Orpheus and Eurydice

Part Nine Chapter 14

̶ Are you afraid to look back, Sprague? Do you think you’re going to lose your Eurydice like Orpheus did?

There’s a steely edge to the blue of her eyes, echoed by the blue of the jacket and pants she’s wearing. White T-shirt and tennis shoes: Cool.

̶ To tell the truth, I’ve never understood that mysterious moment when Orpheus looks back. All that effort to reach Eurydice in the Underworld, and then—just before reaching the light—he looks back and loses her. I confess, I just don’t get it.

̶ It’s about faith, Simona says.
̶ Faith?
̶ Yeah. Rumour has it that love can’t survive without it.

Gustave Moreau, Young Thracian Woman Carrying the Head of Orpheus,
circa 1875

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, 1900

The scalloped hem of her voile skirt falls to just above her knees: I won’t fall that far. She continues:

̶ He didn’t have the faith to believe she’d still be there. He didn’t love her enough.

She loves me, she loves me not: White daisies pattern the navy skirt, white as the white of her sweater. Riva comes in:

̶ Then again, it could be the opposite. Maybe he loved her too much. Maybe it was excess of love that made him look back.

Beneath her plush burgundy blazer, the black of her silk-chiffon top is transparent. As transparent as she is?

̶ Either way, she continues, we all know what happened to him!
̶ Remind me, I say. I’ve forgotten.

I like her red lips and long hair. I like the light in her eyes.

̶ A lost soul, Sprague. That’s what he became. Ended up getting ripped apart by the Maenads.
̶ Who were jealous of his love, Héloïse specifies.
̶ Legend has it only his head survived, Nicole adds. Fell into a river, drifted down to the sea.



Orpheus and Ancient Orphism

The following text is an abbreviated version of ‘Orpheus and Ancient Orphism’ from the Introduction to Bernstock’s book.

Judith Bernstock, Under the Spell of Orpheus: The Persistence of Myth In Twentieth-Century Art (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991)

Pierre-Amédée Marcel-Beronneau (1869-1937), Orpheus and Eurydice

Auguste Hirsch, Calliope Teaching Music to the Young Orpheus, 1863

For the Greeks, Orpheus dates from one generation before the Trojan War. He was the son of a Muse, presumably Calliope; according to some, his father was Apollo, but to most it was the Thracian river god Oiagros. Orpheus could sing and play the lyre so sweetly that he could tame violent beasts and attract all of nature. He possessed the secrets of the underworld, where he went in quest of his wife, Eurydice, who had died prematurely of a snakebite. Although he succeeded with his song in persuading the infernal gods to allow him to lead his wife up to the open air, he failed to follow the divine injunction (the law of Persephone) against looking back at her. After the second loss of his wife, he shunned women and even became the originator of homosexual love, at least among the Thracians. The most established tradition makes him the fatal victim of the Thracian women, who in a Bacchic frenzy murdered him either for rejecting them or for enticing away their husbands; alternatively, Dionysos may have sent his savage maenads to punish Orpheus for worshipping Apollo. According to the most widely accepted version of the sacrificial murder, the body of Orpheus was completely dismembered, and his head and lyre were thrown into the river Hebros; his head miraculously continued to sing and the lyre to play as they floated to Lesbos. There the head was buried in the shrine of Dionysos, and the lyre was enshrined in the temple of Apollo. The head achieved renown as a giver of oracles until a jealous Apollo suppressed it.

According to another early Greek version of the myth, Orpheus was victorious in retrieving his wife from the underworld; this successful resolution was later perpetuated in medieval interpretations of the myth. Since the Renaissance, however, the Roman version of the myth has tended to dominate literary and artistic images of it. The Romans combined what had been two separate Greek legends—one of Orpheus’s magical powers as a musician, the other of his descent into the underworld to fetch his wife. They also enriched the myth with the new theme of romantic love: Virgil introduced ‘the unhappy ending’ (Georgics 4.453-527) and Ovid further sentimentalized the story (Metamorphoses 10.1-85, 11.1-66).

Because of the association between Greek music and poetry (invariably sung), the ancient Greeks thought of Orpheus as a poet as well as a musician and a singer, and even as the inventor of writing and all the arts. He was a theologos, who sang of the gods and the origins of all things. The magical and mystical powers of his music caused people to regard him as the founder of all the mysteries and as the introducer of religious rites and writings into Greece.

Gustave Moreau, Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice, 1891

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, The Lament of Orpheus, 1876

Central to Orphic myth is the story of the slaying of Dionysos, the young child of Zeus and Persephone, by the Titans. These not only tore to pieces, but also boiled, roasted, and then ate him. From the soot of the Titans, who were burned in retribution by Zeus’s thunderbolt, man emerged, and from the collected remains of the child, Dionysos rose again. Only lifelong purity could eradicate man’s guilt for the crime of his Titan ancestors. Abstinence from everything in which there was soul and sexual abstinence were demanded of the Orphics. Orpheus evidently preached a strict way of life regulated by prohibitions through which purification could be achieved. Plato (Cratylus 400c) attributed to Orpheus and his followers a doctrine that explains their renunciations: the soul must ‘suffer punishment’ and be enclosed in the body, which both imprisons and protects the soul until it ‘has paid what is due.’

Controversies about Orphism concern the extent to which it was a unified spiritual cult or sect based on the Dionysos myth and the doctrines of immortality and transmigration of the soul later developed by Plato. The doctrine of transmigration of souls appeared in Greece toward the end of the sixth century BC and was associated with both Orpheus and Pythagoras. This tenet assumes that a soul exists in every man and animal and preserves its own identity independently of the body that passes away. Herodotus states that the soul must wander through the cosmos and be drawn in with the breath of a newly born creature; Plato tells us that the doctrine of transmigration was presented in the mysteries, where it had strong believers. Aristotle relates that ‘in the so-called Orphic poems’ a soul, borne upon the winds from out of the universe (‘the whole’), enters a living creature with its first breath; he also clearly knew Pythagorean myths indicating that ‘any soul can enter any body.’ A satirical poem by Xenophanes attributes to Pythagoras the belief that a human soul can exist in a dog.

Although their explanations of the world differ, many Orphic and Pythagorean ideas and practices are too close to be disentangled. Orphic and Pythagorean doctrines of metempsychosis coincided, as did their emphases on abstinence and purification. A moral dualism underlies both Pythagoreanism and Orphism: the good part of the world is represented by such principles as form, limit, light, and the universe, which reveals the harmony and order that when contemplated become implanted in the human soul. Pre-Platonic legends even have Pythagoras prove his doctrine of immortality by a descent into the underworld; Pythagoras regarded Orpheus as his chief patron, because experiments in music underlay Pythagoras’s understanding of numerical ratios and he presumably had learned his number theology from Orpheus. Music’s position of primacy in Pythagoreanism is clear in the conception of the universe as a harmonia.

Most Pythagoreans adhered to a vegetarian diet as a form of renunciation of the cannibalism of the city-state. Renunciation of the world by the Orphics in their diet, another rejection of the city-state’s values and practices, was based on one of Orpheus’s most important teachings: ‘to abstain from murders’, that is, to reject the tradition of blood sacrifice and a meat diet. Like the Pythagoreans, the Orphics viewed as cannibals those who consumed meat and did not practice the Orphic life, neglecting to purify the divine element imprisoned in man by the Titans and to bridge the gap between man and the gods opened up by the bloody sacrifice of Dionysos.

Odilon Redon, Orpheus, circa 1903-1910

Alexandre Séon, Orpheus Laments, 1896

Because of his civilized character, his soothing music on the lyre and his homosexuality, many have emphasized the closeness of Orpheus to Apollo. The Orphic concept of music was based on the instrument of Apollo, as well as on the voice and a concern with enchantment and calm. Considering the Orphic interest in the purification of the soul and its reliance on asceticism, the natural concomitant in music was a harmonic science, more soothing than rapturous Dionysiac music and dance.

The prominence of the Dionysos myth in Orpheus’s teachings, however, his own descent into the underworld and return from it, and his death by dismemberment have linked Orpheus with Dionysos. The name Orpheus, which means ‘obscure’ in Greek, is related to the ‘nocturnal’ Dionysos, and is appropriate for a hero known for his journey into the underworld. Nevertheless, Orpheus was murdered by followers of Dionysos, and his oracle was suppressed by Apollo. He therefore remains an ambiguous figure, similar to both gods but separate from them. He has been considered variously a Bronze-Age Mycenaean shaman, a Thracian priest of Apollo who founded a Bacchic religion reformed with certain Apolline features, and a fictional figure.

The Greek religion makes a basic contrast between the Olympian religion of the heavens, represented by Apollo, and the chthonic religion of the earth, represented by Dionysos. The interest of the Orphics in Apollo and Dionysos was dramatized by Aeschylus in a lost play, the Bassarae, in which Orpheus is portrayed as a devotee of the sun (Apollo), angering Dionysos, who sends his maenads to murder Orpheus.

Like Orpheus’s relationship with Dionysos, the interrelationship of the Bacchic mysteries and the Orphic movement is much debated. Starting in the time of Herodotus, the Orphic religion was identified with the Dionysiac. In the Phaedrus, Plato has Dionysos preside over mysteries that effect liberation from ancient guilt and better hopes for the next world and are performed according to the poems of Orpheus. Euripides mentions people who are vegetarians, celebrate Bacchic rites, and consider Orpheus their master. The Orphic hymns are now regarded as part of the Dionysiac mysteries; the Hipponion lamella identifies the famous gold plates generally called Orphic as Bacchic; Orphic and Bacchic are alike in their concern for burial and the afterlife and the myth of Dionysos Zagreus. Dionysiac omophagy may be seen as the homologue of Orphic vegetarianism in that both rejected the system of values wedded to blood sacrifice. Yet as a savage god who ate human flesh and, consequently, identifiable with bloodshed, Dionysos is markedly opposed to the pure Orphic life. Dionysos is a complex figure, a magician capable of taking diverse forms, and when reborn was considered to have inaugurated the reign of refound unity. Orphism makes a strong distinction between the golden age Dionysos, sovereign of refound unity, and the bestial deity of omophagy.

Jean Delville, The Death of Orpheus, 1893

Pierre Amédée Marcel-Beronneau, Orpheus in Hades, 1897

Vestiges of the late antique conception of Orphism remain in much later thought, especially the insistence on the unity and singleness of the cosmos, which the ancients considered to be an Orphic concept. Evidently, in Orphic thought, men appeared in an originally perfect world, but then were condemned to individual existence. The dismemberment of Dionysos became part of Platonic metaphysics with Plato’s Timaeus, according to which the world soul results from mixing an undivided and a divided principle with intermediate being. Among later Neoplatonists, Dionysos represents the divine principle divided up into the real bodies in this world to be reassembled and restored to the primordial unity.

According to a story dating from the third century BC, Orpheus was a monotheist and, hence, could be used by Hellenistic Jews and early Christians to advance their respective causes. The Testament  of Orpheus, an Alexandrian poem, was attributed to Orpheus, who was regarded as the son of Moses and as a theologian. Of the Christian apologists, Clement of Alexandria was the most intrigued with Orpheus. Orpheus served as the model for the Good Shepherd in late antique art and soon was identified with Christ on a more profound level. Medieval allegorists, following the lead of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, revived an interest in Eurydice by including her in their commentaries as reason, the complement to passion (Orpheus) in man’s soul. By the late Middle Ages, the myth had evolved into a courtly romance extant in two versions, Sir Orfeo and Robert Henryson’s narrative poem Orpheus and Eurydice.

Marsilio Ficino provides the key to an understanding of the early Renaissance conception of Orpheus. In 1462 he translated the so-called Orphic hymns from Greek into Latin. Ficino based his Neoplatonic theology and musical cosmology on the persona of Orpheus, who represented to him man striving to comprehend the order of the universe; Orpheus was an extraordinary poet possessing all four furores—poetic, religious, prophetic, and amorous. Because Platonic love manifested unity with God, Ficino downplayed Orpheus’s amorous failure. Angelo Poliziano’s Orfeo (1480), a pastoral devoid of polemical or allegorical content, was unusual in its time but influential later in the sixteenth century. Orpheus makes his last appearance as a Platonic ideal in Francesco Patrizi’s treatise Della Poetica, which refuted Aristotle’s mimetic theory and viewed the singer as possessed with divine inspiration and symbolic of the unity of art and religion. By the late sixteenth century, when the concept of tragedy had been explored and love was detached from Platonic idealism, Orpheus was regarded as both a great artist and a tragic figure, and his experience with Eurydice had acquired positive connotations.

Michel Richard-Putz (1866-1934), Orpheus and Eurydice

George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1869

From his role in the Renaissance as civilizer and symbol of the bonds linking man’s achievements and institutions and man with nature, Orpheus evolved into an emblem of harmonious order in the universe—as well as of the ‘impatience of philosophy’—for seventeenth-century rationalists such as Francis Bacon. From the eighteenth through the early twentieth century, Orpheus maintained a prominent position in esoteric writings. The Romantic quest for reunification of the cosmos was evident in the strong attraction of several writers to a magical Orpheus with marked gnostic flavor; to the literary symbolists and their twentieth-century descendants (most notably Rainer Maria Rilke), Orpheus represented both the suffering artist and the poet able to rediscover unity through a dialectical scheme in which opposites coincide.

The traditional blend of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in the character of Orpheus continues in representations of him by twentieth-century artists, who may suggest his resemblance to one god or the other or a fusion of them. Several artists reflect the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, stating a dichotomy between Apollonian harmony and restraint and Dionysian drunken frenzy and arguing that a fusion of the Apollonian and Dionysian characterized the best Greek tragedy. The ancient Greek contrast between Olympian and chthonian is extended by Nietzsche and appears in the light and dark symbolism that characterizes many twentieth-century representations of Orpheus, evoking Apollonian and Dionysian associations, respectively. Nietzsche later defined ‘the mystery doctrine of tragedy’ as ‘the fundamental knowledge of the oneness of everything existent, the conception of individuation as the primal cause of evil, and of art as the joyous hope that the spell of individuation may be broken in augury of a restored oneness’. The basis of this doctrine is ‘the problem of the one and the many,’ of great concern to the Greeks of the sixth century BC, as demonstrated by the Orphic myth of the dismemberment and rebirth of Dionysos.

John Macallan Swan, Orpheus, 1896

Plato, Phaedrus, Penguin Classics

Judith Bernstock, Under the Spell of Orpheus

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Penguin Classics