GODDESS OF MEMORY
MNEMOSUNE, or MNEMOSYNE, as she becomes in English, was the Greek Goddess
of Memory. This is the Orphic Hymn to her, written between 300 BC to 300
I call, the Queen, consort of Zeus, Mother of the sacred, holy
and sweet-voiced Muses. Ever alien to her is evil oblivion that
harms the mind, she holds all things together in the same dwelling
place, in the mind and soul of mortals, she strengthens the powerful
ability of humans to think.
Most sweet, vigilant, she reminds us of all the thoughts that
each one of us is for ever storing in our hearts, overlooking
nothing, rousing everyone to consciousness. But, blessed goddess,
awaken for the initiates the memory of the sacred rite, and ward
off forgetfulness from them.
The Greek word for forgetfulness and oblivion, is Lethe in Greek
(which lives on in English as lethal and lethargy).
We will come to the Orphics and their initiates later, but we can already
see that Mnemosyne is a more comprehensive idea than our Memory. To start
with, she is a Goddess, suggesting that she is imagined as an active agent
with a mind and powers of her own. Here the Cosmos itself is imagined
as a Living Being having memory, and this memory could not be otherwise
than a memory of the whole. This suggests, in turn, that the archetype
of human memory is the memory of our origins, the sacred memory of the
source - what Yeats calls the Great Memory. The figure of Mnemosyne also
combines two things often later distinguished: firstly, what we might
now in general terms think of as the human faculty of memory, which stores
and restores the past and so structures categories of perception and thought
- holding all things together in the mind and soul - as the
poem has it; and secondly, she generates the Muses, whom we might more
usually associate with Imagination. The mythic image of Mnemosyne asks
us to consider this relationship.
Aeschylus brings this same range of rulership to life in his image of
Prometheus, whose name means Foresight (and whose brother
was Epimetheus, Hindsight). Prometheus was a Titan who stole
fire from the gods and brought consciousness to humanity, for which he
was punished by Zeus. He becomes himself an incarnation of human consciousness,
giving it voice while suffering its wound.
bound, attacked by the Eagle of Zeus. Museo Etrusco, Vatican.
to the sad story of humankind, who like children lived until I
gave them understanding and a portion of reason...For seeing they
saw not, and hearing
they understood not, but like as shapes in a dream they wrought
all the days of their life in confusion...No houses, no fabrics
of wood. Ever they laboured at random, till I taught them to discern
the seasons by the rising and ...setting of the stars. Numbers
I invented for them, the chiefest of all discoveries; I taught
them the grouping of letters, to be a memorial and record of the
past, the mistress of the arts and Mother of the Muses...
taught humans to yoke the proud horse to the chariot, the art of medicine,
the interpretation of dreams and oracles, and the passage ends with
all human arts are from Prometheus. (Prometheus Bound,
Again, we have numbers and letters and Mistress of the
Arts and the Mother of the Muses. In one way it makes sense that, in
an oral tradition which recited long epic poems in the days before writing,
Goddesses of the Arts were the daughters of Memory. But the etymology
points us still farther back into the mists of a lunar culture before
the patriarchal Aryans - whose chief god was Zeus - arrived in around
800 BC, and added their voice to the native myths, changing the old
priorities to the new point of view. In Greek myth there is always an
older story lurking beneath the official myths, close to the soil and
the rhythms of the Moon and the Seasons, often only visible through
its underlying images and etymology and rites.
Mnemosynes name derives from Mene, Moon, and mosune,
wooden house or tower, so literally means the
House of the Moon. As Plato somewhat disparagingly said, the Moon
can teach even the very slowest creature to count, and gain a
general insight into the relations of number with number, watching
the waxing and waning, and counting from Moon to Moon, giving us past,
present and a predictable future (Epinomis, 978b-979a). And practically
all the words in Greek concerned with measurement and mind, menstruation,
wisdom and mania, have the Moon root of Me, Men or Ma
in them from the Sanskrit. (Mene, Moon; Mneme, remembrance;
mnesthenai, remember, anamnesis, recollection; metis,
wisdom, mania, mania, amnesis, forgetfulness, etc). In
the Aitareya Upanishad, for instance, when the heavenly bodies
are asked to find an abode within the human being, we are told that
the Sun became sight and entered the eyes, and the Moon became
mind and entered the heart. (Cashford, The Moon: Myth and Image,
Further, the symbolism of the Moon contains without contradiction the
ideas of visible change and invisible perpetuity: both the ever-moving
phases and the changeless cycle of the whole - for the numbering of
days was always resolved into the eternal return of the
New Moon, which, for Plato, was the closest thing we have to eternity.
This ceaseless drama also requires the ability to think abstractly,
holding in the mind the memory of the whole cycle to interpret any one
of its visible phases. And in its image of the eternal, the Moon, especially
the Full Moon, has always been a Muse, an inspiration leading us beyond
the boundaries of time.
I want to suggest that a study of Mnemosyne offers us a chance to think
about the relation between Memory and Imagination, in the way that we
generally and loosely use these two terms. We can see that, in these
Greek myths, Memory and Imagination are much more closely allied than
they have become so many generations later, if not at times almost indistinguishable.
And yet, as Jung reminds us, only fifty generations separate us from
the ancient Greeks. I dont want to try and define these ideas
in advance of their stories, and end up trapped in a definition that
prevents us thinking through the images, so lets explore the ideas
as they emerge - through the thoughts of those who made Memory a goddess
and gave her children and gave her children relationships of their own,
most of which have endured for two thousand years.
with the Muses. c. 750 BC. Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Dresden.
There are four creation
myths in ancient Greece - the native Pelasgian, the Homeric, the Orphic
and the Olympian. Mnemosyne belongs to the Olympian version of creation,
first articulated by Hesiod in 700 BC. In Hesiods Theogony,
Gaia, Earth, was the first to arise from Chaos, and she gave birth to
Ouranos, Heaven, and Pontus, Sea. In the widespread tradition of son-lovers
of the Goddess, Ouranos became her consort, and together they gave birth
to a generation of divinities called the Titans, six goddesses and six
gods, among whom were Rhea (the Flowing One), Kronos (Time), Themis
(Law), and Mnemosyne, Memory. This tells us that the idea of Memory,
along with Time and Lawfulness, belongs to the structure of consciousness
- the archetypal realm of the psyche - such that consciousness cannot
be conceived without it. Karl Kerenyi suggests that Mnemosyne originated
in Mycenaean times under the name Manasa, who in turn, like many
of the other goddesses and gods, may have come from Crete. (Zeus
and Hera, p. 79).
In the next stage of this creation myth, Rhea and Kronos give birth
to three daughters - Hestia
(goddess of the Hearth), Demeter (goddess of the Harvest), and Hera
(whose name means sacred) - and then three sons - Poseidon (god of the
Sea), Hades (god of the Underworld) and lastly Zeus, whose name, from
its Indo-European roots, means Light and Day,
or rather, in its original verbal form, the moment of Lighting
up. (Theos, god, was said in the moment of revelation).
Zeus then unites with the goddesses of the older order, the Titans,
the nymphs, and the indigenous Pelasgian goddesses of Earth and Moon,
bringing the history and native laws of the land into the new order.
(As we might expect, this seems to be sometimes repressive and sometimes
creative, probably because many of the goddesses kept their separate
spheres of influence, like Demeter and Persephone, Artemis and Athena,
Formally married to his sister, cow-eyed Hera, Zeus unites with two
of the Titan daughters of Earth and Heaven - firstly with Themis, Law,
who brings forth the Horai, the Seasons, and the Moirai, the Fates:
and then with Mnemosyne, who gives birth to the Muses. The story went
that Zeus and Mnemosyne lay together for nine nights, and, later, on
snowy Olympos she delivered nine daughters, one for each night, all
with the same nature, their one thought singing and dancing, and their
hearts free from care. They live beside Desire, Himeros, and
the Three Graces. From their shrine in their dancing grounds - the Museion,
from which our term museum comes - they go back and forth
in procession to Olympos, wrapped in veils of white mist.
When the Muses sang - about the immortal gods, their ways and laws -
telling of things that are, that will be and that were (Hesiod,
lines 41-2) - everything stood still: sky, stars, sea and rivers, and,
conversely, the mountain that does not move, Mount Helicon, began to
grow in rapture up to heaven, until the winged horse Pegasus struck
the mountain with his hooves, and the cascade of water arising from
the blow was called hippou krene, the fountain of the horse.
Here is an image of ecstasy beyond the bounds of time and space, when,
in playful paradox, Imagination (Pegasus, who came into being soaring
from the severed head of the Gorgon of fear) itself creates reality,
bringing the mountain down to earth. Around this Spring the Muses danced,
and its waters brought inspiration to all who drank from it. Thus Keats,
in his Ode to a Nightingale:
for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.
The Muses, who were called not just Mousai but Mneiai,
a plural of Mnemosyne, could assume the shape of birds, messengers of
the unknown, and were also seen as mountain and fountain nymphs, just
as their Mother was always linked with water, the mysterious source
of springs and rivers in the outer and inner worlds, above and below.
a Muse. Lekythos, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Siracusa
The magical nature of the Muses is celebrated here, mirroring the magical
nature of their gifts to human beings: It is because of the Muses
and the archer Apollo that there exist on earth people who sing songs
and play the lyre; kings come from Zeus. The Hymn to the Muses
and Apollo continues: If the Muses love you then you are blessed
and sweet sound flows from your mouth. (The Homeric Hymns,
trans. Cashford). They also bring honour to statesmen, availing them
of soft words to ease conflict and reach sound judgement.
When they watch a heaven-favoured Lord being born they pour sweet dew
upon his tongue and honeyed words flow from his mouth. The Orphic
Hymn to the Muses says to them:
You give birth to virtue in every discipline,
you nourish the soul and set thought right
you taught the sacred and mystic rites to mortals.
We have to imagine seeing these Muses outside, embodied in Nature, as
well as those who come into our minds in solitude. They come from a
time when divinity was immanent in natural life, so they were seen dancing
in the waters when they sparkled, and when the mountains shimmered in
the evening light, they had come to play. Numinosity was the sign of
their presence (literally, the nod or wink of a god, the
awakening of the divine). Our term musing may have gained
overly inward overtones, but there is also music.
In Boeotia, Hesiods own country, the Muses were said to be originally
only three in number, and had names which come from the craft of poetry:
Melete, Practice, Mneme, Memory,
and Aoide, Song. But, for Hesiod himself, there were
nine Muses and he gives them names eloquent of their natures. Their
particular domains came later. These are:
Kleio, the giver of fame - who later became
Muse of History.
Euterpe, the giver of joy - Muse of the Flute
Thaleia, the festive - Muse of Comedy
Melpomene, the singer - Muse of Tragedy
Terpischore, she who enjoys dancing - Muse
of the Lyre
Erato, the awakener of desire - Muse of the
Polymnia, she of many hymns - Muse of Sacred
Ourania, the heavenly - Muse of Astronomy
Kalliope, she of the beautiful voice - Muse
of Heroic Song (for Hesiod the most glorious of the Muses).
These are visions of delight and pleasure, images of beauty which inspire
us beyond our daily selves, even our entirely conscious selves. They
point to the dimension in any creative work, which is not chosen but
given - it comes upon us and takes us away - and for the
Greeks given meant divinely given - or, as we
might say, archetypally infused.
In Book 2 of the Iliad, the poet asks the Muses to tell him who
went to fight in the Trojan War: For you are goddesses, watching
all things, knowing all things, but we have only hearsay and not knowledge.
And he ends with the plea that it is the Muses who have to remember
it, and give him their memories of it, because he could not do
this by himself. (Bk. 2, 484-92) He is asking for an actual vision of
the past recreated in the present, so he can see things in truth. Again,
in the Odyssey, when Odysseus says that Demodocus can sing about
the war of Troy as if he had been there or heard about it from
an eye witness, he concludes that a Muse or Apollo must have taught
it to him. (Bk. 8, 487f)
his lyre. 490 BC. white kylix. Delphi Museum.
When the Muses,
as daughters of Mnemosyne, are themselves asked to remember the
past, they are asked to bring back not just the facts but the original
structure of feeling in which these facts made sense and had value,
which makes them now worth the remembering. The original value, implicitly
evoked by the beauty of the Muses who graced the poet with their presence,
is thereby transferred to the theme and manner of his song so that it
The gift of the Muses was then the power of true speech, and the poet
was known as the servant or messenger of the Muses, dependent, ultimately,
on the Muse for inspiration, as poets have said ever since.
So poet and seer, the oracular voice, are allied here, as they are,
in many Indo-European languages. Both reveal hidden truth, and even,
for Virgil in the Georgics, the secrets of nature. (Bk. 2, 475ff).
But there is a warning: the Muses tell Hesiod they can also lie. In
fact they seem to tempt him with lies first; the truth, the reservations
of the prose imply, is more difficult. As they say:
We know enough to make up lies which are convincing, but we also
have the skill, when weve a mind, to speak the truth. So
is this mind of theirs arbitrary and unpredictable, or can it be intuited
and anticipated? The stories suggest that it is our relation
to the Muses which calls forth from them truth or trickery.
The nine daughters of the Macedonian king Pierus once challenged the
Muses to a contest, with the nymphs as judges. When the Muses won, they
punished the girls for their presumption by turning them into chattering
magpies. When the Sirens (the half-bird maidens against whose irresistible
song Odysseus strapped himself to the mast of his ship) competed with
the Muses and naturally lost, the Muses plucked out the Sirens
feathers to make themselves crowns. The Muses were judges in the contest
between Marsyas and Apollo for mastery of the flute. Marsyas, the beautiful
human flute player, had boasted that he was better than the god. When
they judged Marsyas the loser, he was flayed alive.
Approaching the Muses, as any other god or goddess, with hubris
- the arrogance of the ego - turns their powers against us. So it is
that Homer, Virgil, Dante and even Milton respectfully begin their poetry
by invoking the goddess, who may be Mnemosyne herself, or
the Muses, her daughters.
Muses, o high genius, aid me now, Dante begins the Divine
O Memory that engraved the things I saw.
O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention. (Chorus, Henry V, line
Not I, not I, but the wind that comes through me,
as D.H. Lawrence says.
Theres a parallel in Egyptian mythology with Thoth, the lunar
god of eternity, time, imagination, scribes and hieroglyphs (and much
else) and his spouse Maat, goddess of Truth and the Right Ordering of
the Universe. The scribe has to be in Maat - related
to personal and cosmic truth, in harmony with the universe - before
Thoth would come to inspire him. When this condition is met, we learn,
from an inscription around the base of the statue of Nebmeroutef and
Thoth, that Thoth himself brings back Maat every day. (Imagination
brings back Truth - it could be Keats speaking). Divine and human relate
here in a mutually reaffirming process. Fascinatingly, the sculpture
shows the god looking at the man, but the man merely attending to his
and Thoth. 1391-1353 BC. The Louvre.
Yet this radical
uncertainty - is the mind pure enough? How can we know? - pervades many
such tales. The bee maidens, whom Apollo gave to Hermes, teach divination
and speak the truth graciously after they have fed on golden honey.
But if they are deprived of the sweet food of the gods they tell
you lies, swarming to and fro. How can we tell if they have had
their honey? Perhaps by their swarming, their not being in the mood?
So thats when not to ask them. Likewise Apollo expects humans
to know their place. Some human beings, he says, shall proft from
my oracular voice. Those who come guided by the cry and the flights
of prophetic birds, but those who trust in twittering birds and want
to question my oracles against my will, in order to know more than the
ever-living gods, these people will come on a wasted journey.
And even Hermes: A few he helps, but he endlessly beguiles the
race of human beings in the darkness of the night. ( Homeric
Hymn to Hermes). Similarly with dreams. Do they come from the Gate
of Horn or the Gate of Ivory, the one true and the other deceitful?
It was the same with the blood of the Medusa - the Gorgon, whose look
turned heroes to stone, petrified them where they stood, whom Perseus
slew with the help of Athenas mirror and Hermess sword and
sandals. Blood from her veins went to Asklepios, the god of healing,
and with blood from one side he heals and with blood from the other
he slays. But no-one can entirely agree which side is which.
Perhaps the tales themselves suggest to us the way of right approach?
For while the poet asks the Muses to remember for him so he can repeat
it, the first gift of the Muses to the poet, in direct inversion, is
forgetfulness - Lethe or Lesmoysne. Lesmoysne is
the sister of Mnemosyne, suggesting how inextricably the two ideas are
linked and valued. When the Muses, or their bard, sing:
once that man forgets his heavy heart,
And has no memory of any grief,
So quick the Muses gift diverts his mind. (Hesiod,
The same word for forgetfulness is used here as in the Orphic
Hymn - Lethe - and while there, for the initiates, it was to
be shunned, here, for the poets, it is to be welcomed. So as well as
more than one meaning to Memory we have, predictably enough, more than
one meaning to forgetfulness. We might read the Muses gift of
forgetfulness as diverting and even redirecting the troubled conscious
mind afflicted by its own personal memories which keep it focused on
itself alone. So here we are enabled to forget ourselves in order to
become open to something larger than ourselves, which the myth describes
as a remembering of our origins. This self-forgetting seems to be a
more relaxed classical version of the Virginity of Mary, which means,
symbolically, that she is closed to all that is not God - the soul virgin
so as to receive the Annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel: Hail,
thou that art full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Yet forgetfulness can also be blessed in its own right. Lethe was
a healing gift for Orestes when pursued by the Furies.
magic of sweet sleep, healer of pain,
I need thee and how sweetly art thou come.
O holy Lethe, wise physician, thou,
Goddess invoked of miserable men.
Virgil also talks of the waters that quench mans trouble,
the deep draught of oblivion. And Dante, in his Purgatorio,
emphasizes the unity and dual activity of Lethe and Mnemosyne by drawing
one river which divides into two streams: Lethe, which takes away the
memory of all sins, and Mnemosyne (which Dante calls Eunoe, Good
Memory), which restores the memory of all good deeds.
There is a Hasidic story about the value of forgetfulness in human experience.
Rabbi Baruch of Mezbish, the grandson of Baal Shem, the founder of Hasidism,
was asked why God created forgetfulness. He replied that if there were
no forgetting, human beings would think incessantly about their death
and they wouldnt do anything, not build a house or learn anything
difficult or launch an enterprise. So one Angel teaches the future child
- instructing the soul before birth - in such a way that it would forget
nothing, and a second Angel teaches the soul of the child how to forget.
So there is an Angel of Memory and an Angel of Forgetfulness.
(Gerhard Adler, Dynamics of the Self, p. 130). The parallel in
Greek thought is to make Lesmosyne a Goddess as well as Mnemosyne.
Lethe and Mnemosyne are given further meanings in practical ritual,
in the oracle of Trophonio - a half-brother of Asklepios - which was
a subterranean cave in the land of the Muses, near the slopes of Mount
Helicon in Boeotia, where there were two springs, one of Lethe and the
other of Mnemosyne. There, the initiate must first ritually drink of
the waters of Lethe, in order to forget everything he has previously
had in his mind - like a catharsis, a purification - and only then may
he drink of the waters of Mnemosyne, which will allow him to remember
the vision he is about to have in his journey into the underworld. Even
so, he cant remember it when he comes back, and he is made to
sit in the Chair of Memory and then questioned by the priests, who interpret
what Trophonios, in the shape of a serpent, had revealed to him.
can only say, there
we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The Four Quartets,
Burnt Norton, 67-8).
So all the stories explore this relation, almost a dance, between forgetting
and remembering, with the two terms expanding in meaning until they
invoke the whole person, our unconscious as well as our conscious selves.
It is the context that gives them their value in each case, the particular
story of the psyche which they are imagined to explore. We might even
wonder if, between them, it is Remembering and Forgetting, in their
daily dance, which creates the underlying reality of the present for
But when the story is one of the ego which has been persuaded or beguiled
to forget itself, what - or who - takes its place?
Hermes, god of Imagination,
laying aside his playful trickster mode, and, assuming his role as artist
to quell the rage of Apollo, takes up the lyre he has made from the hollowed
shell of the tortoise of the mountains, and sings. He sings of the
immortal gods and the black earth, how they came into being in the beginning,
but first among the gods he praised in song Mnemosyne, Mother of the Muses,
for the son of Maia belonged to her by lot. (Homeric Hymn to
Hermes). Apollo is instantly enchanted and gives him his cattle, and
in return Hermes gives the lyre to Apollo. Hermes, like the Muses, himself
charmed people into forgetting themselves with his lyre or his caduceus
- his magic wand of interweaving snakes - slaying the thousand-eyed giant
Argus, who never slept - never, like the conscious mind, stopped watching
- as well as drawing others gently across the boundaries of life and death.
Now although Apollo is the god who strikes from afar - an image of the
highly focused but uninvolved mind - he is also, in his softer winter
mode, the leader of the Muses, with whom he dances elegantly and gracefully
and rhythmically at the feasts. Apollo gives this same lyre to Orpheos,
the magical singer, who was himself the son of the Muse Kalliope and Apollo,
or the Moon, Mene, or the Thracian king, Oeagrus. Orpheos was taught
how to play the lyre by the Muses, and his son was called Musaios. Plato
refers to people who believe Orpheos and Musaios are sons of the Moon.
Journeyer, with lyre and caduceus. British Museum.
Can we not feel an
archetypal force-field at work here? Stories and images echo each other,
cross over and tangle and disentangle, all the while following an invisible
thread which winds its way through them all. It is like a mind exploring
ever new ways of trying to get at an essence which in the end always escapes
us, must escape us, because it can only be glimpsed indirectly through
its symbols, which never completely reveal their meaning. The depths of
a symbol remain in the Unconscious or they wouldnt involve and compel
us as symbols, theyd be allegories, optional alternatives, and we
could describe them rationally by referring them to something else, or
by restating them in a different way. As T.S. Eliot says:
Muse. 430 BC. Bernishes Historisches Museum, Bern.
one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
Quartets, East Coker, V).
Shakespeare in Two Gentlemen of Verona gives us the magic of Orpheos:
Orpheus lute was strung with poets sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame, and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands. (III, ii, 78-81)
The basic idea of Orpheos is initiation: he is the initiator into unfathomable
depths, whose power transforms the whole of wild nature. Even trees and
rocks were freed from their places to follow him, rather like Mount Hebron
who rose to heaven in rapture at the Muses. In his myths, there is a search
for what his secret is, what is the power in us - that is not our own
- which can bring about transformation? What are the conditions for its
manifestation? This is a story with the consciousness of the Unus Mundus.
It makes no distinction between the human and animal, plant and mineral
nature of the cosmos, or between the living and the dead. Whatever it
is, it implicates the whole psyche. We have try to see through the stories
and images to this mysterious
At the least, with Orpheos we have an image of the ecstatic power of Imagination
- the magic of his lyre, by which the hearts of all who heard him were
quelled, purified and restored to their part in God, or returned to their
divine nature. So they were restored, as they put it, to the arche,
the first principle, which, for the Pythagoreans, followers of Orpheos,
was number, and for Plato, his philosophy coming also from Orphism, was
harmony and the music of the spheres.
to entranced Thracians. 440 BC.
Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
In Greek legend, Orpheos came from Thrace, as did Dionysos, though scholars,
such as Jane Harrison and Karl Kerenyi, believe he came originally from
Minoan Crete, along with Dionysos - and also Poseidon and Athena, and
Demeter and Persephone - and then they both made their way up to Thrace
later. The last syllable of his name - eos, eus - points to him
being very old, like Atreus of Mycenaean times, the king who began the
tragic dynasty of Aeschyluss trilogy of the House of Atreus, which
ended with Orestes.
Orpheos also has links to Egyptian thought. His story says he went to
study in Egypt. When he came back he joined the Argonauts in their quest
for the Golden Fleece, and, in a fierce storm, sang to the waves to
calm them - saving the sailors lives by singing more sweetly than
the Sirens, those same Sirens who lured Odysseuss ships to their
death. On his return he married Euridyce.
She met Aristaeus (yet another son of Apollo, who later became father
of Aktaion, dismembered by his dogs at the command of the Moon Goddess
Artemis). Aristaeus molested her, and as she fled from him she trod
upon a serpent and died of its bite. If this were a dream, we might
wonder if the serpent biting the heel were an image of something neglected
trying to come back into consciousness, perhaps to compensate a too
extreme conscious attitude? Or perhaps again it invites us to think
about whether both true art and initiation require some sacrifice of
instinctual energies? The Alchemists called their work Opus Contra
Naturam, the work against nature.
The story of Orpheos descent into the underworld first appears
in Euripides play Alcestis, and is elaborated in Virgil
and Ovid. When Orpheos sang he entranced the entire world of the dead.
Charon, the Ferryman, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog, allowed him
to enter the underworld without protest. The cheeks of the Furies were
wet with tears for the first time. Sisyphus stopped rolling his stone
uphill. Tantalus stopped being thirsty. Ixion stepped off his wheel.
In other words, his song changed the natures of all who heard him. Hades
and Persephone were delighted to see him. But Hades made one condition:
Dont look back.
Looking back at Euridyce, Orpheos falls back into the senses: he looks
with his eyes not with the Imagination, and loses her, his vision, and
eventually his life.
Eurydice out of Hades, Hermes assisting. 420 BC. The Louvre.
DEATH OF ORPHEOS
Orpheos was slain by
Maenads, the ecstatic followers of Dionysos, and recollected by Muses,
suggesting a link between them. The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos ends
with the lines: Anyone who forgets you forgets sweet song.
Was it Orpheos inconsolable grief, which made the Maenads jealous,
since he sang no more songs? Were they set on by Dionysos for disdaining
his own raw and bleeding feasts, as Euripides calls them.
Was Orpheos a Priest of Dionysos, who had moved away into an otherworldliness?
Looking from the viewpoint of comparative mythology, was he also following
the lunar pattern of the dying and resurrected god, like Osiris, Dionysos
and others, in his case perhaps, reading it symbolically, following a
marriage in the underworld with Eurydice, whose lunar name means the
wide-ruling one. Osiris was dismembered on the 17th day of the lunar
cycle, the day when the Full Moon can be perceived as beginning to wane,
and he was dismembered into 14 pieces, the number of days of the Waning
by Maenads. 480 BC. Cincinatti Art Museum.
The Muses collected Orpheuss limbs and buried them at the foot of
Olympos where the nightingales now sing sweeter than anywhere else in
the world. So it is that the Arts (given us by the Muses) bring us back
to the Great Memory.
His head floated down the River Hebrus across the sea to the island of
Lesbos where it prophesied and sang so sweetly that Apollo came and stood
over it and commanded it to be silent, as no-one came to Delphi any longer
to listen to his prophecies. He cried: Cease from interference in
my business - upon which the head fell silent. But Orpheoss
lyre was not to be silenced and sang its way into the music of the universe.
Drifting to Lesbos, following the head, it laid itself to rest in the
Temple of Apollo. Apollo and the Muses then interceded with Zeus, who
placed the lyre in Heaven as the constellation of the Pleiades, or the
Seven Sisters, known in Bronze Age Celtic times as the stars of mourning,
since they then rose at Samhain, our day of Halloween, at the meeting
of the souls of the dead.
Orpheus was said to be the founder of the mystic cult of Orphism. (Though
the transformative nature of the lyre of Orpheos is almost closer to Dionysian
ritual in feeling, suggesting that more rigour was expected of initiates
than of poets). The Orphics were ascetics. The term soma-sema -
the body a tomb - was attributed to them by Plato, an idea close to his
own thinking in the Phaedo, among other books, where the true philosopher
longs for death. Their devotion was to wineless Mnemosyne
- as opposed to the wine-filled rites of Dionysos, which for the Orphics,
had too much of Lethe in them, too much of the wrong kind of forgetfulness.
Orpheos weaves in and out of Dionysos in complicated and often contradictory
ways, so it may be better
to refer to a Dionsyos-Orpheos complex of ideas. Yet they share joy. Wholly
Orphic is the mystical joy with which the hymns brim over. Harrison
says. (Prolegomena, p. 625).
with his Maenads. 490 BC.
Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
The Orphics are early, belonging in feeling to the time of the Mother
Goddess, before the Olympians came in to Greece, as we can see from their
own Creation myth of the Cosmic Egg and the Wind: - In the beginning,
Black-winged Night laid a wind-born and silver-gleaming egg, from which
sprang Eros, Love.
the beginning of Things, black-winged Night
Into the bosom of Erebos dark and deep
Laid a wind-born egg, and, as the seasons rolled,
Forth sprang Love, gleaming with wings of gold,
Like to the whirlings of wind, Love the Delight
And Love with Chaos in Tartaros laid him to sleep;
And we, his children, nestled, fluttering there,
Till he led us forth to the light of the upper air.
trans. Harrison, Prolegomena,
Eight inscribed tablets of very thin gold, worn as amulets round the
necks of the deceased, were found in South Italy, Rome and Crete, and
disclose a deeper and more precise meaning to the idea of Mnemosyne.
(Details of the tablets can be found in Prolegomena to the Study
of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison, pp. 573-599).
shalt find on the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this Well-spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another by the Lake of Mnemosyne,
Cold Water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it.
Say: I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven (alone). This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Mnemosyne.
And of themselves they will give thee to drink from the holy Well-spring.
And thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship.
The first well on the left - other tablets make clear - is the Well
of Lethe, beside the white cypress, bleached of its living green life.
In other tablets, the words I am pure are repeated like
a refrain, reminiscent of the negative confession of the
deceased in Egypt (reciting the bad things they did not do), where there
is also a cold well - a mighty flood of water
- which Osiris gave the souls to drink. Isis also gave the deceased
the food and water of life, herself arising out of the depths of the
Tree of Life, which grows out of a pool of water. There is also a Plea
for Retaining Memory in the Other World - which reminds us again that
Orpheos studied in Egypt. Another Orphic tablet ends with an image of
simple bliss: A kid thou art fallen into milk.
Eleuthernae Tablet from Crete
am parched with thirst and I perish.Nay, drink of Me,
The Well-spring flowing for ever on the Right, where the Cypress
Who art thou?
Whence art thou?
I am son of Earth and Starry Heaven.
The soul speaks to the Well of Living Water, which, by comparison with
the other tablets, must be the Well of Mnemosyne, and the Well answers.
The initiates have to avow their origin, and while the avowal of origin
constitutes in each the claim to drink of the Well, it is the longing
- the intensity of their need - that will grant it. The two statements
together suggest that the initiates already have some understanding
of their origin - understand that the essence of who they are comes
from their archetypal core (Heaven) as it is expressed through their
individuality (Earth), evocative of Jungs idea that we are all,
in our individual natures, the Selfs unique experiment.
This parentage also belongs to the Immortal Gods. Hesiod bids the Muse,
at the beginning of his Theogony:
the holy race of Immortals ever existing,
Who were born from earth and starry Heaven.
These are also the words chanted by the initiates at the close of the
Eleusinian Mysteries, after which the priest raises one cup of water
to Heaven and points another cup of water towards Earth, and pours them
out upon the ground in a ritual which celebrates the Sacred Marriage
of Heaven and Earth which brings forth the child of new
life. The people cry Hye, Kye,, Rain,
So the initiates are asked to affirm their divine nature, the part of
their nature they share with the gods, and also to express their longing
for this union: I am parched with thirst and I perish. It
has to matter more than anything else. The sacrament of this divinity
is the drinking of the divine well of Mnemosyne which grants them consciousness
of the whole, awakening to the mystery, as the Orphic Hymn to Mnemosyne
said. They remember what they once knew..
The symbolism of the Water of Life is familiar from St. Johns
Gospel, and also the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus
says: Whoever drinks from my mouth shall become as I am and I
myself will become he, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.
(Logion 98) . And at the Last Supper of wine and bread, as given in
Lukes Gospel, this ritual is to become an act of Remembrance:
Do this in remembrance of me. (Luke, 22: 19)
Although the Orphics initiation is portrayed as taking place in
the next life, we can understand it as an image of the choices available
to us in this life, next lives forming the tableaux in which to explore
the dramas of this one. Especially, perhaps, at moments when a choice
can initiate us into one or the other reality - a life or death choice,
as we might say. So, in this context, without the mediation of
the Muses, Lethe here becomes unconsciousness of the Self, a diminishing
of humanity, and Mnemosyne becomes consciousness of the Self, a symbol
of transformation. The overtones of the image are such as to define
this Memory as Remembrance of Origin, opening the soul to its heavenly
inheritance, or as we might say, opening the psyche to the archetypal
images of the Collective Unconscious, the Great Memory.
As Harrison comments: That Memory, the mere remembering of facts,
should be the Mother of the Muses is a frigid genealogy... the Mnemosyne
of initiation rites, the remembering again, the anamnesis of
things seen in ecstasy when the soul is rapt to heavenly places, she
is surely now, as ever, the fitting Mother of all things musical.
(Themis, p. 513)
The Orphic well of Memory lives on in Platos theory of Recollection
- Anamnesis - where he sets this scene of choice in the drama
of being born. So Plato takes Mnemosyne, Remembrance, and makes of her
Anamnesis, Remembering-Again. Souls choose the life they wish
to lead, and when about to be born must drink of the Waters of Lethe
to forget their heavenly origins, as a condition for entering, or re-entering,
life on Earth. He also calls the river Ameles, Unmindfulness,
his version of Lethe. But some do not drink so deeply as others,
and do not entirely forget. The word for truth is Aletheia -
Not forgetting - a double negative - and makes it clear why for Plato
knowledge was remembering what was once known.
PLATO: THE MYTH OF ER
The Myth of Er, in the last chapter of the Republic, offers a
tale of the Immortality of the Soul, disclosing Platos Orphic
origins, and still more evocatively, revealing how even Plato must have
recourse to the Imagination to call up a vision of knowledge. (Similarly,
when he finally comes to the moment when he is to define the Good,
he says it acts like the Sun.). Er was a brave man, killed in
battle. He was lying on his funeral pyre, when he came to life again
and told the story of what he had seen in the other world.
In abbreviated form: first, Er and the other souls went to the Judges.
Er was told he was to be a messenger. The wicked had various punishments.
They enter a shaft of light running straight through earth and heaven
like a pillar, on which is fastened the Spindle of Necessity, which
causes the orbits to revolve. Then they see the Three Fates, turning
the spindle: Lachesis, the one who spins, Clotho, the one who weaves,
and Atropos, the one who cuts the thread of life (known together as
Klothes, the Spinners, in Homer).
The Souls then go before Lachesis, who says to them: No Guardian
Angel will be allotted to you; you shall choose your own. And
again, Goodness knows no master. A man shall have more or less
of her according to the value he sets on her. The Soul now has
to choose between different kinds of life.
For the most part they followed the habits of their former life. The
soul that once had been Orpheus chose the life of a swan. Odysseus,
grown wise through suffering, chose the uneventful life of an ordinary
man, to whom nothing would happen at all. Then, only after these choices,
Lachesis allots to each its chosen Guardian Angel, to guide it through
life and help it fulfil the choice it has made.
they go to the plain of Lethe, through a terrible and stifling
heat, for the land had no trees or vegetation. In the evening
they camped by the River of Lethe, whose water no pitcher can
hold. And all were compelled to drink a certain measure of its
water; and those who had no wisdom to save them drank more than
the measure. And as each man drank he forgot everything. They
then went to sleep and when midnght came there was an earthquake
and thunder, and like shooting stars they were all swept suddenly
up and away to be born. Er himself was forbidden to drink, and
could not tell by what manner of means he returned to his body;
but suddenly he opened his eyes and it was dawn and he was lying
on the pyre.
H.D.P. Lee, lines 393-401)
Drinking from the River of Lethe too deeply (giving in to the thirst
from the stifling plain) is to forget our archetypal origins completely,
while drinking not too much, just enough to be able to be born, allows
us to remember.
Intimations of Immortality
birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our lifes Star
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home.
We could say this is Platonic, that Wordsworth articulates the vision
of Plato, but you could also say Wordsworth and Plato and the myth of
Mnemosyne express an archetypal image - that there is a knowing in us
- a wiser knowing - which does not come from us - which we receive as
a gift of grace - and to this Jung gives the name of the Self. He describes
the Self as the archetype of wholeness, the centre of unconscious as
well as unconscious life, that within which guides us. Thus true knowledge
comes not from the ego but from the Self. It is the Self which remembers
and knows when to forget. The myths render this understanding in terms
of a continual balancing of opposing states of mind. So we are to forget
the eternal realm to be born into time, and, finally, we are to forget
time to remember the eternal out of which we came. It is understandable
that this vision of our deeper nature is placed before and after life
in time, for this is the purpose of projection - to fill the outer world
with the veiled images of our inner life so they may entrance us and
we may become conscious of them by loving them. For we love nothing
but the perfect, Yeats says, and we make all things perfect
that we may love them. So all our great teachers claim us as symbols
of the Self - notwithstanding their reality as living human beings,
and perhaps, ultimately, just because of it.
Christ as Orpheos
Bakkikos, with Crescent Moon and Pleiades, the lyre of Orpheus.
Cylinder seal, c. 300 AD. (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology,
I have tried to suggest that we cannot simply remember archetypal
images in the way we remember a personal event in our past. We can approach
them only as symbols for which we need Imagination. They may seem like
memories because of the feeling that we have known them before, or know
them deep within ourselves, and also perhaps because of the intense
effort required to bring them back into consciousness - like Orpheos
bringing Eurydice back up out of the underworld. (If we look too soon,
with single not double vision, as Blake says,
we lose them). Whatever we manage to retrieve creates a new whole -
the literal meaning of re, again, and member,
a piece - to piece together again, to make into one body,
like the remembering of Osiris, Dionysos and Orpheos. True Remembrance
requires Imagination and Memory working together as one.
have actually known everything all along; for all these things
are always there, only we are not there for them... Originally
we were all born out of a world of wholeness and in the first
years of life are completely contained in it. There we have all
knowledge without knowing it. Later we lose it, and call it progress
when we remember it. (Letters,
Vol i, pp. 274-5).
terms this is a joining of the personal memory to the Great Memory:
Our little memories, he says, are but a part of some Great Memory
that renews the world and mens thoughts age after age, and ...our
thoughts are not, as we suppose, the deep, but a little foam upon the
deep. In his Essay on Magic he writes that Whatever the
passions of man have gathered about, becomes a symbol in the Great Memory,
which, he explains, is the Memory of Nature herself. Elsewhere,
he calls the Great Memory the Great Mind, and the Spiritus Mundi
or Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. This is memory not only in
the sense of remembrance of things past but rather as the original pattern
holding all the forms that have been and are yet to come. Like the Collective
Unconscious, Yeatss World Soul or Great Memory is not set apart
from us, for our own memories and dreams are a part of it as It is of
us, all indissolubly entwined and so continually, if imperceptibly,
changing. We reach it through our passions, some mysterious tide
in the depths of our being - and then again we invoke it by engaging
with such symbols through Imagination, for this Memory is, as he says,
still the Mother of the Muses, though men no longer believe in
it. And is not Imagination ...always seeking to remake the
to the impulses and the patterns in that Great Mind, and that Great
Memory? (Essays and Introductions, pp. 50-2).
Sonnet to Orpheus V
bother about a stone. Let the rose simply
bloom each year in his memory.
The rose is Orpheus. He takes different shapes
in this and that. Theres no need to worry
about all those names. Once and for all,
If there is poetry, Orpheus is there. He comes and goes.
Isnt it already a lot that he sometimes survives
by a few days the rose leaves in the bowl?
Yes, and he has to go, or you wont understand!
even though he himself is afraid he might disappear forever!
The instant his poem rises above day-by-day things,
he is already in a place where you cannot follow him.
The strings of the lyre do not entangle his hands.
And he obeys in exactly the instant he steps over.
Sonnets to Orpheus,
translated by Robert Bly, p. 203
The Poet Hendrik van der Veldeke waiting for the Muse.
Heidelberg University Library
Adler, G. (1979). Dynamics of the Self, London,
Baring A. and Cashford, J. (1991). The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution
of an Image, London, Viking Penguin.
Bly, R. (1981) Trans. Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Harper,
Colophon Books, New York.
Joseph Campbell (1968) The Masks of the Gods: Creative Mythology,
Souvenir Press Ltd. London.
Cashford, J. (2003). Trans. The Homeric Hymns, London, Penguin
Cashford, J. (2003). The Moon: Myth and Image, London, Cassell
Grene D. and Lattimore R. ed. (1960). The Complete Greek Tragedies.
Vol I . University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Harrison, J. (1980). Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,
London, Merlin Press.
J. (1977). Themis: A Study of the Social
Origins of Greek Religion, London, Merlin Press.
Hesiod. (1973). Theogony and Works and Days, trans. Dorothea
Jung, C.G. (1973-6). Letters, selected and edited by Gerhard
Adler in collaboration with Aniela Jaffe, trans. R.F.C. Hull, London,
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973-6.
Lee, H.D.P. (1987). Trans. London, The Republic, Penguin Classics.
Plato. (1989). The Collected Dialogues, ed. Hamilton and Crains,
Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Yeats, W. B. (1961). Essays and Introductions, London, Macmillan
(Talk given to the Analytical Psychology Club, London. 19/7/07; revised
web site readership 10/07)
by Jules Cashford, 2007.
For more information on Jules Cashford, click
© 2001-2009 The Mnemosyne Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
No portion of this Website may be reproduced in whole or in part without
prior written consent of The Mnemosyne Foundation.