Updated: Dec 26, 2019
What can the death-defying Sisyphus and Orpheus teach us? Sisyphus is a story of liberty lost, Orpheus of freedom, and love, tested.
Sisyphus and Orpheus. The two great death-defying heroes of Greek mythology. One through trickery, the other through art, one for glory, the other for love. Both prevailed – then failed, learning, the hard way, that death is destiny. Who, if any, would you be, and whom would you want to fight for thee? What can they teach us of freedom and love, of truth, trust and art?
Sisyphus tricked Thanatos, death himself, not once, but twice.
Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, was cunning enough to trick Thanatos, death himself, not once, but twice. Zeus ordered Thanatos to chain the unruly Sisyphus in Tartarus, the deepest abyss in the realm of Hades. But Sisyphus had other plans, tricking Thanatos to chain himself, thus depose death from the face of earth. Ares, the god of war, would have none of that. He released Thanatos, and made sure Sisyphus now truly dies. But the latter, defiant as always, duped Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, into releasing him. Enter Zeus, mad as hell, who put a stop to all these shenanigans with a horrid punishment: consigning Sisyphus to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to see it roll down just before it reaches the top, a never ending act of futility.
“I longed to be able to accept it" [Eurydice’s death], but “Love won.”
Orpheus was no king, but his poetry and music made the whole world his homeland. Eurydice was the love of his life, and when hers ended soon after their wedding, from a viper’s bite, Orpheus dared descend into Hades, to plead with him and his wife, Persephone.
Playing his lyre, Orpheus makes his case before the Underworld’s rulers (in Ovid’s Metamorphoses): “Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race.”
But knowing reality and bearing its burden are different matters. “I longed to be able to accept it,” Orpheus tells them of Eurydice’s death, but “Love won,” and isn’t it true that you too “were wedded by Amor”? Let me bring her back to life, he begs them, or else “I am determined not to return: you can delight in both our deaths.”
In tears, the Underworld couple oblige, and Orpheus makes his way to the Upperworld, Eurydice following. There is just one caveat: Orpheus must not look back.
They walk through dark, stark silence, until the threshold of life, and then, “Afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her, the lover turned his eyes.” Eurydice drops back, as Orpheus “stretches out his arms to hold her and be held, clutched at nothing but the receding air.” He can hardly hear her last “farewell.”
Sisyphus sought control, especially over death, thus sentenced to life of no liberty, chained to the utmost futility
The tragic fates of Sisyphus and Orpheus may not be that much apart. Whether chasing a boulder or love, in Death’s domain, both men see their cause plummet, and struggle to bring it back up from pit to summit, just to see it fall back again. Except, of course, that for Orpheus, unlike Sisyphus, the chase is no divinely ordained fate, but a freely chosen pursuit.
Sisyphus is a story of liberty lost, Orpheus of freedom, and love, tested. Sisyphus sought control, especially over death, thus sentenced to life of no liberty, chained to the utmost futility. Orpheus embraced freedom, willingly going to hell (or at least Hades) for love, then facing the constant choice, and temptation, of looking back.
Concluding The myth of Sisyphus, Camus famously commands, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I’ve tried to, and the sort of happiness I came up with is poor, hopeless, the contentment that comes in resigning oneself to one’s (supposed) destiny, the serenity of giving up the fight.
But why would Camus, a champion of choice, extol such despair? Perhaps to vindicate his condemnation of hope, which underlies his whole treatise. But perhaps also because he sensed, though has yet to voice at the time, that utter despair might breed a better hope.
Sisyphus might be content with the rock, but I prefer to imagine him angry with the gods, finding, in that endless chase of the rock, a cause of rage, and of moral outrage, against divine cruelty. Yet, without freedom – a sense of a responsible, reasoned, acted upon, choice – such (out)rage is for naught. Does Sisyphus have the courage to engage, while chasing his rock, in self-reckoning, in taking responsibility for his hubris? He has now all the time in the Underworld for soul searching.
With the ghost of Eurydice, Orpheus also picked up a daisy (or was it a narcissus?)
Orpheus is different. Choice costs, and Orpheus paid his painfully. He knows not how much time they’ve traveled in the Underworld. At first, all he could think of was their coming unity. Every twist and turn of that all too winding road bore the promise of daylight, and the living. With every promise undelivered, he began, little by little, to expect less. He tamed his heart to answer the aching “When?” in diminishing returns. As “almost there” turned to “soon,” and “soon” to “all in good time,” he started taking pride in his patience: all for her, all for us, he whispered to himself.
But then, more and more, throughout, the silence grows, her silence: no sound but the occasional drop of water, no kind breath, nor soft footstep. Does he still feel her holding hand, or does his now hold on to midair? Again and again he stops, hoping she might stumble into him, but no. And the road lingers, the silence creeps deeper. He tries to cast away the doubts, but they keep returning. Has she forsaken him? Or maybe Hades lied? Was I wrong to pursue her onto Death? Can he trust her heart, can he trust his?
With the ghost of Eurydice, he also picked up a daisy (or was it a narcissus?), anxiously removing, upon every silent step, one petal after the other, asking himself, her ghostly self: “She loves me – a little – a lot – passionately – madly – more than anything – not at all?” The last possibility achingly echoing in his mind, Orpheus turns this torturous fortune-teller into self-deception to avoid looking back: “She loves me not,” he fools his heart, “I should move on and, even once past the gates of Hades, never look back.” He succeeds all too well, and increasingly believing his own fable, Orpheus now runs as fast away from Euridice as possible, but then, the Gates… and that self-induced betrayal of their love crushes him. Desperately, passionately, cursorily but carelessly, Orpheus opens his eyes to redeem the heart.
If Orpheus's lot, like Sisyphus’s, is punishment, his penalty was self-inflicted
When it’s all over, looking back, he realizes the die was cast before he looked back: “all was lost when I forgot to play my lyre,” he thinks. Perhaps that was "wide Justice," he says to himself, as my beloved’s name suggests.
So goes Orpheus in the Upperworld, tormenting himself for losing his love, twice – to the snake, and to Hades – for his own carelessness, and mistrust. If his lot, like Sisyphus’s, is punishment, his penalty was self-inflicted: Guilt driving grief, and the desperate yearning for redemption. Even sans Sisyphean eternal damnation, Orpheus’s earthly anguish seems to abound. Yet, can we imagine Orpheus happy?
I know no happiness test more demanding than Nietzsche’s “Greatest Weight,” where he first develops his notion of the “eternal return”:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science)
How would you answer the demon? How would Orpheus? I want him to say “Yes”: Let me have it all over again – the pleasure and the pain, the moments of magic and those of despair, the glad embrace of life and the guilt onto death, including those two mighty regrets – that I did not save my love from death, nor brought her back to life in that abysmal trial of doubt.
And, perhaps, that too: I want Orpheus to be happy for playing that enchanting lyre during his Underworld plea, not only for bringing about that second chance for (re)living love, but also for offering relief to fellow dwellers of the abyss – not least, to Sisyphus.
inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo
Our two heroes never met, in person, but one heard of the other, or, more precisely, listened to his tune. Ovid notices how, as Orpheus played his lyre, the whole underworld halted, even that most tragic fallen king, “and you sat, Sisyphus, on your rock” (inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo). With all his poetical blessings, bestowed on the living, wasn’t that Orpheus’s greatest gift – to bring to those damned that blissful moment, a moment of transcendence, perhaps of love, if not for a person, then for human creation; to defy death through art, not in order to prevail, but to fail, beautifully? Now I can imagine, at one and the same time, both Sisyphus and Orpheus happy.
But then, again, the moment’s gone. Sisyphus resumes position, his starry eyes drained, stretching his arms as he gets ready to push the rock up the treacherous hill. Getting ever closer to the top, his feet now sore, his body oblivious of that previous bliss of the soul. When Sisyphus looks up, as the tip of the rock and that of the hill align, Orpheus looks back, and that coveted unity of the living is lost.
“Once wedded hearts, you are now rocks”
Having looked back that once, Orpheus will never look forward, except to his own death, which will come, as surely as for all, when he is shred to pieces by the jealous maenads, female followers of Dionysus.
What was he feeling, and thinking, while taking his last breaths – the pain of death, the joyous unity that awaits? Or perhaps, yet again, those piercing doubts, that perhaps, in this “final abode,” Eurydice will turn her back on him? Will she? Is there a place for love amidst the abyss?
“Once wedded hearts, you are now rocks,” sums Ovid his brief narration of Orpheus and Eurydice. But their hearts, mine wants to trust, will wed again, even in the underworld, their love onto death becoming their own, shared, rock.