Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Orpheus, Eurydice and Dionysos

Jean Cocteau's film Orphée is for me one of the greatest films of all time. The myth is wound into my life.

But it is problematic in the part of Eurydice, which suffers from the French idealisation of women, all those ridiculous Surrealist nudes, or relegation of women to support roles.

It's the only problem I have with it. It looks delicious, it's very well shot and edited for the time, and the script moves well. It's much better than the subsequent self-indulgent Blood of a Poet and The Testament of Orpheus. The romance of writing/being carried away by destiny/death/love and then transcending destiny, slays me!

When I first saw it in the 1978 I was inspired and wrote and later threw away a novel based on it. It was probably terrible, with odd chunks of inspired text, and a lot of morbidity, since its title was 'desire and misery' and contained some ideas later to turn up in my tv series and comics series Doc Chaos vol 2, such as the College of Unlimited Extacy, where our hero finds the road of excess leads to ... well, I think we can guess that!

If writing Orphée now I would make much more of Eurydice.

In the original, Eurydice while strolling through the grass with a group of Naiads, was bitten in the ankle by a serpent, which shot its poison into her body and killed her. The serpent thing is very symbolic and powerful.

The Maenads are Dionysos' followers. They use wine and ritual to follow the road of excess, which leads, as we know, to.... Well, they were Eurydice's girlgang, as in the film, and exact revenge on him for losing her a second time. Typical careless man. So there's a feminist thread in this myth.

The Maenads (who looked after the baby Dionysos when he came out of Zeus' thigh) also put a snake over their locks, for Zeus crowned Dionysos with snakes when he let him come out of his thigh.

In one version of the myth Orpheus' head fell into the sea and some say it was cast by the waves upon the island of Lesbos where the Lesbians buried it, and so the Lesbians have the reputation of being skilled in music.

Others say it went down a river, still singing, and where it landed an oracle - and the Orphic religion - was founded.

The Orphic religion was based on the Dionysian one, and based on "ecstasy" (ekstasis, "stepping out"). It was supposed that it was only when "out of the body" that the soul revealed its true nature. This needed a system of purifications and sacraments, unlike most Greek religion.

Unlike the Dionysians, they were controlled and strict vegetarians and ascetics - their total opposite. Body-denying Orphism is a variation of the same Dionysus religion which we associate with ecstatic orgies and the most physical and indulgent types of worship. But they share the same goal - destruction of the self and rebirth.

Eurydice is therefore a woman torn between her girlgang and a primitive, powerful and woman-centered way of life, and Orpheus, or a male-dominated, more disciplined way.

Dionysos was born twice, and so was used by Emperor Constantine as an 'official' religion of the empire in the 3rd C AD as a rival to Christianity, where the emphasis was on resurrection.

We didn't know this at first when we named our first son Dionysos in 1989. He was born in the 24th week of pregnancy - and so was also born twice - first into a 'male' environment [Zeus' thigh / humming life-support machines in Kings College hospital); then into my wife Zoe's care when leaving the hospital at proper full term (female / Maenads).

That he survived to be healthy is very unusual. But we are eternally thankful for it.

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