Saturday, October 29, 2005
Singing to the Rocks
This morning we took a walk from the hilltop where my parents live, across the valley and up onto the hilltops on the other side. The wind was blowing strongly and the hills are steep so it was an envigorating walk. We passed through the village of Woodchester on the way and my Dad mentioned that there was a Roman mosaic pavement discovered in the church yard which has now been reproduced and preserved in the grounds of nearby Prinknash Abbey. It is known as the Orpheus Pavement and is the largest Roman mosaic that has been discovered North of the Alps.
In myth, Orpheus was the son of Apollo, god of Music, and Calliope, muse of poetry. He could sing and play the lyre so beautifully that not only mortals but even animals, trees, rivers and rocks listened to him. The Orpheus pavement shows Orpheus with his lyre charming eleven exotic beasts including an elephant, a lion and a griffon, together with a host of birds and sea creatures. It covers a very large area and is an amazing work of art.
Orpheus is a tragic figure. He falls in love with Eurydice. On their wedding day, Eurydice is bitten on the heel by a venomous snake and dies. Orpheus is inconsolable and goes down into Hades to rescue her. With the power of his music, he persuades the guardians of the underworld to let him pass and return with Eurydice to the land of the living. However, there is a condition. He must not look back at her until they have reached the surface.
As they travel up from Hades, Eurydice lags behind due to the bite on her foot. Orpheus can't bear not to check that she is still following and throws a glance over his shoulder. Eurydice immediately dissolves back into the mists of the dead world. She is gone forever.
The Orpheus myth has inspired poets and artists from Greek times to the present day. Plato was a member of an Orphic cult. Breughel the Elder painted the journey of Orpheus into hell, using it as an opportunity to paint hell's torments as he loved to do. The French artist Jean Cocteau used the theme of Orpheus as a metaphor in a film which records the story of an artist’s journey into a dark, unpleasant world. His Orpheus usurps the myth and returns Eurydice to the surface, only to find his life with her turns out to be dull and boring.
I like the idea that rocks listened to Orpheus when he sang. I wonder how he knew that they could hear? Maybe they hummed along.