Ovid: The Metamorphoses

Book IX

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

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Bk IX:1-88 Acheloüs wrestles with Hercules

Theseus, the hero, reputed son of Neptune, asked Acheloüs why he had sighed, and the reason for his damaged forehead: to which the Calydonian river-god, his uncut hair wreathed with reeds, replied: ‘You ask something painful of me. Who wants to recall the battles he has lost? But, I will tell it as it happened: since the shame of being beaten is no less than the honour of having fought. It is a great consolation to me that the victor was so famous.

If her name has ever come to your notice, Deianira was once the most beautiful girl, and the jealous hope of many suitors. When, with them, I entered Oeneus’s house, her father, and the man I sought as my father-in-law, I said: “Accept me as your son-in-law, son of Parthaon.” Hercules, scion of Alceus, said the same. The others gave way before the two of us. Hercules declared that he could offer Jove as his bride’s father-in-law, spoke of his famous labours, and of how he had survived what his stepmother, Juno, had prescribed for him. On my side I said: “It would be shameful for a god to concede to a mortal” – He was not yet a god – “In me you see the lord of the waters, that flow in winding rivers, through your kingdom. As your son-in-law I would not be a stranger sent from a foreign shore, but a native, and wedded to your own interests. Only don’t let it harm my case that Queen Juno does not hate me, and all the punishment of the labours, she demanded, passed me by!”

“Now, listen, Hercules, you, son of Alcmena: Jupiter, whose child you boast of being, is either wrongly called your father, or is truly a wrongdoer. You seek your father in a mother’s adultery. Choose whether you prefer this fiction of Jove as a father, or to be born the son of shame.” As I spoke, he gazed at me fiercely, all the while, and unable to act like a man and control his blazing anger, he merely replied in these words: “My right hand is more powerful than my tongue. As long as I beat you at wrestling, you can win the talking”, and he came at me ferociously. I was ashamed to retreat, after my words: I took off my green robes; put up my arms; held my hands, fingers curved, in front of my chest in fighting stance; and readied my limbs for the match. He caught up dust in the hollow of his hands and threw it over me, and, in turn, was, himself, gilded by the yellow sand. Now he caught at my neck, or you might think he caught me, now at my legs, now at my loins: and attacked me from every side. My weight protected me, and his attempts were useless. I was like a massive pile that the roaring flood assaults with all its might: it remains, secure in its own bulk.

We pulled away for a moment, returned to the conflict, and stood firm, determined not to concede. Foot was set against foot, and I pushed at him, with my chest full forward, fingers locked with fingers, and head to head. I have seen two strong bulls come together like that, when they try for the sleekest heifer in the pasture as their prize in the contest. The herd watches in fear, not sure to which one victory will grant overriding supremacy. Three times without success Hercules tried to push my gleaming chest away from him. At the fourth attempt, he broke my grip, loosed himself from my constricting arms, and with a blow of his hand – certainly, I myself confess it is the truth – he turned me about, and clung, with all his weight, to my back.

If you can believe it - I am not seeking to gain false credit by saying it – I seemed to have a mountain pressing on top of me. With difficulty I thrust my arms, pouring with sweat from the great effort it took, under him, and, with difficulty, freed his firm hold on my body. He pressed me hard, as I gasped for breath, prevented me from gathering my strength, and gripped my neck. Then, at last, my knee touched the ground, and my mouth tasted sand. Inferior to him in strength, I turned to my magic arts, and slipped from his grasp in the shape of a long snake. But when I had wound my body in sinuous coils, and, hissing fiercely, darted my forked tongue at him, Tiryns’s hero laughed, and mocking my magic arts, said: “My task in the cradle was to defeat snakes, and, though you are greater than other reptiles, Acheloüs, how big a slice of the Lernean Hydra would your one serpent be? It was made fecund by its wounds, and not one of its hundred heads was safely cut off without its neck generating two more. I overcame it, and having overcome it, disembowelled that monster, with branching snake-heads, that grew from their own destruction, thriving on evil. What do you think will happen to you, who are only a false snake, using unfamiliar weapons, whom a shifting form hides?”

He spoke and knotted his fingers round my throat. I was suffocating, as if my throat was gripped by a vice, and struggled to tear his thumbs away from my windpipe. Overpowered in this form, only my third, fierce, bull-shape remained. So I fought on, my limbs those of a bull. From the left he threw his arms round my bulging neck; and followed me as I charged off; dragging at me, my horns piercing the hard ground as he pulled me down; and toppling me into the deep sand. As if that was not enough, holding the tough horn in his cruel hand, he broke it and tore it away from my mutilated brow. The Naiades took it, filling it with fruit and scented flowers, and made it sacred: the Goddess of Abundance is rich now because of my horn of plenty.”

Bk IX:89-158 The shirt of Nessus

He spoke: and a nymph, one of his attendants, dressed like Diana, her hair streaming over her shoulders, came to them, bringing all of autumn’s harvest in an overflowing horn, and, for an aftertaste, delicious fruits. Light gathered, and as the first rays struck the mountain summits, the warriors left, not waiting for the river to flow calmly and placidly or for the falling waters to subside. Acheloüs hid his wild features and his head, marred by its broken horn, in the depths of the waves.

Nevertheless he only had the loss of that adornment, which had been taken from him, to lament: he was otherwise unhurt. Also he hid his loss with a wreath of willow leaves or reeds. But you, fierce Nessus, the centaur, a passion for that same virgin girl destroyed you, hit in the back by a flying arrow.

Hercules, son of Jupiter, on his way to his native city with Deianira, his new bride, came to the swift waters of the River Euenus. The flood was higher than normal, increased by winter rains, with frequent whirlpools, and impassable. He had no fear of going on himself, but was anxious for his bride, when Nessus approached, strong of limb, and knowing the fords. ‘With my help, Alcides,” he said, “she will be set down on the far bank. Use your strength to swim!” The Theban handed over the Calydonian girl, she, pale with fear, frightened of the river and of the centaur himself.

Straight away, weighed down as he was by his quiver and his lion’s skin - he had thrown his club and his curved bow across to the other bank – the hero said: ‘Let me endure the river since I have started to cross.’ He did not hesitate, and did not search for where the river was calmest, scorning to claim the water’s allegiance. He had gained the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown, when he heard his wife’s voice, and shouted to Nessus, who was preparing to betray his trust: ‘Where are you carrying her off to, you rapist, trusting in vain to your swiftness of foot? I am speaking to you, Nessus, the twice-formed. Listen: do not steal what is mine. If you have no respect for me, the thought of your father, Ixion, on his whirling wheel might prevent this illicit union. However much you trust in your horse-craft, you will not escape. With wounds, not feet, I will follow you.’ He made good his last words with his actions, shooting the arrow he fired, across, at the fleeing back. The barbed tip jutted from the centaur’s chest. When the shaft was pulled out, blood, mixed with the deadly arrow-poison of the Lernean Hydra, gushed out simultaneously from the entry and exit wounds. Nessus trapped this, and murmured, to himself of course: ‘I will not die without revenge’ and gave his tunic soaked with warm blood to Deianira, whom he had abducted, presenting it to her as if it were a gift for reviving a waning love.

A long space of intervening time passed by, and the tales of mighty Hercules had filled the world, and overcome his stepmother’s hatred. As the victor at Oechalia, in Euboea (where he had avenged an insult offered him by King Eurytus) he was preparing to sacrifice to Jupiter at Cenaeum, when loquacious Rumour, who loves to add lies to fact, and expands from the tiniest truth by her falsehoods, brought her tale on ahead, to your ears, Deianira. She claimed that Hercules, reputed son of Amphitryon, was filled with passion for Iole, daughter of Eurytus.

The loving wife believes it, and terrified at first by the rumour of this new affair, she indulges in tears, and the poor girl vents her misery in weeping. But she soon says ‘Why do I weep? That adulteress will laugh at my tears. Since she is coming here, I must plan quickly, while I can, while another has not yet taken my place. Should I complain, or keep silent? Return to Calydon or stay? Should I leave my house? Or, if I can do nothing else, should I at least stand in their way? What if, remembering I am your sister, Meleager, I prepare, boldly, to commit a crime, and, by cutting that adulteress’s throat, show what revenge and a woman’s grief can do?’

Her thought traced various courses. Of all of them she preferred that of sending the shirt, imbued with Nessus’s blood, to restore her husband’s waning love. Unwittingly, she entrusted what became her future grief, to the servant, Lichas, he not knowing what he had been entrusted with: and the unfortunate woman, ordered him, with persuasive words, to give the present to her husband. Hercules, the hero, took it, without a thought, and put on the shirt of Nessus, soaked in the poison of the Lernean Hydra.

Bk IX:159-210 The agony of Hercules

He was making offerings of incense and reciting prayers over the first flames, and pouring a libation bowl of wine on to the marble altar. The power of the venom, warmed and released by the flames, dissolved, dispersing widely through the limbs of Hercules. With his usual courage, he repressed his groans while he could. When his strength to endure the venom was exhausted, he overturned the altar, and filled woody Oeta with his shouts.

He tries at once to tear off the fatal clothing: where it is pulled away, it pulls skin away with it, and, revolting to tell, it either sticks to the limbs from which he tries in vain to remove it, or reveals the lacerated limbs and his massive bones. His blood itself hisses and boils, with the virulence of the poison, like incandescent metal, dipped in a cold pool. There is no end to it: the consuming fires suck at the air in his chest: dark sweat pours from his whole body: his scorched sinews crackle. His marrow liquefying with the secret corruption, he raises his hands to the heavens, crying: ‘Juno, Saturnia, feed on my ruin: feed, cruel one: gaze, from the heights, at this destruction, and sate your savage heart! Or if this suffering seems pitiable even to an enemy, even to you, take away this sorrowful and hateful life, with its fearful torments, that was only made for toil. Death would be a gift to me, a fitting offering from a stepmother.

Was it for this I overcame Busiris who defiled the temples with the blood of sacrificed strangers? For this that I lifted fierce Antaeus, robbing him of the strength of his mother Earth? For this, that I was unmoved, by Geryon’s triple form, the herdsman of Spain, or your triple form, Cerberus? For this, you hands of mine, that you dragged down the horns of the strong Cretan bull: that the stables of King Augeas of Elis know of your efforts: the Stymphalian Lake: and the woods of Mount Parthenius, with its golden-antlered stag? For this, that, by your virtue, the gold engraved girdle of Hippolyte of Thermodon was taken, and the apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the sleepless dragon? Was it for this, that the Centaurs could not withstand me, nor the Erymanthian Boar that laid Arcady waste? For this, that it did not help the Hydra to thrive on destruction and gain redoubled strength? What of the time when I saw Thracian Diomede’s horses, fed on human blood, their stalls filled with broken bodies, and, seeing them, overthrew them, and finished off them, and their master? The Nemean Lion lies crushed by these massive arms: and for Atlas these shoulders of mine held up the sky. Jupiter’s cruel consort is tired of giving commands: I am not tired of performing them.

But now a strange disease affects me that I cannot withstand by courage, weapons or strength. Deep in my lungs a devouring fire wanders, feeding on my whole body. But Eurystheus, my enemy is well! Are there those then who can believe that the gods exist?’ So saying he roamed, in his illness, over the heights of Oeta, as a bull carries around a hunting spear embedded in its body, though the hunter who threw it has long gone. Picture him there, in the mountains, in his anger, often groaning, often shouting out, often attempting, again and again, to rid himself of the last of the garment, overturning trees, or stretching his arms out to his native skies.

Bk IX:211-272 The death and transformation of Hercules

Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury. ‘Was it not you, Lichas,’ he said, ‘who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?’ The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking, and trying to clasp the hero’s knees, Alcides seized him, and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow; whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass; and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright, and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths, and keeps the semblance of a human shape. This sailors are afraid to set foot on, as though it could sense them, and they call it, Lichas.

But you, famous son of Jove, felled the trees that grew on steep Oeta, and made a funeral pyre, and commanded Philoctetes, son of Poeas, who supplied the flame that was plunged into it, to take your bow, your ample quiver, and the arrows, that were fated to see, once more, the kingdom of Troy (as they did when you rescued Hesione.) As the mass caught light from the eager fire, you spread the Nemean Lion’s pelt on the summit of the pile of logs, and lay down, your neck resting on your club, and with an aspect no different from that of a guest, reclining amongst the full wine cups, crowned with garlands.

Now the fierce flames, spreading on every side, were crackling loudly, and licking at his body, he unconcerned and scornful of them. The gods were fearful for earth’s champion. Saturnian Jupiter spoke to them, gladly, since he understood their feelings. ‘O divine beings, your fear for him delights me, and I willingly congratulate myself, with all my heart, that I am called father and ruler of a thoughtful race, and that my offspring is protected by your favour also. Though this tribute is paid to his great deeds, I am obliged to you, also. But do not allow your loyal hearts to feel groundless fears. Forget Oeta’s flames! He, who has defeated all things, will defeat the fires you see, nor will he feel Vulcan’s power, except in the mortal part that he owes to his mother, Alcmene. What he has from me is immortal, deathless and eternal: and that, no flame can destroy. When it is done with the earth, I will accept it into the celestial regions, and I trust my action will please all the gods. But if there is anyone, anyone at all, who is unhappy at Hercules’s deification, and would not wish to grant this gift, he or she should know that it was given for merit, and should approve it, though unwillingly.’ The gods agreed. Juno, also, appeared to accept the rest of his words with compliance, but not the last ones, upset that she was being censored.

Meanwhile, Mulciber had consumed whatever the flames could destroy, and no recognisable form of Hercules remained, no semblance of what came to him from his mother: he only retained his inheritance from Jove. As a snake enjoys its newness, sloughing old age with its skin, gleaming with fresh scales; so, when the Tirynthian hero had shed his mortal body, he became his better part, beginning to appear greater, and more to be revered, in his high majesty. The all-powerful father of the gods carrying him upwards, in his four-horse chariot, through the substance-less clouds, set him among the shining stars.

Bk IX:273-323 Alcmena tells of Hercules’s birth and of Galanthis

Atlas felt the weight of the new constellation. But even now the anger of Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus, was not appeased, and he pursued his unyielding hatred of the father through the children. Argive Alcmena, troubled by endless cares, had Iole, as one to whom she could confide an old woman’s miseries, to whom she could relate her son’s labours, known to all the world, and her own misfortunes. At Hercules request, Hyllus, his son by Deianira, had taken Iole to his marriage-bed, and his heart, and had planted a child of that noble race in her womb. Alcmena said to her: ‘Let the gods at least favour you, and shorten that time when, in childbirth, you call on Ilithyia, that Lucina who watches over frightened women, who, thanks to Juno’s influence, made things hard for me.

When the time for Hercules’s difficult birth came, and Capricorn, the tenth sign, was hidden by the sun, the weight of the child stretched my womb: what I carried was so great, you could tell that Jove was the father of my hidden burden. I could not bear my labour pains much longer. Even now, as I speak, a cold horror grips my body, and part of me remembers it with pain. Tortured for seven nights and as many days, worn out with agony, stretching my arms to heaven, with a great cry, I called out to Lucina, and her companion gods of birth, the Nixi. Indeed, she came, but committed in advance, determined to surrender my life to unjust Juno. She sat on the altar, in front of the door, and listened to my groans. With her right knee crossed over her left, and clasped with interlocking fingers, she held back the birth, She murmured spells, too, in a low voice, and the spells halted the birth once it began. I laboured, and, maddened, made useless outcries against ungrateful Jove. I wanted to die, and my moans would have moved the flinty rocks. The Theban women who were there, took up my prayers, and gave me encouragement in my pain.

Tawny-haired, Galanthis, one of my servant-girls, was there, humbly born but faithful in carrying out orders, loved by me for the services she rendered. She sensed that unjust Juno was up to something, and, as she was often in and out of the house, she saw the goddess, Lucina, squatting on the altar, arms linked by her fingers, clasping her knees, and said ‘Whoever you are, congratulate the mistress. Alcmena of Argolis is eased, and the prayers to aid childbirth have been answered.’

The goddess with power over the womb leapt up in consternation, releasing her clasped hands: by releasing the bonds, herself, easing the birth. They say Galanthis laughed at the duped goddess. As she laughed, the heaven-born one, in her anger, caught her by the hair, and dragged her down, and as she tried to lift her body from the ground, she arched her over, and changed her arms into forelegs. Her old energy remained, and the hair on her back did not lose her hair’s previous colour: but her former shape was changed to that of a weasel. And because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she gives birth through her mouth, and frequents my house, as before.’

Bk IX:324-393 Iole tells the story of her half-sister Dryope

She finished speaking, and sighed, her feelings stirred by the memory of her former servant. While she grieved, her daughter-in-law, Iole, said: ‘Mother, this is still the altered form of someone not of our blood that affects you. What if I were to relate to you my sister’s strange fate? Though sadness and tears hold me back, and hinder me from talking. Dryope was her mother’s only child – I was my father’s by another wife – and she was known as the most beautiful girl in Oechalia. Suffering the assault of Apollo, that god who holds Delphi and Delos; her virginity lost; Andraemon married her; and was considered fortunate to have her as his wife.

There is a lake, whose sloping shoreline is formed by steep banks, their summits crowned with myrtle. Dryope went there, unaware of any restrictions, and, to make what happened more unacceptable, bringing garlands for the nymphs. At her breast she carried a sweet burden, her son, not yet a year old, whom she was suckling with her warm milk. Not far away, a water-loving lotus tree flowered from the swamp, with the promise of fruits to come, its colours imitating Tyrian purples. Dryope picked some of these blossoms, to offer the child as playthings, and I was looking to do the same - I was with her - when I saw drops of blood fall from the flowers, and the branches move with a shiver of fear. It appears, as the locals now tell us, at last, but too late, that Lotis, a nymph, running from obscene Priapus, turned into the tree, altering her features, keeping her name.

My sister had known nothing of this. When she wished to retreat, in fear, from the place, and escape by praying to the nymphs, her feet clung like roots. She struggled to tear them away, but nothing moved except her torso. Slowly, thick bark grew upward from her feet, hiding all her groin. When she saw this, and tried to tear at her hair, with her hands, her hands filled with leaves: leaves covered her whole head. But the child, Amphissos (so his grandfather, Eurytus, King of Oechalia, had named him) felt his mother’s breast harden, and the milky liquid failed when he sucked. I was there, a spectator of your cruel destiny, sister, and could bring you no help at all. Only, as far as I could, I held back the developing trunk and branches with my embrace, and I bear witness that I longed to be sheathed in that same bark.

Then her husband, Andraemon, and her luckless father, Eurytus, came, asking for Dryope: the Dryope they searched for I revealed as the lotus. They kissed the living wood, and prostrate on the ground clung to the roots of their tree. You, my dear sister, displayed nothing but your face that was not already tree. Your tears rained on the leaves of your poor body, and while your mouth left a path for your voice, while you still could, you poured out your lament like this into the air: “If there is truth in suffering, I swear by the gods I do not deserve this wrong. I am being punished without guilt. I lived in innocence. If I lie, let me lose the leaves I have through drought, be levelled with the axe, and burned. Take this child from these maternal branches, and find him a nurse, and have him often drink his milk under this tree of mine, and play under this tree. And when he learns to talk, have him greet his mother and say, sadly, ‘My mother is revealed in this tree.’ Let him still fear lakes, and pick no flowers from the trees, and think all shrubs are the body of the goddess.

Dear husband, farewell, and you, sister; father! If you love me, defend me from the sharp knife, and my leaves from the browsing herd. And since I am not allowed to bend to you, reach up with your arms, and find my lips, while I can still feel, and lift my little son up to me! I can speak no more. Now the soft sapwood spreads slowly over my white neck: I am imprisoned in its highest reaches. Take your hands from my eyes. Without trying to help me, allow the enveloping bark to mask the fading light!” At the moment her mouth ceased speaking, at that moment it ceased to be. For a long time, the freshly created branches glowed with warmth, from her altered body.’

Bk IX:394-417 The prophecies of Themis

While Eurytus’s daughter was relating this marvellous happening, and Alcmena was wiping away Iole’s tears (still weeping herself) a wonderful thing suspended all sadness. There, on the steep threshold, stood Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, alive again, with the look of his early years, a hint of down on his cheeks, almost, again, a child. Overwhelmed by the prayers of her husband, Hercules, Juno’s daughter, Hebe, had granted him this gift. When she was about to swear that, after this, she would never allow any further such favour, Themis would not allow it.

She prophesied. ‘Thebes is now moving towards civil war, and, of the Seven against her, Capaneus will not be overcome, except by Jupiter himself. Two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, will die of mutually inflicted wounds. Amphiaraüs, the seer, swallowed by the earth, still living, will gaze on the ghosts of his own dead. His son, Alcmaeon, shall avenge him, with his mother Eriphyle’s death, filial and sinful in the same act. Terrified at his own evil, exiled from home and sanity, he will be pursued by the faces of the Eumenides, and by his mother’s shade, until his wife, Callirhoë demands the fatal necklace, that Venus gave Harmonia, and until the sword, of his first father-in-law, Phegeus, in the hands of Phegeus’s sons, shall drain his son-in-law’s blood. Then at last, Callirhoë, the daughter of Acheloüs, as a suppliant, will ask of mighty Jupiter to add years to her infant sons, and not allow the avenger’s murder to be unavenged. In anticipation of being moved by her prayers, Jupiter claims for them this gift that you, his stepdaughter and daughter-in-law, possess, and will make them men, in their childhood years.’

Bk IX:418-438 Jupiter acknowledges the power of Fate

When Themis spoke these words, out of her prophetic mouth, prescient of what was to come, the gods complained in various mutterings, and there was a murmur as to why they were not able to grant the same gift to other mortals. Aurora, daughter of the Titan Pallas, lamented the old age of her husband, Tithonus. Gentle Ceres lamented the greying hair of her former lover Iasion. Mulciber demanded another lifetime for his son, Erichthonius: and Venus, also, touched by fears for the future, wanted to bargain for the renewal of her lover Anchises’s years. Each god had someone whose cause they supported: and the troublesome mutiny, over their favourites, grew, until Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

Bk IX:439-516 Byblis falls in love with her twin brother Caunus

Jupiter’s words swayed the gods: and no one could sustain their objection when they saw Rhadamanthos, Aeacus and Minos wearied with the years. When he was in his prime, Minos had made great nations tremble at his very name: now he was weak, and feared Miletus, who was proud of his strength and parentage, the son of Phoebus Apollo and the nymph Deione. Though Minos believed Miletus might plot an insurrection, he still did not dare to deny him his Home. On your own initiative, Miletus, you left, cutting the waters of the Aegean in your swift ship, and built a city on the soil of Asia, that still carries its founder’s name.

There you knew Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was following her father’s winding shores. Twin children were born to her, of outstanding beauty of body, Byblis and her brother Caunus.

Byblis, seized by a passion, for her brother, scion of Apollo; that Byblis serves for a warning to girls, against illicit love. She loved, not as a sister loves a brother, nor as she should. At first, it is true, she did not understand the fires of passion, or think it wrong, to kiss, together, often, or throw her arms round her brother’s neck. For a long time she was deceived by the misleading likeness to sisterly affection. Gradually the nature of her love went astray, and she came looking for her brother carefully dressed, and over-anxious to look beautiful. If anyone seemed more beautiful to him, she was jealous. But her own feelings were not clear to her, and though she had no inner longing for passion, nevertheless it burned. And now she called him her lord, now she hated the name that made them related, now she wrongly wished him to call her Byblis, rather than sister. While she is awake she still dare not allow her mind its illicit hope, but, deep in peaceful dreams, she often sees what she loves, and is also seen, held in her brother’s arms, and she blushes, though lost in sleep.

When sleep has vanished, she lies there for a long time, recalling, to herself, the imagery of her dream, and at last utters these inner doubts: ‘Alas for me! What does it mean, this vision out of the night’s silence? How I would hate it to be true! Why do I see these things in sleep? He is truly handsome, even to unfriendly eyes, and is pleasing, and if he were not my brother I could love him, and he would be worthy of me. Being his sister is the reality that harms me. Let sleep often return with similar visions, as long as I am not tempted to do any such thing while awake! A dream lacks witnesses, but does not lack pleasure’s counterpart. By winged Cupid, and Venus, his tender mother, how great the joy I had! How clearly passion touched me! How my whole heart melted where I lay! What joy in remembrance! Though its pleasure was short-lived, and night rushed onwards, envious of my imaginings.

O if I could have been joined to you, with another’s name, Caunus, how good a daughter-in-law I could have been to your father! O Caunus, how good a son-in-law you could have been to my father! We would have had everything shared between us, except our grandparents: I would have wanted you to be nobler than me! You, most beautiful one, will make someone else the mother of your children, but to me, whom evil luck has given the same parents, you will be nothing but a brother. What separates us: that we will share as one. What does my vision signify to me? What weight indeed do dreams have? Or perhaps - the gods forbid - dreams do have weight? Certainly, the gods have possessed their sisters. So, Saturn led Ops, his blood-kin, to join with him, and Oceanus, Tethys, and the ruler of Olympus, Juno. The gods have their own laws! Why try to relate human affairs to other, divine, behaviour? Either my forbidden passion will be driven from my heart, or if I cannot achieve that, I pray to be loved, before I am laid out on my deathbed, and my brother kisses me there. Yet that needs both our wills! Suppose it pleases me: it may seem a sin to him.

Still, the sons of Aeolus, god of the winds, were not afraid to marry their sisters! Where did I learn that? Why do I have such ready examples? Where is this leading? Vanish, far off, illicit flames, and let my brother not be loved, except as a sister may love him! Yet, if he himself were first captured by love of me, I might perhaps be able to indulge this madness. Then let me woo him, whom I would not reject, if he were wooing! - Can you say it? Can you acknowledge it? - Love compels me: I can! Or if shame closes my lips, a secret letter will confess my hidden passions.’

Bk IX:517-594 The fatal letter

This idea pleases her, and this decision overcomes the doubt in her mind. Turning on one side and leaning on her left elbow, she says to herself: ‘Let him know: let me acknowledge my insane desires! Alas, where am I heading? What fire has my heart conceived?’ And, with a trembling hand, she begins to set down the words she has contemplated. She holds the pen in her right hand, and a blank wax tablet in her left. She begins, then hesitates; writes and condemns the writing; scribbles and smoothes it out; alters, blames and approves; in turn lays down what she has lifted, and lifts what she has laid down. She does not know what to do, displeased with whatever she is about to do. In her expression, shame is mixed with boldness.

She had written ‘sister’, but decided to efface the name of sister, and inscribed these words on the corrected tablet: ‘That wish, for long life, that she will not have, unless you grant it, one who loves you sends to you. She is ashamed, oh, ashamed to tell her name. And if you ask what I desire, I would have wished to plead my cause, namelessly, and not to have been identified, until the expectation of what I desired was certain, as Byblis.

True, you might have seen signs of my wounded heart in my pallor, thinness, features, eyes full of tears, sighs with no apparent cause, frequent embraces, kisses, which, if you had chanced to notice, might not have felt like a sister’s. Yet, though my soul was deeply stricken, though the mad fire is in me, I have done everything I can (the gods are my witnesses) to become calmer. For a long time I have struggled, unhappily, to escape Cupid’s onslaught, and I have suffered more hardship than you would think a girl could suffer. I am compelled to confess, I have lost, and to beg your help, with humble prayers. You alone can save your lover, you alone destroy her. Choose what you will. It is not your enemy who prays to you, but one who, though closest to you, seeks to be closer still, and bound to you with a tighter bond.

Let old people know what is right, and what is allowed, and what is virtue and what is sin, and preserve the fine balance of the law. At our age Love is what is fitting, that takes no heed. We do not know yet what is permitted, and we consider all things permitted, and follow the example of the great gods. We have no harsh father, no regard for reputation, and no fear to impede us. Even if there were cause for fear, we can hide sweet theft under the names of brother and sister. I am free to speak to you in private, and we can embrace and kiss in front of others. How important is what is still lacking? Pity the one who confesses her love, and would not confess if extreme desire did not force her, and do not you be the reason for the writing on my tomb.’

Her handwriting filled the wax, with these fruitless words, the last line close to the edge. Immediately she put her seal on the sinful message, dampening it with her tears (moisture failed her tongue), stamping it with her signet ring. Shamefacedly, she called one of her servants, and shyly and coaxingly said: ‘You are most faithful. Take these to my..........brother’ she added after a long silence. As she let them go, the tablets slipped and fell from her hand. She still sent the letter, troubled by the omen. Finding a suitable time, the messenger went, and delivered the hidden words. Horrified, Maeander’s grandson, suddenly enraged, hurled away the tablets he had accepted, and partly read, and, scarcely able to keep his hands from the trembling servant’s throat, cried: ‘Run while you can, you rascally aide to forbidden lust! I would deal you death, as a punishment, if your fate would not also drag our honour down with it.’ The servant fled in fear, and reported Caunus’s fierce words, to Byblis.

She grew pale, hearing that she had been rejected, and her body shook, gripped by an icy chill. But, when consciousness returned, so did the passion, and, she let out these words, her lips scarcely moving: ‘I deserve it! Well, why did I rashly reveal my wound? Why was I in such a hurry to commit things, which were secret, to a hasty letter? I should have tested his mind’s judgement before by ambiguous words. I should have observed how the winds blew; used other lesser sails, in case those breezes were not to be followed; and crossed the sea in safety, not as now, under full canvas, caught by uncertain gusts. So I am carried onto the rocks, swamped, overwhelmed by the whole ocean, and my sails have no means of retreat.’

Bk IX:595-665 The transformation of Byblis

‘Why, as far as that is concerned, everything, unerringly, warned me not to give way to my desire, at the moment when the tablets fell, as I was giving orders for them to be taken to him, meaning that my hopes would also fall away. Should not, perhaps, the day, or my whole intention, more so the day, have been altered? The god himself issued a warning, and gave a clear sign, if I had not been crazed with love. Also I should have told him myself, and revealed my passion to him in person, and not committed myself in writing. He would have seen the tears, and seen a lover’s face. I could have said more than any letter can contain. I could have thrown my arms around his unwilling neck, and if I had been rejected, I could have seemed on the point of dying, embraced his feet, and lying there begged for life. I should have done all those things that, if not singly, all together, might have persuaded his stubborn mind. Maybe the messenger who was sent was at fault: did not approach him properly, I think, or choose a suitable moment, or discover when he and the time were free.

It has all harmed me. Truly, my brother is not born of the tigress. He does not have a heart of unyielding flint, solid iron, or steel. He was not suckled on the milk of a lioness. He will be won! I will try again, and not suffer any weariness in my attempts, while breath is left to me. Since I cannot undo my actions, it would have been best not to begin: but, having begun, the next best is to win through. In fact if I relinquished my longing, he could still not fail to remember what I have dared, and by desisting I will be seen to have been shallow in my desires, or to have been trying to tempt and snare him. He will even believe, I am sure, that I have not been conquered by the god, who, above all, impels and inflames our hearts, but by lust. In short, I cannot but be guilty of impiety, of writing, of wooing: my wishes are revealed. Though I add nothing to them, I cannot be said to be innocent. There is little left to be accused of, but much to long for.’

So she argues, and (so great is the undecided conflict in her mind) while she repented of the attempt, she delights in attempting. Going beyond all moderation, and unsuccessful in what she tries, she is endlessly rejected. Finally, when there seems no end to it, he flees from this wickedness and from his home, and founds a new city in a foreign place: Caunus, in Caria.

Then, indeed, grief made Miletus’s daughter lose her mind completely. Then, indeed, she tore the clothes from her breast, and beat her arms in frenzy. Her madness was now public, and she confessed her hope of illicit union, by leaving the country she hated, and her household gods, and following the footsteps of her fleeing brother. The women of Bubasos saw Byblis, howling in the open fields, as your Thracians, son of Semele, pricked by your thyrsus, keep your triennial festival.

Leaving them behind she wandered through Caria, through the lands of the armed Leleges, and on through Lycia. Now she was beyond Lycian Cragus, and Limyre, and the waters of the Xanthian plain, and the ridge of Mount Chimaera near Phaleris, where the fire-breathing monster lived, joining a lion’s head and chest to a serpent’s tail. Above the woods, when, wearied, you were weak from following, you fell, Byblis, your hair spread on the hard earth, and your face pressing the fallen leaves.

The Lelegeian nymphs often try to lift her in their tender arms, and often they teach her how she might remedy her love, and they offer comfort to her silent heart. She lies there, mute, clutching at the green stems with her fingers, and watering the grass with her flowing tears. They say the naiads created a spring from them, beneath her, which could never run dry. Well, what more could they offer her? There and then, Byblis, Phoebus’s granddaughter, consumed by her own tears, is changed into a fountain: just as drops of resin ooze from a cut pine, or sticky bitumen from heavy soil, or as water, that has been frozen by the cold, melts in the sun, at the coming of the west wind’s gentle breath: and even now in those valleys it retains its mistress’s name, and flows from underneath a dark holm oak.

Bk IX:666-713 The birth of Iphis

Perhaps, the story of this new marvel would have filled Crete’s hundred cities, if Crete had not recently known a miracle nearer home, in the metamorphosis of Iphis. In the Phaestos region, near royal Cnossos, there once lived a man named Ligdus, undistinguished, a native of the place, his wealth no greater than his fame, but living a blameless and honourable life. When his pregnant wife, Telethusa, was near to her time, he spoke these words of warning in her ear: ‘There are two things I wish for: that you are delivered with the least pain, and that you produce a male child. A girl is a heavier burden, and misfortune denies them strength. So, though I hate this, if, by chance, you give birth to a female infant, reluctantly, I order - let my impiety be forgiven! – that it be put to death.’ He spoke, and tears flooded their cheeks, he who commanded, and she to whom the command was given. Nevertheless, Telethusa, urged her husband, with vain prayers, not to confine hope itself. Ligdus remained fixed in his determination.

Now, her pregnant belly could scarcely bear to carry her fully-grown burden, when Io, the daughter of Inachus, at midnight, in sleep’s imagining, stood, or seemed to stand, by her bed: Isis, accompanied by her holy procession. The moon’s crescent horns were on her forehead, and the shining gold of yellow ears of corn, and royal splendour belonged to her. With her were the jackal-headed Anubis, the hallowed cat-headed Bast, the dappled bull Apis, and Harpocrates, the god who holds his tongue, and urges silence, thumb in mouth. The sacred rattle, the sistrum, was there; and Osiris, for whom her search never ends; and the strange serpent she fashioned, swollen with sleep-inducing venom, that poisoned the sun-god Ra. Then, as if Telethusa had shaken off sleep, and was seeing clearly, the goddess spoke to her, saying: ‘O, you who belong to me, forget your heavy cares, and do not obey your husband. When Lucina has eased the birth, whatever sex the child has, do not hesitate to raise it. I am the goddess, who, when prevailed upon, brings help and strength: you will have no cause to complain, that the divinity, you worshipped, lacks gratitude.’ Having given her command, she left the room. Joyfully, the Cretan woman rose, and, lifting her innocent hands to the stars, she prayed, in all humility, that her dream might prove true.

When the pains grew, and her burden pushed its own way into the world, and a girl was born, the mother ordered it to be reared, deceitfully, as a boy, without the father realising. She had all that she needed, and no one but the nurse knew of the fraud. The father made good his vows, and gave it the name of the grandfather: he was Iphis. The mother was delighted with the name, since it was appropriate for either gender, and no one was cheated by it. From that moment, the deception, begun with a sacred lie, went undetected. The child was dressed as a boy, and its features would have been beautiful whether they were given to a girl or a boy.

Bk IX:714-763 Iphis and Ianthe

Thirteen years passed by, meanwhile, and then, Iphis, your father betrothed you to golden-haired Ianthe, whose dowry was her beauty, the girl most praised amongst the women of Phaestos, the daughter of Telestes of Dicte. The two were equal in age, and equal in looks, and had received their first instruction, in the knowledge of life, from the same teachers. From this beginning, love had touched both their innocent hearts, and wounded them equally, but with unequal expectations. Ianthe anticipated her wedding day, and the promised marriage, believing he, whom she thought to be a man, would be her man. Iphis loved one whom she despaired of being able to have, and this itself increased her passion, a girl on fire for a girl.

Hardly restraining her tears, she said ‘What way out is there left, for me, possessed by the pain of a strange and monstrous love, that no one ever knew before? If the gods wanted to spare me they should have spared me, but if they wanted to destroy me, they might at least have visited on me a natural, and normal, misfortune. Mares do not burn with love for mares, or heifers for heifers: the ram inflames the ewe: its hind follows the stag. So, birds mate, and among all animals, not one female is attacked by lust for a female. I wish I were not one! Yet that Crete might not fail to bear every monstrosity, Pasiphaë, Sol’s daughter, loved a bull, though still that was a female and a male. My love, truth be told, is more extreme than that. She at least chased after the hope of fulfilment, though the bull had her because of her deceit, and in the likeness of a cow, and the one who was deceived was a male adulterer. Though all of the world’s cleverness were concentrated here, though Daedalus were to return on waxen wings, what use would it be? Surely even his cunning arts could not make a boy out of a girl? Surely even he could not transform you, Ianthe?

Rather be firm-minded, Iphis, and pull yourself together, and, with wisdom, shake off this foolish, useless passion. Look at what you have been, from birth, if you don’t want to cheat yourself, and seek out what is right for you, and love as a woman should! It is hope that creates love, and hope that nourishes it. Everything robs you of that. No guardian keeps you from her dear arms, no wary husband’s care, no cruel father, nor does she deny your wooing herself. Yet you can never have her, or be happy, whatever is accomplished, whatever men or gods attempt.

Even now, no part of my prayers has been denied. The gods have readily given whatever they were able, and my father, her father, and she herself, want what I want to happen. But Nature does not want it, the only one who harms me, more powerful than them all. See, the longed-for time has come, the wedding torch is at hand, and Ianthe will become mine – yet not be had by me. I will thirst in the midst of the waters. Juno, goddess of brides, and Hymen, why do you come to these marriage rites, where the bridegroom is absent, and both are brides?’

Bk IX:764-797 Isis transforms Iphis

With these words, she stopped speaking. The other girl was no less on fire, and prayed, Hymen, that you would come quickly. Telethusa, afraid of what she sought, merely put off the day: now lengthening the delay through pretended illness, now, frequently, using omens and dreams as an excuse. But eventually every pretext was exhausted, the date for the delayed marriage ceremony was set, and only a day remained. Then Telethusa took the sacred ribbons from her own and her daughter Iphis’s head, so that their hair streamed down, and clinging to the altar, cried: ‘Isis, you who protect Paraetonium, Pharos, the Mareotic fields, and Nile, divided in its seven streams, I pray you, bring help, and relieve our fears! Goddess, I saw you once, you, and those symbols of you, and I knew them all, accompanied by the jingling bronze of the sistrum, and imprinted your commands on my remembering mind. That my daughter looks on the light, that I have not been punished, behold, it was your purpose, and your gift. Gladden us with your aid. Have pity on us both!’

Tears followed words. The goddess seemed to make the altar tremble (it did tremble), and the doors of the temple shook, her horns, shaped like the moon’s crescents, shone, and the sistrum rattled loudly. Not yet reassured, but gladdened by the auspicious omen, the mother left the temple. Iphis, her companion, followed, taking larger paces than before; with no whiteness left in her complexion; with additional strength, and sharper features, and shorter, less elegant hair; showing more vigour than women have. Take your gifts to the temple, Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!

They take their gifts to the temple, and add a votive tablet: the tablet has this brief line:


The next day’s sun reveals the wide world in its rays, when Venus, and Juno, joined with Hymen, come, to the marriage torches, and Iphis, the boy, gains possession of his Ianthe.