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Metamorphoses by Ovid

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Book 8

Scylla decides to betray her city of Megara

Now Lucifer dispelling night, and unveiling shining day, the east wind dropped, and rain clouds gathered. The mild south wind, gave Cephalus and the Aeacides safe return, bringing them, more quickly than they expected, to the harbour they steered for, by its favourable action. Meanwhile Minos was laying waste the coast of Megara, and testing his military strength against the city of Alcathoüs, where Nisus ruled, who had a bright lock of purple hair, on the crown of his head, amongst his distinguished grey tresses, that guaranteed the safety of his kingdom.

The horns of a new moon had risen six times and the fortunes of war still hung in the balance, so protractedly did Victory hover between the two, on hesitant wings. There was a tower of the king, added to walls of singing stone, where Apollo, Latona's son, once rested his golden lyre, and the sound resonated in the rock. In days of peace, Scylla, the daughter of King Nisus, often used to climb up there, and make the stones ring using small pebbles. In wartime also she would often watch the unyielding armed conflicts from there, and now, as the war dragged on, she had come to know the names of the hostile princes, their weapons, horses, armour and Cretan quivers. Above all she came to know the face of their leader, Europa's son, more than was fitting.

If he covered his head with a plumed helmet, she thought him handsome in a helmet. If he carried his shining bronze shield, a shield became him well. When he hurled his heavy spear, with taut limbs, the girl admired his strength combined with skill. When he bent the broad arc of his bow, with a flight notched in it, she swore that it was Phoebus Apollo, standing there, with his arrow ready. But when he exposed his face, free of the bronze, and when, clothed in purple, he took to horseback, his white horse conspicuous with its embroidered trappings, and he controlled its foaming bit, Nisus's daughter was scarcely in control of herself, scarcely in a rational frame of mind. Happy the spear he held, she said, and happy the reins he lifted in his hand. Her impulse was to run, though only a girl, and if it had been allowed, through the enemy lines; her impulse was to throw herself from the top of the tower into the Cretan camp, to open the bronze gates to their army, or anything else Minos might wish.

As she sat gazing at the white tents of the Dictaean king, she said "I am not sure whether I should show joy or grief at this miserable war. I grieve because Minos is the enemy of one who loves him, but if there had been no war, he would never have been known to me! If he accepted me as a hostage he could abandon the war: he would have me as his companion, me as a pledge of peace. If she, who gave birth to you, most handsome of kings, was as beautiful as you are, no wonder the god was on fire for her. O I would be three times happy if I could take wing, through the air, and stand in the camp of the Cretan king, and reveal myself, and my love, and ask what dowry he would need to win me: so long as he does not demand my country's stronghold! Rather let my hopes of marriage die, than that I be capable of betrayal! - Though often many have found it better to be defeated, if a peace-loving conqueror showed clemency. Indeed he wages a just war because of his murdered son: his cause is powerful, and the arms that support his cause. Then, I think we will be conquered. And if that is the end that awaits the city, why should his strength breach these walls of mine, rather than my love?

It would be better for him to win, without slaughter, or delay, and without the shedding of his own blood. At least I would not be afraid lest someone inadvertently wound your breast, Minos: for who would be so cruel as to venture to aim his throw at you, unless he was careless? The idea pleases me, and I am firm in my decision to deliver myself to you, with my country as my dowry, and so put an end to war. But, it is not enough merely to want it! There is a guard watching the entrance, and my father holds the keys of the gate. I only fear through him I might be unlucky: only he hinders my wishes. Would that the gods had devised things so that I had no father! Surely everyone is their own god: Fortune rejects idle wishes. Another girl, fired with as great a passion as mine, would, long ago, have destroyed anything that stood in the way of her love. And why should another be braver than I am? I would dare to go through fire and sword: but there is no need here to brave fire or sword: I need one lock of my father's hair. That is more precious than gold to me, that purple lock of hair will bless me, and let me achieve my desire.

Scylla, deserted, is changed to a bird

As she was speaking, Night, most powerful healer of our cares, darkened, and, with the shadows, her boldness grew. The first hours of quiet had come, when sleep soothes hearts that the day's anxieties have wearied: the daughter steals silently into her father's room, and (alas, the evil!) robs him of the fateful lock of hair. Through the middle of the enemy camp she goes (so certain of her worth to them) with the impious prize she has gained, straight to the king: who is startled by her speech to him. "Love drove me to crime! I, Scylla, daughter of King Nisus, deliver, to you, the gods of my house, and my country. I ask no gift but yourself. Take this purple lock of hair as the pledge of my love, and know that I do not deliver merely a lock of his hair to you, but his head!" And she held out her gift in her sinful hand. Minos recoiled from what she offered him, and shaken by the thought of this unnatural act, answered "May the gods banish you from their world, O you who disgrace this age, and may land and sea be denied you! Be certain I will never allow Crete, which is my world, and the cradle of Jove, to give sanctuary to such a monstrous child."

He spoke: and after establishing laws for his defeated enemies, this most just of legislators, ordered the cables to be loosed from his fleet, and the oars of the bronze-beaked ships to be set in motion. When Scylla saw that the ships were drawing away over the sea, and that their master had refused her the reward for her wickedness, exhausting prayer, she succumbed to violent anger, and, her hair streaming, shouted in her fury, stretching our her hands. "Where are you running to, deserting the creator of your success, O you whom I have set above my father, set above my country? Where are you running to, cruel one, whose victory was my crime, and my kindness? Does neither the gift I gave, nor my love, move you, nor the knowledge that all my hopes are contained in you alone? Where shall I go, deserted like this? To my country? It is defeated! Even if it were not, it is closed to me through my treachery! To my father's presence? Whom I betrayed to you? The citizens hate me, with reason, and their neighbours fear my example. I am exposed to the world, so that Crete alone might be open to me. If you deny me Crete, also, and leave me here, in your ingratitude, your mother was not Europa, but the sandbanks of hostile Syrtis, or the Armenian tigress, or Charybdis's whirlpool, stirred by the south wind. Nor are you Jupiter's son, nor was your mother deceived by the image of a bull. That tale of your birth is a lie! Truly a bull begot you: a wild one, never captive of a heifer's love.

Nisus, father, punish me! Joy in my pain, walls, that I have betrayed! Now, I confess it, I deserve to be hated, and to die. But let one of those whom I have impiously wounded destroy me! Why should you attack me for my crime, who gained victory through that crime? My sin against my father, and my country, was a kindness to you! Pasiphaë is truly a fit mate for you: that adulteress who fooled the fierce bull with that wooden frame, and carried a hybrid foetus in her womb. Does my speech penetrate your ears, monster of ingratitude, or do the same winds that blow your ships on, blow my words away to nothingness? Now, Now, it is no wonder to me, that Pasiphaë preferred that bull to you, you have more savagery in you than he had. Oh, he is ordering them to run! And the waves resound to the beat of the oars, and I and my land recede. No matter. Oh, in vain, you forget my kindnesses: I shall follow you against your will, clinging to the curved sternpost, dragged over the wide ocean."

She had scarcely finished speaking when she leapt into the sea, and swam after the fleet, her passion lending her strength, and clung to the Cretan boat. Her father, who had been newly changed into a sea eagle, soaring through the air on tawny wings, saw her, and dived towards her, as she clung there, to tear at her with his hooked beak. In fear she let go of the sternpost, but as she fell the light breeze seemed to hold her, not letting her touch the water. Feathers spring from her arms: changed into a bird, the rock dove, with its red legs and purple throat, she is called Ciris, "Cutter', and acquired that name from her cutting of the lock of hair.

The Minotaur, Theseus, and Ariadne

When Minos reached Cretan soil he paid his dues to Jove, with the sacrifice of a hundred bulls, and hung up his war trophies to adorn the palace. The scandal concerning his family grew, and the queen's unnatural adultery was evident from the birth of a strange hybrid monster. Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways. Daedalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Maeander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea: so Daedalus made the endless pathways of the maze, and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that.

In there, Minos walled up the twin form of bull and man, and twice nourished it on Athenian blood, but the third repetition of the nine-year tribute by lot, caused the monster's downfall. When, through the help of the virgin princess, Ariadne, by rewinding the thread, Theseus, son of Aegeus, won his way back to the elusive threshold, that no one had previously regained, he immediately set sail for Dia, stealing the daughter of Minos away with him, then cruelly abandoned his companion on that shore. Deserted and weeping bitterly, as she was, Bacchus-Liber brought her help and comfort. So that she might shine among the eternal stars, he took the crown from her forehead, and set it in the sky. It soared through the rarified air, and as it soared its jewels changed to bright fires, and took their place, retaining the appearance of a crown, as the Corona Borealis, between the kneeling Hercules and the head of the serpent that Ophiuchus holds.

Daedalus and Icarus

Meanwhile Daedalus, hating Crete, and his long exile, and filled with a desire to stand on his native soil, was imprisoned by the waves. "He may thwart our escape by land or sea" he said "but the sky is surely open to us: we will go that way: Minos rules everything but he does not rule the heavens'. So saying he applied his thought to new invention and altered the natural order of things. He laid down lines of feathers, beginning with the smallest, following the shorter with longer ones, so that you might think they had grown like that, on a slant. In that way, long ago, the rustic pan-pipes were graduated, with lengthening reeds. Then he fastened them together with thread at the middle, and bees'-wax at the base, and, when he had arranged them, he flexed each one into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird's wings. His son, Icarus, stood next to him, and, not realising that he was handling things that would endanger him, caught laughingly at the down that blew in the passing breeze, and softened the yellow bees'-wax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father's marvellous work.

When he had put the last touches to what he had begun, the artificer balanced his own body between the two wings and hovered in the moving air. He instructed the boy as well, saying "Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!" At the same time as he laid down the rules of flight, he fitted the newly created wings on the boy's shoulders. While he worked and issued his warnings the ageing man's cheeks were wet with tears: the father's hands trembled.

He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.

And now Samos, sacred to Juno, lay ahead to the left (Delos and Paros were behind them), Lebinthos, and Calymne, rich in honey, to the right, when the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father's name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him. The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted "Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?" "Icarus' he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves, and cursed his inventions. He laid the body to rest, in a tomb, and the island was named Icaria after his buried child.

The death of Talos

As he was consigning his unfortunate son to the grave, a noisy partridge poked its head out from a muddy ditch, and, called, cackling joyfully, with whirring wings. It was the only one of its kind, not seen in previous years, and only recently made a bird, as a lasting reproach to you, Daedalus. Your sister, Perdix, oblivious to the fates, sent you her son, Talus, to be taught: twelve years old, his mind ready for knowledge. Indeed, the child, studying the spine of a fish, took it as a model, and cut continuous teeth out of sharp metal, inventing the use of the saw. He was also the first to pivot two iron arms on a pin, so that, with the arms at a set distance, one part could be fixed, and the other sweep out a circle. Daedalus was jealous, and hurled the boy headlong from Minerva's sacred citadel, claiming that he had fallen. But Pallas Minerva, who favours those with quick minds, caught him, and turned him into the partridge, masking him with feathers in mid-air. His inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet, and he kept his mother's name, Perdix, from before. But the bird does not perch above the ground, and does not make its nest on branches or on high points, but flies low on whirring wings over the soil, and lays its eggs in a sheltered place.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt - the cause

Now Sicily, the land of Mount Etna, held the weary Daedalus, and King Cocalus, regarded as peacable, had taken up arms, against Minos, in defence of the suppliant: and thanks to Theseus, Athens now had ceased to pay Crete the sorrowful levy. The temple was wreathed with flowers, and the Athenians called out to warlike Minerva, to Jupiter and to the other gods, honouring them with gifts, and the blood of sacrificial offerings, and the contents of their incense-boxes. Far-wandering fame had spread the name of Theseus through all the cities of the Argolis, and the peoples inhabiting wealthy Achaia begged for his help in their great trouble, and Calydon, as a suppliant, despite having Meleager, asked his help, with anxious prayers.

The reason for their asking was a wild boar, servant and avenging power of Diana's aggression. King Oeneus of Calydon, they say, made offerings, from the successful harvests of a full year, of the first fruits of the crops to Ceres, of wine to Bacchus, "the deliverer from care', of libations of flowing oil, from the olives, to golden Minerva. The honour they desire was paid to all the gods, beginning with the rural deities: only the daughter of Latona's altar was passed by: neglected, it is said, and left without its incense. Anger even touches the gods. "I shall not suffer this without exacting punishment" she cried "and, though not honoured, it will not be said that I was unavenged." And the goddess, spurned, sent an avenging wild boar, over the Aetolian fields: grassy Epirus had none greater than it, and those of the island of Sicily were smaller. Its eyes glowed with bloodshot fire: its neck was stiff with bristles, and the hairs, on its hide, bristled stiffly like spear-shafts: just as a palisade stands, so the hairs stood like tall spears. Hot foam flecked the broad shoulders, from its hoarse grunting. Its tusks were the size of an Indian elephant's: lightning came from its mouth: and the leaves were scorched, by its breath. Now it trampled the young shoots of the growing crops, now cut short the ripeness, longed-for by the mournful farmer, and scythed down the corn in ear. The granaries and threshing floors waited for the promised harvest in vain. Heavy clusters of grapes were brought down along with the trailing vines, and fruit and branch of the evergreen olives. It rages among the cattle too. Neither the herdsmen and dogs, nor their own fierce bulls can defend the herds. The people scatter, and only count themselves safe behind city walls.

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor's son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis.

Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippoco÷n sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope's father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. And Atalanta, the warrior girl of Tegea, the glory of Arcadia's woods, with a polished brooch clasping the neck of her garment, and her hair simply done, caught in a single knot. An ivory quiver, holding her arrows, that rattled as she moved, hung from her left shoulder, and her left hand held the bow. So she was dressed: as for her face, you might truly say, the virgin was there, in a boy, and a boy, in the girl. The moment he saw her, that moment, Meleager, the hero of Calydon, desired her, though the gods might refuse it, devoured by secret fires. "O, happy the man, whom she might think worthy!" he said. Neither time nor honour allowed him further words: the greater task of the greater conflict urged him on.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt - the boar is roused

A forest thick with trees, that had never been cut, at any time, began above the plain, and overlooked the sloping fields. When the heroes reached it, some spread out hunting nets, others loosed the dogs from their leashes, while others again followed the deeply-marked trail, keen to discover their quarry. There was a deep valley that collected streams of rainwater, falling near it: and it held, in its depths, pliant willows, smooth sedges, and marsh grasses, and osiers and tall bulrushes, above the lowly reeds. The boar was roused from there, and made a violent charge into the midst of its enemies, like lightning forced from colliding clouds. Trees were flattened by its impact, and the woods crashed as it drove into them. The warriors shouted, and held their spears spread outward, with firm hands, waving their broad blades. The boar rushed them, scattering the dogs, as they obstructed it in its fury, putting the baying pack to flight with sidelong swipes of its tusks. The first spear, delivered by Echion's arm, was ineffectual, and gave the trunk of a maple a glancing blow. The next, if it had not been thrown with too great a force, aimed at the creature's back, seemed certain to stick there, but the throw was too long. Jason of Pagasae hurled the spear.

Then Mopsus, son of Ampyx, cried out "Phoebus, if I have worshipped you, and do so now, grant what I ask, that my spear strikes surely!" The god did what he could, to fulfil the prayer: the boar was hit, but without being wounded. Diana had stolen the iron point of the javelin, in flight: what arrived was the wooden shaft without its tip. The wild beast's anger was aroused, and blazed out no more gently than lightning. Flame burned in its eyes, and was breathed from its chest. With dangerous and unerring momentum, the boar hurtled towards the young men, as a stone flies from a taut catapult, aimed at walls or battlements full of soldiers. Hippalmus and Pelagon, holding the right flank, were knocked to the ground: their friends caught them up as they lay there. But Enaesimus, son of Hippoco÷n, did not escape the fatal blow: about to turn his back, in alarm, he sank down, as the sinews of his knee gave way. And King Nestor of Pylos, might perhaps have perished before his time at Troy, but, using the leverage of his firmly planted spear, he vaulted into a tree, that stood close by, and looked down, from a place of safety, on the quarry he had escaped.

The fierce creature, sharpening its tusks on the trunk of an oak, threatened them with destruction, and confident in its freshly renewed weapons, ripped open mighty Hippasus's thigh, with one curving edge. But now the Gemini, Castor and Pollux, not yet changed into stars in the sky, twin brothers, conspicuous among the rest, both rode up, on horses whiter than snow, and brandishing their javelins in the air as one, hurled them, the points quivering with the motion.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt - the kill

They would have wounded the beast, had not the bristling creature retreated into the dense woods where no horse or spear could penetrate. Telamon did follow, and careless where he was placing his feet, in his enthusiasm, fell flat on the ground, tripping over the root of a tree. While Peleus was lifting him, the girl from Tegea strung a swift arrow, and sent it speeding from the curved bow. The shaft just grazed the top of the boar's back, and fixing itself below one ear, reddened the bristles with a thin stream of blood. Nor did she praise her own successful shot more than Meleager did. He was supposed to have been the first to see the blood, and first, having seen it, to point it out to his friends, saying: "You will be honoured for the value of this service." The warriors flushed with their shame, urged each other on, gaining courage from their clamour, hurling their spears without sense of order. The jostling spoilt their throw, and prevented the strike they intended. Then Ancaeus of Arcady, with his twin-headed axe, rushing to meet his fate, cried: "O warriors, learn how much better a man's weapons are than a girl's, and leave the work to me! Though Latona's daughter herself protects this creature, in her own way, in spite of Diana, my right arm will destroy it." Swollen with pride, like this, with boastful words, he spoke, and, lifting the double axe in both hands, he stood on tiptoe, poised for the downward blow. The boar anticipated this daring enemy, and struck at the upper groin, the quickest way to kill, with his twin tusks. Ancaeus collapsed, and the slippery mass of his inner organs fell away in a pool of blood: the ground was soaked with the red fluid.

Then Pirithoüs, son of Ixion, went against the quarry, brandishing his hunting-spear in his strong right-hand. Theseus, Aegeus's son, called out "Stay, farther away, my soul's other half, O dearer to me than myself! It is fine to be brave at a distance, also: Ancaeus's rash courage only did him harm." He spoke, and threw his heavy spear, of cornelian cherry-wood, with its bronze blade. Though well aimed and capable of reaching its mark, it was deflected by the leafy branch of an oak. Jason, Aeson's son, hurled his javelin, which swerved by accident, and the fatal throw transfixing the flanks of an innocent hound, pinned it to the ground.

But Meleager's hand made the difference, and of the two spears he threw, though one stuck in the earth, the other fixed itself in the boar's back. Now, while it raged, and twisted its body round, and spouted out hissing foam and fresh blood, the author of its wound came at it, pricked his quarry to fury, and buried his shining hunting-spear in his enemy's shoulder. Then the companions give proof of their joy, shouting, and crowding around him to grasp his hand in theirs. They gaze, wonderingly, at the huge creature covering so much of the earth it lies on, and still think it unsafe to touch the beast, but nevertheless each wets his spear in its blood.

The Calydonian Boar Hunt - the spoils

Meleager, himself, pressed his foot down on the head of the deadly creature, and said to Atalanta "Girl from Nonacria, take the prize that is mine by right, and let my glory be shared with you." Then he gave her the spoils, the hide bristling with hair, and the head remarkable for its magnificent tusks. She delighted in the giver no less than the gift, but the others were envious, and a murmur ran through the whole company. Of these, Plexippus, and Toxeus, the sons of Thestius, Meleager's uncles, stretching their arms out, shouted loudly: "Come on, girl, leave them alone: do not steal our titles to honour, and do not let too much faith in your beauty deceive you, lest your love-sick friend turns out to be no help to you." And they took the gifts away from her, and denied him the right to give them. The descendant of Mars could not bear this, and bursting with anger, gnashing his teeth, he said: "Learn, you thieves of other men's rights, the difference between threats and actions', and plunged his iron point into Plexippus's chest, he expecting nothing of that kind. Meleager gave Toxeus, who stood in doubt, wanting to avenge his brother, but fearing his brother's fate, scant time for doubt, and while his spear was still warm from the first brother's murder, he warmed it again with the second brother's blood.

Althaea was carrying thanksgiving offerings, for her son's victory, to the temple of the gods, when she saw them bringing back her dead brothers. She filled the city with the clamour of wailing, beat her breasts, and replaced her golden robes with black. But when she heard who the murderer was, she forgot her mourning, and her longing changed from tears to revenge.

Althaea and the burning brand

There was a piece of wood that the Three Sisters placed in the fire, when Althaea, the daughter of Thestius, was in the throes of childbirth. As they spun the threads of fate firmly under their thumbs, they said: "We assign an equal span of time to you, O new born child, and to this brand." When the goddesses vanished, after speaking the prophecy, the mother snatched the burning branch from the fire, and doused it with water. It had long been hidden away in the depths of the inner rooms, and preserved, had preserved your years, youth. Your mother now brought it out, and called for pinewood and kindling: and, once that was in position, she lit the hostile flames. Then she tried, four times, to throw the brand in the fire, and four times, held back. The mother fought the sister in her, and the two tugged at the one heart. Often her cheeks grew pale at imminent wickedness. Often fierce anger filled her eyes with blood. One moment she seemed like someone threatening some cruelty: the next you would think her full of compassion. When her heart's fierce passion dried up her tears, the tears welled up again. As a ship, that the wind, and the tide opposing the wind, both seize, feels the twin forces and obeys the two, uncertainly, so the daughter of Thestius, was swayed by her emotions, and her anger alternately calmed, and then flared again.

However, the sister in her begins to outweigh the mother, and to appease the shades of her own blood, with blood, she escapes guilt by incurring it. Now, as the baleful fire strengthens, she cries "Let this be the funeral pyre that cremates my child." As she held the fatal brand in her deadly hand, and stood, wretched woman, in front of the funeral altars, she said "Eumenides, Triple Goddesses of Retribution, turn your faces towards these fearful rites! I take revenge, and I do a wicked thing: death must be atoned for by death: crime must be heaped on crime, ruin on ruin. Let this impious house end in a flood of mourning! Shall, Oeneus, fortunate, rejoice in his victorious child, while Thestius is bereaved of his sons? Better for both to grieve. Only, my brother's spirits, new-made ghosts, recognise my sense of duty to you, and accept the sacrifice I prepare, so great its cost to me, the evil child of my womb! Ah me! What conclusion do I rush towards? My brothers, forgive a mother! The hand is unequal to what it began: I acknowledge he deserves to die, but I do not desire to be the cause of his death. Shall he go unpunished? Shall he live, victorious, proud of his success, and be king in Calydon, while you lie there, the scant ashes of chill shadows? For my part I cannot suffer that to be: let the wicked die, and pull down his father's hopes, his kingship, and the ruins of his country! Where are my maternal feelings? Where are the sacred allegiances of a parent? Where are the anxieties I suffered over those ten months? O, I wish, when you were an infant burning in those first flames, I had allowed it to be! By my gift, you lived: now for your own fault, you die! Suffer the consequences of what you have done, and give me back the life I twice gave you, once at your birth, once when I snatched at the brand, or let me join my brothers in the tomb!

I yearn to do it, and I cannot do it. What shall I do? Now my brothers' wounds are before my eyes and the image of all that blood: and now heart's love, and the word mother move me. Woe to me! Evil is in your victory, my brothers: but victory you shall have: only let me follow you, and the comfort I bring you!" She spoke, and turning her face away, with trembling hands, threw the fatal brand, into the midst of the fire. The piece of wood itself gave, or seemed to give, a sigh, as it was attacked, and burned, by the reluctant flames.

The death of Meleager

Far off, and unaware, Meleager is alight with that fire, and feels his inner organs invisibly seared. He controls the fierce agonies, with courage. Nevertheless he is sad that he must die a bloodless, cowardly death, and calls Ancaeus fortunate in his wounds. At the last, groaning with pain, he names his aged father, his brothers, his loving sisters, the companion of his bed, and, it may be, his mother. The fire and the suffering flare up, and die away, again, and both are extinguished together. Gradually his breath vanishes into the light breeze: gradually white ashes veil the glowing embers.

Noble Calydon lies dead. Young men and old lament, people and princes moan, and the women of Calydon, by the River Euenus, tear at their hair, and beat their breasts. His father, prone on the ground, mars his aged features and white hair with dust, and rebukes himself for his long years. As for his mother, conscious of her dreadful action, she has exacted punishment on herself, with her own hand driving the weapon into her body. Not though the god had given me a hundred mouths speaking with tongues, the necessary genius, and all Helicon as my domain, could I describe the sad fate of his poor sisters. Forgetting what is seemly, they strike their bruised chests, and while there is something left of the body, the body is caressed again and again, as they kiss it and kiss the bier on which it lies.

Once he is ashes; the ashes are gathered, and they press them to their breasts, throw themselves down on his tomb, and clasping the stone carved with his name, they drown the name with tears. At last, Diana, satiated with her destruction of the house of Parthaon, lifted them up, all except Gorge, and Deianira, the daughter-in-law of noble Alcmena, and, making feathers spring from their bodies, and stretching long wings over their arms, she gave them beaks, and, changed to guinea-hens, the Meleagrides, launched them into the air.

Acheloüs tells Theseus and his friends of Perimele

Meanwhile, Theseus, having played his part in the united effort, turned back towards Athens, Tritonia's city, where Erectheus once ruled. But the River Acheloüs, swollen with rain, blocked his immediate path, and stalled his journey. "Come under my roof, famous scion of Cecrops," the river-god said, "and do not commit yourself to my devouring waters. They are liable to carry solid tree-trunks along, in their roaring, and roll great boulders over on their sides. I have seen whole byres, near the bank, swept away, with all their livestock: and neither the cattle's strength nor the horses' speed was of any use. Many a strong man has been lost in the whirling vortices, when the torrent was loosed, after mountain snows. You will be safer to stay till my river runs in its normal channel, when its bed holds only a slender stream."

Aegeus's son nodded, and replied: "I will make use of your house, and your counsel, Acheloüs." And so he did. He entered the dark building, made of spongy pumice, and rough tufa. The floor was moist with soft moss, and the ceiling banded with freshwater mussel and oyster shells. Now Hyperion, the sun, had measured out two thirds of his path of light, when Theseus and his companions of the hunt seated themselves on couches. Here was Pirithoüs, Ixion's son, and there, Lelex, Troezen's hero, his temples already streaked with thinning grey hair, and there were others whom the Acarnanian river-god, greatly delighted to have such a guest, judged worthy of equal honour. Quickly the barefoot nymphs set out dishes of food on the nearby tables, and when they had been cleared again, poured wine in jewelled cups. Then the greatest of heroes looking out over the waters below, asked: "What is that place?" (He pointed with his finger.) "Tell me what name the island has, though it seems more than an island!"

The river-god replied "What you see is not one island: five pieces of land lie together, but the distance conceals their distinctiveness. This will make you less astonished at what Diana did to Calydon when she was slighted. Those islands were once nymphs, who, though they had slaughtered ten bullocks and invited the rural gods to the festival, forgot me as they led the festal dance. I swelled with anger, as fierce as when my flood is at its fullest, and terrible in wind and wave, I tore forest from forest and field from field, and swept the nymphs, who then, at last, remembered me, along with the place they trod, into the sea. There the ocean and my waters separated what had been continuous ground, and split it into as many parts as you see islands, the Echinades, there in the midst of the waves.

But as you can see for yourself, far off, far off one island vanishes, dear to me: the sailors call it Perimele. I loved her and stole her virginity. At which her father, unable to accept it, threw his daughter from the cliffs into the deep, intending to destroy her. I caught her, and holding her as she swam, I cried: "O God of the Trident, to whom rule over the restless waves, closest to earth, fell by lot, give your aid I beg, and grant a place to one whom a father's anger drowns, or allow her to be that place herself!" While I spoke, new earth clasped her body, as she swam, and a solid island rose, round her changed limbs.

Lelex tells of Philemon and Baucis

At this, the river-god fell silent. The wonder of the thing had gripped them all. But that daring spirit, Pirithoüs, son of Ixion, scornful of the gods, laughed at their credulity. "These are fictions you tell of, Acheloüs, and you credit the gods with too much power, if you think they can give and take away the forms of things." The others were startled, and disapproved of his words, Lelex above all, experienced in mind and years, who said: "The power of the gods is great and knows no limit, and whatever heaven decrees comes to pass. To help convince you, in the hills of Phrygia, an oak and a lime tree stand side by side, surrounded by a low wall. I have seen the place, since Pittheus, king of Troezen, sent me into that country, where his father Pelops once ruled.

There is a swamp not far from there, once habitable land but now the haunt of diving-birds and marsh-loving coots. Jupiter went there, disguised as a mortal, and Mercury, the descendant of Atlas, setting aside his wings, went with his father, carrying the caduceus. A thousand houses they approached, looking for a place to rest: a thousand houses were locked and bolted. But one received them: it was humble it is true, roofed with reeds and stems from the marsh, but godly Baucis and the equally aged Philemon, had been wedded in that cottage in their younger years, and there had grown old together. They made light of poverty by acknowledging it, and bearing it without discontent of mind. It was no matter if you asked for owner or servant there: those two were the whole household: they gave orders and carried them out equally.

So when the gods from heaven met the humble household gods, and stooping down, passed the low doorway, the old man pulled out a bench, and requested them to rest their limbs, while over the bench Baucis threw a rough blanket. Then she raked over the warm ashes in the hearth, and brought yesterday's fire to life, feeding it with leaves and dried bark, nursing the flames with her aged breath. She pulled down finely divided twigs and dry stems from the roof, and, breaking them further, pushed them under a small bronze pot. Next she stripped the leaves from vegetables that her husband had gathered from his well-watered garden. He used a two-pronged stick to lift down a wretched-looking chine of meat, hanging from a blackened beam, and, cutting a meagre piece from the carefully saved chine, put what had been cut, to seethe, in boiling water.

In the meantime they made conversation to pass the time, and prevent their guests being conscious of the delay. There was a beech wood tub, suspended by its handle from a crude peg: this had been filled with warm water, and allowed their visitors to refresh their limbs. In the middle of the floor there was a mattress of soft sedges. Placed on a frame and legs of willow it made a couch. They covered it with cloths, that they only used to bring out for the times of sacred festivals, but even these were old and worn, not unworthy of the couch. The gods were seated.

The old woman, her skirts tucked up, her hands trembling, placed a table there, but a table with one of the three legs unequal: a piece of broken pot made them equal. Pushed underneath, it countered the slope, and she wiped the level surface with fresh mint. On it she put the black and green olives that belong to pure Minerva, and the cornelian cherries of autumn, preserved in wine lees; radishes and endives; a lump of cheese; and lightly roasted eggs, untouched by the hot ashes; all in clay dishes. After this she set out a carved mixing bowl for wine, just as costly, with cups made of beech wood, hollowed out, and lined with yellow bees' wax. There was little delay, before the fire provided its hot food, and the wine, of no great age, circulated, and then, removed again, made a little room for the second course. There were nuts, and a mix of dried figs and wrinkled dates; plums, and sweet-smelling apples in open wicker baskets; and grapes gathered from the purple vines. In the centre was a gleaming honeycomb. Above all, there was the additional presence of well-meaning faces, and no unwillingness, or poverty of spirit."

The transformation of Philemon and Baucis

"Meanwhile the old couple noticed that, as soon as the mixing bowl was empty, it refilled itself, unaided, and the wine appeared of its own accord. They were fearful at this strange and astonishing sight, and timidly Baucis and Philemon murmured a prayer, their palms upwards, and begged the gods' forgiveness for the meal, and their unpreparedness. They had a goose, the guard for their tiny cottage: as hosts they prepared to sacrifice it for their divine guests. But, quick-winged, it wore the old people out and, for a long time, escaped them, at last appearing to take refuge with the gods themselves. Then the heaven-born ones told them not to kill it. "We are gods," they said, "and this neighbourhood will receive just punishment for its impiety, but to you we grant exemption from that evil. Just leave your house, and accompany our steps, as we climb that steep mountainside together."

They both obeyed, and leaning on their sticks to ease their climb, they set foot on the long slope. When they were as far from the summit as a bowshot might carry, they looked back, and saw everywhere else vanished in the swamp: only their own roof was visible. And while they stood amazed at this, mourning their neighbours' fate, their old cottage, tiny even for the two of them, turned into a temple. Wooden poles became pillars, and the reed thatch grew yellow, till a golden roof appeared, richly carved doors, and a marble pavement covering the ground. Then the son of Saturn spoke, calmly, to them: "Ask of us, virtuous old man, and you, wife, worthy of a virtuous husband, what you wish."

When he had spoken briefly with Baucis, Philemon revealed their joint request to the gods. "We ask to be priests and watch over your temple, and, since we have lived out harmonious years together, let the same hour take the two of us, so that I never have to see my wife's grave, nor she have to bury me." The gods' assurance followed the prayer. They had charge of the temple while they lived: and when they were released by old age, and by the years, as they chanced to be standing by the sacred steps, discussing the subject of their deaths, Baucis saw Philomen put out leaves, and old Philemon saw Baucis put out leaves, and as the tops of the trees grew over their two faces, they exchanged words, while they still could, saying, in the same breath: "Farewell, O dear companion", as, in the same breath, the bark covered them, concealing their mouths.

The people of Bithynia still show the neighbouring trees, there, that sprang from their two bodies. Trustworthy old men related these things to me (there was no reason why they should wish to lie). For my part, I saw garlands hanging from the branches, and placing fresh ones there said: "Let those who love the gods become gods: let those who have honoured them, be honoured." "

Erysichthon fells Ceres's sacred oak tree

Lelex finished, and the tale and the teller of it had moved them all, Theseus particularly. He wished to hear more of the marvellous acts of the gods. Acheloüs, the river-god of Calydon, leaning on his elbow, said: "Hero, there are those who, once changed in form, retain that transformation: there are others who are allowed to transmute into many shapes: you, for instance, Proteus, inhabitant of the earth-encircling sea. A moment ago they saw you as a young man, then as a lion: now as a raging boar, then as a serpent, they fear to touch: and, in a moment, horns revealed you as a bull. Often you might have appeared as a stone, often, also, as a tree: sometimes, you formed the likeness of running water, and became a river: sometimes fire, water's opposite.

Mestra, Erysichthon's daughter, the wife of Autolycus, had no less power. Her father was a man scornful of the gods, who burnt no incense on their altars. Erysichthon, it is said, once violated the grove of Ceres with an axe, and desecrated the ancient woods with iron. Within them stood a great oak, massive with the years, a sacred grove in itself: strands of wool, wreaths of flowers and votive tablets surrounded it, evidence of prayers granted. Often beneath it the Dryads held their festive dances: often, also, linking hands, in line, they circled its trunk's circumference, its massive girth measuring fifteen arm's-lengths round. The other trees were not less far below it than the grass was far below all of them. Triopas's son would not hold back the blade, even for those reasons, commanding his servants to fell the sacred oak.

When he saw them hesitating at the order, the wretched man snatched the axe from one of them, saying: "Though this be, itself, the goddess, not just what the goddess loves, now its leafy crown will meet the earth." As he spoke, while he balanced the blade, for the slanting stroke, Ceres's oak-tree trembled all over and gave a sigh, and at the same time its acorns and its leaves began to whiten, and its long branches grew pale. And, when his impious hand made a gash in the trunk, blood poured out of its damaged bark, like the crimson tide from its severed neck, when the mighty bull falls, in sacrifice, before the altar.

All stood astonished, and one of them tried bravely to prevent the evil, and hinder the barbarous double-edged weapon. But the Thessalian glared at him, saying: "Here's the prize for your pious thought!" and swinging his blade at the man not the tree, struck his head from his trunk. He was hewing at the oak-tree repeatedly, when the sound of a voice came from inside the oak, chanting these words:

"I am a nymph, most dear to Ceres,
under the surface of this wood,
who prophesy to you, as I die,
that punishment will follow blood:
out of my ruin, the only good."

But he pursued his course of evil, and at last, weakened by innumerable blows, and dragged down by ropes, the tree fell, its weight cutting a swathe through the wood."

Ceres sends Famine to Erysichthon

"All her sister Dryads, mourning and dressed in black, horrified at the forest's loss and their own, went to Ceres, and begged her to punish Erysichthon. She assented, and, with a motion of her head, that most beautiful of goddesses stirred the fields, heavy with ripened grain. She devised a punishment to rouse men's pity, if his actions had deserved any pity: to torment him with baleful Hunger. But since the goddess herself could not approach her (for fate does not allow Famine and Ceres to meet) she called for one of the mountain spirits, an Oread of wild places, and said to her: "There is a place at the furthest bounds of icy Scythia, with sombre, sterile ground, a land without crops or trees. Torpid Cold inhabits it, Fear and Trembling and barren Hunger. Order Famine to immure herself in the belly of that sacrilegious wretch, and let no plenty oust her, and let her overcome me in any trial of strength. So that the length of the journey does not worry you, take my chariot, take my winged dragons, and govern their bridles on high." And she gave her the reins. The nymph came to Scythia, carried through the air, in the chariot she was given. On the summit of a frozen mountain chain (they call the Caucasus) she loosed the dragons' necks, and, searching for Famine, saw her in a field of stones, picking at the sparse grass with her nails and teeth. Her hair was matted, her eyes sunken, her face pallid: her lips were grey with mould, her throat with scabrous sores: through the hardened skin, her inner organs could be seen: dry bones stuck out beneath her hollow loins: her belly was only the excuse for a belly: her breastbone seemed to hang loosely, only held by the frame of her spine. Emaciation made the joints look large: the curve of her knees seemed swollen: and the ankles appeared as extravagant lumps.

When the Oread saw her, she relayed the goddess's command, from a distance (since she did not dare to approach her), and though she only delayed an instant, and stayed far off, though she had only arrived there a moment before, she still seemed to feel the hunger. Changing course, high in the air, she directed the dragons towards Haemonia.

Famine carried out Ceres's orders, though their tasks are ever opposed, and flew down through the eye of the wind to the appointed house. Straight away she entered the bedroom of the sacrilegious man, who was sunk in profound sleep (since it was night), and breathed herself into him, covering his throat, and chest, and lips, with her exhalations, and causing a lack of nourishment in his hollow veins. Completing her mission, she left the fertile lands, returning to the houses of poverty, and her customary caves.

Gentle Sleep still lulls Erysichthon, with his peaceful wings. He, in sleep, in imagination, dreams of feasts, closes his mouth on vacancy, grinds tooth on tooth, exercises his gluttony on insubstantial food, and, instead of a banquet, fruitlessly eats the empty air. But when indeed peace departs, a desperate desire to eat possesses his famished jaws and burning belly. Without a moment's delay he calls out for whatever earth, air and sea produce, and at table complains of hunger, and in the midst of eating demands to eat. What would feed a city, or satisfy a people, is not enough for one. The more he puts away inside, the greater his desire. As the ocean receives the rivers of all the earth, and unfilled by the waters, swallows every wandering stream: as the devouring flames never refuse more fuel, burn endless timber, and look for more, the greater the piles they are given, more voracious themselves by being fed: so Erysichthon's profane lips accept and demand all foods, in the same breath. All nourishment in him is a reason for nourishment, and always by eating he creates an empty void."

The fate of Erysichthon and his daughter Mestra

"Now hunger, and the deep pit of his gut had consumed his wealth, but even so, Famine worked unabated and his burning appetite was unappeased. Eventually, when all he owned was inside him, only his daughter, Mestra, was left, a girl whom the father was not worthy of. Having nothing, he tried to sell her too. The honourable child refused to accept a possessor, and stretching her hands out over the waves of the shore, she cried: "You god, who stole away the prize of my virginity", for Neptune had stolen it, "save me from slavery." He did not scorn her prayer. Although the buyer had been following her, and had seen her a moment ago, the god altered her shape, giving her a man's features, and clothes appropriate to a fisherman.

Her purchaser looked at her, and said: "O, you who control the rod, and hide your bronze hook in a little bait, may you have calm sea, and gullible fish, that feel nothing of the hook till they bite. Tell me where she is, the girl with shabby clothes and straggling hair, who stood here on this beach a moment ago (since I saw her, standing on the beach): there are no footprints further on!" She sensed the god's gift was working well for her, and delighted that he was asking her for news of herself, replied to his question: "Forgive me, whoever you are: I have had no eyes for anything except this pool: I have been occupied taking pains over my fishing. To convince you, and may the sea god help me in these arts of mine, no man has been on this beach, except myself, for a long time, and no woman either."

He believed her, and turning round on the sand, having been outplayed, departed. Then her true shape was restored. When her father realised that she could change her shape, he often surrendered Mestra to others, so that she, escaping in the form of a mare, or a bird, or again as a heifer or a hind, repeatedly obtained her price, dishonestly, for her gluttonous father. In the end when the evil had consumed everything they had, and his grave disease needed ever more food, Erysichthon began to tear at his limbs and gnaw them with his teeth, and the unhappy man fed, little by little, on his own body."

'But why do I entertain you with stories of others?" said Acheloüs, "Indeed, young man, I have often changed shape myself, though the number of shapes I can achieve is limited. Sometimes I am seen as I am now: sometimes I become a snake: or, again, the lead bull of the herd, my power in my horns - horns, when I still had two. Now one side of my brow has lost its weapon, as you can see for yourself." His words were followed by a sigh.

TO TOP


Book 9

Acheloüs wrestles with Hercules

Theseus, the hero, reputed son of Neptune, asked Acheloüs why he had sighed, and the reason for his damaged forehead: to which the Calydonian river-god, his uncut hair wreathed with reeds, replied: "You ask something painful of me. Who wants to recall the battles he has lost? But, I will tell it as it happened: since the shame of being beaten is no less than the honour of having fought. It is a great consolation to me that the victor was so famous.

If her name has ever come to your notice, Deianira was once the most beautiful girl, and the jealous hope of many suitors. When, with them, I entered Oeneus's house, her father, and the man I sought as my father-in-law, I said: "Accept me as your son-in-law, son of Parthaon." Hercules, scion of Alceus, said the same. The others gave way before the two of us. Hercules declared that he could offer Jove as his bride's father-in-law, spoke of his famous labours, and of how he had survived what his stepmother, Juno, had prescribed for him. On my side I said: "It would be shameful for a god to concede to a mortal" - He was not yet a god - "In me you see the lord of the waters, that flow in winding rivers, through your kingdom. As your son-in-law I would not be a stranger sent from a foreign shore, but a native, and wedded to your own interests. Only don't let it harm my case that Queen Juno does not hate me, and all the punishment of the labours, she demanded, passed me by!"

"Now, listen, Hercules, you, son of Alcmena: Jupiter, whose child you boast of being, is either wrongly called your father, or is truly a wrongdoer. You seek your father in a mother's adultery. Choose whether you prefer this fiction of Jove as a father, or to be born the son of shame." As I spoke, he gazed at me fiercely, all the while, and unable to act like a man and control his blazing anger, he merely replied in these words: "My right hand is more powerful than my tongue. As long as I beat you at wrestling, you can win the talking", and he came at me ferociously. I was ashamed to retreat, after my words: I took off my green robes; put up my arms; held my hands, fingers curved, in front of my chest in fighting stance; and readied my limbs for the match. He caught up dust in the hollow of his hands and threw it over me, and, in turn, was, himself, gilded by the yellow sand. Now he caught at my neck, or you might think he caught me, now at my legs, now at my loins: and attacked me from every side. My weight protected me, and his attempts were useless. I was like a massive pile that the roaring flood assaults with all its might: it remains, secure in its own bulk.

We pulled away for a moment, returned to the conflict, and stood firm, determined not to concede. Foot was set against foot, and I pushed at him, with my chest full forward, fingers locked with fingers, and head to head. I have seen two strong bulls come together like that, when they try for the sleekest heifer in the pasture as their prize in the contest. The herd watches in fear, not sure to which one victory will grant overriding supremacy. Three times without success Hercules tried to push my gleaming chest away from him. At the fourth attempt, he broke my grip, loosed himself from my constricting arms, and with a blow of his hand - Certainly, I myself confess it is the truth - he turned me about, and clung, with all his weight, to my back.

If you can believe it - I am not seeking to gain false credit by saying it - I seemed to have a mountain pressing on top of me. With difficulty I thrust my arms, pouring with sweat from the great effort it took, under him, and, with difficulty, freed his firm hold on my body. He pressed me hard, as I gasped for breath, prevented me from gathering my strength, and gripped my neck. Then, at last, my knee touched the ground, and my mouth tasted sand. Inferior to him in strength, I turned to my magic arts, and slipped from his grasp in the shape of a long snake. But when I had wound my body in sinuous coils, and, hissing fiercely, darted my forked tongue at him, Tiryns's hero laughed, and mocking my magic arts, said: "My task in the cradle was to defeat snakes, and, though you are greater than other reptiles, Acheloüs, how big a slice of the Lernean Hydra would your one serpent be? It was made fecund by its wounds, and not one of its hundred heads was safely cut off without its neck generating two more. I overcame it, and having overcome it, disembowelled that monster, with branching snake-heads, that grew from their own destruction, thriving on evil. What do you think will happen to you, who are only a false snake, using unfamiliar weapons, whom a shifting form hides?"

He spoke and knotted his fingers round my throat. I was suffocating, as if my throat was gripped by a vice, and struggled to tear his thumbs away from my windpipe. Overpowered in this form, only my third, fierce, bull-shape remained. So I fought on, my limbs those of a bull. From the left he threw his arms round my bulging neck; and followed me as I charged off; dragging at me, my horns piercing the hard ground as he pulled me down; and toppling me into the deep sand. As if that was not enough, holding the tough horn in his cruel hand, he broke it and tore it away from my mutilated brow. The Naiades took it, filling it with fruit and scented flowers, and made it sacred: the Goddess of Abundance is rich now because of my horn of plenty."

The shirt of Nessus

He spoke: and a nymph, one of his attendants, dressed like Diana, her hair streaming over her shoulders, came to them, bringing all of autumn's harvest in an overflowing horn, and, for an aftertaste, delicious fruits. Light gathered, and as the first rays struck the mountain summits, the warriors left, not waiting for the river to flow calmly and placidly or for the falling waters to subside. Acheloüs hid his wild features and his head, marred by its broken horn, in the depths of the waves.

Nevertheless he only had the loss of that adornment, which had been taken from him, to lament: he was otherwise unhurt. Also he hid his loss with a wreath of willow leaves or reeds. But you, fierce Nessus, the centaur, a passion for that same virgin girl destroyed you, hit in the back by a flying arrow.

Hercules, son of Jupiter, on his way to his native city with Deianira, his new bride, came to the swift waters of the River Euenus. The flood was higher than normal, increased by winter rains, with frequent whirlpools, and impassable. He had no fear of going on himself, but was anxious for his bride, when Nessus approached, strong of limb, and knowing the fords. "With my help, Alcides," he said, "she will be set down on the far bank. Use your strength to swim!" The Theban handed over the Calydonian girl, she, pale with fear, frightened of the river and of the centaur himself.

Straight away, weighed down as he was by his quiver and his lion's skin - he had thrown his club and his curved bow across to the other bank - the hero said: "Let me endure the river since I have started to cross." He did not hesitate, and did not search for where the river was calmest, scorning to claim the water's allegiance. He had gained the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown, when he heard his wife's voice, and shouted to Nessus, who was preparing to betray his trust: "Where are you carrying her off to, you rapist, trusting in vain to your swiftness of foot? I am speaking to you, Nessus, the twice-formed. Listen: do not steal what is mine. If you have no respect for me, the thought of your father, Ixion, on his whirling wheel might prevent this illicit union. However much you trust in your horse-craft, you will not escape. With wounds, not feet, I will follow you." He made good his last words with his actions, shooting the arrow he fired, across, at the fleeing back. The barbed tip jutted from the centaur's chest. When the shaft was pulled out, blood, mixed with the deadly arrow-poison of the Lernean Hydra, gushed out simultaneously from the entry and exit wounds. Nessus trapped this, and murmured, to himself of course: "I will not die without revenge" and gave his tunic soaked with warm blood to Deianira, whom he had abducted, presenting it to her as if it were a gift for reviving a waning love.

A long space of intervening time passed by, and the tales of mighty Hercules had filled the world, and overcome his stepmother's hatred. As the victor at Oechalia, in Euboea (where he had avenged an insult offered him by King Eurytus) he was preparing to sacrifice to Jupiter at Cenaeum, when loquacious Rumour, who loves to add lies to fact, and expands from the tiniest truth by her falsehoods, brought her tale on ahead, to your ears, Deianira. She claimed that Hercules, reputed son of Amphitryon, was filled with passion for Iole, daughter of Eurytus. The loving wife believes it, and terrified at first by the rumour of this new affair, she indulges in tears, and the poor girl vents her misery in weeping. But she soon says "Why do I weep? That adulteress will laugh at my tears. Since she is coming here, I must plan quickly, while I can, while another has not yet taken my place. Should I complain, or keep silent? Return to Calydon or stay? Should I leave my house? Or, if I can do nothing else, should I at least stand in their way? What if, remembering I am your sister, Meleager, I prepare, boldly, to commit a crime, and, by cutting that adulteress's throat, show what revenge and a woman's grief can do?"

Her thought traced various courses. Of all of them she preferred that of sending the shirt, imbued with Nessus's blood, to restore her husband's waning love. Unwittingly, she entrusted what became her future grief, to the servant, Lichas, he not knowing what he had been entrusted with: and the unfortunate woman, ordered him, with persuasive words, to give the present to her husband. Hercules, the hero, took it, without a thought, and put on the shirt of Nessus, soaked in the poison of the Lernean Hydra.

The agony of Hercules

He was making offerings of incense and reciting prayers over the first flames, and pouring a libation bowl of wine on to the marble altar. The power of the venom, warmed and released by the flames, dissolved, dispersing widely through the limbs of Hercules. With his usual courage, he repressed his groans while he could. When his strength to endure the venom was exhausted, he overturned the altar, and filled woody Oeta with his shouts.

He tries at once to tear off the fatal clothing: where it is pulled away, it pulls skin away with it, and, revolting to tell, it either sticks to the limbs from which he tries in vain to remove it, or reveals the lacerated limbs and his massive bones. His blood itself hisses and boils, with the virulence of the poison, like incandescent metal, dipped in a cold pool. There is no end to it: the consuming fires suck at the air in his chest: dark sweat pours from his whole body: his scorched sinews crackle. His marrow liquefying with the secret corruption, he raises his hands to the heavens, crying: "Juno, Saturnia, feed on my ruin: feed, cruel one: gaze, from the heights, at this destruction, and sate your savage heart! Or if this suffering seems pitiable even to an enemy, even to you, take away this sorrowful and hateful life, with its fearful torments, that was only made for toil. Death would be a gift to me, a fitting offering from a stepmother.

Was it for this I overcame Busiris who defiled the temples with the blood of sacrificed strangers? For this that I lifted fierce Antaeus, robbing him of the strength of his mother Earth? For this, that I was unmoved, by Geryon's triple form, the herdsman of Spain, or your triple form, Cerberus? For this, you hands of mine, that you dragged down the horns of the strong Cretan bull: that the stables of King Augeas of Elis know of your efforts: the Stymphalian Lake: and the woods of Mount Parthenius, with its golden-antlered stag? For this, that, by your virtue, the gold engraved girdle of Hippolyte of Thermodon was taken, and the apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the sleepless dragon? Was it for this, that the Centaurs could not withstand me, nor the Erymanthian Boar that laid Arcady waste? For this, that it did not help the Hydra to thrive on destruction and gain redoubled strength? What of the time when I saw Thracian Diomede's horses, fed on human blood, their stalls filled with broken bodies, and, seeing them, overthrew them, and finished off them, and their master? The Nemean Lion lies crushed by these massive arms: and for Atlas these shoulders of mine held up the sky. Jupiter's cruel consort is tired of giving commands: I am not tired of performing them.

But now a strange disease affects me that I cannot withstand by courage, weapons or strength. Deep in my lungs a devouring fire wanders, feeding on my whole body. But Eurystheus, my enemy is well! Are there those then who can believe that the gods exist?" So saying he roamed, in his illness, over the heights of Oeta, as a bull carries around a hunting spear embedded in its body, though the hunter who threw it has long gone. Picture him there, in the mountains, in his anger, often groaning, often shouting out, often attempting, again and again, to rid himself of the last of the garment, overturning trees, or stretching his arms out to his native skies.

The death and transformation of Hercules

Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury. "Was it not you, Lichas," he said, "who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?" The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking, and trying to clasp the hero's knees, Alcides seized him, and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow; whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass; and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright, and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths, and keeps the semblance of a human shape. This sailors are afraid to set foot on, as though it could sense them, and they call it, Lichas.

But you, famous son of Jove, felled the trees that grew on steep Oeta, and made a funeral pyre, and commanded Philoctetes, son of Poeas, who supplied the flame that was plunged into it, to take your bow, your ample quiver, and the arrows, that were fated to see, once more, the kingdom of Troy (as they did when you rescued Hesione.) As the mass caught light from the eager fire, you spread the Nemean Lion's pelt on the summit of the pile of logs, and lay down, your neck resting on your club, and with an aspect no different from that of a guest, reclining amongst the full wine cups, crowned with garlands.

Now the fierce flames, spreading on every side, were crackling loudly, and licking at his body, he unconcerned and scornful of them. The gods were fearful for earth's champion. Saturnian Jupiter spoke to them, gladly, since he understood their feelings. "O divine beings, your fear for him delights me, and I willingly congratulate myself, with all my heart, that I am called father and ruler of a thoughtful race, and that my offspring is protected by your favour also. Though this tribute is paid to his great deeds, I am obliged to you, also. But do not allow your loyal hearts to feel groundless fears. Forget Oeta's flames! He, who has defeated all things, will defeat the fires you see, nor will he feel Vulcan's power, except in the mortal part that he owes to his mother, Alcmene. What he has from me is immortal, deathless and eternal: and that, no flame can destroy. When it is done with the earth, I will accept it into the celestial regions, and I trust my action will please all the gods. But if there is anyone, anyone at all, who is unhappy at Hercules's deification, and would not wish to grant this gift, he or she should know that it was given for merit, and should approve it, though unwillingly." The gods agreed. Juno, also, appeared to accept the rest of his words with compliance, but not the last ones, upset that she was being censored.

Meanwhile, Mulciber had consumed whatever the flames could destroy, and no recognisable form of Hercules remained, no semblance of what came to him from his mother: he only retained his inheritance from Jove. As a snake enjoys its newness, sloughing old age with its skin, gleaming with fresh scales; so, when the Tirynthian hero had shed his mortal body, he became his better part, beginning to appear greater, and more to be revered, in his high majesty. The all-powerful father of the gods carrying him upwards, in his four-horse chariot, through the substanceless clouds, set him among the shining stars.

Alcmena tells of Hercules's birth and of Galanthis

Atlas felt the weight of the new constellation. But even now the anger of Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus, was not appeased, and he pursued his unyielding hatred of the father through the children. Argive Alcmena, troubled by endless cares, had Iole, as one to whom she could confide an old woman's miseries, to whom she could relate her son's labours, known to all the world, and her own misfortunes. At Hercules request, Hyllus, his son by Deianira, had taken Iole to his marriage-bed, and his heart, and had planted a child of that noble race in her womb. Alcmena said to her: "Let the gods at least favour you, and shorten that time when, in childbirth, you call on Ilithyia, that Lucina who watches over frightened women, who, thanks to Juno's influence, made things hard for me.

When the time for Hercules's difficult birth came, and Capricorn, the tenth sign, was hidden by the sun, the weight of the child stretched my womb: what I carried was so great, you could tell that Jove was the father of my hidden burden. I could not bear my labour pains much longer. Even now, as I speak, a cold horror grips my body, and part of me remembers it with pain. Tortured for seven nights and as many days, worn out with agony, stretching my arms to heaven, with a great cry, I called out to Lucina, and her companion gods of birth, the Nixi. Indeed, she came, but committed in advance, determined to surrender my life to unjust Juno. She sat on the altar, in front of the door, and listened to my groans. With her right knee crossed over her left, and clasped with interlocking fingers, she held back the birth, She murmured spells, too, in a low voice, and the spells halted the birth once it began. I laboured, and, maddened, made useless outcries against ungrateful Jove. I wanted to die, and my moans would have moved the flinty rocks. The Theban women who were there, took up my prayers, and gave me encouragement in my pain.

Tawny-haired, Galanthis, one of my servant-girls, was there, humbly born but faithful in carrying out orders, loved by me for the services she rendered. She sensed that unjust Juno was up to something, and, as she was often in and out of the house, she saw the goddess, Lucina, squatting on the altar, arms linked by her fingers, clasping her knees, and said "Whoever you are, congratulate the mistress. Alcmena of Argolis is eased, and the prayers to aid childbirth have been answered."

The goddess with power over the womb leapt up in consternation, releasing her clasped hands: by releasing the bonds, herself, easing the birth. They say Galanthis laughed at the duped goddess. As she laughed, the heaven-born one, in her anger, caught her by the hair, and dragged her down, and as she tried to lift her body from the ground, she arched her over, and changed her arms into forelegs. Her old energy remained, and the hair on her back did not lose her hair's previous colour: but her former shape was changed to that of a weasel. And because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she gives birth through her mouth, and frequents my house, as before."

Iole tells the story of her half-sister Dryope

She finished speaking, and sighed, her feelings stirred by the memory of her former servant. While she grieved, her daughter-in-law, Iole, said: "Mother, this is still the altered form of someone not of our blood that affects you. What if I were to relate to you my sister's strange fate? Though sadness and tears hold me back, and hinder me from talking. Dryope was her mother's only child - I was my father's by another wife - and she was known as the most beautiful girl in Oechalia. Suffering the assault of Apollo, that god who holds Delphi and Delos; her virginity lost; Andraemon married her; and was considered fortunate to have her as his wife.

There is a lake, whose sloping shoreline is formed by steep banks, their summits crowned with myrtle. Dryope went there, unaware of any restrictions, and, to make what happened more unacceptable, bringing garlands for the nymphs. At her breast she carried a sweet burden, her son, not yet a year old, whom she was suckling with her warm milk. Not far away, a water-loving lotus tree flowered from the swamp, with the promise of fruits to come, its colours imitating Tyrian purples. Dryope picked some of these blossoms, to offer the child as playthings, and I was looking to do the same - I was with her - when I saw drops of blood fall from the flowers, and the branches move with a shiver of fear. It appears, as the locals now tell us, at last, but too late, that Lotis, a nymph, running from obscene Priapus, turned into the tree, altering her features, keeping her name.

My sister had known nothing of this. When she wished to retreat, in fear, from the place, and escape by praying to the nymphs, her feet clung like roots. She struggled to tear them away, but nothing moved except her torso. Slowly, thick bark grew upward from her feet, hiding all her groin. When she saw this, and tried to tear at her hair, with her hands, her hands filled with leaves: leaves covered her whole head. But the child, Amphissos (so his grandfather, Eurytus, King of Oechalia, had named him) felt his mother's breast harden, and the milky liquid failed when he sucked. I was there, a spectator of your cruel destiny, sister, and could bring you no help at all. Only, as far as I could, I held back the developing trunk and branches with my embrace, and I bear witness that I longed to be sheathed in that same bark.

Then her husband, Andraemon, and her luckless father, Eurytus, came, asking for Dryope: the Dryope they searched for I revealed as the lotus. They kissed the living wood, and prostrate on the ground clung to the roots of their tree. You, my dear sister, displayed nothing but your face that was not already tree. Your tears rained on the leaves of your poor body, and while your mouth left a path for your voice, while you still could, you poured out your lament like this into the air: "If there is truth in suffering, I swear by the gods I do not deserve this wrong. I am being punished without guilt. I lived in innocence. If I lie, let me lose the leaves I have through drought, be levelled with the axe, and burned. Take this child from these maternal branches, and find him a nurse, and have him often drink his milk under this tree of mine, and play under this tree. And when he learns to talk, have him greet his mother and say, sadly, "My mother is revealed in this tree." Let him still fear lakes, and pick no flowers from the trees, and think all shrubs are the body of the goddess.

Dear husband, farewell, and you, sister; father! If you love me, defend me from the sharp knife, and my leaves from the browsing herd. And since I am not allowed to bend to you, reach up with your arms, and find my lips, while I can still feel, and lift my little son up to me! I can speak no more. Now the soft sapwood spreads slowly over my white neck: I am imprisoned in its highest reaches. Take your hands from my eyes. Without trying to help me, allow the enveloping bark to mask the fading light!" At the moment her mouth ceased speaking, at that moment it ceased to be. For a long time, the freshly created branches glowed with warmth, from her altered body."

The prophecies of Themis

While Eurytus's daughter was relating this marvellous happening, and Alcmena was wiping away Iole's tears (still weeping herself) a wonderful thing suspended all sadness. There, on the steep threshold, stood Iolaüs, Hercules's nephew and companion, alive again, with the look of his early years, a hint of down on his cheeks, almost, again, a child. Overwhelmed by the prayers of her husband, Hercules, Juno's daughter, Hebe, had granted him this gift. When she was about to swear that, after this, she would never allow any further such favour, Themis would not allow it.

She prophesied. "Thebes is now moving towards civil war, and, of the Seven against her, Capaneus will not be overcome, except by Jupiter himself. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, will die of mutually inflicted wounds. Amphiaraüs, the seer, swallowed by the earth, still living, will gaze on the ghosts of his own dead. His son, Alcmaeon, shall avenge him, with his mother Eriphyle's death, filial and sinful in the same act. Terrified at his own evil, exiled from home and sanity, he will be pursued by the faces of the Eumenides, and by his mother's shade, till his wife, Callirhoë demands the fatal necklace, that Venus gave Harmonia, and till the sword, of his first father-in-law, Phegeus, in the hands of Phegeus's sons, shall drain his son-in-law's blood. Then at last, Callirhoë, the daughter of Acheloüs, as a suppliant, will ask of mighty Jupiter, to add years to her infant sons, and not allow the avenger's murder to be unavenged. In anticipation of being moved by her prayers, Jupiter claims for them this gift that you, his stepdaughter and daughter-in-law, possess, and will make them men, in their childhood years."

Jupiter acknowledges the power of Fate

When Themis spoke these words, out of her prophetic mouth, prescient of what was to come, the gods complained in various mutterings, and there was a murmur as to why they were not able to grant the same gift to other mortals. Aurora, daughter of the Titan Pallas, lamented the old age of her husband, Tithonus. Gentle Ceres lamented the greying hair of her former lover Iasion. Mulciber demanded another lifetime for his son, Erichthonius: and Venus, also, touched by fears for the future, wanted to bargain for the renewal of her lover Anchises's years. Each god had someone whose cause they supported: and the troublesome mutiny, over their favourites, grew, till Jupiter opened his mouth and said: "O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs's past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë's children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth's flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before."

Byblis falls in love with her twin brother Caunus

Jupiter's words swayed the gods: and no one could sustain their objection when they saw Rhadamanthos, Aeacus and Minos wearied with the years. When he was in his prime, Minos had made great nations tremble at his very name: now he was weak, and feared Miletus, who was proud of his strength and parentage, the son of Phoebus Apollo and the nymph Deione. Though Minos believed Miletus might plot an insurrection, he still did not dare to deny him his home. On your own initiative, Miletus, you left, cutting the waters of the Aegean in your swift ship, and built a city on the soil of Asia, that still carries its founder's name.

There you knew Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was following her father's winding shores. Twin children were born to her, of outstanding beauty of body, Byblis and her brother Caunus.

Byblis, seized by a passion, for her brother, scion of Apollo; that Byblis serves for a warning to girls, against illicit love. She loved, not as a sister loves a brother, nor as she should. At first, it is true, she did not understand the fires of passion, or think it wrong, to kiss, together, often, or throw her arms round her brother's neck. For a long time she was deceived by the misleading likeness to sisterly affection. Gradually the nature of her love went astray, and she came looking for her brother carefully dressed, and over-anxious to look beautiful. If anyone seemed more beautiful to him, she was jealous. But her own feelings were not clear to her, and though she had no inner longing for passion, nevertheless it burned. And now she called him her lord, now she hated the name that made them related, now she wrongly wished him to call her Byblis, rather than sister. While she is awake she still dare not allow her mind its illicit hope, but, deep in peaceful dreams, she often sees what she loves, and is also seen, held in her brother's arms, and she blushes, though lost in sleep.

When sleep has vanished, she lies there for a long time, recalling, to herself, the imagery of her dream, and at last utters these inner doubts: "Alas for me! What does it mean, this vision out of the night's silence? How I would hate it to be true! Why do I see these things in sleep? He is truly handsome, even to unfriendly eyes, and is pleasing, and if he were not my brother I could love him, and he would be worthy of me. Being his sister is the reality that harms me. Let sleep often return with similar visions, as long as I am not tempted to do any such thing while awake! A dream lacks witnesses, but does not lack pleasure's counterpart. By winged Cupid, and Venus, his tender mother, how great the joy I had! How clearly passion touched me! How my whole heart melted where I lay! What joy in remembrance! Though its pleasure was short-lived, and night rushed onwards, envious of my imaginings.

O if I could have been joined to you, with another's name, Caunus, how good a daughter-in-law I could have been to your father! O Caunus, how good a son-in-law you could have been to my father! We would have had everything shared between us, except our grandparents: I would have wanted you to be nobler than me! You, most beautiful one, will make someone else the mother of your children, but to me, whom evil luck has given the same parents, you will be nothing but a brother. What separates us: that we will share as one. What does my vision signify to me? What weight indeed do dreams have? Or perhaps - the gods forbid - dreams do have weight? Certainly, the gods have possessed their sisters. So, Saturn led Ops, his blood-kin, to join with him, and Oceanus, Tethys, and the ruler of Olympus, Juno. The gods have their own laws! Why try to relate human affairs to other, divine, behaviour? Either my forbidden passion will be driven from my heart, or if I cannot achieve that, I pray to be loved, before I am laid out on my deathbed, and my brother kisses me there. Yet that needs both our wills! Suppose it pleases me: it may seem a sin to him.

Still, the sons of Aeolus, god of the winds, were not afraid to marry their sisters! Where did I learn that? Why do I have such ready examples? Where is this leading? Vanish, far off, illicit flames, and let my brother not be loved, except as a sister may love him! Yet, if he himself were first captured by love of me, I might perhaps be able to indulge this madness. Then let me woo him, whom I would not reject, if he were wooing! - Can you say it? Can you acknowledge it? - Love compels me: I can! Or if shame closes my lips, a secret letter will confess my hidden passions."

The fatal letter

This idea pleases her, and this decision overcomes the doubt in her mind. Turning on one side and leaning on her left elbow, she says to herself: "Let him know: let me acknowledge my insane desires! Alas, where am I heading? What fire has my heart conceived?" And, with a trembling hand, she begins to set down the words she has contemplated. She holds the pen in her right hand, and a blank wax tablet in her left. She begins, then hesitates; writes and condemns the writing; scribbles and smoothes it out; alters, blames and approves; in turn lays down what she has lifted, and lifts what she has laid down. She does not know what to do, displeased with whatever she is about to do. In her expression, shame is mixed with boldness.

She had written "sister', but decided to efface the name of sister, and inscribed these words on the corrected tablet: "That wish, for long life, that she will not have, unless you grant it, one who loves you, sends to you. She is ashamed, oh, ashamed to tell her name. And if you ask what I desire, I would have wished to plead my cause, namelessly, and not to have been identified, till the expectation of what I desired was certain, as Byblis.

True, you might have seen signs of my wounded heart in my pallor, thinness, features, eyes full of tears, sighs with no apparent cause, frequent embraces, kisses, which, if you had chanced to notice, might not have felt like a sister's. Yet, though my soul was deeply stricken, though the mad fire is in me, I have done everything I can (the gods are my witnesses) to become calmer. For a long time I have struggled, unhappily, to escape Cupid's onslaught, and I have suffered more hardship than you would think a girl could suffer. I am compelled to confess, I have lost, and to beg your help, with humble prayers. You alone can save your lover, you alone destroy her. Choose what you will. It is not your enemy who prays to you, but one who, though closest to you, seeks to be closer still, and bound to you with a tighter bond.

Let old people know what is right, and what is allowed, and what is virtue and what is sin, and preserve the fine balance of the law. At our age Love is what is fitting, that takes no heed. We do not know yet what is permitted, and we consider all things permitted, and follow the example of the great gods. We have no harsh father, no regard for reputation, and no fear to impede us. Even if there were cause for fear, we can hide sweet theft under the names of brother and sister. I am free to speak to you in private, and we can embrace and kiss in front of others. How important is what is still lacking? Pity the one who confesses her love, and would not confess if extreme desire did not force her, and do not you be the reason for the writing on my tomb."

Her handwriting filled the wax, with these fruitless words, the last line close to the edge. Immediately she put her seal on the sinful message, dampening it with her tears (moisture failed her tongue), stamping it with her signet ring. Shamefacedly, she called one of her servants, and shyly and coaxingly said: "You are most faithful. Take these to my..........brother" she added after a long silence. As she let them go, the tablets slipped and fell from her hand. She still sent the letter, troubled by the omen. Finding a suitable time, the messenger went, and delivered the hidden words. Horrified, Maeander's grandson, suddenly enraged, hurled away the tablets, he had accepted, and partly read, and, scarcely able to keep his hands from the trembling servant's throat, cried: "Run while you can, you rascally aide to forbidden lust! I would deal you death, as a punishment, if your fate would not also drag our honour down with it." The servant fled in fear, and reported Caunus's fierce words, to Byblis.

She grew pale, hearing that she had been rejected, and her body shook, gripped by an icy chill. But, when consciousness returned, so did the passion, and, she let out these words, her lips scarcely moving: "I deserve it! Well, why did I rashly reveal my wound? Why was I in such a hurry to commit things, which were secret, to a hasty letter? I should have tested his mind's judgment before by ambiguous words. I should have observed how the winds blew; used other lesser sails, in case those breezes were not to be followed; and crossed the sea in safety, not as now, under full canvas, caught by uncertain gusts. So I am carried onto the rocks, swamped, overwhelmed by the whole ocean, and my sails have no means of retreat."

The transformation of Byblis

"Why, as far as that is concerned, everything, unerringly, warned me not to give way to my desire, at the moment when the tablets fell, as I was giving orders for them to be taken to him, meaning that my hopes would also fall away. Should not, perhaps, the day, or my whole intention, more so the day, have been altered? The god himself issued a warning, and gave a clear sign, if I had not been crazed with love. Also I should have told him myself, and revealed my passion to him in person, and not committed myself in writing. He would have seen the tears, and seen a lover's face. I could have said more than any letter can contain. I could have thrown my arms around his unwilling neck, and if I had been rejected, I could have seemed on the point of dying, embraced his feet, and lying there begged for life. I should have done all those things that, if not singly, all together, might have persuaded his stubborn mind. Maybe the messenger who was sent was at fault: did not approach him properly, I think, or choose a suitable moment, or discover when he and the time were free.

It has all harmed me. Truly, my brother is not born of the tigress. He does not have a heart of unyielding flint, solid iron, or steel. He was not suckled on the milk of a lioness. He will be won! I will try again, and not suffer any weariness in my attempts, while breath is left to me. Since I cannot undo my actions, it would have been best not to begin: but, having begun, the next best is to win through. In fact if I relinquished my longing, he could still not fail to remember what I have dared, and by desisting I will be seen to have been shallow in my desires, or to have been trying to tempt and snare him. He will even believe, I am sure, that I have not been conquered by the god, who, above all, impels and inflames our hearts, but by lust. In short, I cannot but be guilty of impiety, of writing, of wooing: my wishes are revealed. Though I add nothing to them, I cannot be said to be innocent. There is little left to be accused of, but much to long for."

So she argues, and (so great is the undecided conflict in her mind) while she repented of the attempt, she delights in attempting. Going beyond all moderation, and unsuccessful in what she tries, she is endlessly rejected. Finally, when there seems no end to it, he flees from this wickedness and from his home, and founds a new city in a foreign place: Caunus, in Caria.

Then, indeed, grief made Miletus's daughter lose her mind completely. Then, indeed, she tore the clothes from her breast, and beat her arms in frenzy. Her madness was now public, and she confessed her hope of illicit union, by leaving the country she hated, and her household gods, and following the footsteps of her fleeing brother. The women of Bubasos saw Byblis, howling in the open fields, as your Thracians, son of Semele, pricked by your thyrsus, keep your triennial festival.

Leaving them behind she wandered through Caria, through the lands of the armed Leleges, and on through Lycia. Now she was beyond Lycian Cragus, and Limyre, and the waters of the Xanthian plain, and the ridge of Mount Chimaera near Phaleris, where the fire-breathing monster lived, joining a lion's head and chest to a serpent's tail. Above the woods, when, wearied, you were weak from following, you fell, Byblis, your hair spread on the hard earth, and your face pressing the fallen leaves.

The Lelegeian nymphs often try to lift her in their tender arms, and often they teach her how she might remedy her love, and they offer comfort to her silent heart. She lies there, mute, clutching at the green stems with her fingers, and watering the grass with her flowing tears. They say the naiads created a spring from them, beneath her, which could never run dry. Well, what more could they offer her? There and then, Byblis, Phoebus's granddaughter, consumed by her own tears, is changed into a fountain: just as drops of resin ooze from a cut pine, or sticky bitumen from heavy soil, or as water, that has been frozen by the cold, melts in the sun, at the coming of the west wind's gentle breath: and even now in those valleys it retains its mistress's name, and flows from underneath a dark holm oak.

The birth of Iphis

Perhaps, the story of this new marvel would have filled Crete's hundred cities, if Crete had not recently known a miracle nearer home, in the metamorphosis of Iphis. In the Phaestos region, near royal Cnossos, there once lived a man named Ligdus, undistinguished, a native of the place, his wealth no greater than his fame, but living a blameless and honourable life. When his pregnant wife, Telethusa, was near to her time, he spoke these words of warning in her ear: "There are two things I wish for: that you are delivered with the least pain, and that you produce a male child. A girl is a heavier burden, and misfortune denies them strength. So, though I hate this, if, by chance, you give birth to a female infant, reluctantly, I order - let my impiety be forgiven! - that it be put to death." He spoke, and tears flooded their cheeks, he who commanded, and she to whom the command was given. Nevertheless, Telethusa, urged her husband, with vain prayers, not to confine hope itself. Ligdus remained fixed in his determination.

Now, her pregnant belly could scarcely bear to carry her fully-grown burden, when Io, the daughter of Inachus, at midnight, in sleep's imagining, stood, or seemed to stand, by her bed: Isis, accompanied by her holy procession. The moon's crescent horns were on her forehead, and the shining gold of yellow ears of corn, and royal splendour belonged to her. With her were the jackal-headed Anubis, the hallowed cat-headed Bast, the dappled bull Apis, and Harpocrates, the god who holds his tongue, and urges silence, thumb in mouth. The sacred rattle, the sistrum, was there; and Osiris, for whom her search never ends; and the strange serpent she fashioned, swollen with sleep-inducing venom, that poisoned the sun-god Ra. Then, as if Telethusa had shaken off sleep, and was seeing clearly, the goddess spoke to her, saying: "O, you who belong to me, forget your heavy cares, and do not obey your husband. When Lucina has eased the birth, whatever sex the child has, do not hesitate to raise it. I am the goddess, who, when prevailed upon, brings help and strength: you will have no cause to complain, that the divinity, you worshipped, lacks gratitude." Having given her command, she left the room. Joyfully, the Cretan woman rose, and, lifting her innocent hands to the stars, she prayed, in all humility, that her dream might prove true.

When the pains grew, and her burden pushed its own way into the world, and a girl was born, the mother ordered it to be reared, deceitfully, as a boy, without the father realising. She had all that she needed, and no one but the nurse knew of the fraud. The father made good his vows, and gave it the name of the grandfather: he was Iphis. The mother was delighted with the name, since it was appropriate for either gender, and no one was cheated by it. From that moment, the deception, begun with a sacred lie, went undetected. The child was dressed as a boy, and its features would have been beautiful whether they were given to a girl or a boy.

Iphis and Ianthe

Thirteen years passed by, meanwhile, and then, Iphis, your father betrothed you to golden-haired Ianthe, whose dowry was her beauty, the girl most praised amongst the women of Phaestos, the daughter of Telestes of Dicte. The two were equal in age, and equal in looks, and had received their first instruction, in the knowledge of life, from the same teachers. From this beginning, love had touched both their innocent hearts, and wounded them equally, but with unequal expectations. Ianthe anticipated her wedding day, and the promised marriage, believing he, whom she thought to be a man, would be her man. Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.

Hardly restraining her tears, she said "What way out is there left, for me, possessed by the pain of a strange and monstrous love, that no one ever knew before? If the gods wanted to spare me they should have spared me, but if they wanted to destroy me, they might at least have visited on me a natural, and normal, misfortune. Mares do not burn with love for mares, or heifers for heifers: the ram inflames the ewe: its hind follows the stag. So, birds mate, and among all animals, not one female is attacked by lust for a female. I wish I were not one! Yet that Crete might not fail to bear every monstrosity, Pasiphaë, Sol's daughter, loved a bull, though still that was a female and a male. My love, truth be told, is more extreme than that. She at least chased after the hope of fulfilment, though the bull had her because of her deceit, and in the likeness of a cow, and the one who was deceived was a male adulterer. Though all of the world's cleverness were concentrated here, though Daedalus were to return on waxen wings, what use would it be? Surely even his cunning arts could not make a boy out of a girl? Surely even he could not transform you, Ianthe?

Rather be firm-minded, Iphis, and pull yourself together, and, with wisdom, shake off this foolish, useless passion. Look at what you have been, from birth, if you don't want to cheat yourself, and seek out what is right for you, and love as a woman should! It is hope that creates love, and hope that nourishes it. Everything robs you of that. No guardian keeps you from her dear arms, no wary husband's care, no cruel father, nor does she deny your wooing herself. Yet you can never have her, or be happy, whatever is accomplished, whatever men or gods attempt.

Even now, no part of my prayers has been denied. The gods have readily given whatever they were able, and my father, her father, and she herself, want what I want to happen. But Nature does not want it, the only one who harms me, more powerful than them all. See, the longed-for time has come, the wedding torch is at hand, and Ianthe will become mine - yet not be had by me. I will thirst in the midst of the waters. Juno, goddess of brides, and Hymen, why do you come to these marriage rites, where the bridegroom is absent, and both are brides?"

Isis transforms Iphis

With these words, she stopped speaking. The other girl was no less on fire, and prayed, Hymen, that you would come quickly. Telethusa, afraid of what she sought, merely put off the day: now lengthening the delay through pretended illness, now, frequently, using omens and dreams as an excuse. But eventually every pretext was exhausted, the date for the delayed marriage ceremony was set, and only a day remained. Then Telethusa took the sacred ribbons from her own and her daughter Iphis's head, so that their hair streamed down, and clinging to the altar, cried: "Isis, you who protect Paraetonium, Pharos, the Mareotic fields, and Nile, divided in its seven streams, I pray you, bring help, and relieve our fears! Goddess, I saw you once, you, and those symbols of you, and I knew them all, accompanied by the jingling bronze of the sistrum, and imprinted your commands on my remembering mind. That my daughter looks on the light, that I have not been punished, behold, it was your purpose, and your gift. Gladden us with your aid. Have pity on us both!"

Tears followed words. The goddess seemed to make the altar tremble (it did tremble), and the doors of the temple shook, her horns, shaped like the moon's crescents, shone, and the sistrum rattled loudly. Not yet reassured, but gladdened by the auspicious omen, the mother left the temple. Iphis, her companion, followed, taking larger paces than before; with no whiteness left in her complexion; with additional strength, and sharper features, and shorter, less elegant hair; showing more vigour than women have. Take your gifts to the temple, Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!

They take their gifts to the temple, and add a votive tablet: the tablet has this brief line:

IPHIS PERFORMS AS A BOY, WHAT HE PROMISED, AS A GIRL.

The next day's sun reveals the wide world in its rays, when Venus, and Juno, joined with Hymen, come, to the marriage torches, and Iphis, the boy, gains possession of his Ianthe.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Hymen, called by the voice of Orpheus, departed, and, dressed in his saffron robes, made his way through the vast skies to the Ciconian coast: but in vain. He was present at Orpheus's marriage, true, but he did not speak the usual words, display a joyful expression, or bring good luck. The torch, too, that he held, sputtered continually, with tear-provoking fumes, and no amount of shaking contrived to light it properly. The result was worse than any omens. While the newly wedded bride, Eurydice, was walking through the grass, with a crowd of naiads as her companions, she was killed, by a bite on her ankle, from a snake, sheltering there. When Thracian Orpheus, the poet of Rhodope, had mourned for her, greatly, in the upper world, he dared to go down to Styx, through the gate of Taenarus, also, to see if he might not move the dead.

Through the weightless throng, and the ghosts that had received proper burial, he came to Persephone, and the lord of the shadows, he who rules the joyless kingdom. Then striking the lyre-strings to accompany his words, he sang: "O gods of this world, placed below the earth, to which, all, who are created mortal, descend; if you allow me, and it is lawful, to set aside the fictions of idle tongues, and speak the truth, I have not come here to see dark Tartarus, nor to bind Cerberus, Medusa's child, with his three necks, and snaky hair. My wife is the cause of my journey. A viper, she trod on, diffused its venom into her body, and robbed her of her best years. I longed to be able to accept it, and I do not say I have not tried: Love won.

He is a god well known in the world above, though I do not know if that is so here: though I imagine him to be here, as well, and if the story of that rape in ancient times is not a lie, you also were wedded by Amor. I beg you, by these fearful places, by this immense abyss, and the silence of your vast realms, reverse Eurydice's swift death. All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later, we hasten home. Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race. Eurydice, too, will be yours to command, when she has lived out her fair span of years, to maturity. I ask this benefit as a gift; but, if the fates refuse my wife this kindness, I am determined not to return: you can delight in both our deaths."

The bloodless spirits wept as he spoke, accompanying his words with the music. Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water: Ixion's wheel was stilled: the vultures did not pluck at Tityus's liver: the Belides, the daughters of Danaüs, left their water jars: and you, Sisyphus, perched there, on your rock. Then they say, for the first time, the faces of the Furies were wet with tears, won over by his song: the king of the deep, and his royal bride, could not bear to refuse his prayer, and called for Eurydice.

She was among the recent ghosts, and walked haltingly from her wound. The poet of Rhodope received her, and, at the same time, accepted this condition, that he must not turn his eyes behind him, till he emerged from the vale of Avernus, or the gift would be null and void.

They took the upward path, through the still silence, steep and dark, shadowy with dense fog, drawing near to the threshold of the upper world. Afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her, the lover turned his eyes. In an instant she dropped back, and he, unhappy man, stretching out his arms to hold her and be held, clutched at nothing but the receding air. Dying a second time, now, there was no complaint to her husband (what, then, could she complain of, except that she had been loved?). She spoke a last "farewell" that, now, scarcely reached his ears, and turned again towards that same place.

Stunned by the double loss of his wife, Orpheus was like that coward who saw Cerberus, the three-headed dog, chained by the central neck, and whose fear vanished with his nature, as stone transformed his body. Or like Olenos, and you, his Lethaea, too proud of your beauty: he wished to be charged with your crime, and seem guilty himself: once wedded hearts, you are now rocks set on moist Mount Ida.

Orpheus wished and prayed, in vain, to cross the Styx again, but the ferryman fended him off. Still, for seven days, he sat there by the shore, neglecting himself and not taking nourishment. Sorrow, troubled thought, and tears were his food. He took himself to lofty Mount Rhodope, and Haemus, swept by the winds, complaining that the gods of Erebus were cruel.

Three times the sun had ended the year, in watery Pisces, and Orpheus had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him, or because he had sworn to do so. Yet, many felt a desire to be joined with the poet, and many grieved at rejection. Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering, this side of manhood.

The gathering of the trees

There was a hill, and, on the hill, a wide area of level ground, turfed with fresh blades of grass: shade was absent there: but when the poet, born of the god, sounded the strings of his lyre, shade gathered there. Jupiter's Chaonian oak-tree came; and Phaethon's sisters, the Heliades, the poplars; the durmast oak with its deep foliage; the soft lime-tree; the beech; the virgin sweet-bay, laurel; the hazel, frail; the ash-tree, used for spears; the sweeping silver-fir: holm-oak, heavy with acorns; pleasant plane-tree; the many-coloured maple; with the river-haunting willow; lotus, water-lover; boxwood ever-verdant; the slender tamarisk; the myrtle, with, over and under its leaves, the two shades of green; and the blue-berried wild-bay, laurus tinus. You came, also, twining ivy, together with shooting vines; the vine-supporting elms; the flowering "manna" ash; the spruce; the strawberry tree, weighed down with its red fruit; the pliant palms, the winner's prize; and you, the shaggy-topped pine tree, armed with needles, sacred to Cybele, mother of the gods, since Attis exchanged his human form for you, and hardened in your trunk.

The death of Cyparissus

Among the crowd came the cypress, formed like the cone-shaped meta, that marks the turning point in the race-course: once a boy, but now a tree: loved by the god who tunes the lyre, and strings the bow.

There was a giant stag, sacred to the nymphs that haunt the Carthaean country, which cast deep shadows, around its head, from his wide-branching antlers. The antlers shone with gold, and the gems of a jewelled collar, around his polished neck, hung down onto his shoulders. A bulla, a silver charm, fastened with small strips of leather, quivered on his forehead, and on either side of his hollow temples matching pearls of bronze gleamed from both ears. Free from fear, and forgetting his natural shyness, he used to visit people's houses, and offer his neck to be stroked by strangers' hands. Yet, above all others, he was dear to you, Cyparissus, loveliest of the Cean boys. You led the stag to fresh pastures, and the waters of the clear spring. Now you would weave diverse flowers through his horns, and then, astride his back like a horseman, delight in tugging his soft mouth one way or the other by means of a purple muzzle.

It was noon of a summer's day, when the curving claws of shore-loving Cancer were burning in the hot sun. Tired, the stag had settled its body on the grassy turf and was enjoying the cool of the woodland shade. The boy, without intention, transfixed it with his sharp spear, and when he saw it dying from the cruel wound, he wished to die himself. What was there Phoebus did not say, in solace, advising a moderate grief matching the cause! He only sighed, and begged, as the last gift of the gods, that he might mourn forever. Then, his blood discharged among endless tears, his limbs began to turn to a shade of green, and his hair that a moment ago hung over his pale forehead, became a bristling crown, and he stiffened to a graceful point gazing at the starry heavens. The god sighed for him, and said, sadly: "I will mourn for you: you will mourn for others, and enter into sorrows'.

Orpheus sings: Ganymede; Hyacinthus

Such was the grove of trees the poet gathered round him, and he sat in the midst of a crowd, of animals and birds. When he had tried a few chords, stroking the lyre with his thumb, and felt that the various notes were in tune, regardless of their pitch, he raised his voice to sing: "Begin my song with Jupiter, Calliope, O Muse, my mother (all things bow to Jupiter's might)! I have often sung the power of Jove before: I have sung of the Giants, in an epic strain, and the victorious lightning bolts, hurled at the Phlegraean field. Now there is gentler work for the lyre, and I sing of boys loved by the gods, and girls stricken with forbidden fires, deserving punishment for their lust.

The king of the gods once burned with love for Phrygian Ganymede, and to win him Jupiter chose to be something other than he was. Yet he did not deign to transform himself into any other bird, than that eagle, that could carry his lightning bolts. Straightaway, he beat the air with deceitful wings, and stole the Trojan boy, who still handles the mixing cups, and against Juno's will pours out Jove's nectar.

You too, Hyacinthus, of Amyclae, Phoebus would have placed in heaven, if sad fate had given him time to do so. Still, as it is, you are immortal, and whenever spring drives winter away, and Aries follows watery Pisces, you also rise, and flower in the green turf. My father, Phoebus, loved you above all others: and Delphi, at the centre of the world, lost its presiding deity, while the god frequented Eurotas, and Sparta without its walls, doing no honour to the zither or the bow. Forgetting his usual pursuits, he did not object to carrying the nets, handling the dogs, or travelling as a companion, over the rough mountain ridges, and by constant partnership feeding the flames.

Now, the sun was midway between the vanished and the future night, equally far from either extreme: they stripped off their clothes, and gleaming with the rich olive oil, they had rubbed themselves with, they began a contest with the broad discus. Phoebus went first, balancing it, and hurling it high into the air, scattering the clouds with its weight. Its mass took a long time to fall back to the hard ground, showing strength and skill combined. Immediately the Taenarian boy, without thinking, ran forward to pick up the disc, prompted by his eagerness to throw, but the solid earth threw it back, hitting you in the face, with the rebound, Hyacinthus.

The god is as white as the boy, and cradles the fallen body. Now he tries to revive you, now to staunch your dreadful wound, and now applies herbs to hold back your departing spirit. His arts are useless: the wound is incurable. Just as if, when someone, in a garden, breaks violets, stiff poppies, or the lilies, with their bristling yellow stamens, and, suddenly, they droop, bowing their weakened heads, unable to support themselves, and their tops gaze at the soil: so his dying head drops, and, with failing strength, the neck is overburdened, and sinks onto the shoulder.

"You slip away, Spartan, robbed of the flower of youth" Phoebus sighed, "and I see my guilt, in your wound. You are my grief and my reproach: your death must be ascribed to my hand. I am the agent of your destruction. Yet, how was it my fault, unless taking part in a game can be called a fault, unless it can be called a fault to have loved you? If only I might die with you, and pay with my life! But since the laws of fate bind us, you shall always be with me, and cling to my remembering lips. My songs; the lyre my hand touches; will celebrate you. As a new-formed flower, you shall denote my woe, by your markings. And the time will come, when Ajax, bravest of heroes, will associate himself with this same flower, and be identified by its petals.

While the truthful mouth of Apollo uttered these words, look, the blood that had spilt on the ground staining the grass was no longer blood, and a flower sprang up, brighter than Tyrian dye, and took the shape of a lily, though it was purple in colour, where the other is silvery white. Not satisfied with this alone, Phoebus (he, indeed, was the giver of the honour) himself marked his grief on the petals, and the flower bore the letters AI AI, the letters of woe traced there. Nor was Sparta ashamed of producing Hyacinthus: his honour has lasted to this day, and by ancient custom the Hyacinthia is celebrated, at its annual return, by displaying the flower in procession."

Orpheus sings: The Propoetides

"But if you should ask the Cyprian city of Amathus, rich in mines, whether it would have wished to have produced those girls, the Propoetides, it would repudiate them, and equally those men, whose foreheads were once marred by two horns, from which they took their name, Cerastae. An altar, to Jove the Hospitable, used to stand in front of the gates: if any stranger, ignorant of their wickedness, had seen it, stained with blood, they would have thought that calves or sheep, from Amathus, were sacrificed there: it was their guests they killed! Kindly Venus was preparing to abandon her cities, and the Cyprian fields, outraged by their abominable rites, but "How," she said, "have my cities, or this dear place, sinned? What is their crime? Instead, let this impious race pay the penalty of death or exile, or some punishment between execution and banishment, and what might that be but the penalty of being transformed?" While she is deciding how to alter them, she turns her eyes towards their horns, and this suggests that she might leave them those, and she changed them into wild bullocks.

Nevertheless, the immoral Propoetides dared to deny that Venus was the goddess. For this, because of her divine anger, they are said to have been the first to prostitute their bodies and their reputations in public, and, losing all sense of shame, they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints."

TO TOP


Book 10

Orpheus sings: Pygmalion and the statue

"Pygmalion had seen them, spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed. But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation. The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art. He marvels: and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart. Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. he kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure. Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades's amber tears, that drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel.

The day of Venus's festival came, celebrated throughout Cyprus, and heifers, their curved horns gilded, fell, to the blow on their snowy neck. The incense was smoking, when Pygmalion, having made his offering, stood by the altar, and said, shyly: "If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish as a bride to have..." and not daring to say "the girl of ivory" he said "one like my ivory girl." Golden Venus, for she herself was present at the festival, knew what the prayer meant, and as a sign of the gods' fondness for him, the flame flared three times, and shook its crown in the air. When he returned, he sought out the image of his girl, and leaning over the couch, kissed her. She felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand. The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering under his fingers, as the bees' wax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is moulded, under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use. The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again.

It was flesh! The pulse throbbed under his thumb. Then the hero, of Paphos, was indeed overfull of words with which to thank Venus, and still pressed his mouth against a mouth that was not merely a likeness. The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky. The goddess attended the marriage that she had brought about, and when the moon's horns had nine times met at the full, the woman bore a son, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name."

Orpheus sings: Myrrha's incestuous love for Cinyras

"Cinyras was the son of Paphos, and he might have been counted amongst the fortunate, if he, in turn, had been childless. I speak of terrible things. Fathers and daughters, keep away: or if your mind takes pleasure in my song, put no faith in this story of mine, and imagine it did not happen. Or, if you do believe it, believe in the punishment also, that it brought. If nature, however, allows such crimes to be visible, then I give thanks that the people of Thrace, this city, and this land, are far from the regions where such sin is born. Let the land of Panchaia, beyond Araby, produce its balsam, cinnamon, costmary; its incense, exuded from the trees; its flowers different from ours; if it produces myrrh: a strange tree is not worth such a price.

Cupid denies that his arrows hurt you, Myrrha, and clears his fires of blame for your crime. One of the three sisters, the Furies, with her swollen snakes, and firebrand from the Styx, breathed on you. It is wrong to hate your father, but that love was a greater wrong than hatred. The pick of the princes, from everywhere, desire you: young men, from the whole of the East, come to win you in marriage. Out of the many, choose one, for your husband, Myrrha, but let one man not be amongst the many.

Indeed, she knows it, and fights against her disgraceful passion, and says, to herself: "Where is my thought leading? What am I creating? You gods, I pray, and the duty and sacred laws respecting parents, prevent this wickedness, and oppose my sin, indeed, if sin it is. But it can be said that duty declines to condemn such love. Other creatures mate indiscriminately: it is no disgrace for a heifer to have her sire mount her, for his filly to be a stallion's mate: the goat goes with the flocks he has made, and the birds themselves conceive, by him whose seed conceived them. Happy the creatures who are allowed to do so! Human concern has made malign laws, and what nature allows, jealous duty forbids.

Yet they say there are races where mother and son, and father and daughter, pair off, and affection is increased by a double bond. Alas for me, that I did not happen to be born there, and that I am made to suffer by an accident of place! - Why do I repeat these things? Forbidden hopes, vanish! He is worth loving, but only as a father. - I could lie with Cinyras, if I were not Cinyras's already. Now, he is not mine, because he is already mine, and the nearness of our relationship damns me: I would be better off as a stranger. I would be happy to go far away, and leave the borders of my homeland behind me, if I might run from evil: but even if nothing more is permitted, a wicked desire to see Cinyras, touch him, speak to him, and kiss him, face to face, prevents my leaving. But then, what more might you look to have, impious girl? Do you realise how many names and ties you are throwing into confusion? Would you be, then, your mother's rival, and your father's mistress? Would you be known, then, as your son's sister, your brother's mother? Do you not fear the three sisters, with black snaky hair, that those with guilty hearts see, their eyes and mouths attacked with cruel torches? Since you have still not committed sin in the flesh, do not conceive it in your mind, or disregard the prohibitions, of mighty nature, in vile congress! Grant that you want it: the reality itself forbids it. He is a good man, and mindful of the moral law - but, O, how I wish the same passion were in him!" "

Orpheus sings: Myrrha and her nurse

"She spoke: Cinyras, however, who was made doubtful of what to do, by the crowd of noble suitors, naming them, asked her whom she wanted, as a husband.

At first she is silent, and staring at her father's face, hesitates, her eyes filling with warm tears. Cinyras thinking this to be virgin shyness, forbids her to cry, dries her cheeks, and kisses her on the lips. Myrrha is overjoyed at this gift, and, being consulted as to what kind of husband she might choose, says: "Someone like you". Not understanding this, however, he praises her, saying: "Always be so loving." At the word "loving", the girl, lowers her glance, conscious of her sin.

It was midnight, and sleep had released mortal flesh from worldly cares, but Cinyras's daughter, wakeful, stirring the embers, reawakens her ungovernable desires, one moment despairing, at another willing to try, ashamed and eager, not yet discovering what to do. As a tall tree, struck by the axe, the last blow remaining, uncertain how it will fall, causes fear on all sides, so her fickle mind, swayed this way and that, her thought taking both directions, seeing no rest for, or end to, her passion, but death. She felt ready to die. She got up, determined, to fix a noose round her throat, and, fastening a cord to the doorway's crossbeam, she said: "Goodbye, dear Cinyras, and realize the reason for my death!" And she tied the rope around her bloodless neck. They say that the murmured words came to the ears of her loyal nurse, who watched at her foster-child's threshold.

The old woman gets up, and opens the door, and, seeing the equipment of death, cries out, and in the same moment, strikes her breast, snatches at the folds of her robe, and tearing the noose from the girl's neck, pulls it apart. Then, finally, she has time to cry, to embrace her, and demand the reason for the rope. The girl is mute and still, looking, fixedly, at the ground, and unhappy that her belated attempt at death has been discovered. The old woman insists on knowing, baring her white hair and withered breasts, and begs her to say what grieves her, invoking her infant cradle, and first nurturing.

The girl turns away from her pleading, with a sigh. The nurse is determined to know, and promises more than loyalty. "Tell me," she says, "and let me bring you some help: age does not slow me. If it is some frenzy, I have herbs and charms that heal: if someone is seeking your harm, I will purify you with magic rites: if the gods are angry, anger is appeased by sacrifice. What else could it be? The destiny of your house is fortunate, and on course: they are well, your mother and father."

Hearing the word "father", Myrrha sighed deeply. Even then the nurse had no idea of the sin in her mind, though she guessed it might be some love affair. She begged her, tenaciously, to tell her what it was, and took the weeping girl to her aged breast, and holding her with trembling arms she said: "I know, you are in love! And in this matter (have no fear) my diligence can serve you, your father will never know." The frenzied girl leapt from her arms, and burying her face in the bed, said, urgently: "Go, I beg you, and forgo the knowledge of my wretched shame! Go, or stop asking why I am grieving. What you are striving to know, is wickedness." The old woman shuddered, and stretching out her hands that trembled with age and fear, she fell at her foster-child's feet, pleading, then coaxing, then frightening her, into making her party to it. She threatens her with the evidence of the noose, and the attempt on her life, and promises her help in her love affair. The girl raises her head, and her welling tears rain on her nurse's breast. She often tries to confess, and often stops herself, and hides her face, in shame, in her clothing: then gets as far as "Mother, you are happy in your husband!" and sighs.

A shudder of cold penetrated the nurse's flesh and bone (now she understood) and her white hair stiffened all over her head. She told her at length, to banish, if she could, this fatal passion. Though the girl knew she was being advised rightly, she was still determined to die, if she could not possess her love. "Live," said the nurse, "possess your...." - and did not dare say: "father". She was silent, and confirmed her promise in the sight of heaven."

Orpheus sings: Myrrha's crime and punishment

"The married women were celebrating that annual festival of Ceres, when, with their bodies veiled in white robes, they offer the first fruits of the harvest, wreathes of corn, and, for nine nights, treat sexual union, and the touch of a man, as forbidden. Cenchreis, the king's wife was among the crowd, frequenting the sacred rites. Finding Cinyras drunk with wine, the king's bed empty of his lawful partner, the nurse, wrongly diligent, told him of one who truly loved him, giving him a fictitious name, and praised her beauty. He, asking the girl's age, she said: "Myrrha's is the same." After she had been ordered to bring her, and had reached home, she said: "Be happy, my child, we have won!" The unhappy girl felt no joy at all in her heart, and her heart prophetically mourned, yet she was still glad: such was her confusion of mind.

It was the hour, when all is silent, and Bo÷tes, between the Bears, had turned his wagon, with downward-pointing shaft: She approached the sinful act. The golden moon fled the sky; black clouds covered the hidden stars; night lacked its fires. You, Icarius, and you, Erigone, his daughter, immortalised for your pious love of your father, hid your faces first. Myrrha was checked by an omen, three times, when her foot stumbled: three times, the gloomy screech owl gave her warning, with its fatal cry: she still went on, her shame made less by blindness and black night. With her left hand, she kept tight hold of her nurse, groping with the other she found a way through the dark.

Now she reaches the threshold of the room, now she opens the door, now is led inside. But her trembling knees give way, her colour flees with her blood, and thought vanishes as she goes forward. The closer she is to her sin, the more she shudders at it, repents of her audacity, and wants to be able to turn back, unrecognised. When she hesitated, the old woman took her by the hand, and, leading her to the high bed, delivered her up, saying: "Take her Cinyras, she is yours', uniting their accursed flesh. The father admitted his own child into the incestuous bed, calmed her virgin fears, and encouraged her timidity. Perhaps he also said the name, "daughter", in accordance with her age, and she said, "father", so that their names were not absent from their sin.

She left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived. The next night the crime was repeated: nor did it finish there. Eventually, Cinyras, eager to discover his lover after so many couplings, fetching a light, saw his daughter and his guilt, and speechless from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in. Myrrha ran, escaping death, by the gift of darkness and secret night. Wandering the wide fields, she left the land of Panchaea, and palm-bearing Arabia, behind, and after roaming through nine returns of the crescent moon, weary, she rested at last in the land of the Sabaeans.

Now she could scarcely bear the weight of her womb. Tired of living, and scared of dying, not knowing what to pray for, she composed these words of entreaty: "O, if there are any gods who hear my prayer, I do not plead against my well deserved punishment, but lest, by being, I offend the living, or, by dying, offend the dead, banish me from both realms, and change me, and deny me life and death!" Some god listened to her prayer: certainly the last request found its path to the heavens. While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark. And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck: she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood, to meet it, and plunged her face into the bark.

Though she has lost her former senses with her body, she still weeps, and the warm drops trickle down from the tree. There is merit, also, in the tears: and the myrrh that drips from the bark keeps its mistress's name, and, about it, no age will be silent."

Orpheus sings: Venus and Adonis

"The child, conceived in sin, had grown within the tree, and was now searching for a way to leave its mother, and reveal itself. The pregnant womb swells within the tree trunk, the burden stretching the mother. The pain cannot form words, nor can Lucina be called on, in the voice of a woman in labour. Nevertheless the tree bends, like one straining, and groans constantly, and is wet with falling tears. Gentle Lucina stood by the suffering branches, and laid her hands on them, speaking words that aid childbirth. At this the tree split open, and, from the torn bark, gave up its living burden, and the child cried. The naiads laid him on the soft grass, and anointed him with his mother's tears. Even Envy would praise his beauty, being so like one of the torsos of naked Amor painted on boards. But to stop them differing in attributes, you must add a light quiver, for him, or take theirs away from them.

Transient time slips by us unnoticed, betrays us, and nothing outpaces the years. That son of his grandfather, sister, now hid in a tree, and now born, then a most beautiful child, then a boy, now a man, now more beautiful than he was before, now interests Venus herself, and avenges his mother's desire. For while the boy, Cupid, with quiver on shoulder, was kissing his mother, he innocently scratched her breast with a loose arrow. The injured goddess pushed her son away: but the wound he had given was deeper than it seemed, and deceived her at first. Now captured by mortal beauty, she cares no more for Cythera's shores, nor revisits Paphos, surrounded by its deep waters, nor Cnidos, the haunt of fish, nor Amathus, rich in mines: she even forgoes the heavens: preferring Adonis to heaven.

She holds him, and is his companion, and though she is used to always idling in the shade, and, by cultivating it, enhancing her beauty, she roams mountain ridges, and forests, and thorny cliff-sides, her clothing caught up to the knee, like Diana. And she cheers on the hounds, chasing things safe to hunt, hares flying headlong, stags with deep horns, or their hinds. She avoids the strong wild boars, the ravening wolves, and shuns the bears armed with claws, and the lions glutted with the slaughter of cattle. She warns you Adonis, as if it were ever effective to warn, to fear them too, saying: "Be bold when they run, but bravery is unsafe when faced with the brave. Do not be foolish, beware of endangering me, and do not provoke the creatures nature has armed, lest your glory is to my great cost. Neither youth nor beauty, nor the charms that affect Venus, affect lions or bristling boars or the eyes and minds of other wild creatures. Boars have the force of a fierce lightning bolt in their curving tusks, and so does the attack of tawny lions, in their huge anger: the whole tribe are hateful to me."

When he asks her why, she says: "I will tell, and you will wonder, at the monstrous result of an ancient crime. But now the unaccustomed effort tires me, and, look, a poplar tree entices us with its welcome shade, and the turf yields a bed. I should like to rest here on the ground," (and she rested) "with you." She hugged the grass, and him, and leaning her head against the breast of the reclining youth, she spoke these words, interspersing them with kisses:"

Venus tells her story: Atalanta and Hippomenes

" "Perhaps you have heard of a girl who beat the fastest men at running: that was no idle tale, she did win. Nor could you say whether her speed or her beauty was more deserving of high praise. Enquiring of the god, about a husband, the god replied: "You don't need a husband, Atalanta: run from the necessity for a husband. Nevertheless, you will not escape, and, still living, you will not be yourself." Afraid of the god's oracle, she lived in the dark forests, unmarried, and fled from the crowd of insistent suitors, setting harsh conditions: "I will not be won, till I am beaten in running. Compete in the foot-race with me. Wife and bed will be given as prizes to the swift, death to the tardy: let those be the rules."

Truly she was pitiless, but (such was the power of her beauty) a rash crowd of suitors came, despite the rules. Hippomenes had taken his seat as a spectator at the unjust contest, and said "Who would try for a wife at such a risk?" condemning the young men for their excess of passion. But when he saw her face and her unclothed body, one like mine, Adonis, or like yours if you were a woman, he was stunned. Stretching out his hands, he said: "Forgive me, you, that I just blamed! I had not yet realised what the prize was you were after." Praising her, he falls in love with her, and hopes none of the youths run faster, afraid, through jealousy. "But why, in this competition, is my luck left untested?" he says. The god himself favours the bold!"

While Hippomenes was debating with himself like this, the virgin girl sped by on winged feet. To the Aonian youth she flew like a Scythian arrow, yet it made him admire her beauty all the more. The race gave her a beauty of its own. The breeze blew the streaming feathers on her speeding sandals behind her, and her hair was thrown back from her ivory shoulders. Ribbons with embroidered edges fluttered at her knees, and a blush spread over the girlish whiteness of her body, just as when a red awning over a white courtyard stains it with borrowed shadows. While the stranger was watching this, the last marker was passed, and the victorious Atalanta was crowned with a festive garland, while the losers, groaning, paid the penalty according to their bond.

Undeterred by the youths' fate, Hippomenes stepped forward and, fixing his gaze on the girl, said "Why seek an easy win beating the lazy? Race me. If fortune makes me the master, it will be no shame for you to be outpaced by such a man as me, since Megareus of Onchestus is my father, and his grandfather was Neptune, so I am the great-grandson of the king of the ocean, and my courage is no less than my birth. Or if I am beaten, you will have a great and renowned name for defeating Hippomenes." As he spoke Schoeneus's daughter looked at him with a softening expression, uncertain whether she wanted to win or lose, and said to herself: "What god, envious of handsome youths, wants to destroy this one and send him in search of marriage, at the risk of his own dear life? I am not worth that much, I think. Nor is it his beauty that moves me (yet I could be touched by that too) but that he is still only a boy. He does not move me himself: it is his youth. What if he does have courage, and a spirit unafraid of dying? What if he is fourth in line from the ruler of the seas? What if he does love, and thinks so much of marriage with me, that he would die, if a harsh fate denies me to him? While you can, stranger, leave this blood-soaked marrying. Wedding me is a cruel thing. No one will refuse to have you, and you may be chosen by a wiser girl. - Yet why this concern when so many have already died before you?

Let him look out for himself! Let him perish, since he has not been warned off by the death of so many suitors, and shows himself tired of life. - Should he die, then, because he wants to live with me, and suffer an unjust death as the penalty for loving? My victory would not avoid incurring hatred. But it is not my fault! I wish you would desist, or if you are set on it, I wish you might be the faster! How the virginal expression of a boy clings to his face! O! Poor Hippomenes, I wish you had never seen me! You were so fitted to live. But if I were luckier, if the harsh fates did not prevent my marriage, you would be the one I would want to share my bed with." She spoke: and inexperienced, feeling the touch of desire for the first time, not knowing what she does, she loves and does not realise she loves." "

Venus tells her story: The foot-race

" "Now her father and the people were calling out for the usual foot-race, when Hippomenes, Neptune's descendant invoked my aid, as a suppliant: "Cytherea, I beg you to assist my daring, and encourage the fire of love you lit." A kindly breeze brought me the flattering prayer, and I confess it stirred me, though there was scant time to give him my help. There is a field, the people there call it the field of Tamasus, the richest earth in the island of Cyprus, which the men of old made sacred to me, and ordered it to be added to my temples, as a gift. A tree gleams in the middle of the field, with rustling golden leaves, and golden branches. Come from there, by chance, I was carrying three golden apples, I had picked, in my hands, and I approached Hippomenes, showing myself only to him, and told him how to use them.

The trumpets gave the signal, and, leaning forward, they flashed from the starting line, and skimmed the surface of the sand, with flying feet. You would think them capable of running along the waves without wetting them, and passing over the ripened heads of the standing corn. The young man's spirit was cheered by shouts and words of encouragement: "Run, Hippomenes! Now, now is the time to sprint! Use your full power, now! Don't wait: you'll win!"

Who knows whether Megareus's heroic son, or Schoeneus's daughter, was more pleased with these words? O how often, when she could have overtaken him, she lingered, and watching his face for a while, left him behind against her will! Panting breath came from his weary throat, and the winning post was far off. Only then did Neptune's scion throw away one of the fruits from the tree. The girl was astonished, and, eager for the shining apple, she ran off the course, and picked up the spinning gold. Hippomenes passed her: the stands resounded with the applause. She made up for the delay and the lost time by a burst of speed, and left the youth behind once more. Again she delayed when a second apple was thrown, followed, and passed the man. The last section of track was left. "Now," he said, "be near me, goddess who made me this gift!" He threw the shining gold vigorously, sideways, into the deep field, from where she would take longer to get back. The girl seemed to hesitate as to whether she should chase it: I made her pick it up, and added weight to the fruit she held, and obstructed her equally with the heaviness of the burden and the delay. And lest my story be longer than the race itself, the virgin was overtaken: the winner led away his prize." "

Venus tells her story: The transformation

" "Adonis, did I deserve to be thanked, to have incense brought me? Unthinking, he neither gave thanks, nor offered incense to me. I was provoked to sudden anger, and pained by his contempt, so as not to be slighted in future, I decreed an example would be made of them, and I roused myself against them both.

They were passing a temple, hidden in the deep woods, of Cybele mother of the gods, that noble Echion had built in former times fulfilling a vow, and the length of their journey persuaded them to rest. There, stirred by my divine power, an untimely desire to make love seized Hippomenes. Near the temple was a poorly lit hollow, like a cave, roofed with the natural pumice-stone, sacred to the old religion, where the priests had gathered together wooden figures of the ancient gods. They entered it, and desecrated the sanctuary, with forbidden intercourse. The sacred images averted their gaze, and the Great Mother, with the turreted crown, hesitated as to whether to plunge the guilty pair beneath the waters of the Styx: but the punishment seemed too light. So tawny manes spread over their necks, that, a moment ago, were smooth; their fingers curved into claws; forelegs were formed from arms; all their weight was in their breast; and their tails swept the surface of the sand. They had a fierce expression, roared instead of speaking, and frequented the woods for a marriage-bed. As lions, fearful to others, they tamely bite on Cybele's bit. You must avoid, them, my love, and with them all the species of wild creature, that do not turn and run, but offer their breasts to the fight, lest your courage be the ruin of us both!" "

Orpheus sings: The death of Adonis

"She warned him, and made her way through the air, drawn by harnessed swans, but his courage defied the warning. By chance, his dogs, following a well-marked trail, roused a wild boar from its lair, and as it prepared to rush from the trees, Cinyras's grandson caught it a glancing blow. Immediately the fierce boar dislodged the blood-stained spear, with its crooked snout, and chased the youth, who was scared and running hard. It sank its tusk into his groin, and flung him, dying, on the yellow sand.

Cytherea, carried in her light chariot through the midst of the heavens, by her swans' swiftness, had not yet reached Cyprus: she heard from afar the groans of the dying boy, and turned the white birds towards him. When, from the heights, she saw the lifeless body, lying in its own blood, she leapt down, tearing her clothes, and tearing at her hair, as well, and beat at her breasts with fierce hands, complaining to the fates. "And yet not everything is in your power" she said. "Adonis, there shall be an everlasting token of my grief, and every year an imitation of your death will complete a re-enactment of my mourning. But your blood will be changed into a flower. Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman's body, Menthe's, to fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyras, be grudged to me?" So saying, she sprinkled the blood with odorous nectar: and, at the touch, it swelled up, as bubbles emerge in yellow mud. In less than an hour, a flower, of the colour of blood, was created such as pomegranates carry, that hide their seeds under a tough rind. But enjoyment of it is brief; for, lightly clinging, and too easily fallen, the winds deflower it, which are likewise responsible for its name, windflower: anemone.

Metamorphoses by Ovid 
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