheus, her betrothed. He was so distraught that he decided to go down to Hades and plead with Pluto to let her take him back.

You know the story. With his beautiful music Orpheus charms the ferryman who guides souls across the River Styx. With his beautiful music Orpheus charms Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog. With his beautiful music Orpheus even charms Pluto and Persephone, the King and Queen of the Underworld. They tell him he can take Eurydice back to the land of the living. But there is one condition. He must lead the way and not look back at her until they have safely arrived.

Orpheus sets out on the upward-sloping path, groping his way because it is so dark and silent. As he ascends, he becomes more and more worried. He can’t hear his beloved Eurydice behind him. He begins to wonder if it could be a trick of Pluto to get him to leave peacefully. When the light from the exit up ahead begins to dimly light the way, he is desperate to glance back, just to reassure himself that she is behind him. But he does not dare. He tells himself to be strong and to resist the temptation to look. Just a little longer!

Finally he steps into bright sunshine. Immediately he turns to see if his beloved Eurydice is behind him. She is! But she is still in the passage, still in the underworld. Even as he watches, she recedes from sight, her arms stretched out hopelessly and helplessly towards him. In some versions the messenger god Mercury sadly takes her arm and stops Orpheus from following.

Orpheus is stunned by his wife’s double death. He is in a torment of guilt and grief. If only he had waited a few more moments! Some say he renounced music. Others say he renounced women. For whatever reason, the frenzied followers of Dionysus called ‘maenads’ (pronounced mee-nadz), become angry with Orpheus and eventually kill him and tear him limb from limb.

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus 1900

According to some accounts his head rolls into a stream and floats away, singing as it goes. The artist J.W. Waterhouse has chosen to paint the moment when two startled nymphs discover the beautiful, almost effeminate head with the long hair tangled in the chords of the lyre. Were these two among the crazed women of the night before? Or are they innocent?

We don’t really know. All we know is that Orpheus is finally reunited with his beloved Eurydice. In death.

Another artist fascinated by the myth of Orpheus was a multi-talented French genius named Jean Cocteau who flourished in the 50’s. He was not only a filmmaker but also a brilliant artist (see his head of Orpheus at the top right of this post) and poet. His black and white film Orphée, made from 1949-1950 soon after WWII, is considered a classic. (Orphée, pronounced or-fay, is the French for Orpheus) In Cocteau’s retelling of the myth, Orphée is a handsome poet who is adored by all. He is married to a pretty blonde named Eurydice, whom he loves, but in a twist to the tale, he also falls in love with Death, who is personified as a beautiful almost vampirical woman in black. Death is in love with him, too. When Eurydice dies, Orpheus goes to the underworld with a version of Mercury called Heurtebise, (pronounced... no, there is no way I can transliterate that!). A nice twist is that Heurtebise is in love with Eurydice. The scenes of the underworld were filmed in parts of Paris still in ruins from German bombing. They are some of the most haunting and dreamlike footage you will ever see. Orphée and Heurtebise bring Eurydice back from the underworld, but Orphée is forbidden to look at her ever again. Not just on the way back, but FOR EVER. (see above)

This is too much to ask, of course, and one day he accidentally catches sight of her in the rear view mirror of his car. She instantly returns to the underworld. Orphée goes back a second time and, in a poignant twist, Death decides to give him back Eurydice, even though she must suffer a punishment for this, and even though it means Orphée will not even remember her.

Cocteau introduces elements of other myths. For example, Death is like Persephone, who loved Adonis. Cocteau also likes the Narcissus myth. He uses mirrors a lot, in particular as the entrance to the underworld. These are some of the most breathtaking sequences. My favourite scene is where Orphée must put on magic gloves to pass through the mirror to the underworld. For this effect, Cocteau used a vat of mercury, because the actor’s fingers would have been visible beneath the surface of water. In this sequence there are several tricks. First, the footage of Orphée putting on the gloves is reversed. Second, the cameraman filmed his own gloved hands approaching those of the actor Jean Marais, who is in an identical room on the other side of the ‘mirror’. Third, the camera was tilted 90% to film the hands going into the vat of mercury. You can see the mirror sequence HERE.

The strongest reference to the Narcissus myth is in a sequence where Orphée awakens and hovers over a mirror-like pool. (below)

For me this is especially fascinating as I’m currently working on my own reworking of the Narcissus myth.

I was inspired to write this after visiting a Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. You can watch Orphée on the Criterion DVD (US) and in Europe and the UK there is an excellent DVD produced by the BFI with extras including an audio commentary and booklet about the making and makers of the film.

P.S. Thanks to Rod McKie, my twitterpal, for recommending that I re-visit Cocteau's 1950 masterpiece!

P.P.S. I was so inspired by this painting that I wrote my own Ode to Orpheus called Thracian O.


  1. Love it.

    You know, I was haunted by the visual imagery of the movie after Channel 4 screened it, for the longest time.

    I'm glad you are working on something along these lines, I'm sure you'll make something pretty special.

    I drew a silent comic featuring a Mexican wrestler, Day of the Dead, it's on my blog, that made a nod in the story's direction. It was a short piece, and had flaws, but I thought about taking it further. Maybe someday.

  2. Thanks, Rod! I've added a thank-you P.S. with a link your great blog about the Day of the Dead!

  3. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Oh, I adore Jean Cocteau's adaptation. Roman myths have so much scope for creativity; you can adapt them and interpret them a thousand times over and they'll still seem fresh.

    I also love the beautiful way you've narrated it. I thought I'd be tired of reading the story but it was refreshing.

  4. I love your blog posts. I learn so much and the pictures are just fabulous. You're an excellent teacher!

  5. Molly Ann8:31 PM

    After reading about the Waterhouse exhibition I simply had to see it for myself. And I seriously enjoyed it! Totally worth £4 ;)

  6. N.B. The Waterhouse exhibition was on display in 2009, and has now closed!