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Readers of this StressPoints column know that we strive to share the wisdom and sometimes awful beauty of the Arts to promote understanding of the psychological effects of trauma and aid in overcoming its destructive effects. With the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity finds itself in a tragic situation in which we must each look out for our own safety while not endangering those around us. This is a particular burden for those who care for people who are infected and work to spare those at highest risk. The order of the day is “sustained social distancing,” which is an antiseptic way to describe not being with those we love in times of trouble, not engaging in activities which normally provide our economic security, and stepping back from many of the basic behaviors that make our lives meaningful. Social distancing often denies people the ability to comfort, touch or even just sit with a loved one—not even for the last time. It is profoundly difficult to resist such vital human contact. As we contemplate this dilemma, there is a familiar story from Greek mythology about giving in to the ache for connection which is worth bringing to mind.

There are many versions of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus in many different artistic forms.
 
We will first share the work of Edith Hamilton (1942) whose version of this ancient story comes from her well-regarded collection of Greek myths. Next, we share Garth et al.’s translation of Ovid’s telling of this story (Ovid, 1 A.C.E./1717) which captures the complexity of the pull to make a sometimes-fatal contact.

Hamilton: 

…The muses had no instrument peculiar to them. But their voices were lovely beyond compare.

Next in order came a few mortals so excellent in their art that they almost equaled the divine performers. Of these by far the greatest was Orpheus. On his mother’s side he was more than mortal. He was the son of one of the muses and a Thracian prince. His mother gave him the gift of music and Thrace where he grew up fostered it… There was no limit to his power when he played and sang. No one and nothing could resist him…
 
Where he first met and how he wooed the maiden he loved, Eurydice, we are not told… They were married but their joy was brief. Directly after they were married as the bride walked in a meadow with her bridesmaids, a viper stung her and she died. Orpheus’ grief was overwhelming. He could not endure it. He determined to go down to the world of death and try to bring Eurydice back…
 
He dared more than any other man had dared for his love. He took the fearsome journey to the underworld. There he struck his lyre, and at the sound all of the vast multitude were charmed to stillness. The dog Cerberus relaxed his guard, the wheel of Ixion stood motionless, Sisyphus sat on his stone, Tantalus forgot his thirst, for the first time the faces of the dread goddesses, the Furies, were wet with tears. The ruler of Hades drew nearer to listen with his queen…
 
No one under the spell of his voice could refuse him anything. He

Drew iron tears down from Pluto’s cheek.
And made Hell grant what love did seek.

They summoned Eurydice and gave her to him, but upon one condition, that he would not look back at her as she followed him, until they had reached the upper world. So the two passed through the great doors of Hades to the path that would take them out of the darkness climbing up and up. He knew that she must be behind him, but he longed unutterably to give one glance to be sure. But now they were almost there, the blackness had turned gray, now he stepped out joyfully into the daylight then he turned to her, but it was too soon, she was still in the cavern. He saw her in the dim light, and held out his arm to clasp her, but on the instant she was gone. She had slipped back into the darkness. All he heard was one faint word, “Farewell.”

Now Ovid through Garth et al.:

Now thro' the noiseless throng their way they bend, 
And both with pain the rugged road ascend; 
Dark was the path, and difficult, and steep, 
And thick with vapours from the smoaky deep.
They well-nigh now had pass'd the bounds of night, 
And just approach'd the margin of the light, 
When he, mistrusting lest her steps might stray, 
And gladsome of the glympse of dawning day, 
His longing eyes, impatient, backward cast 
To catch a lover's look, but look'd his last; 
For, instant dying, she again descends, 
While he to empty air his arms extends. 
Again she dy'd, nor yet her lord reprov'd; 
What could she say, but that too well he lov'd? 
One last farewell she spoke, which scarce he heard; 
So soon she drop'd, so sudden disappear'd. 

References

Hamilton, Edith (1942) Mythology. pp. 108-109. New York: Warner.

Ovid (1 A.C.E./1717)) Metamorphoses.  Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve “and other eminent hands”. Book the Tenth.: http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.10.tenth.html.