The Death of Orpheus

Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus, by John William Waterhouse, 1900

Following the heartbreaking second loss of his bride, Eurydice, to the darkness of the Underworld, Orpheus attempted to cross the Styx yet once again, to plead for his beloved, but Charon refused to ferry him across a second time. The gods of the Underworld had given orders that Orpheus not be allowed entrance again until his death. Deeply distraught, he sat on the shore of the great river for seven days, taking no sustenance. His tears and troubled thoughts were his only companions.

From this moment on, he rejected female companionship. He returned to his music, but it became threnodial, mournful, and deeply distressing. Orpheus was inconsolable. Wandering through the wilderness of Thrace, he played and sang his lamentable songs. The rivers, rocks, and trees listened closely, and then grieved with him.

Was it that the song of Orpheus heaped scorn upon women; was it that his lyrics offended Dionysus and his Maenads? Perhaps so, for one day they fell violently on him, rock-battering him until the stones were red with his blood. In their furious attack, they mutilated his grieving body. Ovid tells us

The birds, lamenting, cried for you, Orpheus; the crowd of wild creatures; the hard flints; the trees that often gathered to your song, shedding their leaves, mourned you with bared crowns. They say the rivers, also, were swollen with their own tears, and the naiads and dryads, with dishevelled hair, put on sombre clothes. The poet’s limbs were strewn in different places: the head and the lyre you, Hebrus, received, and (a miracle!) floating in midstream, the lyre lamented mournfully; mournfully the lifeless tongue murmured; mournfully the banks echoed in reply. And now, carried onward to the sea, they left their native river-mouth and reached the shores of Lesbos, at Methymna. Here, as the head lay exposed on the alien sand, its moist hair dripping brine, a fierce snake attacked it. But at last Phoebus came, and prevented it, as it was about to bite, and turned the serpent’s gaping jaws to stone, and froze the mouth, wide open, as it was (Metamorphoses, Book XI, A.S. Kline translation).

The head of Opheus continued to sing and prophesy as it was carried down the river to the sea. It came to rest on the island of Lesbos, where it was found by nymphs.

So, Orpheus became a shade, making his way back to the ferryman. This time, there was no forbiddance. Charon brought him across the Styx and led him to his final abode. In Hades, he and Eurydice walk hand-in-hand to this day.

The most crucial aspect of the myth is that both Orpheus and Eurydice undergo transformation. He, at the moment he gave the backward glance, and she, when she slipped back into darkness. The soul is constantly being transformed, through both calamity and boon. It seems that the really important metamorphoses come through calamity, the soul’s pathologization. Orpheus was following his ego when he journeyed to Hades’ realm to beg for Eurydice’s release. Even though they were moved to weeping at the sound of his music, the gods of the Underworld knew Orpheus would look back and lose her again. It was necessary for his transformation. In his grief, he found his soul. Many times, the way of the hero is the way of the ego.

In this epoch, we are in the grip of the hero archetype, fueled by ego and selfishness. The hero is best typified in mythology by the Greek god, Hercules. The hero craves victory at all cost. The drive for corporate profit is one of its manifestations. War is another of its pastimes. Sports, yet another. These are all exercises in futility. The ego must be pulled down from its lofty pinnacle. There are other gods who deserve recognition. The pendulum always swings. The Hero/Ego will diminish as other archetypal figures to come to the fore.

Our heroes today, in the quest for victory at all cost, are totally opposed to death and the Underworld. The hero of today is consumed with ego, as in those who think of nothing but money, power, and success. Most of all, they desire to conquer death, as in Christianity (The last enemy to be conquered is Death). They refuse to recognize the underside of things, much to their dismay.

Orpheus was attempting to be heroic in his quest to resurrect his wife from the dead. The gods desired that he be transformed. The soul will always lead one into transformation, if one can successfully ignore the voice of ego. With his look back at Eurydice, he opened the door of salvation, not only for himself, but also for her. For, in that moment, she experienced the freedom of no longer being his possession. So, having discovered the power of their own souls, Orpheus and Eurydice become one with soul, and thus with the world, the Unus Mundus.

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The Psychoid Archetype

Utility Poles, by Paul Klee


The archetypal representations (images and ideas) mediated to us by the unconscious should not be confused with the archetype as such. They are very varied struc­tures which all point back to one essentially “irrepresentable” basic form. The latter is characterized by certain formal ele­ments and by certain fundamental meanings, although these can be grasped only approximately. The archetype as such is a psychoid factor that belongs, as it were, to the invisible, ultra­violet end of the psychic spectrum. It does not appear, in itself, to be capable of reaching consciousness. 1

Late in his career, Carl Jung expanded his thinking on the nature of the archetypes. In the passage above, he begins to present this new angle. The images and ideas that arise in our conscious minds are only approximate representations of the archetypes from which they flow. The archetypes, in themselves, cannot be known by the conscious mind. This is the psychoid nature of the archetypes. Jung regarded the psychoid archetype as non-psychic and transcendent. He used the analogy of the electromagnetic spectrum to illustrate the difference between the psychoid archetype, as such, and its effects. He analogically places the psychoid archetype in the “invisible, ultra­violet end of the psychic spectrum.” Its effects, images and ideas, he placed in the visible spectrum, or in the conscious mind as approximations. Thus, things of the psyche can never be quantified using mathematics. According to Jung, “we have no measuring rod with which to measure psychic quantities” and “there is no hope that the validity of any statement about unconscious states or processes will ever be verified scientifically.” 2 In my thinking, this simply means that a science based solely on quantifiable phenomena is incomplete.

The images and ideas we experience are like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. This is not to say they are not real. In physics, one uses mathematics to ascertain the realities of physical phenomena. In matters of the soul, one would use poetry and mythology to explore the realities of the imaginal realm. There is a difference, however. In physics, one has the luxury of using mathematics to observe the empirical universe, and then translate these observations into psychic concepts. In the study of psyche, however, one observes one’s inner states, but there is no similar tool that can be used to translate inner observations into anything but psychic contents. To me, this indicates that psyche and matter are really one and the same thing. We think this is odd because we have been so inculcated with the ideas of Descartes concerning mind and matter.

Jung draws an interesting parallel:

…just as physics in its psychological aspect can do no more than establish the existence of an observer without being able to assert anything about the nature of that observer, so psychology can only indicate the relation of psyche to matter without being able to make out the least thing about its nature. 3

 Jung believed the psychoid archetype to be a bridge between psyche and matter. He states,

Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable, transcendental factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and mat­ter are two different aspects of one and the same thing. 4

He goes on to explain that these statements do not contradict what he had written previously concerning archetypes. The theory of the psychoid archetype is an expansion upon earlier writings.

Of course, we know he derived his theory of synchronicity from this notion.

  1. C.G. Jung, On the Nature of Psyche, in the Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 8, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London: Routledge, 1960, p. 213.
  2. ibid., p. 214
  3. ibid., p. 215
  4. ibid.
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Musings on the Myth of Orpheus

Orpheus and Eurydice, by Орфей и Эвридика


The story of Orpheus provides clues from the collective unconscious as to how the human soul, guided by the daimones, moves through life toward death. The myth gives us a tragic picture of one who, through implementing his innate abilities to the fullest, erects a strong and mighty soul-house during his sojourn through the world, only to have it demolished before his eyes. The story reveals the pathologization of soul that ensues, the mournful lament at the loss of soul, and then its reconstruction.

Orpheus was a shaman. Using his abilities, and being guided by his daimon, he was able to bring harmony to the world around him. As Rilke wrote,

A tree climbed there. O pure uprising!
O Orpheus sings! O towering tree of hearing!
And all was still. Yet even in that hush
a new beginning, hint, and change, was there.

Creatures of silence pressed from the bright
freed forest, out of lair and nest:
and they so yielded themselves, that not by a ruse,
and not out of fear, were they so quiet in themselves,

but simply through listening. Bellow, shriek, roar
seemed small in their hearts. And where there was
just barely a hut to receive it,

a refuge out of their darkest yearning,
with an entrance whose gatepost trembled –
there you crafted a temple for their hearing. 1

All of Nature is quiesced and harmonized at the sound of Orpheus’ music. He is the “poet of the gap,” as Robert Romanyshyn calls him. 2 As shaman, poet, and musician, he operates in the middle regions between spirit and matter, the mundus imaginalis. It is a realm where one neither knows or doesn’t know, where whatever is spoken or written will always leave something unspoken or unwritten. One may have an epiphany only to lose it moments afterward. Things arise in consciousness only to slip back into unconsciousness; like a dream that one can’t quite remember; like a rose that withers almost as soon as the bloom is on.

Being the grandson of Mnemosyne, Orpheus has a gift of birthright to foster anamnesis, or “remembering,” in his listeners. For this reason, Orpheus is

the one poet whom Plato allowed to return to the Polis because unlike the mimetic poets, Homer and Hesiod, whose songs induced in their hearers a life of imitation, Orpheus sang songs that were said to awaken the soul to its forgotten inner melody and to connect the awakened soul to the song of creation. 3

This knowledge of recollection is available to all of us, if we learn to listen to the inner melody playing within us.

All human knowledge exists in the collective unconscious. The true shaman/artist acts as the bridge across the abyss, allowing knowledge from the unconscious to flow upward into the conscious mind. But there is always the danger of this knowledge slipping back into the depths of the Underworld. The higher the art, the greater the anamnetic effect.

Hermes was the creator of the lyre, but, it is said that Orpheus perfected it. Hermes also invented the syrinx. He and Orpheus were both born musicians, so there is an obvious relationship between them. They both travel between two worlds. Hermes, is, of course, the World Daimon, at least in my thinking. He aids the Anima Mundi in her quest to build cosmic soul. He is the cosmic poet of the gap. He is also Psychopomp, guide of souls bound for the Underworld. In the case of Orpheus’ wife, Eurydice, Hermes was her guide to Hades and then back, when Orpheus turned and looked for her at the gates of the Upperworld. As we know, she quickly slipped back into the depths, just as a dream tends to slip back into the unconscious when one awakens from sleep.

Orpheus achieved an important milestone is his own ensouling when he met and fell in love with Eurydice. Their wedding is a hieros gamos, the sacred alchemical marriage. It is a type of the union between Hermes and Aphrodite. from the union of Hermes and Aphrodite emerged Hermaphrodite, the mythical androgyne who holds such an important place in ancient mythology, religion, and alchemy. It symbolizes the culmination of the magnum opus in alchemy, the creation of the lapis philosophorum. Jung claimed the crowned hermaphrodite symbolized the Self that has transcended ego-consciousness. The marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice creates the penultimate stage of the alchemical process, the lapis. But there is yet one more stage Orpheus must pass through. As I stated in my article, Animaterialism and the Unus Mundus,

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.

The death of Eurydice brought about the destruction of Orpheus’ inner unity. Knowing that his music can even raise the dead, he, then, descends deep into the Underworld to find his soul-mate and bring her back to the Dayworld. Things don’t always work out as we plan, however. For Orpheus to achieve his salvation, he must be joined to the Unus Mundus. In my next article on Orpheus, I will attempt to deal with his death and dismemberment, and how he became one with the world.

  1. Ranier Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by A. S. Kline, 2001
  2. Robert D. Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, New Orleans, Spring, 2007
  3. ibid., p. 51
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