Was Mozart a Shaman?

Orpheus and the Cult of Genius in the 18th Century

“Gradually, Mozart became known all over the globe as “the living Orpheus”, the mythological figure that the eighteenth century had come to consider the shaman par excellence. The seven-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus was already believed to be the reincarnated enchanter of all nature who successfully cast his spell over its innumerable creatures. He was further described with other words from the realm of magic and bewitchment. Even the emperor referred to him as the little magician… Mozart was not only a child-wonder, a singular phenomenon, a miracle, but one who publicly performed the kind of wonders that captivated audiences and left them spellbound. Some went on to surmise that Mozart had curative powers.”

Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century - Gloria Flaherty

This remarkable paragraph highlights part of the intoxicating and creative brew that was the eighteenth century in Europe. It was a time where vitalising currents from outside the continent electrified and transformed the zeitgeist; the enchantment and mystery of anthropology in turn summoning and breathing fresh life into the Classical world. Wordsmiths and poets, musicians and sculptors suddenly had broad new vistas of inspiration, from cannibals to cannabis, savages to Scipio. One of these intellectual tributaries ran from Siberia into central Europe, the beating pulse of shamanism. When this concept began to take root in the imagination of eager listeners, it found its home among the older stories and myths, but it also helped animate the passion for ‘genius’, that intangible but fascinating quality of the rarest of men. A quasi-spiritual understanding of human creativity. Among the many figures of the age, Mozart was declared to be one such genius. But it also seemed that his contemporaries went further and saw in him some attribute or property which fully transcended the material realm. He had been reincarnated, he was a living Orpheus. I want to ask why his friends and enemies thought of him in this way, did they genuinely believe him to be a shaman of sorts? Answering this question will require a dive into the history and nature of shamanism, the Greek religious mysteries of Orpheus and the intellectual climate of Europe in Mozart’s lifetime. I hope to convey to you that shamanism needn’t be some exotic and remote barbarism, fit only for New Agers and peripheral tribal peoples, I want instead to recast and re-enchant our household names and reinvigorate history with its vital and powerful energies. Our musicians can once again be our medicine-men.

To the ends of the Earth

The medieval imagination had long been suckled on a rich mixture of travel literature and the knowledge that the world surrounding Christendom contained horrors and wonders beyond comprehension. The literal and mental marginalia of a society raised on Mandeville and Marco Polo accepted that, on wild and distant shores, lived races of giants, pygmies, men with the heads of dogs, no heads at all or with feet large enough to block the sun. Renaissance knowledge of Sami witches, the magic of Tartars, Cathayans and New World sorcerers was combined with the dual paranoia of witchcraft within Protestantism and the intellectual curiosity of alchemy, astrology, medicine and divination. Texts such as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and Samuel Purchas’ travel compilation were carefully compared with Marsilio Ficino, Pico de Mirandola, Agrippa von Nettesheym and Paracelsus. Burton noted the reports on ‘ecstatic trances’, of witches mania after flying all night, agrarian cults and bouts of madness and dancing. Jean de Nynauld’s medical work on lycanthropy and the different substances such as belladonna, aconite and opium were mixed with readings of Pythagoras, Simon Magus and the newly discovered savage witches of north America, Lithuania and China. This curiosity was tempered with a Christian fear and an empirical scepticism of the powers of these new ‘schamans’ (the word appearing in Europe for the first time in 1692). Robert Burton, like other observers, noted ventriloquism, prestidigitation and theatrical showmanship as part of the shamanic toolkit. Louis Hennepin (1640-1701), a friar who travelled in the upper Mississippi valley, protested that:

“These imposters would be counted as prophets, who foretel things to come: they would be look’d upon as having almost an infinite power: they boast that they make rain or fair weather, calms or storms, fruitfulness or barrenness of the ground, hunting lucky or unlucky. They serve for physicians too, and frequently apply such remedies, as have no manner of virtue to cure the distemper. Nothing can be imagin’d more horrible than the cries and yellings, and the strange contorsions of these rascals, when they fall to juggling or conjuring; at the same time they do it very cleverly.”

One part of the world that lay beyond the reach of Europeans for a while was the frozen north, particularly towards the east. Even the Baltic coast was a place of great heathen activity. Explorers and missionaries such as Paul Einhorn reported on superstitious practices and rituals among the locals, who apparently worshipped the god Comus and engaged in carnal deeds. Others stated: “they are by nature obtuse and dull, inclined to necromancy and sorcery, but in the service of an exorcism, so palpably ridiculous, that I wonder how they have obtained that repute they have in the world among those, who ought to be wiser than to believe such groundless fictions”. Further afield than the Baltic were the expanding domains of imperial Russia. The earliest explorers and visitors to Siberia and Kamchatka included: Nicolas Witsen (1640-1717), who wrote the earliest descriptions of a shaman and sketched the top image (sans Mozart); John Bell (1691-1780), a Scottish surgeon; Daniel Messerschmidt (1685-1735), one of the earliest to be commissioned by Peter the Great to chart Siberia and Philipp von Strahlenberg (1676-1747), a Swedish officer who was imprisoned in Siberia for 13 years. Between them they wrote extensively about shamanism. Their accounts were largely rigorous, honest and fair, but devoid of any sympathy for the shamanic practice and its purported benefits, medicinal or otherwise. In general then, an attitude of Baconian scepticism was rife amongst the early reporters of trances, sorcerers and shamans. Rationalist ‘debunkers’ quickly filled up books with explanations for the power of oracles and magic. Bernard Fontenelle’s 1686 book Histoire des oracles provided staple accounts for mystical events, such as breathing toxic fumes, the psychology of being in deep caves and the trickery of magicians. The English language translation of the work in 1688 re-titled it The History of Oracles, and the Cheats of the Pagan Priests. However, in trying to explain to their audiences how and why these oracles fell into degeneracy and disuse, they began to stumble towards a powerful, unsettling conclusion.

Poetry as Primal Magic

In 1724 Joseph Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary, published two volumes of studies on native American societies, including detailed accounts of their religious and medicinal practices. Lafitau was not the first to draw direct comparisons between shamanism and ancient Greek religion, but he was among the first observers to take seriously the question of what quality or attribute in the human psyche generates a phenomenon like shamanism. What he began to conclude was that shamans tap into the creative power of the human imagination and harness it to full effect. Even if they were tricksters and liars, the practice had persisted from archaic times and was clearly meaningful to those people the shamans helped and cured. Further observations noted the extraordinary power that shamans had over their people; the power to terrify, to terrorise, to calm, to soothe and to cure. By listening to their dreams and their complaints they could provoke paroxysms of fear or render them comatosed. Medical researchers regularly described native Siberian peoples as hypersensitive and neurotic, becoming excessively alarmed by the smallest of noises:

“Each unexpected contact, for example, on the sides or on the other sensitive parts, sudden shouts and whistling, or other frightful and quick manifestations bring these people beside themselves and almost into a kind of fury. Others, much like the beserkers of Norse mythology, would fall into uncontrollable rages, get hold of knives, axes or other lethal instruments, and go after the people who had disturbed their tranquillity… If they cannot give vent to their rage, they beat about themselves, scream, shake violently, and are completely like madmen”

Whilst this frightening capacity to become irrational and hostile was diagnosed as both a product of the harsh Arctic environment and the native’s ‘childlike’ constitution, it also yielded great gifts of story, myth and most importantly, poetry.

The intellectual discussion about prose versus poetry had already been raging in European circles for some time, and with the continual input of observations from all over the world, including Australia and Polynesia, the mood had become favourable to the idea that poetry was a primal part of the human mind. Shamans were respected, even by hardened empiricists, for their effusive powers of speech. Since these people used no alphabets, read no books or literature, their entire medium of communication was designed to bring about changes within the body. Rhythm, tone, pitch, volume, speed - all gave the poet nearly direct access to the corporeal, rather than the higher faculties of reason. This is crucial: by appealing directly to the body, the shaman is a conduit for a highly creative imagination to powerfully impact upon another person. Bypassing the rational altogether gave near unmediated power to the shaman and they knew well how to use it.

These insights into the power of imagination and creativity to affect the human body, along with the positioning of shamanism as potentially the most archaic or ancient of man’s religions, sparked an intellectual turn towards the ‘folk arts’ of Europe. Suddenly the old fables, superstitious tales, village plays, pantomimes, masked festivals and other folk practices were recast as surviving relics of Europe’s primeval spirituality and of the capacity for creativity to arise from these simple origins. Along with poetry came the obsession with collecting and gathering folk songs from all around the world, from Scotland to the Caribbean. The German polymath Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) devoted tremendous energy to hunting down and compiling songs, which he argued were foundational to the social order. Herder argued that shamans were the founding inspiration for mathematics, art, music, law and writing, weaving a creation out of pure chaos. For him the songs were nothing less than a doorway into the soul of Man. He compared all the works he had gathered with those of the Celts, the Norse and, most importantly, the Greeks. In particular he focused his attention on the character of Orpheus, who he held to be a shaman:

“Do you believe that Orpheus, the great Orpheus, eternally worthy of mankind, the poet in whose inferior remnants the soul of nature lives, that he was originally something other than the noblest shaman that Thrace… could have seen?”

It’s at this point in our story that we pause for breath and turn towards this other foundational stream of myth which so animated our European chroniclers. It’s time to turn to Greece and her Mysteries.

Mycenean Cults & Orphic Shamans

In 1962 in Macedonia, the excavated grave of a nobleman revealed an astonishing find. The charred, but still legible fragments of a papyrus script, dated to around 340 BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon, now known to be the oldest surviving manuscript of European history. But more astonishingly than this, the fragments revealed (in painstakingly difficult detail) itself to be a treatise, a text written about an Orphic poem from the time of Anaxagoras composed at the end of the 5th century BC. This rocked the classical world and has been a burning source of interest to scholars and autodidacts for decades. The final text was published in 2006, nearly 40 years after its discovery. The ‘Derveni Papyrus’, as it came to be known, was a miracle. What it actually means will be the subject of infinite discussion, but the Orphic poem in question was a theogony, a story of the birth of the gods, used during Dionysian Mystery initiation ceremonies. The commentary mentions Zoroastrian Magi, quotes from Heraclitus and Parmenides and debates whether the composer meant the theogony literally or allegorically. All heady stuff for scholars of ancient Greek religious practices.

But let us take a step back. Orphic poems are among the most esoteric and arcane of Greece’s mysterious spiritual history. They refer to poems attributed to the mythical poet Orpheus. Sadly only two poems survive - the Orphic Hymns and Argonautica, remembered today for the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. Orphism is the academic term for the cult and spiritual practices which developed in Greece, Thrace and Asia Minor, all focused around the Orphic ‘way of life’, which included vegetarianism and abstention from sex. Orphism is a difficult term to define, let alone explore, and much ink has been spilled on the subject without providing many meaningful answers. One confusion is that Orphism has become associated with both Dionysus and Apollo. Readers of Nietzsche will know that these gods, while complimentary in their opposition, represent both the rational and irrational, earth and sky, order and chaos. Orphic beliefs overlap with both gods - Orpheus in one story is said to have spurned all the gods but Apollo (Orpheus famously also plays a golden lyre) and is torn to shreds in revenge. His journey to Hades and rebirth mirrors an older tale of Dionysus, who is a reincarnation of Zagreus, daughter of Persephone, who is likewise torn to shreds by the Titans. These and similar stories present Orphism as potentially possessing a cosmology of reincarnation and a return of the soul to the ‘Oneness’ of the cosmos. The connection to Dionysus runs especially deep in the Orphic traditions; some held Orpheus to be a follower of Dionysus, others that he was a reincarnation of the god. One story has him being ripped apart in an orgiastic rage by female followers of Dionysus for spurning their advances. Beyond being interesting in its own right, the motifs of the Dionysian (or Bacchic) rituals and myths share a striking similarity to a number of core elements of shamanism, something we will return to shortly.

One reason why Greek religion can be tricky to fully grasp is the accreted layers of myth, culture, deities, oracles, heroes and sacred landscapes, built over time from the earliest traces of Hellenic memory. The murky origins of the Mycenaeans and the civilisation they built in the eastern Mediterranean, beginning circa 1700 BC, is the wellspring for the earliest gods and their cultic activities. Strong archetypal concerns such as the harvest, trees, hunting, thunder, the underworld, horses and water were reflected in the characters of the deities. Oracles such as Dodona and Delphi were already important sites in the landscape. The introduction of Apollo came late in the development of the pantheon and he was originally a far more cthonic and menacing character. He was the son of Leto, rumoured to have arrived from the far frozen land of Hyperborea in the north, accompanied by a pack of wolves. The wolf became a symbol of Apollo, with one nickname - Lyceus - directly attesting to his wolfish character (although leukos could refer instead to the sunlight). The Spartan festival of Karneia reflects how their original deity Carnus was replaced with Apollo, both concerned with protecting the flock, but also through the Spartan krypteia demonstrating their lupine ferocity. In the words of Classics Professor Carl Ruck:

“In the reorienting of Delphi’s shamanic axis, Apollo’s lycanthropic persona was displaced and reinterpreted as related not to the ‘wolf’ (lykos), but to the ‘light’ (lux) of his solar manifestation. The deadly twanging of his toxic bow was transmuted into the harmonious, but equally entrancing, spell cast by the music from the plucked strings of his lyre. Apollo is paired with Dionysus as inspiring antithetical modes of human mentality, with Apollo presiding over the separation from Gaia and rational control over nature, and his half-brother finding the source of inspiration in the mediated encounter with the irrationality of the natural wilderness”

Both gods - Apollo and Dionysus - display elements and indicators of classical shamanism. From the divine madness, suffering, the transformation into an animal, the playing of music, communication with plants and beasts, dying and rebirth, the journey to the underworld to retrieve a soul and so on; these are all potential markers that Orpheus and his progenitor gods were shamans of some description or another. Many academics who study shamanism feel that anything outside of true Siberian shamanism is either a misattribution or a stretch. But, for our purposes here what matters is that, when shamanism was being received into Europe as a set of concepts and ideas, it was fused with the Classical tradition, partly in order for it be contextualised and absorbed. The visions of Orpheus as a divine poet, a psychopomp, a mediator between worlds, was enhanced and strengthened by the knowledge of real, existing shamans out there in on the edges of the world. As Herder reinforced:

“Also the Greeks were once primitives, and even in the flowering of their most beautiful era there is much more nature than the blinking eye of the scholiast and classicist finds… Tyrtaeus’s war songs are Greek ballads, and when Arion, Orpheus and Amphion lived, they were noble Greek shamans”

Mozart - the “Living Orpheus”

We finally return to the original question, having travelled through several centuries and traditions, to tackle the problem - why did so many of Mozart’s contemporaries write about him as a shaman, a living Orpheus? Consider again the opening quotation with all its connotations:

“Gradually, Mozart became known all over the globe as “the living Orpheus”, the mythological figure that the eighteenth century had come to consider the shaman par excellence. The seven-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus was already believed to be the reincarnated enchanter of all nature who successfully cast his spell over its innumerable creatures. He was further described with other words from the realm of magic and bewitchment. Even the emperor referred to him as the little magician… Mozart was not only a child-wonder, a singular phenomenon, a miracle, but one who publicly performed the kind of wonders that captivated audiences and left them spellbound. Some went on to surmise that Mozart had curative powers.”

Having seen the arguments and motivations that went into that fusion of Enlightenment thinking, Hellenism and Romanticism which electrified the decades and centuries of European colonialism, we can see it fully expressed here in the creation of Mozart as a genius, a shaman, a renewal of the Greek spirit. In part, the emerging medicalisation of human temperament began to build a picture of the ‘genius’. Leaning on the reports and descriptions of Siberian shamans, a sketch of a type of nervous and hypersensitive disposition took hold in the Continental imagination. These people, whose fibres were ‘highly strung’, were acutely sensitive to music, noise, poetry, the spoken and written word and were likened to conduits of spirit. The character of genius was also often feminine, but in a masculine body, which struck many observers as parallel to the shaman, who often seemed to channel a female energy. These androgynous and eccentric people seemed to create their own worlds through the force of madness and divine inspiration. The young Mozart, born in 1756, seemed immediately to embody these characteristics. As an adult he was often described as a kind of child - “irritable, melancholic, immoderate, mercurial and careless” in the words of Jean Baptise-Antoine Suard. His music was so enrapturing and powerful that only the descriptions of Orpheus and Apollo would suffice to capture its effect on the listener:

“When Orpheus’ magic lute out-rings, Amphion to his lyre sings, the lion tames, the rivers quiet grow, the tigers listen, rocks a-walking go. When Mozart masterly music plays and gathers undivided praise, the quire of Muses stays to hear, Apollo is himself all ear”

The physician Simon Tissot (1728-98) was utterly convinced of Mozart’s internal force of genius. As a doctor of the nervous system he was fascinated by Mozart’s apparent intolerance of harsh, discordant or loud noises and sounds. He saw in the musician a compulsion, from beyond his own self, to create and birth new music. Mozart would be “driven to his harpsichord, as by a hidden force, and he drew from it sounds that were the living expression of the idea that had just seized him”. At his most fever pitch, Tissot described Mozart as an immortal who was ultimately possessed by a spirit of heaven itself. Nor was Tissot alone in these almost crazed outpourings for the composer. A Berlin periodical in 1790 confessed:

“Mozart is among those extraordinary men whose reputations will endure for centuries. His great genius embraces, so to speak, the whole extent of the art of music… None before him have surpassed him, and posterity will never deny this great man its profound reverence and admiration. To judge him one must be more than a mere connoisseur. What a masterpiece is the music of today!”

Just as the shaman flirted and travelled alongside and with ecstatic madness and total loss of the self, so Mozart was himself reported to go far beyond mere showmanship or even the heights of human skill. He was animated with the glowing light of the sun and his countenance changed and violent mood swings often accompanied his best performances. Caroline Pichler, a writer in the Viennese cultural milieu, described how Mozart performed the most exquisite improvisations for an audience and then without warning leapt over the nearest table and began screaming like a cat, performing somersaults and overturning furniture. These reports chime with the fury and loss of inhibitions, so vividly reported by earlier explorers into the Arctic wilderness.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve read this far, then perhaps you’ll be wondering whether this will have a satisfactory conclusion - was Mozart a shaman? The answer to this lies in resurrecting the now dormant enthusiasm and power of Western creativity and imagination. The traditional shaman, enmeshed in his duties in a small foraging tribe, seems a strange figure to cast such a spell over so powerful a culture as Western modernity. But it is precisely in the re-awakening of the senses, of madness, of sleeping and forgotten knowledge of the human spirit, that the humble sorcerer was able to re-enchant a world of sterile finance and utilitarian thought. Mozart was, in the broadest and most expansive sense of the word, a shaman. His birth was blessed and he was more than a mere man, but became a lightening rod for the subterranean and solar energies which began to pulse through Europe in his century. All who heard him recognised that they were in the presence of something more than just skill, more than just talent. They were witnessing one of nature’s miracles. It is precisely in these stories of rapture and enchantment that I find the energy to confront our stagnant and exhausted world. May a thousand new Mozart’s come forth and humble us again, may we be still able to recognise that magic when we see it!