In these joyful and peaceful times, King Orfeo had time to pursue many courtly interests, but he was especially skilled at the harp. Indeed, such was his skill that the harmonious existence in Orfeo's kingdom was due--in part--it was said, to the exquisite harmonious melodies flowing from his harp.
His bride was the beautiful Queen Herodis. As a gift, when they were wed, Orfeo ordered a special garden, a garden as beautful as Herodis, created for her pleasure.
Many unique and beautiful flowering trees decorated this garden, including a ymp tree. The ymp tree had been created by one of the gardeners by grafting. One half of the blossoms on the tree were white and the other half were red. The ymp tree was Herodis's favorite tree.
One May morning, while she dozed beneath it, she had an odd dream.
A Faery King, tall and clad in black velvet, had risen from the ground, touched her hand, and spirited her soul away. He carried Herodis to an eldritch castle surrounded by red flowers. Around the castle's tall turrets, many white birds fluttered silently.
"You are beautiful. Abide with me here in my realm," said the Faery King. "I will come for you tommorow. I charge you, wait for me under the ymp tree at noon. To fail to do so will bring death to all around you."
Weeping, she told her dream to Orfeo.
At first, Orfeo told her, "Beloved, do not wait under the ymp tree. I will keep you safe under guard in our palace."
Sobbing, Herodis answered, "I dare not defy him."
At last--such was her terror--Orfeo agreed Herodis would wait under the ymp tree, but she would be surrounded by a ring of loyal knights.
The next morning, Herodis, sad and silent, sat under the ymp tree while a ring of mounted knights watched for some enemy to appear. Orfeo impatiently rode his own horse back and forth around the wall of armored men. Occasionally the sound of a horse's snicker or the jangle of a bridle could be heard.
The morning crept by slowly without incident. Orfeo suddenly gave a shout of surprise. He had turned to speak a word of comfort to his lady, Herodis, but she was gone--vanished into thin air.
Orfeo rode wildly around the garden shouting: "Herodis! Herodis! Herodis! Herodis!"
Much later, overcome by grief, Orfeo discovered he could not bear to remain in any place he and Herodis had been happy together. He left care of the kingdom to his loyal steward. He removed the rings from his fingers and any signs of rank from his garments. Donning a simple pilgrim cloak, he slipped silently out of his palace, carrying only his harp.
He wandered without purpose in the wilderness--whether for a year or ten years, he could not say. He slept on the hard earthen floor. He lived on berries, roots and bark. He dwelt far from the habitations of men. He gave vent to his sorrow through the music of his harp.
His clothes at first became worn, and at last became rags. His form became gaunt and shaggy.
Only Orfeo's skill at the harp never faded, yet seemed to increase. Songbirds grew silent as his fingers danced across the harp strings. Wild deer and wolves lay silently beside each other to listen to his enchanting music.
He shunned the society of men completely during this time. Yet, one dawn he awoke to the soft step of many hoof beats. There was a loud blast of a faery hunting horn, signaling the end of a hunt. Emerging from the sunrise shadows, was a troop of faery nobles dressed as hunters. The ladies in the procession were mounted on snow white horses.
Most paid no attention to an unkempt, dirty mortal dressed in rags, crouching in the underbrush. Yet Orfeo spied his beloved wife, Herodis, in the train. What's more, she turned to look at him and silent tears filled her eyes. Herodis had recognized him also.
Orfeo seized his harp and followed the stately faery procession. They traveled through the forest and up to a cliff. Orfeo moved quickly to keep behind them as they threaded into a narrow cleft in the shadow of the rock.
The passageway down was long and narrow and dark. The faery troop had moved a good bit ahead and the way was pitch black. Still, Orfeo could hear the distant clack of muted hooves against stone.
Suddenly, the tortuous corridor opened upon a vast, twilight, red-flowered meadow. In the distance, there was an eldritch castle with tall turrets, around which many white birds fluttered silently.
His heart pounding, Orfeo thought, this is the very place to which my lady, Herodis, was taken.
Boldly he strode across the meadow and gained entrance to the gate.
Withing the courtyard walls, Orfeo wandered through beautiful gardens in which were a number of human men and women, handsome and beautiful. Some lay in an attitude of gentle slumber. Others were sitting or standing, but all were very still--like breathing statues. Each had been artistically positioned to mimic whatever they had been doing before they were carried off by the Faery King. Some mounted knights, in bright armor, stood almost posed like sentries, yet their eyes were also closed in slumber.
Herodis lay asleep in the central courtyard, resting under another ymp tree, a mirror image of the one in Herodis's own garden. The Faery King sat upon a dais in the central courtyard. A surprisingly small faery court attended him for such a powerful king. The silence was overwhelming.
Orfeo strode over to the dais of the Faery King, who was astonished to see some lowly and ragged mortal wandering freely around his kingdom.
Yet Orfeo was versed in courtly manners. He bowed low before the King. He, then, knelt and extended his harp, silently offering to play.
The Faery King nooded in agreement. Orfeo lightly, gingerly touched the strings of the harp and a cascade of shimmering notes poured forth from the instrument. The air was filled with a sweet sadness.
The stern gaze of the Faery King softened as the music gently filled the courtyard and gardens.
When the last notes died, the Faery King spoke, "Such beauty has not been heard on these stones for ages. Name whatever reward you wish for your song. If it is in my power, it shall be yours."
"Then give me," Orfeo responded, "that lady who sleeps under the ymp tree."
"An unseemly match," the King retorted. "It would be a loathesome thing to see a fair lady in the company of a ragged beggar."
"It would be more loathesome still for you to have lied when you offered me any reward," answered Orfeo evenly.
A faery many not directly lie or break a promise, even more so a King of Faerie. Having so spoken, he could not refuse this reward.
At the Faery King's gesture, Herodis stretched and wakened as though from a long sleep. When she spied Orfeo, her pale features grew rosy and her eyes brightened.
Orfeo took his beloved Herodis by the hand. As they turned to leave, they heard the voice of the Faerie King behind them, "Farewell, beautiful lady. Do not look back."
Holding the hand of Herodis firmly, Orfeo led her swiftly from the castle, beneath the silently flying white birds, through the red-flowered meadow, and back through the long, tortuous, black passage.
Orfeo kept his sights fixed on the goal of safely leaving the Faerie realm and Herodis kept her eyes fixed on Orfeo. Only when they were both out of the black passage and in the full light of the sun did Orfeo dare to turn back to look at Herodis. She smiled, and all was well.
Triumphantly, Orfeo returned with Herodis to his kingdom. Orfeo's steward had faithfully served as regent. They were joyfully received again as the king and queen. They lived together for many years in contentment, during which Herodis bore him several children.
Some say Orfeo left his harp behind in that Faerie land, and that he never played the instrument again. Others say it was Herodis who became silent. Though their marriage was pleasant and she often smiled in joy, some say Queen Herodis never spoke again after they returned to the sunlit mortal realm.
This story is neither ancient Roman mythology, nor Renaissance Italian folklore. Although the heroine of the story is interestingly named Herodis, which seems similar to Herodias, the tale does not directly relate to Aradia. It does, however, hinge on the common motif of a descent and return from an underworld or enchanted realm. This motif is something I touch on in relation to Aradia in "Why the Wicca are Called the Hidden Children of the Goddess."
This fairy tale or folktale has been retold in modern texts from three Middle English tales dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The earliest known Middle English version is Sir Orfeo, which is contained in the Auchinleck manuscript (1330-40). The Middle English versions, in turn, derived from a Breton lyric lay, which has been lost, and a Shetlandic folk ballad, King Orfeo, which was collecte by Child. It is the lost Breton lay which allows the hero to return home with his beloved Herodis or Heurodis. In King Orfeo, our hero wins back and escapes with his wife, Isabel.
I have retold the story of King Orfeo and Queen Herodis in my own manner.
Students of classical mythology will note that Orfeo is derived from the Greek musician Orpheus of Thrace, a mortal son of the God Apollo and the muse Calliope. Due to his divine heritage, Orpheus sang so beautifully and played the lyre (not harp) so hauntingly that birds and animals came to listen to him. Orpheus's wife, Eurydice (not Herodis), died after being bitten by a snake. In hopes of retrieving her, Orpheus descended to the netherworld.
He used his enchanting voice and playing skill to petition Persephone and Hades to release his wife. They agreed to release her, provided he did not turn to look at her before both exited the underworld. Unfortunately, just as Orpheus stepped out into the daylight, he glanced back just to make sure Eurydice was still with him. When Orpheus looked, Eurydice sadly turned and retreated back into the dark, leaving him forever bereft.
This motif of not looking back when departing from the land of the dead can be found in folktales and mythology as far away as China. In the 14th and 15th century tales of King Orfeo and Herodis, this motif is transfered to escaping the Faerie Otherworld.
I am not implying that this faery taboo in Celtic lore is derived specifically from one classic Greek myth. The theme seems to be universal. A version of it can even be found in the Old Testament story of Lot's wife. There are, on the contrary, many independent Celtic stories indicating this was also taboo when escaping the realm of Faerie. Apparently, it indicates one must remain completely focused on the task and not be sidetracked by regrets or anxieties. Lack of focus in a difficult task means to lose all.
While Orpheus travels to the realm Hades, Orfeo travels to a kingdom of the Celtic Otherworld. A particularly Celtic element added to the King Orfeo and Queen Herodis story is the belief that a faery cannot lie. A similar geaes was often laid upon Celtic chieftains. They were expected to be generous, but not foolishly so. Tales in Celtic folklore abound in the "rash boon" motif in which a ruler is beguiled into offering anything within his power.
Although he failed to retrieve his wife, the classical Orpheus was one of the few living mortals in Greek (and later Roman) mythology, like Heracles and Theseus, who descended to the nether realm and returned alive.
In Hellenistic Greece and in the Roman empire, a number of Ophic cults claimed to have some connection with the legendary Orpheus. In Roman literature, there were references to initiatory rites as well as other secret teachings and rituals.
Orpheus was associated with mystery cults in Phyrgia and Sparta. Some adherents of the Orphic cults even claimed Orpheus was the true originator of the Eleusian and Bacchic Mysteries.
The Orphic literature remaining today is a collection of numerous hymns, songs, and poems, composed by various authors at various times. These were attributed to Orpheus and incorporated into sundry mystery traditions.
Apparently Latin versions of the story of Orpheus, which were spread throughout the Roman empire, later inspired Old French texts, now lost. There are references in other writings to "le lai d'Orphey," which later became source material for Sir Orfeo and King Orfeo.
There are several interesting differences between the classical Greek Orpheus and the 13th - 14th century English Orfeo. In Sir Orfeo, for example, Orfeo's wife, Herodis or Heurodis, was stolen away by Faerie. In King Orfeo, Orfeo's wife, Isabel, was ensorcelled by the Faerie King and stolen away while Orfeo was hunting. Orpheus's wife, Eurydice, simply died, albeit tragically. Orpheus, due to his semi-divine nature, departed immediately for the underworld, hoping to retrieve her. Orfeo, in Sir Orfeo, instead wandered aimlessly and hopelessly from his kingdom, believing Herodis lost forever. It was by chance alone that his wife in a troop of marching faeries passed him.
In Sir Orfeo, our hero played a harp. In King Orfeo, our hero played pipes. In Greek myth, Orpheus sang beautifully with the lyre.
The primary change, of course, was the happy ending for Orfeo and his lady. The point of the classic Greek tale was while it may be possible for the living to descend and return from the underworld, the dead themselves cannot return.
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