Saturday, February 25, 2012

Orpheus in the New World

Orpheus among Thracians; Attic red-figure vase 5th century bce

The shaman's journey to rescue a lost soul is the source of some of our most enduring myths and popular folk tales, though the experiential content of these stories is often forgotten. The most famous example is the Orpheus legend.
     In the versions that are best-known today, Orpheus makes a journey to the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife or sister from Death; he nearly succeeds in bringing her back but loses her again because he looks back too soon. I suspect that in the primal version of the legend, Orpheus succeeded in bringing the soul of Eurydice back from the Land of the Dead and put it into her body in the way of a true shaman. This seems probable in view of the growth of the Orphic Mystery tradition in ancient Greece and Italy. It is unlikely that the many followers who vested their hopes for a fortunate afterlife in Orphic initiation were placing their trust in a failed shaman.
    The Orpheus theme, as tragedy or as triumph, reverberates through Native American legends and sometimes surfaces in direct accounts of indigenous shamanic practice. One of my favorite variants came to my attention when I was spending my nights poring over the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the first-hand reports of Blackrobe missionaries in Northeast America in the seventeenth century, which I found to be a treasury of information on shamanic practice among the First Peoples at the time of early contact with Europeans.
    In Huron country in 1636, Father Jean de Br├ębeuf recorded the Underworld adventure of a Huron dream shaman who was distraught over the death of his favorite sister. The Huron fasted and kept vigil, sending his dream soul tracking, until he found her traveling along the road to a Village of the Dead. He went after her. He faced a terrible challenge at a perilous bridge and survived it. When he finally caught up with her sister, she was in the Vilage of the Dead, surrounded by deceased relations. He urged to her to leave with him, but she fled from him. He seized her and grappled with her.
     As they struggled, her soul shrank until he was able to grab it in his fist and thrust it inside a small pumpkin, which he used as his soul catcher. After further ordeals, he returned to the village of the living, with his sister's soul in the pumpkin. He persuaded others to help him exhume his sister's body from its burial place, intending to resurrect her by putting the soul back into the body. He sang his songs of power, calling in his spirit helpers. As he was singing, someone peeked inside the pumpkin, and the sister's soul got away.
     The Huron shaman failed, as does Orpheus in the conventional version of this neverending story. But in the Jesuit account, the story has not been prettied up and tamed; it has the raw authenticity of a traveler's tale, and there is a practical lesson in
the shaman failed, a lesson highly relevant to our time, when our healthcare system is so heavily invested in the artificial prolongation of physical life. The Huron shaman was too late. His sister's soul had passed over, and she did not wish to return to a physical existence (and a used-up sack of meat and bones) that she had outlived. The shaman's grief, and perhaps his delusions of control, blinded him to the natural balance of things.
     Another level of meaning, in the Failed Shaman version of the Orpheus story, may be that we cannot bring back vital soul when we keep looking back, clinging to what is dead and is meant to be left behind.
     Some will hear an echo of the Huron shaman's pumpkin in a nursery rhyme from the Old World

Peter Peter pumpkin eater
had a wife and couldn't keep her
so he put her in a pumpkin shell
and there he kept her very well

Our nursery rhymes sometimes surface from deep, dark places in the collective memory long before they enter the nursery.


cobweb said...

Thank you for this Blog, for me it seems to have touched a raw spot and has allowed me to also see it as a timely reminder to let go of things we hold on to for far too long after their time is up in our living lives. No matter how painful some losses can be or how much we might wish them not to be real. Letting go can be a very liberating experience as well as a purging one freeing up grief and allowing healing to take place as well as making space for new growth and new experiences to enter and re affirm our life.

Robert Moss said...

Yes - You have touched on a profound level of meaning in these stories. We can't bring back living soul from the realms of the Dead unless we are willing to bury what is meant to be left behind and stay dead.

anne said...

This post reminds me of two Hindu myths. One is a tale of Savitri who followed her beloved Husband and brought him back to life after meeting Yama(the God of Death). Another is the story of Nachiketa who in a moment of anger was given to Yama by his Father. He went there, acquired Knowledge from Yama, and came back to Earth.

Carol Davis said...

If only the Huron shaman could have let himself suffer the inevitable pain, feel the grief and let go, he would have known sooner the joy and treasure of life. He might have known sooner that his relationship with his beloved sister continues in a new form. They could visit in dreams. No forcing, no fierce control, first the great pain and then the grace of letting go and the unfolding of new stages of life.

The Huron dream traveler has great gifts and power. It takes wisdom to know how to use knowledge and power, be it dream traveling or technology.

I know that I must continue to practice the art of letting go so that I may welcome the light and life that calls and draws me forward to live my soul's purposes.

Robert Moss said...

Anne - Yes, indeed, both Hindu myths are relevant and marvelous teaching stories. Savitri's negotiation with Yama for the return to life of her husband is highly shamanic. And the narrative of what students of this way call the Nachiketas Fire - especially in the version in the Katha Upanishad - is one the great exemplary tales of how we can make Death our teacher, one I draw on in my book "Dreamgates" and elsewhere.

Patricia said...

I like what you and cobweb are saying with this. I clung so long to a dead relationship. Wandered in places of the dead, carrying dense energy thinking it was my own…yuck. Yuck, but I think having that experince helps me as I step by step move down my Shamans path. I even experinced speaking with a voice that shocked me. An interesting dreaming manifestation with this struggle was that I was not able to discern my self from another in the dream as well as I am able now. I am in one of Sandra Ingermans online courses. We are working with gardens and seeds. I chose Love not attachment. And I scout the garden to weed away any unhealthy sprouts. I find movemnet a nice weeding device.

Robert Moss said...

Carol - Thanks for your wisdom and deep humanity.

Robert Moss said...

Patricia - I like your statement that movement is a good "weeding device". I think this is very true. Sandra Ingerman is a friend and a wonderful teacher.

Lou Hagood said...

The pumpkin reminds me of Halloween and Day of the Dead, when the departed return to visit not to stay.

Ozone said...

Great blog - thank you for reminding us that the terrestrial experience of Earth is temporary. Which brings us to the other endeavor of understanding the purpose/yearning of the soul. I am thinking the failed shaman forgets the soul is on a journey and that Earth is a temporary stop. Kumar (NYC)