Orpheus Remembered: Images of Death in Life

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David L. Miller


Rainer Maria Rilke, Orphic, Nikos Kazantzakis, Orfeu Negro, Orphee, Kleinzeit

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation is a study of the mythologem of Orpheus as it appeared in Ancient Greece and as it has appeared in the modern imagination. The approach may be described as imaginative, in that the stories of Orpheus are presented in such a way as to remember this magical poet through the arts and from a poetic perspective.

Chapter One reviews the Greek materials which form the basis of the mythologem as we know it. The episode of Orpheus' descent to the underworld is discussed at length to expose its underlying sensibility. That is to say, that Orpheus is less understandable as a "heroic lover" than as a shamanic figure whose vocation becomes dismembering to him under the influence of Eurydice and under the aegis of Hades. Orpheus knows no real triumph, and only his song remains.

Chapter Two explores the appearance of Orpheus in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and in the work of those literary critics who are called "Orphic." Reference is made to the characterization of Orpheus in the Odyssey by Nikos Kazantzakis and to Narcissus, who has much in common with the underworld experience of Orpheus.

Chapter Three contains a discussion of two films, Orfeu Negro by Marcel Camus and Orphee by Jean Cocteau. Both films offer unique approaches to Orpheus, and add much to an understanding of Orpheus as a magical poet who is overcome by the underworld, the source and the theme of his song.

Chapter Four presents two ballets, Orpheus as choreographed by George Balanchine and Orpheus as choreographed by William Forsythe. The imagery of these ballets adds much to an orphic perspective upon Orpheus himself.

Chapter Five offers a review of motifs and thematic elements essential to the first four chapters. These include dream and nightmare, trickery and buffoonery, purity and pregnancy, death and illness.

An Epilogue is offered which highlights Kleinzeit, a novel by Russell Hoban. The presence of Orpheus in the experience of Hoban's main character brings into sharp relief the theme of Orpheus as a poet for whom healing and death and the underworld are intimately related.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.