Musings on the Myth of Orpheus

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 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 their union 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 claims the crowned hermaphrodite symbolizes 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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3 thoughts on “Musings on the Myth of Orpheus

  1. Hi Zeteticus!
    I recall seeing a movie made, probably in Europe, about this myth. It had a beautiful score. The actors were Black. It was profoundly moving. I’m assuming it was in the early 60’s. Have you ever seen it? I would love to see it again.

    Best to you,

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