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 VI

The Myth of Orpheus, continued…

Orphic Mythology in Medieval Christian Commentary:

Boethius; William of Conches; Bernardus Silvestris

     If Orpheus’ music could pacify the breasts of wild beasts, and cause even rocks to follow him, it must have been because these beings, like all things, were, as Virgil says, filled with soul.

This was the conviction of the Orphics, who taught a form of pantheism or hylozoism, according to which the entire material world was enlivened and alive with the One Soul-Substance, that of the Godhead itself, which underwent an endless series of transmigrations or reincarnations and yet remained the same.

Music, moreover, was the most potent way of reawakening the indwelling divine soul to an awareness of its celestial origins, nature, and unbroken connection with the Godhead, since, in its celestial pre-existence, the otherworldly harmony of the spheres was its birthsong.  Because the sensual din of the world and the physical senses inevitably drowns out this transcendental harmony, the duty of the Orphic is to stop up his outer ears, to mortify and anesthetize his physical senses, and cultivate instead the inner senses with which alone the heavenly music can be heard.

The Orphic way of the salvation of the soul is thus (as Socrates describes the life of the philosopher in the Phaedo) a withdrawing of the soul from the world and the body into the stillness of the divine world that resides in its own depths.  The Orphic becomes an immortal god because he has lived the Orphic life, the life of one who is aware of the celestial origins and essentially divine nature of his soul– his “self”, as both the Orphics and later the Gnostics called it–, an entity that therefore utterly transcends the mortal world.

It is this fundamental Orphic doctrine of man’s essential divinity that resonates in Scipio Africanus’ advice to his grandson at the end of the Somnium: 

Strive on indeed, and be sure that it is not you that is mortal, but only your body.  For that man whom your outward form reveals is not yourself; the spirit is the true self, not that physical figure which can be pointed out by the finger.  Know, then, that you are a god, if a god is that which…rules, governs, and moves the body over which it is set, just as the supreme God above us rules this universe.  And just as the eternal God moves the universe, which is partly mortal, so an immortal spirit moves the frail body.

The Orphic myth was, like all the myths of classical antiquity, the subject of a long and rich tradition of allegorical commentary in the Christian Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Here, once again, its principal moral message of withdrawing the rational soul from the contaminating influence of the physical senses, the carnal passions, and the temporal things of this world was assimilated, more or less unaltered, into orthodox Christian soteriology.

In the twelfth meter of Book III of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy begins,

Happy is he who can look into the shining spring of good: happy is he who can break the heavy chains of earth…,

and then, after She narrates the myth of Orpheus in detail, the meter concludes:

The fable applies to all of you who seek to raise your minds to sovereign day.  For whoever is conquered and turns his eyes back to the pit of hell, looking into the inferno, loses all the excellence he has gained.

In the eleventh century, William of Conches (Christian Platonist and commentator on Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium) explains:

Orpheus is used to designate any wise and eloquent man, and hence the name Orpheus is as if to say orea phone, or “best voice”.  His wife is Eurydice, or, that is, natural concupiscence which is joined to everyone…But this natural concupiscence is well named “Eurydice”, or “judgment of the good”, for whatever anyone judges to be good, whether rightly or wrongly, he desires.  This concupiscence while it wandered in the meadow was loved by Aristaeus. Aristaeus is used to represent virtue, for ares means “virtue”.  But this virtue loved that Eurydice, or natural concupiscence, as it wondered through the meadow, or through terrestrial things, which like a meadow now flourish and now dry up.  That is, virtue follows concupiscence always, because it needs to take it away from earthly things.  But Eurydice fled from Aristaeus, for natural concupiscence contradicts virtue, since it desires its own pleasure, which virtue forbids.  But then it dies and descends to Hell, or, that is, to delight in terrestrial things.  When his wife dies, Orpheus sorrows, because when a wise man sees his effort and delight residing in temporal things, he is displeased.  But even though he may overcome everything else with his wise music, he cannot overcome the sorrow for his lost wife, because even if a wise man with his eloquence and wisdom can overcome the vices of others, he cannot take away his own concupiscence from temporal things.  Hence he sorrows greatly. But Orpheus descends to Hell to remove his wife as a wise man descends to a knowledge of terrestrial things so that, having seen that there is no good in them, he may withdraw his concupiscence from them.  But a law is given to him that he must not look back, for “No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:62]

The imagery of this text should by now be familiar.  I draw your attention to three interesting points, however:

First, the incidental analogy to Jesus’ admonition to the plowman not to look behind him (i.e., not to shirk the duties of the Christian life), was indeed regularly linked to the myth of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice–both exemplifying the Orpheo-Platonic imperative, now identified with the Christian, to keep the eye of the soul trained upward upon the heavenly invisibilia.   With these two loci, moreover, the biblical narrative of Lot’s wife looking back at the burning city of Sodom and in punishment changed by God into a pillar of salt, was also often included as another admonitory tale about the perils of the same errant earthly attitude.

Secondly, one can see again (as we saw when discussing medieval marriage) that the mythical pairs Aristaeus and Eurydice, and Orpheus and Eurydice, are pre-eminently allegorical symbols of the male reason and female sensuality, whose hierarchical relationship is turned “upso-doun”, as Chaucer would say, when Eurydice flees Aristaeus-virtue and goes hankering after terrestrial things, from which Orpheus-reason must then rescue her.

The final point to note is the equation implicitly drawn by William between Orpheus’ reason/virtue/wisdom and his “wise music”, all of which are merely images for the same essential divine “self” which must assert itself against the downward gravitational pull of the world.

Another important allegorical interpretation of the Orpheus myth comes from the commentary on theAeneid of the great twelfth-century poet and doctor of the cathedral school of Chartres, Bernardus Silvestris—a text whose Platonic and Orphic afflatus is unmistakable:

The descent into Hell is quadriform:  there is a descent of nature, another of virtue, another of vice, and another of artifice.  The natural descent is the birth of man, for in that event the soul naturally begins to be in this fallen region and thus to descend to Hell, to recede from its divinity, and soon to bend toward vices and to consent to sensual pleasures.  But this way is common to all.  There is another descent of virtue which is made when a wise man descends to worldly things to consider them, not so that he may place his intention in them, but so that their fragility being known, he may cast them aside and hastily return to the realm of invisible things and know the Creator more clearly through a knowledge of the creatures [cf. Rom. 1:20].  In this way Orpheus and Hercules, who were called wise men, descended.  There is a third descent of vice, which is common, in which one is brought to temporal things in such a way that the whole intention is placed in them and they are served with the whole mind, nor is the soul moved from them any more.  In this way we read that Eurydice descended to Hell. Moreover, from this descent there is no return…

With the myth and its allegorical tradition in mind, one can see, as I said before, that Shakespeare’s allusion to the Orphic motives of music’s ability to tranquilize the passions of wild horses and mobilize trees and rocks is hardly merely decorative. As a symbol of the Old Law of Justice, the implacable Shylock would have been impervious to the efficacy of Orpheus’ music, though it moved even the vengeful fiends of Hell to mercy and love.  As Lorenzo implies, “he hath no music” in his immortal soul.  In Orphic terms, his soul is vacant of the divine music that is innate and immanent in all men–or ought to be–, and as such, his whole “intention” (to use Bernard’s noun) is upon worldly wealth.