And now the Argonauts were ploughing through the sea in their ship, built in Thessalian Pagasae. They had visited Phineus, king of Thracian Salmydessus, living out a useless old age in perpetual blindness, and the winged sons of Boreas had driven the birdlike Harpies from the presence of the unhappy, aged man. At last, after enduring many trials, under their famous leader, Jason, they reached the turbulent river-waters of the muddy Phasis, in the land of Colchis. While they were standing before King Aeetes, of Aea, requesting the return of the Golden Fleece, taken from the divine ram that carried Phrixus, and while extreme terms were being imposed, involving daunting tasks, Medea, the daughter of the king, conceived an overwhelming passion for Jason. She fought against it for a time, but when reason could not overcome desire, she debated with herself.
‘Medea, you struggle in vain: some god, I do not know which, opposes you. I wonder if this, or something, like this, is what people indeed call love? Or why would the tasks my father demands of Jason seem so hard? They are more than hard! Why am I afraid of his death, when I have scarcely seen him? What is the cause of all this fear? Quench, if you can, unhappy girl, these flames that you feel in your virgin heart! If I could, I would be wiser! But a strange power draws me to him against my will. Love urges one thing: reason another. I see, and I desire the better: I follow the worse. Why do you burn for a stranger, royal virgin, and dream of marriage in an alien land? This earth can also give you what you can love. Whether he lives or dies, is in the hands of the gods. Let him live! I can pray for this even if I may not love him: what is Jason guilty of? Who, but the heartless, would not be touched by Jason’s youth, and birth, and courage? Who, though the other qualities were absent, could not be stirred by his beauty?
He has stirred my heart, indeed. And unless I offer my help, he will feel the fiery breath of the bronze-footed bulls; have to meet that enemy, sprung from the soil, born of his own sowing; or be given as captured prey to the dragon’s greed. If I allow this, then I am born of the tigress: then I show I have a heart of stone and iron! Why can I not watch him die, and shame my eyes by seeing? Why do I not urge the bulls on, to meet him, and the wild earth-born warriors, and the unsleeping dragon? Let the gods also desire the better! Though it is not for me to pray for, but to bring about.
Shall I betray my father’s country? Shall some unknown be saved by my powers, and unhurt because of me, without me, set his sails to the wind, and be husband to another, leaving Medea to be punished? If he could do that, if he could set another woman above me, let him die, the ungrateful man! But his look, his nobility of spirit, and his graceful form, do not make me fear deceit or forgetfulness of my kindness. And he will give me his word beforehand, and I will gather the gods to witness our pledge. Why fear when it is certain? Prepare yourself, and dispel all delay: Jason will be for ever in your debt, take you to himself in sacred marriage, and through the cities of Pelasgian Greece, the crowds of women will glorify you as his saviour.
Carried by the winds, shall I leave my native country, my sister, my brother, my father, and my gods? Well then, my father is barbarous, and my country is savage, and my brother is still a child: my sister’s prayers are for me, and the greatest god is within! I will not be leaving greatness behind, but pursuing greatness: honour as a saviour of these Achaean people, familiarity with a better land and with cities whose fame is flourishing even here, the culture and arts of those places, and the man, the son of Aeson, for whom I would barter those things that the wide world owns, joined to whom I will be called fortunate, dear to the gods, and my head will be crowned with the stars.
What of the stories of mountains that clash together in mid-ocean, and Charybdis the bane of sailors, now sucking in, now spewing out the sea, and rapacious dog-headed Scylla, yelping over the Sicilian deeps? Well, holding what I love, clinging to Jason’s breast, I shall be carried over the wide seas: in his arms, I will fear nothing, or if I am afraid, I will only be afraid for him.
But do you call that marriage, Medea, and clothe your fault with fair names? Consider instead, how great a sin you are near to, and while you can, shun the crime!’ She spoke, and in front of her eyes, were rectitude, piety, modesty: and now, Cupid, defeated, was turning away.
She went to the ancient altars of Hecate, daughter of the Titan Perses, that the shadowy grove conceals, in the remote forest. And now she was strong and her passion, now conquered, had ebbed, when she saw the son of Aeson and the flame, that was dead, relit. Her cheeks flushed, and then her whole face became pallid. Just as a tiny spark that lies buried under the ashes, takes life from a breath of air, and grows and, living, regains its previous strength, so now her calmed passion, that you would have thought had dulled, when she saw the young hero, flared up at his visible presence.
It chanced that Aeson’s son was more than usually handsome that day: you could forgive her for loving him. She gazed at him, and fixed her eyes on him as if she had never looked at him before, and in her infatuation, seeing his face, could not believe him mortal, nor could she turn away. So that when, indeed, the stranger grasped her right hand, and began to speak, and in a submissive voice asked for her help, promising marriage, she replied in a flood of tears. ‘I see what I am doing: it is not ignorance of the truth that ensnares me, but love. Your salvation is in my gift, but being saved, remember your promise!’
He swore by the sacred rites of the Triple Goddess, by the divine presence of the grove, by the all-seeing Sun, who was the father of King Aeetes, his father-in-law to be, and by his own good fortune, and by his great danger. Immediately, as he was now trusted, he accepted the magic herbs from her, and learnt their use, and returned to the palace, joyfully.
The next day’s dawn dispelled the glittering stars. Then the people gathered on the sacred field of Mars and took up their position on the ridge. The king was seated in the middle, clothed in purple, and distinguished by his ivory sceptre. Behold, the bronze-footed bulls, breathing Vulcan’s fire from nostrils of steel. At the touch of their heat the grass shrivels, and as stoked fires roar, or as broken limestone, that has absorbed the heat inside an earthen furnace, hisses explosively, when cool water is scattered over it, so the flames sounded, pent up in their heaving chests and burning throats. Still the son of Aeson went out to meet them.
As he came to them, the fierce creatures, with their iron-tipped horns, turned their terrible gaze towards him, pawed the dusty ground with their cloven feet, and filled the air with the steam of their bellowing. The Minyans were frozen in fear. He went up to the bulls, not feeling their fiery breath (so great is the power of magic drugs!), and stroking their hanging dewlaps, with a bold hand, yoked them together, and forced them to pull the heavy blade, and till the virgin field with the iron plough. The Colchians were stunned, but the Argonauts increased their shouting, and heightened his courage.
Then he took the dragon’s teeth from the bronze helmet, and scattered them over the turned earth. The soil softened the seeds that had been steeped in virulent poison, and they sprouted, and the teeth, freshly sown, produced new bodies. As an embryo takes on human form in the mother’s womb, and is fully developed there in every aspect, not emerging to the living air until it is complete, so when those shapes of men had been made in the bowels of the pregnant earth, they surged from the teeming soil, and, what is even more wonderful, clashed weapons, created with them. The Pelasgians’ faces fell in fear, and their courage failed them, when they saw these warriors preparing to hurl their sharp spears, at the head of the Haemonian hero. She also, who had rendered him safe, was afraid. When she saw the solitary youth attacked by so many enemies, she grew pale, and sat there, suddenly cold and bloodless. And in case the herbs she had given him had not been potent enough, she chanted a spell to support them, and called on her secret arts.
He threw a boulder into the midst of his enemies, and this turned their attack, on him, against themselves. The earth-born brothers died at each other’s hands, and fell as in civil war. The Achaeans cheered, and clung to the victor, and hugged him in eager embraces. You also, princess among the Barbarians, longed to hold the victorious man: but modesty prevented it. Still, you might have held him, but concern for your reputation stopped you from doing so. What you might fittingly do you did, rejoicing silently, giving thanks, for your incantations, and the gods who inspired them.
The final task was to put the dragon to sleep with the magic drugs. Known for its crest, its triple tongues and curved fangs, it was the dread guardian of the tree’s gold. But when Jason had sprinkled it with the Lethean juice of a certain herb, and three times repeated the words that bring tranquil sleep, that calm the rough seas and turbulent rivers, sleep came to those sleepless eyes, and the heroic son of Aeson gained the Golden Fleece. Proud of his prize, and taking with him a further prize, the one who had helped him gain it, the hero, and his wife Medea, returned to the harbour at Iolchos.
The elderly Haemonian mothers and fathers bring offerings to mark their sons’ return, and melt incense heaped in the flames. The sacrifice, with gilded horns, that they have dedicated, is led in and killed. But Aeson is absent from the rejoicing, now near death, and weary with the long years. Then Jason, his son, said ‘O my wife, to whom I confess I owe my life, though you have already given me everything, and the total of all your kindnesses is beyond any promises we made, let your incantations, if they can (what indeed can they not do?) reduce my own years and add them to my father’s!’ He could not restrain his tears. Medea was moved by the loving request, and the contrast with Aeetes, abandoned by her, came to mind. Yet, not allowing herself to be affected by such thoughts, she answered ‘Husband, what dreadful words have escaped your lips? Do you think I can transfer any part of your life to another? Hecate would not allow it: nor is yours a just request. But I will try to grant a greater gift than the one you ask for, Jason. If only the Triple Goddess will aid me, and give her assent in person to this great act of daring, I will attempt to renew your father’s length of years, without need for yours.’
Three nights were lacking before the moon’s horns met, to make their complete orb. When she was shining at her fullest, and gazed on the earth, with perfect form, Medea left the palace, dressed in unclasped robes. Her feet were bare, her unbound hair streamed down, over her shoulders, and she wandered, companionless, through midnight’s still silence. Men, beasts, and birds were freed in deep sleep. There were no murmurs in the hedgerows: the still leaves were silent, in silent, dew-filled, air. Only the flickering stars moved. Stretching her arms to them she three times turned herself about, three times sprinkled her head, with water from the running stream, three times let out a wailing cry, then knelt on the hard earth, and prayed:
‘Night, most faithful keeper of our secret rites;
Stars, that, with the golden moon, succeed the fires of light;
Triple Hecate, you who know all our undertakings,
and come, to aid the witches’ art, and all our incantations:
You, Earth, who yield to witches, herbs of magic force:
You, airs and breezes, pools and hills, and every watercourse;
Be here; all You, Gods of Night, and Gods of Groves, endorse.
Streams, at will, by banks amazed, turn backwards to their source.
I calm rough seas, and stir the calm by my magic spells:
bring clouds, disperse the clouds, raise storms and storms dispel;
and, with my incantations, I break the serpent’s teeth;
and root up nature’s oaks, and rocks, from their native heath;
and move the forests, and command the mountain tops to shake,
earth to groan, and from their tombs the sleeping dead to wake.
You also, Luna, I draw down, eclipsed, from heaven’s stain,
though bronzes of Temese clash, to take away your pains;
and at my chant, the chariot of the Sun-god, my grandsire,
grows pale: Aurora, at my poisons, dims her morning fire.
You quench the bulls’ hot flame for me: force their necks to bow,
beneath the heavy yoke, that never pulled the curving plough:
You turn the savage warfare, born of the serpent’s teeth,
against itself, and lull the watcher, innocent of sleep;
that guard deceived, bring golden spoil, to the towns of Greece.
Now I need the juice by which old age may be renewed,
that can regain the prime of years, return the flower of youth,
and You will grant it. Not in vain, stars glittered in reply:
not in vain, winged dragons bring my chariot, through the sky.’
There, sent from the sky, was her chariot. When she had mounted, stroked the dragons’ bridled necks, and shaken the light reins in her hands, she was snatched up on high. She looked down on Thessalian Tempe far below, and sent the dragons to certain places that she knew. She considered those herbs that grow on Mount Ossa, those of Mount Pelion, Othrys and Pindus, and higher Olympus, and of those that pleased her, plucked some by the roots, and cut others, with a curved pruning-knife of bronze. Many she chose, as well, from the banks of the Apidanus. Many she chose, as well, from the Amphrysus. Nor did she omit the Enipeus. Peneus, and Spercheus’s waters gave something, and the reedy shores of Boebe. And at Anthedon, by Euboea, she picked a plant of long life, not yet famous for the change it made in Glaucus’s body.
Then she returned, after nine days and nine nights surveying all the lands she had crossed, from her chariot, drawn by the winged dragons. The dragons had only smelt the herbs, yet they shed their skins of many years. Reaching her door and threshold, she stopped on the outside, and under the open sky, avoiding contact with any man, she set up two altars of turf, one on the right to Hecate, one on the left to Youth. She wreathed them with sacred boughs from the wildwood, then dug two trenches near by in the earth, and performed the sacrifice, plunging her knife into the throat of a black-fleeced sheep, and drenching the wide ditches with blood. She poured over it cups of pure honey, and again she poured over it cups of warm milk, uttering words as she did so, calling on the spirits of the earth, and begging the shadowy king and his stolen bride, not to be too quick to steal life from the old man’s limbs.
When she had appeased the gods by prayer and murmured a while, she ordered Aeson’s exhausted body to be carried into the air, and freeing him to deep sleep with her spells, she stretched him out like a corpse on a bed of herbs. She ordered Jason, his son, to go far off, and the attendants to go far off, and warned them to keep profane eyes away from the mysteries. They went as she had ordered. Medea, with streaming hair, circled the burning altars, like a Bacchante, and dipping many-branched torches into the black ditches filled with blood, she lit them, once they were darkened, at the twin altars. Three times with fire, three times with water, three times with sulphur, she purified the old man.
Meanwhile a potent mixture is heating in a bronze cauldron set on the flames, bubbling, and seething, white with turbulent froth. She boils there, roots dug from a Thessalian valley, seeds, flowerheads, and dark juices. She throws in precious stones searched for in the distant east, and sands that the ebbing tide of ocean washes. She adds hoar-frost collected by night under the moon, the wings and flesh of a vile screech-owl, and the slavering foam of a sacrificed were-wolf, that can change its savage features to those of a man. She does not forget the scaly skin of a thin Cinyphian water-snake, the liver of a long-lived stag, the eggs and the head of a crow that has lived for nine human life-times.
With these, and a thousand other nameless things, the barbarian witch pursued her greater than mortal purpose. She stirred it all with a long-dry branch of a fruitful olive, mixing the depths with the surface. Look! The ancient staff turned in the hot cauldron, first grew green again, then in a short time sprouted leaves, and was, suddenly, heavily loaded with olives. And whenever the flames caused froth to spatter from the hollow bronze, and warm drops to fall on the earth, the soil blossomed, and flowers and soft grasses grew.
As soon as she saw this, Medea unsheathed a knife, and cut the old man’s throat, and letting the old blood out, filled the dry veins with the juice. When Aeson had absorbed it, part through his mouth, and part through the wound, the white of his hair and beard quickly vanished, and a dark colour took its place. At a stroke his leanness went, and his pallor and dullness of mind. The deep hollows were filled with rounded flesh, and his limbs expanded. Aeson marvelled, recalling that this was his self of forty years ago.
Bacchus saw this wondrous miracle from heaven’s heights, and realising from it, that the Nymphs of Mount Nysa, who had nursed him, could have their youth restored, he secured that gift from the witch of Colchis. There was no end to her magic. Phasian Medea, pretending to a sham quarrel with her husband, fled as a suppliant to Pelias’s threshold, he who had usurped Aeson’s throne. There, the king’s daughters received her, since he himself was weighed down by the years. The lying Colchian soon won them over by a skilful show of friendship, and when she told them of one of her greatest gifts, the removal of Aeson’s many years, and lingered over it, hope was aroused in Pelias’s daughters that similar magic arts might rejuvenate their father.
They begged her, and told her to set a price however great. She was silent for a moment, and appeared to hesitate, keeping the minds of her petitioners in suspense by a show of solemn pretence. When, eventually, she promised to do it, she said ‘To give you greater confidence in my gift, your oldest ram, the leader of your flocks, will by turned into a young lamb again, by my magic drugs.’ Straight away the woolly creature, worn out by innumerable years, was dragged forward, his horns curving round his hollow temples. When the witch had cut his wizened throat with her Thessalian knife, hardly staining the blade with blood, she immersed the sheep’s carcass in the bronze cauldron, along with her powerful magic herbs. These shrank its limbs, melted away its horns, and, with its horns, the years. A high-pitched bleating came from inside the vessel, and while they were wondering at the bleating, a lamb leapt out, and frisked away, seeking the udder and milk.
Pelias’s daughters were stunned, and now the truth of her promise had been displayed, they insisted even more eagerly. Three times Phoebus had unyoked his horses, after their plunge into the western ocean, and on the fourth night the stars were glittering in all their radiance, when the deceitful daughter of Aeetes set clear water, and herbs, but ineffectual ones, over a blazing fire. And now the king and his guards also were deep in death-like sleep, achieved by her incantations and the power of her magic spells. The king’s daughters, at her command, crossed the threshold, with the Colchian witch, and stood around his bed. ‘Why do you hesitate, so timidly?’ she said. ‘Unsheath your blades, and let out the old blood, so that I can fill the empty veins with new! You father’s life and youth are in your hands. If you have any filial affection, if those are not vain hopes that stir you, render your father this service, banish old age with your weapons, and drive out his poisoned blood with a stroke of the iron blade!’
Urged on by these words, the more love each had for him, the quicker she was to act without love, and did evil, to avoid greater evil. Nevertheless they could not bear to see their own blows, and turned their eyes away, and with averted faces, wounded him blindly with cruel hands. Streaming blood, the old man still raised himself on his elbow, and, though mutilated, tried to rise from his bed. Stretching his pallid hands out among the many weapons, he cried ‘Daughters, why are you doing this? What has made you take up weapons against your father’s life?’ Their strength and courage vanished. But as he was about to utter more words, the Colchian witch cut his throat, and plunged his torn body into the seething water.
Now Theseus came to Athens, Aegeus’s son, but as yet unknown to him. He, by his courage, had brought peace to the Isthmus between the two gulfs. Medea, seeking his destruction, prepared a mixture of poisonous aconite, she had brought with her from the coast of Scythia. This poison is said to have dripped from the teeth of Cerberus, the Echidnean dog. There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays. Cerberus, provoked to a rabid frenzy, filled all the air with his simultaneous three-headed howling, and spattered the green fields with white flecks of foam. These are supposed to have congealed and found food to multiply, gaining harmful strength from the rich soil. Because they are long-lived, springing from the hard rock, the country people call these shoots, of wolf-bane, ‘soil-less’ aconites. Through his wife’s cunning Aegeus, the father, himself offered the poison to his son, as if he were a stranger. Theseus, unwittingly, had taken the cup he was given in his right hand, when his father recognised the emblems of his own house, on the ivory hilt of his son’s sword, and knocked the evil drink away from his mouth. But she escaped death, in a dark mist, raised by her incantations.
Though the father was overjoyed that his son was unharmed, he was still horrified that so great a crime could have come so close to success. He lit fires on the altars, and heaped gifts for the gods. His axes struck the mountainous necks of oxen, their horns tied with the sacrificial ribbons. They say that was the happiest day that dawned in the city of Erectheus. The statesmen celebrated among the people, and they sang verses, made even more inspired by the wine.
for the blood of the Cretan bull,
your act and gift made Cromyon’s fields
safe for the farmers plough.
Epidaurus’s land saw you defeat
Vulcan’s club-wielding son,
and the banks of the River Cephisus
saw evil Procrustes brought down.
witnessed Cercyon’s fall:
twisted to evil art,
who could bend pine-tree trunks to the earth,
and tear men’s bodies apart:
and Sciron is done for, and safe paths reach
though the ocean denied his bones a grave,
and the land denied the same,
till, long-time hurled, they hardened to cliffs,
and the cliffs bear Sciron’s name.
If we wanted to count your years and your honours,
the deeds would exceed the years:
to you, the bravest, we empty our wine-cups,
and offer our public prayers.’
The palace echoed to the people’s applause and the prayers of friends, and there was no sad place in the whole city.
Nevertheless Aegeus’s pleasure in receiving his son was not carefree (indeed, joy is never complete, and some trouble always comes to spoil our delight). Minos, of Crete, was preparing for war. Powerful in men and ships, his anger as a father was more powerful still, and by right of arms he was seeking to avenge the death of Androgeos, his son. But first he acquired allies for his war, crossing the sea in the swift fleet that was his strength. The island of Anaphe joined with him, and that of Astypalaea (Anaphe by promises, Astypalaea by Cretan supremacy in war); low-lying Myconos, and chalky-soiled Cimolos; Syros flowering with thyme, flat Seriphos, marble-cliffed Paros, and Siphnos, betrayed to him by that disloyal princess, Arne, whom, when she had taken the gold her greed demanded, the gods changed into a bird, the black-footed, black-winged jackdaw, that still delights in gold.
But Oliaros gave no aid to the Cretan ships; nor Didyme, Tenos, Andros, Gyaros; nor Peparethos rich in bright olives. Sailing northwest Minos sought Oenopia, the kingdom of the Aeacidae. They called it Oenopia in ancient times, but Aeacus himself named it Aegina after his mother. The crowd rushed down, to meet Minos, wanting to see so famous a man. Telamon went to him, and Peleus, junior to Telamon, and Phocus, the third child, their half-brother. Aeacus himself came, also, slow with the burden of years, and asked the cause of his visit. The ruler of a hundred cities sighed, reminded of his grief for his son, and replied ‘I beg your aid in a war, waged for my son’s sake; to be part of a just fight: I ask the comfort of marking out his tomb. The grandson of Asopus said ‘You ask in vain what my city cannot give. No city is more closely linked to Athens, city of Cecrops, than this; we and they are bound by treaty.’
Minos turned away, sadly, saying ‘Your treaty will cost you dear’, since he thought it more useful to threaten war than to fight, and consume his strength too soon. The Cretan fleet could still be seen from Aegina’s walls, when a ship from Athens arrived, under full sail, and entered the allied port, bearing Cephalus, and likewise greetings from his country. Though they had not seen him for a long time, the sons of Aeacus still knew him, and clasped his right hand, and led him to their father’s house. The hero went forward, observed on all sides, even now retaining traces of his former beauty, carrying a branch of his country’s olive. And to right and left, he, the elder, had two younger men, Clytos and Butes, the sons of Pallas.
After meeting and exchanging a few words, Cephalus described his mandate from Athens, asking for help and quoting the treaty sworn to by their ancestors, adding that Minos was out to control all Achaia. When he had invoked the treaty, in this way, to aid his cause, Aeacus, resting his left hand on the handle of his sceptre, replied ‘Don’t ask for our help, assume it. Don’t hesitate to reckon the forces of this island your own, and (let this state of my fortunes last!) energy is not lacking. I have men enough, and thank the gods, the moment is auspicious and there will be no excuses.’ ‘I wish it may always be so’ Cephalus said ‘and may your city swell its numbers. Indeed, as I came I felt happy: so many equally youthful, handsome people, meeting me on the way. Yet there were many I missed, that I saw before, when I visited the city.’ Aeacus sighed, and spoke sadly. ‘From a bad beginning, better fortune follows. I wish I could recall the one for you without the other! I’ll take them in order, now, and not stall you with irrelevances. Those your mind, remembering, misses are only bones and ashes, and how great a part of my wealth perished with them!
A terrible plague afflicted the people through the unjust anger of Juno, detesting us because our island had been named after my mother, her rival. While it looked like a human disease, and the cause of the disastrous epidemic was hidden, we fought it with medical skill. But the destruction cancelled out our efforts, which waned as we were conquered. At the outset the sky shrouded the earth in a thick fog, and held the sultry heat under clouds. While Luna filled her horns, four times, to make her disc complete, and, four times, thinned her full disc away, hot southerly winds breathed their deadly air on us. We know the pestilence reached our lakes and streams. Thousands of snakes slithered through the empty fields, and fouled the waters with their slime. The unexpected power of the disease surprised us, at the first, with its destruction of dogs, sheep and cattle, wild animals and birds. The wretched ploughman watches in dismay as sturdy oxen stumble in their task, and sink down onto the furrows. The flocks of sheep give out a sickly bleating, while the wool falls away of itself, and their bodies waste. The spirited horse, once famous on the track, loses his glory, and forgetting past honour, whinnies in his stall, dying a slow death. The wild boar no longer remembers his fury; the deer cannot trust to speed; the bears cannot match the strength of the herds. Lethargy grips them all. Decaying carcasses lie in the roadways, fields and woods, and the air is fouled with the stench. Strangely, dogs, carrion birds, and grey wolves, will not touch them. They rot on the ground, pollute the air with their dying breath, and spread contagion far and wide.
Increasing in virulence the pestilence spreads to the luckless farmers themselves, and takes lordship inside the city walls. Firstly the inner organs grow hot, and a flushed skin and feverish breath are symptoms of hidden warmth. The tongue is rough and swollen with heat: the lips are parted, parched with dry breath, and gasping, suck in the heavy air. The sick cannot tolerate a bed or any kind of covering, but lie face down on the bare ground, though the earth does not cool their bodies, their bodies heat the earth.
No one can control it, and it breaks out fiercely among the doctors themselves, and the practice of their skill condemns the practitioners. The nearer people are to the sick, and the more selflessly they attend them, the more swiftly they meet their fate, and as the hope of recovery deserts them, and they see the end of their illness only in death, they give way to their desires, and ignore what is good for them, since nothing is any good. Everywhere they cling to the fountains and runnels and deep wells, and drinking, thirst is not quenched sooner than life. Many of them are too weak to stand, and even die in the water, yet others still draw it. Others loathe their hateful beds so much they leave them, and if they lack the strength to stand, they roll out onto the ground. They quit their household gods since their house seems fatal to them, and, because the cause is unknown, the building itself is blamed. You see them, half-dead, wandering the streets, while they can still stay on their feet, others lying on the ground weeping, turning their exhausted gaze upwards in their dying efforts, and stretching their arms out to the stars in the overhanging sky, breathing their last, here or there, wherever death has overtaken them.
What were my feelings then? What could they be, but to hate life, and to wish to be with my people? Wherever I looked as I turned my gaze, there were layers of dead, like rotten apples fallen from shaken branches, or acorns from a windblown ilex. See that temple opposite on the hill with a flight of steps up to it? It is Jupiter’s. Who among us did not bring useless offerings to those shrines? How often a husband while still praying for his wife, or a father still praying for his son, ended his life in front of those implacable altars, part of the unused incense found in their hands! How often the sacrificial bulls fell down, without waiting for the blow, while the priest was praying and pouring unmixed wine between the horns. Even when I was sacrificing to Jove, for myself my country and my three sons, the victim let out a dreadful moan, and suddenly collapsed without a stroke from my blade, barely staining the knives below with its blood. The diseased entrails showed no marks, from which to read the prophetic truths, and warnings, of the gods. That offensive morbidity penetrated to their vital organs. I have seen corpses thrown down in front of the temple doors, in front of the altars, to make their deaths even more of a reproach. Some cut off their breath with a noose, and banished, by death, their fear of death, summoning their approaching fate from the beyond.
The bodies of the dead were not given the usual rites (the exit gates from the city could not cope with so many funerals). They either lay on the ground unburied, or were given to the heaped pyres without ceremony. And now there was no reverence left: the people struggled to the pyres, and were consumed by others’ flames. There was no one left to mourn, and the spirits of parents and children, of young and old were left to wander, unwept. There was no space in the burial mounds, and not enough wood for the fires.’
Stunned by such a storm of dark events, I said ‘O Jupiter, if they do not lie when they say that you were held in Aegina’s embrace, she, the daughter of Asopus, and if you are not ashamed, mighty father, to have fathered me, give me back my people or bury me too in their tomb.’ He gave me a flash of lightning as a sign, and thunder followed. I said ‘I interpret this to be an omen, and that you give me it as a pledge, and may these accordingly be auspicious tokens of your purpose.’
There happened to be an oak-tree nearby, with open spreading branches, seeded from Dodona, and sacred to Jove. I noticed a long train of food-gathering ants, carrying vast loads in their tiny mouths, and forging their own way over its corrugated bark. Admiring their numbers, I said ‘Best of fathers, give me as many citizens as this and fill the city’s empty walls.’ The tall oak-tree quivered, and its branches filled with sound, without a wind. I shivered, my limbs quaking with fear, and my hair stood on end. Though I kissed the oak-tree and the earth, not acknowledging my hopes, yet I did hope, and cherished my longings in my heart. Night fell, and sleep claimed my care-worn body.
The same oak-tree was there before my eyes, with the same branches, and the same insects on its branches, and it shook with a similar motion, and seemed to scatter its column of grain-bearers onto the ground below. Suddenly they seemed to grow larger and larger, and raise themselves from the soil, and stand erect, they lost their leanness, many feet, and their black coloration, and their limbs took on human form. Sleep vanished. Awake again, I dismissed my dream, bemoaning the lack of help from the gods. But there was a great murmuring in the palace, and I thought I heard human voices, those I was now unaccustomed to. While I suspected that it was an effect of sleep, Telamon came running and throwing open the door, shouted ‘Father, come out and see, something greater than you could hope or believe. Come now!’
I went, and saw such men as I had seen in sleep’s imagining, in ranks such as I recognised and knew. They approached and saluted me as king. I fulfilled my prayer to Jove, and divided the city amongst this new people, along with the lost farmers’ empty fields. I called them Myrmidons, a name that did not belie each one’s origin as an ant, μύρμηξ. You have seen their bodies: they still retain the habits they had before, a thrifty, hard-working people, tenacious of achievement, and keeping what they achieve. These men fresh in years and spirit, will follow you to war, as soon as that favourable east wind that brought you here’ (it was indeed an easterly that had brought him) ‘has swung round to the south.’
They filled a long day with this and other talk: the last of the light was given over to feasting, and night to sleep. The sun shone gold again, but an east wind was still blowing, and kept the sails from the homeward voyage. The sons of Pallas joined Cephalus, their senior, and Cephalus and the princes then went to the king: but the king was still in a deep sleep. Phocus, Aeacus’s son, received them at the threshold, since Telamon and his brother were selecting men for the war. Phocus led the Athenians into an inner walk, beautiful and secluded, where they sat down together, and noticed that the grandson of Aeolus carried a spear in his hand, tipped with gold, and made of an unknown wood. In the midst of their first short conversation, he said ‘I am knowledgeable about woodland, and hunting wild animals, but I have been wondering for a while what tree that shaft was cut from. If it were ash it would be deep yellow, and if it were cornelian cherry it would be knotted. What it is I am ignorant of, but my eyes have never seen one more beautifully formed for throwing.’ One of the Athenian brothers replied ‘You will marvel at its usefulness more than at its looks. It hits whatever it is aimed at: there is no chance involved, and then it flies back, bloodied, without needing to be retrieved.’ Then truly the son of the Nereid wanted to know everything: why this was so, where it came from, and who gave such a wondrous gift. What he wanted to know, Cephalus told him, but was still ashamed to say what a high price it had cost him. He was silent, and touched with sadness for his lost wife, tears welling in his eyes, he uttered these words.
‘Son of the goddess, this weapon makes me weep (who would believe that?) and it will for many years if the fates grant me them. This weapon did for my dear wife and me. I wish that I had always been without it! She was Procris, or if Orithyia’s name has chanced to fill your ears more loudly, the sister of that Orithyia whom Boreas stole, though if you were to compare the two in looks and manner, Procris was more worth stealing! Her father Erechtheus brought us together in marriage, and love brought us together too. I was called happy, and I was. But the gods’ vision of the future was otherwise, or perhaps things would still be so.
The second month after our marriage, I was setting out nets to trap antlered deer, when golden Aurora, chasing away the shadows, saw me from the summit of Mount Hymettus, that is always bright with flowers, and took me away against my will. By the grace of the goddess I can repeat the truth: though her face has the blush of roses, though she keeps the borderland of light and night, though she drinks the dewy nectar, I was in love with Procris. Procris was in my heart: Procris was always on my lips. I kept talking about the sacred marriage bed, and the newness of our union, the recent wedding, and the prior claim of our deserted couch. The goddess was angered and said “Stop complaining, ungrateful man: have your Procris! But if my vision is far-sighted, you will wish you had never had her.” In a fury, she sent me back to her.
As I was returning, reconsidering the goddess’s words, I began to fear lest my wife had not been faithful to our marriage vows. Her youth and beauty prompted thoughts of adultery, but her character forbade those thoughts. But I had been away a while, and she from whom I was returning was herself an example of the fault, and lovers fear the worst. I decided to try what might grieve me, testing her chaste loyalty with gifts. Aurora supported my fears, and she changed my appearance (I felt it happening).
Unrecognisable, I went back to Athens, city of Pallas, and entered my house. The house itself was irreproachable, gave every sign of innocence, and was only anxious for its vanished master. With difficulty, by a thousand stratagems, I gained access to Erechtheus’s daughter. When I saw her I was rooted to the spot, and almost relinquished my thoughts of testing her loyalty. Indeed I could hardly keep from confessing the truth, and hardly keep from kissing her, as I ought. She was sad (but no one could be more lovely than her in her sadness). She grieved with longing for the husband who had been snatched away. Phocus, she was Beauty, whom Grief itself so befits! Why should I tell how many times her chaste nature repelled my advances? All those many times she said “I hold myself, in trust, for one man only: wherever he is, I keep what I can give, in trust, for that one man.” For whom, in his senses, was that not a great enough trial of loyalty? But I was not satisfied, and struggled on, wounding myself, until by promising to give a fortune for just one night with her, and then increasing the offer, I forced her to hesitate. Wrongly victorious, I cried out “I am no adulterer, wicked one! I am your true husband! You have me for a witness, you traitress!”
She said not a word. Silent with overwhelming shame, she fled from the treacherous threshold, and her evil husband. Deeply hurt by me, and hating the whole race of men, she wandered the mountains, following the ways of Diana. Then, deserted, a more violent flame burned in my bones. I begged her forgiveness, and confessed I had sinned, and that I too might have succumbed to the same fault, given the offer, if such gifts were offered to me. When I had owned to this, and after she had first taken revenge for her wounded honour, she returned to me, and we lived out sweet years in harmony. Moreover, as though she in yielding herself gave only a small prize, she gave me a hound as a gift, that her own goddess Cynthia had entrusted to her, saying “he will surpass all other dogs for speed.” She gave me a spear, likewise, the one, you see, I have in my hands. Do you want to know the fate of the other gift? Listen to something marvellous: you will be stirred by the strangeness of the thing!’
‘Oedipus, son of Laïus, had solved with his genius the riddles whose meaning was previously not understood, and the Sphinx, dark prophetess, had hurtled headlong from the cliff, her enigmatic words forgotten. Immediately Aonian Thebes was plagued again (since righteous Themis does not leave such things unpunished!) and many country people feared that the Teumessian vixen would destroy their flocks and themselves. The young men of the neighbourhood came, and we beat over the wide fields. That swift creature leapt lightly over the nets, and cleared the tops of the traps we had set. Then we slipped our hounds from the tether, but she escaped their pursuit, and, travelling no slower than a bird flies, mocked the pack. With one great shout the hunters called on me to loose Laelaps, ‘Hurricane’ (the name of my wife’s gift). He had long been struggling to free himself from his leash, and straining his neck against the restraint. He had scarcely been released properly before we lost sight of him.
The hot dust showed the print of his paws, but he had vanished from sight. No javelin was quicker than him, no lead shot from a whirled sling, no light arrow shot from a Cretan bow. There was an intervening hill whose summit overlooked the surrounding fields. I climbed it, and watched the spectacle of this strange race, where the quarry seemed to be caught, and then to escape its fate. Nor does the cunning animal run in a straight course in the open, but it eludes the pursuing muzzle and swings back in a circle, so its enemy cannot charge. The hound presses hard, and matches its pace, seems to grip it, and does not grip it, and worries at the air with its empty snapping.
I turned to my spear for help. While I was balancing it in my right hand, while I was trying to fit my fingers into the throwing strap, I turned my eyes away. When I turned them back to the same place, I saw (a marvel) two shapes of marble in the middle of the plain. One you would think to be fleeing, the other pursuing. Assuredly, if a god was with them, that god must have willed that both should be unconquered in the race,’ He got so far in his story, and was silent. ‘What crime has the spear committed?’ said Phocus. And Cephalus recounted its crime.
‘Phocus, my happiness was the beginning of my sorrow, and I will speak of happiness first. Son of Aeacus, what a joy it is to remember that blessed time, when, in those early years, I was delighted, and rightly so, with my wife, and she was delighted with her husband. We two had mutual cares, and a shared love. She would not have preferred Jupiter’s bed to my love, and no woman could have captured me, not if Venus herself had come there. An equal flame burnt in our hearts.
Just after dawn, when the first rays struck the hilltops, full of youthfulness, I used to go hunting in the woods. I used to take no servants, or horses, or keen-sc