Excerpt from Plato’s Symposium, the Speech of Phaedrus (trans. Nehamas & Woodruff), annotated:

Orpheus[1], the gods sent unsatisfied from Hades, after showing him only an image[2] of the woman he came for.  They did not give him the woman herself[3], because they thought he was soft[4] (he was, after all, a kithara-player[5]) and did not dare to die[6] like Alcestis[7] for Love’s sake, but contrived to enter living into Hades.[8] So they punished him for that, [9] and made him die at the hands of women[10].

[1] We root for Orpheus, not because of his pursuit of true love, but because he was not a hero.  He’s neither a Heracles nor a Theseus, blustering in and thundering out; he’s a young artist, uncertain of what awaits him in Hell.

[2] Immortal Eurydice!  In image-form, she remains eternally young, eternally beautiful, as pure and crisp as on the day she and Orpheus were to be wed.  On clear nights, Orpheus shines a light through her and projects her image onto the foresail of a ship docked in the mouth of the Hellespont, and her face grows large enough to rival Artemis herself.

[3] Skin riddled with serpent bites, veins filled with venom:  the woman herself.  This is an act of mercy.

[4] Orpheus guided Jason and his Argonauts past Anthemoessa by drowning out the sirens’ song with his own; he made the Furies, wreathed with snakes, weep; he sang Cerberus to sleep, one head at a time, until each mouth snapped of its own accord, dreaming of closing its own muzzle around warm flesh.

[5] Orpheus fears silence the way a scribe fears a blank page, the way a historian fears forgetting.

[6] Eurydice was not heroic; she would not be sent to the Elysian Fields.  Neither was she a wretched sinner, bound for Tartarus.  If Orpheus were to die, the best the two of them could hope for, in death, was the Asphodel Meadows, miming their quotidian existence — a continuation, but neither a life nor an afterlife.

[7] After Eurydice’s death, Orpheus, at least, had the good sense to turn his back on women.

[8] Such a thin line separates the Overworld from the Underworld:  a bite.  A song.  An angry mother, a piece of wood.  A poisoned robe, a rainfall of arrows.  A single, golden apple.

[9] Orpheus’ sin is not that lacked nerve, but that he had seen what lies beyond the physical world.  When people ask what he had seen in the Underworld, he replies with the simple truth:  When I looked behind me, there was nothing.

[10] The body is such a burden; the sparagmos is a blessing.  Bobbing in the Aegean Sea, he watches the Muses carry his lyre into the stars.  Goodbye, he sings, but with his vocal cords torn, he makes no sound, and like that, singing wordlessly, he drifts, all the way to Lesbos.

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