In this second installment of my Origins of Petros series, I’m going to introduce you to one of the first mythological settings in Age of the Ashers, the one in which we meet our reluctant villain, Orpheus.
As I mentioned in Part I, upon his death, Orpheus was consigned to the Vale of Mourning, a tear-soaked sector of the Underworld reserved for souls whose lives were stained with unhappy love. Orpheus, as you probably know, was sent there because his bride Eurydice was killed by a viper bite, and when he was just seconds away from leading her out of Hades, he glanced back to ensure she was all right, and she was swallowed back into darkness, never to be seen by him again. If that’s not unhappy, I don’t know what is!
Just before Hermes (Apollo’s messenger in my story) comes searching for Orpheus, Orpheus has a brief encounter with two other tragic figures, Clytemnestra and Leucothoe.
Clytemnestra was King Agamemnon’s wife, and one of the central characters in Aeschylus’s classic trilogy of plays, The Oresteia, named after her son, Orestes. Her love life was complicated, to say the least. For starters, her husband was responsible for rallying the Greeks and waging war on Troy, which might not seem related to their romance at all, until you learn that the king offered their daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to Artemis so the goddess would give them favorable sailing winds. (I'd say someone's priorities were severely out of whack!)
During the ten years Agamemnon was commanding troops at Troy, Clytemnestra took a lover, her husband’s cousin Aegisthus, and together they slew the king when he finally returned home to Mycenae. When Orestes got word of the murder, he went home and avenged his father by committing matricide. So yeah, Clytemnestra has ample reason to spend eternity mourning within the Vale.
Leucothoe (pronounced “Loo-cah-thew”) was a Persian princess whom Helios the sun god took a shine too (pun intended). One night, he decided to transform himself into Leucothoe’s mother so that he could be left alone with her. As most often happens when hormonal gods are left with beautiful women, Helios seduced the princess.
When Clytie, an oceanic nymph who was fiercely jealous of Leucothoe, found out about the fling, she informed the king, who then promptly had Leucothoe buried alive in the scorching desert sand. Unfortunately, Helios was too late to save her, but he did manage to marginally ease her suffering by turning her into a frankincense shrub. In Age of the Ashers, I write that she spends her time hiding amongst the branches of an aromatic frankincense tree.
“I do not take orders well from murderers,” she says to Clytemnestra. “I side with those who, unlike you, are undeserving of their lot in Hades. Husband killers deserve the Plain of Judgment, where the condemned would pluck out their own eyeballs just to hear an hour’s worth of song from Orpheus’s lyre.”
She goes on to explain how the frankincense tree comforts her spirit, just as Orpheus’ lyre comforts his. But Clytemnestra, she points out, has nothing to “assuage the festering hole of [her] guilt-blackened heart.”
As you can probably tell by now, the Vale of Mourning is not a cheery place. Though artificially bright and beautiful (a cruel veneer constructed by Apollo), its atmosphere is thick with hopelessness and grief. Those who inhabit it spend their long dreary days either mourning quietly to themselves, like Orpheus, Queen Clytemnestra, and Leucothoe, or prattling on to others about their lovers left behind.
I’m sure any one of the Vale’s residents would have jumped at the chance to accept a mission from Apollo, no matter its nature, if it meant earning their freedom, and reunion with their loved ones. But only Orpheus had the skill Apollo so desperately needed, the skill of charming any living being with his music. And so, despite his hatred for Apollo and his distrust of Hermes, Orpheus accepted the mission, and gained access back to Petros, or to what we would call “Earth.”
If you’d like to know what the mission was, and whether Orpheus was eventually able to see his beloved Eurydice again, then be sure to get a copy of Age of the Ashers here! I hope you enjoy the story!
“Like I’ve been pierced through with Achilles’ spear, or flung from Troy’s great wall,
Still, a greater pain would it surely be to never have loved you at all.”
- Orpheus, Age of the Ashers