Using and Abusing Orpheus
The Moral and Social Benefits of the Creation of the Myth of Orpheus
Myth and Religion : Two sides of the same coin
When one spends time researching the works of the leading writers of ancient Greece, one consistently and unavoidably encounters the term Greek Mythology. However, any scholar making an analysis of the early, seminal works found in the developing empires of Christianity or Islam would seldom be faced with the terms Christian Mythology or Islamic Mythology. Instead, the word religion is used, presumably in an attempt to emphasize the fact that there is a qualitative difference between the stories that modern western religions are based on, and the stories that the Greeks built there culture upon. Whether or not this qualitative difference actually exists however, is questionable, and it is far more likely that the particular terms are used for political purposes in the modern world.
In the modern English language, the term myth seems to possess the semantic features of unreliability or untruth, while on the other hand, the term religion seems to imply divinity, truth and holiness. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the two terms in the following way; a myth is, a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and often embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena whereas religion is, the belief in a superhuman controlling power, especially in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship Myths therefore, include supernatural people, while religion includes superhuman powers; a clear difference between the two terms is conveniently absent. Furthermore, both The Bible and The Koran include a substantial amount of information on natural and social phenomena, as well as supplying us with several traditional narratives, both of which are typical characteristics of myths. Finally, the fact that situations in which God or gods are entitled to worship falls into the category of religion should theoretically remove all of the Olympic Gods from the category of myth and place them firmly alongside the Gods of the main modern western religions.
Instead of debating terms however, it would be more useful to illustrate the similar functions that both myths and religions possess. Neither myths nor religions appear out of thin air; it is far more likely that such stories are carefully construed with political motives in mind. These stories then enter the discourse of society and begin to function, usually for the benefit of the conservative elements of society, attempting to maintain control over potentially disruptive social bodies. Whether or not a myth has any ounce of truth in it, or whether there really was any divine inspiration behind the development of a religion is both unknown and unimportant; the past after all, can be distorted at will.
The importance of myths and religion is perhaps two-fold: firstly, such stories theoretically produce social cohesion, and secondly, these tales help to produce the development of a self-disciplinary personal super-ego in the individual. Societies and social bodies seem to feel the need to create a mythical history of their particular country or state in order to justify and explain the present state of affairs. Nationalistic heroes are mythologized, enabling citizens or subjects to feel part of the collective social body; obviously, the benefits of social cohesion will be reaped upon successfully achieving this goal.
The second, yet more important effect of the creation of historical tales is the disciplinary nature of myths and religion. Freud pointed out in his work Civilization and its Discontents, that society can only be constructed successfully when the individual is willing to give up his personal desires and control his natural instincts to an extent. In fact, I would argue that the Cold War, which dominated the lives of millions of people during the twentieth century, was based on two different approaches to this issue, the carrot and the stick. The capitalist nations chose to offer the carrot to all those people willing to sacrifice their free time in order to work and compete in the market place; it didnt matter that there werent many carrots about, the economy benefited from the work of individuals. Soviet Russia on the other hand, chose to utilize the stick, punishing those who failed to join in the national cause.
Societies based on religious law are no different in this respect, and could quite easily have taken their place as the third participant in the ideological war. Religion offers the carrot of heaven to those who behave well, while threatening the anti-social elements of society with the stick of Hell. The aim is similar in all cases: a story (whether you call it a myth or religion) is created promising something as of yet unproven to those who obey the rules and avoid disrupting the status quo.
This is the main reason why the myth of Orpheus has been so successful over the past millennia: illustrating the pains suffered by Orpheus due to his failure to obey the rules set forth can have a disciplinary effect on the listener. Whether it is a place in heaven, a million dollars in a capitalist society, or a social utopia in a socialist country, those who stray from the path laid down by the rules in society will fail to achieve these goals.
Orpheus and Orphism : A prelude to modern religion
Whether or not the person Orpheus ever existed is unclear, and more importantly, of very little importance. The story of heading into the underworld seems to be completely fictional, however it is possible that Orpheus as a religious leader perhaps existed. After all, a whole religion (some would say cult) seems to have sprung up as a consequence of the teachings of this man. I would argue however, that the existence of Orpheus is of the same relevance as the existence of the character of Jesus Christ or the prophet Mohammed; in other words, the importance of his existence is negligible; the meaning and interpretation of his alleged existence and acts are what matters.
The character Orpheus and the religion Orphism are, of course, closely connected. Whether or not orphic followers listened to the teaching of Orpheus, or whether they only took moral lessons from interpretations of the Orpheus myth is again unknown. What is clear however, is that Orphism as a religion was far bigger than the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. In fact, What has survived of Orphism in the modern world and from the time of Christ onward is the myth or Orpheus and Eurydice. In ancient Greece it was just a small component of the whole religion of Orphism, which had its roots in the Paleolithic past.
Orphism was primarily an ascetic religion, designed to encourage its followers to refrain from passionate activities which could have an anti-social nature. In this way, it is easy to see how the Orpheus myth could be put to use; Orpheus after all, suffers due to his inability to control his passions. As with all religions, the followers of Orphism developed a story to explain the creation of mankind, a story that could then have implications for the existential difficulties that man faced in this world. The Orphic believed, or at least claimed to believe, that man was created from the ashes of the Titans, who Zeus had destroyed with a thunderbolt after they had killed his son Dionysus. The conclusions that the Orphics derived from this tale is that man is part animal (due to his connection with the Titans), and part God (due to his links to Dionysus and Zeus). As with Christianity, it is the body that receives the negative aspect of man, while the soul is transported to the higher stage of existence, the Divine level.
In addition to the creation myth developed by the Orphics, the doctrine develops in the following way:
The Orphics believed it the duty of man to release the soul from the body, for the soul was divine,
and the body was the evil element that came from the Titans. In this prison, the body, the soul does
not enter only once, but returns in a kind of transmigration. Hades was conceived as Hell, a place of retribution for the unrighteous, from where it returned to earth and again became contaminated by its entrance into the body. Thus there results a kind of vicious circle which never ceases until the person
is initiated into the orgies of the Orphics. Once the person has been initiated, and purified, and abstains from certain foods, his soul is cleansed and it descends into Hades and partakes of the life of the blest.
The central tenets of Orphism therefore, bare a striking theoretical similarity to the doctrines of Christianity and other western religions. The body is dirty and evil, and the divine soul is trapped inside this prison. Hell exists as a place for the unrighteous and the only way that one can avoid going to Hell is by joining the Orphics. The order to abstain from eating certain foods is not foreign to western religion, and neither is the insistence on cleansing oneself before joining the believers.
I am not arguing of course, that Christianity is a later version of Orphism; the founders of the Christian faith needed to make several changes to the Orphic doctrines in order to create the society that they envisaged. In order to secure stricter moral behavior in society, the idea of transmigration from Hades back to earth for a second chance was removed; people will naturally be more careful if they believe that they only have one opportunity to reach Heaven. Furthermore, Orphism placed great emphasis on the equality in partnership of the sexes, an idea which the modern patriarchal religions needed to destroy.
Christianity however, did absorb many aspects of the Orphic doctrine, particularly those which encouraged self-discipline and social cohesion. Christianity and Orphism are often compared due to the fact that, Christianity shares many characteristics with other mystery religions of antiquity, which are called mystery religions because of their concern with the fundamental mysteries of human existence: life, death, questions about God, the soul, and the afterlife. Also, these mysteries involved secrets revealed only to members of the religious group, the initiates. This last point, I believe, is particularly important and can be found not only in all religions, but also in organizations like the Masons: if you join our group, we promise you eternal happiness and success. Without wishing to be too cynical, its very difficult to separate such religious boastings from basic political strategy.
Orphism can therefore be seen as a prelude to Christianity and the myth or Orpheus can be compared to the myths on which the modern day religions are based. Orphism was a controlled religion, designed to minimize anti-social elements. Even in its acknowledgment of Dionysus as an important Deity, the Orphics still downplayed the enthusiasm and emotion found in the worshippers of this God. In Eurypides The Bacchantes, the followers of Dionysus are portrayed as animal-like, dangerously enthusiastic and viscous, ultimately capable of killing and devouring human beings. The Orphics decided to tone-down this enthusiasm, channeling the necessary emotion into spiritual avenues. In some respects, their emotional worship would therefore seem to resemble that of modern day Baptists in the United States, feeding on natural human emotion and channeling it in sociably acceptable directions.
The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice : A variety of possibilities
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been passed down through the generations and throughout the world for almost three thousand years, yet its appeal remains strong and its interpretations retain their relevance in the modern world. Such success is truly remarkable when one considers the changes that have taken place in the world during that immensely long period of time. Furthermore, the myth has been used in such a large number of works by such a variety of writers, that there must exist certain secrets to this huge success.
Robert L. Kindrick, in his analysis of Robert Henrysons version of the story, emphasizes three factors that have led to the longevity of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Firstly, he claims, It was an interesting story which was attractive simply for its artistic merit. Secondly, the story is romantic in nature, and These romance elements added to the interest of the story for the medieval reader, even as they do for readers today. Thirdly, according to Kindrick, the tale can be used to, stimulate higher levels of thinking , by which he means that the story can enable readers to assess the moral nature of the tale and perhaps adapt their behavior accordingly. Henrysons interpretation, with its lengthy moralitas attached, seems to provide us with evidence for this third feature of the myth: Christians could use the tale in the same way as ancient Greeks could in order to teach society the moral lessons that would benefit society as a whole.
The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice would certainly not be out of place (morally at least, if not historically) in the collection of stories found in both the Old and New Testaments. Bible stories are highly allegorical in most cases, as is the tale of Orpheus and the underworld. One of the more common Christian interpretations of the myth can be found in Pierre Bersuires Reductorium Morale (1325-1337), in which Bersuire proposes that,
Orpheus, the child of the sun, is Christ the son of God the Father, who from the beginning led Eurydice, that is, the human soul to himself. And from the beginning Christ joined her to himself through his special prerogative. But the Devil, a serpent, drew near the new bride, that is, created de novo, while she collected flowers that is, while she seized the forbidden apple, and bit her by temptation and killed her by sin, and finally she went to the world below. Seeing this, Christ-Orpheus wished himself to descend to the lower world and thus he retook his wife, that is, human nature, ripping her from the hands of the ruler of Hell himself, and he led her with him to the upper world
Presumably, Bersuire is of the opinion that mankind has once again fallen since Christ arrived on the scene, as Eurydice does not actually reach the upper world. Interpretations such as these, failing to take into account the whole of the myth, do of course have their limits; It would after all, be very difficult to develop a complete allegorical interpretation of the myth in line with other religious or mythical stories.
Instead of trying to interpret the myth therefore, it is far more useful to analyze the aspects of the Orpheus myth that can be used and abused by interpreters, particularly those coming from a Christian background. The aspects of the myth that Christian and other western societies would be able to assimilate into their own religions are as follows: the power of one man is immense (particularly in the case of a supposed savior) and the suffering of this one man is relevant to our lives; mans troubles are caused by an inability to control ones passions and it is this inability which can lead to Hell; after a failure to comply with the laws of God, mourning, repentance and faith can still lead to Heaven; and the punishments that one finds in Hell are far worse than those seen in this world. These are the aspects of the Orpheus myth that have been focused on by many writers over the past two thousand years, and it is to these writers that we must now turn.
Virgil : The Picture of Hell
One of the first major writers to interpret the myth of Orpheus was the roman poet Virgil in the fourth book of The Georgics. Virgils tale is actually a short sub-section of a longer story focusing on Proteus the beekeeper, guilty in Virgils mind of causing the death of Euydice. The two hundred and sixty lines devoted to the Orpheus myth focus heavily on painting a terrifying portrait of Hades, a place to which no clear thinking individual would wish to find themselves in:
Nay to the jaws of Taenarus too he came,
Of Dis the infernal place, and the grove
Grim with a horror of great darkness came,
Entered, and faced the manes and the King
Of terrors, the stone heart no prayer can tame.
Then from the deepest deeps of Erebus,
Wrung my his minstrelsy, the hollow shades
Came trooping, ghostly semblances of forms
Lost to the lights, as birds of myriads hie
To greenwood boughs for cover, when twilight hour
Or storms of winter chase them from the hills;
Matrons and men, and great heroic frames
Done with lifes service, boys, unwedded girls,
Youths placed on pyre before their fathers eyes.
Round them, with black slime choked and hideous weed,
Cocytus winds; there lies the unlovely swamp
Of dull dead water, and, to pen them fast,
Styx with her ninefold barrier poured between
Portraits of Hell in literature, excluding the accepted religious texts, are common enough, and presumably are written for the same purpose as the official religious texts of the major religions. Hell needs to be a threat in order to secure discipline in society, and as far as this threat is concerned, the darker the portrait, the more effective the disciplinary possibilities. It is therefore no surprise to find two of the most famous Hell portraits found in the works of two of the most ardently religious writers: Dante Alighieris Inferno in The Divine Comedy, and John Miltons Paradise Lost. Of more recent fame, James Joyces Hell-fire speech in the central chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man revealed the effect on an impressionable individual of creating such a picture in peoples minds: Joyces hero feels positively sick with fear after listening to the catholic priests warnings.
Orpheuss trip into the underworld provides the artist with the ideal story to use all of his or her artistic vision in order to present to us his or her religious opinions concerning the afterlife for those who fail to obey societys rules. Virgil however, takes the moral lesson a little further, using the myth to warn individuals about the dangers of giving in to ones passions. As Orpheus reaches the sunlight after his journey out of Hades, he mistakenly turns back to check whether or not his beloved is still following him; of course, due to the stipulations laid down by Proserpine, Eurydice is consequently recalled to the depths of Hell. Virgil uses the temporary error explaining that, A sudden mad desire surprised and seized / Meet fault to be forgiven, might Hell forgive. Desire is therefore referred to as mad with the ability to seize human beings as if they were almost hostages to this criminal desire. Furthermore, the possibility of Hell forgiven is simply non-existent in Virgils interpretation of the myth, a doctrine that would undoubtedly suit the strictest religious disciplinarians in the modern world.
Virgil takes the story through to Orpheus death by destruction by the Manaeds, a group of women following the teachings of Dionysus. These teachings encouraged people to live with emotion and enthusiasm, worshipping by losing themselves in religious emotion. Virgil however, places these women, amid their awful Bacchanalian rites. , directly criticizing the showing of emotion and aggression in society. Christianity would of course, fully accept Virgils doctrines and opinions here: passion, uncontrolled emotion and enthusiasm have no place in civilized society; the first leads to a particularly frightening Hell, the second leads to murder and death of the innocent.
Ovid : Orpheus as a Rhetorical Genius
Writing shortly after Virgil, a second roman poet, Ovid, also found great use for the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in his main work, Metamorphoses. In this work, the myth is given a great deal more attention, and in combination with the songs that Orpheus the character sings after losing Eurydice, takes up the whole of the tenth book of Ovids work. Ovids work is significant for two reasons: firstly, Orpheus becomes a much more developed character and is given a forty-two line speech while in Hell, and secondly, the tales that Orpheus sings of are in fact extremely similar in terms of morality to the myth of the Garden of Eden.
Whereas Virgil chose to emphasize the horrors awaiting those who will be banished to Hell, Ovid places more attention on the abilities of Orpheus as a poet and musician. This ability is in fact, one of the main reasons why Orpheus has been referred to in a number of more modern works, particularly the St. Celias Day songs of Restoration poets, John Dryden and Alexander Pope. The character of Orpheus represents the ability of man, music and harmony to move nature and tame the wild beasts. It is no wonder then that Orpheus has been referred to as the founder of the civilized world, although it seems to be conveniently forgotten that he was unable to prevent the particularly wild Manaeds from destroying him.
Ovids Orpheus then, is a master of rhetoric, possessing the ability to bring even the fiends in deepest Hell to tears. Ovid describes the effect of Orpheus songs in the following lines:
Thus, while the bard melodiously complains,
And to his lyre accords his vocal strains,
The very bloodless shades attention keep,
And silent, seem compassionate to weep;
Evn Tantalus his flood unthirsty views,
Nor flies the stream, nor he the stream pursues;
Ixions wondring wheel its whirl suspends,
And the voracious vulture, charmd, attends;
No more the Belides their toil bemoan,
And Sisphus reclind, sits listning on his stone.
The first (tis said) by sacred verse subdud,
The Furies felt their cheeks with tears bedewd:
Nor could the rigid King, or queen of Hell,
Th impulse of pity in their hearts repell.
Indeed, Ovid pays little attention to painting a portrait of Hell and Orpheus in fact admits that, I come not curious to explore your Hell. However, this does not mean that Ovid is any less of a moralist than Virgil; instead, Ovid uses the stories told by Orpheus after he has lost Eurydice forever to stamp his moral authority on the work.
Orpheus tales and the Eden Myth
After the myth of Orpheus is told, Ovid spends the remaining lines of the tenth book discussing a variety of other myths and stories, most notably those of Pygmalion and Venus and Adonis. Even if Ovids Orpheus Myth is not heavily moralistic, the stories that are sung about by Orpheus do provide the reader with moral lessons and advice on how to live ones life. These moral lessons are in fact, almost identical to the logic behind the creation of the Garden of Eden myth in Christianity.
The myth of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden seems to be based on a number of principles, all of which serve as functions to advice people how to behave and what to expect from the almighty. The myth that we all learn seems to imply the following: God is basically good as he was willing to place mankind in paradise; Divine warnings are given to mankind in order to steer him away from unacceptable behavior; mankind is inherently weak and prone to sin; upon sinning, mankind will be punished by Divine retribution; and through the help of Jesus Christ, repentance can lead to forgiveness. These are the principle upon which the myth is based, and all of these principles can be found in the songs sung by Orpheus in the tenth book of Ovids Metamorphoses.
First of all, in the several myths that Ovid discusses in this book, the Gods, usually in the form of Venus, are inherently good beings. There are no battles or strife found in these tales and indeed, in the myth of Pygmalion, the generous nature of Venus allows the dream of the sculptor to come true. Venus also offers her assistance to Hippomedes in his quest to win the heart of Atalanta, and it is only when they fail to thank the Goddess for her assistance that they are punished and destroyed. God is good, and both Christians and Pagans alike should be made aware of this fact.
Despite the generous nature of the almighty however, God has the power to set rules for mankind, which if broken will lead to punishment. Once again however, when man is in danger of breaking the rules, he is warned against his proposed action by the eternally good and generous God. In the same way that Adam and Eve were instructed to avoid eating from the tree of knowledge, Myrrha is warned against entering an incestuous relationship with her father, Atalanta is warned against marrying, and most famously, Adonis is warned by Venus about the danger of hunting.
Thee too, Adonis, with a lovers care
She warns, if warned thou woudst avoid the snare,
To furious animals advance not nigh,
Fly those that follow, follow those that fly;
Tis chance alone must the survivors save,
Wheneer brave spirits will attempt the brave.
O! lovely youth! In harmless sports delight;
Provoke not beasts, which, armd by nature, fight;
Unfortunately, as in the debacle in Eden, the warnings in every instance are ignored and despite the generous intentions of the Gods, disaster ensues.
Connected with the idea of divine warnings is the emphasis on human weakness and the inability of human beings to control their passions. Just as Eve was unable to resist the apple, Myrrha is unable to resist entering a sexual relationship with her father, although she knows that it is against her best interests. Ovid writes, At length the fondness of a nurse prevaild / against her better sense, and virtue faild. Presumably, the incest encouraging nurse represents Satan, however it is still the weakness of Myrrha that leads to the heinous moral crime, despite several more divine warnings on the night of the affair. Adonis, like Myrrha and Eve, is unable to control his passions and is ultimately killed by a boar while hunting, a sport that he had previously been warned about.
The Gods, although good in nature, are of course free to punish when they feel that they have been slighted. After all, the ability of God to punish human beings is one of the main disciplinary blocks upon which many religious texts are based. In Ovids work, God, once again in the shape of Venus, fiercely punishes ungrateful characters like Hippomedes and Atalanta, as well as common murderers and killers like the Cerastae and Porpoetides in one of the less famous myths. These aforementioned groups have been killing and murdering visitors, angering Venus with their complete disregard for human morality.
Venus these barbrous sacrifices viewd
With just abhorrence, and with wrath pursud:
At first, to punish such nefarious crimes,
Finally, the idea that repentance and mourning are rewarded in the afterworld is not omitted in Ovids work. Returning to the character of Orpheus himself, the musician is ultimately rewarded with no less than his much-desired death. In exactly the same way, Cyparissus is rewarded with death after accidentally killing a stag, the most beautiful animal in the vicinity. In both cases, the desired death (represented as a metamorphosis into a tree) is the result of a period of mourning and sorrow for the errors that had been committed in the past.
Ovids selection of tales, therefore once again reveal the similarities between Greek myths and modern religion in terms of the functions that these texts and tales serve. In the case of the tenth book of Ovids Metamorphoses, the selection of material is highly moralistic in nature, and can be compared to the function of the Eden myth. God is good and provides humanity with warnings and advice, yet humanity is too weak to conform to the laws and prohibitions laid down. As a result, man is punished by God, and only a period of repentance and mourning can bring salvation. This myth is one of the key building blocks of Christianity, used to dissuade man from thinking to highly of himself, and to threaten man with punishment upon transgression of the moral code.
Boethius: A Direct Moral Warning to the Passionate
The Orpheus myth was once again taken up by the philosopher Boethius, the myth forming a small part of his major work, The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius by no means focuses on the story in as much detail as Virgil and Ovid, however he still draws the same conclusions as the two great Roman poets. The myth is a warning to the passionate and can be used to encourage people to avoid desire at all costs.
After a brief summary of the tale, Boethius ends Orpheus potential happiness with the lines, Who shall set a law to lovers? Love is a greater law unto itself. Alack! At the very bounds of darkness Orpheus looked upon his Eurydice; looked, and lost her, and was lost himself. A possible interpretation of such lines is of course, that Boethius is trying to emphasize the power of love, a noble thought in any poets opinion no doubt. Love is able to transgress beyond all human laws and therefore its power is indestructible.
Despite these romantic gestures however, Boethius quickly reminds us that the Orpheus myth is not a celebration of the power of love, but a tale to be used as a moral warning to those unable to control their emotions. Boethius version ends with the lines,
To you too this tale refers; you, who seek to lead your thoughts to the light above. For whosoever is overcome of desire, and turns his gaze upon the darkness neath the earth, he, while he looks on hell, loses the prize he carried off.
Turning ones gaze upon the darkness beneath the earth presumably refers to mans ability to commit sin and to behave in an anti-social manner; furthermore, sin is directly related to desire and it is only those overcome with desire that will commit this sin. Freud would agree entirely with this statement changing the terms desire to natural instinct, and sin to anti-social and unacceptable behavior. The light above would therefore symbolize being a contented member of a civilized society, and this is what Boethius and other similar moralists would want from the individual.
Robert Henryson: The Moralitas
One of the most developed versions of the myth can be found in medieval Scottish writer, Robert Henrysonss epic poem, Orpheus and Eurydice. Henryson takes six hundred and thirty-three lines to firstly tell the story, and secondly give the reader his own moral commentary on the tale. The two sections of the poem need not be combined, and indeed, it has been claimed that the Moralitas was actually written a number of years after the work itself.
Henryson adds a number of new ideas to the myth, particularly at the beginning of the tale, and also during Orpheus venture into Hell. In the opening lines, Orpheus and Eurydices heritage is discussed, emphasizing the fact that they were noble and divine characters, able to trace their lineage to the Gods. As in all versions of the myth, Orpheus ability to charm nature and the animals with his music is focused upon, while other Olympic Gods are also brought into the story as Orpheus tries to find Eurydice after her death. Interesting though these facts may be, Orpheus trip into the underworld is of far greater importance here, as it is in this section that Henryson stamps his moral authority on the tale. As Orpheus descends the difficult path into Hades, Henryson describes his observations in the following way,
Ector of troy and priam there he fand
And Alexander for his wrang conquest
Anthoicus thare for his foule incest
And iulius cesar for his crueltee
And herode with his brotheris wyf he saw
And nero for his grete iniquitee
And pilot for his breking of the lawe
Syne under that he lukit and could knawe
Cresus the king none nichtiar on mold
For couatise yet full of byrnand gold
There fand he pharo for oppression
Off goddis folk on quhilk the plagis fell
And saul eke for the grete abusion
Off iustice to the folk of Israell
Thare fand he acab and queen iesabell
Quhilk sely nabot that was a prophet trewe
For his wyne yarde with-outyn pitee sleue
Thare fand he mony pope and cardinall
In haly kirk quhilk dois abusion
And archbishopis in their pontificall
By simony and wrang intrusioun
Abbotis and men of all religion
Henrysons register of the characters to be found in Hell is stylistically similar, yet less graphic in detail, to Dantes Inferno. According to Henryson, the crimes that will lead an individual to Hell include the following: wrong conquest, foul incest, cruelty, stealing ones brothers wife, great iniquity, breaking of the law, greed, oppression, great abuse of justice, abuse of the church, simony and wrong intrusion. Despite Henrysons moralizing, it is admirable to observe that men of all religion are condemned to Hell, therefore clearing Henryson of any religious bigotry.
After a Boethius-like analysis of the power of love, Henryson quickly wraps up his tale and turns to the moralitas and his interpretation of the myth and its relevance to the modern (medieval) world. Henryson in fact, makes no effort to disguise the fact that he is trying to instruct the reader morally; the moralitas opens with the following lines,
Lo worthy folk boece that senature
To wryte this feynit fable tuke in cure
In his gay buke of consolacion
For oure doctrine and gude instruction
Quhilk in the self suppose it fenyeit be
And his under the cloke of poesie
Henrysons debt to Boethius is therefore acknowledged, as Boethius wrote his buke of consolacion for oure doctrine and gude instruction; in other words, the purpose of referring to the myth is not for artistic beauty of quality; it is for our moral instruction.
Henrysons moral analysis of the tale is over 200 lines long, and it would be difficult to analyze the complete moral lesson that he attempts to give the reader. A summary of Henrysons advice however, is possible: Fleeing from virtue can lead to death and disaster; man should refrain from setting his mind to earthly things; and when we set out minds to knowledge and eloquence, Hell is unable to harm us.
That-for dounwart we cast oure myndis ee
Blyndit with lust and may noucht upward flee
Suld oure desire be soucht up in the speris
Quhen it is tederit on this warldis breris
Quhile on the flesch quhile on this warldis wrak
And to the hevyn small entent we tak
Sir Orpheus thou sekis all in vayn
Once again, Orpheus glance is interpreted as a lustful and earthly sin, and it is due to this kind of sin that man is unable to reach heaven; while man remains earthly, he seeks all in vain. Henrysons moralizing of course, brings us back to Orphism itself: Man is both earthly and heavenly, and while he gives more importance to his earthly characteristics, he will be kept in a continuous cycle moving between Hades and the earth; only when he is able to focus on his divine nature will he be able to ascend to Heaven.
There are many reasons which explain the longevity of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and which enable us to still find a use for such tales in todays world. The artistic and romantic side to the story will always attract readers, and Orpheus role as the tamer of the wild with his musical ability will enable him to maintain his popularity amongst poets of all ages. He is, in fact, a symbol for the power of poetry to move people emotionally and create a civilized world.
Of far more importance however, is the moral nature of the tale, and it is this fact, I believe, that has resulted in such interest in the story. The character of Orpheus tends to be referred to by poets such as Dryden and Pope in connection with his musical and poetic powers, however the more developed works concerning the myth, deal with the moral nature of the tale, and are more than willing to comment on the tale morally themselves. Myths such as the Orpheus myth, along with examples from both Testaments of the Bible remain in circulation for a reason: they are always useful tools for disciplining a social body.
The Orpheus myth therefore, is a tale of passion and an example of the consequences that man must face when he allows his desires, passions and other earthly qualities to take control over his life. Man needs to be able to control these passions if he is to ascend to heaven; of course, while he is controlling his passions, society is benefiting from his sociable behavior. Despite a few historical differences, Orphism as a doctrine shares many features with Christianity, and the fact that Orpheus could be a fine example for Christian doctrine to focus on, has allowed the myth to survive in western literature for almost three thousand years.
A Note on Sources
There is a wealth of material concerning the Orpheus myth on the internet, and it is from these texts that my quotations were taken. I am not aware of any discrepancy between internet texts and book texts in this case, therefore it seems futile to chase up the books when the material is on the computer screen. The primary sources can mostly be found in the Internet Classics Archive among other places, while the internet address of the secondary sources cited can be given if desired. (A simple search will find all of them) Wherever possible, citations and information have been given.
Many of the more modern texts that deal with the Orpheus myth have been omitted or barely touched upon. This is due to the nature of the argument being constructed. The majority of modern texts use Orpheus as a symbol for the power of the poet or music to affect people emotionally. As my argument was of a different nature, it did not seem appropriate for me to make use of such texts solely for the purpose of saying I am aware of these texts and have read them. The only text than I regret being unable to make use of would be Sir Orfeo, however, after having looked at several commentaries on the story, I dont think that anything will have been lost by its omission.