The Soul after Death: Hermes and Eurydice

Titian, “Orpheus and Eurydice” (on the left Eurydice dies bitten by a snake, on the right Orpheus makes an error of looking back and loses her forever)

Titian, “Orpheus and Eurydice” (on the left Eurydice dies bitten by a snake, on the right Orpheus makes an error of looking back and loses her forever)

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.”

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15 Responses to The Soul after Death: Hermes and Eurydice

  1. Maria F. says:

    Great post Monika! “The transitional, in-between state of the soul after death was believed to be the domain of Hermes by ancient Greeks.” Hermes reminds me of the work some Buddhist monks do in hospice. Several Buddhists volunteer to work with dying people who have no family, thus accompanying them during their death. Just as there are midwives for birth, there are also midwives for death. I was also privileged to work with some dying people once. Dying people are “featherweight” in spirit, by this I mean their soul can overpower a room with peace and harmony beyond words.

    • Thank you! I actually thought about the Tibetan Book of the Dead while conceiving of this post, so right on. I love your wording -“featherweight in spirit.”

    • Thanks for that insight about the featherweight-ness in spirit. I’ve been wondering what that uncanny peace was for some time. I thought maybe it was just exhaustion and sorrow. I’m glad it was something more

  2. Reblogged this on Blazing Light, Love's Song and commented:
    I love this person’s work. I hope you will too!

  3. Alethea Eason says:

    Beautiful. Love Rilke. Always excited to read a poem of his I’ve never encountered before. Hermes appeared very real once to me in a dream long ago…as real as any dream image I’ve ever experienced. (And at 0 degrees Gemini for my natal chart….he’s my guy!)

    • I’ve said this before. I’m rediscovering Rilke and falling in love again thanks to Edward Snow’s translation. This is one of my favorite poems. 0 degrees Gemini is a very sensitive point in my chart with my south node and the moon (end of Taurus) there. And I’m a daughter of Hermes with my Sun and Mercury being in conjunction in Gemini. Well, enough about me. That must have been some dream! Thank you for your comment.

  4. Monika, I loved this post. Rilke’s poetry so often seems to touch the numinous threads that weave earthly and “Other” life together. And synchronicity being what it is, I was working with a client yesterday who is drawn to the very territory described in Maria F’s comment, so I am about to send her the link ! And for anyone interested in exploring this territory, Sogyal Rinpoche’s “Tibetan Book of Livng and Dying” is one of the great spiritual classics in any tradition…

  5. Dewin Nefol says:

    Hey Monika,

    Ah, the classical embodiment of ill-omened romance…as I sit to remember sweet Eurydice, now so alone amongst the shades like the ‘ghost of a fading image’, I feel the gentle swell of love’s tragedy break upon the shore of my heart and for a time I to am lost within the dappled pools of melancholy and smeared grey…sigh.

    Whilst lamenting this tender post, with the vibrant colours of joyous day souring in the diminishing light, I was put in mind of many wonderfully emotive thoughts, though none more practical and earthen than recalling an exhibition I visited at the Tate in 2013 entitled ‘Orpheus Twice’. The project was nourished by several key sources and events occurring in the painterly world at that time – most notably the hotly debated restoration of Da Vinci’s ‘The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, Laurence Giavarini’s essay on a painting by Nicolas Poussin, and Jakuta Alikavazovic’s novel, ‘The Blond and the Bunker’ – and centred around what the English artist John Stezaker called ‘the “ghost of an image” – an expression used to describe the process by which images disappear, travel across time, and rematerialize. The ‘ghost of an image’ was suggested to be a suitable subtitle for Orpheus Twice, an exhibition investigating both image and absence.

    Reading directly from the exhibition leaflet…

    ‘Often in these sources, the mythological couple of Orpheus and Eurydice appears as a metaphor for ‘the act of seeing and creating’. The story is well known and there is no need to recite it, merely just to highlight the act of Eurydice’s ‘vanishing’, a circumstance that befalls the lover’s twice.

    ‘Many renditions and interpretations of the myth exist. One of these focuses less on the existential and sentimental aspects of the story than on its metaphorical definition of artistic inspiration. In an essay from 1955, entitled The Gaze of Orpheus (translated in “The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays’ by Station Hill P, 1989) the French author and theorist Maurice Blanchot writes: “(Eurydice) is the profoundly dark point towards which art, desire, death, and the night all seem to lead”. As often with Blanchot, a classical myth is read through a highly personal vision, leading towards an understanding of the creative act.’

    ‘He continues: “The work draws whoever devotes himself to it towards the point where it undergoes the ordeal of impossibility” – an experience which Blanchot states ‘is precisely nocturnal, which is that of the night”. Blanchot makes an analogy between Orpheus’s gaze, the creative process, and its philosophical interpretation. The path taken by Orpheus from light to dark, and back to
    light in search of his muse (inspiration) is symbolic of the artist’s journey from reality to the edges of the surreal. The force that enables Orpheus to cross the boundaries and to descend to Eurydice is that of art. Rendering this precise moment when the artist’s control is undermined, when an image (Eurydice) is about to disappear, is the object of the work of art.’

    “I am dedicated to fascination — to image fascination, a fascination for the point at which the image becomes self-enclosed and autonomous. It does so through a series of processes of disjunction”, explains John Stezaker. “I’m very much a follower of Maurice Blanchot’s idea when it comes to image and fascination; he sees it as a necessary series of deaths that the image has to
    go through in order to become visible and disconnected from its ordinary referent”.

    ‘And indeed, for art critic Elizabeth Manchester, “The figure of Orpheus stands as a central pillar to an artist’s work (John’s work). Orpheus bringing his wife Eurydice from the underworld into the light of day, and then losing her, is an allegory for the artist’s attempt to move the image out of obscurity into light, to make conscious the unconscious, to give expression to the inapprehensible, a goal that is ultimately doomed since by its very nature that which is inapprehensible cannot be consciously apprehended”.

    ‘The sentimental void that defines the image is doubled: it’s there in the physical absence of the represented object, and as an absence in the representing object. The latter, the absence found in the image itself is what Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is referring to when he writes: “This imminent revelation which never happens, may be that is the aesthetic act”. The necessary void and frustration of the non-revelation open a space for individual freedom and imagination: An image is what can be imagined and how to imagine it. Or as Julia Kristeva said of Felix Gonzales-Torres, “Beauty emerges as the admirable face of loss”…at a point where John Stezaker suggests, ‘images […] become illegible, mysterious, at which point they touch on another world”.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post to end the day…wonderful images, choice words, and Eurydice immortalised within the delicate lambent of Rilke’s poetry…it is the perfect shade of verse to compliment the approach of twilight…

    Namaste

    DN – 25/05/2015

    • Thank you deeply. Fascinating is the word that comes to mind. “To move the image out of obscurity into light, to make conscious the unconscious, to give expression to the inapprehensible” – though it is futile, we will never stop trying. I love the connection they make between beauty and loss: this has been my inner experience as well. This really sheds new light on Orpheus for me.
      Awesome comment, Dewin.

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