ORPHEUS: THE GREATEST SINGER EVER HEARD ON EARTH
“What a drag it is getting old”, recently the Rolling Stones intro to Mother's Little Helper has echoed within my skull. I constantly displace and forget things, several of them disappear without a trace. The feeling of a steadily advancing old age is a misery. I have for a week in all nooks and corners been searching for a book about Orpheus that I a few weeks ago bought in a newsstand. No matter how much I torture my brain, I cannot possibly remember where have I put it. I have always been scatterbrained and unfocused, though my loved ones assure me that things have gotten worse over the years. The more I miss that unread Orpheus book, the more I have come to think about the mythical singer. In the absence of the book, I turned to the sources and my memories.
The main source for the Orpheus myth is, of course, Ovid's Metamorphoses written during the first years AD. Ovidius had the original idea of linking Antiquity's wealth of stories, myths and fairy tales to a particular theme – transformations. How through a multitude of random acts and/or divine interventions human beings and demigods are changed into other lifeforms; animals, trees, flowers and I do not know what. All described with a rhythmic elegance and a well-maintained tempo. Easy and casual, seemingly unconstrained, though with a closer reflection quite subtle and profound, especially if the reader happens to notice the apparently insignificant details that quickly pass by, but which nevertheless indicate unexpected depths and astonishing insights.
You encounter no difficulties while following Ovid on his winding journey through Greek and Roman mythology. He is informed and well-read, effortlessly carrying and transmitting this knowledge. Almost everything Ovid tells us is told in the present tense. If he changes tense, it is because he has temporarily handed over the storytelling to someone else, a human or god. Sometimes he bursts out in direct speech or enters an inner thought or monologue. Everything shifts, everything moves – metamorphoses is a fitting term for this set of stories intricately intertwined to constitute an all-encompassing entity where each of them is more or less related to one another. Narrative perspectives shift and so do the stories. Unexpectedly, Ovidius can with ease leave one story to step into another, only to once again, almost imperceptibly, return to the previously beaten path.
Ovid seems to have been well trained in the art of oral storytelling. Several episodes are based on stories created in different contexts. For example, he leads us into rooms where ladies are spinning and weaving while facilitating their daily toil by telling each other strange tales. In this specific context the goddess Minerva and the master weaver Arachne sit by their looms, telling stories and creating images. Arachne tells us about human despair about the gods' omnipotence, while Minerva's imagery depicts the terrible retribution gods provide for human bragging and self-assertion. Their weaving turns into a hectic competition of life and death. Of course, the immortal goddess wins and in the manner of the almighty gods she rewards her rival in a nasty way – she turns Arachne into a spider.
The constant presence of nature runs like a red thread through Ovid's intricate tapestry of fairy tales and myths. His Greek/Roman world is constantly enlivened by the proximity of mature – forests, fields, streams, mountains, and sea. We are brought far away from our hectic contemporary existence, laden as it is by cement and asphalt. In the company of Ovid we stroll through the realms of trees and flowers; forests' shadow play, rippling, fresh brooks, birdsong and a mild, exhaust-free breeze.
Ovid's world can, despite the stifling presence of our civilization, still be experienced when during brief moments of tranquility and happiness we fin d ourslves surrounded by forests or are allowed to stroll across flowering fields, or when you, something that quite often might happen here in Italy is reminded of the presence of the past. I remember when I several years ago traveled at least once a week between Rome and Chieti, a town in the heart of Abruzzi, a region that in certain places still is quite wild. If I began the day in time I could during my journey treat myself with a break, for example in the city of Sulmona, the ancient Sulmo, where Ovid was born in 43 BC. and enjoy a cup of coffee and a cornetto by a marble table in front of Piazza di Garibaldi, overlooking a fountain, an aqueduct and high, often snow-covered mountains.
Depths opening up to Antiquity revealed themselves when I at Chieti's museum was confronted by a stone block on which someone at the same time as Ovid lived in Sulmo had carved a declaration of love, quoting a few lines from one of Ovid's poems. What if it had been, as one caretaker assured me, Ovid himself who had carved the words?
Well, now while I couldn't find my newly purchased book on Orpheus, I was content to read what Ovid told him about in his Metamorphoses. Several of his contemporaries must have written poems about this mythic musician, who already at that time for centuries had been considered as the epitome of all artists, divinely gifted and tragic. Five hundred years before Ovid, the Greek playwright Aeschylus had stated that “the magic of his music had captivated an entire world.” Perhaps Orpheus has never existed, but that does not prevent him from being as alive and present as Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, or Don Quijote. The book-devouring Ovid was certainly not unaware that his compatriot, the thirty years older, but still contemporary and widely admired colleague Virgil in his lyrical tribute to agriculture, The Georgics, had told Orfeus´s story. Virgil told the tale in conjunction with a passionate description of bee-keeping, which may seem strange – I will return to that.
Enthralling and melodiously Virgil described how Orpheus's beautiful, young wife Eurydice had, during her husband's absence, fled across the meadows to escape a randy shepherd and was in the high grass deadly bitten by a viper. However, with his ravishing musical skill, her despairing husband succeeded to mellow Hades, ruler of The Realm of the Dead, and obtain his permission to bring Eurydice back to life, though under the condition that before they had reach ther syrface of the earth he was not allowed to turn around and look at her.
On their way through Hades´s terrifying gloom and gorges, Orpheus was able to restrain himself from looking back to ascertain whether or not his wife followed in his tracks. To keep himself and his beloved in good spirits during their eerie journey, Orpheus sang uninterruptedly, with all the dexterity he could muster:
Startled by the strain there came from the lowest realm of Erebus
the bodiless shadows and the phantoms of those bereft of light,
in multitude like the thousands of birds that hide amid the leaves
when the evening star, or a wintry shower drives them from the hills
– mothers and men, and bodies of high-souled heroes,
their life now done, boys and unwedded girls,
and sons placed on the pyre before their fathers´ eyes.
But as he stood on the threshold of the world of light, Orpheus was troubled by the deep silence behind him. Did Eurydice really follow him? Maybe Hades had lied to him? Maybe she had gone astray and lost herself in the chasms of Hell. It was difficult to walk since she had a snake-bitten heel.
He halted, and on the very verge of light,
un-mindful, alas, and vanquished in purpose,
on Eurydice, now regained, looked back!
In that instant all his toil was spilt like water,
the ruthless tyrant´s pact was broken,
and thrice a peal of thunder was heard
amid the pools of Avernus.
She cried: “What madness, Orpheus, what dreadful madness
has brought disaster alike upon you and me, pour soul?
See, again the cruel Fates call me back,
and sleep seals my swimming eyes.
Like several other young poets, Ovid competed with the admired, older master. However, he had a different mood than the courtly and probably gay Virgil. Ovid was a nimble spirit, not unlike his modern-day descendants who you may still encounter in Rome's streets, squares and fairgrounds. A casanova constantly in search of attractive women to pull the wool over their eyes through flattery, exaggerated courtesy and southern chutzpah.
In his Art of Love, Ovid offers numerous advice on how to impress young ladies. As an illustration of how Ovid obviously behaved in his youth, I offer some of his advice on how to find and impress attractive women. They are worthy of our interest not least for the lively insights Ovid provides of life in his contemporary Rome, though also as examples of his narrative style – filled with memorable snapshots and charming allusions to nature. He describes a wide variety of Roman places especially suitable for courting ladies – porticos, temples, squares, theaters, horse racing arenas, gladiator fights, all which are accurately named, as well as the time of day most appropriate for amorous encounters. Opportunities to court a lady is always there and it can be done anywhere in the world. You do not have to search beyond adjacent hunting grounds:
The hunter knows where to spread his nets for the stag
he knows what valleys hide the angry boar:
the fowler knows the woods; the fisherman
knows the waters where most fish spawn;
You too, who search for the essence of lasing love,
must be taught the places that the girls frequent.
I don´t demand you set sails, and search
or wear out some long road to discover them.
Sneaking around on streets and squares you can make your passes during parades and religious ceremonies, or just lurking around in a portico may result in a successful catch, though Ovid primarily recommends looking for female game at a theatre performance, a ballet, a horse race or a gory gladiator spectacle. While her senses are inflamed by what happens on the stage or arena an attractive lady also becomes more receptive to the courting of a more or less well-known and handsome young man.
But hunt for them, especially, at the tiered theatre:
that place is the most fruitful for your needs.
There you’ll find one to love, or one you can play with,
one to be with just once, or one you might wish to keep.
As ants return home often in long processions,
carrying their favourite food in their mouths,
or as the bees buzz through the flowers and thyme,
among their pastures and fragrant chosen meadows,
so our fashionable ladies crowd to the famous shows …
In great detail Ovid described how an enterprising young man could behave during the well-attended horse races that took place in the shadow of the Palatine, the Imperial Palace:
Don’t forget the races, those noble stallions:
the Circus holds room for a vast obliging crowd.
No need here for fingers to give secret messages,
nor a nod of the head to tell you she accepts:
You can sit by your lady: nothing’s forbidden,
press your thigh to hers, as you can do, all the time:
and it’s good the rows force you close, even if you don’t like it,
since the girl is touched through the rules of the place.
Now find your reason for friendly conversation,
and first of all engage in casual talk.
Make earnest enquiry whose those horses are:
and rush to back her favourite, whatever it is.
When the crowded procession of ivory gods goes by,
you clap fervently for Lady Venus:
if by chance a speck of dust falls in the girl’s lap,
as it may, let it be flicked away by your fingers:
and if there’s nothing, flick away the nothing:
let anything be a reason for you to serve her.
If her skirt is trailing too near the ground,
lift it, and raise it carefully from the dusty earth:
Straightaway, the prize for service, if she allows it,
is that your eyes catch a glimpse of her legs.
Don’t forget to look at who’s sitting behind you,
that he doesn’t press her sweet back with his knee.
Small things please light minds:
it’s very helpful to puff up her cushion with a dextrous touch.
And it’s good to raise a breeze with a light fan,
and set a hollow stool beneath her tender feet.
Obviously, a light-hearted writer like Ovid did not treat Orpheus's sad story in the same manner as his role model Virgil. Ovid's touch is more delicate, but at least just as imaginative and interesting. When Eurydice slides away from Orpheus, into the gloom of Hades, she is just as by Vergil stretching her hands towards him, but Ovid makes her mute. She has already been turned into a ghost.
Afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her,
the lover turned his eyes. In an instant she dropped back,
and he, unhappy man, stretching out his arms to hold her and be held,
clutched at nothing but the receding air.
Dying a second time, now, there was no complaint to her husband
(what, then, could she complain of, except that she had been loved?).
The young woman Orpheus brought back with him from the Kingdom of Death was a completely different creature than the one who earlier on had died from him. She was already marked by death. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his poem Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes:
Self-absorbed. And her being-dead
was filling her like fullness.
For like a fruit all of sweetness and darkness
she too was full of her immense death,
which was so new she could not take it in.
Already she was not the fair-headed girl
at times resonant in the poet´s songs,
no more the wide coach´s scent and island,
and in this man´s ownership no longer.
Rilke's take on the Orpheus myth is elegant and more subdued than the dynamic energy characterizing Ovid's poetry. I assume Rilke's melancholy, and not least the title of his poem was inspired by a well-known Greek burial relief found in the National Museum of Naples. There Orpheus´s and Eurydice's eyes linger in a long farewell while Hermes, who is now going to lead Eurydice back into the dark abyss of death, gently touches Eurydice's hand as if to remind her that she must now be separated from her husband. The god's left hand grips nervously the rim of his tunic, as if to indicate that he is slightly embarrassed and not entirely comfortable with his heavy duty.
By Ovid, after losing his Eurydice Orpheus rushed back into the terrifying Hades. However, when he reached the banks of the stinking Styx, Charon, the ferryman, refused to bring him across to the other side. Orpheus's voice had burst by his sadness. Distressed, he sat down by the shoreline. There he remained for seven days, dirty and gloomy until hunger drove him back to the Realm of the Mortals.
During his old age, the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico made several depictions of a lonely Orpheus. He presented him as a fashion doll made from a strange assortment of various components. It could be ancient building fragments or broken mechanical devices. The bard is generally seated on a stage while holding a harp. Since he is a showroom dummy its is doubtful whether he can sing or play. It is as if Chirico wanted to present an artist devoid of his original personality, now consisting solely of a compilation of fragments of works done by other artists, or perhaps his own, earlier works. As a matter ofmfact did the aging de Chirico frequently revisit the “metaphysical” themes of his youth, even copying paintings he hitherto had condemned as inferior to his later works.
The loneliness of Chirico's Orpheus might also be an allusion to the poet's name. The Greek ορφανό, orfano, can mean either ”orphan” or ”loner”. Any artist, especially writers and painters, is basically alone, living through his/her art that generally has been created in solitude. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrrote in his Orphic poems: ”To sing is to exist.”
Eventually, Orpheus regained his creativity and incomparable voice. Once more he could perform and bask in his devotees´ limitless appreciation. People and animals, even trees and stones, flocked around him and followed him devotedly, enchanted by his bewitching singing. However
Orpheus now would have nothing to do
with the love of women, perhaps of his fortune in love,
or he may have plighted his troth for ever. But scores of women
were burning to sleep with the bard and suffered the pain of rejection.
Orpheus even started the practice among the Thracian
tribes of turning for love to immature males and of plucking
the flowering of a boy´s brief spring before he has come to his manhood.
In one part of his Metamorphoses, Ovid gives voice to Orpheus and he then sings about homosexual love; Apollon's love for Cyparissus, Zeus´s for Ganymede and Phoebus´s for Hyacinthus. However, he also sings about Pygmalion's love for his own creation, about Myrrha's incestuous love for her father, how Hippomenes's urge to win a contest made him cheat and how he lost himself to an uncontrolled libido, and worst of all – his failure to thank Venus for providing him with the means to win and conquer. Finally, Orpheus sings about Venus's tragic love of the handsome hunter Adonis. All these stories/songs seem to be dealing with a one-sided, desire-driven and unstable love.
The love immortal gods expose mortals to is based on power abuse and time constraints. The objects of their desire will inevitably age and die, at the same time as they are forced to submit to the will and lust of gods. Such unfair and unequal relationships reflect Orpheus's desire for young boys. And if Orpehus's songs do not revolve around self-centered homosexuality, the amour he tells about is nevertheless egocentric and freed from empathy. Pygmalion's sexual passion targets a marble statue of his own creation. A love for a soulless object, a projection of his distorted libido. It is symptomatic that when the statue comes alive, the woman it becomes is not named, she is not provided with an existence of her own. Myrrah's incestuous relationship with her royal father is also an unequal, preposterous affair, it is not only unlawful but also a threat to her father's prestige and power. He tries to murder his daughter without blaming himself for his own illicit behaviour.
An incomparably great artist like Orfeus is rarely left alone. It must have been a spectacle when he appeared surrounded by a variety of birds, all kinds of animals and groupies that hung on every word he sang and said. Early on in Antiquity complaints were made about the power that great artists could exert over fanatical admirers, and while doing so it was often referred to Orpheus, who was not only a singer/poet but also a cult leader. A guru surrounded by admirers who seemed to have lost their ability of independent thinking.
In his drama Agamemnon, which Aicshylos wrote sometime during the 480s BC, Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon as revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter and for bringing his beautiful prisoner of war, Cassandra, into their household. Clytemnestra is incited by her lover Aighistos who took power over Mycenae while his cousin fought in the Trojan War.
It is Aighistos who mentions Orpheus while mocking Agamemnon's companions for their blind obedience to their master, while they accuse Aighistos of cowardly avoiding his duty to fight the war under Agamemnon's command. He admonishes the leader of Agamemnon's soldiers:
Talk on – you´ll scream for every word my little Orhpeus
We´ll see if the world comes dancing to your song,
your absurd barking – snarl your breath away!
I´ll make you dance, I´ll bring you all to heel.
Like today, singing and music were extremely important to the Greeks of Antiquity and always present, something that is apparent already on a vase from Hagia Triada in Crete, dated to 1500 BC. It depicts how men returning from the harvest are singing at the top of their lungs.
Ancient dramas were to a large extent sung and their performance demanded much of their interpreters, some of whom, like present-day rock artists, could attract admirers who assumed that anything they said on or off the stage was imbued with wisdom. Orpheus was not only an exalted artist, but he was also a cult leader, an ordained priest both for the song god Apollon, who was alleged to be his father and the multi-faceted, enigmatical Dionysus. Something that the insightful Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about in his The Birth of Tragedy where he described art as a field of tension between the intellectual clarity of Apollon and the dark passion of Dionysos.
A point of view that made me think of Rolling Stone's Mother's Little Helper, who continues to echo in my skull. I recently read what the Italian poet Roberto Musappi wrote about England´s two most famous rock bands:
While listening to the Rolling Stones I experience an intoxicating Dionysian deference contrasting with the quiet, Apollonian elegance of the Beatles. To me this compelling dichotomy is proof of the inherent dynamics of great art, of the creative opposites of the soul.
We get a glimpse of the great artist on a pottery fragment from the time around 450 BC. Unfortunately, it disappeared without a trace more than a hundred years ago. “Hail Orpheus” was written under a black-figure vase painting depicting how the great singer gently had taken hold of his full-length chiton, while with his other hand carried a large zither as he stepped onto a dais.
It was from such an elevated position that Orpheus preached his religion. He was often referred to as the founder of Ὀρφικά, Orphism, a set of religious beliefs and practices connected with the afterlife, i.e. our death and resurrection. If a believer passed through the cleansing process of the Orphic Mysteries and adhered to strict rules s/he could be transformed into a perfected being and thus be saved from the shadowy realms of the Underworld and found worthy to be elevated to the Kingdom of Bliss, far beyond time and space. However, in order to enjoy such a beatitude, you must have lived a righteous and ascetic life, preferably avoid eating meat, preserve your chastity and immerse yourself in a number of sacred writings, several of which were said to have been written by Orpheus. In Euripide's drama Hippolytos, the burly heroic king Theseus is irritated by the manners of his ascetic and, according to him, far too pious and thus sanctimonious son Hippolytos:
Oh yes, preen yourself now,
play the exhibitionist with that vegetable diet of yours
take Orpheus for your master and
join him in the frenzied dance
Bow down before all his worthless scribblings –
for you are caught!
I charge all men to shun people like this;
they try to catch your soul with catchy words
and what they are plotting is far from honourable.
The Orphics believed in a myth declaring that Dionysos would once again be born into this world as a sacred child who eventually would save the world, something Orpheus proclaimed in song and poetry. Art would lift us above the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Even if song and music are nothing but a weak echo of The Music of the Sphere, the innermost order of the Universe, they are nevertheless the noblest expression of the human intellect and a sign that we are in reality a part of Cosmos.
However, the last time Dionysus was incarnated as a child he was torn apart and eaten by the Titans, who were punished for their deeds by being burned to ashes by Allfather Zeus´s thunderbolts. From the Titans´ ashes, which also contained the remains of The Dionysos Child, Zeus created the humans, who thus contain both Dionysian divinity and evil Titanic matter. The path towards salvation involves the submission of matter, to fight gluttony and carnal desire and strive to lead a spiritual life, i.e. to indulge in the arts, religion, music, and asceticism. The body is the tomb of the soul. Salvation is achieved only if you are capable of freeing yourself from imprisonment in the matter and allow your soul to be raised towards the spheres of eternal bliss. Those who have not been able to purify themselves through asceticism and mysterious, secret rites will never experience the heavenly euphoria that awaits the ”pure of heart” after death. Those who are unable to discipline themselves ”will remain in the dirt.”
One who believed in this was the Swedish alcoholic, opium-addicted, ugly and brilliant poet Erik Johan Stagnelius, who in 1823, alone and poor, died in Stockholm only 29 years old. He wrote ”evil and troublesome is the time I live in, but far worse is my life within it” and was probably right about that. However, in my opinion, he was one of Sweden's greatest poets. Almost thirty years ago, I worked with my friend Leif Magnusson on a screenplay about Stagnelius´s life. I got well paid for the job, but it never became a movie. However, I remain grateful for this opportunity to quite thoroughly acquaint myself with Stagnelius's captivating work – it has strength, presence and an unusually rhythmic, beautiful language.
While I was writing about Stagnelius, I worked as a teacher and experienced one of the few triumphs in my professional life. Among my ”workshop students” was an odd young man who by my colleagues, through his upbeat attitude, difficult home conditions and unusually poor study results, was regarded as a hopeless case. Some were even afraid of him. He was a so-called ”black rocker”. He had a mohawk, was constantly dressed in worn, black clothes, exposed iniquitous tattoos and his face was pierced in various places; eybrows, nose, cheeks, tongue. Nevertheless, I soon discovered that he wrote and played his own songs and in spite of his looks and foul language had a gentle soul.
I asked him if he possibly had any home made recordings of his music. He lit up and one day brought with him some tapes to school, which I played in class. His texts and even his music were surprisingly good. When I boldly began to read some Stagnelius poems for those marginalized, generally despised and feared boys with ”special needs”, there was no girl among them, most of them to did to my great surprise listen to me. The black rocker was particularily enthusiastic. Some weeks later he showed up singing his own interpretation to guitar accompaniment of:
Make haste Decomposition, beloved bride,
to make our solitary bed!
Dismissed by the World, dismissed by God,
you are my only hope.
Rapidly, adorn our chamber
– upon the black-clad bier
the wailing lover his nest will find.
Of course, my clumsy translation does not give any justice to Stagnelius´s rhythmic masterpiece. ”Damn strong bounce and cursed lingo in that guy. Right? He´s awesome,” the black-clad youngster told me. Of course, he was right. I imagined getting a glimpse of the unfortunate Stagnelius in that awkward and strangely talented boy. As is the case with so many of my former pupils, he has long since disappeared from my life and I wonder what became of him. Maybe he ended up in misery, like the wretched Stagnelius.
Ovid´s Metamorphoses were Stagnelius's favorite reading and he wrote an eloquent, but probably unplayable, verse drama about an Orpheus who appeared to reflect Stagnelius's unhappy existence as an ugly and unhealthy being, who despite of his woeful countenance was one of Sweden's most gifted poets of all times, though nevertheless discouraged by most members of contemporary literary establishment. In The Bacchants, Stagnelius gave full scope to his dreams of success and a blissful existence beyond death. Orpheus is a brilliant singer, though far from being pompous and self-centred. He is a gentle and kind man who preaches love and tolerance. However, like Stagnelius, he is also tormented by the cruelty and forlornness of the life he leads, only in poetry and dreams does Orfeus find any relief from all the misery that afflicts him:
A shadow is Earth, a ghost the sun,
a dark, rotten vapor, a Stygian fog.
Smoke is what wakeful people see.
Only while sleeping, only then, the body´s chains are losened.
Truth! You enlightens us with stupor´s gentle touch.
It is by your light
we find solace within a dazzling world.
Oh, if I still was dreaming!
Then I saw, I knew much more than now.
Orpheus assures us that we all worship the same god. He believes that reason and tolerance lead to reconciliation. Because of such a conviction he attends a sacrificial feast in honor of Dionysus, staged by the fanatical Bacchants. Their Dionysus is The Only, Almighty God and if anyone dares to be of a different opinion and, worse still, heralds this view all over the world, s/he ought to be killed before even more unbelievers are turned into open deniers of God. By presenting his songs of love and tolerance to such fanatics and together with them sacrifice to Dionysus, Orpheus imagined he would be able to bridge the gap between the bigotry of Dionysos´s cultists´ and his own Orphic teaching about elevated broad-mindedness.
During the sacrificial ceremony, the leader of the Bacchants is stung in the face by a gadfly coming from the lower depths of the Underworld. Furious from being interrupted during her sacred tribute to The One and Only God, she pours her rage at the innocent Orpheus, who is assisting her during the sacrifice. Her fury infects the entire female congregation and, as if they were one, single crazed beast, their hearts are filled to the brim of hatred against the mild and gentle Orfeus. In a paroxysm of collective violence and rage, they lynch him and tear his body to pieces. But as the enlightened mystic he is, death becomes an act of liberation for Orpheus:
Raptured I am.
Eons of endless joy open up,
as if seen by human eyes; heavens, sea.
High above earth my praise is sung,
as long as the Lyre twinkles and glows
while the heavenly swan swims across the Milky Way
star-studded wings spread in the quiet night.
Oh, my children! Not blood from a hundred sacrificial bulls,
magic spells and mysteries, pools of sanctified gore,
will wash away the soul´s contagion. Obedience only to the one,
who opens and closes the copper gate of Orcus,
staff-carrying Hermes, winged son of Maia.
Stagnelius paid tribute to Hermes, the god who not only accompanied the deceased through the Gates of Death, but who furthermore had invented the lyre, symbol of the divine, life-giving power of music.
However, the question remains if Orphism, as the influential Swedish mythologist Martin P:n. Nilsson assumed, was a kind of reformation within the Dionysian revival movement that in the 500s BC shook the Greek world. If that had been the case, Stagnelius's was quite right in making his Orpheus into a prophet who tried to transform the wild Dionysos cult into a more tranquil, meditatively oriented view of life.
The original Dionysos cult was apparently an ecstatic movement that captured especially women, who in a passionate state of intoxication triggered by wine and obsession devoted themselves to peculiar rituals, which among other things induced them out into a ferocious state of mind fuelled by sacred dancing and singing apparently culminating in a frenzy that enabled them to tear apart and devour sacrificial animals. In his play The Bacchae Euripides's introduced Dionysus in human shape in which he seduced and eventually punished a king who persecuted Dionysian devotees. Orpehus did not appear in The Bacchae, though he has much in common with the Dionysus presented in this drama, among other things Orpheus was a stranger in the country, became torn to pieces and reborn, as well as he just like Dionysys had retrieved a deceased åerson from The Realm of the Dead. Actually, Orpheus did not entirely succeed in doing this, but Dionysus brought his dead mother Semele back to life and furhermore made her a goddess.
Researchers have traced Orpheus and Dionysus to Thrace. The Thracians, who inhabited the eastern Balkans except Greece, were by the Greeks considered to be an enigmatic people. They spoke another language and had strange customs, but they were eventually colonized by the Greeks and Thrace became part of Greece, although its inhabitants were still considered to be a kind of strangers; blonde, tall, rustic and bloodthirsty. Nevertheless, there was a mutual influence between Thracians and Greeks. The latter inherited many traits from Thracian culture, not least from their religion.
The Romans also regarded Thracians and their distinctive culture as an alien, exotic and not the least dynamic element within the rich and mixed culture that came to be called Hellenism. Famous Thracians were for example the gladiator Spartacus, who led a bloody and almost successful rebellion against the Roman central power and the burly, military emperor Maximinus Thrax, who daily devoured twenty kilos of pork and drank eighteen bottles of wine. He could impress his surroundings by knocking out the teeth of a horse with his bare knuckles. When something went against his will Thrax roared like an animal and thumped his head on the walls.
Dionysus – the god of wine, wine harvesting and drunkenness, not only in the sense of alcohol intoxication but also the elation, or rather obsession, caused by dance, music, drama and religion. He was often referred to as the ”twice-born” and was first thought to have been generated through the union of the heavenly god Zeus with the Underworld's mistress Persephone, daughter of the fertility godess Demeter. Zeus intended to make Dionysus his heir, but his constantly jealous sister and wife Hera made sure that Zeus's enemies, the Titans, kindnapped the child, cut him into pieces and ate him. Zeus annihilated these cannibals with his lightning, after managing to grab a piece of his son's heart.
Zeus then began a love story with the princess of Thebe, Semele, and offered her a drink in which he had dissolved the fragment of Dionysos's heart. The ever-intriguing Hera showed up at Semele´s place, transformed into her father's old wet-nurse and managed to become a confidant of the beautiful but naive princess. Semele wondered if her strange lover could really be Zeus and the disguised Hera assured her that this was really the case and that if the god really loved her – he was after Allfather Zeus, ruler of the entire universe – he could prove his real nature and boundless might by changing into what he truly was. However, to do so he had to be defeated by female cunning. Hera explained to Semele that if she wanted Zeus to reveal his true nature she could ask him to give her whatever she wanted after swearing a binding oath on the River Styx.
After he had done so Semele asked Zeus, to his great shock and astonishment to expose himself in his true form. Hera knew that if an ordinary person happened to catch a glimpse of the Lord of the Universe in such a capacity, she would die. Zeus could not deny Semele her request and when he appeared in all his crushing might, Semele was burned to death. However, Dionyso's fetus was miraculously saved from the extibction and Zeus sewed it into his right thigh from which Dionysus was born after the time it should have taken for a child to have been fully developed within its mother's womb.
The two births of Dionysus became a symbol of the universe's eternal existence and uninterrupted renewal. Out of death new life is created and this became the central message of the Orphic mysteries in which participants became possessed by the god of spiritual intoxication and thus lost their earthly ego, becoming part of the deity so they eventually would de able to vanquish death and become uinted with the Universe. A catharsis, purification, which was also said to be promoted by the plays performed in Athens in honor of Dionysus. Thus, the unbridled Trachian wilderness was tamed and integrated with Athenian logic and clarity. Cleavage was transformed into unity.
To cut someone/something into pieces and afterward unite them into something new is a recurring theme within several religions. For example, in Norse mythology the god Odin and his brothers Vile and Ve slaughtered and cut up the giant Ymer and created the world out of his body parts; his blood became water, bones were turned into mountains, hair became trees, the skull heaven, the brain clouds, and the giant´s eyes became the sun and the moon.
For the Greeks, everything north of their realm, including Thrace, was the terrain of the barbarians and they were all considered to be uncivilized hordes with similar customs. One of the gods of the Thracians, Zagreus, was like Ymer slaughtered and severed, but also resurrected and turned into a fertility god. The wild, unrestrained features of the Thracian religion was by the Irish classist Eric Robertson Dodds considered to having had a dynamic impact on ancient Greek religion. Dodds linked Thracian beliefs to the extensive shamanistic tradition common in Siberian, Nordic and North American religions.
According to Dodds are myths surrounding Dionysus and his apostle Orpheus suggesting that the latter might be considered as a shaman. In a compelling manner, Dodds lists the characteristics of Orpheus and compares them with Siberian shamanistic traditions.
He combines the professions of poet, magician, religious teacher, and the oracle-giver. Like certain legendary shamans in Siberia he can by his music summon birds and beasts to listen to him. Like shamans everwhere, he pays a visit to the underworld, and his motive is very common among shamans – to recover a stolen soul. Finally his magical self lives on as a singing head, which continues to give oracles for many years after his dead.
In Norse mythology a group of nature gods called Vanir decapitated Mimir, the main provider of poetry and wisdom, and sent his head to another group of gods, the Æsir, whose leader Odin eventually became king of all gods. Odin took Mimir´s head, anointed it with herbs preventing it from rotting and then chanted magic songs over it so it became able to talk to him and advise him about things and acts hidden from all other creatures.
Dodds points to further peculiarities that Orpheus seems to have in common with shamans, such as transvestism. Both Odin and Dionysos occasionally appear in women's clothing and so did Orpheus, for example on the pottery shard which presented him wearing a female chiton. A suggestive portrayal of a modern shaman, who also is a transvestite, can be found in Mikael Niemi's novel Popular Music from Vittula, a mixture of a childhood memories and magical realism from northern Sweden, where one of the most enigmatical characters is a cross-dressing hobo and magician called Ryssi-Jussi.
A central motive among the Orphics is the separation of body and soul. A shaman can release his soul from the body's shell and travel outside of it. Souls of shamans were believed to be capable of entering into the bodies of other humans, and even animals. Furthermore, it was assumed that the soul of a deceased shaman could take up residence inside the body of a successor. Several Orphics considered the body to be "the grave and abode of the soul," some assumed it was vicious guardian of the soul, constantly trying to drag it down into earthly dirt and pollution, others regarded the body as kind of temple for the soul, a receptacle that had to be nurtured and preserved - ”a healthy soul in a healthy body.”
I assume the cult of Dionysus and his servant Orpheus like most other religious beliefs is syncretistic and a conglomerate of influences from several cultures, finding their roots elsewhere than in northern areas. Greek and Roman writers generally considered Dionysus as an immigrant, a newcomer. They based their belief on the fact that this god and his servants mainly are portrayed as strangers and that Dionysus is hardly mentioned in Homer's Iliad. However, archaeological finds appear to prove the opposite – namely that Dionysus is one of Greece's oldest gods. In Pylos a town in the ancient kingdom of Mycenae, clay tablets have been found dating back to 1 300 BC with engravings written in the Linear B alphabet. These are fragments of sacrificial gifts, urns that contained wine consecrated to the god Diwonusujo. Similar evidence of a contemporary Dionysus cult has been excavated in Khania and Knossos on the island of Crete, often in the form of pots with inscriptions indicating that they had contained honey sacrificed to Zeus and Dionysus.
The researcher and historian Herodotus wrote in the 450s BC that ”what we call Orphic and Dionysian actually comes from Egypt” and this has made several historians linking the myths of Orpheus and Dionysos – with their cut-up, reassembled and resurrected bodies – with Egyptian notions related to mummies and the Osirian myths. Several hundred years after Herodotus, the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus (90 - 39 BC) claimed that Dionysus and Osiris were simply the same god. That Dionysos like Osiris was slaughtered dismembered, restored, embalmed and resurrected as a new creature more powerful than before, capable of restoring dead bodies to life and reshape people's minds. Diodoros compared Dionysos´s ritual detah to the crushing, pressing and fermenting of grapes that have to be done in to produce reinvigorating and mind-changing wine.
Osiris was a god of fertility who, according to the myth, was killed by his brother Set, who cut up the body into at least thirteen parts, which he then spread throughout Egypt. Osiris's wife Isis and her sister Nephthys, managed after years of searching to locate all the body parts and put them back together. The gods Anubis and Thot embalmed the body, thus creating the first mummy. They even managed to bring it back to life so Isis could be made pregnant by the revived Osiris and eventually give birth to their son Horus, who finally avenged his father's death. When Osiris died again, he became ruler of Duat, the Realm of the Dead, where he nurtures the earth and determines whose souls are worthy to be bestowed eternal life. The mummy was, like the body was for the Orphics, the grave and abode of the soul, but unlike the Greeks, ancient Egyptians apparently believed that the body must be preserved and nurtured even after death, though the soul was free to enter Duat and even revisit its tomb.
Like Osiris and Dionysus, Orpheus was also dismembered. His remains disappeared, except for the head. It was believed that Orpheus's soul continued to live through his songs and music. The myth states that several of Dionysos's female followers, the Bacchae or Maenads, considered themselves to have been betrayed either by Orpheus newfound homosexuality, or the fact that he still paid hommage to his love for Eurydice, something that makes me think of the Beatlemania of the sixties when young, fanatical followers of the Beatles became disappointed and furious when one of the Beatles got married.
In any case, Orpheus was attacked by enraged Bacchae who tore him to pieces. His scattered body parts and the head remained on the beach until the tide came and ocean currents brought his head, resting on his zither, to the island of Lesbos.
There the head was taken care of by one of the women who belonged to a mystery cult that later came to be headed by the great female poet Sappho, who lived by the end of the 6th century BC The presence of Orpheus's head was considered to be one reason to why Lesbos became the home of two of Antiquity's most admired poets - Alakaios and Sappho, as well as the great philosopher Epicurus.
After all these messy trips around the multi-faceted Orpheus, it might be appropriate to conclude with a simple answer to the question ”Why did Orpheus turn around when he was so close to his destination and thus sent Eurydice back to Death?” In my opinion, the best answer is provided by the Sicilian author Gesualdo Bufalino in his short story Eurydice's Homecoming.
Bufalino tells us how Eurydice sits alone and frozen on the banks of Styx. After Orpheus's fatal glance back she has on her injured foot limped back along the dark ravine that ends by the black river, which she must cross to return to her friend Proserpina's gloomy palace. More surprised and shocked than grief-struck, Eurydice thinks back on her life together with her admired and beloved Orpheus.
The wedding party had been an unmitigated disaster, even if the god of marriage, Hymen himself, had come from afar to marry Orpheus and Eurydice. The ceremonial wedding torch could not be lit, it hissed and sparkled without catching fire, an ominous sign that obscured the entire party. The general gloom could not even be dispersed by the exquisite food and wine, not even Orpheus´s incomparably beautiful singing could lighten up the boredom and frustration.
When everyday life began, Eurydike could not chase away her disenchantment over the Poet´s lack of interest for anything other than his own art. He tormented his young wife by leaving her alone for long periods of time, which she devoted to boring housekeeping, or by listlessly sitting by the loom. This while Orpheus basked in the brilliance of his celebrity and all the admiration his love songs for Eurydice triggered amidst an admiring audience.
Over time, Eurydike became increasingly annoyed at the Poet's, she always called him that, self-centered behaviour. The young couple's neighbour, a shepherd, and beekeeper by the name of Aristaios, who like Orpheus was one of Apollon´s several sons, began during the absence of the Poet to lust after his beautiful and forsaken wife. More out of boredom than seriously, Eurydice almost unconsciously encouraged her neighbour's cautious courtesy. However, one day Aristaios suppressed horniness made him lose self-control and he chased Eurydike out across a field where she trampled on a viper that gave her a deadly bite in the heel.
While Orpheus celebrated further triumphs with touching elegies about his deceased wife, the gods punished Aristaios by killing all his bees. In despair, the inconsolable Aristaios sought any means to appease the wrath of the gods. The only one who knew what to do was the sea god Proteus, who knew the answer to many a riddle but would not reveal his knowledge unless you took a firm hold on him and kept it. This was virtually impossible since Proteus could transform himself into anything. However, an increasingly frustrated Aristaios managed to hold on to the furiously shep shifting divinity, transforming into an eel, a scorpion, a whirlwind, a flame, rushing water. In the end, Proteus gave up and declared that the gods would be pleased if Aristaios sacrificed four bulls and four heifers on Eurydice's grave. After Aristaios had done what Proteus had advised him to do swarms of bees arose from the rotting carcasses of the sacrificial animals. This miracle was the reason to why the beekeeping-interested Virgil in his agricultural poem The Georgics told the story about Orpheus and Eurydice and thus inspired the younger Ovid to recount it in his Metamorphoses.
Well, let us return to Eurydice's thoughts while she sat on the shore of Styx. She had been deeply moved when her beloved Poet made his risky journey down to Hades´s palace becoming the first mortal ever to succeed in saving someone from Death. And he succeeded through his almost incredible effort to soften the hardened heart of the tenebrous Ruler of Death. Orpheus's triumph arose from the fact that in his song he cunningly hinted at Hades´s great love, which long ago had forced him up to Earth´s surface to steal away the woman he desired most of all and then made mistress over his kingdom.
Nevertheless ... after all that trouble, after such a great victory – why did Orfeus turn around and thus spoiled his entire enterprise? Then – quite suddenly there in the darkness, abandonment, and gloom, Euridyce´s melancholy eased. Not because her situation had improved, but because she finally understood everything. Why Orpheus had turned to look at her and thus condemned her to death once more. It was not for her sake. It was not out of love for her that he did what he did. It was for his own fame he acted as he did.
His life with Eurydice had not at all become as he had expected it to be. Instead, she had become a weight around his neck, a source for irritation and bad conscience. The constant thought of her, her constant demand for his presence had left a fly in the ointment, become a hindrance for the enjoyment of his fame. Now Orpheus was free again! And he had become unexampled, entirely unique – truly the greatest singer of them all. No one could top what he had achieved. Armed with nothing more than song and poetry he had mastered the monsters and damned souls of the Underworld. He had defeated Death himself! Now Orfeus no longer needed any Eurydice. The whole earth lay before his feet. With an euphoric feeling of total liberation and triumph, Orpheus left the murky Hades behind and stepped out into the warm sunshine, singing extraordinary, almost supernaturally brilliant tributes to his lost Eurydice.
Strangely enough, neither Orfeus nor Eurydice suffered any transformation in Ovid's Metamorphoses. It might have been close at hand to assume that Orpheus was turned into a blackbird, or a nightingale, but the one who was transformed into such a bird was Philomela, who was punished for assisting her sister when she murdered her son, cooked him and served him as an exquisite dish to her hated husband Tereus. After her death, Philomela metamorphosed into a bird. She became the queen of all nightingales. It was presumably meant to be an irony since a female nightingale cannot sing.
While writing about Orpheus, a phrase from the Swedish poet Hjalmar Gullberg keeps popping up in my brain: ”The greatest singer ever heard on earth”. I remember my friend and colleague Berndt Dagerklint, who died a couple of years ago. He was a great fan of Hjalmar Gullberg's poetry and knew several of his poems by heart. He used to reassure me that Gullberg´s poem To a Nightingale in Malmö is the most beautiful poem ever written about illness, aging and death. Since I started this essay by complaining about my advancing old age it could be appropriate to end it with a few lines from that poem, though I hesitate to do so since my clumsy translation cannot render the exquisite rhythm and rhyming of Gullberg´s poetry:
In the hospital´s park, the moon´s lantern gleams tonight
shining softly through the fabric of my curtain,
and all those locked in grief, sadness and fright
listen to a sacred song; bold, strong and certain.
The greatest singer ever heard on earth
brings me rest with his exciting tale.
I hear music, free from words and dearth
Sing nightingale, sing my hometown´s nightingale.
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