Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part V

Orphism…Its Origins and Continuing Influence…

Orpheus, Founder of Music…

His Myth…Orpheus and Eurydice…

Death at the Hands of  Dionysius’ Maenads…

     The reference to Orpheus in The Merchant of Venice, in the context of Lorenzo’s disquisition on the harmony of the spheres, is also conventional, but not merely so, since with it Shakespeare transports the reader back to the original religious matrix of all of these symbols and ideas.

The Orphic cult was centered in southern Italy in the sixth century B.C., where and when Pythagoras taught.  It is probable that Pythagoras was an initiate of the Orphic mysteries, and there is no doubt that he, his fellow philosophers Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Plato, as well as the poets Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Apollonius of Rhodes (the author of the Argonautica), and Ovid (whose motive of “metamorphosis” is a literary conceit inspired by the Orphic doctrine of transmigration of souls), just to name a few of the ancients, were profoundly indebted to Orphic ideas.

We have already encountered, in our texts from Cicero and Virgil, direct evidence of that widespread indebtedness.  Orphic ideas continued to influence the Neoplatonists Plotinus, Porphyry, Macrobius, and Proclus in pagan late antiquity. And, indeed, they profoundly shaped Christian thought from the time of Clement and Origen in second-century Alexandria, through the Cappadocian Fathers of the third and fourth, the moral philosophy of Boethius and the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius in the early sixth, the Platonist revival of twelfth-century Chartres (especially the poetry and theology of Alan of Lisle and Bernardus Silvestris), and the overtly Orphic geography of the underworld and conception of the purgation of sins in Dante’s Commedia.

In the late-fifteenth century, the Florentine Christian Neoplatonists Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola expressly identified themselves as adherents of the so-called Orphic theology.  And in the early seventeenth century, the eminently sensible Mr. Shakespeare makes his King Lear an Orphic when he laments to Cordelia:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.


In all references to the original corpus of Orphic texts (of which, of course, little survives), the same complex of doctrines and beliefs is always assumed:  the idea of the pre-existence of souls in a pure, disembodied state in the celestial aether; the doctrine succinctly expressed by the Greek formula sema soma (body tomb)–that is, the idea of birth in the world and the body as a fall, death, burial or imprisonment of the soul–; the necessity therefore of the soul to purify itself of the contaminating taints of the body and the senses both in this world and the next if it is to be saved; its expectation of a retributive afterlife in which the just will be rewarded with bliss and the unjust punished; the belief in transmigration of souls or metempsychosis, according to which the soul must undergo a series of incarnations in this world and purgations in the next before it may escape the “wheel of fire” and fly back into the pure aether whence it came.  This, of course, is the complex of ideas assumed and promulgated in Plato, in Cicero’s Somnium, as in Virgil’s sixth Aeneid.  And given that Pythagoras was a disciple of the Orphic cult, it is hardly, then, a coincidence that music played such a central role in his philosophy.


Orpheus is by tradition the original master of the humane art of music, and music is, accordingly, one of the leitmotives of Orphic myth.  In the usual manner of Greek myth, Orpheus is a demigod, half mortal and half divine, the son of a Thracian King and his queen Calliope (not coincidentally the Muse of epic song).  As his parentage would suggest, he was a great musician:  the culture hero, in fact, who was the first to bring the civilizing arts of both poetry and music to the rude Greeks of the pre-historic age.

Orpheus, we are assured, lived in the age of other heroes and demigods–in the generation before Odysseus and the Trojan War, to be precise.   He was not, of course, the originator of music—the gods were.  Athena had invented the flute, although she refused to play it lest in doing so her face should become unpleasantly contorted.  Pan is credited with the manufacture of the reed-pipe, and Hermes the shepherd’s pipe.  Hermes also invented the seven-stringed lyre (one string for each tone of the major scale), and presented it to Apollo, who drew from its strings sounds so entrancing that when he played, the gods of Olympus forgot all else; indeed, even Zeus paused from his philandering for a time.

But, among mortals, Orpheus was the greatest musician, and for good reason. Apollo himself presented him with a lyre, his Muse mother and her sisters instructed him in its use, and his fortuitous upbringing in Thrace (home of Dionysus) inevitably nurtured his young musical talent.

So accomplished did it become that it was said that when Orpheus played his lyre on the Thracian mountainsides, its sweet sound uprooted trees, caused rocks to move, deflected the courses of rivers, and pacified the wild beasts, all of which left their wonted habitats to follow him.  All of nature, animate and inanimate, sensate and insensate, seemed to be affected by his celestial melody.


After a visit to Egypt, Orpheus joined Jason’s Argonauts, and on several occasions saved the expedition from imminent disaster.  When the sailors became weary, he would strike his lyre and inspire them to row with renewed zeal.  If a quarrel threatened, he would play so tenderly that the most aggrieved spirits would be tranquilized and forget their anger.  Orpheus saved the Argonauts, too, from the Sirens.  Knowing that the sailors would be tempted to listen to their enthralling song, Orpheus took up his lyre and played a melody so beautiful and clear that it drowned out the sound of the Sirens’ fatal voices.  Thus the Argo was set back on course and the winds sped her away from that most dangerous of places.


On his return, Orpheus met and married Eurydice, but their joy was brief.  After the wedding, while walking with her bridesmaids and picking flowers in a pleasant vernal meadow, Eurydice was accosted by one of the guests, Aristaeus, who tried to force her; fleeing, she trod on a serpent and died of its bite.

Overwhelmed with grief, Orpheus determined to go down to the world of death and bring Eurydice back.  To enter where no mortal may, he struck his lyre and charmed both the ferryman Charon and the ferocious canine guardian of hell’s gates, the three-headed dog Cerberus.

As he passed through Tartarus, his music gave temporary respite to the suffering sinners:  for a moment, Ixion’s wheel ceased to revolve, Sisyphus sat peacefully upon his stone, and Tantalus listened, forgetting his hunger and thirst.  For the first time, the faces of the dread Furies were wet with tears, and even Hades and Persephone, king and queen of the underworld, were moved to pity.  With unwonted tears flowing down his cheeks, the implacable King of the Dead could not refuse Orpheus’ request, which he granted on only one condition:  that he not look back at Eurydice as she followed him, until they both reached the upper world.

The condition accepted, Orpheus re-ascended with Eurydice following close behind, guided through the darkness by the sound of his music. But he was all the while desperate for some assurance that she had not wandered into danger, and when, upon reaching the sunlight, he looked anxiously backwards, she was still in the cavern.  Thus, he lost her forever.

Orpheus tried to rush back into Tartarus after her, but he was prevented.  Though the exemption had been granted on a few occasions–to Hercules, Theseus, and now Orpheus himself–, no more than one descent into the underworld could be allotted to living mortals.


In utter desolation, Orpheus returned to earth alone.  In his bereavement, he forsook the company of men, and in fidelity to the memory of his dead wife, he brusquely rebuffed the advances of the women who hoped to replace her.  Comfortless save for his lyre, Orpheus wandered through the wild solitudes of Thrace,  playing for the rocks, rivers, trees, and beasts which were his only companions.

One day, when the jubilant mysteries of Dionsysus were being celebrated, Orpheus, in his grief and anger, neglected to honour the god.  Indeed, some say that he taught other sacred mysteries to the inhabitants of Thrace.  Thus, every morning he would rise to greet the dawn on the summit of Mt. Pangaeum, preaching that Apollo, the sun, was the greatest of gods.

Affronted, Dionysus set the Maenads upon him.  Offended not only by Orpheus’ insult to their god but his general rebuff to womankind, the Maenads waited until their husbands had entered the temple of Apollo where Orpheus served as priest; then they murdered them and tore Orpheus limb from limb.

Orpheus’ head was unceremoniously thrown into the river Hebrus; but it floated, still singing, down to the sea, whose waves carried it to the isle of Lesbos.  Eventually it was found by the Muses, and along with his limbs which they tearfully collected, it was buried at the foot of Mount Olympus, where to this day the nightingales sing sweeter than anywhere else in the world.