The Topic At Hand: How Do You Like Your Eggs?

Before Nike proclaimed “Just do it” as a cocky exhortation to push past any obstacles and live out one’s inner greatness, it was a line my grandfather reserved for order takers, primarily at restaurants.

He enjoyed doing things carefully and well, but he was not a fussy man. Comfort and ease primarily informed his aesthetic. This was partly innate, no doubt, but partly a result of living most of his life in limited circumstances that required him to make do or do without.

I know I baffled him in many ways with my pickiness and perfectionism. He offered ice cream from his freezer to a crowd of grandchildren that included me once. I asked what kind of ice cream it was, prepared to turn down anything with nuts or fruit in it. At the time his reaction made me feel ungrateful, but looking back I can also see the sheer surprise: what child would hesitate to eat ice cream?

Nike Of Somathrace. width=

Nike Of Somathrace. Before the other Nike.

At restaurants he might take time to read a menu or he might have a dish in mind that he knew (or assumed) the restaurant could make. He would order what he wanted simply, without questions or special instructions, and consider the matter finished. If the wait staff or cashier asked for more input – What do you want on your burger? Small, medium, or large? – my grandfather would often reply with his spectacularly unhelpful “Just do it.”

This statement, usually delivered with a smile, covered a range of unstated meanings.

  • Give it to me plain.
  • Give me what’s typical.
  • Give me the works.
  • Surprise me.

I distinctly remember being with him at a fast food counter once when the cashier made the mistake of asking him if he wanted a straw with his soda. “Just do it.” I understood him well enough to know he meant he didn’t care, but I was too mortified to translate for the cashier, who actually asked the question twice more before giving up.

My grandfather lived long enough to place fast food orders in the age of combination meals, by which time I’d developed a rueful appreciation of this style. I’ve observed other elderly people trying to perform the customer role in the fast food assembly line. It can be a frustration and a humiliation for them, anyone in line behind them, and the cashiers. But the assembly line never fazed my grandfather, he just ignored it.

He liked eggs a lot, however prepared, which is one area in which I’m no more picky than he was. He liked ketchup on them scrambled, which I don’t, and he liked condemning the practice as he put the ketchup on, asking in some vaguely hoity-toity sounding accent, “What are we, barbarians?”

"What are we, Barbarians?"

"What are we, Barbarians?"

I don’t remember him specifically ever saying “Just do it” about his eggs. It may be that though he liked them prepared any way, he was always in a particular mood when he ordered them.

Like many old, persistent, mundane objects, eggs are deep symbols. Eggs are an investment, something set aside or hidden, something to protect and to wait on. They are, like seeds, the hope of new life from apparent lifelessness. But perhaps because eggs produce new animal life, they seem to have worked more powerfully on the human imagination. They are scattered across the world’s creation mythologies, hatching either the universe itself, or some first active being who in turn creates the rest.

In Classical times, many scholars in what’s sometimes referred to as “the West” undertook what seemed the necessary task of bringing order to the vigorously contradictory stories in circulation regarding the origin and history of the known world. There are traces of the same impulse and activity in the scriptural canons that were eventually adopted by Judaism and Christianity. The tumult of Classical mythology was straightened, systematized, even euhemerized. The results were far more easily catalogued, summarized and copied – and essentially frozen, especially once cut off from active development by the triumph of Christianity and Islam.

The standard version includes a minor god named Orpheus, depicted as the son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope, and a peerless musician in his own right. The major feature of his standard story is the death of his apparently mortal wife Eurydice and his journey to the underworld to petition her resurrection from Hades. His music so moves all the denizens of the underworld that Hades agrees to return Eurydice to life, provided Orpheus walks ahead of her without turning to look back until reaching the surface of the living world. Orpheus’ trust fails just short of the goal, and he turns quickly enough to look Eurydice in the face as Hermes silently takes her hand and guides her back down into the shadows.



Orpheus then wanders for a time in mourning until he is set upon by Maenads and torn limb from limb, after which his head floats down a river to the Isle of Lesbos, where it is buried – still singing – thus founding an oracle. The imposed coherence of the story begins to break down towards the end, as there are numerous speculations as to why the Maenads attack Orpheus, most of which seem forced. In addition, for an immortal born of immortals, Orpheus’ fate is remarkably like death.

The oddities make a tempting target for peeling back the corner of the neat version and letting the original complexity pop back out. In other accounts, Orpheus was mortal because his mother was not a muse, but a mortal woman – although she and Calliope were each members of a different set of nine sisters. Both sets were referred to as the Pierides, ostensibly for different reasons.

Different authors assign Orpheus an array of mortal and immortal fathers, a circumstance generally understood to indicate the father was uncertain, absent or both. The name Orpheus may not be originally Greek at all, but it would have called to mind Greek words like orphos, meaning bereft or deprived, and two of its derivatives, orphanos (the source of English “orphan”) and orphne, a word for darkness sometimes personified as a minor deity in her own right.

In some accounts, Orpheus is credited with founding or spreading a mystery cult devoted to a god Dionysus – whose story in turn diverges wildly from that of the standard Dionysus. Orpheus either commits suicide after failing to rescue Eurydice, or is struck by Zeus’ thunderbolt for revealing or circulating mysteries the king of gods wanted kept better hidden from mortals.

The contradictory structures must have caused much gnashing of teeth among Classical mythographers. But what has survived of the contradictions are an important resource to those who, long after, study the cultures behind the myths. A living mythology isn’t coherently narrative. It’s more like a deck of cards, repeatedly shuffled. A given myth draws a few cards from the whole deck and arranges them into a scene or a vignette. But there are rules about which cards can be arranged together
and in what ways – and there is intention on the part of the teller. The more variant examples available, contradictions and all, the stronger the inferences that can be made about how the people telling the myths thought, and what was important to them.

Marianne on HBO's True Blood is a maenad.

The standard Classical cosmology describes the creation of the world in terms of the spontaneous emergence of elements and concepts, which in turn generate further elements and concepts, sometimes by mating with each other. One of these is the earth, which generates and then mates with the sky, continuously, until one of their unborn offspring castrates the sky and pushes it up away from the earth.

But the devotees of the Orphic mysteries told a different story, about two cosmic snakes, Time and Necessity, wrapped around the middle of a cosmic egg – which the latter may have produced and the former fertilized – squeezing the egg until it broke in half and hatched a god with no clear name, who set the upper half of the egg up as the sky, and laid the lower half out as the earth.

Mystery cults have an understandable, enduring fascination, but I wonder sometimes about the difference between what made them mysterious when they were still current and what makes them mysterious after the fact. When they were current, they had secrets, but those secrets could be acquired by going through the required initiations. Their power seems to have rested both on the secrecy itself, and on the fact that initiates were in an altered mental state at the point of revelation, usually being deprived of food, sleep and sunlight, led through a series of hypnotic or ego-stripping rituals, and often carefully dosed with intoxicants or hallucinogens.

If eggs are something set aside and hidden, there’s always a chance they’ll be found by someone other than whoever hid them, in some combination of accident and solution to a puzzle. Easter eggs trade on this, including the undocumented software features also called by that name. And if an egg waits long enough, being hidden and enshelled may not be enough to preserve it, leaving only fragments to be found.

I suspect mystery cults exercise a fascination now which they didn’t then, because their secrets have gone beyond being hidden to being lost. Unlike other areas in the map of human history which are passively blank, these blanks have arrows drawn to them, and heavy ovals drawn around them.

The creation of a god with no clear name.

The creation of a god with no clear name.

I wrote a paper once for a class on Classical mythology in which I postulated an extension to the Structural analysis of The Raw and the Cooked – basically, the barbaric and the civilized – with a third category: the Burnt. Claude Levi-Strauss and following Structuralists argued that being actually or symbolically “cooked” domesticates or civilizes plants, animals and people in the eyes of a culture. Looking only at Classical mythology, it seemed clear to me an argument could be made that being actually or symbolically over-cooked – especially by being cooked twice or burnt – further elevated the treated object to divinity.

I wrote the paper in the floppy disk days and, sometime after turning in the paper copy, I drove back to college from a weekend at home with the file itself on a disk in a box on the roof of my car. The box slid off as I picked up speed, and then was repeatedly driven at and over by other cars, until the box and its contents were broken and scattered. I didn’t discover the loss until looking for the box and disks later, and realizing I hadn’t seen them since leaving my parents’ house. I called my parents, who went out into the street with flashlights and found the remains.

Of the files that had been on those disks, most of the others of any significance existed on other disks or at least on paper in my possession. But my paper on the Burnt was gone, except for an extremely rough draft. In the years since, despite my strong resistance, I’ve developed a rather ridiculous impression of the finished paper as a lost masterpiece, full of stunning insight, deep research and ironclad arguments. There’s an essentially superstitious dread associated with it, too, that’s kept me from trying to re-express its ideas in much detail. It’s as if, having once done so perfectly, to try again and fall short would finally complete the destruction of the original.

If I can build up that much attitude about something I created myself before I lost it, how powerful can the feeling be regarding something created by unknown others thousands of years ago?

I know that on a symbolic level, I have a strong preference for eggs that are whole and unbroken, still waiting to be opened, explored and then – as appropriate – further prepared and eaten. I know that as appealing as this prospect is, that part of the appeal of the unbroken egg is the mystery and the deferred disappointment: it may be that all I have is a shell. But as I examine this ideal idea, I have enough of my grandfather in me to hear his voice saying, “Just do it.”


Nike photo by Peter Rivera.

Photo of unattributed rendering of Cohen The Barbarian by Lemerie.

Orpheus image by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

Snake image by holisticmonkey.

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11 responses to “Egg Drop Soup of Consciousness”

  1. Tara says:

    So, the standardizing forces of modern religion cracked open the living mythologies/mystery religions that predated them, cooking them and stabilizing and neutralizing their power. And now, in post-modernity or wherever we are, we’re burning them so that they once again seem bigger and greater than we are or can imagine, but we can’t pick up the deck of myths and images and keep playing?

  2. Tara says:

    Also, such a sweet description of your grandfather!

  3. Saul Epstein says:

    Tara, your description of the stabilization of mythologies in terms of cooking and of contemporary efforts to re-invigorate them in terms of a new burnt offering are great readings of the images I collected here. I know what was strongest in my mind when describing the stabilization was the kind of thing the US Army Corps of Engineers historically liked to do to rivers. You get more reliable shipping lanes and short-term flood control, maybe some new recreation options — but the river dies. And the bed of a living river actually “walks” like a very slow snake.

    We _can_ pick up old decks and play with them, to the extent that anything can be said to be the same over time. And we can make our own decks, which is probably more valuable to more people. Many contemporary societies are just out of practice, but children do it readily — as Michael describes in “Which Came First?”

  4. Orpheus is such a timeless story, and it seems to be one of the most common stories from Greek myth to get played with and adopted in modern contexts. Some of my favorite examples are Black Orpheus, in which the “hell” Orpheus escapes from is the Carnivale of Rio de Janeiro, and the Sandman’s Fables and Reflections, in which Orpheus is depicted as the son of Morpheus and Calliope.

  5. Tara says:

    I wonder what you mean by playing with the cards then, and by a living mythology. In Michael’s story, even as kids they were aware of their active role in choosing stories for their characters.

    My sense is that we can’t really pick up old mythologies without being all modern and self-conscious about it. I was thinking of two examples where I think the people are very sincere and actually do a great job doing active meaning making from old myths – the book Women Who Run With Wolves, where the author goes back to old stories finding underlying meanings, warnings, lessons – and this Rabbi/Scholar whose name I can’t remember now, who is trying to integrate midrash into modern halachic development. Even in these cases, there is a consciousness of applying chosen values to the relationship with the stories and readings of the stories – a consciousness that definitely seems post-Euhemeristic (how would you put that? an exciting new term for me).

    I definitely think we have modern mythologies that get played with in a traditional way all the time, but we don’t (and I think usually rightly) have very much respect for them. It’s the playing with the dolls that doesn’t struggle over creation stories but just assumes that Barbie will marry Ken and not Midge, a gazillion non-ironic television and film variations on Cinderella stories where the heroine takes off her glasses and becomes irresistible, the ever renewing forms of American Protestantism that mix up Jesus stories and manifest destiny, knocking on wood, jinxes, ‘the American dream,’ and so on.

  6. Saul Epstein says:

    Tara, my suspicion is that people have always been self-conscious in the way you describe, but that it’s only in the context of things like Modernism that this consciousness undermines the value of myths. (Post-modernism, too, which helps make it appropriate that it doesn’t have its own name yet.)

    I deliberately described a living mythology as something to be played, or played with. You have two poles to choose between when telling a story: to repeat something already told, or compose something new. Telling a myth brings the second pole closer to the first: innovation is possible, but only in the way established elements are arranged — and each of those elements have some restrictions as to how they can be arranged. There’s enough room for creativity, but enough constraint that a familiar audience will know what the choices mean. Especially since rules can be broken, which also means something.

    This consciousness would therefore be, if anything, pre-Euhemerist (or anti-, or para-). It takes mythology seriously AS mythology, rather than as deficient history.

  7. Saul Epstein says:

    I saw “Black Orpheus,” by the way… I remember enjoying it, though most of the details are gone. I can still hear someone, I assume Eurydice, calling out “Orpheu!” repeatedly. And I remember Orpheus’ descent to the underworld taking the form of a Voodoo (or Umbanda, or some such) ritual, in which a priestess channels Eurydice…

    I got some acquaintance with Classical mythology very young, and was always intrigued by the story, and the image of Orpheus breaking the apparently-improvised taboo and having to watch Eurydice turn away. The broken resonance between that sequence and the doom of Lot’s wife helped, I’m sure.

    It was more recently that I came to see Orpheus as kind of a window into the native complexity of the mythology as a whole. You poke the story anywhere and strange inter-relations seep out.

  8. Janie Epstein says:

    I think one of your strongest suites is character exposition. Your grandfather is very well drawn.

    couldn’t help wonder what “rules” control the selection and order of “cards” when codifying a myth. Ah, your comment implies the need to remain recognizable to the audience.

    I have often thought the story of Abraham and Isaac must have been “organized” as a means of leading people away from human sacrifice. Are there examples of other myths being “organized” to change social practice?

    I never really thought about the notion of eggs being set aside or hidden before. I like that paragraph very much. Thanks for the new thought.

  9. Eric Eicher says:

    Knowing little about Orpheus–and, of course, less about your grandfather–I found all of this very interesting, Saul. The latter depiction reminded me of the quirks that my own grandparents had, which have developed a lot of charm, now that I’m no longer faced with the reactions that they sometimes got from people who didn’t know them as well as I did.

    But I was repeatedly struck by the junctures, both in the essay and in your replies above, where you describe the rules of myth-making with reference to the way playing cards might be manipulated in ways that allow for creativity, while simultaneously following specific rules that all such creative experiments are/were expected to subscribe to.

    What I kept thinking is that the pasteboard processes you describe are–to varying degress, depending on the specific type of pack in play–remarkably like what happens when a Tarot card reading is performed. Though all modern playing cards use images steeped, to varying degrees, in what is arguably mythology, such elements are remarkably close to the surface, even foregrounded, in Tarot packs, with the result that a skilled reading almost amounts to the spontaneous creation of a time-sensitive, personalized mythology, that the person so read is free to apply or not apply to his/her own life, in something like the way “real mythologies” are/were used by groups of people, over considerably longer periods of time.

    Anyway, just a thought. Enjoyed the essay.

  10. Saul Epstein says:

    I suspect any myth that winds up being promoted by an established authority is effectively organized to bolster or alter social practice. I’m sure there are lots of examples of the latter, but all that keeps coming to mind is the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, which seems in large part expressly designed to centralize religious practice and authority in the hands of the never-named Jerusalem priesthood. (This is in contrast with most of the similar text in the preceding books, which depicts religious practice and authority as less concentrated.)

    And, of course, this goes on all the time, in terms of things we don’t even think of as mythology, because we think we’re too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

    Also, Classical mythology is littered with episodes that always remind me of the Binding of Isaac, in that they suggest human sacrifice but attempt to present it as something else. As if the myth is aware it had gone on, or was still going on; dreaded the practice; couldn’t completely suppress the awareness of it.

  11. Saul Epstein says:

    Eric, I’m laughing now because I can’t believe I didn’t make the connection to Tarot myself. I think I reached for the image of a deck of cards because it would physically represent the way I imagine mythologies to work. Somehow I didn’t take the next step and remember that there are actual decks of cards actually doing what I describe, but you’re right. And there is a long, close association of myth- and fortune-telling.

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The Author

Saul Epstein

Saul Epstein is a degreed linguist, graduated Bachelor of Arts from the University of Kansas; a professional technology analyst at Johnson County Community College; and an amateur philosopher, historian and general critic wherever he happens to be. At JCCC his work involves faculty training and internal curriculum development, computer programming, information management, technical writing and occasionally graphic design. He writes essays, poetry and long and short fiction, and is sometimes satisfied with the results. His is also prone to fits of ideography, typography, and illustration. Saul used to spend a lot of time explaining that he was born in a hidden state capital, grew up in a city seemingly named for an adjacent state, and lives in an invisible suburb with no clear urb. He is now more delighted every time to tell the simpler truth that he is from and lives in Kansas City.

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