The Transformational Power of the Arts
Orpheus is known above all for his singing. His voice is so exquisite, his songs so potent they enable him to transform nature and even allow him access to the Underworld. His singing stirs the animals into dance; inanimate nature in the form of rocks and stones come alive. Through his art, Orpheus transforms the world around him. As such, he embodies the role of the artist.
The arts, and by that I mean literature, music, songs, painting, sculpture, and theatre, do more than provide commentary on the world. They have the ability to transform it, making us see reality in a new way by changing our perceptions and interpretations. Like all artists, Orpheus is a magician. He can take the ordinary, the mundane, and transmute it through his art into something new and exquisite, making it dance, making it come alive, and making us perceive it in an out-of-the-ordinary way.
Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld also speaks to us in that it demonstrates the power of art to overcome death. His singing and musical skills enable him to pass through obstacles guarding access to the Underworld and persuade Hades and Persephone to agree to the release of Eurydice. We are told even in death, he continues to sing and play his music through his severed head as it floats down the river to Lesbos. His music lives on even though the artist has died.
During his life, Orpheus is able to manipulate the natural world through the magic of his songs. It is significant that after he dies, his body merges with nature. The scattered fragments of his body mingle with the earth before they are collected and given a proper burial. His voice continues to soar even after death. Orpheus as the artist is very much a part of this world both in life and in death. His presence and impact on the world, his ability to transform it, is felt during his life and long after his death.
The power of art to transform the world around us and to survive the death of the artist is a common theme in literature. We shall see examples of this in the “Only Connect” section in my discussion of this myth.