This is based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Once there was a singer. Some said he was the finest singer that ever lived. And indeed his tunes were marvellous. Once he had escaped from wild beasts by playing and singing to them a quiet tune until they drifted to sleep. He had dispelled a snowstorm by singing of his delight in the hot days of summer. It was even said that once the rhythms of the dance he was playing were so lively that the trees themselves lifted up their roots to join in.
In time he met a maiden and they fell in love. Together they wandered, and all his songs were songs of joy and in praise of her. As he played and she danced, flowers sprung up behind them, and it seemed as if all the world shared in their joy. The skies were blue, the sun was hot, and from time to time they were refreshed by showers.
All went well until one day they saw an empty snakeskin on the path. The singer shuddered, for he was reminded of poison and death. But his love was delighted by the snakeskin, picked it up and showed him how it reflected the light and took on many colours, and how the snake had grown and left its unwanted skin behind to give others pleasure. He would not listen, and closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears trying to shut out what he could not understand.
That night they went to sleep as usual, but when he awoke in the morning she was not there. He looked for her, thinking she was teasing him and was not far away. After a time he became worried and sung loudly to call her back in case she had lost her way. When he realised she had truly disappeared, he wandered seeking her, singing sadly of what he had lost. His songs were so sad that trees shed their leaves when they heard him and a waterfall stopped its motion and turned to ice.
After many months wandering he found himself at the entrance to the Underworld. Since he felt sure he would have found his love if she were still alive he resolved to seek her there. He followed the path downwards till he reached the river. At first the ferryman refused to take him across, saying that the weight of a living man was too much for him to row. But the singer played so lightly and sung so well of the joys of rowing boats that the ferryman took him across with less effort than usual. The singer went on playing, singing lullabies to the fierce hound that guarded the palace until he reached the halls of the Queen of the Underworld.
She asked him why he, a living man, had come to the Underworld, and he replied that he was searching for his love who had disappeared. She said that he must sing for her before she offered any aid. So he sang with all his power, singing of the joy he felt when with his lady, of how much her beauty and spirit had meant to him, and of how sad her loss made him, and as he sang and played the listeners laughed with his joy, cried with his sorrow, and when he stopped playing everyone fell silent. The Queen, Eurydice, spoke: My justice is wide-ranging, it covers all people. And in justice you do not deserve your love back, for you sung only of what she meant to you and not of what she was to herself. But I can be merciful too. You sing well and perhaps you may learn what you lack if your love returns to you. Go back to the upper world now. Your love will follow behind you. But I warn you not to turn and look at her until you are both back under the light of the sun or you will lose her once more.
Thankfully he turned back. As he went he heard his love’s footsteps close behind him. He went ever more lightly and quickly until he came out of the cave entrance and back into the open air. Joyfully he turned to greet her. But he had not thought of where she was, several steps behind him. She was still within the cave. He saw her face and realised that he had been cheated. The steps behind him had not been those of his love; she who had followed him was the Queen Eurydice. He screamed with rage as she went away. He sang so angrily that the ground cracked open around him, and tigers ran away with fear.
He continued to sing with anger for a time, then his songs echoed his loss. As time went on he found himself able to recover some happiness in his songs. In later years he met other women and was happy with them for a time. But always he found in them glimpses of the face of the dark queen Eurydice, and he turned from them in disgust, and so it continued until his death.
Did his songs last? you ask. They did not. The singer had some wisdom. He knew that the tapestry of the world is made of many colours, and he could sing many different kinds of songs, as seemed fit on each occasion. But he never learned that the thread from which the tapestry is woven has itself many colours in it, and so each one of his songs contained only one theme. Thus he never recognised his love though she returned to him many times. Each time he rejected her, because he could not accept that she had a dark face as well as a light one. He never learned that Queen Eurydice had not cheated him. For love of him she was willing to return with him to the upper air. She had warned him not to look back until she was in the sunlight and he had not obeyed. He had lost his love because he was only capable of seeing her with her light face and could not recognise her in the aspect she wore in her dark realm.
Many times this singer has been reborn and still he has not learned. At each rebirth of the singer, his songs have lasted for a short while and then faded away. Some day he will be reborn and will have learnt wisdom; when he can see light and dark mixed and not claim the light as better, then his songs will last and inspire us all.
This is based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice is usually shown as dying from a snakebite. Orpheus reclaims her as in my story. He is warned not to look at her until they are back in the open air. He loses her because he looks when he is out, but she, being a few paces behind him, is not.
Orpheus absolutely refused to lend his name to the story. He told me that he had learned more understanding than the singer I wrote of. In the story as it is usually told Eurydice is a nymph. But her name means ‘wide justice’ or ‘wide custom’ (the suggestion by Rushdie of ‘wide ruler’ is based on a secondary meaning of the Greek word dike), a name which is most fitted to the Queen of the Underworld. My suggestion as to what happens when he looks back seems natural once this identification is made. My story was written before Salman Rushdie’s modern-day version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, The Ground Beneath her Feet. In Chapter 16 of that book, Rushdie reaches very similar conclusions.
The unity of dark and light and the need for sorrow as well as joy are themes in several of my stories. I have taken to heart William Blake’s remarks in his poem Auguries of Innocence:
Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
Daniel Cohen has been active in the Goddess movement in Great Britain for many years, and was co-editor of “Wood and Water”, a Goddess-centred, feminist-influenced pagan magazine which ran for over twenty years. He is particularly interested in how Goddess spirituality can open up new ways of behaviour for men, non-oppressive and using their talents to heal rather than harm. He believes that myths and old stories have great power to shape behaviour, and so a valuable tool for change is to find new stories or to tell old stories in new ways. This story is one of his many re-tellings and re-visions. An illustrated collection of twenty-five stories has recently been published under the title “The Labyrinth of the Heart” (ISBN 978-0-9513851-2-8), and can be ordered from both physical and online bookstores. Some of the stories, together with book reviews, articles, and poems, can be found on his website at http://www.decohen.com