Over the course of this year, I have found myself getting back into the swing of writing short stories just for the fun of it. With the death knell of 2018 upon us, I thought I might as well publish one of them.
The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has long been one of my favourite Greek myths, due to the vastly differing details in the story depending on who, throughout history, has told it.
There is no ‘definitive’ version, with many different answers offered to its lingering questions that can reshape the tale in lots of interesting ways.
In 2014, I wrote a story for a creative writing module based on this myth, which was going to expand into a novel about queer characters venturing into modern Greek myths set against the backdrop of exploitation and waste under capitalism.
Upon receiving a prompt from a writing podcast to put my own spin on a myth in 500 words, this is what I distilled some of those themes and ideas into – the katabasis of a young girl looking to rescue her wife and rewrite (or ‘solve’) the myth of Orpheus.
There is, after all, nothing quite like Unburying Your Gays and setting the stage for the happy ending they so deserve.The flag used here is Maya Kern’s variation of Lydia’s proposed new flag for the lesbian community, following the emergence of racist comments from the creator of the commonly-used and widely recognised Lipstick Lesbian flag.
Lydia – an Indigenous lesbian – articulated her own version of the flag by basing it on the violets, rosebuds, dill, and crocuses that Sappho described her lover to have worn.
It was the crocuses that especially caught my eye. Crocus flowers are pretty incredible; they can bloom even with snow still on the ground. They are strong and hardy flowers. In the opposite of that spectrum, you have roses, soft and fragile.
The yellow in the flag is strength, and the pink fragility. Both are allowed. Both are okay. You can be both. And you are not less or more for either.
Then there is the dill green. Green has always been associated with nature, with growth, and with healing. Appropriately, did you know that soldiers in ancient times applied burnt dill seeds to their wounds, to help healing? Me neither, until further research into it. [Lydia, ‘A Lesbian Flag for Everyone’ (Jun 26, 2018)]
The purple represents Sapphic love; the pink, fragility; the yellow, strength; and the green, healing.
Just as these are admirable and aspirational qualities celebrated by lesbianism, so too are they also qualities that ought to be reflected in the stories we write that feature them.
(If there is any issue with my use of this flag, please let me know.)
Between Vergil’s Georgonics, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Plato’s Symposium, and countless variations from other, lesser-known poets, there is not any single version to be taken as definitive (such is the nature of a myth).
Even in searching it on YouTube, the tellings are vastly different in the details – both in those that they relate and those they emphasise.
To summarise the general narrative of the myth:
– Orpheus, son of the god Apollo, is gifted a lyre by his father and plays it so beautifully that all things living (gods, people, beasts, even plants and rocks) are enchanted by his musical talent.
– Orpheus falls in love with Eurydice and they are set to be married.
– Eurydice is sought by Aristaeus. As she tried to escape him, she stepped on a snake and died from its bite.
– Orpheus’ music turns sad, moving everything in the world – even the Furies themselves – to share his grief.
– Orpheus journeys to the Underworld, hoping to convince Hades to return Eurydice to life.
– After being moved by his music, Hades agrees… but on the condition that she must travel behind Orpheus, he cannot look at her until they leave the Underworld.
– Orpheus, of course, looked behind him just as he and Eurydice were about to escape – he couldn’t hear her footsteps and doubt filled him.
– Eurydice returns to Hades, trapped forever; Orpheus returned to the land of the living, singing of his lost love and longing for death so he might rejoin her.
– At some point, Orpheus is eventually killed and, in death, joins Eurydice in the Underworld.
In some versions, Eurydice dies during or after marrying Orpheus (who is actually the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, not Apollo), whereas other variations posit them as lovers.
Aristaeus’ involvement varies. He is sometimes a jealous suitor who desires Eurydice for himself; other times, he is entirely absent and Eurydice is bitten while dancing with wood nymphs.
Speaking of which, it is not exactly clear whether Eurydice was herself a nymph, or another daughter of Apollo. Orpheus is convinced to go to the Underworld by other wood nymphs… or, this impetus is provided by Apollo himself – or (in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) this beat isn’t explained at all.
Eurydice’s fate varies in the telling as well, as does Orpheus’ reason for turning around. Is it because he doubts that she is there (believing himself to have been tricked by Hades)? Was he simply filled with passion as victory was in so closely within reach?
After returning from the Underworld, Orpheus spurns the advances of any women who try to court him (striking up romances with young men instead), which leads to some of his various deaths.
The Maenads, women who worshipped Dionysus, took great offense to his refusal. In a rather amusing display, the rocks and spears they hurled at Orpheus simply fell at his feet – for so affecting was his music that even inanimate objects were enchanted by it.
And so the Maenads settled for ripping off his head.
In a different telling, Orpheus is simply torn apart by beasts; in another, Zeus hurls a bolt at him…
Either way, there is a ‘happy'(?) ending as he is reunited with Eurydice in the Underworld. He is free to look back at her when he walks ahead and she will still be there.
I have rambled on more than enough about the context.
(Oh, and, incidentally, a happy new year to you all!)
“The Underworld is… a coffee shop?”
Muzak droned softly. Every seat was taken and there were low grumbles over the leather sofas being occupied for the next millennia.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Karen said, rolling her eyes. “The entrance to the Underworld is a coffee shop.”
She was dressed in an old tuxedo – frayed around the elbows; bow tie askew; a wilted rose on her lapel; trousers covered in… was that ash?
The look on Ophelia’s face told Karen she didn’t understand.
Why do none of them ever understand?
“Modern wold, innit? More people, but uneven distribution of resources – more die because of your silly little system. More dead people means longer centuries of work for me, so this coffee shop chain is just a convenient front for Hades’ business.”
Karen inhaled, as if to stop there, but realised she quite enjoyed having a mortal to rant to.
“Thousands of years,” she continued, “and there’s not even a company loyalty scheme or a union. Can’t buy a new suit; saved up every drachma I could, but we weren’t even told that the currency went out of use years ago!”
Ophelia rummaged around her handbag and pulled out a handful of change – a five-pound note and some twenty pence coins.
It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Karen gratefully accepted the donation.
“What’re you in for anyway?” she asked. “Heroic quest, is it? It’s always a heroic quest for a dead wife when a live one comes ‘ere!”
Karen feigned a delicate tone, defensively holding up her hands. “You can’t rewrite the Greek tragedy, love.”
“Will you take me?”
Karen laughed as the lights dimmed. “We’re already half-way there.”
Ophelia tried to make out her surroundings, squinting as her eyes adjusted to find she was in… a bus?
A typical London bus, complete with seats that looked as if they’d been torn up by bored teenagers and windows with those spots of grime that made any film where a character leaned their head against them dreadfully unrealistic.
“How d’you intend to get ‘er back?” Karen asked.
They were drifting along a black lake, filled with empty promises, discarded coffee cups, shattered dreams, old trolleys that’d gone missing – like most lakes in Ophelia’s world.
“Same way Orpheus did,” she said, patting the guitar case sitting on her lap. “Only without the failure.”
They always say that…
“Reckon you’ve figured what ‘e did wrong?”
Orpheus had moved Hades through music – his skill with the lyre – to accept his terms, but with a condition to test his heart (one Eurydice herself had cunningly conceived).
“He was impatient and doubted Eurydice. He got what he wanted, but looked back and lost her because he wasn’t convinced that she was with him every step of the way.”
“And what makes you so certain you’ll be any different?”
“What sad old man ever understood love beyond his own desire for grief? That’s not love. Love is a promise.”