Eurydice’s Body

The Graeco-Roman myth of Orpheus's descent to the Underworld to retrieve his dead bride, Eurydice, has, at least since the sixth century BCE, epitomized the transcendent nature of art and the tragic impotence of erotic love in the face of death.

Eurydice’s Body:
Feminist Reflections of the Orphic Descent Myth in Philosophy and Film

by Liz Locke

Submitted to the faculty of the University Graduate School
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree
Doctor of Philosophy
in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.
Indiana University
November 2000

dedicated to
the past, present, and future
denizens of
the collins living learning center
indiana university
bloomington, indiana

Table of Contents

Prelude: Libretto And Score

Part I: Disembodying Eurydice

Chapter One: Overture: Descending Theme With Variations
The Bard of Rhodope
The Priest and the Lemnian Women
The Musician and the Sirens
The Descent Myth
1   Eurydice’s Death
2   Orpheus in the Underworld
3   The Backward Glance
4   The Wild Women
5   The Severed Head

Chapter Two: Fugue: What’s Love Got to Do With It?
A Model of the Feminine
Love and Embodiment
Embodied Mind
A Singular Consciousness
Double Consciousness
Embodying Feminism: Four Aspects
1   Epigrams and Footnotes
2   Subjectivity
3   Patriarchy
4   "Post-feminism"

Chapter Three: Duet: Thales and the Thracian Girl
Seeing Agriope
What’s in a Name?
Difference and Opposition
1   Contrast Into Heterarchy
2   Splitting the Difference
What the Mean Means
A Human Being and Not One of the Brutes
A Greek and Not a Barbarian
1   Politics: Images of Thrace
2   Politics: Maiden Sacrifice and Maiden Rape
A Male and Not a Female
Neither Nor Both And

Part II: Embodying Eurydice

Chapter Four: Solo: The Pregnant Poet (Orphée)
Enfant Terrible
The Inexplicable Birth of Poetry
Invisibility: Ephebe, Epigone
Mirrors, Homosex, and an Angel
Justice: Killing Eurydice
Misogyny: Killing Death

Chapter Five: Samba: Farewell to the Flesh (Orfeu Negro)
Selective Vision
1959: Vinicius de Moraes
1959: Marcel Camus
Eurydice in Rio
A Maenad, an Angel, and a Priest
Stalked to Death
Orpheus in Hell
Spectacular Religion

Chapter Six: Lament: Patriarchal Antibodies (Orpheus Descending)
Tennessee’s Mississippi
Sister Eurydice
Dramatic Transformations
Tennessee’s Orpheus
Lady Enslaved
The Mysteries
Myrrha and Erigone
Works Cited


Liz Locke

Eurydice’s Body:

Feminist Reflections of the Orphic Descent Myth in Philosophy and Film

 The Graeco-Roman myth of Orpheus’s descent to the Underworld to retrieve his dead bride, Eurydice, has, at least since the sixth century BCE, epitomized the transcendent nature of art and the tragic impotence of erotic love in the face of death. Long-accepted interpretations hold that the peerless bard loved his wife so well that he braved the realm of the gods of the dead to bring her back to life, only to be foiled at the crucial moment by his overeager impulse to glance/gaze lovingly at her. A twentieth-century reader, however, might ask: What is the nature of enduring art and of heterosexual love as refracted through the lens of a tale whose female protagonist appears only to die twice, leaving no trace?

 This radically interdisciplinary thesis insists that the Orphic descent myth reveals a persistent, pernicious, and largely unconscious logic at the heart of the western world’s devaluation of embodied femaleness and its abstract counterparts, the feminine and the feminized. Part I discusses the Orpheus figure in its pre-descent and descent legends, the implications for non-mythological women of female presence as a form of masculine ideation, the ancient Mediterranean foundations of gender dichotomization, and the possibility of a feminist mythography. Part II consists of content analyses of the three full-length films based on the descent myth—Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, Marcel Camus’ Orfeu Negro, and Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending—which, due to the cultural-historical contexts and subjectivities of their authors/directors, make three substantially different statements about the role of the masculine imaginary vis a vis the female body.

Prelude: Libretto and Score

The temptation to treat stories about Orpheus as though they belonged to a consistent tradition should be resisted. If we accept that there might be rival, even mutually inconsistent tales, then we are not obliged to try and fit them all into a single, coherent scheme. Zofia Archibald(1)

... old stories don’t have anything to do with the facts; they’re the box that all the facts came in. John Straley(2)

Many a schoolgirl has fallen in love with the tragic figure of Orpheus upon reading some re-telling of the ancient story of the musician’s failed attempt to retrieve his beautiful new bride, Eurydice, from the gloomy Greek Underworld so that they might be re-joined to enjoy a long life of wedded bliss together upon the sunlit earth. The idea that such a talented, magical man would brave the dark halls of Hades’ and Persephone’s house in the effort to prove that his love for a woman is stronger than death itself has made more than one adolescent female heart skip a beat.

The romantic figure of the youthful, active, passionate, sensitive musician who seeks to rescue the nubile, silent, passive, wounded woman is enormously compelling from a feminine psychological perspective. The old story suggests to each new female reader the possibility that she might hope to find just such a willing, loving man—a prince, so to speak—who feels deeply within himself that same self-consuming power of erotic relatedness that she herself has been taught to value so highly.(3) She is encouraged by the myth to imagine a god-man whose sex and profound spirituality are commingled, who does not withhold himself, but continuously shares himself (fluidly, expansively) with her because it is his nature to do so, who sings his desire for her in deep, penetrating tones that originate from some mysterious place beyond them both, from some otherworldly, lyrical kingdom where perfect love dwells beyond the threshold of ever-suspect speech. This romantic vision is, of course, an anagogic expression of precisely that heterosexual feminine craving for erotic-emotional reciprocity that proves so dependably lucrative for rock-and-roll promoters, especially if they were fortunate enough to book Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Tom Jones, or the early Beatles.

Swooning female fandom for virile musicians aside, this study of the Graeco-Roman figures of Orpheus and Eurydice has its source in questions that I could not have posed before having fully grown into—and interacted with men and boys from the subject position of—a mature, desiring, heterosexual, female, human body: Why, in Western Europe’s arguably most popular, enduring heterosexual love story, the Orphic descent myth, is the female protagonist essentially absent? What—and where—is Eurydice’s body? And why does the ancient image of this never-lived, long-dead Dryad nymph continue to serve so well as the incorporeal sign-woman in its most extreme form, never to index the presence of a woman, nor even to indicate the elusive "feminine element" in heterosexual human love, but rather to signify the potential capacity of the truly great male artist—whether musician, dancer, painter, or poet—to transcend those categories long characterized as feminine altogether?

In Part I, following a brief and necessarily partial introduction to the Orpheus figure as a patron of the arts, the present chapter examines three famous tales of Orpheus: his pre-descent role as the spiritual leader of the crew of the Argo after their visit with the Lemnian women, his contest with the Sirens, and his descent to reclaim the nymph Eurydice from the Underworld.

Chapter Two, "What’s Love Got to Do With It?," is something of an interdisciplinary primer on modern feminism and an engaged, rather than dispassionate, statement of its capacity to challenge and subvert age-old, received—and so generally occulted—gendered ideologies. It is intended to alert the reader to the sense of desperation that Eurydice’s mythical plight continues to engender in non-mythical women and to provide some orientation to the matrix of methods and practices that constitutes contemporary feminist scholarship.

Chapter Three, "Thales and the Thracian Girl," deals with the ancient Mediterranean world’s predilection to divide reality into highly gendered—and so unequal—parts, and the implications of that enduring tendency for the lived experiences of real women and men.

Part II addresses the concerns of Part I in the form of three semiotic content analyses of those full-length narrative films which take the Orphic descent myth as their primary text.

Chapter Four, "The Pregnant Poet," discusses Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, an elaborately misogynistic appropriation of the descent myth set in post-WWII Paris and surrounds. The Poet (Cocteau’s self-epithet as well as his mythic hero’s) is represented as an aristocratic Apollonian(4) in the extreme, pitted against female forces—both "natural" and "supernatural"—seeking to both facilitate and undermine his parthenogenic capacity to create great art.

Chapter Five, "Farewell to the Flesh," examines Orfeu Negro, filmmaker Marcel Camus’ adaptation of the descent myth based on Vinicius de Moraes’s play, Orfeu da Conceiçâo, set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. Black Orpheus, sired by two White(5) men, is an Apollonian in Dionysian disguise, or as is said of ancient Orpheus, a Hellene in Thrace.(6) Here, the focus shifts from Cocteau’s hyper-autobiographical personalization to Camus’ radically romanticized, depoliticizing strategy, one designed to imply, like some readings of Eurydice’s own second death, that culpability for oppression lies with the oppressed. 

Chapter Six, "Patriarchal Anti-bodies," looks at Peter Hall’s Orpheus Descending based on the play by Tennessee Williams set in the racially segregated American South. The author’s outlaw sexuality again comes to the fore, but here it is articulated with complex, Dionysian inflected sympathies with and empathy for women. Williams, who like Cocteau and Moraes identified near-pathologically with the mythical Orpheus, shapes his lover-musician by drawing from his own experience as a Southern, gay, American artist as well as from the deep well of Graeco-Roman myth.

The biographies of the primary authors of each of these film texts—Cocteau, de Moraes, and Williams—reveal two personal characteristics in common other than a preoccupation with the Orpheus figure. All three were alternately—as is always the case with the combined use of opiates and euphorics—exuberantly and miserably drug-and-alcohol addicted artists immersed in the lived processes of profoundly felt psycho-somatic descent. And all three had what we might think of as non-normative sexual relationships with women: de Moraes was a famously extravagant "womanizer," while Cocteau and Williams were almost exclusively homosexual. I am convinced that these attributes are important to their interpretations of the Orphic descent myth; however, it lies beyond the scope of the present study to follow the psycho-spiritual implications of these facts to a satisfying depth.

Part I: Disembodying Eurydice

Chapter One:

Overture: Descending Theme with Variations

Rumor has it that we’re not done with the Greeks. Marcel Detienne(2)

Yet this is not a return to the Greeks, since there never is a return.

Gilles Deleuze(3)

The Bard of Rhodope

We cannot know when people first began composing and listening to song-stories about Orpheus, but they had certainly been in oral circulation for a long time before we find evidence of them in three fragmentary items dating to the middle of the sixth century BCE.(4) The first is documentary: a two-word fragment left to us by Ibykos, a Greek composer of lyric poems and homoerotic tales (and a dismisser of martial ones).(5) It tells us only that Orpheus was already "famous."(6) The second is archaeological: the name "Orpheus" inscribed beneath the image of a lyre-player on the remains of a metope from the Sicyonian treasury of Delphi depicting the prow and three members of the crew of the Argo.(7) The third, and perhaps earliest—dated to 570—is a black-figure vase painting in which a citharist is depicted flanked by two Sirens.(8)

Walter Burkert tells us that "for the Greeks he is dated one generation before the Trojan War, since he was associated with the expedition of the Argonauts."(9) Ivan Linforth writes that "the genealogists made him the ancestor of Homer and Hesiod" and that others considered him "a contemporary of the Idaean Dactyls."(10) These attempts by the Greeks to site Orpheus’s beginnings in time spring not from what we think of as respect for historical chronology, but from the figure’s primary attributes as a musician and magician. Orpheus must pre-date both Hesiod and Homer because his fabled melic powers are so great as to be "originary": the bardic luster of the western tradition’s earliest epic poets pales in comparison to Orpheus’s numinous renown. The thaumaturgical singer is enlisted for Jason’s quest because his reputation as one whose music could alternately calm and overpower the souls of beasts and men makes him indispensable when the Argo is met with the irresistible lure of the female Sirens: he plays his lyre so loudly that his apotropaic strains overwhelm their voices; only one crewman is lost.(11) And he is associated with the wonderous Idaean Dactyls—primordial, sprite-like females associated with the Phrygian Meter and with the birth of Zeus in Mt. Ida’s cave—because they had the magic of metalworking, taught music to Trojan Paris, and are said to have invented the Mysteries.(12)

Orpheus sometimes is said to be the son of Thracian King Oeagrus (usually called a river-god), descended from the god Dionysos. But dual genealogies for heroes are not uncommon, especially those noting a single mother and two fathers, one usually adoptive. Reared in Pieria, home of the Olympian Muses, he is more usually identified as the son of Olympian Apollo—god of purification, music, prophecy, poetry, and the hunting bow—and a daughter of the Titan Mnemosyne—usually Calliope (Muse of epic poetry), or more rarely, Polymnia (Muse of dance or geometry).(13) In some stories, he is Apollo’s favored son, but also his priest; in others he is the hierophant of Dionysos.(14)

Through his male and female Olympian progenitors, Orpheus is associated with the lyre (Apollo may have given it to him), divine mastery of song-story,(15) physical masculine beauty, purity of voice and vision, clarity of thought, and vatic inspiration. It is through Oeagrus that he inherits his Thracian bloodline, and with it Dionysos’s unique resonances with women.(16) Dionysos also forayed into the Underworld, a locale wholly foreign to Apollo,(17) in search of a woman dear to him (Semele, his mother), and suffered death by dismemberment (at the hands of the Titans as Twice-born Zagreus in the central myth of the Orphic cult).(18) Arguably the most complex of Greek divinities, Burkert calls him "the god of the exceptional."(19) Dionysos’s gifts include the ecstasy of the intoxicating vine and the "mad" therapeutic enthusiasmos that is possession by a power greater than oneself.(20)

The more closely we examine Orpheus’s tales, the more inexorably are we drawn into a consciousness natural to the associative strategies of semiotic interpretation, the oppositional, the intertextual, the intersubjective. Because the texts and images of a culture rely upon one another to create cognitive coherence and shared meaning, each characterization (including the present one) participates in a process of transformation. Form, content, and ideological context metamorphose through time and space. We are generally happy to acknowledge that much of our contemporary worldview is the product of our Graeco-Roman past, a past whose stories continue to depend for their existence upon deeply ingrained collective cultural attitudes and needs, shifting hierarchies of interpretive convention, and the insouciantly idiosyncratic needs of individual artists. By necessity, if not by design, old texts, constituted by the old signs, must be continually re-formed—if they are to continue to signify—into new texts, images, stories, dances, songs, maps, gestures, beliefs, rituals, visions, films, fears, epitaphs, and tombs, each of which contains within it a multiplicity of other texts, apprehended by a human consciousness, itself the product of a confluence of innumerable cultural texts.(21)

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of [the] diverse complex of myths, beliefs, and rituals [associated with Orphism] is that it is grounded in the figure of the oral performer par excellence of Greek myth, and yet ... is markedly based on the written word, to the extent that some scholars have argued that there was no such thing in the ancient world as Orphism but only Orphic writings ... Plato [characterized] this literature as a ... "din" or "hubbub of books."(22)

J. L. Borges, a writer who made it his business to generate a literature that generates itself better than most, is reported to have said: "A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships. One literature differs from another, prior or posterior, less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read."(23)

Orpheus is also reputed to have been an outsider, a foreign civilizer who brought the arts from Hellas to Thrace, teaching its primitive, barbaric inhabitants to abandon cannibalism and take up ascetic spiritual practices.(24) He is often identified as the founder of Orphism, a mystery cult which formed the basis of Pythagoreanism, involving a tendency toward monism, a belief in the reality of evil, a belief in an immortal soul separable from the material body, male celibacy, a refusal to participate in blood sacrifice, and a belief in the initiate’s redemption, both from the Underworld and from the newly conceived round of death and rebirth.(25) Women, excluded from his cult,(26) could hope for no such reprieve.(27) He is one of several putative founders of male homosexuality, springing from his late-life habit of refusing female companionship and playing his music only for boys and men.(28)

While the Sirens episode is sufficient in itself to capture the attention of anyone sensitive to the construction of gendered power relations, it is the katabasis and sparagmos motifs—the more or less invariant episodes of Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld and his subsequent dismemberment by the Ciconian women—that have kept him famous, but also disposed to a kind of insistent theorizing about the gendered essence of artistic production. Judith Bernstock writes:

The anguish of Orpheus is that of modern man divided against himself, but unified by his art, his song. Orpheus embodies the opposition and union of Apollonian and Dionysian, intellect and instinct, passive and aggressive, the craving for truth and its substitution by illusion ... His obsessive need for Eurydice and yet his revived creativity after her final death correspond to the ambivalence of the male artist toward the source of inspiration on whom he depends and yet whom he regards as a destructive obstacle to his creativity ... the primordial hostility between the sexes is basic to these interpretations of the myth.(29)

Having identified the bard grieving on the threshold of Avernus, or having glimpsed him with his lyre raised to fend off the merciless onslaught of the Bacchantes, later European artists made him central to the construction of the male artist’s vision of himself, enlisting the Orpheus figure to serve not only as the patron of all the arts,(30) but as a core metaphor for the generative artistic personality itself. Given its longevity, and filled as it is to bursting with meanings over nearly three millennia,(31) the Orphic descent myth is an especially productive field from which to view—in classically agonistic terms—a host of battles waged over the nature of love, art, sex, death, and redemption, and, for feminists, to survey the damage done.

There are many fragments and more extended references to Orpheus and Orphism in the ancient and postclassical sources—notably in Plato in the fourth century—but the story known as the descent myth is the most famous of his tales. The full-length narrative that we know today of his descent to the Underworld to lead Eurydice back into the land of the living comes to us almost entirely in the Latin poetry of two Roman poets, Virgil (70 - 19 BCE) (32) and Ovid (43 BCE - 17 CE). (33) By their period, perched as it was on the cusp of change from the old Graeco-Roman empire to a Christianized one, Orpheus had been singing for more than six hundred years—and there is still, at this cusp of the third millennium, no end of him in sight.

A long parade of Orphic incarnations has lodged itself in the western canon in the form of the poems of Pindar, Euripides, Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, John Milton, Ranier Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, Robert Browning, Jean Anouilh, H. D., Guillaume Apollinaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Miriam Rukeyser, to name a few. He manifests himself in the vase paintings of the ancient world and in the divergent canvases and sculptures of Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Jean Delville, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Anselm Feuerbach, August Rodin, and Antonio Canova. His voice and lyre resonate again in the operas of Gluck, Burgon, Monteverdi, Offenbach, Galt, Rossi, Bruce Saylor, and Philip Glass, and in the ballets of Stravinsky and Ballenchine.(34)

Although we are aware of figures of singer-poet-priests mainly through the efforts of the anthropologists who have reported on their traditional living embodiments—the shamans of North Asia and the plains of North America, the griots of West Africa, the dreamweavers of Native Australia(35)—Orpheus strolls into our post-industrialized milieu from tales that no one any longer believes to be true. History (stories we deem true) has generally supplanted myth (stories we eventually agreed are important but false) in the modern western context, yet he continues to walk among us. Accurately reflective of human truths or no, Orpheus’s songs and the old stories told about both them and their singer still find a place in the modern repertoire, wherein they readily avail themselves to new—and occasionally highly creative—acts of re-invention and interpretation. As in the ancient world, so it is with us. Ken Dowden writes:

... mythology is a shared fund of motifs and ideas ordered into a shared repertoire of stories [which] link with, compare and contrast with, and are understood in the light of, other stories in the system. ... mythology is an "intertext" because it is constituted by all the representations of myths ever experienced by its audience and because every new representation gains its sense from how it is positioned in relation to this totality of previous presentations. ... [Mythology is an] evolving total system.(36)

In 1999 alone a collection of poems on Greek mythology appeared containing twenty-nine original variants of the Orphic descent myth(37); Cacá Diegues released his fourteenth film in Rio, Orfeu, featuring a hip-hop-samba-reggae soundtrack directed by Caetano Veloso (Bahian poet, polemicist, and co-founder of Movimiento Tropicalismo)(38); Salman Rushdie published The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a novel that translates Orpheus and Eurydice into rock-and-roll stars and puts them down in India and America(39); and the premiere of Time of Your Life, a short-lived television drama involving a young woman’s naïve descent into New York City, sported a poster for Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice on the living-room wall of its East-Tenth- Street set.(40)

This work primarily concerns Orpheus’s relationships with the female figures who enter into the tales told of him. It can be said, of course, that a female (Muse or queen) bore him into the world so that the poets might sing of him, and that females (maenads or ordinary Thracian women of the Ciconian tribe) dismembered and flung him out of it again, but despite what the poets say of his love for the nymph Eurydice, and despite all those flutterings of post-pubescent female sexual longing, Orpheus is not and never was a woman’s man.

The Priest and Lemnian Women

... in ritual, myth, and imagination, the separation and distinctive roles of the sexes are explored and presented as a hostility which is periodically in ritual, and once and for all in myth, resolved in favor of the men ... Exceptional disruptions serve only to underline the harmony and undisputed male supremacy on which Greek mythology and ritual believe successful societies are built. Ken Dowden(41)

He is a good man; if you don’t believe me,

ask any god.

He says they all think like him. Marge Piercy(42)

In his Argonautika, Apollonius Rhodius names Orpheus first in his roll-call of the Argonauts, describing how his music "charmed the stubborn rocks upon the mountains and the course of rivers," and how "wild oak trees to this day, tokens of that magic strain, that grow at Zone on the Thracian shore, stand in ordered ranks close together, the same which under the charm of his lyre he led down from Pieria."(43) As a priestly enchanter, drafted for sea-duty on the advice of Cheiron,(44) he sacrifices to the gods at every turn for the safety of the Argo.

Preliminary to embarking from Hellas, the gathered heroes are sacrificing two steers to Apollo when hot-blooded Idas declares that his spear will protect Jason from harm without any aid from Zeus. Orpheus quickly steps in to appease the anger of the men (and presumably of Zeus) by taking up his lyre and singing a cosmogonic song.

He sang how the earth, the heaven and the sea, once mingled together in one form, after deadly strife were separated each from other; and how the stars and the moon and the paths of the sun ever keep their fixed place in the sky; and how the mountains rose and how the resounding rivers with their nymphs came into being and all creeping things. ...for these things gave renown to Zeus. He ended, and stayed his lyre and divine voice. But though he had ceased they still bent forward with eagerness all hushed to quiet, with ears intent on the enchanted strain; such a charm of song had he left behind in their hearts. Not long after they mixed libations in honor of Zeus, with pious rites ...(45)

At an altar onboard from which he strums the beat to which the oarsmen pull, Orpheus proceeds to propitiate his father’s sister, "Artemis, savior of ships."(46) With good speed, the Argo soon harbors on the island of Lemnos, where, Apollodorus tells us, "The Lemnian women did not honor Aphrodite, and she visited them with a noisome smell; therefore their spouses took captive women from ... Thrace and bedded with them. Thus dishonoured, the Lemnian women murdered their fathers and husbands..."(47) The Argonauts have arrived at a land occupied solely (heinously, unnaturally) by women. Apollonius Rhodius tells us that the shunned women’s crimes resulted from their jealousy of their husbands’ newly captivated sexual partners,(48) but he fails to elaborate on the implications of Aphrodite’s curse for the women.

Are we dealing here with the age-old pejorative that the vagina smells "fishy"? Or did the sex goddess give them halitosis? Did she make their armpits reek? Following Peter Mason, a Freudian classicist, I think it fair to speculate that it is likely, given Aphrodite’s traditionally procreative domain, that it is the smell of the women’s menstrual blood to which these Lemnian husbands have been suddenly subjected. Mason suggests that Aphrodite—whose considerable interest in the long-ordained bodily processes of human procreation is beyond question—must have somehow considered menarche threateningly anti-male, and so is herself disgusted by the smell of menstrual blood. Perhaps she remembers and prizes her own bloodless gestation in semen (aphros) and/or sea foam (aphros)?(49)

... the bad smell of the Lemnian women comes, according to Eustathius, from their vaginas ... That the period of bad odor corresponds to a time when men must seek sexual gratification with other women points to menstruation, a time when sexual intercourse was unlikely to have been permitted in Greece ... [The women] are said to have gone mad "when they reached maturity," i.e. at the first menstruation. This is a dangerous time for men: in the Lemnian myth, the women became warriors.(50)

Given that intercourse was probably taboo during a wife’s menstrual period, it is well within the realm of possibilities that the male poets report motherless Aphrodite to have acted in the interests of men desirous of sexual novelty at the expense of menstruating women in recognition of the fact that menstruation is an autonomous, autonomic female biological activity which does not depend upon input from males; in fact, during a woman’s reproductive years, it may disappear altogether with such input due to pregnancy.(51) If the men went philandering (and presumably raping), it’s their malodorous wives’ own fault. And, as further proof of their inherent female perversity, after they’ve driven their men from their beds, they murder them as well.

But now, seeming to have forgotten the squeamish misogyny which motivated all the bloodletting in the first place—contemptible if they bleed, barren and useless if they don’t; was their crime against Aphrodite a refusal to engage in sexual intercourse while menstruating, even though social-sexual sanctions required their abstention?—and despite having constituted a fully functioning, armed, female warrior society for a full year by the time Jason’s ship docks, "Like some Amazons, the Lemnian women were so delighted by the Greek heroes that they tried to detain them. However, the Argonauts ranked duty above pleasure, and continued their quest for the Golden Fleece."(52)

It is at their next stop, where "by the injunctions of Orpheus they touched at the island of Electra [Samothrace] ... in order that by gentle initiation they might learn the rites that may not be uttered, and so with greater safety sail over the chilling sea." Apollonius Rhodius goes on to say. "Of these I will make no further mention; but I bid farewell to the island itself and the indwelling deities to whom belong those mysteries, which it is not lawful for me to sing."(53) Jason had slept with and impregnated Queen Hysipyle, who alone among Lemnos’s insulted women had left the death of her father to chance. She may now be free of blood odor, but is she—and by association, is Jason—free of blood-guilt? Is it merely narrative coincidence that Orpheus deems the crew’s initiation into "the rites that may not be uttered" necessary on the very evening of the day that the ship departed her shores? Or is it incumbent upon the son of the god of purification to cleanse his sea-faring comrades of the taint of bloody femaleness (in all senses) in order to assure the success of their quest? What were the "Samothracian Mysteries"?

Walter Burkert tells us that the mysteries were "a form of personal religion" accompanied by an "intensity of feeling [that] must not be underrated."(54) The Dionysian (Bacchic), Orphic, Eleusinian, and Mithraic mysteries, as well as those of Isis and the Magna Mater, were the most widespread cults of the classical age, and are still famous despite the fact that there is very little to go on regarding their contents: initiates apparently took their vows of silence very seriously. But he also informs us that the rites (orgia) were not meant to be practiced by lone individuals, lest they be led to a sense of isolation rather than to an enhanced sense of belonging to a community.(55) Certainly the men of the Argo would have benefited by feeling their nautical fraternity religiously reconstituted in the aftermath of contact with the bloodthirsty Lemnian sorority.

Scholars infer that teletae (initiations) were sought by folk who were "ill, or in danger, or in need of any kind,(56) but especially by those needing purification from "memina: some terrible deed of the past [which] has aroused still-active powers of destruction; spirits of ancestors, victims of murder, or someone deprived of proper burial..."(57) Linforth writes that the Orphic teletae "acted like a sacrament to bring purification and release from the consciousness of wrongdoing."(58) Walter Burkert mentions that there was probably a ritual bath at Samothrace.(59) After being ritually purified in body, mind, and spirit, "The initiate finally proclaim[s]: ‘I escaped from evil, I found the better.’ This then must have been the immediate experience of successful mysteries: ‘feeling better now.’"(60)

Elsewhere, Burkert writes of the Samothracian Mysteries—of which Herodotus himself was a mystai (initiate) and which continued gathering adherents into Constantine’s day—that its gods had "no names or only names which were strictly hidden from the public." Various mystoi alluding to their experiences in writing over the centuries assumed they were under the protection of a trinity: Demeter, Hades, and Persephone; or of a Cybele-type Great Mother; or of Aphrodite; or of Hecate; or even of Hermes.(61) It is certainly logically possible that Orpheus deemed it urgent to initiate the Argonauts into this strangely eclectic cult that promised the return of sailors simply because its sanctuary was nearby and they had a long way to go, but it is more likely, if we take care not to overlook the immediately preceding, highly sexualized episode on Lemnos, that he was especially concerned for their moral-physical purity—a known prerequisite to any kind of benefit enjoyed by mortals at the mercy of the Greek gods—after having come into close contact with such alluring, husbandless, and blood-ridden women.

It is, at any rate, a fact of myth that Orpheus is not only an oarsman’s time-keeper, not merely a musical theurgist, not just a singer of cosmogonic songs,(62) but he is such a powerfully enduring figure precisely because he is so caught up in new negotiations of the old categories—life and death, Apollo and Dionysos, male and female, purity and pollution. Somewhere along the line, he becomes the initiator of the "the Orphic brotherhoods," priests of the sect that L. R. Farnell calls "perhaps the strongest religious influence in the Hellenic world."(63) And what does a priest do? He—and as theological battles in our own day still attest, it is always he(64)—sacrifices.

Nancy Jay observes that "It is a common feature of unrelated traditions that only adult males—fathers, real and metaphorical—may perform sacrifice."(65) No women need apply to raise the ciborium or wield the knife; we know what happens when they do.(66) Recall the cosmogonic hymn that Orpheus sings at the outset of the Argo’s quest. Somehow, in order to keep himself pure of bodily defilement, yet at the same time ensure that his knowledge of cosmic events was perpetuated beyond his own life-span, the priest had to invent a way to productively emulate the perceived-as-primary generative power of the cosmic male. Pausanias writes:

In my view Orpheus outdid his predecessors in beautiful verse, and obtained great power because people believed he discovered divine mysteries, rites to purify wicked actions, cures for diseases, defenses against the curses of heaven.(67)

Once the Orphic Mysteries had been established, and knowledge of the differentiation between the mortal body and the immortal soul had become the only entity considered worthy of reproduction, the body through which knowledge enters the world had to shift from the female body—the original source of corporeal corruption and death—to the "body" of a male priesthood: cosmic knowledge only endures in unpolluted form if passed from generation to generation of males by males.(68) Mothers form (and deform(69)) but fathers inform. By masculine ministrations, the pure soul is set apart from nature—whose smelly, bleeding, urinating, defecating, yearning, suffering, ecstatic body continually dies and regenerates itself through sex and the seasons—and relocated to culture: to the tenemos of the mystical sanctuary, to the teletae of the knowledge-holders, to vows, and promises of solace, and the hope of salvation from having been born of a woman.

W. K. C. Guthrie, citing Apollonius Rhodius, Diodoros, and other extant ancient writers, enumerates the occasions on which Orpheus, founder of his own fraternal priesthood acts in this capacity for the Argo.

[In the Orphic Argonautica] we find him performing the inaugural sacrifice before the start, persuading the Argonauts to become initiated at Samothrace into the mysteries for which the island was famous, sacrificing after the accidental killing of King Kyzikos, performing the purificatory rites at Malea on the return journey to free the heroes from the curse which King Aietes had laid upon them, and finally, his last act before returning to his home in Thrace, staying behind alone to offer sacrifice at Tainaron (believed to be one of the entrances to Hades) to the rulers of the world below.(70)

In short, Orpheus’s pre-descent legends are characterized by blood-sacrifice to the gods, literally from beginning to end. And at the end, we find him performing his sacrificial function alone, isolated, beyond the companionship of the community he ostensibly serves, at the very Tainarian Gate which will soon close after him forever, leaving him to his grisly fate at the hands of women.

The Musician and the Sirens

The Sirens’ song is such that those who listen to it cannot understand it, so entranced are they by the voice that dominates the hymn.

Laurence Kahn-Lyotard and Nicole Loraux(71)

No voice is raw; every voice is steeped in what it says. Roland Barthes(72)

Consideration of Orpheus’s passing encounter with the Siren sisters near their island of Anthemoessa swerves our focus from Apollonius Rhodius’s representation of monstrous women as olfactory nuisance to monster-women as auditory threat.

If the Sirens were two in number, as in Homer’s Odyssey, they were birthed by the sea-monster Ceto at the beginning of the world to her brother Phorcys, who also sired the Gorgons (including Medusa), the prophesying Graeae, and the nymph-snake Echidna (who mothered both the marauding Sphinx and Nemean lion).(73) If three, as is supposed by Apollonius Rhodius and other later writers, they were the daughters of Terpsichore, Muse of dance, by Achelous, like Phorcys, a son of Ge, and god of his own eponymous river, the longest in Greece.(74) Apollonius Rhodius tells us that the "clear-voiced Sirens" were tending Persephone when she was abducted by Hades; for their inaction—or their inability—to prevent the girl’s rape, "they were fashioned in part like birds and in part like maidens"; the implication being that their avian aspects were the punishment of Demeter.(75)

But Ceto’s and Terpsichore’s maternity of the Sirens is challenged by Apollodorus, who himself has two opinions: he agrees that Achelous is the father, but says either Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, was their mother,(76) or they were the daughters of Sterope,(77) one of the seven Pleiades ("Dove Women") pursued to exhaustion by Orion until Zeus took pity and catasterized them.(78) The latter line is certainly due to the Pleiades’ and Sirens’ similarly dual natures, but claims of descent from the immortal Muses can only be attributable to the reputation of their songs.(79) Yet their divine talent wins them neither honor nor compassion, even from females, who are never reported to have any reason to fear them: not from Hera, goddess of marriage and birth, who, certainly aware of Thamyris’s fate, urges them into a losing contest(80); not from Circe, the magician whose powers are so much like their own(81); not from Demeter, whose wrath at the loss of her daughter catches up everyone in its path; and not from their own mothers. Unlike the epic singers of Greek tradition, these females are not Muse-inspired, but Muse-deplumed.

For the story goes that the daughters of Achelous were persuaded by Hera to compete with the Muses in singing. The Muses won, plucked out the Sirens’ feathers (so they say) and made crowns for themselves out of them.(82)

In the Odyssey, the Sirens invite Odysseus "to stop his ship and to listen to their voice so that he may enjoy their song and return wiser" and "well-pleased" to Ithaca.(83) They lay claim to knowing what he and his men both did and suffered in the Trojan War—"We know all that comes into being upon the much-nourishing earth"(84)—because through Ceto and Phorcys they may be identified with the aquatic prophets and soothsayers who hail from the beginning of time (Nereus, Proteus, Thetis, Eidothea), but also because, as Hesiod’s Inspirers make plain in the opening of his Theogony, feminine language is inherently duplicitous, and Muses, like Sirens, cannot always be trusted to say what is in the truth’s—or in men’s—best interests. (85)

Circe has already warned Odysseus that before his ship is faced with the threat of the Wandering Rocks (Planctae), past which only the Argo has ever successfully sailed,(86)

To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who beguile all men whosoever comes to them. Whoso in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens’ voice, he nevermore returns, that his wife and little children may stand at his side rejoicing, but the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song, as they sit in a meadow, and about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling.(87)

Meadows serve as polysemous sites in Graeco-Roman poetics, but the trope of "beguiling women in their meadows" is specific: lush meadows and flowered fields are the traditionally preferred landscape for violent rape. (88) Codified by later Latin writers as the locus amoenus, the scene generally includes trees, flowers, a spring or brook, a gentle breeze, and birdsong.(89) "Like Europa or Kore(90) the girl is snatched from the correct, sympathetic landscape—well understood by poets throughout antiquity. The fresh, fertile meadow and its flowers ready for picking express the beauty and nubility of the girls [who] dance there."(91) But the alluring, predatory Sirens are unrapeable females; their charms promise to satisfy men, but only in order to kill them. Perhaps it is because of this disappointing state of affairs that Maurice Blanchot opens his essay, "The Song of the Sirens," with these words:

The Sirens: evidently they really sang, but in a way that was not satisfying, that only implied in which direction lay the true sources of the song. Nevertheless, through their imperfect songs, songs which were only a song still to come, they guided the sailor towards that space where singing would really begin.(92)

Why, if the Sirens are parthenoi widely known ever to tease and imply and guide but never to deliver, is their bone-strewn, beach-front property identified as a meadow? Despite Blanchot’s obsession with absence, the logic—for females both rape-ready and unrapeable—is etymological. Kahn-Lyotard and Loraux write:

[The meadow (leimón)] is the place where young girls go and nymphs stay ... but it is also the place of those dangerous parthenoi, the sirens. ... meadows are often inviolable and forbidden, like the sexual organ of a woman or girl, for which leimón is one name among others.(93)

In the Sirens episode, we are once again dealing, in its storied version, with a cultural complex of images associated with the time-honored male fear of/attraction to female sexuality. In Greek, "to be attracted to" literally meant "to be defeated by."(94) The Sirens—like mermaids, those other deadly females of myth and folklore who sing so sweetly on rocky seacoasts to "pull good men down"(95)—embody, as do the Harpies,(96) the ineluctably fatal attractions of black Ker (Doom), who in Hesiod is sister to twin brothers, Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death).

Ker is female, and a more frightening figure than Thanatos. Women in Greek mentality are represented as dangerous, evil-bringing and alien: this mentality, in a polarized mythical version, lies behind the figure of Ker ... and also behind the image of the dangerous part-human death-bringing female monsters who seduce to death, as the Sirens do in Homer through their song. These images fuse two fundamental male anxieties, the fear and abhorrence of death and the fear of the alien female nature.(97)

Clearly the early Church Fathers, who appropriated lovely mer-temptresses into their own religious iconography, were as fascinated and entranced by such images as were the mythical companions of Odysseus and Orpheus. In a structural reversal of the vitally sexualized image of the flowering meadow as rape-ripe for nymphs and young girls, the fetid, horrific, deadly meadow of the Sirens becomes the scene of the "abduction of the Christian soul": "Clement of Alexandria, in his Exhortation to the Heathen, managed to sum it up dramatically: ‘Let not a woman with a flowing train cheat you of your senses, sail past the song; it works death; exert your will, and you will have overcome ruin.’"(98) Of course, music is its own form of seduction, but when conjoined with women’s charms, it can be deadly. Like the power of sex itself,

Music goes right inside you. It’s most intimate with the human psyche. Nothing stands between us and it except our ears, and our ears are open, whatever our minds may be. Music’s got access to us without any kind of mediation. And that’s what makes it, as many critics and philosophers have said, an ideal language, but also very dangerous.(99)

Philip Slater insists that "Nothing seemed to have meaning to the Greek unless it included the defeat of another."(100) Odysseus defeats the Sirens by heeding Circe’s warning advice: he has his crewmen fill their ears with wax so as to be deaf to their song; but himself he has them lash to the mast-head with orders that no matter how much he should beg them to let him loose, they will only bind him more tightly and row faster away. (101) In an influential article that makes the case for the validity of the Sirens’ omniscience based on the fact that Homer’s Sirens recognize the man Odysseus from a distance "at sight,"(102) but more crucially, on persuasive evidence that they are the sole speakers of the Odyssey who consistently "follow the grammar of the Iliad,"(103) Pietro Pucci writes:

It is therefore correct to say that Odysseus can be appealed to [by the Sirens] as a "literary" character of the Iliad and that Odysseus is indeed seduced by this idea and longs to listen to this song that presents him as an important character. The Sirens expose Odysseus’ awareness of being such a character and consequently their invitation to listen to their song is in reality an urging ... to stop the ship, to disembark ... and to remain with them ... [but Homer] preempts Odysseus’ longing by ... warning him (and explaining to us) that this longing means death. ... A sort of self-destructive nostalgia compels [him] to dwell in the memory of [his] splendid and grievous past.(104)

This argument illuminating the probable content of the Sirens’ song brings us to a better understanding of the structural relationship, holding from ancient times, between women’s inherently unreliable speech—it seduces even heroes to rot away into unburied skeletons under the influence of its encomiums(105)—and the lethal bait of our sex—promising men that they will depart from us "well pleased" but in actuality doling out only grief, corruption, and death. As if to explain this very conflation of images, John Lemprière’s distinguished old handbook reports: "Some suppose that the Sirens were a number of lascivious women in Sicily, who prostituted themselves to strangers, and made them forget their pursuits while they drowned in unlawful pleasures."(106) Sarah Pomeroy’s observation regarding the perceived duplicity of myth’s mature females, vis a vis inexperienced, flower-gathering girls, is also relevant, and becomes more so when we think of it loosely in the terms of Orpheus’s later mission to the Underworld:

The mature goddesses are less helpful to men than the virgins. Like Calypso and Circe, they are more likely to detain a hero through their sexual magic. Or, like the monstrous Harpies or Sirens, they may actually devour him. However, Hera guides Jason, and goddesses help their mortal sons. Thus Thetis helps Achilles at Troy, and Aphrodite aids Aeneas. With the exception of the rescue of Ariadne by Dionysus, we do not find the reverse situation of a male god going out of the way to aid a mortal female.(107)

Orpheus’s experience with the Sirens—his sisters, if we take their mother to be a Muse —differs markedly from Odysseus’s. Having as yet no heroic exploits to eulogize (unless one counts it epic-worthy to Pied-Piper a grove of oak trees down from the heights of Pieria), their songs are irrelevant; he needn’t listen because they cannot be singing of him. "The Sirens are often represented holding, one a lyre, one a flute, and the third singing,"(108) but virtuosity with their thin vocal chords and a stringed instrument is all that they have with which to seduce him, all that they have in common with the bard.(109) Any sexual desire, that is, any insatiably self-destructive urge he might feel to be well pleased in a female’s meadow—whether ornamented with trees and flowers like a pasture, or with skin and bones like a charnel ground—goes unattested until after the Argo drops him off in Thrace where he falls fatally in love with the wood nymph, Eurydice. Until that time, as we have seen, women represent to him only unruly, alien forces requiring avoidance, cleansing, and religious censure.

And soon they saw a fair island, Anthemoessa, where the clear-voiced Sirens, daughters of Achelous, used to beguile with their sweet songs whoever cast anchor there, and then destroy them. ... And ever on the watch from their place of prospect with its fair haven, often from many had they taken away their sweet return, consuming them with wasting desire; and suddenly to the heroes, too, they sent forth from their lips a lily-like voice. And they were already about to cast from the ship the hawsers to the shore, had not Thracian Orpheus, son of Oegrus, stringing in his hands his Bistonian lyre, rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens’ voice. And the west wind and the sounding wave rushing astern bore the ship on ...(110)

The Sirens are watching, waiting, eager to lure in and destroy many heroes at once if they can, depriving them their "sweet return." The clear voices from their lips alone consume men with wasting desire. But as Pucci asks, what is it above all that men in need of a homecoming actually desire? If he is correct that what such men desire and will risk all to obtain is songs of themselves, then the Sirens are less melodic traps than they are sonic mirrors. Like a wealthy nineteenth-century man whose mistress puts belladonna drops into her eyes at his request so that they are always wide and bright and interested when he looks into them, these singers sweeten their voices so that men will hear what sounds like the adulation of a chorus outside of themselves, but is at a deeper level the singing of their own blood. Not interested to know who or what these creatures are (i.e., whether or not they may have any subjectivity of their own), Orpheus does not stoop to using their own trick against them—effecting their attentive silence by appealing with his music to their own desire to hear of themselves—he simply overpowers their voice by force of his "twanging."

If there is any consistency in Orpheus’s pre-descent legends, it is that the figure displays no erotic interest in females. Given that he is one of several figures attributed with the founding of the institutions of male homosexuality, perhaps this is not too surprising. But that suggestion itself arises from two radically different ideas about him. The most famous refers to the end of the descent myth and his refusal to play his lyre for women and girls after he loses Eurydice for the second time.(111) Perhaps less well known is the association in the ancient world—much like our modern ones about hair dressing and interior design—between musicians and what we today recognize as male homosexuality. Plato writes in the Republic:

Now when a man abandons himself to music ... and gives his entire time to the warblings and blandishments of song, the first result is that the principle of high spirits, if he has any, is softened like iron and is made useful instead of useless and brittle. But when he continues the practice without remission and is spellbound, the effect begins to be that he melts and liquefies till he completely dissolves away his spirit, cuts out as it were the very sinews of his soul and makes of himself a "feeble warrior."(112)

Orpheus is first and foremost a lyre player, and so was thought unvirile, unheroic. Linforth points out that in the earliest versions of the descent myth, he was refused the return of his wife by the gods of the Underworld, who showed him only a shadow of her instead.(113)

... in the Symposium ... Orpheus descends to the lower world for his wife, but he produces a very bad impression on the gods; in their opinion he is a poor-spirited creature, as one might expect a lyre-player to be; instead of dying courageously for his love, he has moved heaven and earth to get into Hades alive. Consequently they do not give him his wife, but only show him a phantom of her. He returns to the world without having accomplished his purpose, and the whole discreditable incident was the cause of the gods’ punishing him with an ignominious death.(114)

In what reads like a thinly veiled expression of homophobia—Plato’s or his own—Linforth continues:

... the cause which moved the gods to reject Orpheus’s plea was that, being a lyre player, he was lacking in manly courage. ... his association with the heroes of the Argo caused some surprise. ... it is said that people wondered how it was that, "being weak," he had taken part in the expedition, and the explanation is offered ... that he was needed to enable the heroes to pass the Sirens in safety, doubtless by the power of his music. Plainly, Orpheus was no hero, but only a lyre player, with a lyre player’s powers and weaknesses.(115)

But what is at issue in Apollonius Rhodius’s Sirens episode is its two descriptions of normative heterosexual longing. The males long to arrive home safe from their travels. The females long to seduce them and betray their hope. The males long to hear of themselves from the lips of admiring females. The females, knowing from experience that such songs are never reciprocated, long to feast on their folly. But it is Butes, the one Argonaut who could not resist the song of the Sirens, who makes the logic of the difference most plain. He does not anchor the ship but leaps directly into the sea. He swims desperately in cold, dark water toward a sound that makes him feel like a real man, but what he is doing from the point of view of the females on the beach is swimming into his own amorous arms. He is the moth; but he is also the flame. That kind of longing means death.(116)

That kind of longing, if experienced by a woman, is called vanity, instantly recognizable as self-consuming depravity, and punishable as hubris (as the monstrous appearance of the Sirens attests). Instead of perceiving the male’s wasting desire for his own fame as a self-generated fate, we accustom ourselves to perceiving females who try to satisfy men’s longing for themselves as merciless devourers—especially if they succeed.(117) If the bella donna turns her bright, interested gaze upon herself, she might discover that she has no need for a master. So if ever she turns from him, we put a mirror in her hand and call her self-absorbed. The sweet-voiced, golden-tressed mermaid gazes at her own image in a hand-mirror while lounging on the wind-swept rocky coasts of the masculine imagination; a male craftsman works the image in silver on the back of a hand-mirror and gives it to his wife.(118) But like the mythical Queen of Ethiopia, Cassiopeia, who claimed and touted her own beauty—a permissible female equivalent of "heroism"—a woman who recognizes her own worth (even if only the worth assigned to her by men) brings devastation to men. In return for her hubris, Cassiopeia appears in the constellation that bears her name holding a mirror—lying flat on her back with her legs in the air.(119)

She longs for him; he longs for himself. So it is Aphrodite, the Greek "goddess of the mat,"(120) who realizes Butes’ mistake and steps in to save him from himself. She lifts him up out of the sea, out of his egoistic confusion, and has sex with him, thereby mirroring his longing in another, far more decisive, way. She brings him back to his senses by proving to him that rather than being merely worthy of himself, he is worthy of a great goddess. The Butes myth valorizes the notion that it is ultimately not the sailor who manfully resists his longing for fame but the hero who succumbs to his own desire to be lauded in song who gets the best girl.

The Descent Myth

The Dryad (or Naïad(123)) nymph called Eurydice appears in myth only in the tale of her husband’s katabasis (descent by a living person to the Underworld). Any well old story that addresses deep emotional mysteries—love and death being perennial favorites among us—and that creates a sufficient sense of satisfaction in its receivers will be regenerated, reshaped, and retold; it will produce multiple variants. The Orphic descent myth, as much a twice-told tale in the ancient world as it is today, has spawned a dizzying number of them.(124) But through the centuries, what this tale can really be said to have produced is interpretations. Because it is my business here to throw a bit of feminist light onto its gendered implications for non-specialist readers of my own time, and because I am interested more in the content than in the poetics per se of Virgil and Ovid, I demur from too-detailed discussion of the traditional scholarship and claim the right to privilege some aspects of the myth over others. (125)

1. Eurydice’s Death

Regardless of her subjective state of mind what has happened changes her nature, decomposes her being, for in the male world it diverts her from her telos, her fulfillment as a woman. Giulia Sissa(126)

Distance—woman—averts truth—the philosopher. She bestows the idea. And the idea withdraws, becomes transcendent, inaccessible, seductive. It beckons from afar. Its veils flout in the distance. The dream of death begins. It is woman. Jacques Derrida(127)

Virgil’s one-hundred-and-one-line Latin rendition of the tale(128) opens with the reader looking at Proteus, the omniscient Old Man of the Sea, tending his flock of seals. Aristaeus, the god of bee-keeping,(129) needs the seer’s help to recover from the loss of his honey-producers. As he does in Book IV of the Odyssey, the aquatic shape-shifter takes on a variety of forms attempting to evade capture,(130) but after "falling on him with a great shout and seizing him with handcuffs,"(131) Aristaeus finally hears the story we all came to hear.

It is poor, miserable Orpheus
who stirs up this punishment for you ...
He rages mightily because his wife was snatched away [by death].
While she fled headlong from you through streams
that doomed girl did not see the huge water-snake at her feet
watching over the bank in the tall grass.
Her cohort of Dryads filled the highest peaks
with their cries ...(132)

Eurydice is not named at the outset; she is "illa quidem ... moritura puella," "that famed girl about to die." She is given no attributes, physical or otherwise; we know that she is a wood nymph by the reaction of her Dryad sisters. And we know that she is fleeing from Aristaeus, who is chasing her. One widely disseminated retelling of the myth provides a good example of the way in which this information is usually imparted in translation, adding the bits—i.e., the subjectivity and motivation that modern readers understandably expect: "Orpheus fell in love with the wood nymph Eurydice, who agreed to marry him. On their wedding day Eurydice was pursued by Aristaeus, who had also become enamored of her."(133)

What the poet had no need to clarify for the Latin readers of his own day is that what we are witnessing is an attempted rape.(134) And yet, it is not the attempting-rapist who causes her death; it is a snake in the grass.(135) Virgil gives us no foot, no snake-strike, no wound, no fall, no venom, no death: she does not see the snake; two lines later, she is dead and the air is filling with the lamentations of nymphs. Her death is negatively implied by the poet’s assertion that she didn’t see it coming.

In Ovid’s version,(136) the story begins when Orpheus summons Hymenaeus from Crete where he has been celebrating the marriage of Iphis and Ianthe(137) in order to attend the bard’s nuptials with Eurydice in Thrace. But the signs for the couple’s happiness are not good, and

A graver omen was the result: for the new wife
while wandering with a crowd of Naïads, fell down dead,
having received the tooth of a serpent in her heel.(138)

If this water- or wood-nymph ever had a woman’s body—we certainly allow ourselves to imagine other mythical females as embodied when we read their stories—was her marriage ever consummated with it? Virgil calls her a girl; Ovid calls her a new wife; neither mentions the sex act that in Graeco-Roman society confers the difference. Does Eurydice die an as-yet-to-be-ravished spouse? Does she belong to Orpheus, or does she still belong to her father? Or does she occupy some intermediary category for which the Romans—perhaps never having imagined that a woman might find herself in such a position—can find no word? Did her dead body just disappear into thin air? Was it buried in a marked or an unmarked grave? Or was it immolated on a pyre as was prescribed for the honorable dead?(139) If so, by whom? Or was her body left to rot without effort or obsequies—her skin providing nourishment for maggots, worms, and fish, her bones and nails and hair decomposing into the damp riverbank as a kind of macabre, cannibalistic fertilizer for her Dryad sisters? For such questions never asked by them, the poets have no answers.

2. Orpheus in the Underworld

... individuals who are regarded as especially lacking in control of their own boundaries, or as possessing special talents and opportunities for confounding the boundaries of others, evoke fear and controlling action from the rest of society. Women are so regarded by men in ancient Greek society, along with suppliants, strangers, guests, and other intruders. Anne Carson(140)

True poetry transcends death. Dorothy Baker(141)

After these three lines for Eurydice, Ovid’s focus shifts:

After the Bard of Rhodope had lamented Eurydice
enough into the upper air and even into the shadows,
he dared to descend to the Styx by the Taenarian Gate.(142)

As did Virgil before him:

Singing and playing on a lyre to himself to console his love-sickness
he sang to you, sweet wife, as the days began and as they ended.
He went through the Taenarian Gates, deep entranceway to Dis,
and entered its misty groves with black dread.(143)

Both poets then describe the activity that Orpheus’s arrival in the Underworld provokes: the shades of the dead crowd around him as he, playing some form of unrecoverable music on his lyre, approaches the dread Queen and inimicable Lord of the Dead. Virgil’s language makes the Underworld seem even more unpleasant than does Ovid’s, with its descriptions of black mud and stagnant swamps. Orpheus’s music calls up dead heroes accompanied by their mothers, unproven boys and unmarried girls burned on funeral pyres in front of their parents, Death’s three-headed dog with its mouths agape, and the Furies with blue snakes entwined in their hair. Hades’ realm is not a romantic place, despite the images other poets fond of this story may have conjured to make it seem so. It is silent, horrifying, and permanent. Walter Burkert writes:

The subterranean rulers are enthroned in a palace whose most distinctive feature is the great Gate of Hades through which all must pass, never to return. A Mycenaean vaulted tomb ... and entrance may come to mind. And yet what is under the earth remains loathsome. When the earth shakes during the battle of the gods, Hades leaps from his throne and roars in terror lest the earth break open and his realm be exposed to sunlight, ghastly, mouldering and an abomination to the gods (Iliad XX. 61-5)—as a stone is overturned revealing putrefaction and teeming larvae.(144)

Ovid returns the reader quickly to experiencing the feelings of the broken-hearted bard—his alien music and speech intend to arouse otherwise unheard-of empathy for his mortal pain by reminding them both of Hades’ loving, i.e., rapacious, efforts to obtain a wife:

and if reports of the ancient abduction do not lie
love united you also.(145)

Ovid’s Orpheus interprets Proserpina’s rape to her as a love-match and then makes sure that both are aware of the expanse of their own domain: all mortals will eventually end up in with them. Based on these rather presumptuous observations, he begs them—on behalf of himself and the silent Eurydice—for her living body returned to him as a loan, rather than as a gift. Having made sure that they understand the strength of his grief and his desire—although he locates these feelings in Eurydice rather than in himself—he then offers to die, to remain in the kingdom of Dis as a shade, rather than lose her forever.

But if the Fates deny indulgence to my wife, it is certain
that I am not willing to go back [without her]: be happy with the death of two.(146)

It is with Orpheus’s suggestion of the terrible (but surely predictable) possibility that the bard himself might not survive this quest that Ovid’s shades are moved to emotion. Those words spoken to the strumming of his lyre provoke the bloodless spirits to weep; Tantalus stops trying to ease his thirst at the receding wave; Ixion’s wheel stops; the eagles of Zeus leave off eating Prometheus’s liver; the murderous Danaids stop trying to fill their sieves; Sisyphus sits down on his rock; and the cheeks of the Furies drip with tears. The loss of Orpheus’s music from the world, the loss of his desire to produce it, the loss of its power to inspire heart-felt emotion in all created things, is too much even for these dead souls to bear.

3. The Backward Glance

Thunder grumbles on the horizon
I buy time with another story
a pale blister of air
cadences of dead flesh
obscure the vowels. Audre Lorde(147)

"In the stories they always say I turned around to look at her too soon, but that isn’t how it was: I turned away too soon, turned away before I’d ever looked long enough, before I’d ever fully perceived her." Russell Hoban(148)

Now, also affected,

Neither the royal spouse [Proserpina]
nor he who rules the lowest region [Hades] could deny the supplicant.
They called Eurydice. She was there
among the new arrivals, walking slowly because of her wound.
Thracian Orpheus received her and the law at the same time
that he not turn back his eyes
until exiting the Valley of Avernus, else the favor be in vain.(149)

For Ovid, Proserpina is the spouse of him who rules, not a ruler in her own right; he does not say which of the pair gives Orpheus permission to lead his wife out of the Underworld, but it seems to have been a joint-decision. More interesting, Ovid, for whom songs and stories are also his stock and trade, has his Orpheus passively and simultaneously "receiving" two things which as a lover and a bard he (presumably) already knows deserve the utmost attention and care: words (the injunction not to look back) and a woman (Eurydice). Even imagining the possibility that he has somehow confused or conflated the two, he honors neither, even though words in the domain of a poet are likely to endure for much longer than a woman’s flesh. (150)

Virgil, on the other hand, focuses on the phantoms’ reaction to the music: his Orpheus does not speak at all. Proserpina responds favorably—and on her own—to his plea made solely with music. But we only discover the nature of the law she has issued when Orpheus breaks it.

Eurydice was following behind, having been returned [to him]
—for Proserpina had commanded it—
when sudden madness seized the incautious lover,
a madness that ought to be forgiven if the Spirits of the Dead knew how to pardon.
He halted, unmindful, his spirit conquered, looked back
at his Eurydice already on the brink of light.)151)

Virgil tells us that "all labor spent, the pact with the cruel tyrant was broken."(152) The musician hears three waves of thunder crash; he also plainly hears the only words ever spoken by Eurydice in the poem:

Who has destroyed us, miserable you and me, Orpheus?
What kind of utter madness? See there, the cruel Fates call [me]
back again and sleep darkens my swimming eyes.
And now goodbye. I am wrapped up in a vast night
holding out these strengthless hands that do not belong to you.(153)

Other than to say that Orpheus was understandably tired and hence forgetful of the law that had—against all odds and precedent—granted his most fervent wish, Virgil offers no further explanation for Orpheus’s last-moment impulse to refuse to comply with the only instruction he’d been given by the most feared of all the gods so that the woman he loves can come back to life.(154) And what is Eurydice’s response to having her life taken again, this time with no hope of resuscitation, because of the inexplicably impulsive and self-absorbed behavior of a beloved but heedless man? Virgil’s words have her saying goodbye for good and asking a simple question—one that neither Orpheus nor any of his subsequent male commemorators and interpreters have ever been able to adequately answer—: "What the hell have you done?"

Ovid, on the other hand, has his lyre-player go a bit deaf; even without thunderous noise in the background, and despite the fact that they ascend in silence—neither poet ever suggests that Orpheus plays his music for Eurydice—he barely hears the only word that Ovid gives her to speak, not that she has cause, so he insists, to say very much anyway. Further, the verbs that Ovid chose suggest that the couple shares responsibility for Eurydice’s second death: suddenly seized by doubt, by fear that she will fail to be there (ne deficeret), and at the same time, simply because he wants to see her (avidis[que] videndi), he looks back.

They were not far from the boundary of the upper earth;
Orpheus, fearing that she was absent, desirous of seeing,
lovingly looked back; instantly she slipped away;
and stretching out his arms to grasp and to be grasped
that wretched man grasped nothing but thin air.
Already dying again, she did not complain at all
to her husband: what complaint could she have unless it be that she was loved?
She said a final goodbye, which he scarcely heard,
and sank back again to the place whence she had come.(155)

Ovid’s Orpheus stands, finally dumfounded—he has lost both words and wife—on the outer threshold, amazed, as if uncomprehending of what has just happened. But he takes no more than his "fair share" of responsibility for it, despite the poet’s suggestion that he feels guilt: In the very next lines, Ovid compares his Orpheus to Olenus, who blamed himself when he and his wife Lethaea were turned into stones as punishment for her vanity and boasting arrogance. (Good fellow, Olenus, but it was, after all, the woman’s fault.)

Refused a second crossing of the Styx by the ferryman, Ovid’s bard sits sobbing on the riverbank without washing or eating for a week. Finally, and with loud accusations against the cruelty of the gods of Erebus for what has happened to him, he retreats to the mountains, where for the next three years he shuns "all womanly love" (omnemque refugerat Orpheus femineam Venerem).

And Orpheus refused to have sex with any women
either because [being with a woman] had gone badly for him
or because he had already made that vow.
Nevertheless, many women passionately wanted
to have sex with the singer; many women, rejected by him, grieved.
Orpheus was the originator for the Thracian people of bestowing
sexual desire on tender young males, and the first
to pluck the first flowers of their youth, still shy of Spring.(156)

Having made these parallel points about how sexually desirable this miserable, distant, withholding, but musically brilliant Orpheus is to women and how desirable adolescent boys are to him, Ovid’s poem segues directly into Orpheus’s song concerning a beautiful boy, Cyparissus, who kills his favorite stag, and having begged the gods to allow him to mourn its loss forever, is gratified by being turned into a lovely cypress tree. Even the most evanescent hint that there may have been something worth the poet’s efforts to explore on the subject of female desire has been utterly forgotten.

4. The Wild Women

Man, humbled and intimidated by normal everyday life, can free himself in the orgies from all that is oppressive and develop his true self. Raving becomes divine revelation, a centre of meaning in the midst of a world that is increasingly profane and rational. Walter Burkert(157)

... the most striking quality of this religion is the importance of women. It is most often women who are the subjects of the aberrant and frenzied behavior described by the term "orgy," and in figurative art they alone appear at the awesome moments of the cult ... It is well known that women provide "favorable terrain" for this kind of behavior; but such a predisposition is no explanation. Louis Gernet(158)

Neither was Virgil’s piteous Orpheus permitted by Charon to follow Eurydice’s shade as it disappeared back across the black river. But Virgil’s response to events is less callous, more steeped in the intense feelings that might be expected of one who has gone past the ends of the earth to reclaim his lover only to fail at the last moment: he laments the tragic loss of his object of desire for seven months, grieving with the passion of a mother songbird whose nest has been plundered, untouched by thoughts of love or marriage, telling his heart-rending tale to no one but the cold stars, wild tigers, and the oak trees, all of whom gather about him to listen. But Orpheus’s dolorously yearning songs are suddenly, violently interrupted; without commencing a new line, Virgil continues:

The scorned Ciconian mothers
conducting their sacred duties in the course of the nocturnal festivals in honor of Bacchus
tore the young man apart and strewed [his body] through the broad fields.(159)

The implication is double. Either the women who wanted sex with Orpheus have finally reached a frenzied climax of frustration and targeted him with premeditation for bloody death and dismemberment because he has denied them the pleasures of his body; or Orpheus just happens to be playing his melancholy music in the wrong place at the right time for these mothers—maenads ("wild women") in the retinue of Dionysos—to stumble across him while in a trance of religious possession, intoxicated by the presence of the god in their performance of his rites in the high mountains at night. The two explanations are possibly not exclusive, and both arise with a certain regularity in the scholarship. And yet, perhaps the doubled motivation for the Thracian women’s behavior—the first decidedly conscious, viscous, and vengeful; the second diffused, entranced, spontaneous—are really the same: one intermeshed androcentric description of female sexuality unleashed in all its horrific glory.

Ovid employs Orpheus for the rest of Book X to sing of other ill-fated pairings, of mortal boys too-much loved by gods (Zeus and Ganymede; Apollo and Hyacinthus; Venus and Adonis), and lust-ridden mortal girls who pay the price for their sins (Myrrha and Cinyras; the shameless Propoetides; Atalanta and Hippomenes). It is especially noteworthy that among these songs of careless love that melancholy Orpheus uses to charm the woodland trees (their Dryad spirits are not mentioned), savage beasts, and the very stones of Thrace, Ovid includes only one with a happy ending: that of Pygmalion and his Ivory Girl.

Book XI proceeds with the attack of the wild, Ciconian women, for some reason reveling in broad daylight.

Of these, one woman, tossing her hair in the breeze,
cried out, "Look! The one who despises us is here!"
And she sent her thyrsos into the melodious mouth of the Apolline poet,
but as it was covered with leaves it made only a bruise and not a wound.(160)

That the women are maenads is certain: they wear the hides of wild animals and carry the leafy, honeyed wands of Dionysos.(161) And that they want revenge for Orpheus’s contempt is also clear, as in Virgil. But Ovid gives another dimension to the attack by mentioning Apollo’s name: is the poet worshipping Apollo (vatis Apollinei also translates to "Apollo’s prophet")—an activity perhaps offensive to celebrating maenads, as might be the singing of Vishnu’s mantra in the presence of pilgrimaging Šaivites—or is the epithet used merely to remind us of Orpheus’s genealogy? Later in the poem Ovid will bring Dionysos into it, but certainly not in order to reward the women for any retributive services performed for him.

If we stray for a moment from the texts of Ovid and Virgil per se and venture into the scholarship on the question "Why did the women murder Orpheus?," we find an extraordinary array of variants, guesses, projections, and surmises. Most assume, based on the last lines of Ovid’s poem, that his murder by women had nothing to do with women at all: it was the will of an angry Dionysos that Orpheus should die; their butchery could have been carried out by anyone; his female celebrants just happened to be close at hand. Consider this passage from Dorothy Baker’s translation and synopsis of Eva Kushner’s theory:

Kushner hypothesizes that the katabasis is simply a symbolic expression of the passage of Orpheus from one religion to another. Orpheus, according to her argument, descends to the underworld to discover "darker," more intuitive, and more physical secrets of the Dionysian cult. There he is initiated into the new rite. She further speculates that once Orpheus returns to assume his priesthood for Dionysus, the hero reveals secrets that he learned in the underworld. For this reason, Dionysos calls upon the Ciconian women to murder the traitorous priest.(162)

Or this survey of motivations gleaned from the ancient sources from Larry Alderink:

In one account, that of Aeschylus (Bassarids), Orpheus is dismembered by the maenads at Dionysos’ instigation because Orpheus worshipped Apollo ... Isocrates (Busiris 11.38) ... provides a different reason, vis., blasphemy or telling unbelievable stories about the gods. In ... that of Proclus, [he] experienced the same death as Dionysos, and Lactantius (Divinae Institutiones 1.22.15-17) and Apollodorus (Bibliotheke 1.15) explain that [he] was killed in the rites he founded and in which he was a participant.(163)

Or if it did have something to do with the women themselves, their motive is so obscure as to be unfathomable. Consider this passage from Linforth:

In Aeschylus’ account, since the Bassarae were the murderers, it is fairly clear that they were acting under the influence of Dionysos, whatever may have been the cause of his anger. In ... vase paintings, where there is no hint of the working of Dionysos, the motive is completely obscure. Plato ... says that the gods caused Orpheus to be slain by women as a punishment for cowardice; and Isocrates attributes his rending ... to the blasphemous treatment of the gods in his poems. That they should give two totally different causes for the occurrences shows pretty clearly that the legend itself ... recognized no cause, or at least no cause which was essential to the legend. But though there may have been no proper cause or justification for the murder, the women who committed it must have had some immediate motive, rational or irrational, in the minds of those who formulated the incident illustrated in the vase paintings.(164)

Or if did have something to do with women, it had nothing to do with the nature of women qua women. This passage is from Louis Gernet:

It is surely necessary to preserve in Dionysism a heritage of phallic cults such as are found in the Rural Dionysia; it is a heritage obviously very ancient ... associated ... with the female and with agrarian fertility. It remains, however, on the fringe of the normal Dionysiac phenomenon; for in maenadism, especially, there is nothing sexual; the libido is absent ... mania ... is delirium in a pure state, one of those instances of "collective ecstasy" ... brought on by the traditional and equally communal means of suggestion: the intoxication of the dance and hypnotic music.(165)

But no surviving poet interrogates the women’s—rational or irrational—subject position. And none remotely suggests that they tore him because of what he did to his doubly-dead wife. Of the Greek women called maenads—of those who celebrated in the Rhodopeian mountains and those who inhabit Euripides’ Bacchae—Carl Kerenyi (something of a feminist before his time) writes: "[In a trance,] sometimes they knew and sometimes they did not know how far they had come ... [their] inner experiences were not permitted to be made public; they did not enter into literature."(166)

Meanwhile, back in Book XI, following the lead of her hair-tossingly insouciant sister, another maenad hurls a stone: it hangs in the air, frozen in space by music, finally falling at the singer’s feet like a sinner begging for forgiveness (an image worthy of Steven Speilberg; but the point seems to be that song-summoned stones and wild women naturally follow different leaders). Ovid tells us that his Orpheus could have likewise subdued all of their weapons, but their furious ululating—howling, pounding on drums, clapping, blasting on flutes—drowned out his magical voice. He does not tell us why the women themselves are not calmed by the magic in his voice, unless we are to understand as given that women are "by nature" more obdurate than inanimate stones (natural entities that Orpheus does not despise).

And so at last the stones were stained with the blood
of the one whose voice could not be heard.
At first the maenads slaughtered the many birds, and snakes, and wild beasts
that were the tokens of Orpheus’s triumph [over nature].
Then, with bloodied hands, they turned on Orpheus himself, circling him in a flock
like birds that have caught sight of a predatory night-bird wandering in the daytime.
He was set up like a doomed stag surrounded by dogs in the amphitheater.(167)

Ovid loves a really lurid description(168): the women strike him with their thyrsi, with clods of dirt, tree branches, rocks, with horns torn from living oxen, and implements plundered from peasants plowing their nearby fields. They move in for the kill.

Holding out his hands, he spoke in vain for the first time.
For the first time, his voice moved nothing and no one.
Those wicked ones killed him. And, by Jove, from that mouth
listened to by stones and understood by the minds of beasts
his soul expired into the winds.(169)

Despite Gernet’s assertion that libido (in the Freudian sense) is absent from mania, the excitedly attacking maenad is always female and her passive victim is always male. Georges Bataille, perhaps intentionally, locates the orgia of Dionysos squarely within attested Graeco-Roman attitudes toward female sexuality—and definitely contra proper male sexuality (homo- or hetero-)(170)—when he describes the cultic practice of the Bacchanalia as "a surpassing of sensualist eroticism ... an enflamed movement ... a movement of self loss."(171) He goes on to say that "The cult of Dionysos was in essence tragic. At the same time it was erotic, it was so in its frenzied disorder, but we know that to the extent that the cult of Dionysos was erotic, it was tragic. Tragic, moreover, above all, and eroticism ended up bringing it into a domain of tragic horror."(172) The tragic horror of the attack of the maenads on Orpheus, however, stops short of the omophagia that was the most "savage" characteristic of the cult of Dionysos. Marcel Detienne writes:

On Chios, Tenedos and Lesbos, Dionysus hungers for human flesh; the victim torn apart in his honour is a man. In Euripides’s Bacchae, Agave is possessed by the god whom her son Pentheus has scorned; and when Pentheus comes to the mountains to mock the maddened women, she hunts him down—seeing him as a lion-cub or young bull, "shaggy like a wild animal," a victim which she tears apart with her own hands and starts to devour. The same frenzy attacks the daughters of Minyas. They are weaving, more interested in getting married than in going off to bacchic orgies in the bush. Dionysus makes them join the Maenads; in their madness they conceive "a desire for human flesh," and choose by lot one of their own children, tearing him limb from limb as though he were a young animal. In all these traditions, cannibalism appears within the context of "eating raw flesh." It clearly constitutes the ultimate form of the "state of savagery" to which Dionysiac cult claims to restore us. To eat human flesh, to engage in cannibalism, seems to be part of a pattern of behavior designed to make men "savage," to put them in closer contact with the supernatural (represented here by Dionysus Eater of Men) through possession.(173)

Orpheus lost Eurydice because he lost himself—exhausted, uninspired, on the threshold that separates life from death—in an inexplicable "sudden madness." He now loses himself, is deprived of himself, by the agency of inspired, possessed women lost to themselves, deprived of themselves, in a madness of erotico-religious ecstasy on that same, yet different, threshold. Male deaths signify differently than do female deaths; and female killers are a breed apart. But there is an inverted parallel to be drawn here between the body of the male wordsmith and the language used to prescribe feminine incorporeality. It is implied in this passage by Maurice Blanchot:

... when I say, "This woman," real death has been announced and is already present in my language; my language means that this person, who is here right now, can be detached from herself, removed from her existence and her presence and suddenly plunged into a nothingness in which there is no existence or presence; my language essentially signifies the possibility of this destruction; it is a constant, bold allusion to such an event. My language does not kill anyone. But if this woman were not really capable of dying, if she were not threatened by death at every moment of her life, bound and joined to death by an essential bond, I would not be able to carry out that ideal negation, that deferred assassination which is what my language is.(174)

In my more than twenty years of research and conversation on the subject of the Orphic descent myth, I have repeatedly found that it is the sparagmos episode of the myth, the killing and dismemberment of the mythical bard, that snares the attention of its male interlocutors. I have been asked more than once, "How can you consider the myth of Orpheus as in any way reflective of violence toward women when its violence is so obviously against Orpheus?" For these male readers, "dismemberment" is not merely a word, a poetic image; it is not an idea easily susceptible to being interpreted as a metaphor for something else. Quite rightly, it conveys to them a visceral fear, a real horror of an almost unheard of but still, possibly real, experience. So we must ask then, if Orpheus’s dismemberment by women cannot be easily dismissed as a flight of fancy, why so the attempted rape of Eurydice by Aristaeus on her wedding day?(175) Why her first death? Why her second? Are these viscerally experienced descriptions so rudely common as to be emotionally dismissable, unworthy of even the most abstract bodily empathy? Or are they perhaps so beyond masculine experience that—even in myth—they are powerless to provoke genuine horror?

So what of Orpheus’s "real death"? Is the bard not also negated and assassinated by the language of poets and by the bodily transgressions of women, just as Eurydice is negated and assassinated by Aristaeus’s violence, by Orpheus’s transgressive gaze, by the poets’ words? The answer must be no. They say that written language preserved his speech—if not his music—in the Orphic hymns and teletae of his exclusively male cult. But even his non-literary corpus, his body, is not completely lost.

5. The Severed Head

The document is not objective, innocent raw material, but expresses past society’s power over memory and over the future: the document is what remains. Jacques Le Goff(176)

In the Metamorphoses, all of nature—including its Naïad and Dryad nymphs—mourns to see the great musician dead, his limbs scattered gruesomely in a field. Ovid agrees with Virgil that the Hebrus river gathers up the severed head, but Ovid puts his lyre into the river’s arms as well. The fourth Georgic has Orpheus’s head crying out Eurydice’s name as it slowly dies in the cold current, the river’s banks pathetically echoing it back again. Presumably, Aristaeus’s mind is filled with that plaintive echo—and with guilt for his crime—when Proteus disappears into the waves and Cyrene takes over Virgil’s narrative to instruct her son in the art of the bougonia (177) and to commend to him the ritual sacrifices now required for the recovery of his honeybees.

But Ovid has the river carry both components of Orpheus’s fame to the shores of the nearby island of Lesbos. There, never having spoken a word or otherwise revealed a thought for its erstwhile, snake-poisoned mate, the severed head is attacked by a serpent—this time identified as "savage" (ferus). But before it can inflict its bite (before the head can "receive’ it; the verb is not employed in this instance on an attack against a male), Apollo arrives and turns the snake—its jaws wide open in readiness to strike—to stone. Joseph Nagy writes:

The celibate (or homosexual) Orpheus, a devotee or son of Apollo, is attacked and decapitated by female devotees of the god Dionysos, and so Apollo is seemingly deprived of the main exponent of the verbal arts he sponsors. Yet Orpheus’s head survives and returns, as it were, to Apollo, who becomes the protector and manager of this performing cult object ... the sexual connotation of the image of the severed head, especially in these various frameworks of male-female rivalry, are quite obvious.(178)

I find it fascinating that the equation of Orpheus’s singing head with a castrated penis—vulnerable at one instant, safe the next, due to a change in its victimizer from serpentine flaccidity to rock-hardness—is so obvious to Nagy that he sees no reason to spell it out. But such remarks are illustrative of the kinds of analytic opportunities for gendered interpretation that the myth of Orpheus affords. I don’t pretend to be shocked that my culture’s sexual fear of women—who, when you stop to think about it, castrate men with surprising infrequency—has not abated much over the centuries, even among its most sophisticated spokesmen. I am grateful to Nagy for his insight(179); without it I might not have understood why the reputed home of female homosexuality—due to the fame of Sappho, the ancient Greek world’s best and only significantly (if minimally) extant female poet—is said to have been the beneficiary of Orpheus’s generative creativity. Apparently the severed head and lyre (the phallus and its instrumentality respectively, in Lacanian terms(180)) conferred its poetic powers on those who came into contact with it: the Lesbian poets could never have won their reputations without him.(181)

While in some variants Orpheus is finished with his relationship with Eurydice—such as it was—and is reincarnated as a swan or a bee, or his severed head is enshrined on the island of Lesbos to prophecy forever, Ovid’s hero descends again to the Underworld, this time as a proper shade. And he apparently demurs from drinking its waters of forgetfulness, just as those initiated into his cult are encouraged to do. Bruce Lincoln writes:

Perhaps the most famous of all the rivers associated with the underworld is the Greek Lethe ...The critical step in preserving [knowledge obtained in the underworld] is the exercise of restraint at [that] river ... All souls must drink from [it] before rebirth, however, and the thirst produced by their journey across [the] hot and arid [Plain of Forgetfulness] makes such restraint exceedingly difficult. Only if one is self-disciplined in the extreme, and knowledgeable with regard to the river’s pernicious effect, will one be able to master the temptation to drink deeply .... it is only the philosopher who has such knowledge and self-control, and as a result of these qualities he is able to bring a deep understanding of the fundamental nature of things back from that world into this. That understanding comes as a result of the philosopher’s triumph over the river.(182)

Ovid continues:

His shade went below the earth and
he recognized all the places, and searching through the Elesian Fields
discovered Eurydice and lovingly embraced her in his eager arms.
In this way they walk together, their steps joined.
Now he follows behind her, now he leads the way,
and now Orpheus looks back at his Eurydice in safety.)183)

The man and the woman walk together now—our disembodied lover-philosopher and his disembodied wife—in perfect harmony. However, despite this show of equality, in the Latin text Ovid gives Orpheus the last word: Eurydicenque suam iam tuto respicit Orpheus. And if there is any note of music sounded by him here, now that Eurydice is finally unthreatened and relaxed enough to enjoy it, the poet keeps quiet about it. But Ovid gets in one more lick; he adds a coda to their story by pulling us out of paradise and dragging us back to Thrace to witness the fate adjudicated by Dionysos for the women who committed the crime of vaticide against Orpheus, ostensibly in the god’s own name.

But Lyaeus [Bacchus] did not let the crime go unpunished.
Grieved by the loss of the priest of his mysteries, the god
at once bound those Thracian women who had witness the crime
to the earth with twisting roots. He distended their toes
and thrust them straight and hard into the ground.
Like a bird caught in the hunter’s snare
flaps around to loose itself but, struggling, only tightens its bonds,
so each woman dug herself in deeper trying to escape,
mad with fear and all in vain.
When a woman asked where were her toes, her nails, her feet,
the bark just rose up her tender legs,
and when she struck her thighs in grief, she struck at oak;
her breasts became oak, her shoulders likewise made of wood.
You might think her arms were the boughs of a tree,
and you would be seeing what was really there.(184)

Oracular Apollo, not able—or at least not present—to protect his priest from the attack of the maenads itself, defends his still-singing decapitated head from the attack of the serpent and sends his incorporeal spirit on to Elysium to dwell happily forever in peace. And-Or, in a spectacular show of even greater mysterium tremendum, terrifying Dionysos now claims the lyrically inspired Orpheus as his own and takes his vengeance on the women who deprived him of his most talented seer. In either case—whether because loved by the god of music, purity, and prophecy or by the god whose wild mysteries can kill as easily as heal—the spirit of Orpheus is now safe.

But for Ovid, as for Orpheus is his mode as divine hierodule, women must be dealt with on a strictly physical level. Their flesh, rather than being torn bleeding from a human frame, fragments into the god’s anger, dis-remembered as flesh at all, dismembered into the discrete parts of another entity entirely: splitting toes, splintering nails, gnarled feet, hardening thighs, unyielding breasts, horny shoulders, woody arms. Ovid literally gives his suddenly helpless maenads the once over with his poet’s pen, forcing us (if we continue to read) to participate in the violence of the pornographer’s gaze—rising from feminine feet to thighs, over bellies, hips, and breasts, down sinuous arms until it finally exhausts itself at the tips of outstretched female fingers. Initially, the women beg to understand where their bodies have gone, but soon are silent. Erased as women, their nature now threatens no one; transformed into oak trees, they are put in their place. If you remember Virgil’s description of the several auditors of Orpheus’s laments when he first travels back from his failed mission—stars, tigers, and oak trees—you may be left wondering if it wasn’t Orpheus himself, after all, who first drew them down from the mountains and planted them himself. Amy Richlin, in her analysis of Ovid’s repeated metamorphic rape-stripshows, writes:

A favorite tactic of the poet’s is to trace the metamorphosis step by slow step, particularly horrible in the case of Myrrha, whose metamorphosis into a tree encases her pregnant belly in wood (10. 489-513); roots burst through her toenails, her skin hardens with bark (494), she voluntarily sinks her face into the uprush of wood (487-98), but her pregnancy advances and the birth splits her open, nor has she a voice with which to cry out. ... So the metamorphosis of women can be something special.(185)

We are accustomed to regaling ourselves with visions of synecdochical women on billboards, on television, in magazines. Like the components of an adolescent male sexual fantasy, whole, three-dimensional women are everywhere reduced by the erotically charged male gaze to a display of glossy lips, a glimpse of latex-clad thigh, a hipshot pelvis, the spectacle of a set of wiggling buttocks, a pair of breasts by Victoria’s Secret. But women still question: "Where is my body, my being, my own inalienable nature?" And our response to the gaze that deprives us of it goes still unheeded: "What the hell have you done?"

The peculiar tendency to reduce adult female integrity to easily manageable—and usually sexually attractive—bits, finally rendering women invisible, unhearable as fully human beings even to ourselves is, as these poems attest, not a novel product of contemporary advertising strategies. It was advanced as a natural product of the difference between men and woman long ago. It’s just that it still works admirably to keep some of us sold.

Lest the foregoing interpretation leave the reader with the sense that my reading of the Orphic descent myth is too idiosyncratic, I invite her to consider this one—received as a definitive commentary on the myth by a generation or more of American college students— which I take from the same text quoted above describing Aristaeus’s predatory behavior toward Eurydice in the terms of amour.

The legend ... of Orpheus ... show[s a hero] who became soft-headed over a woman and [brought] destruction upon [himself] because of it ... Orpheus ... is gentle, a dedicated musician who conceives a passion for Eurydice that lasts long after she dies, a love that calls the wrath of the Maenads down upon him. The Greeks regarded promiscuity in their heroes as permissible, but a headlong infatuation with one woman was dangerous, for it destroyed a man’s prudence. Love was a form of intoxication that could ruin a hero. A culture that stresses heroic values usually relegates women to an inferior position. To dedicate one’s life to the memory of a woman, as Orpheus did, was considered unmanly. With Orpheus we see the end of the Greek heroic tradition, a poet-musician whom the Alexandrians elevated to the status of a hero.(186)

If this is the sum total of what we hope young men and women will carry away from their readings of the descent myth, we are neither challenging them to think about the power of myth to shape ideology, nor sufficiently challenging them to think through the historical identities that they have received from earlier generations, and to subvert them as necessary. It is my hope that their eventual recognition of fully human female personhood will incorporate their own ongoing efforts to search for and discover not only mythology’s absent women, but our own.


Prelude: Libretto and Score

1. Archibald 1998: 208.
2. Straley 1994: 31.
 As if meaning to highlight this attitude that women supposedly take toward romantic love, when the virulent "ILOVEYOU" virus struck computers worldwide on May 4, 2000, it was initially assumed that its perpetrator was female.
3. I intend both Nietzsche's (1956: 3-146) and Helene Deutsch's (1969) psychoanalytic typology here. In this vein, Walter Strauss (1971: 18) writes: "Orpheus journeys ... down to the depths of the psyche, to the depths of being, to death's realm, and back up to life and creation and thence into death and song—this servant of Dionysus and pupil of Apollo, architect of the troubled soul and peacemaker for the distressed mind. For Orpheus is truly a reconciler of opposites: he is the fusion of the radiant solar enlightenment of Apollo and the somber subterranean knowledge of Dionysus." Also see Burkert 1985: 223-25.
4. As underscored by MacKinnon (1983: 228n), "Black" and "White" are not mere colors in a racist society; they are historically burdened cultural self-identities; capitalizing both terms honors that fact.
5. Guthrie 1993: 45.
Part I: Disembodying Eurydice
Chapter One
Overture: Descending Theme with Variations

1. Detienne 1979: ix.
2. Deleuze 1988: 105.
3. It is not my intention to offer a comprehensive chronology of references to Orpheus in the literature or in the scholarship concerning that literature. For such discussions in English, the interested reader will profit from consulting Watmough 1934; Guthrie 1993 [1935]; Linforth 1931 & 1941; Bowra 1952; Willi 1978 [1955]; Dronke 1962; Friedman 1970; Strauss 1971; Schwartz 1975; Johnston 1977; essays in Warden 1982; Burkert 1985 (esp. 290-301); Graf 1986; Lane 1987; Newby 1987; Segal 1972, 1966 & 1989; Kosinski 1989; Lee 1965 & 1996; Bernstock 1991; E. Henry 1992; Heath 1994; and Miles 1999 (esp. 61-195). For Orphism in particular, see Eisler 1921; Nilsson 1935; Burkert 1977; Athanassakis 1977; Alderink 1981; West 1983; Graf 1993; Lacs and Most 1997. For studies on Orpheus in North America, see Meyncke 1927, Gayton 1935, and Hultkrantz 1957.
4. Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) 1996: 744.
5. Guthrie 1993: 1; Onomakluton Orfhn "famous" or "illustrious" Orpheus.
6. Gantz 1993: 344, 721; Lee 1965: 403.
7. Detienne 1987: 111-12.
8. Burkert 1985: 296.
9. Linforth 1941: 27-28.
10. Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica IV. 890-920.
11. OCD 1996: 745-46.
12. Linforth writes (1941: 24), "It is curious that though Orpheus is more than once called the son of Oeagrus and more than once the son of Calliope, he is never until postclassical times called the son of both; the only union is that between Calliope and Apollo." Apollonius Rhodius, whose Argonautika is thought by his translator R. C. Seaton (Loeb, 1988: vii) to date between 296 and 260 BCE, names "Orpheus whom once Calliope bare, it is said, wedded to Thracian Oeagrus ..."
13. Orpheus also makes sacrifices to Zeus, Helios, and to Hecate, among others.
14. The ancients made no distinction between the two forms.
15. Peter Mason (1984) makes this interesting point about "the god of women": "the cult of Dionysos celebrated by the Bakchai ... shows resistance by women to a predominantly male culture, but there are unmistakable signs of the dominance of elements from that male culture within the cult. Dionysos himself is male. Moreover, the myth of his double birth, first from the mother [Semele] and then from Zeus's thigh [as Zagreus], reduces the importance of the mother, who is physically eliminated at childbirth."
16. Apropos of what is commonly thought of an Apollonian-Dionysian opposition in Greek and later thought, Burkert writes: "... the opposition between Olympian and Chthonic constitutes a polarity in which one pole cannot exist without the other and in which each pole only receives its full meaning from the other" (1985: 202).
17. On Zagreus-Dionysos, see Linforth 1941: 307-64. Archibald 1998: 209: "Herodotus tells us that the Thracians worshipped Ares, Dionysos, and Artemis, while the kings paid special homage to Hermes." She goes on to say that while "sun symbolism is common in Thrace, there is no evidence of sun worship," however Orpheus conflates Helios with Apollo, leading to representations of Apollo as a sun-god. Strangely, Linforth several times reiterates his opinion that "there is no hint of any connection between Orpheus and Dionysos" (1941: 7, 33, 65, 133). He discloses his own puritanical bias in his closing remarks (1941: 363-64): "[The myth of Zagreus and the Titans] was an ugly story; fit for the contempt of Christians or for the pious manipulation of those who clung to the ancient religion, unfit for reputable Greek poets. It was not, however, repugnant to the lesser poets who wrote in the name of Orpheus. There were doubtless some nobler souls among them, many of them, we may believe, who had always been attracted to the crude, the fantastic, the tasteless, the indecent in mythology. ... In all ages there are men and women who like to take their religion strong and who discover an irresistible attraction to ideas and practices which are repellent to the normal, healthy mind. Out of such unwholesome soil there sometimes spring lofty and moving conceptions. That some such conceptions were developed by those who occupied themselves with the mysteries and wrote poems under the name of Orpheus is attested to by the fact that Plato did not find them beneath his notice. ... [Those who hold that "Orphic religion" is the highest manifestation of the religious spirit in Greece] are guilty of disrespect to the nobler speculations of the Greeks."
19. Burkert 1985: 291.
20. Burkert writes (1985: 163): Semele, the mother of Dionysos, Bacchus, the name of the votary and alternative name for the god, thyrsos, the sacred wand, and thriambos and dithyrambos, the cult hymn, are all manifestly non-Greek words. The Greek tradition associates Dionysos very closely with Phrygia and Lydia, the Asia Minor kingdoms of the eighth/seventh and seventh/sixth centuries, and also with Kybele, the Phrygian Mother of the Gods." On "mad therapy," see Dodds 1951: 69.
21. See Danow 1985.
22. Nagy 1990: 226-27, citing Linforth 1941: 78.
23. Quoted epigrammatically without citation in Tamburri 1989: 303.
24. Reinach 1933: 82. Contra Reinach, Linforth 1941: 36: "Plato includes Orpheus in a list of six culture heroes, without, however specifying his contribution to civilization."
25. See Alderink 1981; 89; Jaeger 1943: 142; Jaeger 1945: 166; Whibley 1905: 303; Harrison 1962: 471. Burkert writes (1987: 87): "Transmigration of souls is a doctrine that suddenly appeared in the Greek world toward the end of the sixth century BC. We find the name of either Pythagoras or Orpheus attached to it, and we have the word of Plato that it was told in mysteries, teletai, and found ‘strong believers' there."
26. Bremmer 1983: 42-43: "... the exclusion of women from Eunostos' temple in Tanagra was also connected with treacherous behavior by a woman ... Such an exclusion was not uncommon and could be found mainly on the islands and the coast of Asia Minor. We meet it in the cult of Herakles in Thasos and Miletus, Egyptian gods in Delos, Zeus and Athena Apotropaioi in Lindos, Zeus Amalos in Lindos, Poseidon in Myconos, Aphrodite Akraia in Cyprus ... , Artemis in Ephesos where only men and free maidens were admitted ..., the Anakes in Elateia, and the unknown temple of Zeus ... and Kronos."
27. Guthrie 1993: 45; Rohde 1966: 134.
28. Guthrie 1993: 45.
29. Bernstock 1991: 179.
30. Strauss 1971: 234.
31. Reid and Rohmann 1993: 773-801. While accounting for less than seven hundred years of known literary and artistic representations concerning Orpheus, the section goes on for twenty-six pages, listing roughly nine hundred separate works of art.
32. Virgil, Georgics IV. 453-548.
33. Ovid, Metamorphoses X. 1-85 and XI. 1-66.
34. See Kosinki 1989 and Mayerson 1971. Jean Richer (Bonnefoy 1993: 282-84) provides another longish list of mainly French and German writers and artists who reinterpreted the descent myth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
35. See E. R. Dodds 1951: 135-78, "The Greek Shamans and the Origin of Puritanism."
36. Dowden 1992: 8.
37. de Nicola 1999.
38. Rohter 1999: 14-16. A subtitled version may be released to U. S. audiences by Warner Brothers in 2000. In the 1960's, Tropicalismo reinvented Brazilian popular music in its blending of traditional forms with those of rock-and-roll and bossa nova.
39. Rushdie 1999.
40. Fox Cable Network, October 25, 1999. Walter Strauss writes (1971: 2): "The first known opera is Peri's Euridice of 1600, which was followed by Montiverdi's more familiar favola in musica, Orfeo (1607). Between this Orfeo and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) the opera grew and developed into a superbly expressive art form under the patronage, so to speak, of Orpheus." Gluck's opera premiered in 1762.
41. Dowden 1992: 168.
42. Piercy 1973: 24. Apropos of these lines, Jane Harrison writes (1962: 30): "To seek to become even like the gods to [Pindar] as a Greek savoured of insolence. ... "Desire not ... life of the immortals" [Pythian 3. 58-62]. And yet oddly enough the old reality and actuality in Greek religion again and again crops up. Man hungers to be one again with the image he has himself made."
43. Apollonius Rhodius I. 26-31.
44. Apollonius Rhodius I. 32-33.
45. Apollonius Rhodius I. 496-518.
46. Apollonius Rhodius I. 538-42; 570-71.
47. Apollodorus, The Library, I. ix. 17.
48. Apollonius Rhodius I. 615-16.
49. See Hansen 2000.
50. Mason 1984: 30-31. Eustathios of Thessaloniki, a Christian of the 12th century CE, also wrote extensive commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey. See Brooten 1996: 33.
51. Menarche does not constitute becoming a woman (gune also means wife) for the Greeks as it does for us, presumably because the onset of menstruation has nothing to do with men.
52. Pomeroy 1975: 25.
53. Apollonius Rhodius I. 915-21.
54. Burkert 1987: 12-13.
55. Burkert 1987: 109.
56. Burkert 1987: 12-13.
57. Burkert 1987: 24.
58. Linforth 1941: 167.
59. Burkert 1985: 283; 1987: 167 n.73.
60. Burkert 1987: 19.
61. Burkert 1985: 283.
62. He had other roles as well, as Linforth points out (1941: 5-7): "... in the Hysipyle of Euripides ... after Jason's death, Orpheus ... undertook the education of [Jason's twin sons by the Lemnian queen] and carried them off to Thrace. ... One of the boys [Nebrophonus or Nephronius] is trained by Orpheus to the arts of war; the other, Euneus, is taught to play the Asiatic cithara like Orpheus himself. Linforth also states (15) that "Nowhere else [but in Alcidamas, dated to 431 BCE] are we informed that Orpheus was the teacher of Heracles or that he was the inventor of writing."
63. Farnell 1912: 137-9.
64. Not limited to priests per se. An AP story in the "Religion Today" section of The New York Times of May 4, 2000, for example, reported on Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of Baptist preacher Billy Graham: "Despite her popularity, she has encountered resistance. She was bumped from an evangelism conference sponsored by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma in 1993 because some ministers opposed the idea of women preaching to men. Bill Merrell, vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the convention still holds that only "mature and godly" males can be pastors. "But Anne Graham Lotz makes plain she is not a pastor," he said. "She exhorts and teaches and does so, I think, with excellence."
65. Jay 1992: xxiii.
66. Regarding male attitudes toward sisterhoods, this sentiment from an American political strategist is telling: "It's been a longtime secret among political consultants that women hate women candidates. Women are bred to compete. It's the old thing: you get 12 guys, you've got a football team. You get 12 women, you've got a riot." October 24, 1999, "Why Can't a Woman..." Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, editorial.
<>. Accessed October 24, 1999.
67. Pausanias, Guide to Greece, IX. 33-37.
68. Under the heading "Dualism" in the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, we find a summary of this doctrine for which Orpheus is supposedly responsible: "In the Platonic theory of man the first incarnation of the soul occurs in a masculine body, and only a subsequent incarnation, marking a later descent of the soul into the world of bodies, is feminine. ... Gnostic and Manichaean antifeminism, as well as Encratite (and perhaps Orphic) antifeminism, are motivated by their hatred for procreation, which they believe implies the fall of the soul into the material world and its permanent abode there." <>. Accessed December 12, 1999.
69. Sissa 1990: 55: "Left to their own devices, women continually conceive deformed and incongruous creatures."
70. Guthrie 1993: 28.
71. Kahn-Lyotard and Loraux 1993: 112. The Amazons were also said to be unintelligible to men: "Herodotus adds the interesting detail that the women were able to learn the language of men, but the men could not understand the Amazon's language" (Pomeroy 1975: 24).
72. Barthes 1985: 280.
73. Hesiod, Theogony 237-336; Sophocles' Ulysses, a play that did not survive antiquity.
74. Apollonius Rhodius, IV. 894-95; OCD 1996: 6.
75. Others suggest that Demeter gave them birds' attributes so that they might better search for her daughter.
76. Apollodorus I. 3. 4.
77. Apollodorus I. 7. 10.
78. "... the Scholiast on Theocritus xiii. 25 ... tells us ... on the authority of Callimachus ... that [the Pleiades] were the daughters of the queen of the Amazons." <>
79. "The Muses may themselves have had wings, for, when the Thracian King Pyreneus lured them into his house and tried to rape them, they flew away." Tripp 1970: 386.
80. Apollodorus 1. 3. 3: "Thamyris, who excelled in beauty and in minstrelsy, engaged in a musical contest with the Muses, the agreement being that, if he won, he should enjoy them all, but that if he should be vanquished he should be bereft of what they would. So the Muses got the better of him and bereft him both of his eyes and of his minstrelsy." Tripp (1970: 385) calls this the earliest story about the Muses.
81. Pucci 1979: 128.
82. Pausanias, Description of Greece, Boeotia, 9. 34. 1.
83. Homer, Odyssey XII. 180-82.
84. Homer, Odyssey XII. 188-91.
85. Hesiod, Theogony 27-28: " ... we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things." See Bergen 1983 on the duplicity of feminine language.
86. Homer, Odyssey XII. 70.
87. Homer, Odyssey XII. 39-54.
88. Hinds 1987; see Segal 1969.
89. Hinds 1987: 26, citing E. R. Curtius's study, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1953 [1948]: 195, 192. Bollingen Series 36. Princeton: Princeton UP.
90. Kore means maiden (parthenos) and is an epithet of Persephone before she was made Queen of the Dead.
91. Dowden 1992: 129.
92. Blanchot 1981: 105.
93. Kahn-Lyotard and Loraux 1993: 110; citing "Euripides Cyclops 171 and Empedocles frag. 610 Bollack: schistous leimónas Aphrodités, the cloven meadow of Aphrodite."
94. Winkler 1990, p. 35.
95. Fleming 1983: 87. Of the melding of images of bird-women and fish-women Fleming (88) notes that in maritime storytelling traditions, " ... the words Siren and mermaid are used almost synonymously" and that "... the Sirens went through centuries of intermediary forms when they were both feathered and finned."
96. "The Sirens seem to have evolved from [tales] of the perils of early exploration combined with an Oriental image of a bird-woman. Anthropologists explain the ... image as a soul-bird—a winged ghost that stole the living to share its fate. In that respect the Sirens had affinities with the Harpies." From "Siren" in Encyclopædia Britannica Online <>.
97. Sourvinou-Inwood 1981: 19.
98. Fleming 1983: 89.
99. Spoken in Carter and Lindsay 2000.
100. Slater 1992: 36.
101. Homer, Odyssey XII. 70.
102. Pucci 1979: 126, emphasis in original.
103. Pucci 1979: 123.
104. Pucci 1979: 125, emphasis added.
105. If we assume for the moment that such a disgusting death could result in an afterlife of bliss, Forbes Irving's observation (1990: 120) is apt: "That birds should be inhabitants of, or fly to, the Isles of the Blest is perhaps not surprising. They are the only animals which regularly form part of the heroes' environment there, and as Sirens they frequently accompany banquets of the dead in art. Their power of flight enables them to reach places normally denied to men."
106. Lemprière 1984: 586.
107. Pomeroy 1975: 10. Burkert (1992: 116) tells us that Calypso and Circe both had the Homeric epithet, "a frightful goddess using speech, deine theos audeessa."
108. Lemprière 1984: 586.
109. Both Orpheus and the Sirens may claim a river-god for father, but this is trivial in the present discussion.
110. Apollonius Rhodius IV. 890-909, emphasis added.
111. Easily my favorite example of the kind of phrasing chosen to explain Orpheus's behavior can be found in that most influential of sources, Cliffs Notes (Weigle 1973: 94): "He still played the lyre but he lacked the old enthusiasm. Orpheus took no other women..." In a variant created for BBC TV (Jim Henson's The Greek Myths, aired on HBO, 1997), a grief-stricken Orpheus bangs on his lyre, producing such hideous noises that women who hear it become sterile.
112. Plato, Republic III. 411a-b.
113. Plato, Symposium 179. d. Linforth on another early variant (1941: 17): "It is significant ... that in the story to which Euripides alludes [in Alcestis] Orpheus must have been successful in his undertaking. If he had failed, any reference to the matter would be inappropriate. The story, therefore, is strikingly different from the version which Vergil uses in his fourth Georgic and which is most familiar to the general reader."
114. Linforth 1941: 19. Also see Alderink 1981: 10.
115. Linforth 1941: 20.
116. Pucci 1979: 125.
117. I am reminded of Beth Ann Bassein's remark (1984: 198) that "a prostitute might be surprised to learn that she, and not the bullet, caused a soldier's death by sapping his strength before he went to war."
118. Mermaids and Sirens are common images on hand-mirrors from the ancient world. Willard McCarty (1989: 181, citing Thomson de Grummond and Hoff 1982: 34, no further info.) reports that "Decorations on standing or hand-held mirrors ... often include Sirens .. the Siren is ‘a natural addition to such a boudoir object because of her demonstrated ability to charm and seduce.'" Emily Vermeule (1979: 202) says that "When men are not passing their island, Sirens may be pictured as plump and self-delighting ... sometimes introvert, trying on a necklace or looking at herself in a mirror, part of her attraction for poets." Tellingly, Hans Licht (1949: 427), whom I frequently find "telling" but rarely of the tales he thinks he has told, reports that "even the prototypes of female charm and female seductiveness—the Sirens—were often represented as boyish," providing yet another mirror to the male.
119. Tripp 1970: 152.
120. An epithet of a Brazilian orisha of feminine sexuality, Oya; Gleason 1992: 124; see pp. 196-97 infra.
121. Exum 1993: 11.
122. Eagleton 2000: 87.
123. Metamorphoses X. 9.
124. In addition to the modern texts cited in ftn. 8 above, see the ancient sources cited by Frazer in his 1912 translation of Apollodorus's Library (1996: 17, ftn. 7): "Pausanias IX. 30.6; Apollodorus I. 3. 2; Conon, Narrat. 45; Virgil, Georgics IV. 454 sqq.; Lactantius Placidus, on Statius, Theb. XIII. 59 and 60; Scriptores rerum mythicarum Latini, ed. G. H. Bode, I: 26 sq., 90 (First Vatican Mythographer, 76; Second Vatican Mythographer, 44)."
125. I find it apropos that as I typed this paragraph, John Higgins' review of Stephanie Quinn's new edited volume, Why Virgil? A Collection of Interpretations (Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2000) arrived by e-mail from Bryn Mawr Classical Review (00.07.17). "Vergil's work is subject to an immense variety of interpretations, and has been the object of many different ways of understanding throughout the past two millennia. Quinn has chosen to compile a collection of pieces to illustrate how those of us who read Vergil on the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries do so. This is explicitly a collection for the turn of the century, and approaches the question "Why Vergil?" with the addition of "Why Vergil Now?"
126. Sissa 1990: 89-90.
127. Quoted epigrammatically in Bronfen 1992: 15.
128. Georgics IV. 429-529.
129. For discussions of this figure see Detienne 1981 and my response to it, Locke 1995.
130. See Hansen 1972.
131. Georgics IV. 439, all translations of Virgil and Ovid in this section mine.
132. Georgics IV. 454-61.
133. Weigel 1973: 94, emphases added.
134. Curran 1978: 217: "Offhand allusions to rapes are reminders that, in the world of the Metamorphoses, whatever else is going on the foreground, rape is always present or potential in the background." Curran, who finally opines that Ovid sympathizes with the suffering he makes nearly all of his female characters endure, adds (231) that in the Metamorphoses, nymphs, who are generally considered indiscriminately sexually active and therefore not in need of being raped, are repeatedly cast as unwilling victims, heroines.
135. Under United States law, if a person, even inadvertently, causes the death of another person during the commission of a felony, that person may be convicted of first-degree murder. In 1993 it was reported (CNN 8/19/93) that when a woman's seatbelt became entangled, she was dragged to death by a car-jacker. He was "spared death' and sentenced to life in prison. Did the car kill her, or did the carjacker? Was she murdered, or "grand-larcenied to death"? Is Eurydice's death "accidental" as claimed by every commentator on the poem whom I have read? Did the snake kill her, or was she "attempted-raped to death" by Aristaeus?
136. Metamorphoses X. 1-85; XI. 1-66.
137. Metamorphoses IX. 796-97. In this transgendered tale, Iphis, born under threat of exposure if female, is reared as a boy. Passionately in love and her marriage to Ianthe imminent, Isis comes through at the last instant by making her "stride longer, complexion darker, and hair shorter," i.e., making her a male.
138. Metamorphoses X. 8-10.
139. Bremmer 1983: 74: "The funeral rites of the Greeks functioned as a rite of passage for the soul from the world of the living to the afterlife. Souls of those who died without being full members of the social order such as criminals, children, and adolescents were not given full funeral rites ..." Bremmer adds that suicides were not sent to the Underworld with full rites (96), nor were slaves (99), nor the very aged (103).
140. Carson 1990: 135.
141. Baker 1986: 18.
142. Metamorphoses X. 11-13.
143. Georgics IV. 460-68.
144. Burkert 1985: 196.
145. Metamorphoses X. 28-29.
146. Metamorphoses X. 38-39.
147. Lorde 1997: 409, excerpted from "There Are No Honest Poems About Dead Women," 1986.
148. Hoban 1987: 33; spoken by the Head of Orpheus.
149. Metamorphoses X. 46-52.
150. See n. 169 below: When Eurydice "receives" the tooth of the serpent in her heel, she dies. The notion of being "on the receiving end" of anything in Graeco-Roman ideology smacks of weakness and failure, i.e., femininity. The verb has gendered implications, especially if we take Proserpina alone as the author of the prohibition: a hero, i.e., a "real man," would be challenged to ignore her words on principle.
151. Georgics IV. 486-91. Frank J. Miller (Loeb, 1916, 1984) renders the lines: "he, afraid that she might fail him, eager for sight of her, turned back his longing eyes ..." Mary M. Innes (Penguin, 1955) translates them, "Here, anxious in case his wife's strength be failing and eager to see her, the lover looked behind him..." Allen Mandelbaum's translation (1996) yields "when he, afraid that she might disappear again and longing to see her, turned to gaze back at his wife" (emphasis added).
152. Is Virgil referring to the Queen of the Dead as "the cruel tyrant"? Or has he changed his mind, and we are now to understand that the pact was made with Hades instead?
153. Georgics IV. 494-98.
154. It is not enough to be satisfied on this point with recourse to folkloric motifs (Aarne-Thompson 331 in this case), tropes (for nostalgia, or the past in general), and comparanda (e.g., Lot's wife).
155. Metamorphoses X. 55-63.
156. Metamorphoses X. 79-85.
157. Burkert 1985: 292.
158. Gernet 1981: 65.
159. Georgics IV. 520-22.
160. Metamorphoses XI. 6-8.
161. Burkert 1985: 166.
162. Baker 1986: 17, citing Eva Kushner's Le Mythe d'Orphee dans la litterature francaise contamporaine, 1961, Paris: A. G. Nizet.
163. Alderink 1981: 10.
164. Linforth 1941: 14, emphases added.
165. Gernet 1981: 63, emphasis added.
166. Kerenyi 1976: 219.
167. Metamorphoses XI. 20-27.
168. See, e.g., Richlin 1992a.
169. Metamorphoses XI. 38-43.
170. Winkler 1990: 36: "... to be the [receptive] object of a sexual act ... is, like death, called "corruption."
171. Bataille 1989: 65. "Self loss" is to avoided by males at all cost; see p. 56 infra.
172. Bataille 1989: 66.
173. Detienne 1981a: 224.
174. Trans. and quoted in Stamelman 1990: 38.
175. E.g., Smith 1990: 48, discussing the descent theme in D. H. Lawrence: "Descent to that darkness must be seen by the ego as rape; but from the perspective of the soul, it is revelation: this earth reveals the angel, buried like a seed of theophany in the flesh of the crucifixion."
176. Le Goff 1992: xvii.
177. See Johnston 1977; Locke 1995; Morgan 1999.
178. Nagy 1990: 216-7.
179. He also makes a very pleasant luncheon companion, as I discovered at Indiana University's Symposium on Myth in May 1999.
180. Mason (1984), using classical Freudian logics, conducts myth analyses in which the penis represents the goddess Aphrodite (32), the nipple (33), the head (62-63), the female breast (65), the hand, the finger, and the child (67). "... since the phallus is what has to be protected from castration ... the apparent omnipresence of phallic symbolism has its raison d'etre in the anxiety in question, castration-anxiety" (66).
181. See Sergent 1984. Brooten 1996: 23: "The term Lesbia is the sense of a woman erotically oriented toward women is not attested until the Byzantine period, because writers only gradually came to decry Sappho as homoerotic, and thereby to associate Lesbos with homoeroticism."
182. Lincoln 1991: 50.
183. Metamorphoses XI. 61-66.
184. Metamorphoses XI. 67-84.
185. Richlin 1992a: 165.
186. Weigel 1973: 95.

Since as long as we remain within the androcentric ideology of the text, we can do no more than describe what ancient men had to say about women, a feminist critique must, of necessity, read against the grain. Cheryl Exum(121)

... nature has the final victory over culture, customarily known as death. Culturally speaking, death is almost limitlessly interpretable, as martyrdom, ritual sacrifice, blessed release from agony, freedom from long-suffering kinsfolk, natural biological end, union with the cosmos, symbol of ultimate futility, and the like. But we still die, however we make sense of it. Death is the limit of discourse, not a product of it. Terry Eagleton(122)

© Liz Locke 2000.

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