October 13, 2013

Meditating On Chthonic Myths

I got in an hour's worth of spinning today, with less wasted than yesterday's half-hour. I was listening to Hadestown, a "folk opera" of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, written by Anais Mitchell and performed by her and a bunch of other people, including Ani DiFranco.

It's the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a sort of postapocalyptic Dust Bowl/Great Depression era.

Orpheus and Eurydice and in love, and they plan to marry, but neither has any job or money, and no work is available. Orpheus insists that this is not a problem, that the rivers, trees and birds will provide everything they need for their wedding, in answer to his singing.

There is one place where there are jobs available: Hadestown, an entirely subterranean city where the inhabitants work the mine and build their encircling wall. Hades and his wife Persephone are well known as very rich, although there are many rumors about whether the citizens of Hadestown are rich, too, or overwork by a hard taskmaster. Just now Hades' private train has come to retrieve his wife for the winter. He may take others down with him, who wish to join the town.

Hades, meeting Eurydice and hearing her sing, sets out to seduce her into coming with him. She's hungry and tired and afraid, considering suicide already, so she takes him up on the offer to go underground, abandoning Orpheus, even though she loves him, for the promise of a full belly.

Learning from Hermes where Eurydice has gone, he follows the tracks of Hades' train on foot, ignoring warnings about the dangers, the cinderblock and razorwire wall known as the River Styx, and the "dogs" that guard them. They can be bribed -- maybe, if Orpheus has anything to offer.

Below, Hades appears as a benevolent father to his people, singing a call-and-response song with the chorus of workers called Cerberus, about how the wall protects them from the poverty in the outside world. The people are grateful for the work and the pay and food they get for it, but they also desperately miss the upper world. Fortunately, Persephone's speakeasy has wind and rain, autumn leave, moonlight and sunshine, all on tap for the discerning customer.

Eurydice is finding Hadestown not to be the city with the streets paved with gold and people covered in diamonds that she'd dreamed of. Now she dreams of flowers that wither and die, and thinks that she is sleeping and will never wake. Orpheus, unable to find Eurydice, despairs, but keeps looking, begging people to tell him where she is, because without her he might as well die, too. He finds Persephone, and his song touches her heart.

But Hades has discovered everything: his wife's smuggling, Orpheus' unwanted presence, his plan to take Eurydice back above. He is furious, but Persephone attempts to soothe him. Truly, she does love him, calling him "Hades, my husband, Hades my light, Hades my darkness." She pities Orpheus, and wants to move Hades to do so as well. Hades worries about the unrest this may cause in others, that people will try to take more and more from him, that everything he has built will crumble. Orpheus continues to sing his grief and love throughout Hadestown, and the people are moved by it as Persephone was. They begin to rise and to riot, calling for freedom. Hades is badly torn. He truly loves his people, and has tried to do his best by them, giving hungry and jobless people work, food and money, even while he locked them away from the sun. He agrees to let Orpheus and Eurydice leave, with the famous condition that Eurydice will follow him, and that if he turns back to look at her before both of them reach sunlight, he will lose her forever.

And doubt creeps in, as Hades knew that it would, and Orpheus turns to look as he gains the upper world, but his wife is still in shadow, and she must go back below. She and Persephone, and the inhabitants of Hadestown, drink to Orpheus, wherever he is now.

Now, I have only ever listened to the album of it -- there were only a few live performances, and no video -- and I've done my best here to string the story together based on that, but I don't have any way of knowing what sort of action they have on the stage or if there's any unsung dialogue. But there are a number of things here I find very interesting, mythologically.

This story is nearly always told from Orpheus' viewpoint. It's his story, his journey, him saving his wife. Eurydice has no agency, and often not even a personality. She gets married, she steps on a snake, she dies. Maybe she gets chased by a satyr in there, too. Her life and death are all about Orpheus. She's a classic -- and classical -- woman in a refrigerator. But Mitchell's Eurydice has her own concerns, her own voice (doubly literally -- Mitchell sings the role, and Eurydice gets several songs), her own viewpoint, and even chooses her path below. She grieves her loss of Orpheus, even as she chooses to put her own survival above being with him. She regrets it later, but it's still her choice to make.

The references to Eurydice being suicidal -- "I want a nice soft place to land/I want to lie down forever" from Hey, Little Songbird and "What I wanted was to fall asleep/Close my eyes and disappear" from Flowers -- and her choosing the apparently more metaphorical death of following Hades is interesting to me. It's not entirely clear, actually, whether the inhabitants of Hadestown are dead or alive. No one returns from there, and Flowers also contains the line "I trembled when he laid me out/You won't feel a thing, he said, when you go down/Nothing gonna wake you now". So maybe she did, in the end choose a quick suicide over slowly starving to death with no hope of escape.

Eurydice's first reaction to Hades is worshipful: "Strange is the call of this strange man/I wanna fly down and feed at his hand/I want a nice soft place to land/I want to lie down forever." She responds to him as a god, and sees him as a sanctuary, a savior, freedom from the grinding poverty of her life. He can take her away from this. It's much akin to ancient views of Hades, who was not to be feared -- unless you'd done something really awful -- but who was a king of his own realm, who took in the dead and gave them a place, gave some of them paradise, let them rest until, perhaps, they were ready to be reborn.

And then there's Hades himself. As much as he does the heavy-is-the-head-that-wears-the-crown schtick, he does seem to truly love his people and does what he thinks is best for them. But is the wall he has them build necessary, or is it make-work? If it's make-work, why does he tell them that the wall is necessary to protect them, and teach them to fear outsiders so? Is the purpose of the wall to keep outsiders out, or to keep the inhabitants in? And if Hades truly believes everything he tells them, then where does his own fear come from?

I do love the call-and-response song Why We Build the Wall. It gives me chills.

I also love How Long, Hades' and Persephone's duet. Their relationship is loving, but fraught and conflicted. Persephone loves her husband and the upper world, and wants to bring the sights, sounds, tastes and sensations of it back to those exiled below, even though she knows her husband will see it as a betrayal. And it's her love of both that moves her to pity for Orpheus, and gives her understanding of him. She loves her husband as Orpheus loves Eurydice, and she knows that the Underworld will not be enough for either of them now. When she asks Hades "how long" Orpheus and Eurydice must endure being parted, he responds, "How long? Just as long as Hades is king" -- forever, then. But when Hades asks Persephone "how long" he must endure Persephone's pity for Orpheus and the pain her pain bring him, she replies, "How long? Just as long as I am your wife" -- forever. She will remain with him regardless. But, she tells him, the seasons turn, the earth dies and comes back to life, the sun goes on rising, and the world turns on its spit in the sky "How long?" -- forever.

This morning wasn't so much a meditation on the spinning as on the myth. Chthonic and underworld stories always speak to me, and I've always been fond of this one. Many variations openly reference the love of Persephone for Hades, and that Orpheus convinces them to let Eurydice go by appealing to that love.

I am one of those people who considers that Persephone chose to go with her husband, or at least to eat of the pomegranate and stay with him, is a reasonable and viable reading of the myth. The story that comes down is largely Demeter's, and she did not give her consent for her daughter to be married -- which is what makes it an abduction, the proper translation, rather than the more modern definition of rape as sexual violation without consent -- but Kore was a goddess in her own right, powerful in her own right, as had as much right as any goddess to make her own choices. Demeter's perspective is that her daughter was stolen from her, rather than from herself, which certainly leaves room for Persephone's experience to be very different. (For a take on this story that is giving me lots and lots of squee right now, go check out A Hundred Days Of Night, the comic that taught me that Cerberus means "Spot".)

Anyway. Go check out Hadestown and A Hundred Days of Night. I don't have a real conclusion, just musings.