Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Death of Orpheus

In the Victorian fantasy paintings I've posted on this blog, the veiled BDSM elements usually (though certainly not always) feature the female as victim. The myth of Orpheus allows the opposite side of the coin to be displayed ... in of course, a respectable and educational manner. This is high culture, after all  ;-)

George Frederick Watts (1817-1904): Orpheus and Eurydice

The Classical Greek Orpheus lies at the centre of a complex web of mythology and even gave rise to a mystery religion. He was the ultimate musician, a singer who could enchant wild beasts with the beauty of his song and lyre: he loved his wife Eurydice so much that when she died he descended into the underworld and almost succeeded in winning her back from the dead. He stands out from almost every other Greek hero, not only in his romantic attachment to a single woman, but in that he isn't famous for killing monsters or Amazons  - or in fact anybody. He's an artist.

John Macallan Swan (1847-1910): Orpheus

If you look at the Victorian depictions of Orpheus, the underlying suggestion that he was "not like other men, ahem," is pretty clear. He's painted as a beautiful but extremely feminine-looking man. He's depicted in poses normally reserved for female models, sometimes even in the coy half-draped clothing of an erotic model.

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929): The Lament of Orpheus

His end is tragic: forswearing sex with women after losing Eurydice for a second time, he is set upon by the Maenads: raving female worshippers of the intoxicating wine-god Dionysus. When he refuses to fuck them, they hack him into pieces.

Emile Levy (1826-1890): The Death of Orpheus

They kill him for not being heterosexual. This is not subtext, btw - Ovid states that after losing his wife, Orpheus took to sleeping only with young men and introduced the practice to Thrace. And Albrecht Dürer, back in the Fifteenth Century, specifically labels his picture of the murder, "Orpheus, the first sodomite."

 Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528): The Death of Orpheus

But death is not the end for our tragic hero. His head  and lyre drift downriver from where they've been discarded. Drifting out to sea, they are washed up and discovered on the isle of Lesbos. The head is still singing and now uttering prophecies, and it's installed in an oracular shrine there.

 Jean Delville (1867-1953): Orpheus

We're talking about a severed head here folks - something that might in other circumstances be described as in poor taste, at the very least. But in the hands of artists it becomes something beautiful and very very malesub.

 John William Waterhouse (1849-1917): Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898): Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus

Edward Berge (1876-1924): Muse Finding the Head of Orpheus

Note that the Maenads have not simply punished him by castration, but by the removal of his entire (masculine) body. What's left is sexless or androgynous. Remember also that he fails to rescue Eurydice because he indulges a vice normally ascribed to women: curiosity - he disobeys the commands of Hades and looks back to be sure that Eurydice is following him.

Artistically, Orpheus may be seen as a gay icon: an object of wonder, enchantment and allure to the heteronormative world. He blurs the traditional boundaries between masculine and feminine by being pacifistic, artistic and beautiful. And ultimately he is brutally punished by women for Not Being Man Enough.

I suspect a lot of psychological projection here by the artists in question, consciously or unconsciously!


Jo said...

I did not know this. Thank you!

Janine Ashbless said...

Yer welcome, hon...

Janine Ashbless said...

I wasn't trying to be educational, btw .. I just wanted to share the pretty pictures!

Erobintica said...

fascinating!!!! I fee a poem coming on! This story reminds me of someone I know.

Erobintica said...

feel - yes, I am very tired

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes, I feel a story in there too, Robin :-) One day..

Danielle said...

ha...orpheus is quite interesting BUT what really gots me are the raving Maenads...idont know why..but i was always fascinated by them....

Janine Ashbless said...

Maenad pictures next week Dan!