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A Deal with the Devil

Consistent with the overall theme of Neuromythology, I am including an interpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth can be found in just about any standard account of classical mythology, though my favorite is the 2004 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Charles Martin. This segment is from the draft of a novella called The Gift by yours truly. The protagonist is a flawed classics professor, Dr. Dante Gerry, now teaching at a small liberal arts college in the rural area of a large northeastern state ;-).

From The Gift

by John A. Teske

He’d come to love being in front of a class, striding across his proscenium, and had managed to convince himself that his fingers through the hair tic was just part of his early semester excitement, his cockiness at being able to get students to play with this material in new ways. Not fairy tales told over and over until you can repeat them word for word, but parts of long traditions, stories told and retold, and not always in the same ways. He loved Solon’s line about myths not being stories about things that never happened, but about things that happen over and over again. Including now, in their own lives, and in his. And he wanted them to start to own these, not just to memorize them and spit them back. That meant thinking about them, not just reciting them. He got some girl in the front row to tell the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, no presumption that anyone had read it the first day.

She: “Me? I’m not sure if I can tell it very well.”

He: “Not to worry, you’ve got a whole class that can help you fill in the details.

She: “OK, here goes. There’s this sweet young thing, like, it’s her wedding day, she’s still in her fancy dress, and she gets bitten by a snake or something and dies. She goes to hell, or I guess it’s the “underworld,” where there's Hades, the dark dude of the three brother Gods, Zeus, Neptune, and Hades. I guess he’s like the devil. Anyhow, her husband, this great musician, singer and lyre player is really grieving, and loves her so much he actually goes to Hades to try to get her back. Everything stops since he’s such a great musician, and he actually makes it to Hades. He basically tells Hades, look, man, you’re gonna get us both eventually anyway, why not let me have the love of my life, on her wedding day, return with her husband. We just got married, and she’s so young and innocent, so this isn’t really fair. Hades wants him out of there, so his nasty business can get back to normal, so he cuts him a deal. Orpheus can return to the land of the living, and he’ll have Hermes, you know, the guy with wings on his feet, escort her after him, like the father of the bride or something. But the deal is, if Orpheus looks back at her, he doesn’t get her back, and Hermes brings her back to Hades. So, he’s like, just going through the exit and he can’t help it, he looks back to see if she’s really coming, so she doesn’t get to. They try to hug each other but he’s just hugging air, and she’s gone.”

He: “So what’s the tragedy here?”

She: “Well, that Eurydice is dead, for starters. And his failure of trust.”

He: “OK, first the death, then we’ll get back to the lesson about trust. So, people die all the time, we all die. I suppose that’s the tragedy of life, but why should we care about this one?”