Orpheus Lives!

Peter’s encouragement to devote months of 2014 to the consideration of ancient mythology brought up hours of reverie and reflection. Weeks of fertile discussion between us. To dote on Orpheus’ weird mythology and the pseudo-history of a minor divinity (or, as you want, a wandering Thracian shaman) became a trip into my classical studies past and the entheogenic experiences of late nights’ study of Greek and Latin poetry. (Psychedelic rock playing on my turntable.) As with Eliot’s The Waste Land, the reading and communication presented an epic trek into great traditions of arts and literature, which, once delved into, cannot be forgotten in this short span of life we grope through.


#1 Anne Wroe’s Tapestry

Just as with a myth, drummed up, uttered from the mouth of a poetic mutterer around a fireplace, the images move around in the muteness of sleep as dream. Out of the silence of “mu,” Memnosyne’s muses playing their part, murmurings from mumness, out of feeble mumblings in mental labyrinths, the myth rises like a Morris Graves’ phoenix out of gray ashy depths and flies forth as wind and sound from the yawning maw of Chaos. Oh, it is amusing, silly, serious story stuff! How it gels and crystalizes to become the epigraphy or relief on rock, the painted figures on mixing bowls, the lyric fragments of early singers whose verses some clever epigrapher thought to score on tablet or ink on skin, myth is mummified, crumbled, mostly lost to some event felt profound or successful enough to need record or report, then by wild conjecture and lavish imitation the “story” circulates anew. Go Montiverde!

Style: Reading Anne Wroe’s accounts of Orpheus in her finely focused study (Orpheus: The Song of Life: The Life and Myth of Humanity’s Eternal Muse) my mind did move in circles. The prose wound in circles. For design of each chapter, you might use the metaphor of tapestry: the text as colored (how?) woven (by whom?) threads (carded, spun, and merchanted by whom?) composed (how?) over eons of time. The tapestries of Medieval thread I have seen. They take on a static look, fixed for all time, although some patchwork might have been added later on orders of some curator. For me, Wroe’s imagery circulated as in a kaleidoscope. Through hundreds of riffling pages a rich catalogue flowed unstoppable: first as a bubbling spring, then as a rippling brook, later as a mountain stream and eventually as a deep river, each chapter a multifaceted array of prose and poetry, descriptive and explicative, harkening back to ancient and medieval artists and moving forward to contemporary artists of song, film, sculpture, and graphic pictorial or literary design. Don’t forget the copses of trees along each water body. Nymphs peeked out from them.

Her treatise is neither fact nor fiction. Like a mosaic of the quoted records placed together, Wroe does have to cement the pieces in design by her own fictional glue. Her own explanations may be an undetectable, re-elaboration of story and description her own secret, but the work is not meant as a mystery. It is her own intellectual and aesthetic synthesis. Playing Phanes, she reveals treasures, collected as if from boxes of mystery rites, a lost library or repertory on the works of Orpheus, the theme of Orpheus, the exploitation of Orpheus. She is assisted more times by Rainer Maria Rilke than any other commentator, the fey Austrian poet acting as an avatar of Orpheus himself:

“He had entered Nature, whispered Rilke from the buds and leaves; he has entered us.

‘…the sound of you lingered in lions and boulders,

Lingered in birds and in trees, where you still sing today.

Only because you were butchered in terrible anger

–O you lost God! O divine, indestructible trace!—

Are we ears that can hear and a mouth for what Nature can say.’”

The Run of It: When the river runs deepest, her prose risks divulging the mystery ceremony of the Orphics, “Tell no one, close the doors!” Nevertheless, we get a glimpse of rites of revival, teaching how to die in life and live again. Quiet mystic events, but no less strange—faces caked with lime or clay, boxes of eggs, snakes, cloaks, etc.– than the irrational Dionysian jubilation of the whirling, snake-entwined maenads and capering satyrs, the rending of animals and bestial feasting, inspired by entheogenetic sacraments: the frothy blood of Bacchus’ vines and ground meal of Demeter’s ergotised barley bread. No doubt I had the kaleidoscope of my own endoptic psychedelic experiences aroused like a bizarre Proustean reverie as the music and mystery, from decades past, of rational and irrational, sacred, classical studies and irrational, profane, nighttime festivals played on my neurological lyre and on mind’s retinal screen.


#2 The Animism of Pantheism

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus seems like an antique throwback when he shows up, thrown up on the island of Phaeacia, hiding by Athena’s help in the waters of the river where Nausicaa and her maids did King Alcinous’ palace wash. Confronting the beautiful princess, Odysseus has some discomfort in concealing his hideous, sea-blown nakedness before the young maiden. He uses verbal seduction to praise her beauty:

“Just once, at Delos,

Beside Apollo’s altar, have I seen

A tender palm-shoot rise so gracefully. …

And just as when I saw that palm, my wonder

was piercing, lasting, for no trunk has ever

grown from the earth to match that tree, so, lady,

I marvel at you, am amazed; my fear

is deep—I plead but dare not clasp your knees. (tr. Mandelbaum, Bk. 6, vs. 162-164; 168-172)

Yes, Odysseus can think of nothing more beautiful in comparison to dainty Nausicaa than that of a new sprung palm-tree he had once spied by Apollo’s Delian altar.

A millennium ahead, in Robert Burton’s monumental The Anatomy of Melancholy, a 17th-century treatise on the causes of and how to get rid of the blues, the philosopher therapist speaks of vegetal love, especially of the affection of palm-trees.:

“In vegetal creatures what sovereignty Love hath, by many pregnant proofs and familiar examples may be proved, especially of palm-trees, which are both he and she, and express not a sympathy but a love-passion, as many observations have been confirmed.

[Orpheus could have written this]

‘Boughs live for love, every tree in turn grows amorous,

They nod their troth, poplar sighs to polar and

Plane tree to plane tree, alder whispers to alder.’

Constantine, de agric. Lib. 10, cap. 4, gives an instance out of Florentius his Georgics, of a palm-tree that loved most fervently, ‘and would not be comforted until such a time her love applied herself unto her; you might see the two trees bend, and of their own accords stretch out their boughs to embrace and kiss each other; they will give manifest signs of mutual love.” Third Partition, Section 2, Membrum 1. (from Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. With an introduction by Holbrook Jackson, NYRB, 2001. p. 43.)

Thus, mythinking backwards, Odysseus was pretending to be a vegetal water creature, hiding his manhood, but still expressing amorous seduction towards the lovely split-leafed nymph of Alcinous’ palace. Perhaps he thought Nausicaa to be a tree nymph by the river and this praise she might most warm up to. Who knows what Homer meant, what Odysseus meant when nymphs could be called from trees?


#3 Eurydice in Bavaria

On my journey through comparative literature, I found other connections beyond Wroe’s Orpheus inquiries. Later in his Anatomy, the great Burton narrates the story of a latter-day Orpheus and Eurydice:

“Sabine, in his comment on the tenth [Bk.] of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, at the tale of Orpheus, telleth of a gentleman of Bavaria, that for many months together bewailed the loss of his dear wife; at length the devil in her habit came and comforted him, and told him, because he was so importunate for her, that she would come and live with him again, on that condition he would be new married, never swear and blaspheme as he used formerly to do; for if he did, she would be gone: ‘he vowed it, married, and lived with her; she brought him children, and governed his house, but was still pale and sad, and so continued, till one day, falling out with him, he fell a-swearing. She vanished thereupon, and was never after seen. This I have heard,” sayeth Sabine, “from persons of good credit, which told me that the Duke of Bavaria did tell it for a certainty to the Duke of Saxony.” 3rd Part., Sec. 2, Mem. 1. (p. 47). [Italics mine.]

Wow! A very modern version of the myth. Amazing Burton might think readers would believe this, but when one duke tells another, the story hath a lineage. The subtle phrase might be the fact that the wife returned to her husband ‘still sad and pale.’ As Euripides might have invented her: Was she truly a living being who returned from death, or a pale ghost? Just to show her husband up? Was this a nightmare of the husband or a scandal he fobbed off as one-night miracle?

David Gilmour (Feb 27, 2015)

This entry was posted in 2015 Selections, Orpheus, Song of Life. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Orpheus Lives!

  1. pmunrafp says:

    So beautifully written David. Great working with you in it. Along with Orpheus I’ve learned lots of Athena stories to tell my granddaughter whose middle name is Athena. One day I hope to treat her to a trip to Greece.

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