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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Hippocoön 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.
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 Hippocoön, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘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, until 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.” ’
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.’
‘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.’
‘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 until 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.