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Johann Wolfgang Goethe – Urworte. Orphisch /Primal Words. Orphic (1817)


This poem was written between 6 and 8 October 1817, when Goethe was 68 years old. The poem was inspired by an academic debate on orphic myth between J.G.J. Hermann and G.F. Creuzer. Goethe was interested in Herrmann’s interpretation, which described the orphic tradition in terms of five forces governing human life: Daimon (Destiny); Tyche (Chance), Eros (Love), Ananke (Necessity) and Elpis (Hope). According to Pierre Hadot, we can recognize his reading of Macrobius’ ‘The Saturnalia’ and his use of the 4 deities that were presented there, the probable views of an hermetic community of the second century AD.

Part I-Auf Deutsch


Wie an dem Tag, der dich der Welt verliehen,

Die Sonne stand zum Gruße der Planeten,

Bist alsobald und fort und fort gediehen

Nach dem Gesetz, wonach du angetreten.

So mußt du sein, dir kannst du nicht entfliehen,

So sagten schon Sibyllen, so Propheten;

Und keine Zeit und keine Macht zerstückelt

Geprägte Form, die lebend sich entwickelt.

ΤΥΧΗ, Das Zufällige

Die strenge Grenze doch umgeht gefällig

Ein Wandelndes, das mit und um uns wandelt;

Nicht einsam bleibst du, bildest dich gesellig

Und handelst wohl so, wie ein andrer handelt:

Im Leben ist’s bald hin-, bald widerfällig,

Es ist ein Tand und wird so durchgetandelt.

Schon hat sich still der Jahre Kreis geründet,

Die Lampe harrt der Flamme, die entzündet.

ΕΡΩΣ, Liebe

Die bleibt nicht aus! – Er stürzt vom Himmel nieder,

Wohin er sich aus alter Öde schwang,

Er schwebt heran auf luftigem Gefieder

Um Stirn und Brust den Frühlingstag entlang,

Scheint jetzt zu fliehn, vom Fliehen kehrt er wieder,

Da wird ein Wohl im Weh, so süß und bang.

Gar manches Herz verschwebt im Allgemeinen,

Doch widmet sich das edelste dem Einen.

ΑΝΑΓΚΗ, Nötigung

Da ist’s denn wieder, wie die Sterne wollten:

Bedingung und Gesetz; und aller Wille

Ist nur ein Wollen, weil wir eben sollten,

Und vor dem Willen schweigt die Willkür stille;

Das Liebste wird vom Herzen weggescholten,

Dem harten Muß bequemt sich Will und Grille.

So sind wir scheinfrei denn, nach manchen Jahren

Nur enger dran, als wir am Anfang waren.

ΕΛΠΙΣ, Hoffnung

Doch solcher Grenze, solcher eh’rnen Mauer

Höchst widerwärt’ge Pforte wird entriegelt,

Sie stehe nur mit alter Felsendauer!

Ein Wesen regt sich leicht und ungezügelt:

Aus Wolkendecke, Nebel, Regenschauer

Erhebt sie uns, mit ihr, durch sie beflügelt;

Ihr kennt sie wohl, sie schwärmt durch alle Zonen;

Ein Flügelschlag – und hinter uns Äonen.


Part II-English Translation


As stood the sun to the salute of planets

Upon the day that gave you to the earth,

You grew forthwith, and prospered, in your growing

Heeded the law presiding at your birth.

Sibyls and prophets told it: You must be

None but yourself, from self you cannot flee.

No time there is, no power, can decompose

The minted form that lives and living grows.

Tyché, Chance

Strict the limit, yet a drifting, pleasant,

Moves around it, with us, circling us;

You don’t stay alone, you learn from others,

And likely act as others too:

It comes and goes, in life, you lose or win,

It is a trinket, toyed with, wearing thin.

Full circle come the years, the end is sighted,

The lamp awaits the flame, to be ignited.

EROS, Love

Love is not absent! Down from heaven swooping,

Whither from ancient emptiness he flew,

This way he flutters, borne by airy feathers,

Round heart and head the day of Springtime through,

Apparently escapes, returns anew,

So sweet and nervous, pain to pleasure gone.

Some hearts away in general loving float,

The noblest, yet, their all to one devoted.

ANANKE, Necessity

Then back it comes, what in the stars was written;

Law and circumstance; each will is tried,

All willing simply forced, by obligation:

In face of it, the free will’s tongue is tied.

Man’s heart loses what was loved by him most,

To iron “Must” comply both will and whim.

It only seems we’re free, years hem us in,

Constraining more than at our origin.


Yet the repulsive gate can be unbolted

Within such bounds, their adamantine wall,

Though it may stand, that gate, like rock forever;

One being moves, unchecked, ethereal:

From heavy cloud, from fog, from squall of rain

She lifts us to herself, we’re winged again,

You know her well, to nowhere she’s confined —

A wingbeat — aeons vanish far behind.


Part III-French Translation


Le jour qui t’a donné au monde

Conformément à la position du soleil s’offrant au salut des planètes,

Aussitôt et sans t’arrêter jamais, tu as poussé

Conformément à cette loi qui régla ta naissance.

Il faut être ainsi, a toi-même tu ne peux t’échapper !

Déjà Sibylles, déjà Prophètes autrefois l’avaient prononcé.

Et nul temps, nulle force ne peuvent morceler

La forme marquée d’un sceau, qui, vivant se déploie.

Tyché : Fortune

Cette limite rigoureuse, pourtant, la contourne avec empressement

Un être changeant qui chemine avec nous et autour de nous.

Tu ne restes pas seul, c’est en contact avec d’autres que tu te formes,

Et il se peut fort bien que tu ne fasses pas autrement que les autres ;

Au cours de la vie, cela tombe tantôt dans un sens, tantôt dans le sens contraire,

Elle est jeu futile et on la passe en jeu futile.

Déjà en silence s’est arrondi le cercle des années

Et la lampe attend toujours la flamme qui la ferait briller.

Eros : Amour

Mais cette flamme ne manque pas de venir ! Il se précipite du haut du ciel

Vers lequel jadis, sortant de l’antique Chaos, il s’était élancé.

Il s’approche en planant sur ses ailes aériennes,

Tournant autour des fronts et des cœurs, tout au long du jour de printemps.

Il paraît fuir, mais déjà il revient,

Et alors quel bonheur dans la souffrance, tant de douceur, tant d’angoisse !

Il est vrai que beaucoup de cœur se dissolvent dans le général,

Mais le plus noble se voue à l’Unique !

Ananke : Contrainte

Et ainsi donc encore une fois il en est comme les astres le voulaient :

Détermination et loi ; et toute volonté

N’est qu’un vouloir que parce que justement nous devions le vouloir,

Et devant cette volonté, notre libre arbitre n’a plus qu’à se taire.

Ce que nous avons de plus cher est chassé durement de notre cœur.

Au dur ‘il faut’ se plient volonté et caprice ;

Ainsi finalement nous sommes libres qu’en apparence, car avec les ans,

Nous sommes plus à l’étroit qu’au début de la vie !

Elpis : Espérance

Et pourtant cette limite, cette barrière d’airain,

Cette porte opiniâtre, voici qu’en sautent les verrous !

Fût-elle aussi vieille que les plus vieilles roches !

Un être s’envole, libre de toute pesanteur et de toute contrainte

Au-dessus du plafond des nuages, des brouillards, des tourbillons de pluie,

Elle nous emporte vers les hauteurs, en nous donnant des ailes

Vous la connaissez bien ! Elle vole en tous sens à travers tous les espaces !

Un battement d’ailes ! Et loin derrière nous, les éons !


Part IV-Goethe’s own word about his poem

‘The 5 stanzas below express, in their poetic conciseness, what has been transmitted to us of the Orphic doctrines, ancient and new. These stanzas encapsulate many important ideas, in a sequence that, once we have understood it, makes the most serious meditations easier.


The relationship between the title and the text needs to be explained. Here, Daimon means the individuality of the person, the limited individuality, necessary, that is empowered immediately at the time of birth; it is the character that one man distinguishes himself from any other person, even though resemblances may be striking. This determination, was assigned to the dominant star, and the movements, the infinitely variable relationships of the celestial bodies, either between themselves, either with the Earth, could very well be linked to the various trials of births. From then, was flowing the future fate of man, and, in fine tuning this first point, we could as well admit that more than the rest, native strength and individuality were determining man’s destiny.This is why this stanza is proclaiming insistently the immutability of the individual. As bound, he may be, he is without doubt, in his quality of finite creature, subject to destruction; but, as long as his germ subsists, he would not be broken or fragmented, even though through generations.This constant being, resilient, that can only develop through himself, is confronted, it is true, in diverse relationships through which his original character is hindered in his actions, restrained in his leanings, and, what happens then, our philosophy calls it:


However, it is not by accident that a man takes his origin in such or such nation, tribe or family, because the nations, and their diverse ramifications, scattered upon the surface of the Earth, must be considered as individuals, and Tyche can only act through blending and mixing. We see an determining example of the sustainable personality of these tribes in the Jewish race; in European nations, transplanted in other region of the globe, without be stripped of their character, and, after many centuries, we recognize very well in Northern America, the English, the French, the German; but at the same time, these mixings will make Tyche’s effects sensible, like the metis is recognized with his lighter color skin. In the education, if it is not public and nationwide, Tyche maintains its erratic rights: nannies and wards, parents and tutors, schoolteachers and supervisors, like all the very first environment, classmates, places (city or villages), all determine the proper character, by the first influences, by slowing down or accelerating. Daimon maintains itself throughout all of this and it is its proper nature, the old Adam, what always comes back after being chased away, even more implacable.

It is in this idea of an individuality fatefully established, that to each man was allotted his Daimon, who, whispers in the ears from time to time what he need to do, and this is how Socrates chose the poisoned cup, because it was his duty to die.

But Tyche never relaxes, and especially never cease to act upon the youth, which with its passions, pleasures, its social tastes and its frivolous behaviors, throw themselves on one side, then on the other, and never finds stability nor contentment. Then, an anxiety develops day after day, more serious, a deeper longing: Another divinity is expected:

Eros- Love

Under this name, all that we can imagine is included, from the lightest inclination to the most passionate fury. Here the individual Daimon and the pretty Tyche get together: Man seem to obey only to himself, letting loose its own will, subjugated by its own leanings, but eventually these accidents that keep mingling with his life are foreign influences that aim to divert him from his legitimate path; he believes he grasps but he is caught; he delights in wining but he already has lost. Here again, Tyche maintains its game; She attracts in new mazes the strayed man; here no limits to the bewilderment, because the path is wrong. Then we may lose ourselves considering, that what seemed to be fitting the out-most specialty dissipates and flows away in generality. This is why the last two verses are keen to point clearly at the only way to escape this mistake and to keep away from it for life.

Then, finally we can recognize what the Daimon is capable of; him, independent, selfish, walking through the world with absolute will, and only cross path with Tyche, obstructing him here and there with sadness, feeling that he didn’t only receive from nature its determination and its imprint; his conscience tells him now that he is able to determine himself; that he, not only can seize by force the object that fate brings, but even make it his own; even more, that he can possess with an eternal love, imperishable, a new being, like he possess himself.

As soon this step has been done, by a free resolution, liberty is abandoned; two souls must unite in one body, two bodies in one soul; and at the same time that such a deal is established, a third soul comes to join in also, to strengthen such a mutual and loving chain; parents and children must again form a whole; the common happiness is great, but bigger the need. The body composed by so many members is wounded, according to earthly destiny, in some of its parts, and instead of enjoying as a whole, it suffers in detail: Nevertheless, this relationship is found as likable as necessary; the advantages attract everyone and we resolve ourselves to bear the inconveniences. Family gathers with the family, the tribe with the tribe; a population is being formed and notices that the resolution taken by the individual is also beneficial to the group; by this law, it makes it irreversible; everything love was granting willingly becomes a duty, engendering thousands more duties, and so that all must be concluded in time and eternity, neither State nor Church, nor Custom do not spare the ceremonies. All parts take their measure, by mean of mandatory contracts, by all possible publicity, so that the whole is not compromised, in its smallest detail, by inconsistency and caprice.


This stanza doesn’t need any explanation: The is no such person that life’s experience has not given sufficient notes to shed light to this text, nobody that does not feel a painful constraint at the simple reminiscence of such situations; many people could even fall in despair when the present time keeps them chained: So it is with such a joy that we rush towards the last verses, of which the gentle souls may desire to make for them moral and religious commentaries!




🌿German: 🌿English: 🌿French: In Pierre Hadot’s ‘N’oublie pas de vivre, Goethe et la tradition des exercices spirituels’, Albin Michel, 2008. We find his French translation of the Urworte-Orphisch stanzas. 🌿Goethe’s own explanation : ’Oeuvres de Goethe’. Tome 1. Traduction nouvelle par Jacques Porchat. Librairie Hachette. 1871.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe – Urworte. Orphisch /Primal Words. Orphic (1817)

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