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Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Page: 40

Niobe

The punishment of Niobe forms the subject of a magnificent marble group, which was found at Rome in the year 1553, and is now in the gallery of Uffizi, at Florence.

The renowned singer Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and, as might be expected with parents so highly gifted, was endowed with most distinguished intellectual qualifications. He was a poet, a teacher of the religious doctrines known as the Orphic mysteries, and a great musician, having inherited from his father an extraordinary genius for music. [81]When he sang to the sweet tones of his lyre, he charmed all nature, and summoned round him the wild beasts of the forests, who, under the influence of his music, became tame and gentle as lambs. The madly rushing torrents stopped their rapid course, and the very mountains and trees moved from their places at the sound of his entrancing melodies.

Orpheus became united to a lovely nymph named Eurydice, the daughter of the sea-god Nereus, whom he fondly loved. She was no less attached to him, and their married life was full of joy and happiness. But it was only short-lived; for Aristæus,[31] the half-brother of Orpheus, having fallen in love with the beautiful Eurydice, forcibly endeavoured to take her from her husband, and as she fled across some fields to elude his pursuit, she was bitten in the foot by a venomous snake, which lay concealed in the long grass. Eurydice died of the wound, and her sorrowing husband filled the groves and valleys with his piteous and unceasing lamentations.

His longing to behold her once more became at last so unconquerable, that he determined to brave the horrors of the lower world, in order to entreat Aïdes to restore to him his beloved wife. Armed only with his golden lyre, the gift of Apollo, he descended into the gloomy depths of Hades, where his heavenly music arrested for a while the torments of the unhappy sufferers. The stone of Sisyphus remained motionless; Tantalus forgot his perpetual thirst; the wheel of Ixion ceased to revolve; and even the Furies shed tears, and withheld for a time their persecutions. Undismayed at the scenes of horror and suffering which met his view on every side, he pursued his way until he arrived at the palace of Aïdes. Presenting himself before the throne on which sat the stony-hearted king and his consort Persephone, Orpheus recounted his woes to the sound of his lyre. Moved to pity by his sweet strains, they listened to his [82]melancholy story, and consented to release Eurydice on condition that he should not look upon her until they reached the upper world. Orpheus gladly promised to comply with this injunction, and, followed by Eurydice, ascended the steep and gloomy path which led to the realms of life and light. All went well until he was just about to pass the extreme limits of Hades, when, forgetting for the moment the hard condition, he turned to convince himself that his beloved wife was really behind him. The glance was fatal, and destroyed all his hopes of happiness; for, as he yearningly stretched out his arms to embrace her, she was caught back, and vanished from his sight for ever. The grief of Orpheus at this second loss was even more intense than before, and he now avoided all human society. In vain did the nymphs, his once chosen companions, endeavour to win him back to his accustomed haunts; their power to charm was gone, and music was now his sole consolation. He wandered forth alone, choosing the wildest and most secluded paths, and the hills and vales resounded with his pathetic melodies. At last he happened to cross the path of some Thracian women, who were performing the wild rites of Dionysus (Bacchus), and in their mad fury at his refusing to join them, they furiously attacked him, and tore him in pieces. In pity for his unhappy fate, the Muses collected his remains, which they buried at the foot of Mount Olympus, and the nightingale warbled a funeral dirge over his grave. His head was thrown into the river Hebrus, and as it floated down the stream, the lips still continued to murmur the beloved name of Eurydice.


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