|Orpheus among Thracians; Attic red-figure vase 5th century bce|
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.