Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.39

Giulio Guidorizzi, Marziano Melotti, Orfeo e le sue metamorfosi. Quaderni del D@MS di Torino 4.   Rome:  Carocci editore, 2005.  Pp. 189.  ISBN 88-430-3348-4.  €18.10.  

Reviewed by Rebecca Armstrong, St Hilda's College, Oxford University (
Word count: 1913 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book forms a collection of contributions from a conference held at the University of Turin in 2003, 'Il viaggio di Orfeo: mito, arte e letteratura'. The papers range widely, from mythical history to psychology and history of art. The aim is a 'trans-cultural discourse' that at once reveals the vast range of interpretations offered by mythical figures and proposes ways of forging links between these different approaches. Such a plurality of interpretations may fill a reviewer with anxiety -- and there are certainly several chapters on which I can only hope to offer a lay-person's perspective -- but promise an appealing journey for a reader with a broad interest in mythology and the readiness to engage with the very different approaches used by each contributor.

James Hillman's chapter on the 'Orpheus complex' forms a challengingly (and self-confessedly) oblique starting point for the collection. Taking his cue from Spinoza and Jung, the author explores the possibility of finding Orpheus internalised within the human psyche. He examines three particular aspects of the Orpheus myth -- the connections with nature, music and desire -- as the archetypal elements and thus the easiest to trace into the present day. Traces of the Orphic nature connection can be found in the ecological movement and animal rights campaigners, he suggests; yet Orpheus' particular rapport with nature was mediated through the language of poetry, while the environmentalists' recourse to the language of science almost paradoxically divorces them from the very natural world they want to protect. Turning to the loss of Eurydice, H. finds a connection easier to trace into the modern world, setting up Orpheus as the god of the human tendency to melancholy and the desire for the beautiful absent. This whole piece reads as a flight of the mythical imagination and a lament for a lost sensibility -- or a lost sensitivity -- which in itself supports H.'s connection between Orpheus and nostalgia. One need not be convinced either by H.'s interpretation of the details of the Orpheus myth or by the universal psychological truth (if such can ever be found) of the Orpheus complex to find this a fascinating read.

The next two chapters take quite a different turn, to the Derveni papyrus. Calame focuses on the connection between Orphic writings and initiatory rites, arguing for the particular significance of the written word to the mysteries of Orpheus. The words of Orpheus have a double sense in several ways: they are both poetic (and have clear connections with, as well as differences from, the works of Hesiod and Homer) and oracular or initiatory; they are written to be read, to simulate oral performance, but not to be oral performance; and the story of the theogony they relate is both literal and a metaphor for the philosophy of a unified universe, where Zeus is both beginning and end. The author of the Derveni papyrus guides us through the poet's words, adopting a quasi-oracular procedure, and the interpretative text itself becomes a form of initiation. The gap between learned philosophical commentary and religious experience can thus be bridged, much as Orpheus himself, whose voice could engrave itself on tablets, bridged the gap between the transience and fluidity of spoken performance and the permanence of the written text. In the next chapter, Burkert turns the focus more particularly to the theogony of Orpheus, as pieced together from the fragments in the papyrus. Starting from the work of Henrichs and Obbink on Philodemus, B. argues that the Derveni papyrus was neither esoteric nor marginal, but well-known, and itself built upon other well-known philosophers, such as Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia. Moreover, it represents a rather different side of Orphism from that on which scholars often focus -- the death of Dionysus -- giving us instead a complex and puzzling view of Zeus as universal god. The paper carefully works through the different stages of the theogony, providing useful summary as well as interesting interpretation.

Faraone's piece offers a new look at the myth of Orpheus' severed but still speaking head, washed into the sea and over to Lesbos. Focusing on the version which has Orpheus' head spouting prophecy (rather than poetry, as in the other account more favoured by the Roman poets), F. argues that we need to make the connection here not only with the establishment of an oracle on Lesbos (as has been argued before) but also with necromantic rites which made use of a skull or severed head. Drawing on a range of sources -- from Attic vases and Etruscan mirrors to Babylonian spells and the important testimony of Philostratus -- F. offers a convincing argument for a fleshing-out of the myth, whereby Orpheus' severed head is granted prophetic powers by Apollo. The power of the dead to speak the truth (and thus become the focus of necromantic rituals) is intensified, and even formalised, by the sanction of the god. Later, however, Apollo grows jealous of the popularity of Orpheus' prophetic head and orders him / it to stop. These details fit neatly into the outline of the necromantic process reconstructed by Faraone, where an incantation starts the dead head speaking, and subsequent burial, returning the body part to the earth where the dead belong, stops the stream of prophecy. Some of the suggestions offered in this chapter are tentative -- and, I think, rightly so -- but the broader argument certainly sounds convincing, at least to one who is no expert on necromancy!

The next pair of chapters works well in conjunction, offering two very different perspectives on Orpheus' loss of Eurydice. Melotti's chapter examines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as social symbol, starting from a challenging rejection of the common tendency to view Orpheus as a romantic figure. Instead, the piece presents his act of looking back as an example of failure, of lack of trust in gods, and violation of their command. As a young man, only just married, and thus on the cusp of adulthood, Orpheus is a dangerous figure who doesn't respect the rules and so cannot become a good man or warrior. On the other hand, Orpheus is a culture hero -- he fails to bring Eurydice back, but succeeds in returning himself from the underworld. M. argues that it is because Orpheus is stuck on the margins and can retain contact with the world beyond that he is still of use to society in a different way -- he makes a terrible husband, but a great prophet. This marginality and ambiguity of influence is continued and reflected in his refusal to enter into other heterosexual relationships -- on the one hand, this represents initiatory homosexuality which preserves masculine solidarity; on the other, his leading men away from their wives which provokes the women to drunken violence (Paus. 9.30.5) shows him again destroying social equilibrium. Not all parts of this paper are successful; in particular, I had reservations about the idea of Orpheus' gaze as a metaphorical blindness (which thus enabled a rather forced connection to the prophet Teiresias to be made). In Bettini's chapter, Orpheus is also presented as deficient in many ways -- forgetful, indiscrete, self-obsessed -- yet the author sees his loss of Eurydice as ultimately excusable, the result of a tiny lapse, a technicality. On this count, the story even becomes blackly humorous, a big cosmic joke on mortals who narrowly miss out on immortality. Still, B. also sees the story as in some sense socially useful, as a tale of a near miss which can (for the optimistic, anyway) symbolise how close one can come to beating death, how it could be done, how we can still hope.

Napolitano and Brunel's contributions move us away from the ancient world and into the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Napolitano sees elements of the Orpheus story in that of the 'false Orpheus', Tamino, in the Magic Flute. Tamino's journey in search of Pamina echoes Orpheus' descent to Hades for Eurydice, whilst his tests and education in the temple of Sarastro reflect the initiatory elements with which the Orphic myth is associated. Despite the lighter atmosphere and the happy ending of the opera, N. argues that the more profound lessons of the tale of Orpheus -- on memory and forgetfulness, prohibition and happiness -- are still perceptible within the music itself. Brunel turns to some of the greats of French literature (Hugo, Valéry, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Claudel and more) with a wide-ranging essay that documents the persistence of the myth through the ages, traced through the images of the lyre, the backward glance and the hero's dismemberment at the hands of the Bacchants.

With Chiarini's piece we move to history of art, and a connection to the mysteries again, this time via Polygnotus' painting of the Underworld. C. sets out a detailed description of the work, drawn from Pausanias' account (and engaging with Robert's famous reconstruction), offers some interpretation of the significance of the images (relating to the Eleusinian mysteries, and, later, to ideas of Christ as an Orphic-Bacchic figure), and then makes a link with Warburg's fascination with memory in the construction of civilization. Although at times the argument of this piece feels a little loose, once more -- as with many of the chapters in this book -- some thought-provoking connections are made.

Pucci's finale, on Orpheus in the cinema (here termed the 'tenth Muse') offers a series of short readings of various film makers' responses to the myth, ranging from Cocteau's reframing of Orpheus as a Narcissus (and thus, P. argues, revealing a picture of himself) to Orpheus with writers' block in Woody Allen's 'Deconstructing Harry'. The range of references is in itself illuminating, although I would have welcomed a rather more detailed investigation -- as it is, and interesting as it is, this chapter has too much of the air of a catalogue about it.

The book as a whole is ambitious and wide-ranging, and broadly successful. The difference in approach used by the contributors can sometimes feel a little jarring, but for the most part the effect is more positively stimulating and does work, as the editors hoped, to encourage the making of connections across disciplines and across the centuries. I would have liked to see some deeper explorations of ancient poetic treatments set alongside these other types of investigation, but this is a matter of personal taste rather than a reflection of any real deficiency in this volume. At any rate, this collection reveals just how many threads there are to follow when tracing the history and significance of such powerful myths.


1. Giulio Guidorizzi: Introduction (7-14)

2. James Hillman: Il complesso di Orfeo: presenza (e assenza) di Orfeo nel mondo contemporaneo (15-27)

3. Claude Calame: Pratiche orfiche della scrittura: itinerari iniziatici? (28-45)

4. Walter Burkert: La teogonia originale di Orfeo secondo il Papiro di Derveni (46-64)

5. Christopher A. Faraone: L'ultima esibizione di Orfeo: negromanzia e una testa cantante a Lesbo (65-85)

6. Marziano Melotti: Lo sguardo di Orfeo: l'amore, il viaggio, la morte (86-99)

7. Maurizio Bettini: Per un punto Orfeo perse la cappa (100-118)

8. Ernesto Napolitano: Tamino: viaggio iniziatico di un falso Orfeo (119-129)

9. Pierre Brunel: Tre volti di Orfeo nella letteratura francese del XIX e del XX secolo (130-151)

10. Gioachino Chiarini: Tra mito e tradizione: immagini di Orfeo da Polignoto a Aby Warburg (152-67)

11. Giuseppe Pucci: Orfeo e la decima Musa (168-78).

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