Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mythic Underworld: Eurydice

Continuing with the theme of classical myth, Eurydice was a wood nymph (or possibly a demigoddess) who was married to Orpheus, who was the greatest musician and poet ever born. (He was also possibly a demigod; there was a lot of that stuff in classical myth.) She was bitten by a viper, and died.

Orpheus, then, followed Eurydice into the underworld realm of Hades, where he found Eurydice. His music was said to be so piteous that Hades and Persephone permitted him to bring Eurydice out of the underworld and back to the world of the living, but he was to walk in front of her and not turn back. But as soon as he reached the outside world, he turned around; Eurydice had not yet left the underworld, and was lost to him forever. He eventually was killed by women in a Dionysan fury. The story is one of the great tragedies of Greek myth.

In D&D terms, of course, he should have just had a friendly cleric cast Raise Dead.

We talked in the Persephone entry about people belonging to the underworld, so I won't repeat that part. I do think it's worth underlining how final death was in Greek mythology; there was no easy way back, and even the gods would intervene to keep their favorites alive (think of Athena and Odysseus). It is somewhat cheapened when any cleric with access to fifth level spells can pop dead Eurydice back.

The basic frame of the story, of going into the underworld on a perilous quest, is of course inescapable in D&D. It's the whole point. Getting back out safely is, of course, an exercise in ingenuity (and sometimes luck) for the player.

The landmark of the underworld in Ovid is the great river Styx. It was this river that was supposed to have given Achilles his power (and the vulnerable heel that he was dangled by), although it is notably not the river navigated by Charon; that was the river Acheron, although Ovid still mentions a ferryman. Still, the idea of a river bounding the underworld has a lot of potential. If you are using the mythic underworld concept in your dungeon, an underground river or a gate (Ovid mentions the gate at Taenarus) is a terrific way to convey it.

Having such a boundary makes it a definite choice for the characters to cross into the realms below, and allows you to incorporate areas such as the basement of a castle that is "just" an underground location and not part of the underworld proper. The rules that Philotomy discusses, such as doors remaining stuck or monsters wandering the corridors, only apply once you have crossed the Stygian border. There may be consequences or challenges for taking something out and into the broader world.

One aspect of the Eurydice story that I love is how the rulers and inhabitants of the underworld are moved by Orpheus's song. Ovid is quite explicit, describing how the famous inhabitants of the underworld such as Tantalus and Sisyphus stop their efforts as they hear it, and even the Erinyes (Furies) are brought to tears.

A genuine sense of aesthetics and taste in its denizens is generally under-utilized. Evil is often aesthetically "ugly" and unappealing, and that has overall been the trend in D&D. But it isn't necessary; the underworld can contain and appreciate beauty, even if in a dark and twisted way. You can read the "music tames the savage beast" into this, where particularly beautiful offerings might be useful for negotiating with underworld entities.

One other rabbit hole that can be gone down with Orpheus and Eurydice is mystery religion. Orpheus is closely linked with the Orphic Mysteries, a well-documented early form of the mystery cult. Initiates were taught rites and rituals that had a secret mystical meaning, and we have several surviving Orphic hymns. These are poems, attributed to Orpheus, that contained detailed information on the mythological world. This strikes me as a fertile religion for a fantasy world; its initiates form a secretive group, and it represents a way of thought that is different from modern rationalism in an interesting way.

We'll leave Orpheus looking back at Eurydice. For the curious, I also intend to look at Odysseus and Heracles within the realm of Greek myth, and getting into Egyptian and Norse myth. Any thoughts on other mythology to approach would be appreciated.


  1. This is a great series of posts, Wayne. Thanks. I am going to employ the river / gate motif, for sure. Thanks for reminding me that evil can be strangely attractive, seemingly, deceptively, beautiful. Good point and I will employ! Finally, I use the mystery religion connection directly for my MUs -- they all have been initiated into various mysteries that allow them to "surf" the lay-lines and cosmic influences so that they can "memorize" and "cast" their spells, not so much based upon technical or theoretical knowledge as much as on a kind of embodied, somatic, wisdom, know-how with respect to the forces at work within the cosmos. Fun!

  2. I can't think of any mythology, other than the Christian, in which death is not irrevocable and final in all but perhaps a few very, very special cases (unsurprisingly). The early Christians imbued their saints with the ability to raise the dead, among the thousands upon thousands of other miracles imputed to them and their bones - probably as part of the propaganda effort against the Roman pagans and also to enrich the many churches who claimed possession of the magical relics of dead saints. The inspiration for D&D clerical spells seems to be taken mostly from that tradition. Early Christian writers paint an appealingly D&D picture - class-levelled clerics were apparently thick on the ground in the early centuries of the 1st millennium.


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