Ovid: The Metamorphoses
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved
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- Bk XI:1-66 The death of Orpheus
- Bk XI:67-84 The transformation of the Maenads
- Bk XI:85-145 Midas and the golden touch
- Bk XI:146-171 Pan and Apollo compete before Tmolus
- Bk XI:172-193 Midas and the ass’s ears
- Bk XI:194-220 Laomedon and the walls of Troy
- Bk XI:221-265 Peleus and Thetis
- Bk XI:266-345 Ceyx tells the story of Daedalion
- Bk XI:346-409 Peleus and the wolf
- Bk XI:410-473 The separation of Ceyx and Alcyone
- Bk XI:474-572 The Tempest
- Bk XI:573-649 The House of Sleep
- Bk XI:650-709 Morpheus goes to Alcyone in the form of Ceyx
- Bk XI:710-748 They are turned into birds
- Bk XI:749-795 The transformation of Aesacus
While the poet of Thrace, with songs like these, drew to himself the trees, the souls of wild beasts, and the stones that followed him, see, how the frenzied Ciconian women, their breasts covered with animal skins, spy Orpheus from a hilltop, as he matches songs to the sounding strings. One of them, her hair scattered to the light breeze, called: ‘Behold, behold, this is the one who scorns us!’ and hurled her spear at the face of Apollo’s poet, as he was singing. Tipped with leaves, it marked him, without wounding. The next missile was a stone, that, thrown through the air, was itself overpowered by the harmony of voice and lyre, and fell at his feet, as though it were begging forgiveness for its mad audacity. But in fact the mindless attack mounted, without restraint, and mad fury ruled. All their missiles would have been frustrated by his song, but the huge clamour of the Berecyntian flutes of broken horn, the drums, and the breast-beating and howls of the Bacchantes, drowned the sound of the lyre. Then, finally, the stones grew red, with the blood of the poet, to whom they were deaf.
First, the innumerable birds, the snakes, and the procession of wild animals, still entranced by the voice of the singer, a mark of Orpheus’s triumph, were torn apart by the Maenads. Then they set their bloody hands on Orpheus, and gathered, like birds that spy the owl, the bird of night, wandering in the daylight, or as in the amphitheatre, on the morning of the staged events, on either side, a doomed stag, in the arena, is prey to the hounds. They rushed at the poet, and hurled their green-leaved thyrsi, made for a different use. Some threw clods of earth, some branches torn from the trees, and others flints. And so that their madness did not lack true weapons, by chance, oxen were turning the soil under the ploughshare, and, not far away from them, brawny farm workers were digging the solid earth, sweating hard to prepare it for use, who fled when they saw the throng, leaving their work tools behind. Hoes, heavy mattocks, and long rakes lay scattered through the empty fields. After catching these up, and ripping apart the oxen, that threatened them with their horns, the fierce women rushed back to kill the poet. As he stretched out his hands, speaking ineffectually for the first time ever, not affecting them in any way with his voice, the impious ones murdered him: and the spirit, breathed out through that mouth to which stones listened, and which was understood by the senses of wild creatures – O, God! – vanished down the wind.
The birds, lamenting, cried for you, Orpheus; the crowd of wild creatures; the hard flints; the trees that often gathered to your song, shedding their leaves, mourned you with bared crowns. They say the rivers, also, were swollen with their own tears, and the naiads and dryads, with dishevelled hair, put on sombre clothes. The poet’s limbs were strewn in different places: the head and the lyre you, Hebrus, received, and (a miracle!) floating in midstream, the lyre lamented mournfully; mournfully the lifeless tongue murmured; mournfully the banks echoed in reply. And now, carried onward to the sea, they left their native river-mouth and reached the shores of Lesbos, at Methymna. Here, as the head lay exposed on the alien sand, its moist hair dripping brine, a fierce snake attacked it. But at last Phoebus came, and prevented it, as it was about to bite, and turned the serpent’s gaping jaws to stone, and froze the mouth, wide open, as it was.
The ghost of Orpheus sank under the earth, and recognised all those places it had seen before; and, searching the fields of the Blessed, he found his wife again and held her eagerly in his arms. There they walk together side by side; now she goes in front, and he follows her; now he leads, and looks back as he can do, in safety now, at his Eurydice.’
However, the god, Lyaeus, did not allow such wickedness by his followers to go unpunished. Grieved by the loss of the poet of his sacred rites, he immediately fastened down, with twisted roots, all the Thracian women who had seen the sin, since the path, that each one was on at that moment, gripped their toes and forced the tips into the solid ground. As a bird, when it is caught in a snare, set by a cunning wild-fowler, and feels itself held, tightens the knot by its movement, beating and flapping; so each of the women, planted, stuck fast, terrified, tried uselessly to run. But the pliant roots held her, and checked her, struggling. When she looked for where her toenails, toes and feet were, she saw the wood spreading over the curve of her leg, and, trying to strike her thighs with grieving hands, she beat on oak: her breasts turned to oak: her shoulders were oak. You would have thought the jointed arms were real branches, and your thought would not have been wrong.
This did not satisfy Bacchus. He left the fields themselves, and with a worthier band of followers sought out the vineyards of his own Mount Tmolus, and the River Pactolus, though at that time it was not a golden stream, nor envied for its valuable sands. His familiar cohorts, the satyrs and bacchantes accompanied him, but Silenus was absent. The Phrygian countrymen had taken him captive, stumbling with age and wine, bound him with garlands, and led him to King Midas, to whom, with Athenian Eumolpus, Orpheus of Thrace had taught the Bacchic rites.
When the king recognised him as a friend and companion of his worship, he joyfully led a celebration of the guest’s arrival, lasting ten days and nights on end. And now, on the eleventh day, Lucifer had seen off the train of distant stars, and the king with gladness came to the fields of Lydia, and restored Silenus to his young foster-child.
Then the god, happy at his foster-father’s return, gave Midas control over the choice of a gift, which was pleasing, but futile, since he was doomed to make poor use of his reward. ‘Make it so that whatever I touch with my body, turns to yellow gold,’ he said. Bacchus accepted his choice, and gave him the harmful gift, sad that he had not asked for anything better. The Berecyntian king departed happily, rejoicing in his bane, and testing his faith in its powers by touching things, and scarcely believing it when he broke off a green twig from the low foliage of the holm-oak: the twig was turned to gold. He picked up a stone from the ground: the stone also was pale gold. He touched a clod of earth, and by the power of touch, the clod became a nugget. He gathered the dry husks of corn: it was a golden harvest. He held an apple he had picked from a tree: you would think the Hesperides had given it to him. If he placed his fingers on the tall door-pillars, the pillars were seen to shine. When he washed his hands in clear water, the water flowing over his hands would have deceived Danaë.
His own mind could scarcely contain his expectations, dreaming of all things golden. As he was exulting, his servants set a table before him, heaped with cooked food, and loaves were not lacking. Then, indeed, if he touched the gift of Ceres with his hand, her gift hardened. If he tried, with eager bites, to tear the food, the food was covered with a yellow surface where his teeth touched. He mixed pure water with wine, the other gift of his benefactor, but molten gold could be seen trickling through his lips.
Dismayed by this strange misfortune, rich and unhappy, he tries to flee his riches, and hates what he wished for a moment ago. No abundance can relieve his famine: his throat is parched with burning thirst, and, justly, he is tortured by the hateful gold. Lifting his shining hands and arms to heaven, he cries out: ‘Father, Bacchus, forgive me! I have sinned. But have pity on me, I beg you, and save me from this costly evil!’ The will of the gods is kindly. Bacchus, when he confessed his fault, restored him, and took back what he had given in fulfilment of his promise. ‘So you do not remain coated with the gold you wished for so foolishly,’ he said, ‘go to the river by great Sardis, make your way up the bright ridge against the falling waters, till you come to the source of the stream, and plunge your head and body at the same moment into the foaming fountain, where it gushes out, and at the same time wash away your sin.’ The king went to the river as he was ordered: the golden virtue coloured the waters, and passed from his human body into the stream. Even now, gathering the grains of gold from the ancient vein, the fields harden, their soil soaked by the pale yellow waters.
Hating wealth, Midas lived among woods and fields, and the mountain caves Pan always inhabits. But he remained dull-witted, and, as before, his foolish mind was destined once again to hurt its owner. Mount Tmolus, stands steep and high, commanding a wide view of the distant sea, its sloping sides extending to Sardis on the one side, and as far as tiny Hypaepae on the other. While Pan was there, playing light airs on his reeds glued together with wax, he boasted of his pipings, to the gentle nymphs, and dared to speak slightingly of Apollo’s song compared with his own, and entered an unequal contest with Tmolus, the god of the mountain, as judge.
The aged judge was seated on his mountain-top and shook his ears free of the trees. Only an oak-wreath circled his dark hair, and acorns brushed against his hollow temples. Looking at the god of the flocks he said: ‘There is nothing to prevent my judging.’ Pan sounded the rustic reeds, and entranced Midas (who chanced to be near the playing) with wild pipings. Following this, sacred Tmolus turned his face towards that of Phoebus: his forests followed.
Phoebus’s golden hair was wreathed with laurel from Parnassus, and his robes dyed with Tyrian purple, swept the earth. He held his lyre, inlaid with gems and Indian ivory, in his left hand, and the plectrum in the other. His attitude was that of a true artist. Then with skilled fingers, he plucked the strings, and Tmolus, captivated by their sweetness, ordered Pan to lower his pipes in submission to the lyre.
The judgement of the sacred mountain-god satisfied all opinions, and yet Midas’s voice alone challenged it and called it unjust. The god of Delos did not allow such undiscriminating ears to keep their human form, but drew them out and covered them with shaggy grey hair, and made them flexible at the base, and gave them powers of movement. Though the rest was human, he was punished in that sole aspect: he wore the ears of a slow-moving ass. He was anxious to conceal them, and tried to detract from the shameful ugliness of his head with a purple turban. But the servant who used to trim his long hair with a blade, found it out, who, since he dare not reveal the disgrace he had seen, but eager to broadcast it to the four winds, and unable to keep it to himself, went off quietly and dug a hole in the soil. In a tiny voice, he whispered to the hollow earth, and buried his spoken evidence under the infill, and stole away having closed up the hidden trench. But a thick bed of quivering reeds began to shoot up there, and as soon as they had grown, at the end of the year, they gave the burrower away: stirred gently, then, by the wind they repeated the buried words, and testified against his master.
Having punished him, Latona’s son left Mount Tmolus and, flying through the clear air, he came to earth in the country of Laomedon, this side of the narrows of the Hellespont, named from Helle, daughter of Nephele. To the right of the deeps of Sigeum, and to the left of those of Rhoeteum, there was an ancient altar of Jupiter the Thunderer, ‘source of all oracles’. There, Apollo saw Laomedon building the foundations of the new city of Troy. The great undertaking prospering with difficulty, and demanding no little resources, he, and Neptune, trident-bearing father of the swelling sea, put on mortal form, and built the walls of the city for the Phrygian king for an agreed amount in gold. The edifice stood there.
But the king denied them payment, and as a crowning treachery, perjured himself by claiming they were lying. The ruler of the ocean said: ‘You will not go unpunished’, and he turned all his waters against the shores of tight-fisted Troy. He flooded the land to form a strait, swept away the farmers’ crops, and buried the fields beneath the waves. Even this was insufficient punishment: He demanded also that Hesione, the king’s daughter, be given to a sea-monster, whom Hercules freed, as she was chained to the solid rock. Hercules demanded the payment promised, an agreed number of horses. But the reward for all his work being refused, he seized the twice-perjured walls of conquered Troy. Telamon, his companion, did not go without honour, and Hesione was given to him in marriage.
Peleus, Telamon’s brother, was already distinguished by having a goddess as his wife, and was not more proud of being Jupiter’s grandson (his father Aeacus being the son of Jove by Aegina) as his son-in-law (by marrying Thetis), since he was not the only brother to be Jove’s grandson, but he was the only one to marry a goddess.
For aged Proteus had said to Thetis: ‘Goddess of the waves, conceive: you will be the mother of a warrior who will surpass his father’s deeds when he reaches manhood, and will be more famous than him.’ So Jupiter, lest earth produce someone greater than himself, fled from union with ocean-dwelling Thetis, though he had felt the hot fire of passion in his heart, and ordered his grandson, Peleus, son of Aeacus, to fulfil his promise, on his behalf, and enter the arms of the sea-maiden.
There is a bay, shaped like a scythe, in Haemonia, its arms projecting in a curved arc, which would provide a harbour, if the waves were deeper: the waters cover the surface of the sand: the shore is solid earth, that takes no footprints, does not hinder a passage, and has no seaweed covering it. A myrtle grove grows nearby, dense with its red and black berries. There is a cave in the centre, whether fashioned by art or nature is uncertain, but probably by art. Often, Thetis you used to come there, naked, seated on a bridled dolphin. There Peleus found you, as you lay, overcome by sleep, and when, though influenced by his entreaties, you refused him, he prepared to use force, winding both arms round your neck.
He would have taken you then, if you had not, by your well-known arts, frequently changed your form. But when you became a bird, he still held you as a bird; now as a tree, Peleus clung fast to the tree. Your third guise was a striped tigress: in fear of that the son of Aeacus loosed his arms from your body. Then he entreated the gods of the sea, with wine poured over the waters, with sheep’s entrails, and the smoke of incense, until Proteus, the Carpathian seer spoke from his deep gulfs: ‘Son of Aeacus, you will have the bride you desire, if you bind her, unawares, with nooses and tight cords, while she is lulled asleep in the rocky cave. Though she deceives you with a hundred counterfeit shapes, hold her to you, whatever she becomes, until she is again what she was before.’ So he spoke, and hid his face below the waves, letting the waters flow in upon his final words.
Now Titan was low in the sky, and, his chariot pointed downwards, was close to the western ocean, when the lovely Nereid left the waves, and came to her accustomed bed. Peleus had scarcely taken a good grip of her virgin body, when she took on new forms, until she realised her limbs were tightly bound, and her arms spread wide apart. Then at length she sighed, saying: ‘Not without some god’s help have you won,’ and she showed herself as Thetis. When she acknowledged herself, the hero embraced her, achieved his wish, and conceived with her the mighty Achilles.
Peleus was happy in his wife and son, and was a man for whom all things were successful, if you exclude the crime of killing his brother Phocus. Guilty of shedding his brother’s blood, exiled from his father’s country, the soil of Trachin gave him sanctuary. Here Ceyx, son of Lucifer, the morning star, ruled, without force or shedding blood, his face filled with his father’s radiance. At that time he was sad and unlike his normal self, mourning the loss of his brother, Daedalion. The son of Aeacus came to him, weary with cares and travel, and entered the city with a few companions. He left the flocks of sheep and cattle he had brought with him in a shady valley not far from the city walls. When he was first allowed to meet the king, he held out the draped olive branch of the suppliant, and told him whose son he was, concealed his crime, and lied about the cause of his flight. He begged to be allowed to support himself in the city or the fields. The king of Trachin replied with these kind words: ‘Peleus, the opportunities in our kingdom are open even to the lower ranks, and I do not rule an inhospitable realm. Add to this willingness, the powerful influence of a noble name, and your being the grandson of Jove. So waste no time in supplication! You will receive all that you wish. Take a share of everything you see, and call it yours! I wish what you see was better than it is!’
And he wept. Peleus and his companions asked what the cause was of so much grief, to which he replied: ‘Perhaps you think that bird, the hawk, that lives on prey, and terrifies other winged creatures, always had feathers. He was once a man (and – inner nature is so consistent – even then he was fierce, warlike and equipped for violence): his name, Daedalion. We were the sons of Lucifer, who summons the dawn, and is last to leave the sky. I care for peace; I care for preserving peace; and for my wife. Savage warfare pleased my brother. His power subdued kings and nations, that now, transformed, flutters the doves of Boeotia. He had a daughter, Chione, endowed with great beauty, who at fourteen, and ready for marriage, had a thousand suitors. It chanced that Phoebus-Apollo, and Mercury, son of Maia, one returning from his sacred Delphi, the other from the summit of Cyllene, saw her at the same instant, and, at the same instant, flushed with desire. Apollo deferred his hope of union with her till the night, but Mercury could not wait, and touched the virgin’s face with his sleep-inducing wand. She lay beneath that potent touch, and suffered the assault of the god. Night scattered the heavens with stars: Phoebus, having gained access disguised as an old woman, enjoyed the delight that had been forestalled. When Chione came to full term she bore the wing-footed god a son, Autolycus, crafty, talented in all intrigue, who could make black seem white, and white black, not unworthy of his father; and to Phoebus (it was a twin birth) she bore Philammon, famous for tuneful song and the lyre.
But what is the benefit in having produced two sons, in having pleased two gods, in being the child of a powerful father, and grandchild of the shining one? Is glory not harmful also to many? It certainly harmed her! She set herself above Diana, and criticized the goddess’s beauty. But, the goddess, moved by violent anger, said to her: “Then I must satisfy you with action.” Without hesitating, she bent her bow, sent an arrow from the string, and pierced the tongue that was at fault, with the shaft. The tongue was silent, neither sound nor attempts at words followed: and as she tried to speak, her life ended in blood.
I embraced her, in my misery, feeling a father’s grief in my heart, and spoke words of comfort to my dear brother. Her father heard them no more than the cliffs hear the murmuring of the sea, mourning his lost one, bitterly. But when he saw the burning of her body, four times he made as if to throw himself into the blazing pyre; four times was thrust back; fled madly; and ran where there were no tracks, like a bullock whose neck is tender from the yoke, tormented by hornets’ stings. Even then to me he seemed to run faster than humanly possible, and you would have thought he had winged feet.
He escaped us all, swift with desire for death, and gained the summit of Parnassus. When Daedalion hurled himself from the high cliffs, Apollo, pitying him, turned him into a bird, and lifted him, pendent on suddenly-formed wings, giving him a hooked beak, and curved talons, his former courage, and greater strength of body. Now, as a hawk, he rages against all birds, is merciful to none, and, suffering, is a cause of suffering.’
While Lucifer’s son was telling the strange story of his brother, Peleus’s herdsman, Onetor the Phocian, came racing up, breathing hard with the pace, shouting: ‘Peleus! Peleus! I bring you news of grave trouble.’ Peleus ordered him to tell it, whatever it was, the Trachinian king himself waiting with anxious face. The herdsman said: ‘When the sun was at the zenith, seeing as much of the track left as he had already run, I had driven the tired oxen down to the bay. Some of the bullocks were kneeling on the yellow sand, lying there gazing out at the wide expanse of ocean; some were wandering slowly here and there; while others had waded out and stood up to their necks in the water. There is a temple near the sea, not gleaming with gold and marble, but made of heavy timber, and shaded by an ancient grove. Nereus and the Nereids haunt it (a sailor, drying his nets on the shore, told me they were the gods of those waters). Close to it, there is a swamp, choked with dense willows, which the salt flood has turned into marshland. From it, a wolf, a huge beast, terrifies the places round about with its heavy crashing noises. It came out of the marsh reeds, its deadly jaws smeared with foam and clots of blood, and its eyes filled with red flame. It was savage with rage and hunger, more with rage; since though hungry it did not bother with the dead cattle, or with satisfying its deadly appetite, but wounded the whole herd, slaughtering them all in its hostility. Some of our men were wounded by its fatal jaws while protecting them, and given up as dead. The shore and the shallows were red with blood, and the marshes full of bellowing. But delay is fatal: the thing allows no hesitation. While there are some of us left, let us encounter it in armour, and, seizing our weapons, meet with it carrying spears!’
So the countryman spoke: the losses did not stir Peleus: conscious of his guilt he concluded that Psamathe, the bereaved Nereid, was sending a funeral offering to her murdered son Phocus, by means of those same losses. Oetean King Ceyx ordered his men to put on their armour, and take their deadly spears, while he was himself preparing to go with them. But Alcyone, his wife, disturbed by the shouting, scattering her hair that she had not yet quite arranged, flung herself on her husband’s neck, begging him, with words and tears, to send help, but not to go himself, and protect both their lives, by protecting his own. Peleus, the son of Aeacus, said: ‘Queen Alcyone, forget these loving fears that so become you! I am grateful for your husband’s offer of help, but I have no wish for arms to be used against the creature on my behalf. I must pray, instead, to the goddess of the ocean!’
There was a high tower; a beacon on top of the citadel; a welcome sight for labouring vessels. They climbed up, and looked out, with murmuring sighs, at the cattle lying on the shore, seeing their rampaging killer with bloody jaws, its shaggy pelt dripping gore. There, stretching his hands out towards the shores of the open sea, Peleus prayed to sea-born Psamathe to forget her anger, and to aid him. She was unmoved by the prayers of the son of Aeacus, but Thetis, as a suppliant for her husband, obtained her forgiveness.
The wolf persisted even when ordered away from the savage slaughter, maddened by the taste of blood, until the goddess changed it to marble, as it was clinging to the wounded neck of a heifer. The body remained completely the same, except for its colour: the colour of the stone showed it no longer wolf, no longer to be feared. But the fates did not allow the exiled Peleus to remain in that country. The wandering fugitive reached Magnesia, and there was absolved of the murder by Haemonian King Acastus.
Meanwhile Ceyx, troubled by heart’s anxiety, concerning his brother, and what had followed his brother’s strange fate, was preparing to go and consult the sacred oracle of Apollo, at Claros, that reveals human affairs. The infamous Phorbas, leader of the Phlegyans, had made Delphi inaccessible. Nevertheless, before he set out, he discussed it with you, faithful Alcyone.
She felt a chill, immediately, deep in her marrow, her face grew boxwood-pale, and her cheeks were drenched in flowing tears. Three times she tried to speak, three times her face was wet with weeping, and sobs interrupting her loving reproaches, she said: ‘What sin of mine has turned your mind to this, dear one? Where is that care for me that used to come first? Can you now leave Alcyone behind, without a thought? Does it please you now to travel far? Am I dearer to you, away from you? But I suppose your way is overland, and I shall only grieve, not fear, for you. My anxieties will be free from terror.
The waters scare me, and the sombre face of the deep: and lately I saw wrecked timbers on the shore, and I have often read the names on empty tombs. Do not allow your mind to acquire false confidence, because Aeolus, son of Hippotas, is your father-in-law, who keeps the strong winds imprisoned, and, when he wishes, calms the sea. When once the winds are released and hold sway over the waters, nothing can oppose them: every country, every ocean is exposed to them. They vex the clouds in the sky, and create the red lightning-flashes from their fierce collisions. The more I know of them (I do know them, often seeing them as a child in my father’s house) the more I consider them to be feared. But if no prayers can alter your purpose, dear one, husband, if you are so fixed on going, take me with you, also! Then we shall be storm-tossed together, and at least I shall know what I fear, together we shall bear whatever comes, together we shall be borne over the waters.’
The star-born husband was moved by the daughter of Aeolus’s words and tears: there was no less love in himself. But he would not relinquish his planned sea-journey, nor did he want to put Alcyone in peril. His anxious heart tried to comfort her, with many words, yet, despite that, he could not win his case. He added this further solace, the only one that moved his lover: ‘Every delay will seem long to us indeed, but I swear to you by my father’s light, to return to you as long as the fates allow it, before the moon has twice completed her circle.’
When her hopes had been revived by these promises of return, he immediately ordered the ship to be dragged down the slipway, launched into the sea, and fitted out with her gear. Alcyone, seeing this, as if she foresaw what was to come, shuddered again, and she gave way to a flood of tears. She hugged him, and, in wretched misery, said a last ‘Farewell’ and her whole body gave way beneath her. With Ceyx still seeking reasons for delay, the young crew, double-ranked, pulled on the oars, with deep-chested strokes, and cut the water with their rhythmic blows.
She raised her wet eyes, and leaning forward could see her husband standing on the curved afterdeck, waving his hand, and she returned the signal. When he was further from shore, and she could no longer recognise his features, she followed the fleeting ship with her gaze, while she could. When even that was too far off to be seen, she still could see the topsails unfurling from the masthead. When no sails could be seen, with heavy heart, she sought out the empty bedroom, and threw herself on the bed. The room and the bed provoked more tears and reminded her of her absent half.
They had left the harbour, and the breeze was stirring the rigging: the captain shipped the oars, ran the yard up to the top of the mast, and put on all sail to catch the freshening breeze. The ship was cutting through the waves, no more than mid-way across, maybe less, far from either shore, when, at nightfall, the sea began to whiten with swelling waves, and the east wind to blow with greater strength.
The captain shouts: ‘Lower the yards, now, and close reef all sails.’ He shouts the order but the adverse wind drowns it, and his voice cannot be heard above the breaking seas. Yet, some of the crew, on their own initiative, remove the oars, some protect the bulwarks, some deny the wind canvas-room. Here one bails water back into the water, another secures the spars. While these things are being done, randomly, the storm increases its severity, and the roaring winds attack from every quarter, stirring the angry waves. The captain himself is fearful, and admits he does not know how things stand, what to order, what to prevent: such is the weight of destruction, so much more powerful than his skill.
There is uproar: men shouting, the rigging straining, the sound of the breaking sea from a weight of sea, and the crash of thunder. The waves rise up and seem to form the sky, and their spray touches the lowering clouds. Now the water is tainted yellow, with sand churned from the depths, now blacker than the Styx, while the waves break white with hissing foam. The Trachinian ship is driven in the grip of fate, now lifted on high, as if looking down on the valleys from a mountain summit, into the depths of Acheron: now sinking, caught in the trough of the wave, staring at heaven from the infernal pool. Again and again the force of the flood strikes the sides with a huge crash, sounding no lighter a blow than when, sometime, an iron ram, or a ballista, strikes a damaged fortress. As fierce lions, on the attack, drive themselves onto the armoured chests and extended spears of the hunters, so the waves drove forward in the rising winds, reaching the height of the ship, and higher, above it.
And now the wooden wedges give way, and, stripped of their wax covering, cracks appear, offering the lethal waves a passage. Look how the heavy rain falls from the melting clouds, and you would think the whole heaven was emptying into the sea, and the sea was filling the heavenly zones. The sails are soaked with spray, and the seawater mingles with water from the heavens. The sky is starless, and the murky night is full of its own and the storm’s gloom. Flashes of lightning cleave it, and give light: the rain is illuminated by the lightning flares.
Now the sea pours into the ship’s hollow hull, as well. As a soldier, more outstanding than the rest, who has often tried to scale the battlement of a besieged city, succeeds at last, and fired with a love of glory, takes the wall, one man in a thousand; so when the waves have battered nine times against the steep sides, the tenth wave surging with greater impetus rushes on, and does not cease its assault on the beleaguered craft, until it breaches the conquered vessel’s defences. So one part of the sea is still trying to take the ship, and part is already inside.
All is confusion, as a city is confused when some are undermining the walls from outside, while others hold them from within. Skill fails, and courage ebbs, and as many separate deaths as advancing waves seem to rush upon them and burst over them. One cannot hold his tears, another is stupefied, and one cries out that they are fortunate whom proper burial rites await. One worships the gods in prayer, and, lifting his arms in vain to the sky, he cannot see, begs for help. Some think of fathers and brothers, some of home and children, or whatever they have left behind. But Alcyone is what moves Ceyx: nothing but Alcyone is on Ceyx’s lips, and though he only longs for her, he rejoices that she is not there.
How he would like to see his native shores again, and turn his last gaze towards his home, but he knows not where it is: the sea swirls in such vortices, and the covering shadows of pitch-black clouds so hide the sky, that it mirrors the aspect of night. The mast is shattered by the onset of a storm-driven whirlwind, and the rudder is shattered. One ultimate wave, like a conqueror delighting in his spoils, rears up gazing down at the other waves, and, as if one tore Pindus, and Athos, from their base, and threw them utterly into the open sea, it fell headlong, and the weight and the impulse together, drove the ship to the bottom. The majority of the crew met their fate with the ship, driven down by the mass of water, never to return to the light. The rest clung to broken pieces of the vessel.
Ceyx himself, held on to a fragment of the wreck, with a hand more used to holding a sceptre, and called on his father, Lucifer, and his father-in-law, Aeolus, but alas, in vain. Mostly it is his wife’s, Alcyone’s, name on his lips.
He thinks of her, and speaks to her, and prays that the waves might carry his body to her sight, and that, lifeless, he might be entombed by her dear hands. While he can swim, and as often as the waves allow him to open his mouth, he speaks the name of Alcyone, far off, until the waves themselves murmur it, See, a black arc of water breaks over the heart of the sea, and the bursting wave buries his drowning head.
Lucifer was indistinct, and not to be known, that dawn, and since he was not allowed to leave the sky, he covered his face in dense cloud.
Meanwhile, Alcyone, Aeolus’s daughter, counts the nights, unaware of this great misfortune, quickly weaving clothes for him to wear, and for herself, for when he returns, and she promises herself the homecoming that will not be. She piously offers incense to all the gods, but worships mostly at Juno’s temple, coming to the altars for a man who is no more, hoping her husband is safe, and returning to her, preferring her above any other woman. Of all her prayers, only this could be granted.
The goddess could no longer bear these appeals for one who was dead, and, to free her altar from those inauspicious hands, she said: ‘Iris, most faithful carrier of my words, go quickly to the heavy halls of Sleep, and order him to send Alcyone a dream-figure in the shape of her dead Ceyx, to tell her his true fate.’ As she spoke, Iris donned her thousand-coloured robe, and, tracing her watery bow on the sky, she searched out, as ordered, the palace of that king, hid under cloud.
There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.
When the nymph entered and, with her hands, brushed aside the dreams in her way, the sacred place shone with the light of her robes. The god, hardly able to lift his eyes heavy with sleep, again and again, falling back, striking his nodding chin on his chest, at last shook himself free of his own influence, and resting on an elbow asked her (for he knew her) why she had come, and she replied:
‘Sleep, all things’ rest: Sleep, gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, whom care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labours: Sleep, order a likeness, that mirrors his true form, and let it go, the image of King Ceyx, to Alcyone, in Trachin of Hercules, and depict a phantasm of the wreck. This, Juno commands.’
After she had completed her commission, Iris departed, no longer able to withstand the power of sleep, and, feeling the drowsiness steal over her body, she fled, and re-crossed the arch by which she had lately come.
From a throng of a thousand sons, his father roused Morpheus, a master craftsman and simulator of human forms. No one else is as clever at expressing the movement, the features, and the sound of speech. He depicts the clothes and the usual accents. He alone imitates human beings. A second son becomes beast, or bird, or long snake’s body. The gods call him Icelos, the mortal crowd Phobetor. The third, of diverse artistry, is Phantasos: he takes illusory shapes of all inanimate things, earth, stones, rivers, trees. These are the ones that show themselves by night to kings and generals, the rest wander among citizens and commoners. Old Somnus passed them by, choosing one of all these brothers, Morpheus, to carry out the command of Iris, daughter of Thaumas, and relaxing again into sweet drowsiness, his head drooped and he settled into his deep bed.
Flying through the shadows on noiseless wings, Morpheus, after a short delay, comes to the Haemonian city. Shedding his wings, he takes the shape of Ceyx, pallid like the dead, and naked, and stands before his unfortunate wife’s bed. He appears with sodden beard, and seawater dripping from his matted hair. Then he bends over her pillow, with tears streaming down his face, and says: ‘My poor wife, do you know your Ceyx, or has my face altered in death? Look at me: you will recognise me, and find for a husband, a husband’s shade! Your prayers have brought me no help, Alcyone! I am dead! Do not hold out false hopes of my return! Storm-laden Auster, the south wind, caught the ship in Aegean waters, and tossed in tempestuous blasts, wrecked her there. My lips, calling helplessly on your name, drank the waves. No dubious author announces this news to you, nor do you hear it as a vague report: I myself, drowned, as you see me before you, tell my fate. Get up, act, shed tears, wear mourning: do not let me go down unwept to Tartarus’s void.’
Morpheus spoke these words in a voice she would believe to be her husband’s (the tears that he wept also seemed real tears) and his hands revealed Ceyx’s gestures. Alcyone groaned, tearfully, stirring her arms in sleep, and seeking his body, grasped only air, and cried out: ‘Wait for me! Where do you vanish? We will go together.’ Roused by her own voice, and her husband’s image, she started up out of sleep. First she gazed round to see if he was still there, the one she had just seen. At the sound of her cry the servants had brought a lamp. Not finding him anywhere, she struck her face with her hands, tore her clothes from her breasts, and beat at the breasts themselves. She did not wait to loosen her hair, but tore at it, and shouted at her nurse, who asked the cause of her grief: ‘Alcyone is nothing, is nothing: she has died together with her Ceyx. Be done with soothing words! He is wrecked: I saw him, I knew him, I stretched out my hands towards him as he vanished, eager to hold him back. It was a shadow, yet it was my husband’s true shadow, made manifest. True, he did not have his accustomed features, if you ask me, nor did his face shine as before. But pallid and naked, with dripping hair, I, the unfortunate one, saw him. Look, my poor husband stood on that very spot,’ and she tried to find a trace of his footprints. ‘This is what I feared, with my divining mind, this: and I begged you not to leave me, chasing the winds. But, for certain, I should have desired you to take me with you, since you were going to your death. How good it would have been to have gone with you: then no part of my life would have lacked your presence, nor would we be separated by death. Now I have died absent from myself, and am thrown through the waves, absently, and the sea takes me, without me.
My mind would treat me more cruelly than the sea, if I should try to live on, and fight to overcome my sorrow! But I shall not fight, nor leave you, my poor husband, and at least now I shall come as your companion. If not the sepulchral urn the lettered stone will join us: if I shall not touch you, bone to my bone, still I will touch you, name to name.’ Grief choked further words, and lamentation took their place wholly, and sighs drawn from a stricken heart.
Morning had broken. She went out of the house towards the shore, sadly seeking the place where she had watched him depart. And while she stayed there, and while she was saying: ‘Here he loosed the rope, on this strand he kissed me as he left,’ and while she recalled the significant actions by their locations, and looked seawards, she saw in the flowing waves what looked like a body, unsure at first what it was: after the tide had brought it a little nearer, though it was some way off, it was clearly a body. She did not know whose it was, but was moved by the omen of this shipwrecked man, and as if she wept for the unknown dead, she cried out: ‘Alas for you, poor soul, whoever you may be, and your wife, if you have one!’ The body had been washed nearer by the sea, and the more she gazed at it, the smaller and smaller shrank her courage: woe! Now it was close to land, now she could see who it was: it was her husband! She cried out: ‘It’s him!’ and together tearing at cheeks, and hair, and clothes she stretched out her trembling hands to Ceyx, saying: ‘O, is it like this, dear husband, is it like this, wretched one, you return to me?’
A breakwater built by the waves, broke the initial force of the sea, and weakened the onrush of the tide. Though it was amazing that she could do so, she leapt onto it: she flew, and, beating the soft air on new-found wings, a sorrowing bird, she skimmed the surface of the waves. As she flew, her plaintive voice came from a slender beak, like someone grieving and full of sorrows. When she reached the mute and bloodless corpse, she clasped the dear limbs with her new wings and kissed the cold lips in vain with her hard beak.
People doubted whether Ceyx felt this, or merely seemed to raise his face by a movement of the waves, but he did feel it: and at last through the gods’ pity, both were changed to birds, the halcyons. Though they suffered the same fate, their love remained as well: and their bonds were not weakened, by their feathered form. They mate and rear their young, and Alcyone broods on her nest, for seven calm days in the wintertime, floating on the water’s surface. Then the waves are stilled: Aeolus imprisons the winds and forbids their roaming, and controls his grandsons’ waves.
Seeing these birds flying together over the wide sea, some old man praised those affections maintained till the end. Someone near by, or the same man (pointing to a long-necked diving bird) said: ‘That bird also, skimming over the ocean, trailing his slender legs, is a descendant of kings. If you want to trace his ancestry in unbroken line to himself, its source was Ilus the younger, the son of Tros, and his brothers Assaracus, and Ganymede, whom Jove snatched, Ilus’s son, old Laomedon, and his son Priam, whom fate assigned to Troy’s last days. That bird was Hector’s brother, Aesacus, who, if he had not met his strange fate in youth, would perhaps have had no less a name than Hector, though Hecuba, daughter of Dymas, bore Priam the first, the other Aesacus, is said to have been born to Alexirrhoë, daughter of two-horned Granicus, the river-god, in secret, under the shadow of Mount Ida.
He hated cities, and lived in the remote mountains, and insignificant country places, far away from the glittering court, and rarely visited crowded Ilium. Yet he did not have an uncultured heart, or one averse to love, and he often pursued Hesperie, the River Cebren’s daughter, through all the woodland glades, whom he had caught sight of, drying her flowing hair, in the sun, on her father’s shore. The nymph fled on sight, as a frightened hind flees the tawny wolf, or a wild duck, caught far from the pool she left, the hawk. But the Trojan hero, driven by swift love, followed her, driven by swift fear. Behold, a serpent, hidden in the grass, bit her foot with his curving fang, as she fled by, and left his poison in her body. Her flight ended with her life. The lover clasped her unbreathing body and cried: ‘I regret, I regret I followed you! But I did not expect this, and it was not worth this to attempt to win you. We two have destroyed you, poor girl: the wound given by a snake, the cause of it all myself! Let me be the more accursed, if I do not send you solace by my death.’
He spoke, and threw himself from a cliff, eroded below by the rough waves, into the sea. Tethys, pitying him, caught him gently as he fell, clothed him with feathers as he floated on the water, and denied him the opportunity to choose his death. The lover was angered, that he was forced to live, against his will, and that his spirit was thwarted, wishing to leave its unhappy residence. When he had gained the new wings on his shoulders, he flew up and threw his body again into the sea. His feathers broke his fall. In a rage, Aesacus dived headlong into the deep and tried endlessly to find a path to death. His love made him lean: his legs are long between the joints: his neck remained long: his head is far from his body. He loves seawater, and from diving there he takes his name, mergus, the diver.