The Tragedy of Orpheus

Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, 1878

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.



  1. Robert D. Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, New Orleans, Spring, 2007, p. 11
  2. G.R.S. Mead, Orpheus, London, TRS, 1896, p. 14
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Animaterialism and the Unus Mundus

Burning of Darkness (1924), by Nicholas Roerich


Gerhard Dorn was a Belgian alchemist who lived in the sixteenth century. Detailed facts concerning his life have been lost. We know he lived in Mechelen, in the province of Antwerp, from about 1530 until the 1580’s. He began publishing books around 1565 when he wrote his Chymisticum artificium. He was instrumental in the recovery, translation into Latin, and publishing of Paracelsus’ writings.

Carl Jung was very interested in Dorn, not only for his alchemical theories, but also for his speculative philosophy. Actually, the two go hand-in-hand. Dorn believed that God, not humanity, was in need of redemption. The alchemical work was the means by which humans could assist God in bringing about His redemption. The opus was a work of love, the love of humans toward God.

When Jung traveled to India in 1928, he brought with him Dorn’s writings. During this time, he learned about Dorn’s idea of the Unus Mundus, the one substratum of all reality. In Latin, it means “one world.” This idea would become the foundation of Jung’s conception of synchronicity.

As in all axial periods of human achievement, there was another thinker, a contemporary of Dorn, who believed in the underlying interconnectedness of all things. Giordano Bruno, having been influenced by Hermetic teachings,  brought this idea to light in the late sixteenth century, around the time of the birth of the man who would cleave reality in two for centuries to come (Descartes). The Unus Mundus is actually a Hermetic teaching that is very old.

The alchemical work had, as its general goal, the creation of the lapis philosophorum, the Philosopher’s Stone. Theoretically, this completed the second stage of the opus. Dorn, however, believed there was yet a third stage to be worked. This third stage is the union of humans with the Unus Mundus. It is the conscious realization that human being is one with the world at large, and thus one with the Anima Mundi.

The One and Simple is what Dorn called the unus mundus. This “one world” was the res simplex. For him the third and highest degree of conjunction was the union of the whole man with the unus mundus. By this he meant…the potential world of the first day of creation, when nothing was yet “in actu,” i.e., divided into two and many, but was still one. The creation of unity by a magical procedure meant the possibility of effecting a union with the world-not with the world of multiplicity as we see it but with a potential world, the eternal Ground of all empirical being… (Jung 534).

This “potential world” is the world as I have imagined it, when I write of the animaterial world, animatter, etc. The animaterial world is synonymous with the Unus Mundus. Animaterialism is based on the idea that all souls are interconnected, and all souls are one with, not only the cosmos, but with the Anima Mundi.

The “unity of the soul” rests empirically on the basic psychic structure common to all souls, which, though not visible and tangible like the anatomical structure, is just as evi­dent as it (Jung 535).

The third stage of Dorn’s alchemical opus is the conjunction of  the “personal with the supra personal atman, and of the individual tao with the universal tao” (ibid.). Heaven has descended to earth, and the two have become one. The inner unity achieved in the second stage of the opus, the lapis, is only an intermediary step, and, even then is not permanent. The lapis, all the inner unity we have achieved, is subject to the storms of life, which sometimes destroy one’s soul house. When this occurs, we are back to square one; the soul must be reworked. In a revealing passage, Jung states that

Anyone who submits his sense of inner security to analogous psychic tests will have similar experiences. More than once everything he has built will fall to pieces under the impact of reality, and he must not let this discourage him from examining, again and again, where it is that his attitude is still defective, and what are the blind spots in his psychic field of vision. Just as a lapis Philosophorum, with its miraculous pow­ers, was never produced, so psychic wholeness will never be attained empirically, as consciousness is too narrow and too one­sided to comprehend the full inventory of the psyche (Jung 534).

The true goal is to move beyond the lapis to the Unus Mundus. This is where our salvation truly lies. In reality, the labor of the alchemist produces a “materialization of the spirit,” according to Jung, elevating “the body into proximity with the spirit while at the same time drawing the spirit down into matter. By sublimating matter he concretized spirit” (Jung 535). This melding of spirit and matter is brought about by a third element, which, in my mind, must be the human soul united with the World Soul. Jung claims this is the synthesis of conscious with unconscious, and is something totally non-rational.  The best we can do is speak in paradoxes of this reality.

Works Cited

Jung, C.G. Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry Into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy. trans, R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 14. Princeton: Princeton, 1963.

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