Mythical stories of descent and return began to make sense to me during the long aftermath of a very difficult bereavement, some years ago. Locating personal loss within a framework of cosmic renewal reassured me that return (and recovery), however circuitous, was possible, even probable. The more I read such stories, however, the more obvious it became that, for all their dream-like beauty, they are, necessarily, culturally constructed.
The second act of Gluck’s Orpheo is set in ‘terrible caverns beyond the river Cocytus, darkened in the distance by thick smoke, and … lit by flames’. My hair stands on end whenever I hear the chorus of angry spirits confronting Orpheus.
“Ah! Be still/ Furies! Spirits! Angry shades!”
Orpheus empathises with the Furies by telling them that he is suffering too: “Have pity at least/ on my cruel sorrow […] A thousand pains, angry shades/ like you I also suffer,/ I have my own hell within me/ and feel it in my very heart”.(1) Their voices gradually soften as they withdraw, leaving him to advance into Hades.
Gluck gave his Enlightenment audience an unconvincing (and, I think, musically boring) happy ending. Euridyce, despondent at Orpheus’s uncommunicativeness, threatens to go back to Hades. In desperation he turns and looks at her, breaking the condition set for her release, and she dies a second death. Orpheus then sings his grief (in the gorgeous aria “Che faro?”) and tries to kill himself, whereupon Amor intervenes, restoring Eurydice so that they can return to the upperworld.
I wish I’d come across this music while negotiating the epicentre of that awful bereavement. All the grieving figures I came across at the time were female. But that’s a whole other story …
I was eventually drawn to Orpheus and Eurydice when immersed in Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Hughes, who had a finely honed sense of the relation between myth and everyday life, wrote that Orpheus was the first story that occured to him after Plath’s death, but that it felt too ‘obvious’ to use. In one of his letters he recalls a ‘shock twist’ in which Pluto answered that “of course he couldn’t have her back”.(2) The original myth also resonated in a less obvious way. In Virgil’s tale Euridyce is pursued by the god Aristaeus, protector of flocks and bees, revered for teaching humans how to restore ailing bee colonies. Plath’s poetry, and no doubt her life, was haunted by the figure of an authoritarian father who died when she was eight years old, and was a professor of entymology, specialising in bees.
When my close friend Peter died three years ago, I read and re-read his favourite Ted Hughes poem, A Green Mother. Its opening lines “Why are you afraid?/ In the house of the dead are many cradles”(3) leads into a vision of Earth as an ecological Elysium. “Bride and groom lie hidden for three days”, another beautiful poem from the extraordinary underworld sequence Cave Birds, reworks the alchemical notion of sacred marriage in a surprising and strangely intimate way. A couple, like ‘two gods of mud’, gradually construct each others bodies, and ‘bring each other to perfection’.
What I hadn’t realised when I first read these poems was that marriage is a recurrent theme in the death rituals of indigenous tribal peoples. For example, among the Kol people of India ‘funerals include a betrothal ceremony in which the deceased is united with the people of the land of the dead’. According to the traditions of the Gurung people of Northern Nepal, the deceased cannot find the path to the land of the ancestors unless a white shroud is provided to cover the body, symbolising ‘a primoridal marriage exchange between the underworld … and the world above of humans’.
During the funeral an origin myth is recited in which, assisted by a shaman, the son enters the underworld with a gift for his parents and returns with a wealth-bearing bird of gold, turqoise, silver, copper, and iron. With this blessing the rains come, and crops emerge from below, into the human world. The ceremony works to maintain social and cosmic harmony, and preserve relations between the living and the dead. In an emotional farewell rite, that may take place months later, a pigeon is tied by a cord to a soul effigy, so that the soul of the deceased may enter the bird. The pigeon then eats from people’s hands and jumps on some people’s laps before being released into the sky.(4)
Ted Hughes, who studied anthropology, may well have been aware of such accounts, but Cave Birds, is an intensely personal meditation written in the wake of an almost unimaginable series of bereavements.
In the cultural region of Epizephrean Locri, in Southern Italy, death was regarded as birth into a new life, guided by Persephone Kourotrophos, the infant nourishing goddess. Persephone appeared as ruler of the underworld, a figure of independent power, rather than as maiden or daughter, and patroness of marriage and children.(5)
Hughes also drew upon Celtic mythology, where we find various Otherworld goddesses associated with mortal heroes. Cliodna, for example, like Fand and Welsh Rhiannon, possessed three brightly coloured magical birds that could lull humans into healing sleep with their song. The human hero, Tadg, came to dwell in her otherworld -a happy place of feasting, sport, and merrymaking- for a while. When he had to return Cliodna lent him her birds to console him and soften the sorrow of departure.
In this and other similar tales the goddess always initiated contact. Without her assistance the hero was unable to enter the otherworld unless they died. Miranda Green suggests that union with mortals somehow increased the power of these goddesses, and may represent something like a reversal of sacral kingship. There seems to have been an interdependence between the two realms. Boundary crossings either way enhanced the power of both.(6)
The story of Gwynn ap Nudd, Gwythyr, and Creidyllad, may have its origins in an earlier seaonal myth. Lorna Smithers has suggested that Creidyllad might also have been an autonomous goddess, rather than an abducted maiden. In the 14th century manuscript Speculum Christiani Gwyn holds Creiddylad in reverence and esteem. His love for her is central. Although the ruler of the Brythonic underworld, Annwn, ‘may not always be moved directly by human pleas, he can be compelled to answer for love of his partner’. In later stories where he appears as the King of Fairy, he is often accompanied by his Queen, who is portrayed as a respected equal. ‘If Gwythyr wins Creiddylad’s hand on Calan Mai (May Day) it would make sense that Gwyn takes her back to Annwn on Nos Galan Gaeaf or Calan Gaeaf (the eve or first of November), another time associated with dangerous spirits’.
The liminality and dangerousness of May eve reminds us, once again, of the proximity of death and birth, and that both events call us to love.
(1) Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridyice, first Vienna Version, 1762, Arnold Ostman, Naxos Opera Classics.
(2): Christopher Reid, ed. The Letters of Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, p732.
(3) Cave Birds, An Alchemical Cave Drama, poems by Ted Hughes and drawings by Leonard Baskin, Viking Press, 1978. Or, without Baskin’s remarkable drawings, in Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, Faber and faber, 2003.
(4) Angela Sumegi, Understanding Death, An Introduction to Ideas of Self and the Afterlife in World Religions, Wiley 2014, quoting from Stan Royal Mumford, Himalayan Dialogue; Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal, 1989.
(5) Radcliffe, G. III. Myths of the Underworld Journey; Plato, Aristophanes, and the ‘Orphic’ gold tablets, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
(6) Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses; warriors, virgins, mothers, British Museum Press, 1995.