Orpheus was a beautiful musician. He played the lyre and sang wonderful songs that made wild animals tame. The trees swayed towards him, the grass stood up and the whole earth came alive and sang with him.
Orpheus was deeply in love with Eurydice but one day a snake bit her, and sadly, she died. As Orpheus held the body of his beloved, her soul slipped out of her body down though the cracked ground, and into the underworld.
Orpheus stopped playing music. “Without Eurydice, there is no life, no music, no song to be sung. I must fetch her back”.
He descended through the valleys, pits and tunnels into the underworld where he came to the river Styx. He implored the ferryman to carry him across but the ferryman warned him he would never get past Cerberus, who guards the gate. Only the dead could cross, and a soul that went in, could not return.
The ferry man saw the grief in Orpheus, took pity on him, and in the black boat ferried him across. As the ferry moved through the darkness a terrible sound split the air. Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, barked and loomed up overhead. Orpheus took out his lyre and began softly to play. He played music without words, music that enchanted the ferryman and slowly sedated the raging guard-dog.
Throughout the underworld the souls of the dead stopped to listen. Pluto, King of the dead, also fell under the spell of Orpheus’ beautiful music. But he was angry. Music had no place in the land of the dead.
“Music is forbidden here!” Pluto boomed.
Orpheus began to sing. He sang of Eurydice’s beauty and the love they shared. He sang of the snake who took their love away and of his unbearable loneliness and pain. Pluto’s anger dissipated, he sat back on his throne and was overcome with sadness. His heart melted and he began to cry.
“You are the only one who has ever made it down here alive. Your song and story have moved me. I will grant you your wish”, said the King.
“Eurydice shall return to earth if…you can climb back up to the sunlight without once turning back to look at her face”, he laughed.
With the sound of soft footsteps close behind him Orpheus began to ascend…back to the river Styx, where again he played his wonderful music. He got into the boat and felt her presence behind him, but did not look back.
He passed the guard dog, but did not look back.
He crossed the river, but did not look back.
He arrived at the other side, but did not look back.
Beginning the climb out of the underworld he realised soon they would be free!
“Not long now”, he thought.
But then some doubts began to enter his mind. What if Pluto had tricked him and it was not really Eurydice behind him? What if she had changed during her time in the underworld and no longer loved him? As the first rays of light began to peer over the horizon, he decided it was best to take a quick glance just to make sure.
He gazed upon her beautiful eyes, her curling hair, as her mouth sang, “Orpheus!” It was her!
Then, all of a sudden, she was pulled backwards into a black hole, drowning in the darkness.
She was gone. He lost his love for a second time.
From then on Orpheus could no longer play his cheerful music. When he touched the lyre notes of grief and despair poured out, which displeased his audiences. They pleaded with him to play something cheerful, but he couldn’t. In their frustration, they attacked and killed him.
His weary soul rushed to go to the underworld and be reunited with his beloved. But the gods would not allow it.
“Your music is too wonderful for the underworld. It gives us so much pleasure. Your lyre shall be turned into stars and hung up in the night sky. You shall live for all eternity in the heavens, the place reserved for those deeply loved by the gods.”
“But…”, began Orpheus.
“and Eurydice shall live there with you”, the gods announced.
And there, from that day to this, the two lived in eternal happiness filling the heavens with sweet songs and music.
Orpheus is the story of suffering and soul-loss: loss of the loved one, the pathology that follows, and the descent into the dark realms of the underworld. Yet through it all, his music sustains him and in the end, redemption and salvation are found in the mercy of the gods.
James Hillman says that we must start with the psyche. Pathologizing is a valid form of psychological expression, a metaphorical language, a way the psyche presents itself.
Jung wrote that “The gods have become diseases”. By this he meant that the formal cause of our complaints and abnormalities are mythical persons like Orpheus. James Hillman writes that psychic illnesses are imaginal (not imaginary); they are the sufferings of fantasies, mythical realities, and the incarnation of archetypal events.
The pathological is inherent to the mythical, claims Hillman. The gods themselves are pathologized throughout myth. They are “Infirmities of the archetype”. Myths embody the odd, the peculiar, the extreme. Pathologizing is necessary to myth; it cannot be taken away without deforming the myth.
The figures of myth quarrel, cheat, are sexually obsessed, vengeful, vulnerable, murder and kill. The gods are not only perfections; they do not relegate ‘normalities’ to humans. The gods themselves embrace the full spectrum of experience – so that we can too. Myths describe necessary patterns; their pathologizing is needed. Infirmitas is essential to their complete configuration; the same applies to us.
We are as much in the archetypal realm, claims Hillman, when we are afflicted, as when in beatific states of transcendence. We are as much in the image of gods and goddesses when ludicrous, enraged or tortured as when we smile and give praise.
The gods themselves show infirmitas, so the path to imitation dei is through infirmity; infirmitas of the archetype can be a nurse to our wounds; their suffering gives style, justification, and significance to ours. We are made in the images of the gods; our abnormalities image those of the gods; we can only do in time what they do in eternity.