Orpheus in the New World by Robert Moss

Orpheus among Thracians; Attic red-figure vase 5th century bceThe shaman’s journey to rescue a lost soul is the source of some of our most enduring myths and popular folk tales, though the experiential content of these stories is often forgotten. The most famous example is the Orpheus legend.

In the versions that are best-known today, Orpheus makes a journey to the Underworld to rescue his beloved wife or sister from Death; he nearly succeeds in bringing her back but loses her again because he looks back too soon. I suspect that in the primal version of the legend, Orpheus succeeded in bringing the soul of Eurydice back from the Land of the Dead and put it into her body in the way of a true shaman. This seems probable in view of the growth of the Orphic Mystery tradition in ancient Greece and Italy. It is unlikely that the many followers who vested their hopes for a fortunate afterlife in Orphic initiation were placing their trust in a failed shaman.

The Orpheus theme, as tragedy or as triumph, reverberates through Native American legends and sometimes surfaces in direct accounts of indigenous shamanic practice. One of my favorite variants came to my attention when I was spending my nights poring over the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, the first-hand reports of Blackrobe missionaries in Northeast America in the seventeenth century, which I found to be a treasury of information on shamanic practice among the First Peoples at the time of early contact with Europeans.

In Huron country in 1636, Father Jean de Brébeuf recorded the Underworld adventure of a Huron dream shaman who was distraught over the death of his favorite sister. The Huron fasted and kept vigil, sending his dream soul tracking, until he found her traveling along the road to a Village of the Dead. He went after her. He faced a terrible challenge at a perilous bridge and survived it. When he finally caught up with her sister, she was in the Vilage of the Dead, surrounded by deceased relations. He urged to her to leave with him, but she fled from him. He seized her and grappled with her.

As they struggled, her soul shrank until he was able to grab it in his fist and thrust it inside a small pumpkin, which he used as his soul catcher. After further ordeals, he returned to the village of the living, with his sister’s soul in the pumpkin. He persuaded others to help him exhume his sister’s body from its burial place, intending to resurrect her by putting the soul back into the body. He sang his songs of power, calling in his spirit helpers. As he was singing, someone peeked inside the pumpkin, and the sister’s soul got away.

The Huron shaman failed, as does Orpheus in the conventional version of this neverending story. But in the Jesuit account, the story has not been prettied up and tamed; it has the raw authenticity of a traveler’s tale, and there is a practical lesson in why the shaman failed, a lesson highly relevant to our time, when our healthcare system is so heavily invested in the artificial prolongation of physical life. The Huron shaman was too late. His sister’s soul had passed over, and she did not wish to return to a physical existence (and a used-up sack of meat and bones) that she had outlived. The shaman’s grief, and perhaps his delusions of control, blinded him to the natural balance of things.

Another level of meaning, in the Failed Shaman version of the Orpheus story, may be that we cannot bring back vital soul when we keep looking back, clinging to what is dead and is meant to be left behind. Some will hear an echo of the Huron shaman’s pumpkin in a nursery rhyme from the Old World: “Peter Peter pumpkin eater had a wife and couldn’t keep her so he put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well” Our nursery rhymes sometimes surface from deep, dark places in the collective memory long before they enter the nursery.

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by Robert Moss
Robert Moss is the creator of Active Dreaming, an original synthesis of modern dreamwork and ancient shamanic techniques for healing and journeying. Born in Australia, he survived three near-death experiences in childhood. He leads popular seminars all over the world, including a three-year training for teachers of Active Dreaming. A former lecturer in ancient history at the Australian National University, he is a best-selling novelist, journalist and independent scholar. His eight books on dreaming, shamanism and imagination include Conscious Dreaming, Dreamways of the Iroquois, The Three "Only" Things, The Secret History of Dreaming, Dreamgates and Active Dreaming. He writes two blogs and his website is www.mossdreams.com