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
Share Button

Bifröst: Rainbow Bridge

The Magic Spring, by Jusben
The Magic Spring, by Jusben

If you’re familiar with Norse mythology at all, you’ve probably heard of the Rainbow Bridge. The Norse called it Bifröst. The etymology of the word is not fully known, but it translates roughly as, “the vibrating or trembling rainbow.” Another possibility is “shimmering rainbow.” This supposedly speaks to the fleeting and fragile nature of a rainbow.

Bifröst is the bridge that links Asgard, the home of the gods, with Midgard, the world of humans. The gods traverse Bifröst on horseback, moving between earth and heaven. The Rainbow Bridge stretches from this world to Himinbjörg, “heaven mountain,” home of Heimdallr, the watcher of the bridge. Heimdallr is a god who is equipped with a mighty horn to warn of Ragnarök, the death of the gods and the end of the world. The bridge will be  destroyed when the sons of Muspell, a race of giants, ride across and trigger the end of times for gods and men.

I’ve been thinking about these images today and have arrived at the conclusion that they have great meaning for one trying to fathom the truths of the soul. Since the soul is a kind of bridge between spirit and matter, being the metaxy in Platonic terms, it is analogous to Bifröst. Now, the gods, except for Thor, travel the Rainbow Bridge and descend every morning to Midgard, assembling at the Fountain of Urd to sit in judgment.  Thor was told he had to find another route to the fountain. Because of his great strength and power, it was feared the god of thunder would destroy Bifröst  if he set his feet or his chariot wheels upon it, the bridge being very fragile. The balance between heaven and earth, spirit and matter, is very delicate. The soul must be built and fortified over many years if it is to stand strong and mighty when the giants of adversity come storming across.

Even then, however, the bridge may collapse, just as we sometimes have “breakdowns.” But Bifröst, and bridges in general, symbolize a state of transition, moving from one mode of being to another. Cirlot says, “there are a great many cultures where the bridge symbolizes the link between what can be perceived and what is beyond perception” (A Dictionary of Symbols, p. 33).

Bifröst also points to something I wrote about in my article, The Brunian Revolution, Part 4: Epistemology, where I discussed Bruno’s idea of the copulation between human minds and the anima mundi, the cosmic mind. This is gnosis that flows freely between heaven and earth, macrocosm and microcosm, just as the gods descend and ascend across the Rainbow Bridge. Bifröst is fragile, though, so the metaxical bridge must be guarded closely, lest ragnarök is unleashed.

Share Button

Protean Soul


The myth of Proteus powerfully  displays the nature of Soul, exhibiting various archetypal faces. Drawn from the earliest Greek legends, Proteus appears as an old sea-god, Poseidon’s right-hand man, so to speak. He was said to be Poseidon’s shepherd of sea-beasts. According to Homer, he could see through all the depths of the sea. If one were to ensnare him, and, without releasing him, endure his shape-shifting tricks to the end, Proteus would reveal great knowledge of the present and future.

This is what happened to Menelaus. He had been told by Idothea, daughter of Proteus, about the Old Man of the Sea, that he could discover the information he sought by laying in wait and capturing Proteus when he arose from the waves, interestingly, at noon, when the sun is in mid-heaven. Noon is a liminal time, perfect for illumination from the unconscious. The gods seem to prefer appearing at the two liminal times of day, noon and midnight. Idothea taught Menelaus Proteus’ tricks so he would be well prepared when the time came to grab him. So, Idothea led him and three of his men to the place where Proteus would emerge from the sea. Idothea said to Menelaus,

First he will look over all his seals, and count them; then, when he has seen them and tallied them on his five fingers, he will go to sleep among them, as a shepherd among his sheep. The moment you see that he is asleep seize him; put forth all your strength and hold him fast, for he will do his very utmost to get away from you. He will turn himself into every kind of creature that goes upon the earth, and will become also both fire and water; but you must hold him fast and grip him tighter and tighter, till he begins to talk to you and comes back to what he was when you saw him go to sleep; then you may slacken your hold and let him go; and you can ask him which of the gods it is that is angry with you, and what you must do to reach your home over the seas (The Odyssey, Book IV, by Homer; translated by Samuel Butler).

Proteus represents the soul. During the Renaissance, the myth of Proteus was one of the most popular tales bespeaking the ambiguous nature and many visages of  the soul. The figure of Proteus is a container for all the various archetypes of the unconscious. James Hillman writes,

Man’s Protean nature derives from inherent polyvalence  of the psyche, which includes the grotesque, the vicious, and the pathological. Inasmuch as a mythical image is a containing presence, a means of giving form and sense to fantasy and behavior, the Protean idea could keep the soul’s many daimones in inherent relation (Hillman 203).

Jung believed the image of Proteus to be a “personification of the unconscious,” (Jung 216). He also says that Proteus “behaves…like a revolving image that cannot be grasped” (ibid.). This reminds me of my use of the image of the maelstrom to symbolize the nature of the soul.

As Homer’s story continues, Menelaus says,

We waited the whole morning and made the best of it, watching the seals come up in hundreds to bask upon the sea shore, till at noon the old man of the sea came up too, and when he had found his fat seals he went over them and counted them. We were among the first he counted, and he never suspected any guile, but laid himself down to sleep as soon as he had done counting. Then we rushed upon him with a shout and seized him; on which he began at once with his old tricks, and changed himself first into a lion with a great mane; then all of a sudden he became a dragon, a leopard, a wild boar; the next moment he was running water, and then again directly he was a tree, but we stuck to him and never lost hold… (The Odyssey, Book IV, by Homer; translated by Samuel Butler).

The soul is, at times, very elusive. We try and understand our lives, our dreams, our misfortunes, but the ultimate meaning behind these things is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. We continue to strive, however, realizing that the soul is a deep mystery. The many Protean faces manifest themselves in our dreams, in our daily activities, in our infirmities, and in all aspects of our lives.

Menelaus was able to hold on to Proteus until his shape-shifting had ceased. Then, Proteus gave him the information he sought. The soul contains the knowledge of all things. If we hold fast to the image, we will discover great riches in the depths of the soul.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.

Jung, C.G. Aion. trans. R.F.C. Hull. Priceton: Bollingen, 1959.


Share Button

Petrarch’s Epiphany

COP191193020  01
Petrarch and Laura, by Nicaise De Keyzer (1842)

The man who most likely was responsible for initiating the European Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca (20 July 1304 – 19 July 1374), better known as Petrarch, fell in love with Soul on April 6, 1327, when his eyes fell upon a beautiful young girl named Laura:

It was on that day when the sun’s ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady (The Canzoniere)

Petrarch never had a relationship with this young woman, but he carried her in his heart the remainder of his days. In her, he realized the beauty and truth of Soul. This is, of course, what Jung called the anima archetype, that unconscious feminine Person that men possess within them.

Just prior to the period we know as the Renaissance, it is reasonable to assume there was a tremendous perturbation of unconscious forces stirring. The Church had focused for so long on Aristotelian philosophy and theology, and had increased their control on culture to the point where Soul had been quiesced. Effectively, culture had been de-souled and de-imaginalized.

In 1333, Petrarch found and copied a manuscript of Cicero’s Pro Archia that gave impetus to the coming Renaissance re-souling of culture. The manuscript contained a passage that was a defense of poetry and letters:

Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur. (Translation: “These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside” (Pro Archia, para. 16).

Cicero is referring to the study of books: literature, poetry, philosophy, the humanities. Petrarch adopted Cicero’s idea of studia humanitatis as one worthy for his day and age. Humanitas is nowadays associated with the term, humanism, but this was not the meaning it held during the Renaissance. What Petrarch and those who followed him meant by it was simply the study of classical Greek and Roman literature. These studies moved their souls to deep wells of creativity. James Hillman claims that “from the very beginning in Petrarch the inner content of the materials was the mythical persons and ideas from pre-Christian polytheistic world (Hillman 194).  Furthermore, he says,

This humanitas was in fact an exercise of imagination, an exploration and discipline of the imaginal, whether through science, magic, study, love, art, or voyages.  It sought the development of the imaginative mind and its power of imaginative understanding, in contradistinction to both the theological mind of Church philosophy and the feeling heart of mendicant and monastic Church orders (Hillman 195).

The Renaissance, in essence a tremendous effluence of imagination from the wellspring of the unconscious, was brought to the surface by the rediscovery of classical literature. In large part, this consisted of the study of pagan myths; the stories of the Gods and Goddesses of classical Greece and Rome. These beings arose, once again, in the conscious minds of many, and much beauty was brought forth.

Hillman believes the Renaissance study of the ancient scholars was believed to be “care of the soul,” or, effectively, psychotherapy (ibid.).  Apparently, Petrarch made the classical era an imaginal space to which, in his studies, he was transported. There, he experienced the many figures of classical literature, and thus enriched his soul and the soul of his time.

Petrarch is said to be the first modern man. Hillman says this means he was the first psychological man. His famous ascent up Mount Ventoux in April, 1336 is considered by many to be the beginning of the Renaissance, but his descent was actually the starting point. By descending back down into the valley, he symbolically descends into his own soul, for he admits, “Nothing is admirable but the Soul.”

Addendum: In our day, the study of the humanities is ridiculed as a waste of time. Many colleges and universities are closing their humanities departments so there will be more resources to teach mathematics, science, and engineering. This is a horrible mistake, for this always results in the degradation of culture. We choose this path at our own peril.


Works Cited

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975.

Share Button

Hermetic Intelligence

Hermes and Athena (ca 1585), by Bartholomeus Spranger

…the great advantage of Mercurial intelligence is its power to keep the soul in motion, spiraling down toward a vortex of significance. Mercury keeps the carousel of interpretation moving, feeding wonder and curiosity instead of granting the stupor of final conquest (Moore 153).

The primary way the soul is deepened is through imagination. When we have new ideas about something we’re thinking about metaphorically, such as how a spiral exemplifies the movement of the soul, or how snowflakes are perfect mandalas, then we are functioning in the area of Hermetic intelligence. One of the main tasks of Hermes as World Daimon is to guide the soul into a deeper experience of the world. In our day, viewing the world metaphorically and imaginatively has taken a back seat to science, engineering and technical learning. What many don’t understand is that our technical concentration of this age is yet another story of soul, and we must view it, not literally, but through the eyes of soul. Most don’t listen to the voice of Hermes. Most are not receptive to the wisdom he provides.   Everything that occurs in this world can be “seen through,” as James Hillman often said. We can view all of the wonders of Nature metaphorically. If we listen closely, Hermes will supply us with a wealth of interpretations that will lead our souls downward into, what Moore calls, “a vortex of significance.”

The practice of hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, is named after Hermes because of his role as messenger. He brings knowledge of a thing from the illimitable depths to the human soul. This nugget of knowledge was previously hidden from the awareness of the seeker of truth. These unconscious musings that arise from the abyss into our conscious awareness are delivered by Hermes. In doing so, he also fulfills his role as the god of the liminal, since, by bringing us to greater awareness, he creates liminal space, the “neither-here-nor-there,” the metaxical reality we call soul.  Of this marginality, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, Paul Friedrich, writes in his book, The Meaning of Aphrodite, that

Hermes moves by night, the time of love, dreams, and theft;

he is the master of cunning and deceit, the marginality of illusions and tricks;

he has magical powers, the margin between the natural and the supernatural;

he is the patron of all occupations that occupy margins or involve mediation: traders, thieves, shepherds, and heralds;

his mobility makes him a creature betwixt and between;

his marginality is indicated by the location of his phallic herms not just anywhere but on roads, at crossroads, and in groves;

even his eroticism is not oriented to fertility or maintaining the family but is basically Aphroditic–stealthy, sly, and amoral, a love gained by theft without moral concern for consequences; and finally

Hermes is a guide across boundaries, including the boundary between earth and Hades, that is, life and death (Friedrich 206)

Of course, Hermes is closely attached to Aphrodite, who is a wonderful image for the identity of the Anima Mundi. Remember, Hermes is daimon to the World Soul.

So, the messages that Hermes brings are messages that have been previously hidden from us, but, upon our receiving them, our souls are deepened. This is Hermetic intelligence in a nutshell. In a later article, I’d like to delve into what Henry Corbin believed about the practice of hermeneutics. It is fascinating and very related to a discussion of Hermes as messenger.


Works Cited

Moore, Thomas. The Planets Within. Hudson: Lindisfarne Press, 1990.

Friedrich, Paul. The Meaning of Aphrodite. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Share Button