My journey with the Orphic Hymn to Thanatos ("Death") began back in January of this year. Right about when my father was turning 86, he fell badly ill with pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital. He had had Alzheimer's for a grueling, incomprehensible two decades, just about, and we knew that every hospitalization might be his last.
I was at a quiet point in the year's cycle, having just finished recording the massive 78-card marathon of the Fortune's Wheelhouse podcast, and not yet starting the spring semester's teaching. My sister was on sabbatical, traveling in Asia, and we agreed it was best she came home.
That period was a strange lacuna in my routine, and as I made each 40-minute drive to the hospital, I would sometimes lose track of where I was and what I was doing. I was mostly too abstracted to listen to podcasts, but sometimes when my phone chimed with a new planetary hour as I was driving, I would recite the planet's hymn. I don't know exactly why: it was like paying a toll, or asking to borrow resources I didn't have, or making an offering to be redeemed later. Sometimes you don't know why you do what you do.
At some point, we had to make a decision. Dad was not awakening, and the doctor said it was time to consider hospice. It took a while for that to sink in - he had been with us for so long in his twilit state that it seemed inconceivable that would ever change. It was around that time, during those last several drives south, that I started memorizing the Hymn to Death.
The Hymns to Sleep, Dream, and Death constitute the final three hymns of the Orphic Hymn cycle. They form a powerful triptych, performed at the end of an all-night celebration of the Orphic liturgy. I imagined the exhausted celebrants watching for the first grey light of dawn on the eastern horizon, as they invoked these great beings of the unknown realms. I had memorized, not that long before, the hymns to Sleep and Dream, and they had become an intimate part of my own nocturnal practice. Every night I sailed safely between those gates, watched over, I felt, by ancient presences.
With my father at Death's door, it seemed almost too obvious to learn the Hymn to Death - and yet, at the same time, it seemed almost arrogant not to. So, although my mind was hardly at its clearest, I began.
The first couple of lines were easy.
Κλῦθί μευ, ὃς πάντων θνητῶν οἴηκα κρατύνεις,
πᾶσι διδοὺς χρόνον ἁγνόν, ὅσων πόῤῥωθεν ὑπάρχεις.
Hear me, you who steer the fate of all mortals,
giving sacred time to all whom you rule from a distance.
Κλῦθί μευ is a standard way to begin an Orphic Hymn - you ask to be heard, and you acknowledge the power of the god you are speaking to. I repeated them over and over, those two lines, feeling for the whispering sigmas, the palatal fricatives as I drove. Although ancient Greek has been in my life for three decades, neither the meanings nor the sound of the words come effortlessly. I have to use all of Mercury's gifts - of memory, of interpretation, of rhythm and sound - and one way or another the words eventually sink in. I rarely learn more than two lines a day.
The third line was hypnotic, sibilant, a serpentine incantation twisting my tongue. The fourth line rattled like bones, the dactylic hexameter crisp and plosive.
σὸς γὰρ ὕπνος ψυχὴν θραύει καὶ σώματος ὁλκόν,
ἡνίκ’ ἂν ἐκλύῃς φύσεως κεκρατημένα δεσμὰ,
Your sleep pulls the soul apart from the body’s hold,
whenever you release the powerful bonds of nature.
Step by step, Dad was nearing some indeterminate threshold. As I drove, I struggled to hold those four lines in my mind. I would recite the first two, and then as I went for the next two, it was as if they were a pair of lead anchors, sunk in the seabed of the past. I pulled, and they would not come. There in the gap over which Hermes the messenger would normally fly, loosening my tongue with borrowed speed, I was paralyzed. I would think of the body's bindings coming undone. I would think of my father, the sound of his breathing, and the unknowable number of days and hours left to him, and my throat would close.
Dad was in hospice care for 9 days. At the time it seemed like an eternity. Instead of learning the Hymn to Death, I began repeating a hymn I knew much better, the Hymn to Chthonic Hermes. Awesome and powerful as Hermes might be, he was also a friend. I could ask him, for the sake of long acquaintance, to watch over my father as he passed into the dry land. ὃς ψυχὰς θνητῶν κατάγεις ὑπὸ νέρτερα γαίης! I would call, turning out of the driveway - "You who lead the souls of mortals to the netherworld." ἃς κατάγεις, ὁπόταν μοίρης χρόνος εἰσαφίκηται, I whispered, as I drove over the empty highways, themselves a mercurial domain. "You lead them, when their appointed time has come." I imagined Hermes taking my father's spirit - bewildered, but always game! - by the hand and inviting him to come along to the next great adventure.
In the end, when Death came, he came kindly and gently, regardless of my inability to call on him. (Pneumonia was once called the "Friend to the Elderly," because there is so little suffering on the way.) We had slept the night in the hospice room, and we had grown sensitized to the sound of Dad's breaths, farther apart and shallower as the hours passed. Somehow we knew when Death entered the room, and we rushed to the bed to hold Dad's hands as he took his last two breaths.
In the months that followed, things were busy. Swept up in the press of teaching, recording, sewing, readings, parenthood, I would go for days without thinking about what had happened. And then, at the oddest moments, I would stop. It was as if a great shadow was stalking me, and I would turn around slowly, deliberately, to face it. My heart would drop as if I was standing at the edge of a cliff, and I would feel the huge distance between my mortal self and the immortal chaos waiting just beyond. The sky tilted, and a stellar wind blew in my face. Then it would subside, and I would breathe, and I would be there again, in the grocery aisle or at the stove or standing by the mailbox.
Fall arrived - the season when my mother passed, decades ago - and I watched the slow progress of the leaves from green to gold and red to brown. There was something bothering me in the back of my mind, something I was supposed to do. It was like a spirit-string tied around my spirit-finger. One day, as I walked over the little bridge on our property where I had made offering to Chthonic Hermes the previous year, I thought of what it was - Hymn 87.
When Dad lived with us, in the early years of his Alzheimer's, he loved fall here. During the daytimes, he would rake leaves and walk around the pond. He would stay home to hand out the Halloween candy when we took the kids trick-or-treating. This would be our first October with him on the other side of the veil. There is no death-festival tradition in our family, but all over the world other families are welcoming in the ancestors with gladness and recognition. Could I do the same? That I couldn't say, but I knew where to start.
This time, Hymn 87 came easily. I picked up the lines as if they were so many pebbles strewn on the ground. I took them four at a time, and in the course of one long weekend, on the verge of Scorpio season, they fastened themselves to the gallery walls of my mind. ἐν σοὶ γὰρ μούνῳ πάντων τὸ κριθὲν τελεοῦται! I shouted, exulting, kicking the fallen leaves on the way to the chicken coop. In you alone is completed the verdict common to all!
Some 10 years ago, a friend and I learned the 4-hand piano arrangement of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre. We played it for my son's 4th grade class. I don't believe they knew what to make of it. Nevertheless, I delighted in its reckless glee, the full-throated embrace of the Great Change that comes to all.
I feel something similar about Hymn 87. The unknown poet admits to Death's bony face that he, Death, alone is immune to prayers and entreaties and yet, our poet prays and entreats Death for more years anyway! It is absurd, profound, breathtakingly brassy. If you look at the Death card - la carte sans nom - in tarot, it is so often one of the most beautiful cards of all, whether in the crude woodcut decks of the 16th century or the Kickstarter-funded deck printed just yesterday.
I don't know what my own personal death tradition will turn out to look like. When you don't inherit a tradition, you kind of have to make it up as you go along. When I think of my ancestors, I most often think of them laughing, because surely it is only as a living human that you can take human life seriously. From beyond, surely it all seems like a colossal joke - sometimes cruel, sometimes lovely, but always absurd. But as I repeat the hymn now held in the all-too-temporary treasure-box of my memory, I like to think I am turning around to face the shadow. I turn, and the space between - the unfathomable space between its archetypal self and me - is haunted by joy and ringing with laughter.