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Observations placeholder

Dr Angela Voss – Marsilio Ficino, The Second Orpheus



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Dr Angela Voss – Marsilio Ficino, The Second Orpheus

What were these 'songs to the Orphic lyre', the singing of which Ficino considered to be one of the liberal arts rescued from near-extinction by his circle of Florentine illuminati? What texts did Ficino use, and what was the power contained in them?

Ficino's precocious disciple Pico della Mirandola tells us that 'Nothing is more effective in natural magic than the hymns of Orpheus, if the correct music, intent of the soul and other circumstances known to the wise were to be applied’.

Pico's thirty-one 'Orphic conclusions' tell us much about the rarefied mysticism surrounding the use of the Orphic Hymns in the Platonic Academy, and one in particular points us towards their function as keys for unlocking the doors of supra-rational insight:

'Whoever denies that it is possible to understand, intellectually and perfectly, sensible properties by the way of secret or occult analogy, will not understand the essence of the Orphic Hymns.  

ln other words, the hymns became the very means by which sense perception could be transmuted into the lucid insights of the Intelligible realm, but only for those who could grasp the function of analogy and symbol.

The texts of the Orphic Hymns, mainly consisting of epithets to various gods, were discovered in Constantinople in 1423, and were evidently used for ritual purposes as they included instructions for burning specific fumigations. Although they probably originated in the early centuries AD, for the fifteenth century humanists they stemmed from the pen of Orpheus himself, who was revered as both a legendary musician and singer and as a priscus theologus - the founder of a mystery religion from whose disciples Pythagoras himself was believed to have learned his theory of musical proportion………………..

So, what was the nature of Ficino's astrological music therapy? What sort of music did he actually perform? He clearly considered that his vocation as a healer involved curing both physical and psychological disorders, and that music was a powerful agent for such work. Indeed, in harmonizing the mind, the regulation of the body will follow:

 'sound and song easily arouse the fantasy, affect the heart and reach the inmost recesses of the mind; they still, and also set in motion, the humours and the limbs of the body ... Nearly all living beings are made captive by harmony'

he asserts in a letter to Antonio Canigiani, and on a personal note, adds

'For myself ... I often resort to the solemn sound of the lyre and to singing, to avoid other sensual pleasures entirely. I do it also to banish vexations of both soul and body, and to raise the mind to the highest considerations and to God as much as I may.'

It is evident that Ficino's music-making was not just for his own delectation, for the therapeutic effects that he and his friends experienced through hearing his 'orphic lyre' are constantly mentioned in his correspondence. Taking his leave as he concludes a letter to his friend Sebastiano Foresi he adds

'we play the lyre precisely to avoid becoming unstrung ... may the well-tempered lyre always be our salvation when we apply ourselves to it rightly'.


The source of the experience

Ficino, Marsilio

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Listening to music


Music therapy