Daily Archives: November 12, 2015


This word has a literal meaning and a more figurative one. Literally it refers to Orpheus, and to the Orphic religion of ancient Greece; figuratively it refers to entrancement, as of the music of Orpheus, or to things mystic and oracular, as of the Orphic religion. For me, it first flashes a scintilla of this poem, which I wrote some 20 years ago (and revised slightly tonight):

Face unknown

I thought of you as I mounted
the stairs into the attic
so mysterious and alluring from an angle
you were ahead of me
your small body smooth arms hair tied
carefully I looked at your
face at an oblique angle I thought
what can there be there
like Orpheus ascending curious yearning and afraid
both to see and not
to see I turned on the light

Who was Orpheus? A poet and musician so skilled he could charm even wild beasts and make stones sing. And he went to hell – Hades – and back to retrieve his wife, Eurydice. He so pleased the gods of the underworld that they allowed him to take her with him, provided he not look back at her until they were both returned to Earth. Alas, he looked back, and she was lost from him forever – or until his death.

Orpheus went to hell and back for the woman he loved, and still he lost her (isn’t that a movie or two?). The Orphics also revered Persephone and Bacchus, who both had return tickets to Hades. Is it not Orphic in more ways than one to be blissful after having been through hell? How much more delighted you can be if you have first been de-lighted, consumed by dark.

Orphism held to metempsychosis – that is, reincarnation. It preached asceticism as a means of breaking from the cycle of death and rebirth (does this sound like Buddhism and Hinduism? I think it does, in the barest details, and with good reason – Hinduism came from the Indo-Europeans who took over India). It also held to specific initiation rites and professions of faith (which sounds more like Christianity in such bare terms). Orphics learned set formulas and responses to say in the other world after they died so they would attain release (does this sound like the ancient Egyptian religion, with its Book of the Dead? in such bare terms, yes). They had to remember to drink of the pool of remembering (Mnemosyne) rather than that of forgetfulness (Lethe).

Granted, that all sounds morbid rather than delightful. Asceticism is hardly what we have in mind when we think of entrancing, mystical things. We want soothing, not soothsayers. We are not all so ready to escape the cycle of death and rebirth, to die one last time for good. Some of us are having an enjoyable time in this life, or at least an intriguing one. Our lives may come with losses, but to lose you must first have had, and when you have little you can more easily experience the joy of having more. Oh, we should not be attached; attachment causes suffering. But having suffered, we may rejoice more fully than if we had never experienced pain. A round trip ticket to hell and back is better than a one-way ticket to your butt in that chair and nowhere else ever more.

So we lament the wheel of fortune, like Orff’s Carmina Burana, but if we get off the wheel at the top it is positively Orphic. Just be careful about looking back.