Orphic Myth and the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices – an Ankhie Ramble

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bulgarian folk music lately. No particular reason, beyond its haunting beauty and eerie evocations…

A few years ago Ankhie ventured into the big city to hear a performance of Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgare (aka The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir) – a group that sadly, seems to tour no more. They were quite the thing in the late 80’s early 90’s – in fact most Americans were first introduced to them back when Johnny Carson hosted the tonight show… but I digress, and totally date myself…

The music, beautiful and otherworldy in recording, is something just shy of terrifying in person – the harmonies weave in and out of dissonance, and the traditional folk melodies speak to some collective, primal memory,  eliciting involuntary sobs and hair-raising shudderers from every person in the audience.

It was the first and only time in my life that I have experienced music as a thing – a living, breathing, sinuous presence called into being by these women and these songs. Like I said – just shy of terrifying.

Modern Bulgaria, as you may or may not know, was once part of ancient Thrace – the northernmost region of Greece, and home to mythology’s most famous musician – Orpheus. There is, in fact a town in Bulgaria that lays claim to the tragic demigod, hosting their interpretation of “Orphic Rites” every year to draw in tourists.

Some musical scholars claim that the Bulgarian folk songs and melodies sung by groups such as Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgare are the closest thing we have to ancient Greek music.  This thrills me more than I can tell you.

I bring all this up because of the strange serendipities that surround the work I do here and the communications that result. A while ago I asked the Twitterati to suggest ideas for a blog post – one was to put together a list of books that are essential to any occult library. Excellent idea, and folks were full of title suggestions, but the task was too big for a short-term turnaround so I am working on that still, weeding through my own collections and those here at Weiser central one book at a time. I was doing just that this weekend when I pulled from the shelf an old favorite –  the sometimes-out-of-print Prologemena to the Study of Greek Religion. Opening to a random page I came upon “The Rites of Orpheus.” Coincidence? Probably. But it is lovely how sometimes,on rare occassions, personal and professional interests harmonize.

For those you unfamiliar with the Orphic myth (and those who just love a good tear-jerker) here is the incomparable Barbara Stacy’s interpretation of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale from Greek Gods in Love, published by the Witches’ Almanac:

Orpheus and Eurydice

In the realm of silence and uncreated things

Consider music as magic. So did the ancient Greeks consider the art in the most exquisitely vivid way. They conceived of Orpheus, son of Apollo, god of music, and of the muse Calliope, know as Beautiful Voice. The offspring of such dazzling parents played the lyre to such effect that nothing could withstand its enchantment. His song could stop tigers in their tracks, move trees to gather where he played, and melt rocks.

The melodies of Orpheus also melted the heart of the nymph Eurydice, and the couple loved each other with passion beyond description. Hymenaeus, the god of marriage, presided over their wedding, but accidentally bore them misfortune. His torch smoked and brought tears to the eyes of the bride and groom, a dark omen. And during the honeymoon, tragedy struck. On a dewy morning, as Euridice played with her companions, a nearby shepherd was bowled over by her beauty. He rushed toward the nymph with coarse words, and as she fled Eurydice trod on a snake unseen in the tall grass. The serpent bit her foot, killing her.

Overcome by grief, Orpheus sang the saddest music ever to mount the furthest reaches of the sky. The song reached the ears of gods to no avail. Finally the heartbroken bridegroom resolved to seek his beloved in the abode of the dead. With the power of his nine-stringed lyre defending him from guardian perils and swarms of rustling ghosts, Orpheus descendedinto the Stygian realm.

The sound of sorrow

He stood before the ebony throne of Hades and the amethyst throne of Persephone and sang: “O deities of the underworld,to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for they are true. I come to seek my wife,whose opening years the poisonous  viper’s fang has brought to an untimely end. Love has led me here, Love, a god all powerful with us who dwell on earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things unite again the thread of Eurydice’s life. We are all destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But until then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny one, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both.” As heart-cracked Orpheus sang these words, according to the mythologost Bulfinch, “the very ghosts shed tears.”

Toward the air above

Hades of the steely heart remained unmoved, for it is a condition of he who received all, The Rich One, that no subject leave his somber realm. But the song of Orpheus even wet the cheeks of the Furies, and similarly effected Persephone. She pleade to  restore  the life of Eurydice. Hades could not resist his beloved queen and summoned the nymph, who limped on her unjured foot. “You may take her away on one condition,” Hades told Orpheus. “You may not look at her until you reach the air aboveground.”

Orpheus led, Eurydice followed, winding the dark, steep trek upward. Now he heard the patter of her footsteps near him, now the patter of her footsteps lagging. Was that Eurydice? An apparition? An aural hallucination? When Orpheus approached the light of the upper air, “he knew he must have faith and he could not have faith.” In “Orpheus and Eurydice,” the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz beautifully interprets the legend at length and concludes:

Day was breaking. Shapes of rock loomed up

Under the luminous eye of the exit from the underground.

It happened as he expected. He turned his head

Behind him on the path was no one.

Sun. And sky. And in the sky white clouds.

Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!

How will I live without you, my consoling one!

But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,

As he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.


My favorite song by Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares – Kalimankou Denkou

AND my favorite, only tangentially related David Sylvian song – Orpheus

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