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The Poet and The Magic of Orpheus

Dernière mise à jour : 9 juin 2021

Extract from:

Charles Segal

Orpheus ; The Myth of the Poet

"In Virgil's Eclogues, Orpheus symbolizes the capacity of poetry to evoke that sympathy between man and nature which is essential to the pastoral mood. Virgil is perhaps the first poet to exploit for pastoral the songfulness inherent in nature that the Orphic power can call forth. Here the control over nature that the myth of Orpheus may imply yields to sympathy with nature and the expansive joyfulness of sing­ing in harmony with nature.

The achievement of this Orphic poetry is to create the peace, trust, and sensitivity in which man can listen to this music of nature and find a place for it in his own life amid the violence of war and the passion of love. The bucolic fiction operates in a manner analogous to the fanciful magic of the Thracian hero: it persuades us that barriers between man and nature can dissolve in a world full of beauty, song, and love.


In Theocritus' First Idyll the landscape is songful.

Sweet the whispering, and sweetly sings that pine, goatherd, there by the springs ; but sweetly too do you play the flute. After Pan you will win the second prize.

The soft sound, alliteration, repetition of the key word, "sweetly ... sweetly," suggest a sympathetic accord between the music inherent in the landscape and the music made by man in nature. In an epigram at­ tributed to Theocritus, the cowherd Daphnis, an Orphic presence in bucolic song, will practise the magic (or thelxis) of song in a setting of oak trees, caves, and the rustic god Pan .

Another Hellenistic pastoral epigram, attributed to Plato, makes the dreamlike bucolic setting a virtual symbol of the "magic" (thelxis) of this type of poetry.

Come sit by this high-leafed songful pine, rustling in the Zephyrs' frequent breezes; and the pipe, (playing) beside my plashing streams, will cause sleep to drop upon your lids as you are cast under the magic spell (thelgomenos).

The tree in this setting is already "songful" (phoneessan), and the pipe, even without benefit of singer, is casting its restful spell through the liquid imagery of "dripping" (stazein), which suggests both the bur­ bling brook flowing by or a drug being poured. The vocal tree, drowsiness, and the language of magical spells create an atmosphere of fluid interchange between man and nature that, like the elusiveness of Orpheus' magic itself, is both accessible and distant.


The early Greek vocabulary for the appeal of song draws a parallel between the literally "fascinating" (Latin fascinum, "magical charm") power of language and the power of love, between erotic seduction and the seduction exercised by poetry. The word thelgein, "enchant","charm by a spell", for example, describes the Sirens' song, Circe's brutalizing sexual power, and the poet's influence over a whole assembled populace.

Calypso's attempt to keep Odysseus on her remote island combines verbal and erotic magic:

"By soft and guileful words she was always charming him (thelgei) that he might forget Ithaca." (Od. 1.56)

Similar ly the love-goddess Aphrodite's beguilement contains

"conversation and cozening speech (parphasis) which deceives the minds even of those who have sense" (Iliad 14.214-217).

The association continues throughout Greek literature. In the story of Deianeira and Heracles told in Sophocles' Trachinian Women, the magical power of persuasion by language, the power of love, and the magical potion (drug) of the Hydra's blood are all interchangeable, not merely as metaphors, but as actual equivalents for one another in an age that does not yet consign myth and metaphor to the realm of pale conventions but can still feel them as active, living presences.

In the concretely imagistic language of Aeschylus, Aphrodite exerts her power of love through her follower, Persuasion, who is an "enchantress" (thelktor Peitho). Later poets often describe poetry as a pharmakon or "drug" that can both alleviate and cause the pain of love.

A fragment of the Hellenistic poet Bion runs as follows :

May Eros summon the Muses; may the Muses endure Eros. May the Muses give me, who am full of desire, song, sweet song, sweeter than any drug.

The Praise of Helen by the Sophist Gorgias, one of the founders of rhetoric as a systematic discipline, not only consistently links the power of language and the power of eros but also seeks to understand the former in concrete, imagistic terms analogous to those of Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles.

The power of the word has the same relation to the organization of the soul as the organization (taxis) of drugs to the constitu­tion (physis) of the body. For just as different drugs lead different humors forth from the body and bring cessation to some from sick­ ness and to others from life, so of discourses (logoi), some cause pain, others delight (terpsis), others fear, while others set their hearer into a state of confident boldness, whereas others by art evil per­ suasion (peitho) drug and bewitch the soul (ek-goeteuein).

Plato's view of language challenges this entire poetic tradition. His definition of rhetoric in the Gorgias and Phaedrus attempts to replace the emotion-arousing, literally "spell-binding" power of language with its logical, poetic function.

In archaic poetry, song, aoide, is closely akin to epaoide, "enchantment". The chantlike effects of repetition, alliteration, assonance, or the like reproduce some of the power of this song-as-magic even in highly sophisticated poets like Sappho and the authors of the Homeric Hymns. Sappho's Ode to Aphrodite uses this incantatory aura not only to compel the presence of Aphrodite, but also to imitate, in its own word-magic, the quasi-hypnotic power of love's sorcery.

Marcantonio Raimondi - Orpheus and Eurydice ca. 1500–1506

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter uses a highly formalized diction and repetition to evoke the power of witchcraft against which the (disguised) Demeter promises her aid.

I know an antidote much stronger than herbs;

I know a goodly cure for baleful witchcraft.

Even a highly self-conscious poet like Pindar, writing at the end of the archaic period, feels poetry as incantatory magic. Songs, aoidai, are the"wise daughters of the Muses" and have the power to"lay hold of weary limbs" and "charm away" (thelgein) the pain, like a doctor, who in early Greece also practices by means of "enchantments," (epaoidai).

Pindar in fact gives us some of the most vivid testimony in early Greek literature to the Orpheus-like magic of poetic compulsion. A fragmentary ode describes how the golden Sirens (literally, "Charmers," keledones) adorning Apollo's temple at Delphi so ensorcelled passers-by with their "honey-spirited song" that they forgot their wives and children and failed to return home until the gods decided to plunge the temple into the earth.

Two other passages have similar "Orphic" conceptions of poetic magic, enabling the poet to cross the boundaries between the human and natural worlds. In a Parthenion or maiden-song, the chorus leader, speaking in the first person, says,

I shall imitate in my songs .. that siren-sound which silences the Zephyr's swift winds when Boreas, shivering with the storms' strength, rushes upon us with his blasts and stirs up the wave-swift sea.

In another passage, unfortunately in a fragmentary context, the singer tells of being

"stirred up to song like a dolphin of the seas when the lovely tune of flutes moves in the deep of the waveless sea."

Pindar's only reference to Orpheus in the Victory Odes interestingly occurs in a poem that vividly describes the magic of love as "persuasion" and "incantation". Orpheus here is

"sent by Apollo, player of the lyre, father of songs".

Although he writes in the language of fifth-century logical argumentation, the Sophist Gorgias is still following the Orphic "myth" of language as magic when he extols logos ("language," "word ," "discourse") as "a great tyrant" (dynastes rnegas) in his Praise of Helen.

Inspired song-incantations are summoners of pleasure, banishers of pain. For the power of song-incantation, uniting with the opinion (doxa) of the soul, charms it (thelgein) and persuades it and changes it by sorcery (goeteia). Of magic and sorcery the arts (technai) are twofold, for the soul is subject to its errors, and opinion is subject to its deceptions.


Orpheus himself is the oral poet par excellence. He sings outside, under the open sky, accompanying himself on his famous lyre. His fabled effect upon wild beasts, stones, and trees generalizes to the animal world the mimetic response that an oral audience feels in the situation of the performance by the creative oral singer or his successor, the rhapsode. This compulsive, incantatory power of oral song, the rhythmic swaying that it produces in its human or nonhuman audience, the animal magnetism with which it holds its hearers spell­ bound all find mythical embodiment in Orpheus.

Vase paintings and other visual representations of Orpheus throughout antiquity show his audience caught up in a trancelike, physically responsive move­ment. Though centuries after the disappearance of a creative oral tradition, Virgil's lines on the Orphic singer Silenus in the Sixth Eclogue concentrate still on this essential attribute of rhythmical responsive movement.

Then would you see the Fauns and wild beasts join playfully in the rhythm (in numerum), then the stiff oaks move their tops. Not such joy does the rock of Mount Parnassus take in Apollo nor such wonder do Rhodope and Ismarus feel for Orpheus.

When the learned Athenaeus, writing at the end of the second century a.d., links early Greek poetry with Orphic song, he may haye in mind its predominantly oral character.

The ancient wisdom of the Greeks, as seems likely, was wholly given over to music. Because of this they judged Apollo the most musical and most skilful of the gods, and Orpheus the most musical and skilful of the demigods.

The stress on music here also suggests those oral rhythmic, performative aspects of poetry we have seen associated with Orpheus. Along with quasi-erotic "seduction" and magical "spell," "pleasure" or "delight" (terpsis, hedone, chard) is one of the recurrent attri­butes poets in an oral culture attribute to song. This terpsis regularly characterizes Homer's bards, and of course it is an essential attribute of Orpheus' song.

A mid-fifth-century text interestingly links this form of "pleasure" with Orphic song. After the murder of Agamemnon the usurper Aegisthus tries to cow the recalcitrant Argive elders.

You have a tongue the opposite of Orpheus'. For he led everything along by his voice with delight (chara), but you, all astir with silly barking, shall be led along yourselves, until you are subdued and so shown more tame.

(Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1629-1632)

Like Euripides and Apollonius after him, Aeschylus associates the beauty and pleasure of Orpheus' verbal magic with the humanizing power of art and civilization.


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