Orpheus

“Orpheus and Eurydice”. Edward Poynter, 1862.

In this post we turn to the ancient Greek poet, musician and magician Orpheus. According to historian Ake Hultkranz the well known legend of Orpheus and Eurydice originated from a shamanistic myth which can be found in different versions across the world from Greece, Eurasia to Japan, Polynesia and North America.  Although the details vary from culture to culture, the basic scenario of the myth is the same: a journey is taken to the land of the dead to retrieve the soul of a deceased spouse or relative in an attempt to bring them back to life–which usually fails due to the breaking of a taboo. Here’s the Greek version of the myth as told by the Latin poet Virgil:

On their wedding day Eurydice, the lovely young wife of the poet Orpheus, was bitten by a snake and died. Overcome by grief, Orpheus resolved to descend to Hades to retrieve her. Arriving there he charmed the guardians of the underworld with his mournful music, moving Persephone the queen of the dead to release Eurydice to him—on the condition he did not turn back to look at her on their return trip. Almost reaching the surface world, Orpheus forgot and glanced back at his wife. To his dismay, she vanished from sight, returning as a pale shade to Hades forever. Orpheus in his mourning retired to the mountains to devote himself to the worship of Apollo. One day he was approached by a band of wandering Maenads–female worshippers of the god Dionysus. Rejecting their advances, they became enraged and killed him–dismembering him, tearing him limb from limb. They tossed his head into a river and it washed ashore on the island of Lesbos….where it continues to deliver prophecies.

Orpheus encircled by animals. mosaic, Palermo, Italy.  photo: Giovanni Dali'Orto
Orpheus encircled by animals. mosaic, Palermo, Italy.
photo: Giovanni Dali’Orto

Orpheus was the subject of many legends.  He was said to be the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the muse Calliope. Other tales said he was the son of the god Apollo who gave him his lyre, while the muses taught him verses and magical incantations. Through the power of his music, Orpheus, like shamans from time immemorial, could enchant wild beasts and even made the rocks and trees move to follow his songs. He was an adventurer who travelled the world, accompanying Jason and the argonauts on their voyage to find the Golden Fleece–protecting his crew mates from the Sirens’ bewitching songs with his own incantations. Orpheus was also a culture-hero, bringing the cult of Dionysus from Thrace to Greece. Legend has it he also travelled to Egypt and studied the religious customs and sacred rites of that land, introducing them to the Greeks.

While scholars still debate whether Orpheus was a living man or legendary figure, the mystery religion based on his teachings –Orphism—had a profound influence on Greek philosophy and spirituality. According to the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus: “All the Greek’s theology is the offspring of the Orphic mystical doctrine”. Several pre-Socratic philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles were probably initiates of Orphism and influenced by its ideas. Many of Plato’s philosophical doctrines originated with Orphism. It was the Orphics who introduced the notions of the soul’s immortality as well as transmigration of the soul—or reincarnation–to the western world.

Dancing maenads. Callimachus, 1st cent. CE
Dancing maenads. Callimachus, 1st cent. CE

Orphism was a reform religion that grew out of the cult of Dionysus, and like it, attracted many female worshippers as well as priestesses. It focused on individual spirituality, as opposed to the wine drinking and collective ecstasies of the followers of Dionysus–the intoxication sought by the Orphics was the “enthusiasm” of union with the divine. Peter Kingsley writes: “Apollo’s ecstasy was different from the ecstasy of Dionysus. There was nothing wild or disturbing about it. It was intensely private, for the individual and the individual alone”

Orphic initiation rituals were thought to involve the reenactment of the myth of the god Dionysus Zagreus, the infant child of Zeus and Persephone. The rebellious elder gods, the Titans, jealous of Dionysus, lured him out of his cave then murdered and dismembered him, devouring his flesh. Upon discovering their crime Zeus became enraged, hurling a lightning bolt at the Titans and incinerating them. Mankind, however, was made from the ashes of the Titans, who had in turn consumed Dionysus–thus we inherit our bodies from the Titans while our souls contain the immortal spirit of Dionysus. During initiation rituals, candidates consumed the raw flesh of a bull, symbolizing Dionysus, thus partaking of his spirit. Following this, they adhered to a vegetarian diet for the rest of their lives.

The Orphics believed the body with its appetites and passions–inherited from the Titans–is the source of evil, distracting the soul and plunging it into the world of matter. They saw the soul  as a spiritual being fallen from a higher realm into the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation on earth. It was thought to transmigrate through plant and animal existences as well as human lifetimes—incarnating on earth to learn certain lessons and undergo purification for past transgressions. In order for the soul to return to its original state they practiced virtuous actions, asceticism, purifications, religious rites and initiations to eliminate traces of the Titans “original sin”. By living three virtuous lives in a row and being initiated into the mysteries they believed they could earn a blessed afterlife—and be released from the cycles of rebirth.

With its emphasis on asceticism, vegetarianism and reincarnation, Orphism resembles aspects of Indian philosophy and Yoga. Indeed historians have speculated Orphic doctrines were influenced by the Hindu Upanishads, perhaps introduced to the Greeks by Jain missionaries. Like Yogis, some Orphics were wandering ascetics who lived a life of voluntary poverty, practicing celibacy and purification rites. Orphism also seems to have borrowed Egyptian notions of eschatology concerning the soul’s afterlife fate—such as its final judgement by the gods and its sojourn in paradise–the Elysian Fields–similar to the “Fields of Reeds” described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

There is also the possibility shamanistic ideas of the soul’s afterlife stemming from ancient Thrace, the homeland of Orpheus, may have influenced Orphic doctrines. According to Hultkrantz, who studied hundreds of versions of the myth of Orpheus from around the world “…the Orpheus tale was from the outset inspired by shamanistic experiences.” He proposes it narrates the shaman’s journey to recover a lost soul in the land of the dead. In shamanic cultures it is believed illness can result from a person’s soul being stolen by spirits of the dead. The shaman must journey to the underworld, find the lost soul and bring it back to restore the person to health. The character of Eurydice may have originally portrayed such a seriously ill person, perhaps in an unconscious state, treated by a shaman for soul-loss, according to Hultkranz.

The myths of Orpheus and Dionysus certainly share similarities with narratives of shamanic initiations. These involve visions of descent to the underworld and ordeals of death and dismemberment–followed by rebirth of the shaman into a spiritual state of consciousness. Perhaps the candidate of Orphic initiations may have undergone a similar transformative ordeal during the sacrifice, dismemberment and eating of a bull’s flesh–symbolic of Dionysus–with the anticipation of the rebirth of the god’s immortal spirit within their souls.

Orphic Gold Tablet. Thessaly, 350-300 BCE.
Orphic Gold Tablet.
Thessaly, 350-300 BCE.

Historian M. Owen Lee proposes Orpheus and Eurydice might have originally been a “charter myth” for the cult of Orphism, in which Orpheus brought back secrets of life and death from the underworld which he revealed to his followers. Lee notes that the name “Eurydice” can be translated as “she who gives justice far and wide”–far more descriptive of Persephone, the queen of the dead, than a living woman. The Orphics believed  their souls were judged in the afterlife–during which time they would meet Persephone in person. The Orphic Gold Tablets, their version of a “book of the dead”, prompts the initiate to tell the goddess: “I am a son of earth and starry heaven, but my race is of heaven”, proving they have renounced the earthly for the spiritual. If their souls were found pure they could go on to dwell in the Elysian Fields—the blissful abode of heroes and philosophers.

Christ as Orpheus. Mural in catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro, Rome. 4th cent.
Christ as Orpheus.
Mural in catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro, Rome. 4th cent.

Orpheus as archetypal poet, musician and magician, is a seminal figure of western esotericism. The influence of Orphism on another mystery religion—Christianity—cannot be denied. Artwork depicting Orpheus as the “good shepherd” was found in early Christian catacombs, and he was one of the few pagan philosophers honored by Christians. Author Linda Johnsen notes that Christian liturgy was modeled on the rites of Orphism, such as the Last Supper in which the savior is symbolically consumed–resembling the Dionysian feast of the Orphics. Even Dionysus’ power of transforming water into wine was attributed to Jesus.

Carl Kerenyi aptly said: “Mythology, like the severed head of Orpheus, goes on singing even in death and from afar.” The myth of Orpheus & Eurydice  continues to live through the ages, inspiring over sixty operas, countless poems, songs, and paintings over the past few centuries–as well as movies and rock operas to this day. 

German movie poster for film
German movie poster for film “Black Orpheus”.
Helmuth Ellgaard 1959.
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