The passion of Orpheus


We talk a lot about our passions these days. I often ask the students in my business-writing class to write letters of application for potential jobs. Their favorite word is passion. However, it seems disingenuous at best to write about a passion for accounting or education or, in fact, anything else we feel strongly about. We need to demonstrate our passions in our actions. As the old writing dictum goes, “Show. Don’t tell.”

For the most part, few of us have experienced true passion. It’s one of those words fraught with deep meaning – and danger – that we use offhandedly and meaninglessly.

The true meaning of passion is out there someplace. Perhaps it is rising low in the east just after dark right now. Look for Lyra, the Lyre, as a nearly perfect parallelogram of four stars that seem to hang from Vega, the brightest star of summer.

The lyre is one of the most ancient of stringed musical instruments. The Egyptians and Sumerians had them thousands of years before the birth of Christ.

The Lyre was plucked or sometimes bowed, usually as accompaniment to the singing of songs and the telling of tales. What we call lyric poetry began as songs that told the stories of great heroes as the teller played upon his lyre.

The ancient Greeks believed that it was truly a gift from the gods. Hermes (Mercury to the Romans) created it from a tortoise shell to which he attached seven strings, the same as the number of stars in the Pleiades star cluster.

Hermes gave the lyre we see in the sky to Apollo, god of wisdom and the arts. He in turn gave it to Orpheus because of his great skill as a musician. Orpheus’s singing was so powerful that it subdued even the stark forces of nature. As Shakespeare writes,

Everything that heard him play,

Even the billows of the sea,

Hung their heads and then lay by.

His story embodies true passion: heart-rending art, great sacrifice and perfect love.

Orpheus was deeply in love with Eurydice, and she with him. But Eurydice was bitten by a serpent and died. Orpheus’s love was so great that he determined to go to the Underworld and rescue her. Through the glorious power of his art, he was able to sing his way past the horrible three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guarded the gates to the Underworld.

At length, Orpheus played upon his lyre and sang of his love for Eurydice to Hades, the god of the Underworld. It must have been a glorious song because even the stone-cold heart of the god of death was softened. Hades allowed Eurydice to leave the realm of death, but only on the condition that Orpheus should not look back on his beloved until they had both returned from the Underworld to the earth above.

But Orpheus’s passion was too strong. Worried, he looked back at Eurydice just as they were about to reach the surface. Eurydice was dragged back into Hades.

Afterward, Orpheus wandered the earth, singing his plaintive song of love. The local women who heard him were moved to passion themselves. However, Orpheus spurned them, and in a rage, they killed him.

Passion, it seems, has a darker side. In Orpheus, it spurred high art. But uncontrolled by reason, it can destroy the object of its love.

So why do we see the lyre, and not Orpheus, in the sky? The gods so loved Orpheus that they send him to the Underworld to be with his beloved. His lyre, the medium and symbol of his art, they put in the night sky.

They put it there to remind us of the true meaning of passion: that perfect love, deeply felt, can triumph even over death, and that art and music can be the perfect expression of what is best about the human spirit.

Oh you poets, musicians, and seekers after justice or truth or family or financial and personal security in a distinctly insecure world, I offer you this question: Would you be willing to descend into hell and face the lord of the Underworld in pursuit of your passion?

I know that I would not. I would not, as Orpheus did, give my life for my passion. The best that most of us can do is to give our lives to it. Show. Don’t tell.

Perhaps some day you will find your true passion in the first smile of a child, in the relief of suffering in one of life’s victims, or perhaps in the arts or in the loving gaze of your beloved. Perhaps you already have. Or perhaps you will find it in a perfect parallelogram laid for us, whether purposefully by our gods or haphazardly by nature, among the stars.