The story of Orpheus is very deep. As all archetypal symbols are, one can never exhaust their meanings. This tragic saga is one of the primary myths of depth psychology. According to Robert Romanyshyn, “Orpheus is…the poet of the gap, the poet of the border realms.” 1 Soul is the mediatrix between spirit and matter. This is the realm of the mundus imaginalis, Corbin’s world of the imaginal. Orpheus is its poet. This realm is also the territory where one is haunted by knowing and unknowing, where one discovers something only to realize that one has lost it again. I will deal more with this in my next article.
According to legend, Orpheus was born the son of Oeagrus, king of Thrace, and the Muse, Calliope. Other versions of the story say Apollo was his father. The Thracians were the most musical of all the Greeks, so it was natural that Orpheus would become a gifted musician. Not only this, but he became the most gifted of all musicians. It was said he had no rival, except for the Gods themselves. He was the “Lord of the seven-stringed lyre.” 2 His music brought a harmonious state of being to all things within earshot of his voice and lyre. Stones and trees would move themselves to be closer to the sounds emanating from him, and animals would lay silently and peacefully at his feet. It is said his music had the power to divert the course of rivers. Even the creatures in the Underworld were enraptured by his playing.
Because his fame as a musician had become widespread, the Greek hero, Jason, asked him to accompany him and his Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason had made a wise decision. On the return journey they traveled past the islands of the Sirens, the same Sirens encountered by Odysseus in the Odyssey. The Sirens used their enticing voices to lure unsuspecting sailors to their deaths upon their rocky shores. As soon as Orpheus heard their bewitching voices, he began to strum his lyre with music so loud and so beautiful that he drowned out their enchantments so that the Argonauts could not hear them. It is said in another version of the story that Orpheus used his musical gifts to lull to sleep the dragon of Colchis, the guardian of the Golden Fleece, thus enabling Jason and his crew to escape with it.
Many came from near and far to hear the melodious sounds produced by Orpheus’ playing and singing. On many occasions, large crowds would gather. One such day, Orpheus caught sight of a lovely wood nymph named Eurydice. Immediately, he fell in love with her and she with him. The beautiful and shy Eurydice was said to be one of the daughters of Apollo, the god of music. These two became madly enraptured with one another, star-crossed from the start. They married soon afterwards.
After the wedding celebration, while on their way home, a shepherd named Aristaeus lay in wait to kill Orpheus and take Eurydice for himself. Orpheus was playing his lyre while Eurydice danced merrily through the fields. Suddenly, Aristaeus emerged from behind a bush and fell upon Orpheus. Orpheus managed to avoid him, and, grabbing Eurydice’s hand, the two began running swiftly through the meadow and into the nearby forest. Aristaeus followed close behind them. As the Fates would have it, Eurydice stepped accidentally upon a den of venomous serpents. She was bitten numerous times and fell, dead, upon the forest floor. Seeing this, Aristaeus gave up the chase, realizing its futility.
Orpheus was overcome with grief. The death of his beloved wife haunted him day and night. His mourning was overwhelming. His playing and singing were so sad that all of Nature wept for him. Orpheus implored Apollo to allow him passage to the Underworld where he could consult with Hades and beg for his wife’s return. Apollo consented, and the gates of Hades opened freely before the enchanting sounds of his lyre. Even Cerberus was lulled to sleep by the music. Then, Orpheus made his way to the palace of Hades. His music and singing caused Hades and Persephone to weep profusely, as it did all of the denizens of the Underworld, to the point where Hades agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to the upper regions. There was one condition, however, that Orpheus would have to meet. While Eurydice followed him back to the world of light, at no time could Orpheus turn and look upon her until she was, once again, in the upper world. Elated, Orpheus agreed, and he and his wife began the journey home, Eurydice following behind. As Orpheus stepped into the light of the Dayworld, he made the ultimate mistake. He turned and looked to see if Eurydice had yet emerged from the darkness, but she had not. He barely caught a glimpse of her before she was taken back into the deep places of the earth.
After this, Orpheus was broken and disheartened. There are differing stories concerning Orpheus’ death. One claims that Dionysus ordered the Maenads to kill Orpheus. Thus they did by dismembering him. His shade descended to Hades, where he was reunited with his beloved, Eurydice.
In my next article, I will discuss some of the symbolism in this tragic saga.