Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. He was
presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it,
and he played to such perfection that nothing could withstand the
charm of his music. Not only his fellow mortals, but wild beasts
were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by
their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the
very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former
crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their
hardness, softened by his notes.
Hymen had been called to bless with his presence the nuptials of
Orpheus with Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no
happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears
into their eyes. In coincidence with such prognostics Eurydice,
shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her
companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck
with her beauty, and made advances to her. She fled, and in
flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot and
died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air,
both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek
his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave
situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus and arrived at
the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts, and
presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine.
Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung, "O deities of the
underworld, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for
they are true! I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus,
nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky
hair who guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose
opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought to an
untimely end. Love had led me here, Love, a god all powerful
with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true,
not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror,
these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the
thread of Eurydice's life. We all are destined to you, and
sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she
shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But
till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me, I
cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."
As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears.
Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his
efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased
to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from
their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his
rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks
of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist,
and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from
among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot.
Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition,
that he should not turn round to look at her till they should
have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded
on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark
and steep, in total silence, till they had nearly reached the
outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment
of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following,
cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away.
Stretching out their arms to embrace one another they grasped
only the air. Dying now a second time she yet cannot reproach
her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her?
"Farewell," she said, "a last farewell," and was hurried away,
so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.
Orpheus endeavored to follow her, and besought permission to
return and try once more for her release but the stern ferryman
repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about
the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of
cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks
and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks
from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind,
dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance.
The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he
repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they
could; but finding him insensible, one day, one of them, excited
by the rites of Bacchus, exclaimed, "See yonder our despiser!"
and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came
within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did
also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a
scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles
reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs
tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the
river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to
which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses
gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at
Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave
more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was
placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second
time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced
her, with eager arms. They roam through those happy fields
together now, sometimes he leads, sometimes she; and Orpheus
gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty
for a thoughtless glance.
The story of Orpheus has furnished Pope with an illustration of
the power of music, for his Ode for St. Cecelia's Day. The
following stanza relates the conclusion of the story:
"But soon, too soon the lover turns his eyes;
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
Now under hanging mountains,
Beside the falls of fountains,
Or where Hebrus wanders,
Rolling in meanders,
He makes his moan,
And calls her ghost,
Forever, ever, ever lost!
Now with furies surrounded,
He trembles, he glows,
Amidst Rhodope's snows.
See, wild as the winds o'er the desert he flies;
Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries.
Ah, see, he dies!
Yet even in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue;
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks and hollow mountains rung."
The superior melody of the nightingale's song over the grave of
Orpheus, is alluded to by Southey in his Thalaba:
"Then on his ear what sounds
Of harmony arose!
Far music and the distance-mellowed song
>From bowers of merriment;
The waterfall remote;
The murmuring of the leafy groves;
The single nightingale
Perched in the rosier by, so richly toned,
That never from that most melodious bird
Singing a love-song to his brooding mate,
Did Thracian shepherd by the grave
Of Orpheus hear a sweeter melody,
Though there the spirit of the sepulchre
All his own power infuse, to swell
The incense that he loves."
ARISTAEUS, THE BEE-KEEPER
Man avails himself of the instincts of the inferior animals for
his own advantage. Hence sprang the art of keeping bees. Honey
must first have been known as a wild product, the bees building
their structures in hollow trees or holes in the rocks, or any
similar cavity that chance offered. Thus occasionally the
carcass of a dead animal would be occupied by the bees for that
purpose. It was no doubt from some such incident that the
superstition arose that the bees were engendered by the decaying
flesh of the animal; and Virgil, in the following story (From the
Georgies, Book IV.1.317), shows how this supposed fact may be
turned to account for renewing the swarm when it has been lost by
disease or accident.
The shepherd Aristaeus, who first taught the management of bees,
was the son of the water-nymph Cyrene. His bees had perished,
and he resorted for aid to his mother. He stood at the river
side and thus addressed her: "Oh, mother, the pride of my life is
taken from me! I have lost my precious bees. My care and skill
have availed me nothing, and you, my mother, have not warded off
from me the blow of misfortune." His mother heard these
complaints as she sat in her palace at the bottom of the river
with her attendant nymphs around her. They were engaged in
female occupations, spinning and weaving, while one told stories
to amuse the rest. The sad voice of Aristaeus interrupting their
occupation, one of them put her head above the water and seeing
him, returned and gave information to his mother, who ordered
that he should be brought into her presence. The river at her
command opened itself and let him pass in, while it stood curled
like a mountain on either side. He descended to the region where
the fountains of the great rivers lie; he saw the enormous
receptacles of waters and was almost deafened with the roar,
while he surveyed them hurrying off in various directions to
water the face of the earth. Arriving at his mother's apartment
he was hospitably received by Cyrene and her nymphs, who spread
their table with the richest dainties. They first poured out
libations to Neptune, then regaled themselves with the feast, and
after that Cyrene thus addressed him: "There is an old prophet
named Proteus, who dwells in the sea and is a favorite of
Neptune, whose herd of sea-calves he pastures. We nymphs hold
him in great respect, for he is a learned sage, and knows all
things, past, present, and to come. He can tell you, my son, the
cause of the mortality among your bees, and how you may remedy
it. But he will not do it voluntarily, however you may entreat
him. You must compel him by force. If you seize him and chain
him, he will answer your questions in order to get released, for
he cannot, by all his arts, get away if you hold fast the chains.
I will carry you to his cave, where he comes at noon to take his
midday repose. Then you may easily secure him. But when he
finds himself captured, his resort is to a power he possesses of
changing himself into various forms. He will become a wild boar
or a fierce tiger, a scaly dragon, or lion with yellow mane. Or
he will make a noise like the crackling of flames or the rush of
water, so as to tempt you to let go the chain, when he will make
his escape. But you have only to keep him fast bound, and at
last when he finds all his arts unavailing, he will return to his
own figure and obey your commands." So saying she sprinkled her
son with fragrant nectar, the beverage of the gods, and
immediately an unusual vigor filled his frame and courage his
heart, while perfume breathed all around him.
The nymph led her son to the prophet's cave, and concealed him
among the recesses of the rocks, while she herself took her place
behind the clouds. Then noon came and the hour when men and
herds retreat from the glaring sun to indulge in quiet slumber,
Proteus issued from the water, followed hy his herd of sea-
calves, which spread themselves along the shore. He sat on the
rock and counted his herd; then stretched himself on the floor of
the cave and went to sleep. Aristaeus hardly allowed him to get
fairly asleep before he fixed the fetters on him and shouted
aloud. Proteus, waking and finding himself captured, immediately
resorted to his arts, becoming first a fire, then a flood, then a
horrible wild beast, in rapid succession. But trying all in
vain, he at last resumed his own form and addressed the youth in
angry accents: "Who are you, bold youth, who thus invade my
abode, and what do you want with me?" Aristaeus replied,
"Proteus, you know already, for it is needless for any one to
attempt to deceive you. And do you also cease your efforts to
elude me. I am led hither by divine assistance, to know from you
the cause of my misfortune and how to remedy it." At these words
the prophet, fixing on him his gray eyes with a piercing look,
thus spoke: "You received the merited reward of your deeds, by
which Eurydice met her death, for in flying from you she trod
upon a serpent, of whose bite she died. To avenge her death the
nymphs, her companions, have sent this destruction bo your bees.
You have to appease their anger, and thus it must be done: Select
four bulls of perfect form and size, and four cows of equal
beauty, build four altars to the nymphs, and sacrifice the
animals, leaving their carcasses in the leafy grove. To Orpheus
and Eurydice you shall pay such funeral honors as may allay their
resentment. Returning after nine days you will examine the
bodies of the cattle slain and see what will befall." Aristaeus
faithfully obeyed these directions. He sacrificed the cattle, he
left their bodies in the grove, he offered funeral honors to the
shades of Orpheus and Eurydice; then returning on the ninth day
he examined the bodies of the animals, and, wonderful to relate!
A swarm of bees had taken possession of one of the carcasses, and
were pursuing their labors there as in a hive.
In the Task, Cowper alludes to the story of Aristaeus, when
speaking of the ice-palace built by the Empress Anne of Russia.
He has been describing the fantastic forms which ice assumes in
connection with waterfalls, etc."
"Less worthy of applause though more admired,
Because a novelty, the work of man,
Imperial mistress of the fur-clad Russ,
Thy most magnificent and mighty freak,
The wonder of the north. No forest fell
When thou wouldst build, no quarry sent its stores
T'enrich thy walls; but thou didst hew the floods
And make thy marble of the glassy wave.
In such a palace Aristaeus found
Cyrene, when he bore the plaintive tale
Of his lost bees to her maternal ear."
Milton also appears to have had Cyrene and her domestic scene in
his mind when he describes to us Sabrina, the nymph of the river
Severn, in the Guardian-spirit's Song in Comus:
Listen when thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honor's sake,
Goddess of the silver lake!
Listen and save."
The following are other celebrated mythical poets and musicians,
some of whom were hardly inferior to Orpheus himself:
Amphion was the son of Jupiter and Antiope, queen of Thebes.
With his twin brother Zethus he was exposed at birth on Mount
Cithaeron, where they grew up among the shepherds, not knowing
their parentage. Mercury gave Amphion a lyre, and taught him to
play upon it, and his brother occupied himself in hunting and
tending the flocks. Meanwhile Antiope, their mother, who had
been treated with great cruelty by Lycus, the usurping king of
Thebes, and by Dirce, his wife, found means to inform her
children of their rights, and to summon them to her assistance.
With a band of their fellow-herdsmen they attacked and slew
Lycus, and tying Dirce by the hair of her head to a bull, let him
drag her till she was dead (the punishment of Dirce is the
subject of a celebrated group of statuary now in the Museum at
Naples). Amphion, having become king of Thebes fortified the
city with a wall. It is said that when he played on his lyre the
stones moved of their own accord and took their places in the
In Tennyson's poem of Amphion is an amusing use of this story:
"Oh, had I lived when song was great,
In days of old Amphion,
And ta'en my fiddle to the gate
Nor feared for reed or scion!
And had I lived when song was great,
And legs of trees were limber,
And ta'en my fiddle to the gate,
And fiddled to the timber!
"'Tis said he had a tuneful tongue,
Such happy intonation,
Wherever he sat down and sung
He left a small plantation;
Whenever in a lonely grove
He set up his forlorn pipes,
The gouty oak began to move
And flounder into hornpipes."
Linus was the instructor of Hercules in music, but having one day
reproved his pupil rather harshly, he roused the anger of
Hercules, who struck him with his lyre and killed him.
An ancient Thracian bard, who in his presumption challenged the
Muses to a trial of skill, and being overcome in the contest was
deprived by them of his sight. Milton alludes to him with other
blind bards, when speaking of his own blindness (Paradise Lost,
Minerva invented the flute, and played upon it to the delight of
all the celestial auditors; but the mischievous urchin Cupid
having dared to laugh at the queer face which the goddess made
while playing, Minerva threw the instrument indignantly away, and
it fell down to earth, and was found by Marsyas. He blew upon
it, and drew from it such ravishing sounds that he was tempted to
challenge Apollo himself to a musical contest. The god of course
triumphed, and punished Marsyas by flaying him alive.
Melampus was the first mortal endowed with prophetic powers.
Before his house there stood an oak tree containing a serpent's
nest. The old serpents were killed by the servants, but Melampus
took care of the young ones and fed them carefully. One day when
he was asleep under the oak, the serpents licked his ears with
their tongues. On awaking he was astonished to find that he now
understood the language of birds and creeping things. This
knowledge enabled him to foretell future events, and he became a
renowned soothsayer. At one time his enemies took him captive
and kept him strictly imprisoned. Melampus in the silence of
night heard the wood-worms in the timbers talking together, and
found out by what they said that the timbers were nearly eaten
through, and the roof would soon fall in. He told his captors
and demanded to be let out, warning them also. They took his
warning, and thus escaped destruction, and rewarded Malampus and
held him in high honor.
A semi-mythological personage who was represented by one
tradition to be the son of Orpheus. He is said to have written
sacred poems and oracles. Milton couples his name with that of
Orpheus in his Il Penseroso:
"But, oh, sad virgin, that thy power
Might raise Musaeus from his bower,
Or bed the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as warbled to the string,
Drew iron tears down Pluto's cheek,
And made Hell grant what love did seek."
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