While the hero, the son of Danae, is recalling this succession of events, amongst the Ethiopians, the royal halls suddenly fill with a riot of complaints. It is not the sound of a wedding feast that rings out, but that which presages the use of arms. The festivities, turned to sudden confusion, could be likened to a calm sea that the fierce raging of the wind churns into rising waves. Phineus, the king’s brother, is first mover in this, a rash stirrer-up of strife, shaking his ashen spear tipped with bronze. ‘See,’ he shouted ‘See, I come here as an avenger for the carrying off of my bride. Your wings won’t help you escape me, nor even Jupiter, changed to a shower of fool’s gold!’
As he prepared to throw the spear, Cepheus cried ‘What are you doing? Brother, what mad feelings drive you to crime? Are these the thanks you return for such service? Is this the gift with which you pay compensation for a life restored? If you want the truth it was not Perseus who took her from you, but Neptune, the stern god of the Nereids, and horned Jupiter Ammon, and that monster that came from the sea to glut itself on my own flesh and blood. It was then she was taken from you, when she was about to die: but perhaps, hard-hearted one, that is what you want, for her to die, and you to take comfort from my grief. Of course, it is not enough that you saw her fastened there, and brought her no help, you her uncle and her intended. Are you grieved that she was saved by someone else, and would you take away his prize? If it seemed so great a prize to you, you should have sought her among the rocks where she was chained. Now let the man who did seek it, take what he has earned and what was promised, since, thanks to him, I shall not have a childless old age. Realise that it is not Perseus, but the prospect of certain death that has displaced you.’
Phineus said nothing, but turned his face alternately from Perseus to his brother, not knowing whether to aim at the one or the other. Hesitating for a while he hurled his spear, throwing it with the energy of anger, but uselessly, at Perseus. Only when it had stuck fast in the bench, did Perseus leap up from where he was lying. Returning the weapon, fiercely, he would have pierced his enemy’s chest, if Phineus had not dodged behind the altars: and (shamefully) the wretch found safety in that refuge. Nevertheless the javelin was not without effect, and struck Rhoetus full face, who immediately fell, and, when the weapon had been pulled out of the bone, he kicked out and sprayed the laden tables with his blood. Then the crowd of men was truly ablaze with anger, and they hurled their spears, and there were those who said Cepheus deserved to die with his son-in-law. But Cepheus had already crossed the threshold, calling on justice, good faith, and on the gods of friendship, to witness that what was being done was forbidden. Warlike Pallas came and protected her brother, Perseus, with her shield, the aegis, and gave him courage.
There was a youth from India, Athis, whom Limnaee, a nymph of the River Ganges is said to have given birth to, under its glassy waters. He was of outstanding beauty, his sixteen years unimpaired, enhanced by his rich robes, wearing his military cloak of Tyrian purple, fringed with gold. A gold collar ornamented his neck, and a curved coronet his myrrh-drenched hair. He was skilled at piercing anything with the javelins he launched, however distant, but was even more skilled at shooting with the bow. While he was bending the pliant tips in his hands, Perseus struck him, with a log that had been smouldering in the middle of the altar, and shattered his face to splintered bone.
When Lycabas, the Assyrian, closest to him, as a friend, and, most probably, a lover, saw his much praised features masked with blood, he wept bitterly for Athis, breathing out his life through that sad wound. He caught up the bow Athis had strung and said ‘Now match yourself with me! You will not have long to rejoice over the death of a child, an act which holds more shame than praise.’ He had not finished speaking when the sharp arrow shot from the bowstring, but Perseus avoided it, and it was left hanging from a fold of his clothes. The grandson of Acrisius turned against him that scimitar, tried and proven in his killing of Medusa, driving it into his chest. But even in death, his eyes failing, he looked round for Athis, in that gloomy night, and fell next to him, taking for his solace, to the shadows, the fact of being joined with him in death.
Phorbas of Syene, the son of Metion, and Libyan Amphimedon, eager to commit to the fight, fell, having slipped on the ground, warm and drenched with blood on every side. Rising, they were stopped by the sword, piercing Phorbas’s throat, and Amphimedon’s ribs. But Perseus did not challenge Eurytus, son of Actor, who had a battle-axe, with his scimitar, instead, lifting a mixing bowl, embossed with decorations and very heavy in weight, high in the air, with both hands, he dashed it down on the man, who vomited bright red blood, and, lying on his back, beat the earth with his head. Then Perseus overthrew Polydegmon, born of the blood of Queen Semiramis, Abaris from Caucasia, Lycetus from the River Spercheos region, Helices with flowing hair, Clytus and Phlegyas, and trod on a mounting pile of the dying.
Phineus did not dare to fight hand to hand with his enemy, but threw his spear, which felled Idas, by mistake, who, though unavailingly, had no part in the fight, and was a follower of neither side. He, looking fiercely at Phineus, and said ‘Since I have been forced to take part, then, Phineus, acknowledge the enemy you have made, and repay me wound for wound!’ He was about to hurl back the javelin he had pulled from his body when he collapsed dying, his limbs drained of blood.
Then Hodites, the greatest of the Ethiopians next to the king, was killed by Clymenus’s sword. Hypseus struck Prothoënor, and Lyncides struck Hypseus. One very old man, Emathion, was there who upheld justice, and feared the gods. He stepped forward, and since his age prevented him fighting, he warred in words, cursing their sinful weapons. Chromis decapitated him with his sword, as he clung to the altar with trembling hands, and the head fell straight on to the hearth, and there the half living tongue still uttered imprecations, and its life expired in the midst of the flames.
Then two brothers fell at the hands of Phineus. They were Broteas, and Ammon the famous boxers, who would have been able to overcome anything, if boxing gloves were able to overcome swords, and Ampycus, priest of Ceres, his forehead wreathed with white fillets. And you Lampetides, summoned, but not for this purpose, who played the lute and sang, the work of peace, ordered to help celebrate the feast, and recite the bridal songs. Pedasus, mockingly shouted to him, as he stood to one side holding his unwarlike plectrum, ‘Go and sing the rest to the Stygian shades!’ and pierced his left temple with his blade. He fell, and tried to pluck the lyric strings again, with dying fingers, and, falling, struck a plaintive note.
Lycormas, angered, did not allow him to die without taking revenge. Grasping a heavy bar from the door on his right, he struck Pedasus, in the middle of his neck-bones, and he fell dead to the ground, like a bullock at the sacrifice. Pelates, from the banks of Cinyps, tried to take the bar from the left door, and, while attempting to do so, his right hand was transfixed by the spear of Corythus, from Marmarica, and pinned to the wood. Abas pierced him in the side as he was fastened there, and he did not fall, but hung there, dying, from the post to which his hand was nailed. Melaneus, a follower of Perseus’s cause, was also killed, and Dorylas, the wealthiest man in the fields of Nasamonia, Dorylas whose wealth was in fields, than whom no man held a greater tract, nor could pile up as many heaps of spices. A missile thrown from the side stuck in his groin, that fatal place. When Halcyoneus of Bactria, the perpetrator of the wound, saw him gasping for life, his eyes rolling, he said ‘Of all your lands you shall have only this earth you lie on!’ and left his bloodless corpse. But Perseus, the avenger, the descendant of Abas, turned against him the spear, pulled hot from the wound. Catching the nose, it went through the middle of the neck, jutting out front and back.
While Fortune aided his hand, Perseus killed Clytius and Clanis, born of one mother, with different wounds. An ashen spear, from his strong arm, went through both Clytius’s thighs, while Clanis’s jaw bit on a javelin. Mendesian Celadon was killed, Astreus, of unknown father and Syrian mother, Aethion, once skilled in telling the future, now deceived by lack of foresight, Thoactes, the armour-bearer of the king, and Agyrtes, notorious for murdering his own father.
There is yet more to be done, despite what he has endured: the purpose of all is to overwhelm this one man. The bands of conspirators oppose him on all sides, in a cause opposed to justice, and good faith. His father, with helpless loyalty, and his new bride and her mother, support him to the best of their abilities, filling the palace with their cries. But the clash of weapons and the groans of the fallen, drown them out, and at the same time Bellona, goddess of war, pollutes and drenches the penates, the household gods, with blood, and stirs renewed conflict.
Phineus and a thousand followers of Phineus, surround the one man. Spears to the right of him, spears to the left of him, fly thicker than winter hail, past his eyes and ears. He sets his back and shoulders against a massive stone column, and protected behind, turns towards the opposing crowd of men, and withstands their threat. The Chaonian, Molpeus, presses him on the left, and on the right Ethemon, a Nabatean. Like a tiger, goaded by hunger, that hears the bellowing of two herds of cattle in separate valleys, and does not know which it would rather rush at, fired up to rush at either, so Perseus hesitates whether to strike right or left. He drives Molpeus off, piercing him with a wound to the leg, and is content to let him go: but Ethemon allows him no time, and raging and eager to give him a wound high on the neck, flails at him, incautiously and violently, and fractures his sword, striking it on the extreme edge of the column. The blade is detached, and fixes itself in its owner’s throat. The wound it gives him is not serious enough to cause his death, but as he stands there, quivering, and uselessly stretching out his defenceless arms, Perseus stabs him with Cyllenian Mercury’s curved sword.
When Perseus saw indeed that, his efforts would succumb to the weight of numbers, he said ‘Since you plan it like this, I will ask help of the enemy. If there are any friends here, turn your face away!’ and he held up the Gorgon’s head. ‘Find others, who might be worried by your marvel’ said Thesculus, but as he prepared to throw his deadly javelin, he was frozen, like a marble statue, in the act. Ampyx, next to him, thrust his sword straight at the heart of the courageous descendant of Lynceus, and, in thrusting, his right hand stiffened, without movement this way or that. But Nileus who falsely claimed that he was born of the Nile with its seven mouths, his shield engraved with its seven streams, part gold, part silver, cried ‘Perseus, see, the sources of my people: it will be a great consolation to you to take with you, in death, to the silent shadows, the knowledge of having fallen to so noble a man’. The last echo of his voice was cut off in mid-flight, and you might believe his mouth still wished to speak, though it was no longer pervious to words.
Eryx rebuked them, saying, ‘Lack of courage, not the power of the Gorgon, freezes you. Rush in with me and knock this youth and his magic weapon to the ground!’ He had started his rush, but the floor held his feet fast, and there he stayed, unmoving stone, a fully-armed statue.
They all deserved the punishment they suffered, except one of Perseus’s warriors. While he was fighting on his side, Aconteus, saw the Gorgon’s head, and took the shape of hardened stone. Astyages struck him with his long sword thinking he was still alive, and the blade gave a high-pitched ringing noise. While Astyages stood there amazed, the same power transformed him, and he remained there with a wondering look on his marble face. It would take a long time to tell the names of the middle ranks of men: two hundred bodies survived the fight, two hundred bodies were turned to stone, at sight of the Gorgon’s head.
Now, at last, Phineus regrets the unjust fight, but what can he do? He sees the figures in diverse attitudes, and recognises the men, and calling on each by name, asks his help. Disbelieving, he touches the bodies nearest to him. They are marble. He averts his gaze from Perseus, and in supplication, he stretches out his hands in acknowledgement, his arms still held out towards him. ‘Perseus’, he cries, ‘you have won! Take away that monstrous thing of yours: remove your head of the Medusa, whoever she may be, that turns men to stone. Take it away, I beg you! It was not hate, or desire for power, that drove me to war. I took up arms to win a bride! Your claim was greater by merit, but mine by precedence. I do not regret ending it. Give me nothing, except my life, most resolute of men, the rest is yours!’ So speaking, not daring to look towards him to whom he directed his request, Perseus replied ‘Have no fear, most cowardly Phineus, I will grant both what I can grant, and what is a great gift to the fearful! You will not suffer the sword. Rather I will cause you to be an enduring monument through the ages, and you will always be seen in my father-in-law’s palace, so that my wife may find solace in the statue of her intended.’ He spoke, and carried the head of Phorcys’s daughter to where Phineus had turned his frightened face. As Phineus tried to avert his gaze, his neck hardened, and the tears on his cheeks were turned to stone. Now the frightened face, the suppliant expression, the submissive hands, and the slavish appearance, remained, in marble.
The victorious descendant of Abas, with his bride, enters Argos, his ancestral city, and as the champion and vindicator of his grandfather Acrisius, who little deserves it, he attacks Proetus, who has made his brother a fugitive by force of arms, and seized his stronghold. But neither by force of arms, nor by possession of the stronghold he had taken in his wickedness, could he overcome the fierce gaze of the snake-wreathed monster.
Still, you, O Polydectes, king of tiny Seriphos, softened neither by the young man’s virtue, visible in all his efforts, nor by his suffering, nursed a harsh and unrelenting hatred, and there was no limit to your baseless anger. You disparaged the praise given him, and accused his account of the killing of Medusa of being a lie. ‘I will give you evidence of its truth. Friends, protect your eyes!’ cried Perseus, and with the face of Medusa he turned the face of the king to bloodless stone.
Up to this point Tritonian Minerva had given her time, freely, in friendship, to this brother of hers, conceived in a shower of gold, but now, surrounded by vaulted cloud, she vanished from the island of Seriphos, and leaving Cythnus and Gyarus behind on her right, she headed for Thebes, and Mount Helicon, home of the virgin Muses, crossing the sea by whichever way seemed quickest. Reaching it, she alighted there, and spoke to the sisters, learned in song, saying ‘Talk of a new fountain has reached my ears, that gushed out from under the hard hoof of winged Pegasus, born of Medusa. That is the reason for my journey. I wanted to see this wonderful creation. He himself I saw born from his mother’s blood.’
Urania replied ‘Whatever reason brings you here, to see our home, goddess, you are dear to our hearts. But the tale is true: Pegasus is the source of our fountain’, and she led her to the sacred waters. Pallas, having looked in wonder, for a long time, at this stream, made by the blow of the horses hoof, gazed around her at the groves of ancient trees, the caves, and the grass, embroidered with innumerable flowers, and said that the daughters of Mnemosyne were equally happy in their home and their pursuits. At which one of the sisters answered, ‘O, Tritonia, who would have been one of our choir, if your virtues had not formed you for greater things, what you say is true, and you rightly approve our arts and our haunts. Our life is happy, if only it were safe. But (nothing is sacred to the wicked), all things frighten virgin minds. Dread Pyreneus’s destruction is in front of my eyes, and my mind has not yet recovered fully.
That fierce man had captured Daulis and the Phocian fields, with his Thracian warriors, and wrongly held the kingdom. We were heading for the shrine on Parnassus. He saw us going by, and his face showing apparent reverence for our divinity, he said (knowing us), “Mnemonides, wait, don’t be afraid, I beg you, to shelter from the rain and the lowering skies” (it was raining): “The gods have often entered humbler homes”. Responding to his words, and the weather, we gave the man our assent, and went into the entrance hall of the palace. The rain stopped, the north wind overcame the south, and the dark clouds fled from the clearing sky. We wished to go. Pyreneus closed the doors, and prepared for violence, and we escaped that only by taking to our wings. He stood on the highest summit, as if he would follow us, saying “Whatever is your way, is also mine”, and foolishly threw himself from the roof of the main tower. He fell headlong, breaking his skull, hammering the ground in dying, and staining the earth with his evil blood.’
The Muse was speaking: wings sounded in the air, and voices in greeting came out of the high branches. The daughter of Jupiter looked up, and questioned where the sound came from, that was so much like mouths speaking, and thought it human, though it was birdsong. Nine of them, magpies, that imitate everything, had settled in the branches, bemoaning their fate. While she wondered, the other began speaking, goddess to goddess, ‘Defeated in a contest, they have been added only recently to the flocks of birds. Pierus of Pella, rich in fields, was their father, and Paeonian Euippe was their mother. Nine times, while giving birth, she called, nine times, to powerful Lucina. Swollen with pride in their numbers, this crowd of foolish sisters came here, to us, through the many cities of Achaia and Haemonia, and challenged us to a singing competition, saying “Stop cheating the untutored masses with your empty sweetness. If you have faith in yourselves, contend with us, you goddesses of Thespiae. We cannot be outdone in voice or art, and we are your equals in numbers. If you want, if you are defeated, you can grant us the Heliconian fountains, Hippocrene, of Medusa’s offspring, and Boeotian Aganippe. Or we will grant you the Emathian plains as far as snow-covered Paeonia! Let the nymphs decide the outcome.”
It was shameful to compete with them, but it seemed more shameful to concede. The nymphs were elected, and swore on their streams to judge fairly, and sat on platforms of natural rock. Then, without drawing lots, the one who had first declared the contest sang, of the war with the gods, granting false honours to the giants, and diminishing the actions of the mighty deities. How Typhoeus, issued forth from his abode in the depths of the earth, filling the heavenly gods with fear, and how they all turned their backs in flight, until Egypt received them, and the Nile with its seven mouths. She told how earth-born Typhoeus came there as well, and the gods concealed themselves in disguised forms. “Jupiter” she said, “turned himself into a ram, the head of the flock, and even now Libyan Ammon is shown with curving horns. Delian Apollo hid as a crow, Bacchus, Semele’s child, as a goat, Diana, the sister of Phoebus, a cat, Saturnian Juno a white cow, Venus a fish, and Cyllenian Mercury the winged ibis.”
‘This much she played on her lute, with singing voice. Then called on us, - but perhaps you are not at leisure, or free to listen to a repetition of our music?’ ‘Do not stop’ said Pallas, ‘but sing your song again as you arranged it!’ and she sat amongst the light shadows of the grove. The Muse renewed her tale ‘We gave our best singer to the contest. Calliope, who rose, with her loose hair bound with ivy, tried out the plaintive strings with her fingers, then accompanied the wandering notes with this song.
“Ceres first turned the soil with curving plough, first ripened the crops and produce of the earth, first gave us laws: all things are Ceres’s gift. My song is of her. If only I could create a song in any way worthy of the goddess! This goddess is truly a worthy subject for my song.
Trinacris, the vast isle of Sicily, had been heaped over the giant’s limbs, and with its great mass oppressed buried Typhoeus, he who had dared to aspire to a place in heaven. He struggles it’s true and often tries to rise, but his right hand is held by the promontory of Ausonian Pelorus, and his left hand by you, Pachynus. Lilybaeum presses on his legs, Etna weighs down his head, supine beneath it, Typhoeus throws ash from his mouth, and spits out flame. Often, a wrestler, he throws back the weight of earth, and tries to roll the high mountains and the cities from his body, and then the ground trembles, and even the lord of the silent kingdom is afraid lest he be exposed, and the soil split open in wide fissures, and the light admitted to scare the anxious dead.
Fearing this disaster, the king of the dark had left his shadowy realm, and, drawn in his chariot by black horses, carefully circled the foundations of the Sicilian land. When he had checked and was satisfied that nothing was collapsing, he relinquished his fears. Then Venus, at Eryx, saw him moving, as she sat on the hillside, and embraced her winged son, Cupid, and said ‘My child, my hands and weapons, my power, seize those arrows, that overcome all, and devise a path for your swift arrows, to the heart of that god to whom the final share of the triple kingdom fell. You conquer the gods and Jupiter himself, the lords of the sea, and their very king, who controls the lords of the sea. Why is Tartarus excepted? Why not extend your mother’s kingdom and your own? We are talking of a third part of the world. And yet, as is evident to me, I am scorned in heaven, and Love’s power diminishes with mine.
Don’t you see how Pallas, and the huntress Diana, forsake me? And Ceres’s daughter too, Proserpine, will be a virgin if we allow it, since she hopes to be like them. But you, if you delight in our shared kingdom, can mate the goddess to her uncle.’ So Venus spoke: he undid his quiver, and at his mother’s bidding took an arrow, one from a thousand, and none was sharper, more certain, or better obeyed the bow. Then he bent the pliant tips against his knee, and with his barbed arrow struck Dis in the heart.”
“Not far from the walls of Enna, there is a deep pool. Pergus is its name. Caÿster does not hear more songs than rise from the swans on its gliding waves. A wood encircles the waters, surrounds them on every side, and its leaves act as a veil, dispelling Phoebus’s shafts. The branches give it coolness, and the moist soil, Tyrian purple flowers: there, it is everlasting Spring. While Proserpine was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, Dis, almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love. The frightened goddess cries out to her mother, to her friends, most of all to her mother, with piteous mouth. Since she had torn her dress at the opening, the flowers she had collected fell from her loosened tunic, and even their scattering caused her virgin tears. The ravisher whipped up his chariot, and urged on the horses, calling them by name, shaking out the shadowy, dark-dyed, reins, over their necks and manes, through deep pools, they say, and the sulphurous reeking swamps of the Palici, vented from a crevice of the earth, to Syracuse where the Bacchiadae, a people born of Corinth between two seas, laid out their city between unequal harbours.
Between Cyane and Pisaean Arethusa, there is a bay enclosed by narrow arms. Here lived Cyane, best known of the Sicilian nymphs, from whom the name of the spring was also taken. She showed herself from the pool as far as her waist, and recognising the goddess, cried out to Dis, ‘No’, and ‘Go no further!’ ‘You cannot be Ceres’s son against her will: the girl should have been asked, and not abused. If it is right for me to compare small things with great, Anapis prized me and I wedded him, but I was persuaded by talk and not by terror.’ Speaking, she stretched her arms out at her sides, obstructing him. The son of Saturn could scarcely contain his wrath, and urging on the dread horses, he turned his royal sceptre with powerful arm, and plunged it through the bottom of the pool. The earth, pierced, made a road to Tartarus, and swallowed the headlong chariot, into the midst of the abyss.”
“Cyane, mourning the rape of the goddess, and the contempt for the sanctities of her fountain, nursed an inconsolable grief in her silent heart, and pined away wholly with sorrow. She melted into those waters whose great goddess she had previously been. You might see her limbs becoming softened, her bones seeming pliant, her nails losing their hardness. First of all the slenderest parts dissolve: her dusky hair, her fingers and toes, her feet and ankles (since it is no great transformation from fragile limbs to cool waters). Next her breast and back, shoulders and flanks slip away, vanishing into tenuous streams. At last the water runs in her ruined veins, and nothing remains that you could touch.
Meanwhile the mother, fearing, searches in vain for the maid, through all the earth and sea. Neither the coming of dewy-haired Aurora, nor Hesperus, finds her resting. Lighting pine torches with both hands at Etna’s fires, she wanders, unquiet, through the bitter darkness, and when the kindly light has dimmed the stars, she still seeks her child, from the rising of the sun till the setting of the sun.
She found herself thirsty and weary from her efforts, and had not moistened her lips at any of the springs, when by chance she saw a hut with a roof of straw, and she knocked on its humble door. At that sound, an old woman emerged, and saw the goddess, and, when she asked for water, gave her something sweet made with malted barley. While she drank what she had been given a rash, foul-mouthed boy stood watching, and taunted her, and called her greedy. The goddess was offended, and threw the liquid she had not yet drunk, mixed with the grains of barley, in his face. His skin, absorbing it, became spotted, and where he had once had arms, he now had legs. A tail was added to his altered limbs, and he shrank to a little shape, so that he has no great power to harm. He is like a lesser lizard, a newt, of tiny size. The old woman wondered and wept, and, trying to touch the creature, it ran from her and searched out a place to hide. It has a name fitting for its offence, stellio, its body starred with various spots.
It would take too long to tell through what lands and seas the goddess wandered. Searching the whole earth, she failed to find her daughter: she returned to Sicily, and while crossing it from end to end, she came to Cyane, who if she had not been changed would have told all. But though she wished to, she had neither mouth nor tongue, nor anything with which to speak. Still she revealed clear evidence, known to the mother, and showed Persephone’s ribbon, fallen, by chance, into the sacred pool. As soon as she recognised it, the goddess tore her dishevelled hair, and beat her breast again and again with her hands, as if she at last comprehended the rape. She did not know yet where Persephone was, but condemned all the lands, and called them thankless and unworthy of her gift of corn, Sicily, that Trinacria, above all, where she had discovered the traces of her loss.
So, in that place, with cruel hands, she broke the ploughs that turned up the soil, and, in her anger, dealt destruction to farmers, and the cattle in their fields, alike, and ordered the ever-faithful land to fail, and spoiled the sowing. The fertility of that country, acclaimed throughout the world, was spoken of as a fiction: the crops died as young shoots, destroyed by too much sun, and then by too much rain. Wind and weather harmed them, and hungry birds gathered the scattered seed. Thistles and darnel and stubborn grasses ruined the wheat harvest.”
“Then Arethusa, once of Elis, whom Alpheus loved, lifted her head from her pool, and brushed the wet hair from her forehead, saying ‘O great goddess of the crops, mother of that virgin sought through all the earth, end your fruitless efforts, and do not anger yourself so deeply against the faithful land. The land does not deserve it: it opened to the rape against its will. It is not my country, I pray for: I came here as a stranger. Pisa is my country, and Elis is my source. I am a foreigner in Sicily, but its soil is more to me than other lands. Here is my home: here are my household gods. Most gentle one, preserve it. A fitting time will come for me to tell you, how I moved from my country, and came to Ortygia, over such a great expanse of sea, when you are free of care, and of happier countenance. The fissured earth showed me a way, and slipping below the deepest caverns, here, I lifted up my head, and saw the unfamiliar stars.
So, while I glided underground down there, among Stygian streams, with these very eyes, I saw your Proserpine. She was sad indeed, but, though her face was fearful still, she was nevertheless a queen, the greatest one among the world of shadows, the powerful consort, nevertheless, of the king of hell!’ The mother was stunned to hear these words, as if petrified, and was, for a long time, like someone thunderstruck, until the blow of deep amazement became deep indignation. She rose, in her chariot, to the realms of heaven. There, her whole face clouded with hate, she appeared before Jove with dishevelled hair.
‘Jupiter I have come to you in entreaty for my child and for your own’ she cried. ‘If the mother finds no favour with you, let the daughter move you, and do not let your concern for her be less, I beg you, because I gave her birth. See, the daughter I have searched for so long, has been found, if you call it finding to lose her more surely, if you call it finding merely to know where she is. I can bear the fact that she has been raped, if he will only return her! A spoiler is not worthy to be the husband of your daughter, even if she is no longer my daughter.’ Jupiter replied ‘Our child is a pledge and a charge, between us, you and I. But if only we are willing to give things their right names, the thing is not an insult in itself: the truth is it is love. He would not be a shameful son-in-law for us, if only you would wish it, goddess. How great a thing it is to be Jupiter’s brother, even if all the rest is lacking! Why, what if there is nothing lacking at all, except what he yielded to me by lot? But if you have such a great desire to separate them, Proserpine shall return to heaven, but on only one condition, that no food has touched her lips, since that is the law, decreed by the Fates.’ ”
“He spoke, and Ceres felt sure of regaining her daughter. But the Fates would not allow it, for the girl had broken her fast, and wandering, innocently, in a well-tended garden, she had pulled down a reddish-purple pomegranate fruit, hanging from a tree, and, taking seven seeds from its yellow rind, squeezed them in her mouth. Ascalaphus was the only one to see it, whom, it is said, Orphne bore, to her Acheron, in the dark woods, she not the least known of the nymphs of Avernus. He saw, and by his cruel disclosure, prevented Proserpine’s return. Then the queen of Erebus grieved, and changed the informant into a bird of ill omen: she sprinkled his head with water from the Phlegethon, and changed him to a beak, plumage, and a pair of huge eyes. Losing his own form he is covered by his tawny wings, and looks like a head, and long, curving claws. He scarcely stirs the feathers growing on his idle wings. He has become an odious bird, a messenger of future disaster, the screech owl, torpid by day, a fearful omen to mortal creatures.
He indeed can be seen to have deserved his punishment, because of his disclosure and his words. But why have you, Sirens, skilled in song, daughters of Acheloüs, the feathers and claws of birds, while still bearing human faces? Is it because you were numbered among the companions, when Proserpine gathered the flowers of Spring? When you had searched in vain for her on land, you wanted, then, to cross the waves on beating wings, so that the waters would also know of your trouble. The gods were willing, and suddenly you saw your limbs covered with golden plumage. But, so that your song, born, sweetly, in our ears, and your rich vocal gift, might not be lost with your tongues, each virgin face and human voice remained.
Now Jupiter, intervening, between his brother and grieving sister, divides the turning year, equally. And now the goddess, Persephone, shared divinity of the two kingdoms, spends so many months with her mother, so many months with her husband. The aspect of her face and mind alters in a moment. Now the goddess’s looks are glad that even Dis could see were sad, a moment ago. Just as the sun, hidden, before, by clouds of rain, wins through and leaves the clouds.”
“Ceres, kindly now, happy in the return of her daughter, asks what the cause of your flight was, Arethusa, and why you are now a sacred fountain. The waters fall silent while their goddess lifts her head from the deep pool, and wringing the water from her sea-green tresses, she tells of the former love of that river of Elis.
‘I was one of the nymphs, that lived in Achaia,’ she said ‘none of them keener to travel the woodland, none of them keener to set out the nets. But, though I never sought fame for my beauty, though I was wiry, my name was, the beautiful. Nor did my looks, praised too often, give me delight. I blushed like a simpleton at the gifts of my body, those things that other girls used to rejoice in. I thought it was sinful to please.
Tired (I remember), I was returning, from the Stymphalian woods. It was hot, and my efforts had doubled the heat. I came to a river, without a ripple, hurrying on without a murmur, clear to its bed, in whose depths you could count every pebble: you would scarce think it moving. Silvery willows and poplars, fed by the waters, gave a natural shade to the sloping banks. Approaching I dipped my toes in, then as far as my knees, and not content with that I undressed, and draped my light clothes on a hanging willow, and plunged, naked, into the stream. While I gathered the water to me and splashed, gliding around in a thousand ways, and stretching out my arms to shake the water from them, I thought I heard a murmur under the surface, and, in fear, I leapt for the nearest bank of the flood.
‘What are you rushing for, Arethusa?’ Alpheus called from the waves. ‘Why are you rushing?’ He called again to me, in a strident voice. Just as I was, I fled, without my clothes (I had left my clothes on the other bank): so much the more fiercely he pursued and burned, and being naked, I seemed readier for him. So I ran, and so he wildly followed, as doves fly from a hawk on flickering wings, as a hawk is used to chasing frightened doves. Even beyond Orchemenus, I still ran, by Psophis, and Cyllene, and the ridges of Maenalus, by chill Erymanthus, Elis, he no quicker than I. But I could not stay the course, being unequal in strength: he was fitted for unremitting effort. Still, across the plains, over tree-covered mountains, through rocks and crags, and where there was no path, I ran. The sun was at my back. I saw a long shadow stretching out before my feet, unless it was my fear that saw it, but certainly I feared the sound of feet, and the deep breaths from his mouth stirred the ribbons in my hair. Weary with the effort to escape him, I cried out ‘Help me: I will be taken. Diana, help the one who bore your weapons for you, whom you often gave your bow to carry, and your quiver with all its arrows!’ The goddess was moved, and raising an impenetrable cloud, threw it over me.
The river-god circled the concealing fog, and in ignorance searched about the hollow mist. Twice, without understanding, he rounded the place, where the goddess had concealed me, and twice called out ‘Arethusa, O Arethusa!’ What wretched feelings were mine, then? Perhaps those the lamb has when it hears the wolves, howling round the high fold, or the hare, that, hidden in the briars, sees the dogs hostile muzzles, and does not dare to make a movement of its body? He did not go far: he could see no signs of my tracks further on: he observed the cloud and the place. Cold sweat poured down my imprisoned limbs, and dark drops trickled from my whole body. Wherever I moved my foot, a pool gathered, and moisture dripped from my hair. And indeed the river-god saw his love in the water, and putting off the shape of a man he had assumed, he changed back to his own watery form, and mingled with mine. The Delian goddess split the earth, and plunging down into secret caverns, I was brought here to Ortygia, dear to me, because it has the same name as my goddess, the ancient name, for Delos, where she was born, and this was the first place to receive me, into the clear air.’ ”
“That was as far as Arethusa went. The goddess of all that is fertile, fastened twin dragons to her chariot, curbing them with the bit, between their teeth, and was carried through the air, between heaven and earth. Reaching Eleusis, by Athens, city of Tritonian Minerva, she gave her swift chariot to Triptolemus, and ordered him to scatter the seeds she gave, partly in untilled soil, partly in fields reclaimed, after lying for a long time fallow.
Now the youth was carried high over Europe and Asia. He turned his face towards Scythia where, Lyncus was king. He stood before the king’s household gods. He was asked how he had come there, and the reason for his journey, his name and his country. He said ‘Athens, the famous city, is my home, Triptolemus, my name. I came not by ship, on the sea, or by foot, over land. The clear air parted for me. I bring you the gifts of Ceres. If you scatter them through the wide fields, they will give you back fruitful harvests, and ripening crops.’ The barbarian was jealous. So that he might be the author, of so great a gift, he received him like a guest, but attacked Triptolemus, with a sword, while he was in deep sleep. As he attempted to pierce the youth’s breast, Ceres turned the king into a lynx, then ordered the youth, of Athens, the city of Mopsopus, to drive the sacred team back through the air.”
‘So ended the singing, from the greatest of our singers, and the nymphs, with one harmonious voice, said that the goddesses of Helicon had taken the honours. When the losers hurled abuse at us, I said “Seeing that you deserve punishment enough for your challenge, and now add profanities to your offence, and since our patience is not unlimited, we will move on to sentence you, and follow where anger prompts us.” The Emathides laughed and ridiculed these threatening words, but as they tried to speak, and, attack us with insolent hands, making a great clamour, they saw feathers spring from under their nails, and plumage cover their arms. Each one saw the next one’s mouth harden to a solid beak, and a new bird enter the trees. When they wanted to beat their breasts in sorrow, they hung in the air, lifted by the movement of their arms, magpies now, the slanderers of the woods. Even now, as birds, their former eloquence remains, their raucous garrulity, and their monstrous capacity for chatter.’