The transitional, in-between state of the soul after death was believed to be the domain of Hermes by ancient Greeks. They worshiped Hermes as the one god who will guide them to the right place of exit after they die. In this role, Hermes was gentle and compassionate, much like the angels from the Judeo Christian tradition. In his beautiful poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,” Reiner Maria Rilke captures the moment when Hermes guides Eurydice back to life while Orpheus is walking in front of them, trying to heed the order not to look back. First, Rilke describes the world in-between in these words translated by Edward Snow):
“It was the souls’ strange mine.
Like silent silver ore they wandered
through its dark like veins. Between roots
the blood welled up that makes its way to men,
and it looked hard as porphyry in the dark.
Nothing else was red.
Rocks were there
and unreal forests. Bridges spanning voids
and that huge gray blind unmoving lake
that hung above its distant bed
like rainy sky above a landscape.
The god of faring and of distant messages,
the travelling helmet over shining eyes,
the slender staff held out before the body,
and at the ankles the flutter of wings;
What makes Rilke’s vision unique is the way he portrays the state of the soul after death. The mission of Hermes to bring Eurydice back was futile because her consciousness has already transitioned to the supernatural realm. She had already lost touch with her former self and her soul was ready for a new phase:
“She was within herself, like a woman close to birth,
and thought not of the man who walked ahead,
and not of the path ascending into life.
She was within herself. And her having died
filled her with abundance.
Like a fruit with sweetness and night
she was filled with her great death,
which was so new that she understood nothing.
She was in a new virginity
and untouchable; her sex had closed
as a young flower at approach of evening,
and her hands had been so weaned
from marriage, that even the light god’s
infinitely soft, guiding touch
hurt her like too great a liberty.
She was no longer the blonde wife
who echoed often in the poet’s songs,
no longer the vast bed’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.
She was already loosened like long hair,
and given over like fallen rain
and handed out like a limitless supply.
She was already root.”