Remember the Orpheus myth? Its appeal is universal as the bedrock of modern art, lasting true love and heaven in the afterlife. Dare not looking back!
The myth of Orpheus appears around the 6th century B.C. but has remained vivid to this date in western imagination. The myth is comprised of three, somewhat unconnected, stories central to modern perception of Art, Love and Spirituality. Difficult to be more universal than that!
The life cycle of Orpheus has been reinterpreted across the centuries, shading new light and new shadow on the weakness of human nature. Let’s start with the basic story:
Orpheus, the misunderstood failed superhero
- First is the coming of age of Orpheus as a musician and poet. Apollo, the god of sun and music (and some say his father), gave him a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. His mother was Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who taught him to make verses for singing. With this upbringing, Orpheus emerged as a talented, possibly “cocky,” artist able to charm all things. Wild beasts, rivers and stones fell under the spell of his music, poetry and singing.
- Then comes the age of Love with Eurydice. But tragically, Eurydice died on her wedding day from a viper’s bite. Overcome with grief, Orpheus traveled to the underworld and played such sad and mournful songs that he softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone. The underworld gods agreed to the return of Eurydice on earth but at one condition. That is, he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. In his angst, he turned too quickly after reaching the upper world and Eurydice vanished forever.
- Finally, the story ends with Orpheus’ own death. After the Eurydice tragedy, Orpheus stopped worshiping Dionysus, the primitive god of wine and nature, for the ascetic cult of Apollo, the god of sun. He developed purification rituals including vegetarianism and abstention from the love of women. This attracted a lot of resentment from the Dionysus devotees. Some women threw sticks and stones at him as he played, but his music was so beautiful even the rocks and branches refused to hit him. Infuriated, the women tore him apart. Only his head and lyre remained intact, floating down the river to the sea, singing mournful songs.
What is the role of the artist in modern society?
The power of art links the three stories. In addition to giving comfort and joy, Orpheus music opens new doors, including the one to the underworld. Art makes things happen, stirring into life what appears to be dead, like rocks or deceased Eurydice. “By portraying the world creatively, heightening our perception and enriching our understanding of things as they are, art makes sense of life,” said art critic Terry Teachout.
The most gifted artists take the ability to imagine, adapt, empathize and collaborate to another level through practice, discipline and courage (from the Australian Cultural Policy). They aim to overwhelm ordinary people with the force of emotions, making everything more beautiful, opening transcendental meanings, and perhaps transform mentality.
Still, “No artist desires to prove anything,” says Oscar Wilde in the Picture of Dorian Gray, without being an ideologue or displaying “an unpardonable mannerism of style.” Per Akira Kurosawa, “the role of the artist is to not look away.” He must show the world as he sees it, and not as he wants other to see it. This “not to look away” resonates with the “not to look back” in the Orpheus myth. We explored this theme in our SpareTag video, this temptation of the artist Orpheus to embrace the underworld and gain full awareness of life and death.
Poets through the centuries have felt strong connection to Orpheus, the misunderstood radical artist brutally silenced. His singing head floating down the river symbolizes that arts live on after the artist has passed away. Poetry becomes permanent to the point that for Rilke “there is ultimately only one Poet,” a spirit or a force that passes on from one living artist to another.
Orpheus and Eurydice, Love and Conspiracy
At first glance, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth represents the power of love and the power of art to overcome death. But the recovery effort failed, which raises many questions about the nature of true love, the true character of Orpheus as well as the trueness of gods.
What is true love? Do we love a person for meeting our ideal of beauty and perfection? In our SpareTag video, we took the view that the artist Orpheus was in love with life, personified in Eurydice, but encompassing the broader force. “I loved beauty. I loved loving. I loved the world mysteries”. So he looks back to satisfy his “selfish love for life”.
For Plato, Orpheus is a coward — on top of being cocky?! His love was not “true,” as he did not want to die in order to be with the one he loved. Instead, he provoked the gods’ ire by singing his way to Hades to get Eurydice back alive. The gods punish him. First, they gave him only an apparition of his former wife that faded in the sunlight of the upper world. Then, they have him killed by women.
Oh, we love this conspiracy interpretation of the Orpheus myth and built it in the core of our SpareTag video, with plots and counter-plots in the pure tradition of the Greek/Roman mythology.
Where Spirituality meets Psychoanalysis
- The Orpheus myth represents the journey of the soul. The soul must descend to the lowest point before it is purified, and can ascend again. It is the same cycle than nature. The seed after ripping in the sun falls down into the darkness of earth to grow up into the light again. Correspondingly, Orpheus sings lazily in the sun before going to the underworld. He rises again as an ascetic worshiper of the sun god until death, when Orpheus becomes part of nature.
- The fight of good against evil is an integral part of the Orpheus myth. For the Medieval theologians, the return of Orpheus in the light symbolizes the desire of purity. However, this desire is clearly tested when he looks back longingly at the underworld. This good-vs-evil conflict, expressed by the not-looking-back theme, can also be found in the Biblical story of Lot’s wife when escaping from Sodom.
- Of course, religion is never far away. Orpheus was a shaman able to speak to animals and visit the underworld. His rejection of the pagan Dionysus cult for a single loving god is a prelude to Christianity. There is a striking parallel with the figure of Jesus. Jesus, the son of a God, was a miracle maker and a a misunderstood new cult teacher. He was executed by non-believers and also returned from the realm of death.
- Psychoanalysis in the 20th century brought new interpretations. Psychoanalysts saw in the recovery trip to Hades, a failed attempt to resurrect the past of a dead love. A doomed attempt per Oscar Wilde since “each man kills the thing he loves.” One step deeper, the Jungians saw in the Orpheus and Eurydice tale an act of separation of the Self from the Other.
The Orpheus myth is a story of hope
Still all is not dark in the story. According to some accounts, the spirits of Orpheus and Eurydice end up finding each other in the Elysian Fields, the paradise in the Underworld. Our SpareTag video also ends on a happy note where Orpheus brings love and peace to the underworld. What’s not to like about a good Creation myth!