Publius Papinius Statius

Thebaid

Book V

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

Contents


BkV:1-47 Adrastus asks to hear Hypsipyle’s story

Their thirst quenched at the river, its shores and bed trampled,

The warriors left the much diminished shallows behind them;

Now the war-horses devoured the plain more briskly, soldiers

On foot, refreshed, thronged over the wide fields. Their strength,

Courage, menace, was evident again, as though they’d drunk

Flames of war and readiness for battle from blood-steeped water.

Marshalled in formation, disciplined ranks, each in correct position

With its former leader, they were ordered to resume their march.

Now dust rises once more from the earth, and the woods reveal

The passage of gleaming weapons. The host is like the raucous

Flocks of birds, over-wintering near Pharos, that, when the icy

Northern days lengthen leave Egypt’s Nile, in clamouring flight,

Casting a shadow on land and sea, while the pathless sky echoes;

Once again they endure wind and rain, swim flowing snow-melt,

And spend their summer days beneath unencumbered Haemus.

Then Adrastus, Talaus’ son, surrounded by a crowd of his peers,

Standing under an ancient ash, leaning on the spear of Polynices

Who stood beside him, said: ‘Oh, tell us who you may be, you

Who have gained the glory of saving countless men from death,

And honour that Jupiter himself would not despise, come tell us,

As we hasten from your streams, where your home and country is,

Beneath what stars you drew breath. Say who your father may be,

For you are not far from the divine, though Fortune deserts you,

Your aspect is that of noble blood, your troubled face evokes awe.’

The Lemnian girl sighed, shed a few reluctant tears, then replied:

‘General, you ask me to re-open dreadful wounds: concerning

Lemnos and the Furies, and men slain with shameful weapons

In their beds. Oh, the crime, the cold madness haunts my heart!

Oh, alas for those on whom that wild savagery fell! Oh, Night!

Oh, my father! Yet, lest you be ashamed of your kindly guide,

I am one, my captains, who helped my father to flee and hide.

Why weave a long prologue to those ills? War summons you,

And the great enterprise you cherish. This much I shall say:

I am Hypsipyle, daughter of that Thoas of whom you know;

Taken captive I now endure this servitude to your Lycurgus.’

They listened eagerly; she now seemed nobler, more worthy

Of their respect, fit to have guided them. Now a wish arose

In them all to hear her story. Principally, Adrastus urged her:

‘Come (Nemea is not yet ready to unleash its power widely,

Hampered as we are by foliage, and screened by forest shade)

Set out the crime, your merit, and the sorrows of your people,

And how you came here, troubled, an exile from your realm.’

BkV:48-84 Hypsipyle’s tale – Lemnos at war with Thrace

It is sweet for the wretched to talk, and recount former sorrows.

She began: ‘The Aegean Sea surrounds Lemnos, the isle where

Weary Vulcan rests after visiting fiery Aetna. Athos nearby

Darkens the sea with the shadow of his forests, and darkens

The land with his vast slopes. The Thracians farm those shores,

The Thracians were our doom, and thence the crime. Our land

Was rich, her children flourishing, and she no less renowned

Than Samos, or sounding Delos, or the innumerable islands

On which the sea casts its foam. It pleased the gods to trouble

Our lives, though we too were to blame; we offered no fires

To Venus; the goddess went unsung among us. Even divine

Hearts may be hurt, and thoughts of vengeance rise within.

So she came from ancient Paphos, from her hundred altars,

Changing her looks, her face and hair; she put off amorous

Ways and banished her Idalian doves, they say; and certain

Women set rumours flying, that in the darkness of midnight

The goddess flitted through bedchambers with the Furies,

The Tartarean Sisters, bearing other flames than theirs, far

Greater weapons; set twining snakes in the secret depths

Of houses, bringing blind terror to the nuptial thresholds,

Without pity for Vulcan her husband, despite his loyalty.

Forthwith, tender Spirits of Love, you fled from Lemnos.

Hymen was silent, his torches reversed; chilled the affections

Of the marriage couch. No nights of joy; none sleeps in fond

Embrace; savage Hatred and Madness roam everywhere,

And Strife keeps the midst of the bed. The men are set on

Rooting out the proud Thracians on that opposing coast,

Shattering their fierce race in war, although their homes

Are before them, and their children are there on the shore.

They would rather endure Edonian winter, the Bear

Above their heads, or after battle, in the dead of night,

Listen in silence to the sudden surge of rushing torrents.

Their sad wives languished in endless tears, day and night,

Consoling each other, gazing across the sea to cruel Thrace,

(Though as for me, my carefree virgin years spared me).

BkV:85-169 Hypsipyle’s tale – Polyxo urges the women to slaughter

The sun was halfway through his arc, balancing his shining

Chariot on Olympus’ summit, as though at rest; four times

Thunder pealed in the blue sky; four times Vulcan’s forge

Breathed plumes of smoke; and the Aegean waters stirred

Without a breeze, striking the shores in mighty breakers,

When suddenly, breaking with custom, old Polyxo rose in

Dread frenzy, left her room, and rushed into the light of day.

Like an inspired Teumesian Maenad, when rites summon

And Ida’s boxwood flutes urge her, and Bacchus is heard

On the mountain tops, so with staring eyes suffused with

Blood she roused the deserted city with her wild clamour,

Beating on doors, calling at the thresholds for all to gather.

Her sons, unfortunate companions, clung to her as she

Ran. All the women burst from their houses and rushed

At once to the citadel of Pallas, on the heights. There, all

Crowded in haste, massed together in confusion. Then,

Unsheathing a sword the instigator to crime demanded

Silence, and from amongst us dared to speak to us thus:

‘Deserted wives of Lemnos, I come, urged by the gods,

And by righteous indignation to enact a punishment

(Summon your courage, and act beyond your gender!)

If you weary of endlessly tending an empty house,

The flower of your youth shamefully blighted, barren

Years passed in eternal lament, I promise I have found

A way to renew affection (and divine help will not prove

Wanting). Only assume a strength equal to your sorrow.

First tell me this, this third chill winter who has known

Union in marriage, the secret graces of the bedchamber?

Whose breast has been warmed by her mate? Whose

Birth-pangs has Lucina witnessed, say, or who pulses

With what she prayed for, swelling with the months?

Custom grants even wild birds and beasts that grace.

Oh, cowards! Did not a Greek father, Danaus, hand

Weapons of vengeance to virgin daughters, and drench

The young unsuspecting men with blood in their sleep,

Delighting in treachery: are we a mere useless crowd?

And if we need a nearer precedent, let Procne, the wife

From Rhodope teach us courage, who took vengeance

In marriage, with her own hands, in feasting with her

Husband. Nor will I, who urge you, stand apart, free

Of crime or care. My quiver is full, and I have laboured,

As you see. These four together by my side, their father’s

Pride and solace, though their hugs and tears delay me,

I shall stab with the blade, mingling the blood from these

Brothers’ wounds, and while they breathe add their father’s.

Will you equally summon the courage for this slaughter?

She was urging them on when sails gleamed on the sea

Before them: the Lemnian ships returned. Polyxo seized

On the moment, ecstatically: ‘The gods themselves call

Out to us, and shall we fail them? Behold, it is our fleet!

A god, a god of vengeance, delivers them to our wrath,

And favours our actions. No idle vision, mine in dream:

Venus it was who stood by me with naked sword-blade,

Clear to sight, clearer than sleep. “Why waste the time?”

She cried: “Purge your rooms of these estranged spouses.

I will bring you other marriage-torches, finer husbands.”

Speaking she placed the sword, this very one, on my bed.

Oh, wretched ones, why not take measures while the time

For action’s here. See the foaming sea churned by strong

Shoulders. Perhaps they bring Bistonian brides with them.’

Provoked by this, a great clamour rose towards the stars.

It was as if Scythia blazed with the Amazonian tumult

Of that crescent-shielded host’s attack, when Mars yields

His weapons to them, and opens the gates of savage war.

Nor were there discordant cries, from the differing factions,

In the manner of the masses, but rather one single uproar,

One madness in them all, the same wish to destroy homes,

Sever life’s thread in young and old, slay foreign babes

At the breast, and bear a sword through every generation.

There in the green grove (that cast shade far over the earth

Close by Minerva’s tall hill, itself dark but overshadowed

By a towering mountain so the sunlight was doubly lost)

They pledged their oath. You, Mars’ Enyo bore witness,

And you, Proserpine: the Stygian goddesses were there

Before their presence was even invoked, Acheron opened;

And yet Venus was there unseen, mingling everywhere,

Venus clasped their weapons, Venus stirred their wrath.

Nor was the sacrifice as usual, Charops’ wife offered up

Her son. They girded themselves for action and pierced

His startled flesh with steel, hands stretching out eagerly

From every side; and over the pulsing blood they swore

To crime sweet to them; a new ghost circled its mother.

How I shuddered in my bones to witness such things,

How my visage blanched! I was like a deer surrounded

By bloodthirsty wolves, her gentle heart lacking strength,

Whose scant trust is in speed, and flies headlong in terror,

Thinks herself taken now; now, eludes their snapping jaws.

BkV:170-205 Hypsipyle’s tale – They attack the men

The fleet had arrived, and now the keels had met the sand,

And competing in their haste, the Lemnian men leapt ashore,

Poor wretches, whom neither their raw courage in Thracian

Warfare, nor even the enmity of the severing sea had killed!

They filled the tall shrines of the gods with burning incense,

And dragged there the promised victims: the smoke is black

On every altar; the gods grant no flawless palpitating entrails.

Jupiter shed darkness from dew-wet Olympus more slowly

Than usual; and with delicate care, I think, he held the sky

From turning, while the Fates protested, nor did the night

Ever last longer after the sun’s work was done. Though late,

The stars did shine in the heavens, while Paros and wooded

Thasos, and the host of the Cyclades reflected their light,

But Lemnos alone was deep concealed, enveloped by heavy

Cloud: gloom and fog were woven round her, and a black

Mist overhead. Lemnos alone was lost to all passing sails.

Now, relaxing at home, or in the shade of the sacred groves,

The warriors feasted richly, emptying great golden goblets

Of wine to their depths, telling at leisure the tales of their

Battles along the Strymon, their sweat and toil on Rhodope

Or on icy Haemus. And amidst the garlands and banqueting

Their wives reclined, that finely dressed but impious crew.

Venus had rendered their husbands gentle, on this their last

Night of life; vainly granting brief respite after so long, she

Gifted the wretched men with a breath of short-lived passion.

Then the dances fell silent, and there was an end to feasting

Or dalliance, and the first sounds at nightfall died away.

Sleep, cloaked with the darkness now of his brother Death,

And moist with Stygian dew embraced the city of doom,

Pouring deep slumber from his implacable horn, parting

The host of men. Wives and daughters-in-law were awake,

Prepared for crime, and the Sisters gladly sharpened their

Cruel weapons. They set to their evil work, a Fury ruling

Every heart. No differently do Hyrcanian lionesses circle

The herds in the Scythian fields, dawn hunger drives them

Out to seek their prey, eager cubs demanding nourishment.

BkV:206-264 Hypsipyle’s tale – Hypsipyle saves Thoas

Which of that crime’s thousand shapes should I now

Relate to you? Gorge stood daringly above Helymus,

Wreathed in garlands on a pile of cushions, breathing

Out the wine’s vapour as he regained strength in sleep,

And probed his disordered clothing for a place to strike,

As fatal slumber deserted him at the approach of death.

In doubt, his vision confused, he seized his enemy in

Close embrace, but she, as he held her, swiftly plunged

The blade into his back, until the tip touched her own

Breast. So the deed was done. His head fell back, yet

Eyelids quivering, he still murmured lovingly, seeking

Gorge, nor did his arms slip from her unworthy neck.

I will not describe the deaths of others, cruel though

They were, only the deaths in my own family: I saw

You fall, yellow-haired Cydon, and you, Crenaeus,

Your uncut tresses flowing to your shoulders: you

Were my foster-brothers, my father’s other offspring.

You too, mighty Gyas, whom as my betrothed I feared,

I saw you fall to a blow from blood-stained Myrmidone,

And saw Epopeus too, stabbed by his barbarous mother,

As he played among the couches and festive garlands.

Lycaste unarmed wept over her brother Cydimus, equal

To her in age, gazed at the doomed man, his looks so like

Her own, the blush on his cheek, the locks she herself had

Twined with gold, as their cruel mother, having killed her

Husband, stood there thrusting the sword into her hands,

Urging her on with threats. Like some wild creature owned

By a gentle master that has lost its customary aggression,

And is slow to offer fight, reluctant to revert despite goads

And the lash, so she collapsed on his body as he lay there,

Falling, so that his streaming blood soaked all her breast,

Then pressing her hair, all torn, into the fresh wounds.

And when I saw Alcimede carrying her father’s severed

Head, its mouth still moving, the sword in her hand still

Eager for blood, my hair stood erect and a cruel tremor

Pierced my innards. It seemed like my father Thoas,

And the fatal hand seemed mine. I ran at once to my

Father’s room. He, long awake (for what sleep is there

For those who rule?) was asking himself (though our

House was far from the city) what the noise was, why

Those sounds in the night, why clamour and not peace.

I related, as he trembled, the grievous crimes in order,

And the cause of such audacity: ‘They are maddened,

And no force can quell them. Follow me, unfortunate

One, since if you linger they will take you, and perhaps

You will die with me.’ So roused, he leapt from the bed,

And we made our way through the deserted byways

Of the city, concealed in the dark, finding everywhere

The heaped corpses from the night’s massacre, where

Cruel twilight had seen them slain in the sacred groves.

Here where faces pressed to couches, sword-hilts erect

In wounded breasts, broken fragments of huge spears,

Knife-rent clothes among bodies, upturned wine-bowls,

Entrails drenched in blood, and bloody wine pouring

Over the wine cups from severed throats. There lay

A crowd of young men; here a gathering of the old

No weapon should have touched; here half-dead lads

On the threshold of life, laid on the breasts of their

Groaning fathers, sobbing, breathed out their spirits.

The feasts of the Lapiths on chill Ossa explode in no

Crueller manner, whenever the cloud-born Centaurs

Grow heated with deep draughts of wine: the first

Pallor of anger has scarce been seen, when rising

To their feet they upset the tables, eager for battle.

BkV:265-301 Hypsipyle’s tale – The ghost of Thyoneus

Then Thyoneus revealed himself to us in our trepidation,

Bringing help to his son Thoas in his peril, and shone

At first with a sudden blaze of light. I recognised him,

Though his swelling temples were not wreathed with

Garlands, nor his hair with yellow grapes. Clouded,

His eyes shedding unseemly tears, he spoke to us:

“My son, while the Fates allowed I ensured Lemnos

Would be powerful, and feared by other nations, my

Efforts were unceasing, for you, in that lawful labour.

The gloomy Parcae have cruelly cut the thread, nor

Could I avert these ills by the many words and tears

I have poured out in supplication before mighty Jove.

To Venus, his daughter, he granted a vile privilege.

Speed your flight, and you, girl, my worthy offspring,

Guide your father by way of the double wall that runs

To the shore: here at the gate where all seems silent,

Baleful Venus stands, with a sword urging on the mad.

(Why this violence from her, why this martial spirit?)

Trust your father to the deep: I’ll prolong your care.”

So saying he vanished into air; and darkness obscuring

Our sight, he lit our path with a long track of flame.

I followed the sign he gave; then entrusted my father,

In a wooden hull, to the winds, to the Cyclades that

The Aegean embraces, and the gods of the sea. Nor

Would our mutual tears have ceased were it not that

Lucifer was banishing the stars from the Eastern sky.

Then with many a fear in mind and barely trusting in

Bacchus, I left the sounding shore: my steps urgent,

But my troubled mind still gazing behind; nor could I

Help viewing from each hill, the rising wind and waves.

Dawn rose in shame, and the sun, unrolling the heavens,

Turned his light from Lemnos, pursued his slanting path

Behind a cloud. The madness of that night was exposed,

And shame suddenly filled them with fear of the dawn,

(Though all were guilty): they buried their victims deep

In earth or burnt them impiously on hastily-built pyres.

BkV:302-334 Hypsipyle’s tale – Hypsipyle reigns

Now Venus, and the band of Furies, sated, left the city

They had taken; and the women realising what they had

Done tore their hair and drenched their eyes with tears.

At a blow, the island, wealthy, rich in land, men, arms,

Famous and honoured by its Getic triumph, had lost

Its powers, was orphaned and severed from the world,

And not by some inundation, enemy, or unlucky storm.

Men no longer ploughed the earth or the waters, silent

The houses, deep the stain, all things fouled with black

Blood, and only us alive in the great city’s buildings,

The savage spirits of the dead sighing on the rooftops.

I too built a blazing fire in a hidden corner of our palace,

And threw my father’s weapons, sceptre, and notable

Garments, his royal clothing, into the flames. Grieving,

With blood-stained sword, and tangled hair, I stood by

The empty and deceitful pyre, in fear lest any passed,

Praying it might not prove an ill omen to my father,

And so allay doubts and fears regarding his death.

For this service, once the false illusion of his murder

Had gained credence, I was granted rule and occupied

(In punishment!) my father’s throne. Who was I, so

Besieged, to refuse? I agreed, but only after endless

Prayer to the gods, and brooding on the truth, and my

Innocence. I inherited thus (by such dire authority!)

An exhausted realm, a sorrowing powerless Lemnos.

More and more the grief troubled their waking senses,

They lamented loudly, and slowly came to hate Polyxo.

Now they allowed themselves to build altars to the dead,

Commemorate the atrocity, and swear by the buried ashes.

So it is when quivering heifers, stupefied, see their leader

And master of the stall, to whom the glory and pastures

Of the horned herd belong, slain by a Massylian lion,

Their breed is maimed, its pride vanished, and the fields,

The very rivers, the silent trees grieve for the dead king.

BkV:335-375 Hypsipyle’s tale – The Argonauts arrive

Behold! Splitting the waters with bronze prow the pine

Keel from Pelion came, guest of the wide virgin waters.

The Minyae row her, a double wake whitening from her

High bows, such that you might think Ortygia torn from

Its root, or a slice of hillside is coursing over the seas.

But when the oars were raised in the air and the waves

Fell silent, a voice sweeter than dying swans or Apollo’s

Lyre came from the ship and the very waters drew close.

Later we learned Oeagrian Orpheus was making music,

Leaning against the mast amongst the oarsmen, helping

Them to forget their heavy labour. They sailed to lands

Of Scythian Boreas, and the shores of Pontus between

The clashing rocks. Seeing them we thought they were

Thracian warriors, and fled to our city in tumultuous

Panic, like a dense throng of cattle or a flight of birds.

Alas, where were the Furies now? We climbed walls

And towers along the harbour and shore, all granting

A view over the open sea. There in trembling haste

The women hauled stakes and stones, their husbands’

Blood-stained swords and armour tainted by death.

Shameless, they donned coats of mail and set helms

On their bold heads. Minerva blushed in amazement

At the audacious crew, and Mars on distant Haemon

Laughed. Then finally the wild frenzy left their minds.

No ship, they thought, but punishment for their crime,

The tardy justice of the gods, was nearing over the brine.

Now the Pelasgian ship was but a Cretan arrow’s flight

From land when Jupiter sent a storm-cloud pregnant

With dark rain, and drove it onwards above the rigging.

The sea grew rough, and the sunlight lost, the darkness

Of the sky was soon matched by the colour of the waves.

Fierce winds blew dense clouds and churned the deep,

And the wet sand rose to view in the black whirlpools.

The whole ocean hung poised in the conflicting winds,

Then over-arching breakers neared the stars and toppled.

The vessel faltered, and her onward progress slowed,

Then tilting she thrust the Triton figurehead at her bow

Now to the heavens, now into the depths of the flood.

The strength of those demigods, those heroes, brought

No relief, as the crazed mast thrashed the stern, then

Leaned forward perilously to touch the curving waves,

And the oar thudded uselessly into each oarsman’s chest.

BkV:376-444 Hypsipyle’s tale – The Argonauts reach land

While the warriors were labouring to counter sea and wind,

We, from the cliffs, and highest sections of the walls hurled

Missiles from above, with feeble trembling arms, at Telamon,

And Peleus (what daring!) and sought Hercules with arrows.

As for the Minyans, attacked by weather and the enemy, some

Defended with their shields, others baled water from the hold,

Others fought; but their efforts blunted by the ship’s motion,

Their deflected strength lacked force. We sent down a greater

Hail of darts, the storm of iron vying to outdo the storm; such

A shower of hardened stakes and shattered millstones, javelins

And flaming missiles like streaks of fire fell, now in the waves,

Now aboard the ship, till the pine deck echoed and the planks

Groaned in the hollow cavities below. So Jupiter lashes green

Meadows with Hyperborean snow, till on the plain every single

Creature’s buried, birds are driven to earth, the harvest flattened

By ruinous ice, the mountains roar and the rivers surge in wrath.

But now Jove’s lightning broke through the cloud, and the great

Warriors showed plainly in its light, such that our hearts froze,

Our nerveless hands relaxed, the unaccustomed weapons fell

From our grasp, and we reverted to our gender. We saw the sons

Of Aeacus and Ancaeus, directly threatening our walls, Iphitus

Thrusting the vessel away from the cliffs with his long spear.

But Hercules, Amphitryon’s son, towered clear above the others,

Tilting the vessel on one side then the other, longing to plunge

Into the waves. But Jason, as yet unknown, ah, to me, leapt

Nimbly over oars and benches, over the backs of the heroes,

Urging on with hand and voice Meleager, Oeneus’ great son,

Then Idas and Talaus, then one of the Tyndarides drenched

With the white sea-spray, then Calais as he struggled, in his

Father Boreas’ icy fog, to lash the sails to the mast again.

Their blows strike the sea and the walls; but the foaming

Waters yield no way, the spears bounce from the towers.

The helmsman Tiphys wearied by the massive breakers,

The helm unresponsive in his grasp, grew pale, and altered

Course time and again, aiming the bows away from the reef,

Into the deeps to either side, until from the bowsprit’s tip

Jason, Aeson’s son, waved a branch of Mopsus the seer’s

Palladian olive, seeking a truce though the crew demurred:

The roaring tempest swallowing his voice. Then came a lull

In the fighting, and with it the gale, exhausted, subsided,

And the sunlight shone again after the Olympian turmoil.

The fifty heroes, their ship duly moored, leapt from the sheer

Side, shaking the foreign earth: proud and tall, and of mighty

Parentage, their brows were calm and faces recognisable,

Now that their visages were no longer swollen in anger.

So the gods are said to emerge from their hidden portals

When they wish to re-visit the houses and the humble

Banqueting tables of the Ethiopians, under the rising sun;

And then it is that rivers and mountains give way to them,

Earth’s proud to bear their tread, and sky-bearing Atlas rests.

There we saw Theseus, proud of saving Marathon of late,

From the wild bull; and Zetes and Calais, sons of Aquilo,

Thracian brothers, with red whirring wings at their brows;

And Admetus, whom Phoebus thought it no shame to call

His superior; and Orpheus so untypical of harsh Thrace;

And Meleager, scion of Calydon; and Peleus the son-in-law

To Nereus of the deep. Castor and Pollux, the twin sons

Of Oebalus confuse the eye with their teasing similarity;

One wears a bright cloak, the other the same, both wield

A spear, both are smooth-faced and bare-shouldered, both

Have a shining star in their hair. Young Hylas too had dared

The voyage, adapting to Hercules’ great stride as he follows,

Whose huge bulk he can yet scarcely match in a race: bearing

Lerna’s weapons, in joy, sweating beneath the mighty quiver.

BkV:445-498 Hypsipyle ends her tale - Jason, exile, slavery

Now Venus was there again, and Love with silent flames tested

The violent hearts of Lemnian women; as imperial Juno filled

Their minds with the heroes’ bearing and prowess, the marks

Of noble lineage. Every house vied to welcome the strangers.

Then fire was renewed on the altars, sinful thoughts forgotten.

Then came feasting, pleasant slumber, nights of rest, though

I think their pleasing nature was not unwilled by the gods.

Perhaps, Generals, you wish to know my own error, the fault

Of Fate? By the ashes of my kin, by the Furies, I swear, it was

Not my fault or intention (the dear gods know) to kindle flame

In Jason, though he had the charm to captivate a young girl.

Phasis has its own dire laws; alien the love Colchis engenders.

Now the starry nights, shedding their cold, grew warm with

Long hours of sunlight, and the swift-turning year revolved.

Now new birth and progeny came in answer to our prayers.

Lemnos was noisy with the sounds of longed-for children.

I too gave birth with the rest, to twins, memories of forced

Marriage, made a mother by my harsh guest, I renewed my

Father’s name. What happened to them after I left I do not

Know: they are twenty by now if the Fates have allowed

Them to flourish, and Lycaste has raised them as I wished.

The seas were calm, and a gentler southerly filled the sails.

As if the ship herself were tired of lingering in the tranquil

Harbour, she strained at her cable tied to the facing cliffs.

The Minyae longed to depart, and Jason summoned his

Comrades – oh, the savage! If only he had sailed beyond

Our shores that time, a man neglectful of his offspring,

And his promised word! What of his fame among distant

Peoples, what if the golden fleece of Phrixus was restored!

The hour of sailing was set. Tiphys, the steersman, divined

The following day’s weather, and Phoebus’ place of setting

Blushed red. One more lament, and the eve of a departure.

Dawn had scarcely broken, as Jason standing high on deck,

Gave the order to leave; and the sea was struck by the oars.

We followed them with our gaze from cliffs and mountain

Tops as they cleft the foaming surface of the outspread deep,

Until the light tired our flickering eyesight, seeming to merge

The wide sea and sky as one, and levelling down the waters

At the far horizon. A rumour reached the port that Thoas had

Crossed the sea and ruled now in his brother’s Chios, that I

Was innocent, that the blazing pyre had been mere deception.

The impious crowd made a clamour, spurred on by their guilt,

Claiming responsibility. And hidden voices began to be raised

Among the multitude: “Were we happy to kill, was she alone

Faithful? Was it not the gods and fate? If the city is so sinful,

Why is she our queen?” Terrified of such murmurs (of a cruel

Punishment, with my royalty no defence) I, alone and in secret,

Took to the winding shore, leaving the accursed city by way

Of my father’s prior route. But Bacchus did not appear a second

Time. A pirate crew, landing there, spirited me away, I keeping

Silent all the while and they brought me to your land as a slave.’

BkV:499-587 The Serpent

So the Lemnian exile repeated her story to the Lernaean kings

Consoling her ills with her sad and lengthy tale, forgetful (so

The gods intended) of the child she had left behind. He sank

His drooping face with heavy eye-lids into the thick grass,

And, tired of play, fell asleep, his hand still clutching the turf.

Meanwhile a serpent, a holy earthborn terror of the Achaean

Woods, slithered over the meadow, drawing his huge bulk on,

And gathering it behind him. His eyes were full of livid flame,

The green foam of venom pouring from his mouth. The triple

Tongue flickered between three rows of curved fangs, the cruel

Hood on his gilded brows extended. The farmers declared him

Sacred to Argive Jupiter who tended the site and the poor men’s

Offerings made on woodland altars. Sometimes the serpent slid

In sinuous circles round the god’s shrine, sometimes he scraped

The timber of the unfortunate groves, de-barking great ash trees

With his embrace. Often he stretched from riverbank to bank,

And the waters frothed with the thrashing of his scaly folds.

But now all the earth was parched, by order of the Theban deity,

Now the water Nymphs were hidden in the sand, he grew angry,

His curved flanks driving his sinuous length along the ground,

While he raged noxiously at the fires of his desiccated venom.

Through the arid pools and marshes and dry springs he roved,

Wandering through empty river-courses, flickering uncertainly

With his mouth up-turned, or furrowing the exhausted fields,

Bent down to the clinging soil, seeking moisture in green turf.

Grasses wilted as his head passed, stricken by his hot breath,

The plain dying to his hiss: as vast he was as Draco, the snake

That divides the Great and Little Wains in the sky; or Python

Who shook the twin peaks of sacred Parnassus, twining his

Coils about them, till you pierced him, Apollo, with a hundred

Wounds, and he died under the weight of your forest of arrows.

What decision of the gods, child, cursed you with the burden

Of so heavy a fate? Must it then lay you low, though barely

At life’s threshold? Surely it was to render you holy through all

The ages, worthy in death of so grand a sepulchre? Caught by

The lashing of its tail you perished, child, the snake all unaware.

Sleep fled your body instantly, but your eyes opened to death.

Yet when from your startled mouth a dying wail met the air,

And your cry then fell silent broken like an incomplete utterance

In dream, Hypsipyle heard. In mortal fear she ran on legs that

Would barely carry her. By her augury, she was quickly sure

The cry meant disaster, and casting her eyes in all directions

She searched the ground in vain, calling again and again words

That the child would know. There was no sign of him, no trace

Of his path through the meadow. The sluggish serpent lay coiled,

Filling wide acres even so, his head lying exposed on his green

Body. The poor woman shuddered at the sight and with her cries

Stirred the forest depths; the snake merely lay there quiescent.

But her cries reached the Argives, and at their leader’s order,

Parthenopaeus, the Arcadian knight, ran to the spot and found

Out the cause. Then, at the flash of weapons and men calling,

The fearful snake lifted his scaly neck. The tall Hippomedon

Seized a rock, a boundary marker, and with a mighty effort

Sent it whirling through the air, as when a millstone is fired

From a catapult against barred gates in war. The warrior’s

Effort was in vain, the serpent had already flexed his supple

Neck, avoiding the imminent blow. The ground shook, knots

Of vegetation sprang apart in the pathless woods. Capaneus

Rushing to confront the enemy with his ash spear, now cried:

‘You’ll not escape my blows, whether you’re simply a savage

Creature of the fearful grove, or merely a plaything of the gods

(Let the gods have you!) no, not if you merged your body

With a Giant’s.’ The spear flew quivering through the air, then

Entered the monster’s gaping jaws, severed the roots of his cruel

Triple tongue, flashed through the erect hood, the ornament to his

Darting head, and stuck deep in the earth, drenched in the black

Venom from his throat. He had scarcely felt the pain throughout

His length, when with a rapid action, coiling round the weapon,

Tearing the spear from the soil, he fled to the god’s dark shrine;

There measuring his vast length on the ground he hissed away his

Life-breath, beseeching his master’s altar. The kindred swamps

Of Lerna mourned him in indignation; the Nymphs that would

Strew him with spring flowers; the fields of Nemea, his haunts;

And the woodland Fauns in every grove broke their reed-pipes.

Jupiter himself in the highest heavens called up his weapons,

And tempestuous winds and storm clouds gathered, but the god’s

Anger was not roused sufficiently as yet; Capaneus was reserved

For a weightier missile; nevertheless the breath of the lightning

Blast as it reached earth touched the tip of the crest on his helm.

BkV:588-637 Lament for the dead Archemorus (Opheltes)

Now the place was rid of the serpent, the unhappy Lemnian

Searched the fields, and at the distant summit of a little hill

She paled to see the grass bedewed with blood. There she

Ran, to discover tragedy, and wild with the weight of grief

Fell to the guilty earth in an instant, speechless, without tears

Faced with the disaster. In her misery she rained down kisses

On the child’s body, and tried to catch the flight of the living

Spirit on her breath. The face was damaged, and the breast,

The skin was torn away, the frail bones visible, the tissues

Drenched in the fresh blood, the corpse one whole wound.

So when a slow-moving snake has ravaged the nest, killed

Some bird’s young in a shadowy ilex tree, the returning

Mother is startled at the silence of her once-noisy home,

And flutters about it, letting fall the food held in her beak,

Seeing only the blood and scattered feathers from its ruin.

She clasped the torn limbs to her breast, poor soul, twining

Her hair about them. At last her throat set free her voice

And made a path for her sorrow, till her moans resolved

Themselves in words: ‘Archemorus, sweet image of my

Children lost to me, solace for my lost land and royalty,

Pride and joy of my servitude, what cruel god has taken

Your life, you whom I left playing, crawling in the grass?

Where is your star-like face? Where are the half-formed

Words, the sounds and laughs and gurgles only I could

Understand? How I used to tell you of Lemnos, the Argo,

And lull you to sleep with my long tale of woe! Thus I

Found solace while I put this little one to my breast. Now,

Bereaved the flow of milk falls vainly on your sad wounds.

I recognise the work of the gods. O, dire presentiments in

Sleep, O fear in the night, O Venus who never appeared

To my vision in the darkness, except to bring me sorrow!

Why accuse the gods? I myself (why afraid to confess as

I face death?) exposed you to fate. What madness filled

My mind? How did such neglect of my charge overcome

Me? While I, in my vanity, retold the history of my country,

The tale of my renown (what fidelity, what sense of duty!),

Lemnos, I paid, for my crime. Where is the deadly serpent?

Lead me to him, Generals, if you are thankful for my help,

And favourable to my sad speech; or kill me yourselves

With your swords, rather than that I should be hateful to my

Sad lords, on seeing them, and his bereaved mother, though

My love and grief are no less than hers. Shall I bear this

Melancholy burden to pour into his Eurydice’s lap? Should

The earth not sink me first in deepest darkness?’ With this,

Her face stained with soil and blood, she twined about

The great kings’ feet, silently reminding them of her aid.

BkV:638-698 The anger of Lycurgus

And now the startling news that ran through Lycurgus’ halls,

While he was making sacrifice, filled his house with tears,

And his own eyes, as he was descending from the summit

Of Aphesas, Perseus’ mountain, where he’d been offering

Sacred portions to the angry Thunderer, shaking his head

As he returned from inspecting the unpropitious entrails.

Keeping to himself there, he sought no part in the Argive

Fight; not lacking courage, constrained by the temple altars.

He still recalled the former oracles and the gods’ warning,

Those words repeated to him from the depths of the shrine:

‘Lycurgus, you must give an early sacrifice to the Theban

War.’ So alerted, the dust of an army nearby grieved him,

Wincing at the blare of trumpets, wishing the warriors ill.

Behold (the gods do not deceive!) Thoas’ daughter came

Bearing those mangled remains. The mother, Eurydice,

Leading a group of women, a grieving crowd, advanced

To meet her; Lycurgus’ love for his son was no less active,

Stronger in disaster, a father’s fierce anger repressed tears,

And with long strides he covered the intervening ground,

Crying: ‘Here is one to whom the loss of my little child’s

Spilt blood is welcome. Why is she still alive? Drive her

Bound before us, comrades, forward quickly with her. I’ll

Soon make her forget that tale of Lemnos, and her father,

And the lie regarding that divine lineage she’s so proud of.

Grasping his sword, he advanced, about to deal death in his

Anger, when Tydeus, Oeneus’ heroic son, took action,

Thrusting the other backward aggressively with his shield,

And gritting his teeth: ‘Cease your foolishness, madman,

Whoever you may be!’ Capaneus moved forward likewise,

And fierce Hippomedon, and the Arcadian, Parthenopaeus,

The former his sword raised, the latter levelled, dazzling

The man with the glittering of steel. On the other side, a band

Of farmers rallied to their king. Between them the gentler

Adrastus stepped, along with Amphiaraus who respected

His dealings with those adorned with sacred ribbons, saying:

‘No, I beg you! Sheathe those swords, and be you the first.

We are of one blood.’ But Tydeus was not at peace. ‘Would

You dare send our guide, savour of the Argive host, to her

Grave, thankless before so many thousands (in revenge

For what?) she who was queen, the child of Thoas, a man

Whose father was Bacchus the shining one? Oh, coward,

Is it not enough that while your countrymen have flocked

To arms from every quarter, you alone among all the busy

Ranks choose peace? Choose then, and may Greek victory

Find you at the graveside yet, and still mourning this death.’

He spoke. Lycurgus’ anger ebbed, his reply was calmer:

‘I did not think, for my part, that it was you at the gates,

Rather that Thebes and her hostile army had arrived. Enter

And slay us if it is your pleasure to shed the blood of friends,

Employ your might at home, and let impious fire destroy

Jove’s undefended shrine (what then is not permitted?) if,

Lord and master here, I have no right to deal with a lowly

Slave, in accord with the sorrow weighing on my heart.

Yet he sees, he sees, the ruler of the gods, and his anger

Though tardy will abide.’ So saying, he gazed towards

The heights. The houses elsewhere rang with the clash

Of weapons. Even now, Rumour had outpaced the swift

Squadrons, and embraced twin conflicts with her wings.

Some said Hypsipyle, thus blamed, had been dragged

Away to her doom, others that she was already dying.

Believing so, their anger countenanced no delay. Now

Weapons and blazing torches threatened the palace,

They called for the overthrow of the monarchy, for

Lycurgus to be seized and carried off along with Jove’s

Statue and his altars. The halls re-sounded to women’s

Screams and grief, retreating, turned to flee from terror.

BkV:699-753 Hypsipyle is reunited with her sons

But Adrastus, high in his chariot, carrying Thoas’ daughter

With him, before the clamorous crowd of men, passed

Through their midst and shouted: ‘Enough! Here is no

Savage act, nor does Lycurgus deserve such an assault.

And, behold, here is she who found the blessed stream!

Just such is the scene when a northerly and easterly on

One side, and a southerly with its dark rain on the other,

Have roused the ocean with their opposing gales, daylight

Is banished and the tempest reigns; then comes the king

Of the deep with his great steeds; and bi-formed Triton,

Swimming alongside, signals far and wide to the falling

Breakers, until the sea is level and hills and shores appear.

Which of the gods brought solace for her pain; countering

Her tears with an answer to her deepest prayer; bringing

Unlooked-for joy to sad Hypsipyle? You it was, Bacchus,

Founder of her line, who brought her two sons to Nemea

From Lemnos’ shore, preparing a wondrous fate for them.

Their mother was the reason for their presence; Lycurgus’

Generous house had welcomed them; there, news of his

Child’s death had reached the king. They, as his guests,

Supported the king (oh Chance and men’s minds blind

To the future!), but when they heard cries of Lemnos

And Thoas, they swept past weapons and outstretched

Hands, and weeping clasped their mother in their eager

Embrace, taking her in turns to their breast. She was

Frozen, as if turned to stone, her gaze fixed ahead, she,

Of her own experience, not daring to trust the gods.

But seeing their faces, and their swords from the Argo

Jason had left behind, and his insignia on their clothes,

Her sorrows left her, eyes filled with tears of a different

Kind, and she fainted, overcome by so great a blessing.

There were signs too from the heavens, tumultuous cries

Of joy, and the drums and cymbals of the god sounded

Through echoing air. Then the virtuous son of Oecles,

Amphiaraus, once the ebbing anger of the crowd brought

Calm, and their silence allowed them to hear his speech,

Cried: ‘Oh king of Nemea and you sons of Inachus, you

Leaders appointed, hear what Apollo clearly commands.

This trouble comes to the Argive army from long ago,

In straight descent, brought by the Fates. The drought

And the vanishing streams; the death-dealing serpent;

The lad singled out, alas, by a name that is our destiny,

Arechemorus; all this arises from the gods’ supreme will.

Contain your anger, and set your hastily-seized weapons

Aside: the child must be accorded the lasting honours he

Deserves. Let the brave offer pure libations to the dead

Who was their own; may you Apollo bring more delay,

And we be barred from making war by fresh circumstance,

And may fatal Thebes recede forever in the far distance.

But you, Lycurgus and Eurydice, you the fortunate, whose

Destiny exceeds that of other noble parents, whom lasting

Fame will attend throughout the ages, whilst Father Inachus

And Lerna’s marshes shall flow, whilst Nemea casts her

Flickering shadows on the fields, do not violate the rites

By weeping, do not reproach the gods: for the child is now

A god, nor would he have preferred Nestor’s long years,

Or to outlive Phrygian Priam.’ Thus he ended his speech,

And night wrapped all the heavens in hollow darkness.


End of Book V