OVID: The Metamorphoses
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2000 All Rights Reserved
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Hymen, called by the voice of Orpheus, departed, and, dressed in his saffron robes, made his way through the vast skies to the Ciconian coast: but in vain. He was present at Orpheus’s marriage, true, but he did not speak the usual words, display a joyful expression, or bring good luck. The torch, too, that he held, sputtered continually, with tear-provoking fumes, and no amount of shaking contrived to light it properly. The result was worse than any omens. While the newly wedded bride, Eurydice, was walking through the grass, with a crowd of naiads as her companions, she was killed, by a bite on her ankle, from a snake, sheltering there. When Thracian Orpheus, the poet of Rhodope, had mourned for her, greatly, in the upper world, he dared to go down to Styx, through the gate of Taenarus, also, to see if he might not move the dead.
Through the weightless throng, and the ghosts that had received proper burial, he came to Persephone, and the lord of the shadows, he who rules the joyless kingdom. Then striking the lyre-strings to accompany his words, he sang: ‘O gods of this world, placed below the earth, to which all, who are created mortal, descend; if you allow me, and it is lawful, to set aside the fictions of idle tongues and speak the truth, I have not come here to see dark Tartarus, nor to bind Cerberus, Medusa’s child, with his three necks, and snaky hair. My wife is the cause of my journey. A viper she trod on diffused its venom into her body, and robbed her of her best years. I longed to be able to accept it, and I do not say I have not tried: Love won.
He is a god well known in the world above, though I do not know if it is so here: though I do imagine him to be here, as well, and if the story of that rape in ancient times is not a lie, you also were wedded by Amor. I beg you, by these fearful places, by this immense abyss, and the silence of your vast realms, reverse Eurydice’s swift death. All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later we hasten home. Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race. Eurydice, too, will be yours to command, when she has lived out her fair span of years, to maturity. I ask this benefit as a gift; but, if the fates refuse my wife this kindness, I am determined not to return: you can delight in both our deaths.’
The bloodless spirits wept as he spoke, accompanying his words with the music. Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water: Ixion’s wheel was stilled: the vultures did not pluck at Tityus’s liver: the Belides, the daughters of Danaüs, left their water jars: and you, Sisyphus, perched there, on your rock. Then they say, for the first time, the faces of the Furies were wet with tears, won over by his song: the king of the deep, and his royal bride, could not bear to refuse his prayer, and called for Eurydice.
She was among the recent ghosts, and walked haltingly from her wound. The poet of Rhodope received her, and, at the same time, accepted this condition, that he must not turn his eyes behind him, until he emerged from the vale of Avernus, or the gift would be null and void.
They took the upward path, through the still silence, steep and dark, shadowy with dense fog, drawing near to the threshold of the upper world. Afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her, the lover turned his eyes. In an instant she dropped back, and he, unhappy man, stretching out his arms to hold her and be held, clutched at nothing but the receding air. Dying a second time, now, there was no complaint to her husband (what, then, could she complain of, except that she had been loved?). She spoke a last ‘farewell’ that, now, scarcely reached his ears, and turned again towards that same place.
Stunned by the double loss of his wife, Orpheus was like that coward who saw Cerberus, the three-headed dog, chained by the central neck, and whose fear vanished with his nature, as stone transformed his body. Or like Olenos, and you, his Lethaea, too proud of your beauty: he wished to be charged with your crime, and seem guilty himself: once wedded hearts, you are now rocks set on moist Mount Ida.
Orpheus wished and prayed, in vain, to cross the Styx again, but the ferryman fended him off. Still, for seven days, he sat there by the shore, neglecting himself and not taking nourishment. Sorrow, troubled thought, and tears were his food. He took himself to lofty Mount Rhodope, and Haemus, swept by the winds, complaining that the gods of Erebus were cruel.
Three times the sun had ended the year, in watery Pisces, and Orpheus had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him, or because he had sworn to do so. Yet, many felt a desire to be joined with the poet, and many grieved at rejection. Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering, this side of manhood.
There was a hill, and, on the hill, a wide area of level ground, turfed with fresh blades of grass: shade was absent there: but when the poet, born of the god, sounded the strings of his lyre, shade gathered there. Jupiter’s Chaonian oak-tree came; and Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, the poplars; the durmast oak with its deep foliage; the soft lime-tree; the beech; the virgin sweet-bay, laurel; the hazel, frail; the ash-tree, used for spears; the sweeping silver-fir: holm-oak, heavy with acorns; pleasant plane-tree; the many-coloured maple; with the river-haunting willow; lotus, water-lover; boxwood ever-verdant; the slender tamarisk; the myrtle, with, over and under its leaves, the two shades of green; and the blue-berried wild-bay, laurus tinus. You came, also, twining ivy, together with shooting vines; the vine-supporting elms; the flowering ‘manna’ ash; the spruce; the strawberry tree, weighed down with its red fruit; the pliant palms, the winner’s prize; and you, the shaggy-topped pine tree, armed with needles, sacred to Cybele, mother of the gods, since Attis exchanged his human form for you, and hardened in your trunk.
Among the crowd came the cypress, formed like the cone-shaped meta, that marks the turning point in the race-course: once a boy, but now a tree: loved by the god who tunes the lyre, and strings the bow.
There was a giant stag, sacred to the nymphs that haunt the Carthaean country, which cast deep shadows, around its head, from his wide-branching antlers. The antlers shone with gold, and the gems of a jewelled collar, around his polished neck, hung down onto his shoulders. A bulla, a silver charm, fastened with small strips of leather, quivered on his forehead, and on either side of his hollow temples matching pearls of bronze gleamed from both ears. Free from fear, and forgetting his natural shyness, he used to visit people’s houses, and offer his neck to be stroked by strangers’ hands. Yet, above all others, he was dear to you, Cyparissus, loveliest of the Cean boys. You led the stag to fresh pastures, and the waters of the clear spring. Now you would weave diverse flowers through his horns, and then, astride his back like a horseman, delight in tugging his soft mouth one way or the other by means of a purple muzzle.
It was noon of a summer’s day, when the curving claws of shore-loving Cancer were burning in the hot sun. Tired, the stag had settled its body on the grassy turf and was enjoying the cool of the woodland shade. The boy, without intention, transfixed it with his sharp spear, and when he saw it dying from the cruel wound, he wished to die himself. What was there Phoebus did not say, in solace, advising a moderate grief matching the cause! He only sighed, and begged, as the last gift of the gods, that he might mourn forever. Then, his blood discharged among endless tears, his limbs began to turn to a shade of green, and his hair that a moment ago hung over his pale forehead, became a bristling crown, and he stiffened to a graceful point gazing at the starry heavens. The god sighed for him, and said, sadly: ‘I will mourn for you: you will mourn for others, and enter into sorrows’.
Such was the grove of trees the poet gathered round him, and he sat in the midst of a crowd, of animals and birds. When he had tried a few chords, stroking the lyre with his thumb, and felt that the various notes were in tune, regardless of their pitch, he raised his voice to sing: ‘Begin my song with Jupiter, Calliope, O Muse, my mother (all things bow to Jupiter’s might)! I have often sung the power of Jove before: I have sung of the Giants, in an epic strain, and the victorious lightning bolts, hurled at the Phlegraean field. Now there is gentler work for the lyre, and I sing of boys loved by the gods, and girls stricken with forbidden fires, deserving punishment for their lust.
The king of the gods once burned with love for Phrygian Ganymede, and to win him Jupiter chose to be something other than he was. Yet he did not deign to transform himself into any other bird, than that eagle, that could carry his lightning bolts. Straightaway, he beat the air with deceitful wings, and stole the Trojan boy, who still handles the mixing cups, and against Juno’s will pours out Jove’s nectar.
You too, Hyacinthus, of Amyclae, Phoebus would have placed in heaven, if sad fate had given him time to do so. Still, as it is, you are immortal, and whenever spring drives winter away, and Aries follows watery Pisces, you also rise, and flower in the green turf. My father, Phoebus, loved you above all others: and Delphi, at the centre of the world, lost its presiding deity, while the god frequented Eurotas, and Sparta without its walls, doing no honour to the zither or the bow. Forgetting his usual pursuits, he did not object to carrying the nets, handling the dogs, or travelling as a companion, over the rough mountain ridges, and by constant partnership feeding the flames.
Now, the sun was midway between the vanished and the future night, equally far from either extreme: they stripped off their clothes, and gleaming with the rich olive oil, they had rubbed themselves with, they began a contest with the broad discus. Phoebus went first, balancing it, and hurling it high into the air, scattering the clouds with its weight. Its mass took a long time to fall back to the hard ground, showing strength and skill combined. Immediately the Taenarian boy, without thinking, ran forward to pick up the disc, prompted by his eagerness to throw, but the solid earth threw it back, hitting you in the face, with the rebound, Hyacinthus.
The god is as white as the boy, and cradles the fallen body. Now he tries to revive you, now to staunch your dreadful wound, and now applies herbs to hold back your departing spirit. His arts are useless: the wound is incurable. Just as if, when someone, in a garden, breaks violets, stiff poppies, or the lilies with their bristling yellow stamens, and, suddenly, they droop, bowing their weakened heads, unable to support themselves, and their tops gaze at the soil: so his dying head drops, and, with failing strength, the neck is overburdened, and sinks onto the shoulder.
‘You slip away, Spartan, robbed of the flower of youth’ Phoebus sighed, ‘and I see my guilt, in your wound. You are my grief and my reproach: your death must be ascribed to my hand. I am the agent of your destruction. Yet, how was it my fault, unless taking part in a game can be called a fault, unless it can be called a fault to have loved you? If only I might die with you, and pay with my life! But since the laws of fate bind us, you shall always be with me, and cling to my remembering lips. My songs; the lyre my hand touches; will celebrate you. As a new-formed flower, you shall denote my woe, by your markings. And the time will come, when Ajax, bravest of heroes, will associate himself with this same flower, and be identified by its petals.
While the truthful mouth of Apollo uttered these words, look, the blood that had spilt on the ground staining the grass was no longer blood, and a flower sprang up, brighter than Tyrian dye, and took the shape of a lily, though it was purple in colour, where the other is silvery white. Not satisfied with this alone, Phoebus (he, indeed, was the giver of the honour) himself marked his grief on the petals, and the flower bore the letters AI AI, the letters of woe traced there. Nor was Sparta ashamed of producing Hyacinthus: his honour has lasted to this day, and by ancient custom the Hyacinthia is celebrated, at its annual return, by displaying the flower in procession.’
‘But if you should ask the Cyprian city of Amathus, rich in mines, whether it would have wished to have produced those girls, the Propoetides, it would repudiate them, and equally those men, whose foreheads were once marred by two horns, from which they took their name, Cerastae. An altar, to Jove the Hospitable, used to stand in front of the gates: if any stranger, ignorant of their wickedness, had seen it, stained with blood, they would have thought that calves or sheep, from Amathus, were sacrificed there: it was their guests they killed! Kindly Venus was preparing to abandon her cities, and the Cyprian fields, outraged by their abominable rites, but ‘How,’ she said, ‘have my cities, or this dear place, sinned? What is their crime? Instead, let this impious race pay the penalty of death or exile, or some punishment between execution and banishment, and what might that be but the penalty of being transformed?’ While she is deciding how to alter them, she turns her eyes towards their horns, and this suggests that she might leave them those, and she changed them into wild bullocks.
Nevertheless, the immoral Propoetides dared to deny that Venus was the goddess. For this, because of her divine anger, they are said to have been the first to prostitute their bodies and their reputations in public, and, losing all sense of shame, they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.’
‘Pygmalion had seen them, spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed. But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation. The features are those of a real girl, who, you might think, lived, and wished to move, if modesty did not forbid it. Indeed, art hides his art. He marvels: and passion, for this bodily image, consumes his heart. Often, he runs his hands over the work, tempted as to whether it is flesh or ivory, not admitting it to be ivory. He kisses it and thinks his kisses are returned; and speaks to it; and holds it, and imagines that his fingers press into the limbs, and is afraid lest bruises appear from the pressure. Now he addresses it with compliments, now brings it gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades’s amber tears, that drip from the trees. He dresses the body, also, in clothing; places rings on the fingers; places a long necklace round its neck; pearls hang from the ears, and cinctures round the breasts. All are fitting: but it appears no less lovely, naked. He arranges the statue on a bed on which cloths dyed with Tyrian murex are spread, and calls it his bedfellow, and rests its neck against soft down, as if it could feel.
The day of Venus’s festival came, celebrated throughout Cyprus, and heifers, their curved horns gilded, fell, to the blow on their snowy neck. The incense was smoking, when Pygmalion, having made his offering, stood by the altar, and said, shyly: “If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish as a bride to have...” and not daring to say “the girl of ivory” he said “one like my ivory girl.” Golden Venus, for she herself was present at the festival, knew what the prayer meant, and as a sign of the gods’ fondness for him, the flame flared three times, and shook its crown in the air. When he returned, he sought out the image of his girl, and leaning over the couch, kissed her. She felt warm: he pressed his lips to her again, and also touched her breast with his hand. The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering under his fingers, as the bees’ wax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is moulded, under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use. The lover is stupefied, and joyful, but uncertain, and afraid he is wrong, reaffirms the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again.
It was flesh! The pulse throbbed under his thumb. Then the hero, of Paphos, was indeed overfull of words with which to thank Venus, and still pressed his mouth against a mouth that was not merely a likeness. The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky. The goddess attended the marriage that she had brought about, and when the moon’s horns had nine times met at the full, the woman bore a son, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name.’
‘Cinyras was the son of Paphos, and he might have been counted amongst the fortunate, if he, in turn, had been childless. I speak of terrible things. Fathers and daughters, keep away: or if your mind takes pleasure in my song, put no faith in this story of mine, and imagine it did not happen. Or, if you do believe it, believe in the punishment also, that it brought. If nature, however, allows such crimes to be visible, then I give thanks that the people of Thrace, this city, and this land, are far from the regions where such sin is born. Let the land of Panchaia, beyond Araby, produce its balsam, cinnamon, costmary; its incense, exuded from the trees; its flowers different from ours; if it produces myrrh: a strange tree is not worth such a price.
Cupid denies that his arrows hurt you, Myrrha, and clears his fires of blame for your crime. One of the three sisters, the Furies, with her swollen snakes, and firebrand from the Styx, breathed on you. It is wrong to hate your father, but that love was a greater wrong than hatred. The pick of the princes, from everywhere, desire you: young men, from the whole of the East, come to win you in marriage. Out of the many, choose one for your husband, Myrrha, but let one man not be amongst the many.
Indeed, she knows it, and fights against her disgraceful passion, and says, to herself: “Where is my thought leading? What am I creating? You gods, I pray, and the duty and sacred laws respecting parents, prevent this wickedness, and oppose my sin, indeed, if sin it is. But it can be said that duty declines to condemn such love. Other creatures mate indiscriminately: it is no disgrace for a heifer to have her sire mount her, for his filly to be a stallion’s mate: the goat goes with the flocks he has made, and the birds themselves conceive, by him whose seed conceived them. Happy the creatures who are allowed to do so! Human concern has made malign laws, and what nature allows, jealous duty forbids.
Yet they say there are races where mother and son, and father and daughter, pair off, and affection is increased by a double bond. Alas for me, that I did not happen to be born there, and that I am made to suffer by an accident of place! – Why do I repeat these things? Forbidden hopes, vanish! He is worth loving, but only as a father. – I could lie with Cinyras, if I were not Cinyras’s already. Now, he is not mine, because he is already mine, and the nearness of our relationship damns me: I would be better off as a stranger. I would be happy to go far away, and leave the borders of my homeland behind me, if I might run from evil: but even if nothing more is permitted, a wicked desire to see Cinyras, touch him, speak to him, and kiss him, face to face, prevents my leaving. But then, what more might you look to have, impious girl? Do you realise how many names and ties you are throwing into confusion? Would you be, then, your mother’s rival, and your father’s mistress? Would you be known, then, as your son’s sister, your brother’s mother? Do you not fear the three sisters, with black snaky hair, that those with guilty hearts, their eyes and mouths attacked with cruel torches, see? Since you have still not committed sin in the flesh, do not conceive it in your mind, or disregard the prohibitions of mighty nature, in vile congress! Grant that you want it: the reality itself forbids it. He is a good man, and mindful of the moral law – but, O, how I wish the same passion were in him!” ’
‘She spoke: Cinyras, however, who was made doubtful of what to do by the crowd of noble suitors, naming them, asked her whom she wanted, as a husband.
At first she is silent, and staring at her father’s face, hesitates, her eyes filling with warm tears. Cinyras thinking this to be virgin shyness, forbids her to cry, dries her cheeks, and kisses her on the lips. Myrrha is overjoyed at this gift, and, being consulted as to what kind of husband she might choose, says: “Someone like you”. Not understanding this, however, he praises her, saying: “Always be so loving.” At the word “loving”, the girl, lowers her glance, conscious of her sin.
It was midnight, and sleep had released mortal flesh from worldly cares, but Cinyras’s daughter, wakeful, stirring the embers, reawakens her ungovernable desires, one moment despairing, at another willing to try, ashamed and eager, not yet discovering what to do. As a tall tree, struck by the axe, the last blow remaining, uncertain how it will fall, causes fear on all sides, so her fickle mind, swayed this way and that, her thought taking both directions, seeing no rest for or end to her passion, but death. She felt ready to die. She got up, determined, to fix a noose round her throat, and, fastening a cord to the doorway’s crossbeam, she said: “Goodbye, dear Cinyras, and realize the reason for my death!” And she tied the rope around her bloodless neck. They say that the murmured words came to the ears of her loyal nurse, who watched at her foster-child’s threshold.
The old woman gets up, and opens the door, and, seeing the equipment of death, cries out, and in the same moment, strikes her breast, snatches at the folds of her robe, and tearing the noose from the girl’s neck, pulls it apart. Then, finally, she has time to cry, to embrace her, and demand the reason for the rope. The girl is mute and still, looking, fixedly, at the ground, and unhappy that her belated attempt at death has been discovered. The old woman insists on knowing, baring her white hair and withered breasts, and begs her to say what grieves her, invoking her infant cradle, and first nurturing.
The girl turns away from her pleading, with a sigh. The nurse is determined to know, and promises more than loyalty. “Tell me,” She says, “and let me bring you some help: age does not slow me. If it is some frenzy, I have herbs and charms that heal: if someone is seeking your harm, I will purify you with magic rites: if the gods are angry, anger is appeased by sacrifice. What else could it be? The destiny of your house is fortunate, and on course: they are well, your mother and father.”
Hearing the word “father”, Myrrha sighed deeply. Even then the nurse had no idea of the sin in her mind, though she guessed it might be some love affair. She begged her, tenaciously, to tell her what it was, and took the weeping girl to her aged breast, and holding her with trembling arms she said: “I know, you are in love! And in this matter (have no fear) my diligence can serve you, your father will never know.” The frenzied girl leapt from her arms, and burying her face in the bed, said, urgently: “Go, I beg you, and forgo the knowledge of my wretched shame! Go, or stop asking why I am grieving. What you are striving to know, is wickedness.” The old woman shuddered, and stretching out her hands that trembled with age and fear, she fell at her foster-child’s feet, pleading, then coaxing, then frightening her, into making her party to it. She threatens her with the evidence of the noose, and the attempt on her life, and promises her help in her love affair. The girl raises her head, and her welling tears rain on her nurse’s breast. She often tries to confess, and often stops herself, and hides her face, in shame, in her clothing: then gets as far as “Mother, you are happy in your husband!” and sighs.
A shudder of cold penetrated the nurse’s flesh and bone (now she understood) and her white hair stiffened all over her head. She told her at length, to banish, if she could, this fatal passion. Though the girl knew she was being advised rightly, she was still determined to die, if she could not possess her love. “Live,” said the nurse, “possess your....” - and did not dare say: “father”. She was silent, and confirmed her promise in the sight of heaven.’
‘The married women were celebrating that annual festival of Ceres, when, with their bodies veiled in white robes, they offer the first fruits of the harvest, wreathes of corn, and, for nine nights, treat sexual union, and the touch of a man, as forbidden. Cenchreis, the king’s wife was among the crowd, frequenting the sacred rites. Finding Cinyras drunk with wine, the king’s bed empty of his lawful partner, the nurse, wrongly diligent, told him of one who truly loved him, giving him a fictitious name, and praised her beauty. He, asking the girl’s age, she said: “Myrrha’s is the same.” After she had been ordered to bring her, and had reached home, she said: “Be happy, my child, we have won!” The unhappy girl felt no joy at all in her heart, and her heart prophetically mourned, yet she was still glad: such was her confusion of mind.
It was the hour, when all is silent, and Boötes, between the Bears, had turned his wagon, with downward-pointing shaft: she approached the sinful act. The golden moon fled the sky; black clouds covered the hidden stars; night lacked its fires. You, Icarius, and you, Erigone, his daughter, immortalised for your pious love of your father, hid your faces first. Myrrha was checked by an omen, three times, when her foot stumbled: three times, the gloomy screech owl gave her warning, with its fatal cry: she still went on, her shame made less by blindness and black night. With her left hand, she kept tight hold of her nurse, groping with the other she found a way through the dark.
Now she reaches the threshold of the room, now she opens the door, now is led inside. But her trembling knees give way, her colour flees with her blood, and thought vanishes as she goes forward. The closer she is to her sin, the more she shudders at it, repents of her audacity, and wants to be able to turn back, unrecognised. When she hesitated, the old woman took her by the hand, and, leading her to the high bed, delivered her up, saying: “Take her Cinyras, she is yours”, uniting their accursed flesh. The father admitted his own child into the incestuous bed, calmed her virgin fears, and encouraged her timidity. Perhaps he also said the name, “daughter”, in accordance with her age, and she said, “father”, so that their names were not absent from their sin.
She left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived. The next night the crime was repeated: nor did it finish there. Eventually, Cinyras, eager to discover his lover after so many couplings, fetching a light, saw his daughter and his guilt, and speechless from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in. Myrrha ran, escaping death, by the gift of darkness and secret night. Wandering the wide fields, she left the land of Panchaea, and palm-bearing Arabia, behind, and after roaming through nine returns of the crescent moon, weary, she rested at last in the land of the Sabaeans.
Now she could scarcely bear the weight of her womb. Tired of living, and scared of dying, not knowing what to pray for, she composed these words of entreaty: “O, if there are any gods who hear my prayer, I do not plead against my well deserved punishment, but lest, by being, I offend the living, or, by dying, offend the dead, banish me from both realms, and change me, and deny me life and death!” Some god listened to her prayer: certainly the last request found its path to the heavens. While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark. And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck: she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood, to meet it, and plunged her face into the bark.
Though she has lost her former senses with her body, she still weeps, and the warm drops trickle down from the tree. There is merit, also, in the tears: and the myrrh that drips from the bark keeps its mistress’s name, and, about it, no age will be silent.’
‘The child, conceived in sin, had grown within the tree, and was now searching for a way to leave its mother, and reveal itself. The pregnant womb swells within the tree trunk, the burden stretching the mother. The pain cannot form words, nor can Lucina be called on, in the voice of a woman in labour. Nevertheless the tree bends, like one straining, and groans constantly, and is wet with falling tears. Gentle Lucina stood by the suffering branches, and laid her hands on them, speaking words that aid childbirth. At this the tree split open, and, from the torn bark, gave up its living burden, and the child cried. The naiads laid him on the soft grass, and anointed him with his mother’s tears. Even Envy would praise his beauty, being so like one of the torsos of naked Amor painted on boards. But to stop them differing in attributes, you must add a light quiver, for him, or take theirs away from them.
Transient time slips by us unnoticed, betrays us, and nothing outpaces the years. That son of his grandfather, sister, now hid in a tree, and now born, then a most beautiful child, then a boy, now a man, now more beautiful than he was before, now interests Venus herself, and avenges his mother’s desire. For while the boy, Cupid, with quiver on shoulder, was kissing his mother, he innocently scratched her breast with a loose arrow. The injured goddess pushed her son away: but the wound he had given was deeper than it seemed, and deceived her at first. Now captured by mortal beauty, she cares no more for Cythera’s shores, nor revisits Paphos, surrounded by its deep waters, nor Cnidos, the haunt of fish, nor Amathus, rich in mines: she even forgoes the heavens: preferring Adonis to heaven.
She holds him, and is his companion, and though she is used to always idling in the shade, and, by cultivating it, enhancing her beauty, she roams mountain ridges, and forests, and thorny cliff-sides, her clothing caught up to the knee, like Diana. And she cheers on the hounds, chasing things safe to hunt, hares flying headlong, stags with deep horns, or their hinds. She avoids the strong wild boars, the ravening wolves, and shuns the bears armed with claws, and the lions glutted with the slaughter of cattle. She warns you Adonis, as if it were ever effective to warn, to fear them too, saying: “Be bold when they run, but bravery is unsafe when faced with the brave. Do not be foolish, beware of endangering me, and do not provoke the creatures nature has armed, lest your glory is to my great cost. Neither youth nor beauty, nor the charms that affect Venus, affect lions or bristling boars or the eyes and minds of other wild creatures. Boars have the force of a fierce lightning bolt in their curving tusks, and so does the attack of tawny lions, in their huge anger: the whole tribe are hateful to me.”
When he asks her why, she says: “I will tell, and you will wonder, at the monstrous result of an ancient crime. But now the unaccustomed effort tires me, and, look, a poplar tree entices us with its welcome shade, and the turf yields a bed. I should like to rest here on the ground,” (and she rested) “with you.” She hugged the grass, and him, and leaning her head against the breast of the reclining youth, she spoke these words, interspersing them with kisses:’
‘ “Perhaps you have heard of a girl who beat the fastest men at running: that was no idle tale, she did win. Nor could you say whether her speed or her beauty was more deserving of high praise. Enquiring of the god, about a husband, the god replied: ‘You don’t need a husband, Atalanta: run from the necessity for a husband. Nevertheless, you will not escape, and, still living, you will not be yourself.’ Afraid of the god’s oracle, she lived in the dark forests, unmarried, and fled from the crowd of insistent suitors, setting harsh conditions: ‘I will not be won, till I am beaten in running. Compete in the foot-race with me. Wife and bed will be given as prizes to the swift, death to the tardy: let those be the rules.’
Truly she was pitiless, but (such was the power of her beauty) a rash crowd of suitors came, despite the rules. Hippomenes had taken his seat as a spectator at the unjust contest, and said ‘Who would try for a wife at such a risk?’ condemning the young men for their excess of passion. But when he saw her face and her unclothed body, one like mine, Adonis, or like yours if you were a woman, he was stunned. Stretching out his hands, he said: ‘Forgive me, you, that I just blamed! I had not yet realised what the prize was you were after.’ Praising her, he falls in love with her, and hopes none of the youths run faster, afraid, through jealousy. ‘But why, in this competition, is my luck left untested?’ he says. The god himself favours the bold!’
While Hippomenes was debating with himself like this, the virgin girl sped by on winged feet. To the Aonian youth she flew like a Scythian arrow, yet it made him admire her beauty all the more. The race gave her a beauty of its own. The breeze blew the streaming feathers on her speeding sandals behind her, and her hair was thrown back from her ivory shoulders. Ribbons with embroidered edges fluttered at her knees, and a blush spread over the girlish whiteness of her body, just as when a red awning over a white courtyard stains it with borrowed shadows. While the stranger was watching this, the last marker was passed, and the victorious Atalanta was crowned with a festive garland, while the losers, groaning, paid the penalty according to their bond.
Undeterred by the youths’ fate, Hippomenes stepped forward and, fixing his gaze on the girl, said ‘Why seek an easy win beating the lazy? Race me. If fortune makes me the master, it will be no shame for you to be outpaced by such a man as me, since Megareus of Onchestus is my father, and his grandfather was Neptune, so I am the great-grandson of the king of the ocean, and my courage is no less than my birth. Or if I am beaten, you will have a great and renowned name for defeating Hippomenes.’ As he spoke Schoeneus’s daughter looked at him with a softening expression, uncertain whether she wanted to win or lose, and said to herself: ‘What god, envious of handsome youths, wants to destroy this one and send him in search of marriage, at the risk of his own dear life? I am not worth that much, I think. Nor is it his beauty that moves me (yet I could be touched by that too) but that he is still only a boy. He does not move me himself: it is his youth. What if he does have courage, and a spirit unafraid of dying? What if he is fourth in line from the ruler of the seas? What if he does love, and thinks so much of marriage with me, that he would die, if a harsh fate denies me to him? While you can, stranger, leave this blood-soaked marrying. Wedding me is a cruel thing. No one will refuse to have you, and you may be chosen by a wiser girl. – Yet why this concern when so many have already died before you?
Let him look out for himself! Let him perish, since he has not been warned off by the death of so many suitors, and shows himself tired of life. – Should he die, then, because he wants to live with me, and suffer an unjust death as the penalty for loving? My victory would not avoid incurring hatred. But it is not my fault! I wish you would desist, or if you are set on it, I wish you might be the faster! How the virginal expression of a boy clings to his face! O! Poor Hippomenes, I wish you had never seen me! You were so fitted to live. But if I were luckier, if the harsh fates did not prevent my marriage, you would be the one I would want to share my bed with.’ She spoke: and inexperienced, feeling the touch of desire for the first time, not knowing what she does, she loves and does not realise she loves.” ’
‘ “Now her father and the people were calling out for the usual foot-race, when Hippomenes, Neptune’s descendant invoked my aid, as a suppliant: ‘Cytherea, I beg you to assist my daring, and encourage the fire of love you lit.’ A kindly breeze brought me the flattering prayer, and I confess it stirred me, though there was scant time to give him my help. There is a field, the people there call it the field of Tamasus, the richest earth in the island of Cyprus, which the men of old made sacred to me, and ordered it to be added to my temples, as a gift. A tree gleams in the middle of the field, with rustling golden leaves, and golden branches. Come from there, by chance, I was carrying three golden apples, I had picked, in my hands, and I approached Hippomenes, showing myself only to him, and told him how to use them.
The trumpets gave the signal, and, leaning forward, they flashed from the starting line, and skimmed the surface of the sand, with flying feet. You would think them capable of running along the waves without wetting them, and passing over the ripened heads of the standing corn. The young man’s spirit was cheered by shouts and words of encouragement: ‘Run, Hippomenes! Now, now is the time to sprint! Use your full power, now! Don’t wait: you’ll win!’
Who knows whether Megareus’s heroic son, or Schoeneus’s daughter, was more pleased with these words? O how often, when she could have overtaken him, she lingered, and watching his face for a while, left him behind against her will! Panting breath came from his weary throat, and the winning post was far off. Only then did Neptune’s scion throw away one of the fruits from the tree. The girl was astonished, and, eager for the shining apple, she ran off the course, and picked up the spinning gold. Hippomenes passed her: the stands resounded with the applause. She made up for the delay and the lost time by a burst of speed, and left the youth behind once more. Again she delayed when a second apple was thrown, followed, and passed the man. The last section of track was left. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘be near me, goddess who made me this gift!’ He threw the shining gold vigorously, sideways, into the deep field, from where she would take longer to get back. The girl seemed to hesitate as to whether she should chase it: I made her pick it up, and added weight to the fruit she held, and obstructed her equally with the heaviness of the burden and the delay. And lest my story be longer than the race itself, the virgin was overtaken: the winner led away his prize.” ’
‘ “Adonis, did I deserve to be thanked, to have incense brought me? Unthinking, he neither gave thanks, nor offered incense to me. I was provoked to sudden anger, and pained by his contempt, so as not to be slighted in future, I decreed an example would be made of them, and I roused myself against them both.
They were passing a temple, hidden in the deep woods, of Cybele mother of the gods, that noble Echion had built in former times fulfilling a vow, and the length of their journey persuaded them to rest. There, stirred by my divine power, an untimely desire to make love seized Hippomenes. Near the temple was a poorly lit hollow, like a cave, roofed with the natural pumice-stone, sacred to the old religion, where the priests had gathered together wooden figures of the ancient gods. They entered it, and desecrated the sanctuary, with forbidden intercourse. The sacred images averted their gaze, and the Great Mother, with the turreted crown, hesitated as to whether to plunge the guilty pair beneath the waters of the Styx: but the punishment seemed too light. So tawny manes spread over their necks, that, a moment ago, were smooth; their fingers curved into claws; forelegs were formed from arms; all their weight was in their breast; and their tails swept the surface of the sand. They had a fierce expression, roared instead of speaking, and frequented the woods for a marriage-bed. As lions, fearful to others, they tamely bite on Cybele’s bit. You must avoid, them, my love, and with them all the species of wild creature, that do not turn and run, but offer their breasts to the fight, lest your courage be the ruin of us both!” ’
‘She warned him, and made her way through the air, drawn by harnessed swans, but his courage defied the warning. By chance, his dogs, following a well-marked trail, roused a wild boar from its lair, and as it prepared to rush from the trees, Cinyras’s grandson caught it a glancing blow. Immediately the fierce boar dislodged the blood-stained spear, with its crooked snout, and chased the youth, who was scared and running hard. It sank its tusk into his groin, and flung him, dying, on the yellow sand.
Cytherea, carried in her light chariot through the midst of the heavens, by her swans’ swiftness, had not yet reached Cyprus: she heard from afar the groans of the dying boy, and turned the white birds towards him. When, from the heights, she saw the lifeless body, lying in its own blood, she leapt down, tearing her clothes, and tearing at her hair, as well, and beat at her breasts with fierce hands, complaining to the fates. “And yet not everything is in your power” she said. “Adonis, there shall be an everlasting token of my grief, and every year an imitation of your death will complete a re-enactment of my mourning. But your blood will be changed into a flower. Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, to fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyras, be grudged to me?” So saying, she sprinkled the blood with odorous nectar: and, at the touch, it swelled up, as bubbles emerge in yellow mud. In less than an hour, a flower, of the colour of blood, was created such as pomegranates carry, that hide their seeds under a tough rind. But enjoyment of it is brief; for, lightly clinging, and too easily fallen, the winds deflower it, which are likewise responsible for its name, windflower: anemone.
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