The priest had ordered the observation of the festival, asking for all female servants to be released from work, they and their mistresses to drape animal skins across their breasts, free their headbands, wreathe their hair, and carry an ivy-twined thyrsus in their hand. And he prophesied that the god’s rage would be fierce if he was angered. The young women and mothers obey, leaving their baskets and looms, and their unfinished tasks, and burn incense, calling on Bacchus, on Bromius, ‘the noisy one’, Lyaeus, ‘deliverer from care’, on the child of the lightning, the twice-born, the son of two mothers, and adding to these calls Nyseus, ‘he of Heliconian Nysa’, Thyoneus, ‘the unshorn’ who is Semele’s son, Lenaeus, the planter of joy-giving vines, Nyctelius, ‘the nightcomer’, father Eleleus, of the howls, Iacchus, of the shouts, and Euhan, of the cries, and all of the other names you have, Liber, among the peoples of Greece.
Unfading youth is yours, you boy eternal, you, the most beautiful sight in the depths of the morning and evening sky, your face like a virgin’s when you stand before us without your horns. The Orient calls you its conqueror, as far as darkest India, dipped in the remote Ganges. You, the revered one, punished Pentheus, and Lycurgus, king of Thrace, who carried the double-headed axe, and you sent the Tyrrhenians into the waves. You yoke together two lynxes with bright reins decorating their necks, Bacchantes and Satyrs follow you, and that drunken old man, Silenus, who supports his stumbling body with his staff, and clings precariously to his bent-backed mule. Wherever you go the shouts of youths ring out, and the chorus of female voices, hands beating on tambourines, the clash of cymbals, and the shrill piping of the flute.
The Ismenides pray to Bacchus ‘Be satisfied with us, be gentle’ and they celebrate the rites ordained. Only the daughters of Minyas remain inside, disturbing the festival, with the untimely arts of Minerva, drawing out strands of wool, twisting the threads with their fingers, or staying at their looms, and plying their servants with work. Then one of them, Arsippe, speaks, spinning the thread lightly with her thumb. ‘While the others are leaving their work, and thronging to this false religion, let us, restrained by Pallas, a truer goddess, lighten the useful work of our hands, and take turns in recalling a story to our idle minds, so that the time will not seem so long! Her sisters are pleased with this, and beg her to begin first. She wondered which of many she should tell (since she knew very many), and hesitated whether to tell about you, Babylonian Dercetis, who, as the Syrians of Palestine believe, with altered shape, your lower limbs covered with scales, swam in the waters, or how your daughter, assuming wings, lived her earliest years out among the white dovecotes. Or how a Naiad, with incantations, and all too powerful herbs, changed the bodies of youths into dumb fishes, until the same thing happened to her. Or how the mulberry tree that bore white berries now bears dark red ones, from the stain of blood. This one pleases her. She begins to spin this tale, which is not yet well known, as she spins her woollen thread.
‘Pyramus and Thisbe, he the loveliest youth, and she the most sought after girl, the East held, lived in neighbouring houses, in the towering city of Babylon, that Semiramis is said to have enclosed with walls of brick. Their nearness and their first childhood steps made them acquainted and in time love appeared. They would have agreed to swear the marriage oath as well, but their parents prevented it. They were both on fire, with hearts equally captivated, something no parent can prevent. They had no one to confide all this to: nods and signs were their speech, and the more they kept the fire hidden, the more it burned.
There was a fissure, a thin split, in the shared wall between their houses, which traced back to when it was built. No one had discovered the flaw in all those years – but what can love not detect? – You lovers saw it first, and made it a path for your voices. Your endearments passed that way, in safety, in the gentlest of murmurs. Often, when they were in place, Thisbe here, and Pyramus there, and they had each caught the sound of the other’s breath, they said ‘Unfriendly wall, why do you hinder lovers? How hard would it be for you to let our whole bodies meet, or if that is too much perhaps, to open to the kisses we give each other? Not that we are not grateful. We confess that we owe it to you that words are allowed to pass to loving ears’ So they talked, hopelessly, sitting opposite, saying, as night fell, ‘Farewell’, each touching the wall with kisses that could not reach the other side.
One morning when Aurora had quenched the fires of night, and the sun’s rays had thawed the frosty grass, they came to their usual places. Then they decided, first with a little murmur of their great sorrows, to try, in the silence of night, to deceive the guards, and vanish outside. Once out of the house they would leave the city as well, and they agreed, in case they went astray crossing the open country, to meet by the grave of Ninus, and hide in the shelter of a tree. There was a tall mulberry tree there, dense with white berries, bordering a cool fountain. They were satisfied with their plan, and the light, slow to lose its strength, was drowned in the waters, and out of the same waters the night emerged.’
‘Carefully opening the door, Thisbe, slipped out, deceiving her people, and came to the tomb, her face veiled, and seated herself under the tree they had agreed on. Love made her brave. But a lioness fresh from the kill, her jaws foaming, smeared with the blood of cattle, came to slake her thirst at the nearby spring. In the moonlight, Babylonian Thisbe sees her some way off, and flees in fear to a dark cave, and as she flees, she leaves behind her fallen veil. When the fierce lioness has drunk deeply, returning towards the trees, she chances to find the flimsy fabric, without its owner, and rips it in her bloodstained jaws. Leaving the city a little later, Pyramus sees the creature’s tracks in the thick dust, and his face is drained of colour. When he also discovers the veil stained with blood, he cries, “Two lovers will be lost in one night. She was the more deserving of a long life. I am the guilty spirit. I have killed you, poor girl, who told you to come by night to this place filled with danger, and did not reach it first. O, all you lions, that live amongst these rocks, tear my body to pieces, and devour my sinful flesh in your fierce jaws! Though it is cowardly to ask for death”
He picks up Thisbe’s veil, and carries it with him to the shadow of the tree they had chosen. Kissing the token, and wetting it with tears, he cries, “Now, be soaked in my blood too.” Having spoken he drove the sword he had been wearing into his side, and, dying, pulled it, warm, from the wound. As he lay back again on the ground, the blood spurted out, like a pipe fracturing at a weak spot in the lead, and sending long bursts of water hissing through the split, cutting through the air, beat by beat. Sprinkled with blood, the tree’s fruit turned a deep blackish-red, and the roots, soaked through, also imbued the same overhanging mulberries with the dark purplish colour.’
‘Now Thisbe returns, not yet free of fear, lest she disappoint her lover, and she calls for him with her eyes and in her mind, eager to tell him about the great danger she has escaped. Though she recognises the place and the shape of the familiar tree, the colour of the berries puzzles her. She waits there: perhaps this is it. Hesitating, she sees quivering limbs writhing on the bloodstained earth, and starts back, terrified, like the sea, that trembles when the slightest breeze touches its surface, her face showing whiter than boxwood. But when, staying a moment longer, she recognises her lover, she cries out loud with grief, striking at her innocent arms, and tearing at her hair. Cradling the beloved body, she bathes his wounds with tears, mingling their drops with blood. Planting kisses on his cold face, she cries out ‘Pyramus, what misfortune has robbed me of you? Pyramus, answer me! Your dearest Thisbe calls to you: obey me, lift your fallen head!’ At Thisbe’s name, Pyramus raised his eyes, darkening with death, and having looked at her, buried them again in darkness.’
‘When she recognised her veil and saw the ivory scabbard without its sword, she said, “Unhappy boy, your own hand, and your love, have destroyed you! I too have a firm enough hand for once, and I, too, love. It will give me strength in my misfortune. I will follow you to destruction, and they will say I was a most pitiful friend and companion to you. He, who could only be removed from me by death, death cannot remove. Nevertheless I ask this for both of us, in uttering these words, O our poor parents, mine and his, do not deny us the right to be laid in one tomb, we whom certain love, and the strangest hour have joined. And you, the tree, that now covers the one poor body with your branches, and soon will cover two, retain the emblems of our death, and always carry your fruit darkened in mourning, a remembrance of the blood of us both.”
Saying this, and placing the point under her heart, she fell forward onto the blade, still warm with his blood. Then her prayer moved the gods, and stirred her parents’ feelings, for the colour of the berry is blackish-red, when fully ripened, and what was left from the funeral pyres rests in a single urn.’
‘Love even takes Sol prisoner, who rules all the stars with his light. I will tell you about his amours. He was the first god they say to see the adulteries of Venus and Mars: he sees all things first. He was sorry to witness the act, and he told her husband Vulcan, son of Juno, of this bedroom intrigue, and where the intrigue took place. Vulcan’s heart dropped, and he dropped in turn the craftsman’s work he held in his hand. Immediately he began to file thin links of bronze, for a net, a snare that would deceive the eye. The finest spun threads, those the spider spins from the rafters, would not better his work. He made it so it would cling to the smallest movement, the lightest touch, and then artfully placed it over the bed. When the wife and the adulterer had come together on the one couch, they were entangled together, surprised in the midst of their embraces, by the husband’s craft, and the new method of imprisonment he had prepared for them.
The Lemnian, Vulcan, immediately flung open the ivory doors, and let in the gods. There the two lay shamefully bound together, and one of the gods, undismayed, prayed that he might be shamed like that. And the gods laughed. And for a long time it was the best-known story in all the heavens.’
‘But Cytherea, remembering the informer, exacted punishment, and took revenge on him. He who harmed her secret affair, was equally harmed by love. Son of Hyperion, what use to you now, are beauty, lustre, and radiant light? Surely, you who make all countries burn with your fires, burn with a new fire. You, who should discern everything, contemplate Leucothoë, and your eyes, that ought to be fixed on the whole earth, are fixed on one virgin girl. Sometimes you rise too early in the dawn sky. Sometimes you sink too late into the waves. Thinking of her, you lengthen the winter hours. Sometimes you vanish, your mind’s defect affecting your light, and, obscured, terrify men’s hearts. It is not because the moon’s shadow, closer to the earth, eclipses you, that you fade. It is that love of yours that determines your aspect. You only love her.
You forget Clymene, Phaethon’s mother, and the nymph Rhode, and Perse, the most beautiful mother of Aeaean Circe, and Clytie, although despised, seeks union with you, and, even now, suffers its deep wounds. Leucothoë makes you forget them all, she whom loveliest Eurynome gave birth to, among the people who produce sweet-smelling incense. But when the daughter grew to womanhood, she outshone her mother, as her mother surpassed all others. Her father Orchamus ruled the Achaemenian Cities of Persia, seventh in line from ancient Belus, the founder.’
‘Under western skies are the fields of the horses of the Sun: they have ambrosia to crop not grass. It nourishes their weary legs after the day’s work, and refreshes them for their labours. While his horses browse on celestial food and while night carries out her role, the god enters his loved one’s room, taking on the shape of her mother, Eurynome. There he finds Leucothoë in the lamplight, amongst her twelve maids, drawing out fine threads, winding them on her spindle. So he gives her a kiss, just as a mother her dear daughter, and says “This is secret: servants, depart, and don’t rob a mother of the power to speak in private.” They obey, and when there are no witnesses left in the room, the god speaks.
“ Who measures the long year, I am he. I see all things, earth sees all things by me, I, the world’s eye. Trust me, you please me.” She is afraid, and, in her fear, distaff and spindle fall from her lifeless fingers. Her fear enhances her, and he, waiting no longer, resumes his true form, and his accustomed brightness. And, though the girl is alarmed by this sudden vision, overwhelmed by his brightness, suppressing all complaint, she submits to the assault of the god.’
Clytie was jealous (there were no bounds to her love for Sol), and goaded by anger at her rival, she broadcast the adultery, and maligning the girl, betrayed her to her father. He in his pride and savagery, buried her deep in the earth, she praying, stretching her hands out towards Sol’s light, crying “He forced me, against my will”, and he piled a heavy mound of sand over her.
Poor nymph, Hyperion’s son dispersed this with shafts of light, and gave you a way to show your buried face, but you could not lift your head, crushed by the weight of earth, and lay there, a pale corpse. They say the god of the winged horses had seen nothing more bitter than this, since Phaethon’s fiery death. He tried to see if he could recall life to those frozen limbs, with his powerful rays. But since fate opposed such efforts, he sprinkled the earth, and the body itself, with fragrant nectar, and, after much lamenting, said “You will still touch the air”. Immediately the body, soaked through with heavenly nectar, dissolved, steeping the earth in its perfume. Tentatively, putting out roots, the shoot of a tree, resinous with incense, grew through the soil, and pierced the summit of the mound.
The god of light no longer visited Clytie, nor found anything to love in her, even though love might have been an excuse for her pain, and her pain for her betrayal. She wasted away, deranged by her experience of love. Impatient of the nymphs, night and day, under the open sky, she sat dishevelled, bareheaded, on the bare earth. Without food or water, fasting, for nine days, she lived only on dew and tears, and did not stir from the ground. She only gazed at the god’s aspect as he passed, and turned her face towards him. They say that her limbs clung to the soil, and that her ghastly pallor changed part of her appearance to that of a bloodless plant: but part was reddened, and a flower like a violet hid her face. She turns, always, towards the sun, though her roots hold her fast, and, altered, loves unaltered.’
She finished speaking: the wonderful tale had charmed their ears. Part of them denies it could have happened, part says that the true gods can do anything. Though Bacchus is not one of those.
When the sisters are silent, Alcithoë is called on next. Standing there, running her shuttle through the threads on her loom, she said ‘I will say nothing of that well-known story, the love of Daphnis, the Idaean shepherd-boy, whom a nymph, angered by a rival, turned to stone: so great is the pain that inflames lovers. Neither will I tell you how, the laws of nature conspiring to alter, Sithon became of indeterminate sex, now man, now woman: how Celmis, you too, now changed to steel, were a most loyal friend to the infant Jupiter: how the Curetes were born from vast showers of rain: how Crocus and Smilax were turned into tiny flowers. I will reject all those, and charm your imaginations with a sweet, new story.
Now you will hear where the pool of Salmacis got its bad reputation from, how its enervating waters weaken, and soften the limbs they touch. The cause is hidden, but the fountain’s effect is widely known. The Naiads nursed a child born of Hermes, and a goddess, Cytherean Aphrodite, in Mount Ida’s caves. His features were such that, in them, both mother and father could be seen: and from them he took his name, Hermaphroditus.
When he was fifteen years old, he left his native mountains and Ida, his nursery, delighted to wander in unknown lands, and gaze at unknown rivers, his enthusiasm making light of travel. He even reached the Lycian cities, and the Carians by Lycia. Here he saw a pool of water, clear to its very depths. There were no marsh reeds round it, no sterile sedge, no spikes of rushes: it is crystal liquid. The edges of the pool are bordered by fresh turf, and the grass is always green. A nymph lives there, but she is not skilled for the chase, or used to flexing the bow, or the effort of running, the only Naiad not known by swift-footed Diana.
Often, it’s said, her sisters would tell her “Salmacis, take up the hunting-spear or the painted quiver and vary your idleness with some hard work, hunting!” But she takes up neither the hunting spear nor the painted quiver, and will not vary her idleness with the hardship of hunting. She only bathes her shapely limbs in the pool, often combs out her hair, with a comb that is made of boxwood from Cytorus, and looks in the water to see what suits it best. Then draped in a translucent robe, she lies down on the soft leaves, or in the soft grass. Often she gathers flowers. And she was also busy gathering them, then, when she saw the boy, and what she saw she longed to have.’
‘She did not go near him yet, though she was quick to go to him, waiting until she had calmed herself, checked her appearance, composed her expression, and merited being seen as beautiful. Then she began to say “Youth, O most worthy to be thought a god, if you are a god, you must be Cupid, or, if you are mortal, whoever engendered you is blessed, and any brother of yours is happy, any sister fortunate, if you have sisters, and even the nurse who suckled you at her breast. But far beyond them, and far more blessed is she, if there is a she, promised to you, whom you think worthy of marriage. If there is someone, let mine be a stolen pleasure, if not, I will be the one, and let us enter into marriage together.”
After this the naiad was silent. A red flush branded the boy’s face. He did not know what love was: though the blush was very becoming. Apples are tinged with this colour, hanging in a sunlit tree, or ivory painted with red, or the moon, eclipsed, blushing in her brightness, while the bronze shields clash, in vain, to rescue her. The nymph begged endlessly, at least a sister’s kiss, and, about to throw her arms round his ivory-white neck, he said “Stop this, or shall I go, and leave this place, and you?” Salmacis, afraid, turning away, pretended to go, saying, “I freely surrender this place to you, be my guest.” But she still looked back, and hid herself among bushes in the secluded woods, on her bended knees. But he, obviously at leisure, as if unobserved, walks here and there on the grass and playfully, at the end of his walk, dips his feet and ankles in the pool. Then, quickly captured by the coolness of the enticing water, he stripped the soft clothes from his slender body.
Then she was truly pleased. And Salmacis was inflamed with desire for his naked form. The nymph’s eyes blazed with passion, as when Phoebus’s likeness is reflected from a mirror, that opposes his brightest unclouded orb. She can scarcely wait, scarcely contain her delight, now longing to hold him, now unable to keep her love to herself. He, clapping his open palms to his side, dives into the pool, and leading with one arm and then the other, he gleams through the pure water, as if one sheathed an ivory statue, or bright lilies behind clear glass. “I have won, he is mine”, the naiad cries, and flinging aside all her garments, she throws herself into the midst of the water.
She held him to her, struggling, snatching kisses from the fight, putting her hands beneath him, touching his unwilling breast, overwhelming the youth from this side and that. At last, she entwines herself face to face with his beauty, like a snake, lifted by the king of birds and caught up into the air, as Hermaphroditus tries to slip away. Hanging there she twines round his head and feet and entangles his spreading wings in her coils. Or as ivy often interlaces tall tree trunks. Or as the cuttlefish holds the prey, it has surprised, underwater, wrapping its tentacles everywhere.
The descendant of Atlas holds out, denying the nymph’s wished-for pleasure: she hugs him, and clings, as though she is joined to his whole body. “It is right to struggle, perverse one,” she says, “but you will still not escape. Grant this, you gods, that no day comes to part me from him, or him from me.” Her prayer reached the gods. Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.
When he saw now that the clear waters which he had penetrated as a man, had made him a creature of both sexes, and his limbs had been softened there, Hermaphroditus, stretching out his hands, said, but not in a man’s voice, “Father and mother, grant this gift to your son, who bears both your names: whoever comes to these fountains as a man, let him leave them half a man, and weaken suddenly at the touch of these waters!” Both his parents moved by this, granted the prayer of their twin-formed son, and contaminated the pool with a damaging drug.’
The story was finished, and the daughters of Minyas still pressed on with their work, spurning the god and profaning his festival, when suddenly harsh sounds sprang up from unseen drums, pipes with curved horns sounded, and cymbals clashed. Saffron and myrrh perfumed the air, and unbelievably their looms began to grow like greenwood, the cloth they were weaving put out leaves of hanging ivy, part altered to vines, and what were once threads changed into tendrils: vine shoots came out of the warp, and clusters of dark-coloured grapes took on the splendour of the purple fabric.
Now the day was past, and the time had come when you could not say that it was light or darkness, but a borderland of light and uncertain night. Suddenly the ceiling shook, the oil lamps seemed to brighten, and the house to shine with glowing fires, and fill with the howling of fierce creatures’ deceptive phantoms. Quickly the sisters hide in the smoke-filled house, and, in various places, shun the flames and light. While they seek the shadows, a thin membrane stretches over their slender limbs, and delicate wings enfold their arms. The darkness prevents them knowing how they have lost their former shape. They do not rise on soft plumage, but lift themselves on semi-transparent wings, and trying to speak emit the tiniest squeak, as befits their bodies, and tell their grief in faint shrieks. They frequent rafters, rather than woods, and, hating the light, they fly at night, and derive their name, ‘vespertiliones’, from ‘vesper’, the evening.
Then indeed Bacchus’s divinity was spoken of throughout Thebes, and Ino, his mother’s sister, told about the new god’s great powers, everywhere. Of all her sisters she was the only one free from trouble, except that which her sisters made. Juno considered this woman, and the lofty pride she had in her sons, her marriage to King Athamas, and her foster-child Bacchus, and could not bear it. She said, to herself, ‘That son of my rival could change the Maeonian sailors, and immerse them in the sea, and give the flesh of a child to be torn in pieces, by his own mother, and enfold the three daughters of Minyas in strange wings. Can Juno do nothing except lament her troubles, unavenged? Is that enough for me? Is that my only power? He teaches me what to do (it is possible to learn from the enemy): he has shown enough, and more than enough, of the power madness has, by the killing of Pentheus. Why should Ino not be tormented, and follow her relatives’ example in her madness?’
There is a downward path, gloomy with fatal yew trees: it leads through dumb silence to the infernal regions. The sluggish Styx exhales vapour, and, by that way, the shadows of the newly dead descend, entombed with full rites, and the ghosts of those, at last, given proper burial. The wide, thorny waste is cold and pallid, and the newly arrived shades are ignorant of the road that leads to the Stygian city, where black Dis has his cruel palace. The roomy city has a thousand entrances, and open gates on every side, and as the ocean accepts the rivers of all the world, so this place accepts all the souls, and is never too small for any populace, nor notices the crowds that come. There the bloodless shadows wander without flesh or bone. Some crowd the forum, some the house of the ruler of the depths, others follow their trades, imitating their previous lives, and still others incur punishment.
Leaving her place in heaven, Saturnian Juno endured the journey there, giving in to such a degree to anger and hatred. As soon as she entered and the threshold sighed at the touch of her sacred body, Cerberus lifted his triple head and let out his threefold baying. She called out for the dread, implacable Furies, the Sisters, the children of Night. They sat in front of the prison gates, closed with steel, combing out their hair, of black snakes. The goddesses rose together, recognising her shadow in the darkness. The place is called Accursed. Here Tityos offers up his innards to be torn, stretched out over nine fields. You, Tantalus, cannot catch the drops of water, and the tree you grasp at, eludes you. You, Sisyphus, attack or pursue the stone that always returns. Ixion turns, and follows after himself and flees, and the forty-nine Belides, who dared to plot the destruction of their cousins, their husbands, fetch again, with incessant labour, the water they have lost.
After Saturnia had looked grimly, glancing fiercely, at all these, and at Ixion above all, looking back from him to Sisyphus, she asks the Furies ‘Why does this son of Aeolus, suffer perpetual torment, while his brother Athamas, who, with his wife, scorns me, lives, in his pride, in a rich palace?’ And she expounds the causes of her hatred, her journey, and what it is she wishes. What she wished was that the House of Cadmus should no longer stand, and that the Sisters should drive Athamas mad. She urged the goddesses help, mingling promises, commands and prayers together. When Juno had finished speaking, Tisiphone, grey-haired as she was, shook her locks, flinging back the snakes that concealed her face, and said ‘It does not need all these words: consider it done, whatever you have ordered. Leave this unlovely kingdom, and go back to heaven with its sweeter air.’ Juno returned happily, and Iris, her messenger, the daughter of Thaumus, purified her, as she was about to enter heaven, with drops of dew.
Without delay, Tisiphone, the troubler, grasped a torch soaked with blood, put on a dripping red robe, coiled a writhing serpent round her waist, and left the spot. Grief went as her companion, and Panic, and Terror, and Madness with agitated face. She took up her position on the threshold, and they say the pillars of the doorway of Aeolus’s palace shook, the doors of maple-wood were tainted with whiteness, and the sun fled the place. Athamas and his wife, Ino, were terrified at these portents of doom, and they tried to escape the palace. The baleful Erinys obstructed them, and blocked the way. Stretching out her arms, wreathed with knots of vipers, she flailed her hair, and the snakes hissed at her movements. Some coiled over her shoulders, some slid over her breast, giving out whistling noises, vomiting blood, and flickering their tongues.
Then she pulls two serpents from the midst of her hair, and hurls what she has snatched with a deadly aim. They slither over Ino and Athamas, and blow their oppressive breath into them. Their limbs are not wounded: it is the mind that feels the dreadful stroke. She had brought foul poisonous liquids too, spume from the jaws of Cerberus, Echidna’s venom, those that cause vague delusions, dark oblivions of the mind, wickedness and weeping, rage and love of murder, all seethed together. She had boiled them, mixed with fresh blood, in hollow bronze, stirred with a stalk of green hemlock.
While they stood trembling, she poured this venom of the Furies over the breasts of the two of them, and sent it into the depths of their minds. Then, brandishing her torch, encircled them with fire, by fire’s swift movement, whirling it round in repeated orbit. So having conquered them, and carried out her orders, she returned to the wide kingdom of mighty Dis, and unloosed the serpent she had wrapped around her.
Then Athamas, raving through the centre of his palace, cries out ‘ Friends, spread the nets through these woods! I have just seen a lioness here, with her two cubs’ and in his madness he followed his wife’s steps as if she were a wild beast. Then he snatched his son Learchus, who was laughing and waving his little arms, from his mother’s protection, and whirled him round, two or three times, in the air, in the manner of a sling, and dashed the infant’s head fiercely against the solid rock. Then the mother, roused at last by the pain this caused, or by reason of the poison sprinkled on her, howled like an animal, and fled, insanely, tearing at her hair. In her naked arms she carried you, Melicertes, and cried out ‘Euhoe, Bacchus’. Juno laughed aloud at Bacchus’s name, saying ‘Such help as this may your foster-son give you!’
A cliff overhung the water, carved out at its base by the breakers, and it sheltered the waves it hid, from the rain. Its summit reared up and stretched out, in front, over the water, into empty space. Ino climbed up there (madness had lent her strength) and unrestrained by fear threw herself and her burden into the sea: the wave foamed white where she fell. Venus, pitying her granddaughter’s undeserved sufferings, coaxed her uncle, saying ‘ O Neptune, god of the waters, whose power only ceases near heaven, it’s true that what I ask is great, but take pity on those who are mine, whom you see, fallen into the vast Ionian waters, and add them to your sea-gods. Some kindness is due me from the sea, if once I was made from the spume in the midst of the deep, and from that my Greek name, ‘foam-born’ Aphrodite, remains.’ Neptune accepted her prayer, and taking from them what was mortal, gave them greatness, giving them at the same time new names and forms, calling the god Palaemon, and his mother, Leucothoë, the white goddess.
Ino’s Sidonian attendants followed the marks of her feet as best they could, only to see her last leap from the pinnacle of rock. Not doubting that she was dead, they mourned for the House of Cadmus, beating their breasts, tearing at their clothes and hair, saying that the goddess had shown too little justice, and too much cruelty, to the rival who had made her jealous. Juno could not bear their protests, and said ‘I will make you the best monument to my cruelty’. What she said was done. Now the one who had been most faithful cried ‘I will follow the queen into the sea’, and starting her leap could not move at all, and stuck fast, fixed to the cliff. Another felt her raised arms grow rigid, when she tried to beat her breasts, as she had been doing. Another chanced to stretch her hands out to the waves of the sea, but now hands made of stone were extended over the same waves. One, as she tore at the crown of her head to pull out her hair, you might see, suddenly with stiffened fingers amongst her hair. Whatever gesture they were caught in, there they remained. Others, Theban women, changed to birds, also, now, skim the surface of those depths with their wings.
The son of Agenor, Cadmus, did not know that his daughter and little grandson were now sea-gods. Conquered by the pain of this run of disasters, and daunted by all he had seen, the founder departed his city, as if the misfortunes of the place and not himself were oppressing him. Driven to wandering, at length his journey carried him and his wife to the borders of Illyria. Now, weighed down by age and sadness, they thought of the original destiny of their house, and in talk reviewed their sufferings. Cadmus said ‘Surely that snake, my spear pierced, must have been sacred, when, fresh from Sidon, I scattered the serpent’s teeth, a strange seed, over the earth? If that is what the gods have been avenging with such sure anger, may I myself stretch out as a long-bellied snake.’ And, so speaking, he did extend into a long-bellied snake, and felt his skin hardening as scales grew there, while dark green patches checkered his black body. He lay prone on his breast, and gradually his legs fused together thinning out towards a smooth point. Still his arms were left to him, and what was left of his arms he stretched out, and, with tears running down his still human cheeks, he said ‘Come here, wife, come here, most unfortunate one, and while there is still something left of me, touch me, and take my hand, while it is still a hand, while the snake does not yet have all of me.’
He wanted to say so much more, but suddenly his tongue was split in two, and though he wished for words none came, and whenever he started on some plaintive sound, he hissed: this was the voice that Nature bequeathed him. Then, striking her naked breast with her hands, his wife cried out ‘Cadmus, wait, unhappy one, tear away this monstrous thing! Cadmus, what is it? Where are your feet? Where are your hands, shoulders, face, colour, everything – while I speak? Why do you not change me as well, you gods, into this same snake’s form? She spoke. His tongue flickered over his wife’s face, he slid between her beloved breasts as if known there, and clasped her, and searched about for the neck he knew so well. Everyone who was there (their comrades were present) was horrified, but she stroked the gleaming neck of the crested serpent, and suddenly there were two snakes there, with intertwining coils, until they sought the shelter of the neighbouring woods. Even now they do not avoid human beings or wound them, quiet serpents, remembering what they once were.
Nevertheless even in their altered form, their grandson Bacchus gave them great consolation, whom conquered India worshipped, to whose newly created temples the Achaians thronged. Only Acrisius, son of Abas, born from the same roots (through Belus brother of Agenor), was an exception, who closed Argos within its walls, took up arms against the god, and did not consider him a child of Jupiter. Nor did he consider, as a child of Jupiter, his grandson Perseus, whom Danaë conceived of a shower of gold. Though later (such is truth’s power) Acrisius repented of outraging the god, and of not acknowledging his grandson. One had taken his place in the heavens, but the other was travelling through the gentle air, on beating wings, bringing back an amazing, monstrous prize, and as the victor hung above the Lybian sands, bloody drops fell from the Gorgon’s head. The earth caught them and gave them life, as species of snakes, and so that country is infested with deadly serpents.
He was driven from there by conflicting winds, carried this way and that, through vast spaces, like a raincloud. He flew over the whole world, looking down, through the air, from a great height, at remote countries. Three times he saw the frozen constellations of the Bears, three times the Crab’s pincers. Often he was forced below the west, often into the east, and now as the light died, afraid to trust to night, he put down in the western regions of Hesperus, in the kingdom of Atlas. He looked to rest there a while, till Lucifer summoned up Aurora’s fires, and Aurora the chariot of dawn. Here was Atlas, son of Iapetus, exceeding all men by the size of his body.
The most remote land was under Atlas’s rule, and the ocean, into which Sol’s panting horses plunged, and where his straining axle was welcomed. He had a thousand flocks, and as many herds of cattle straying through the grass, and no neighbouring soil was richer than his. The leaves of the trees, bright with radiant gold, covered branches of gold, and fruit of gold. Perseus said to him ‘Friend, if high birth impresses you, Jupiter is responsible for my birth. Or if you admire great deeds, you will admire mine. I ask for hospitality and rest.
Atlas remembered an ancient prophecy. Themis on Parnassus had given that prophecy. ‘Atlas, the time will come when your tree will be stripped of its gold, and he who steals it will be called the son of Jupiter.’ Fearful of this, Atlas had enclosed his orchard with solid walls, and set a huge dragon to guard it, and kept all strangers away from his borders. To Perseus, he said ‘Go far away, lest the glory of the deeds, that you lie about, and Jupiter himself, fail you!’ He added weight to his threats, and tried to push him away with his great hands, Perseus delaying resolutely, and combining that with calm words. Inferior in strength (who could equal Atlas in strength?), he said, ‘Well now, since you show me so little kindness, accept a gift’ and turning away himself, he held out Medusa’s foul head, on his left hand side. Atlas became a mountain, as huge as he himself had been. Now his hair and beard were changed into trees, his shoulders and hands into ridges. What had been his head before was the crest on the mountain summit. His bones became stones. Then he grew to an immense height in every part (so you gods determined) and the whole sky, with its many stars, rested on him.
Aeolus, son of Hippotas, had confined the winds in their prison under Mount Etna, and Lucifer, who exhorts us to work, shone brightest of all in the depths of the eastern sky. Perseus strapped the winged sandals, he had put to one side, to his feet, armed himself with his curved sword, and cut through the clear air on beating pinions. Leaving innumerable nations behind, below and around him, he came in sight of the Ethiopian peoples, and the fields of Cepheus. There Jupiter Ammon had unjustly ordered the innocent Andromeda to pay the penalty for her mother Cassiopeia’s words.
As soon as Perseus, great-grandson of Abas, saw her fastened by her arms to the hard rock, he would have thought she was a marble statue, except that a light breeze stirred her hair, and warm tears ran from her eyes. He took fire without knowing it and was stunned, and seized by the vision of the form he saw, he almost forgot to flicker his wings in the air. As soon as he had touched down, he said ‘O, you do not deserve these chains, but those that link ardent lovers together. Tell me your name, I wish to know it, and the name of your country, and why you are wearing these fetters. At first she was silent: a virgin, she did not dare to address a man, and she would have hidden her face modestly with her hands, if they had not been fastened behind her. She used her eyes instead, and they filled with welling tears. At his repeated insistence, so as not to seem to be acknowledging a fault of her own, she told him her name and the name of her country, and what faith her mother had had in her own beauty.
Before she had finished speaking, all the waves resounded, and a monster menaced them, rising from the deep sea, and covered the wide waters with its breadth. The girl cried out: her grieving father and mother were together nearby, both wretched, but the mother more justifiably so. They bring no help with them, only weeping and lamentations to suit the moment, and cling to her fettered body. Then the stranger speaks ‘There will be plenty of time left for tears, but only a brief hour is given us to work. If I asked for this girl as Perseus, son of Jupiter and that Danaë, imprisoned in the brazen tower, whom Jupiter filled with his rich golden shower; Perseus conqueror of the Gorgon with snakes for hair, he who dared to fly, driven through the air, on soaring wings, then surely I should be preferred to all other suitors as a son-in-law. If the gods favour me, I will try to add further merit to these great gifts. I will make a bargain. Rescued by my courage, she must be mine.’ Her parents accept the contract (who would hesitate?) and, entreating him, promise a kingdom, as well, for a dowry.
See how the creature comes parting the waves, with surging breast, like a fast ship, with pointed prow, ploughing the water, driven by the sweat-covered muscles of her crew. It was as far from the rock as a Balearic sling can send a lead shot through the air, when suddenly the young hero, pushing his feet hard against the earth, shot high among the clouds. When the shadow of a man appeared on the water’ surface, the creature raged against the shadow it had seen. As Jupiter’s eagle, when it sees a snake, in an open field, showing its livid body to the sun, takes it from behind, and fixes its eager talons in the scaly neck, lest it twists back its cruel fangs, so the descendant of Inachus hurling himself headlong, in swift flight, through empty space, attacked the creature’s back, and, as it roared, buried his sword, to the end of the curved blade, in the right side of its neck. Hurt by the deep wound, now it reared high in the air, now it dived underwater, or turned now, like a fierce wild boar, when the dogs scare him, and the pack is baying around him. Perseus evades the eager jaws on swift wings, and strikes with his curved sword wherever the monster is exposed, now at the back encrusted with barnacles, now at the sides of the body, now where the tail is slenderest, ending fishlike. The beast vomits seawater mixed with purplish blood. The pinions grow heavy, soaked with spray. Not daring to trust his drenched wings any further, he sees a rock whose highest point stands above quiet water, hidden by rough seas. Resting there, and holding on to the topmost pinnacle with his left hand, he drives his sword in three or four times, repeatedly.
The shores, and the high places of the gods, fill with the clamor of applause. Cassiope and Cepheus rejoice, and greet their son-in-law, acknowledging him as the pillar of their house, and their deliverer. Released from her chains, the girl comes forward, the prize and the cause of his efforts. He washes his hands, after the victory, in seawater drawn for him, and, so that Medusa’s head, covered with its snakes, is not bruised by the harsh sand, he makes the ground soft with leaves, and spreads out plants from below the waves, and places the head of that daughter of Phorcys on them. The fresh plants, still living inside, and absorbent, respond to the influence of the Gorgon’s head, and harden at its touch, acquiring a new rigidity in branches and fronds. And the ocean nymphs try out this wonder on more plants, and are delighted that the same thing happens at its touch, and repeat it by scattering the seeds from the plants through the waves. Even now corals have the same nature, hardening at a touch of air, and what was alive, under the water, above water is turned to stone.
To the three gods, he builds the same number of altars out of turf, to you Mercury on the left, to you Minerva, warlike virgin, on the right, and an altar of Jupiter in the centre. He sacrifices a cow to Minerva, a calf to the wing-footed god, and a bull to you, greatest of the gods. Then he claims Andromeda, without a dowry, valuing her as the worthiest prize. Hymen and Amor wave the marriage torch, the fires are saturated with strong perfumes, garlands hang from the rafters, and everywhere flutes and pipes, and singing, sound out, the happy evidence of joyful hearts. The doors fold back to show the whole of the golden hall, and the noble Ethiopian princes enter to a richly prepared banquet already set out for them.
When they have attacked the feast, and their spirits are cheered by wine, the generous gift of Bacchus, Perseus asks about the country and its culture, its customs and the character of its people. At the same time as he instructed him about these, one of the guests said ‘Perseus, I beg you to tell us by what prowess and by what arts you carried off that head with snakes for hair.’ The descendant of Agenor told how there was a cave lying below the frozen slopes of Atlas, safely hidden in its solid mass. At the entrance to this place the sisters lived, the Graeae, daughters of Phorcys, similar in appearance, sharing only one eye between them. He removed it, cleverly, and stealthily, cunningly substituting his own hand while they were passing it from one to another. Far from there, by hidden tracks, and through rocks bristling with shaggy trees, he reached the place where the Gorgons lived. In the fields and along the paths, here and there, he saw the shapes of men and animals changed from their natures to hard stone by Medusa’s gaze. Nevertheless he had himself looked at the dread form of Medusa reflected in a circular shield of polished bronze that he carried on his left arm. And while a deep sleep held the snakes and herself, he struck her head from her neck. And the swift winged horse Pegasus and his brother the warrior Chrysaor, were born from their mother’s blood.
He told of his long journeys, of dangers that were not imaginary ones, what seas and lands he had seen below from his high flight, and what stars he had brushed against with beating wings. He still finished speaking before they wished. Next one of the many princes asked why Medusa, alone among her sisters, had snakes twining in her hair. The guest replied ‘Since what you ask is worth the telling, hear the answer to your question. She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair: I came across a man who recalled having seen her. They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.