Orpheus: the Song of Life
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £17.99
Orpheus came from a time before clear distinctions were made between poetry, song, philosophy and theology, and he had a reasonable claim to have founded all four disciplines. He was born in Thrace in the Rhodope Mountains, which straddle modern-day Bulgaria and Greece. The barrenness of this "winter-land" presaged his later adventures, as did his name, which may derive from euphonos ("sweet-voiced") or, more sinisterly, from orphe ("darkness"). His mother was the muse Calliope, his father either the king of Thrace or even Apollo. From an early age he discovered the ability to charm the natural world with his music: animals listened rapt, and streams danced after him or stilled their flow.
Orpheus studied in Egypt, from where he brought back a complicated creation story involving the copulation of various abstract nouns (Compulsion, Time, Chaos). His study and song were interrupted when Jason summoned him to join the Argonauts. He cut a curiously dainty figure in the company of the heroic all-stars, not swearing or sleeping around. As his more butch colleagues pressed muscle to oars, he stood in front of the mast, strumming encouragement on his lyre.
According to the pseudepigraphic Argonautica Orphica, Orpheus himself liberates the Golden Fleece by sacrificing three black puppies to Hecate and then sending the tutelary dragon to sleep with his song. In Apollonius's version of the story, he didn't even make it into the sacred grove.
Eurydice entered his life on his return from the voyage. Theirs might have been the greatest love story ever told, but the character of Eurydice in ancient texts is so vague and misty that it is hard to comprehend what drove Orpheus, of all bereaved husbands, to pursue her into the underworld. (Martial had fundamental objections: "Imagine anyway going to get your wife. No wonder all hell was amazed at it.") Her vapidness allowed subsequent interpreters to make her an emblem of their pet concerns. To Pedro Calderón de la Barca, she was human nature; Francis Bacon thought her natural philosophy. She was music and beauty and wisdom and Love with a capital "L". The anthropologically inclined saw the journey into Hades as another version of the primitive myth of death and rebirth. Freudians considered it a voyage through the unconscious in search of buried sexual desire. As a child, Carl Jung dreamed of following Orpheus down a stone-clad hole in a meadow where he "was initiated into the secrets of the earth".
After losing Eurydice on the cusp of the upper world, Orpheus mourned his lost love with a single threnody: "All that is born must die." He attracted a cult of male followers - Ovid contended that it was Orpheus who introduced the Greeks to homosexuality - whom he initiated in the secrets that he had learned in the underworld. Clement of Alexandria recorded some of their liturgy - "I have fasted, I have drunk the cup; I have received from the box; having done, I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chest" - which makes the Orphic Mysteries sound rather like an episode of The Crystal Maze.
Orpheus's disdain for the rest of mankind led to his demise: he was torn to pieces by maenads furious that he had lured away their menfolk. His disembodied head floated to the island of Lesbos, singing all the way.
Perhaps the most influential part of his legacy was the then eccentric belief that actions in this world affect the soul in the afterlife, a principle that would later underwrite the Christian dominion. Despite the large pantheon of gods whom he worshipped, he considered them to be aspects of a single godhead. The Jews of Alexandria depicted him on the walls of their synagogues, his lyre easily assimilated to King David's harp; medieval theologians saw, in his descent to the netherworld, Christ's harrowing of hell.
Previous books by Ann Wroe have shown a fascination with figures, such as Pontius Pilate and Perkin Warbeck, who hover at the interstices of history and fable. Her Orpheus is nimble and erudite, displaying a command of classical sources while skipping across centuries to encounter its subject in the operas of Monteverdi and Gluck, the poetry of Rilke, Jean Anouilh's Eurydice and Jean Cocteau's Orphée. The English domesticated him. "Sir Orfeo", an anonymous Middle English poem, transforms the shaman-prince into a knight ruling in Winchester; in Elizabethan lyric, he is a patron saint of gardeners.
There is something of the joyous pagan in Wroe as she spots Orphic sparks in a five-year-old boy in a Bulgarian ski resort, "mov[ing] with extraordinary grace, on tiptoe, twirling round each obstacle with his sword raised, singing", and in hobos flying kites in Atlantic City. She has an acute eye for pastoral detail - "the bent-grass quivers, the bee plunders the gleaming rock-rose" - and takes a novelist's care in exploring character and evoking atmosphere. Orpheus will leave you dancing. l
Jonathan Beckman is senior editor of Literary Review