The Mnemosyne Foundation

Troubadour Press


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 AD:

Mnemosyne 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.
(Trans. Jules Cashford)

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.

Prometheus, bound, attacked by the Eagle of Zeus. Museo Etrusco, Vatican.

Prometheus says:
‘Listen 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...’

Prometheus also 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, lines 437-504)

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.

Mnemosyne’s 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, ch. 5).

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 don’t 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 let’s 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.

Apollo Dancing 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 Hesiod’s 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, for instance).

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:

‘O 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.

Mnemosyne and 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, Hesiod’s 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 Dance
Polymnia, ‘she of many hymns’ - Muse of Sacred Story-telling
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)

Apollo with 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 becomes poetry.

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, etymologically,
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 we’ve 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.

‘O Muses, o high genius, aid me now,’ Dante begins the Divine Comedy:
‘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 1)
‘Not I, not I, but the wind that comes through me,’ as D.H. Lawrence says.

There’s 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 work.

Nebmeroutef 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 that’s 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 Athena’s mirror and Hermes’s 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:

‘‘At once that man forgets his heavy heart,
And has no memory of any grief,
So quick the Muses’ gift diverts his mind.’ (Hesiod,
Theogony, 105-8)

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.

O 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.’
(Euripides, Orestes, line 211).

Virgil also talks of ‘the waters that quench man’s 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 wouldn’t 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 can’t 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.

‘I 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.’
(T.S.Eliot, 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 each person?

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, the Journeyer, with lyre and caduceus. British Museum.

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.

Apollo with Muse. 430 BC. Bernishes Historisches Museum, Bern.

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 wouldn’t involve and compel us as symbols, they’d 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:

‘... 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.’
(Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’, V).


Orpheos playing his lyre.

Shakespeare in Two Gentlemen of Verona gives us the magic of Orpheos:

‘For 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.

Orpheos playing 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 Aeschylus’s 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 Odysseus’s 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: Don’t 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.

Orpheos bringing Eurydice out of Hades, Hermes assisting. 420 BC. The Louvre.


Orpheos dismembered by Maenads. 480 BC. Cincinatti Art Museum.

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 Moon.

The Muses collected Orpheus’s 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 Orpheos’s 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 Hallowe’en, 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).

Dionysos dancing 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.

‘‘In 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.’
(Aristophanes, Birds, trans. Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 625).


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).

The Petelia Tablet from Italy.
‘Thou 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.’

The Eleuthernae Tablet from Crete
‘I am parched with thirst and I perish.—Nay, drink of Me,
The Well-spring flowing for ever on the Right, where the Cypress is.
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 Jung’s idea that we are all, in our individual natures, the Self’s unique experiment.

This parentage also belongs to the Immortal Gods. Hesiod bids the Muse, at the beginning of his Theogony:

‘Sing 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, Conceive.’

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. John’s 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 Luke’s 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 Plato’s 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.


The Myth of Er, in the last chapter of the Republic, offers a tale of the Immortality of the Soul, disclosing Plato’s 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.

‘Then 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.’
(Translated 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.

Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality
‘Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s 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, p. 24.)

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.

Jung says:
‘We 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).

In Yeats’s 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 men’s 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, Yeats’s 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 world according
to the impulses and the patterns in that Great Mind, and that Great Memory?’ (Essays and Introductions, pp. 50-2).

Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus V
Don’t 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. There’s no need to worry

about all those names. Once and for all,
If there is poetry, Orpheus is there. He comes and goes.
Isn’t 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 won’t 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.
(Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by Robert Bly, p. 203

Codex Manesse. ‘The Poet Hendrik van der Veldeke waiting for the Muse’. 1305-35
Heidelberg University Library


Adler, G. (1979). Dynamics of the Self, London, Coventure Ltd.
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 Classics.
Cashford, J. (2003). The Moon: Myth and Image, London, Cassell Illustrated.
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.
Harrison, J. (1977). Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, London, Merlin Press.
Hesiod. (1973). Theogony and Works and Days, trans. Dorothea Wender, Harmondsworth,
Penguin Books.
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 Press Ltd.

(Talk given to the Analytical Psychology Club, London. 19/7/07; revised for
The Mnemosyne Foundation web site readership 10/07)
Jules Cashford

Copyright © by Jules Cashford, 2007.

For more information on Jules Cashford, click here.

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