Publius Papinius Statius


Book IV

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

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BkIV:1-31 The Argives set out for war

Phoebus had thrice eased harsh winter with his breezes,

Forcing the passing days to increase their narrow bounds,

Before wise counsel had been overturned by demanding

Fate, and these wretches given at last the licence for war.

First Bellona waved her red torch from Larisa’s summit,

And with her right hand sent her massive spear whirling;

It flew, whistling, through the clear sky and so landed

On the high rampart of Aonian Thebes. Then entering

The camp and mingling with the warriors clad in steel

And gold, she cried out, loud as a squadron, handed

Swords to departing men; drove on the horses; called

Troops to the gates: the brave not needing to be urged,

And even the cowards gaining a brief access of courage.

The appointed day arrived. Whole flocks were ritually

Sacrificed to Gradivus and the Thunderer; the priest,

Finding nothing favourable in the entrails, feigning

Good omens for the soldiers. Now their fathers, wives

And children, flowed among them blocking their path

To the outer gates. The weeping was unrestrained.

Helms and shields were wet with tears as they spoke

Their sad farewells, and a family to be sighed for hung

About every warrior. They tried to grant kisses through

Closed visors, while crests nodded to their embraces.

Those who had called a moment past for their swords,

For death itself, now groaned, anger quenched, giving

Way to tears. So, when voyagers are ready to set sail

On some long journey, and the fluked anchor is hauled

From the deep, and a breeze fills the sails, the dear ones

Cling to them, vying to twine their arms about their neck;

Sea-mist and kisses blur their weeping eyes; left behind,

They stand there yet, waving to the vessel from the cliff,

And still gaze from the heights, for sweet it is to follow

The flying canvas, saddened by the rising offshore wind.

BkIV:32-73 The leaders depart: Adrastus

Now, ancient Fame, and you, past Ages of the world,

You that remember leaders, and celebrate their lives,

Set out the names. And you, Calliope, raise your lyre,

O queen of the sounding groves, and tell of the armies

And the weapons Mars conjured, the cities he emptied

Of their people, since no deeper wisdom comes to any

Mind than that which flows from your fount. Adrastus,

The king, full of years, sad and weighed down by care

Walked barely unaided among cries of encouragement,

Glad to feel the steel at his side, attendants bearing his

Shield behind him. His charioteer held the swift horses

There at the gate, Arion already neighing for the yoke.

Larisa arms her men, for the king, and high Prosymna;

Medea better for grazing; sheep-rich Philius; and Neris,

Fearing the Charadros as it foams down its long valley;

Cleonae of the massive tower, and Thyrea fated to reap

Spartan dead. With them march the men who till rocky

Drepanum, and tend the fields of olive-bearing Sicyon,

Mindful of this king whom they once drove elsewhere;

And those whom the slow Langia passes in silent flow,

And the Elisson that curves sinuously between shores,

Owning to grim honour since its harsh waters are said

To bathe the Stygian Furies: fresh from the destruction

Of Thracian palace, or the impious roofs of Mycenae,

Or Cadmus’ dwelling, they’ll plunge their faces deep,

Their snaky tresses panting for Phlegethon’s streams;

And the river flees from them as they swim, its pools

Darkening endlessly with venom. There too are men

From Corinth, that solaced Ino’s cries; and the host

From Cenchreae, where a fountain known to the poets

Sprang from under Pegasus’ hoof, where the Isthmus

Thwarts the seas, and separates their breaking waves.

A host three thousand strong follows Adrastus, proudly,

Some bearing pikes, some stakes hardened in the fire

(There is no one race and so no single kind of weapon)

Some whirling curved slings, making a circle in thin air.

Adrastus, revered for his power and his years, joins

Them, moving like a great bull among pastures he

Has long possessed; his neck droops, his shoulders

Are hollow, yet he is still leader; the other steers lack

Courage to try him in battle, seeing his horns splintered

By many a blow; the great scars of wounds on his chest.

BkIV:74-115 The leaders depart: Polynices and Tydeus

Beside Adrastus, Polynices, his Theban son-in-law lifted

His banner, in whose cause they fought, to whom the whole

Army lent its anger: and volunteers rallied to him from his

Native land. Some championed the exile, their loyalty made

Firmer by misfortune, some mainly wished a change of ruler,

While many were won to the rightness of his superior cause.

Moreover Adrastus granted him rule of Aegion and Arene;

And power over Theseus’ Troezen, lest he lack glory leading

Too mean a force, and feel the lost honours of his homeland.

His clothes and weapons were those he had worn as a fated

Guest that winter’s night. A Teumesian lion-skin adorned his

Back, the blades of twin javelins gleamed, while on the sharp

Sword at his side a menacing Sphinx, embossed, firmly sat.

Already in his hopes and prayers, his realm regained, he sees

His mother’s form, his loyal sisters; yet he looks backward far

Towards Argia where she leans distraught from a high turret.

She draws her husband’s thoughts and gaze from sweet Thebes.

Behold Tydeus like a lightning-bolt in their midst has roused

A host of his countrymen, strong again in body, overjoyed

At hearing the first trumpets sound. He was like a snake that

Slithers from his deep den at the mild breath of spring sunlight,

Free of moulted skin, shedding the scaly years, a green threat

Among rich grasses, marking trouble for the labourer who finds

Him gaping from the turf, and feels the first venom of his fangs.

Rumours of war brought Tydeus allies too, from Aetolia’s cities.

Stony Pylene heard the call; and Pleuron where Meleager’s

Sisters wept for him, and were turned to birds; steep Calydon,

And Olenos that challenges Mount Ida with its tale of Jupiter;

And Aetolian Chalcis whose haven hosts the Ionian waves;

And Achelous, whose river-god’s horn was broken by Hercules,

So that even now he scarcely dares to raise his mutilated brow

From the liquid depths and mourns, head sunk in his green cave,

While his shores breathe dust and parch. These warriors’ chests

Were protected by shields of bronze-covered wicker, they bore

Cruel pikes, and Mars their ancestral god adorned their helmets.

A chosen band of men surrounded the brave son of Oeneus,

Ready for war, and marked with the scars of that evil night.

He equals Polynices in his menace and his anger, such that

It seems in doubt for which of them the fight will be waged.

BkIV:116-164 The leaders depart: Hippomedon

Vaster than these, the Doric ranks appeared, newly armed,

Men that plough your banks, and with many a ploughshare

Lyrceus; and your shores, Inachus, chief of Achaean streams,

(Since no fiercer river flows over Persean soil, when Taurus

And the watery Pleiades shine, foaming, swollen with the rain

From Jove his son-in-law); and men swift Asterion encircles,

And Erasinus bearing Dryopian harvests; and those who till

The Epidaurian fields (the hills are kind to Bacchus’ vines,

But not to Sicilian Ceres’ corn). Distant Dyme sent warriors,

Neleian Pylos dense squadrons (Pylos was not yet famous,

Nestor was still young, in his second span of life, but he

Refused to join the doomed army). Hippomedon led them

All, teaching them the love of glorious valour. On his head

A bronze helmet swayed, with its triple snowy plume erect,

Chain mail chafed his sides beneath his shield, a golden arc

Covered his shoulders and chest, all Danaus’ night-work

Engraved in the metal; fifty marriage chambers all ablaze

With crime, with the black torches of the Furies; the father

Himself in the bloodstained doorway praising the guilty,

Examining the swords. A Nemean steed bore Hippomedon

Down from the citadel of Argos and, fearing his weapons,

Filled the fields with a vast flying shadow, raising a long trail

Of dust over the plain. Hylaeus the Centaur hurtled like that

From his mountain cave, shattering the undergrowth with his

Shoulders and bi-formed breast; Ossa dreading his passing;

Cattle and wild beasts crouching in terror; even his brothers

Not without fear, till with one vast leap he reached the pools

Of Peneus, damming the mighty river with his opposing mass.

What mortal voice could describe the weight of steel, the ranks,

The power. Ancient Tiryns too was stirred to action, by her god

Hercules, not lacking brave men, or degenerated from the days

Of her great son, but her wealth sunk in decay, no riches adding

To her strength; only a rare dweller in the fallow fields marking

Her towers raised by the Cyclopes’ sweat. Yet still she yields

Three hundred courageous hearts to the countless ranks of war.

They’ve no throwing spears or baleful flashing swords: on their

Backs are tawny lion skins, their national garb; their pine staves

In their hands; with inexhaustible quivers crammed with arrows.

They sing their praise of Hercules and a world rid of monsters;

And far beyond leafy Oeta the god hears. Nemea too gives men;

And the sacred vineyards of Cleonaean Molorchus, all they have

Gathered for the battle: far famed is the glory of his poor cottage,

The arms of the god, his guest, are depicted on its doors of willow,

And in his tiny field are shown the oak on which the god leaned

His club and unstrung bow; the marks of his elbow in the ground.

BkIV:165-186 The leaders depart: Capaneus

And Capaneus marched out, head and shoulders taller than the rest.

His shield was made from the hides of four untamed steers, topped

With a rigid mass of heavy bronze, embossed with the vile Hydra,

Newly slain, branched and triple-crowned: part, embossed in silver,

Shone with savage living heads, part was treated, a new technique,

Darkened in tawny gold as if in death; round it flowed the sluggish

River-marshes of Lerna, dark blue in steel. While his broad chest

And wide flanks were protected by closely-woven iron mail, no

Women’s work, a thing of awe. From his helmet’s glittering crest

A Giant arose. A cypress stripped of branches with point attached,

Was his spear, that none but he could hurl. Under his command fall

Those nurtured by fertile Amphigenia, flat Messene, mountainous

Ithome, Thyron and Aepy piled on its hilltop, Helos, and Pteleon,

And Dorion mourning for Thamyris, its Getic bard, who thought

To surpass the Aonian Muses in song, and was condemned to a life

Of silence, voice and lyre instantly mute (who can slight the deities

Face to face?) He had forgotten Celaenae, the home of the satyr,

Marsyas hung and flayed for daring to try his skill against Apollo.

BkIV:187-245 The leaders depart: Amphiaraus

Now even the will of Amphiaraus, the far-seeing augur, grew faint,

And yielded: he indeed knew the outcome, and the fatal omens,

But Atropos herself placed weapons in his uncertain hand, her power

Outweighed the god of prophecy’s. Nor was his own wife’s treachery

Lacking, his house glittered already with forbidden ore, the golden

Necklace the Fates had warned would bring destruction to the seer.

His faithless spouse knew (ah, the guilt!) but chose to barter her

Husband for a gift, coveting the spoils of powerful Argia, wishing

To glow with stolen adornment. Argia, happily placed the fatal

Necklace in the hands of her beloved Polynices, and without a tear

Said: ‘To me, bright ornaments do not suit these times, I would

Take no pleasure in making myself beautiful in your sad absence.

It will be enough to solace my doubts and fears with the consolation

Of friends, and sweep the surface of the altars with my unkempt hair.

Should I (shameful thought!) wear rich Harmonia’s golden dower,

While you are encased in threatening helm, and sounding steel?

Fortune will grant me ornaments more fitting, my garb outshine

Argos’ brides, when I am the consort of the king, when you return

To me, and the temples are filled with votive choirs. For now, let

Her who wishes, and is happy at her husband’s absence, wear it.’

Thus the fatal gold entered Eriphyle’s house and set in motion

The mighty antecedents of her crime. Tisiphone smiled grimly,

Rejoicing in things to come. Meanwhile Amphiaraus stood behind

His Taenarian steeds, bred out of Castor’s Cyllarus in an unknown

Unequal union, as they pawed the ground. Parnassian wool threads,

Denoting the seer, adorned him; his helm was wreathed with olive

Leaves, and a white ribbon twined round its scarlet plume. Now,

He handled the taut reins and, at the same instant, those weapons

In his hand. His chariot quivering with a forest of iron, had slots

For javelins on either side. He himself, with weighty spear, seen

From afar, shone with light from the conquered Python graved

On his shield. Men from Apollo’s Amyclae followed his chariot;

From Pylos, and Malea shunned by nervous mariners; Caryae

Skilled in music in Diana’s honour; Pharis, and Cytherean Messe,

Mother of doves; and a phalanx out of Taygetus; and hardened

Warriors from the banks of the swan-filled Eurotas; Mercury,

Himself, the Arcadian god, nurtured these men in the naked

Dust, and imbued them with the power and fury of raw valour;

Minds, filled with vigour thus, lead them on to sweet rituals

Of death with honour, while parents applaud their children’s

Fate, urging them on to die, while a multitude sheds tears for

Their youth, and mothers rest content with a wreathed corpse.

These warriors gripped the reins and flourished twin javelins,

Clasped together; their massive shoulders were bare, a rough

Cloak hung down their back, and Leda’s swan-crest adorned

Their helmets. They were not the only ones to follow the seer:

Sloping Elis added to the force, and the men of low-lying Pisa

Who swim the yellow Alpheus, which reaches Sicily untainted

By its long sea-journey. They churn their crumbling fields far

And wide with chariots beyond count, and tame steeds for war;

A glory that endures among a race known for King Oenomaus’

Broken axles and vile deeds. The horses gnaw at the foaming

Bits, and a white rain showers down, to fleck the furrowed sand.

BkIV:246-308 The leaders depart: Parthenopaeus

You too, Parthenopaeus (a novice in war, alas, but such is the urge

For new glory!), led out the Parrhasian squadrons unbeknown

To your mother. His stern parent, Atalanta, chanced to be hunting,

With her bow, in far glades beyond chill Mount Lycaeus (or else

The youth would not have gone). No more handsome a face would

Go into that grave danger, no peerless form more favoured; nor

Did he lack courage but simply years of a more mature strength.

What spirits of the groves and rivers, what nymphs of the woodland

Dells did he not fill with burning passion? They say Diana herself,

Seeing the lad, with gentle steps, treading the grass in Maenalus’

Shade, forgave her companion Atalanta, and set the Amyclaean

Quiver with its Dictaean arrows on his shoulder. He charged out,

Filled with Mars’ audacious zeal, afire with the sound of trumpets

And weapons, ready to mar his yellow hair with the dust of battle,

And return on a captured enemy mount. He was tired of the woods,

Ashamed his arrows had not tasted the dubious glory of taking

Human life. Shining with gold he flamed ahead now, clothed

In purple, clasps of Iberian metal creasing the folds of his robe.

On his virgin shield his mother was depicted in the Calydonian

Hunt. At his left side his brave bow rattled, while his Cydonian

Arrows jostled in a quiver pale with electrum bright with jasper

From the east, arrows whose feathers rasped his back. He rode

Astride a charger swifter than a frightened deer, clothed in two

Lynx hides, that wondered at the weapons of a greater master.

His handsome colour and the freshness of youth in his cheeks

Drew all eyes. The Arcadians, an ancient race, old as the moon

And stars, sent him loyal troops. The race was born, so legend

Tells from tall forest trees, when Earth, astonished, felt the first

Tread of feet. There were no houses, cities, fields or marriage

Laws as yet. Oaks and laurels bore new offspring; the shadowy

Ash created a nation; a vigorous lad came from a fertile rowan.

They say the alternation of light and dark night amazed them,

And that following the setting sun at a distance they despaired

Of day. High Maenalus also was thinned of farmers; deserted,

The Parthenian forest; while Rhipe, Stratie and windy Enispe

Gave troops for war. Nor was Tegea idle; nor Cyllene, happy in

Her winged god, Mercury; nor Aleae, forest shrine of Minerva;

Nor swift Clitor; and the River Ladon, father of Daphne, she

Almost Apollo’s bride; nor Lampia, white on its snowy ridge;

Nor Pheneos, named the source of Styx, flowing to dusky Dis.

The Arcadian Azanes came, emulating the cries on Cybele’s Ida;

The Parrhasian chiefs; the men of Nonacria’s land which delights

The quiver-bearing Thunderer (love laughed at his disguise as

Diana); Orchemnos, too, rich in cattle, Cynosura in wild beasts.

The same ardour emptied Aepytus’ fields and high Psophis,

And the mountains known for Hercules’ exploits with his club

Against Erymanthus’ monstrous boar, and Stymphalos’ birds.

All are Arcadians, one race divided only in their ways of life.

Some bend Paphian myrtles back from the root, and practise

Fighting with shepherds’ staves, some are armed with bows,

Some with stakes. One has a helmet, one wears his customary

Arcadian hat, while another masks his head with the savage

Gaping jaws of a Lycaonian bear. The warlike crowd, those

Hearts sworn to do battle, were not joined by the warriors

From neighbouring Mycenae, since the fatal banquet was

Occurring there, when the sun turned backwards at midday;

There, those other brothers were locked together in conflict.

BkIV:309-344 Atalanta resists Parthenopaeus’ departure

The news her son was leaving as the leader of the Arcadians

In the war now reached Atalanta. Her step faltered, her bow

Fell by her side. Swifter than the wings of the wind she fled

The forest; rocks and rivers with brimming banks obstructing

Her path; she ran with her robe all gathered up, as she was,

Her yellow hair blowing in the breeze, as a tigress robbed

Of her cubs angrily tracks her enemy’s course. Reaching

The camp, she pressed herself against the bridle (he, pale

And downcast): ‘Why this furious longing, my son, where

Does this cruel courage in your youthful heart arise from?

Are you fit to rule men in war? Can you bear the weight

Of fighting, and lead squadrons of warriors with swords?

What strength do you have for that? I turned pale but now

Seeing you thrusting a hunting spear against a fierce boar,

Forced back, knee bent, in that close combat, near collapse;

And if I’d not fired an arrow from my curved bow, where

Would your war be? My arrows will not help you there,

Nor my polished bow, nor your piebald horse in which

You put your faith, with its black markings. A boy scarce

Ripe for Dryads’ chambers, the passions of Erymanthian

Nymphs, you set out on a great enterprise. The omens are

Valid. I wondered why Diana’s temple seemed to shudder

Of late, and she was seen in her infernal guise, as spoils

Of war fell from the sacred dome; it slacked my bowstring,

And made my hands falter, uncertain of every arrow shot.

Wait till your honours increase, and your years are greater,

Your rosy cheeks shadowed, and my looks no longer yours.

Then I will lead you to war myself, and the steel you long

For, and I’ll shed no mother’s tears to summon you back.

Take your weapons home, for now. You Arcadians, born

Of rocks and trees, will you stop him?’ She would have

Spoken longer, but the leaders surrounded her and her son,

And crowding near they comforted her and tried to calm

Her fears. Now the harsh trumpets bray. She clasps her

Son still in her fond embrace, commending him to Adrastus.

BkIV:345-405 The Queen of the Theban Bacchantes complains

Elsewhere the people of Mars and Cadmus, dismayed by

The king’s madness, and alarmed at the grievous news,

(Since it was rumoured the Argives were descending on

Them in strength) slowly, shamed by their ruler and his

Cause, and yet surely nonetheless, prepared for conflict.

None were eager to unsheathe their swords, nor protect

Their shoulders with their father’s shields, nor groom

Their teams of horses, these the delights of war. Rather,

They worked dejectedly, without anger or commitment,

With fearful gestures. One was grieved at the thought

Of the illness of a loving parent, another at the thought

Of his sweet young wife, and of the luckless offspring

Swelling her womb. None were on fire for the war-god.

The walls themselves were crumbling with long neglect.

The flanks of Amphion’s great towers were now fragile

And decayed. Brute toil, in silence, repaired the ramparts

That the song of a sacred lyre had once raised to heaven.

And yet a lust for vengeance in battle did inspire the cities

Of Boeotia, stirred not so much though by the wish to aid

An unjust king as by wanting to assist an allied nation.

The monarch indeed was just like a wolf that has raided

A packed sheepfold; his chest still dripping with vile gore,

His bristling jaws foul with bloodstained strands, he quits

The pen gazing uneasily, this way and that, to discover

Whether the sturdy shepherds have witnessed the deed

And pursue him; till, aware of his own audacity, he flees.

Busy Rumour added fear on fear: one alarm had Lernaean

Cavalry already wandering along the banks of Asopus.

Another had Cithaeron taken, the haunt of Bacchantes,

And Teumesos another, while Plataeae, her watch fires

Alight in the darkness, was said to be aflame. For who

Had not freely known and witnessed Tyrian house gods

Dripping sweat, Dirce’s water flowing red, strange births,

And the Sphinx giving utterance from her cliff? And then

Fresh terror troubled their anxious hearts: their woodland

Queen of Bacchantes was suddenly possessed; scattering

The sacred baskets, she flew down from the Ogygian peak

To the plain, waving her triple pine torch to and fro, wildly,

With bloodshot eyes, her frenzied cries filling the startled

City, in her passion, shouting: ‘Nysaean father, mighty

Bacchus, you have longed since ceased to love your own

People. Now you run with your iron-tipped wand shaking

Warlike Thracian Ismara, command Lycurgus to imagine

A forest of vines; or you rave in flagrant triumph beside

The swollen Ganges, or the furthest shores of the Red Sea

And the lands of sunrise, or emerge golden from the waters

Of the Hermus. Yet we, your children, who have cast aside

The thyrsi, the wands of our nation used in holy worship,

Endure war, and terror, and the crimes of kin, the gifts

Of an unjust reign. Raise me Bacchus: set me down where

Amazonian armies, in eternal frost, howl beyond the peaks

Of Caucusus, rather than hear me tell of monstrous deeds,

And a brood of unhallowed rulers. Lo! You possess me,

(Not such was the madness, I dedicated to you, Bacchus.)

Now I see a pair of mighty bulls, of one breed, that clash.

They lock long horns, butting head on head, and then die

Savagely, in mutual wrath. And he the worst, that sinner:

Yield, you who seek to fight alone for the ancient pasture,

Communal hill slopes. Woe to you! Such bloody conflict

When another holds rights to the meadow!’ So she cried,

Then as Bacchus left her, her face grew still, in icy repose.

BkIV:406-487 Tiresias summons the shades

Alarmed now by the omen, and unequal to a host of fears,

The king, sick at heart, sought aid and counsel of the blind

Old seer, wise Tiresias; so men did, fearful of the unknown.

He declared that the gods themselves reveal less of truth in

The rich slaughter of cattle, the flight of birds, in quivering

Entrails, the tripod’s riddles, or the movements of the stars,

Or in the flow of smoke over the incense-bearing altars, as

They do through spirits summoned from the shores of death.

He then enacted the sacred rites of Lethe, plunging the king

Below the surface of the Ismenos, where it meets the sea,

And purging all about him with the ragged entrails of sheep,

Wafts of odorous sulphur, fresh herbs, and lengthy prayers.

There stood a grove, rich in years, bent by robust old age,

Its boughs un-lopped; where sunlight never penetrated.

Winter could not touch it, and over it neither southerlies,

Nor northerlies, blowing from the Getic Bear, had power.

Beneath lay a hidden quiet; terror kept a void of silence,

There; and echoes of excluded light cast an eerie pallor.

The shade was not lacking a deity: Diana frequented it,

As guardian of the wood; her image carved from cedar

And pine was hid in sacred shadow beneath its boughs.

Her darts whistled unseen among the trees, the howling

Of her hounds was heard by night, when she crossed

Her uncle Dis’s threshold, exchanging Hecate’s form

For one new and better; or weary of the mountains, as

The sun at zenith counselled sweet sleep, she planted

Her arrows all around her, and rested, her head leaning

On her quiver. Beyond is a vast stretch of plain, fields

Of Mars, the furrows that yielded warriors to Cadmos:

Daring, the man, who after the fighting among brothers,

Among the deep-drenched furrows, first turned the soil

Again with ploughshare, tilling the blood-stained earth!

Even now at noon, or in the black solitudes of night,

The fateful soil breathes out dense tumultuous vapours,

And the dark sons of earth rise up in phantom conflict;

Then the farmer runs in fear from the field he was set

To plough, the oxen rush homewards in mad frenzy.

There, the aged prophet ordered dark-fleeced sheep

And black cattle to be tethered, the finest of the herds

(Since the ground was suited to Stygian rites, the soil,

Drenched once by the blood of warriors, to his liking).

Dirce and sad Cithaeron groaned, then valley-echoes

Died to a stunned silence. There, with his own hands,

He twined dark garlands round the curved horns, then

At the edge of the wood, as times before, he poured

Draughts of rich wine on the ground, into the hollows,

In nine places; offerings of fresh milk and Attic honey;

And blood, seductive to the shades. He offered as much

As the dry earth would drink. Then tree trunks, rolled

To the spot, were used to make triple fires for Hecate

At his command, and as many for the Furies, the virgin

Daughters of accursed Acheron. Then a ditch was dug,

And pines heaped in the air, for you, lord of Avernus,

And beside it a lesser altar piled for Ceres’ Persephone.

Mourning cypresses were twined, in front and all around,

And now the beasts collapsed to the blows of an axe

On their bowed heads, while pure meal was scattered.

Then his daughter Manto, with blood caught in bowls,

Made a first libation, and circling all the pyres thrice,

In her revered father’s manner, offered still-quivering

Entrails, livers and lungs, swiftly set light to the dark

Branches with blazing torches. When Tiresias heard

Boughs crackling in the flames, and then the roaring

Of the gloomy piles (fierce heat breathed on his face,

And the fiery vapour heated his hollow eye-sockets)

He cried out (the pyres trembling at his mighty voice):

‘Dread realms of Tartarus, you, kingdom of insatiable

Death, and you Hades, cruellest of the three brothers,

You, to whom are given the shades that serve you,

And the guilty for eternal punishment, you whom

The palace of the lower world obeys, open the silent

Places, and stern Proserpine’s abyss, to my summons.

Call out the host hidden in hollow night, and so allow

The ferryman, his vessel filled, to re-pass the Styx.

Let all cross together, but grant the shades more ways

Than one of rising to the light. Daughter of Perses,

Separate the pious spirits of Elysium from the rest,

Let airy Mercury with his wand of power lead them;

But Tisisphone, do you show the guilty dead the path,

The most of Erebus, and the most of Cadmus’ race,

To the wide shore of day, flailing your snaky tresses

Three times, racing ahead of them with burning yew;

And let not Cerberus’ triple jaws obstruct them there,

Or turn aside the shades that rise, longing for the light.’

BkIV:488-535 The ghosts gather

He spoke, then the aged seer and the virgin of Apollo

Waited expectantly; they felt no fear, since the god

Was in their hearts: but Oedipus’s son was overcome

By deep dread. In his anxiety he gripped now the hand,

Now the shoulder, now the sacred fillets of the prophet

In his dread chant, and wished now the rites would end.

He felt like the huntsman waiting the approach of a lion,

Roused from its lair, in the undergrowth of a Gaetulian

Forest, by the shouting, who steadies his nerves, clasps

The weapon, sweat-drenched, in his grip, as fear freezes

His face, and his legs tremble; as he imagines the beast

Nearing, its size – hearing the fatal omen of its roaring,

And gauging, with blind trepidation, the sound it makes.

Then Tiresias, as the phantoms still failed to advance,

Called out: ‘Goddesses, for whom we have sprinkled

Libations on the flames, and poured wine with our left

Hands on the hollowed earth, I summon you to witness,

I can endure no more delay. Am I, as priest, to be heard

In vain? Shall you come to the command of a Thessalian

Witch’s rabid chant? Or, if a Colchian cries, drugged

With Scythian potions, shall Tartarus turn pale, shudder

In fright? Do you care less for me? Though I choose not

To raise corpses from tombs, or scatter the ancient ash

From brimming urns, or profane the assembled gods

Of heaven and Erebus, or chase after bloodless faces

With a blade, and snatch the sickly innards of the dead,

Do not, I warn you, do not scorn my fading years, or

The shadow on my darkened brow. I too can be cruel:

I know what you fear may be uttered, may be heard.

I could trouble Hecate (did I not revere you, Apollo,

Lord of Thymbra) and the greatest of the triple world,

Whom it is blasphemy to know. He – but I am silent:

The peace old age seeks forbids it. I summon you, now –’

But, eagerly, Manto, devotee of Phoebus, intervened:’

Father, you are heard: the bloodless crowd approaches.

The Elysian void lies open, the vast hidden darkness

Of earth splits apart, woods and black rivers appear;

Acheron spews livid sand; fiery Phlegethon rolls dark

Smoke over his waters; Styx between, bars the parted

Shades. I see Him, pale upon his throne, around Him

The Furies, servants of His deathly work, there I see

The grim marriage-chamber and the bed of Proserpine,

The Stygian Juno. Black Death is seated there, alert,

Counting the silent gathering, on his master’s behalf;

While yet greater crowds await their turn. The Cretan

Judge, Minos, shakes his harsh urn, demanding truth

With threats, forcing them to recount their lives from

Their inception, and confess at last their hidden crimes.

Shall I tell you of the monsters of Erebus; Scyllas there,

Centaurs vainly raging; the Giants’ twisted chains, solid

Steel; the cramped shade of hundred-handed Briareus?’

BkIV:536-578 Manto summons Argive and Theban spirits

‘No, guide and support to my old age,’ replied her father,

‘Do not tell me what all men know. Who has not heard

Of Sisyphus and his ever-returning stone, of Tantalus

And the deceptive pool, Tityus food for the vultures,

And Ixion dizzied on his eternal wheel? I too when my

Blood was swifter saw the hidden realms, while Hecate

Led me, before Hera destroyed my sight, before Jupiter

Drove all light inwards to my breast. Summon Argive

Spirits here and Theban rather, with your prayers, bid

All others, daughter, turn away, sprinkled four times

With milk, to quit the dismal grove. Tell me the look

And manner of the shades, you bring, their appetite

For the blood we spilled, and which of those nations

Seems more proud; point by point illuminate my night.’

She did as he commanded, casting a spell, like Medea

Without her guilty crimes, or Circe, changer of forms,

On Aea’s shore; a spell that scattered all the shades,

And recalled some. Then she addressed her revered

Father: ‘Cadmus lowers his feeble serpent’s mouth

To the pool of blood first, then Cytherea’s daughter

Harmonia succeeds her husband, the two snakes drink

From the eddies. Their followers, the warriors of Mars

Born from the earth, whose life-span was a single day

Surround them, all armed, hands on their sword-hilts.

They attack, feint and parry with the fury of the living,

Ignoring the sad pit, thirsting for each other’s blood.

Next a crowd of daughters and lamented grandchildren

Approach. There Autonoe, bereaved of her Actaeon,

And Ino fleeing Athamas’ bow, pressing her sweet lad

To her panting breast, and Semele arms outstretched to

Defend her womb. Cadmean Agave follows Pentheus

Her son, her Bacchic wand broken, grieving, free now

Of the god, her breasts bare and bleeding. He now flees

Through Lethe’s wilds, and beyond the Stygian Lake,

Where Echion his more kindly father weeps for him

And re-unites his dismembered body. I recognise sad

Lycus, and Athamas, the son of Aeolus, throwing now

The corpse of his son Learchus over his burdened

Shoulder. Nor has Actaeon lost the aspect or stigma

Of his changed form as yet: his brow still roughened

With antlers, sword in hand, he repels his hounds,

Jaws apart to tear him. And behold, Niobe, Tantalus’

Daughter, envied for her long train, appears; to count

Her dead children in proud mourning; not downcast

By grief, but joyful rather to escape the gods’ power,

And be free to grant her foolish tongue more scope.’

BkIV:579-645 The ghost of Laius prophesies

As the virgin priestess described all this for her father,

His white hair with its sacred ribbons stood on end,

And the blood was driven from his haggard visage.

He no longer leant on his supporting stave or looked

To the loyal girl, but standing erect and tall he cried:

‘Cease, your tale, my daughter. I have light enough

Now from beyond; the mist disperses; the darkness

Is stripped from my face. Inspiration fills me, sent

By Apollo above or the ghosts themselves. Behold,

I see what I just heard, but look, the Argive shades

Are mournful, their eyes are downcast. Grim Abas,

Guilty Proteus, gentle Phoroneus, maimed Pelops,

And Oenomaus, are soiled with dust, while streams

Of tears bedew their faces. From it I augur Thebes

Shall have the better of this war. But what of that

Gathering crowd? Warriors by their weapons, by

Their wounds; why do they show chests and faces

Drenched with blood, and with illusory clamour

Devoid of peace, raise high their arms towards us?

Am I wrong, majesty, or are those your fifty men?

See there Cthonius, Chromis, Phegeus; see, Maeon

Adorned with our prophetic laurel. Warriors, do not

Be angered, this was no mortal’s doing, believe it!

Steely Atropos wove the hour. You are free of life’s

Trials, while Tydeus and the horrors of war are ours.’

So saying, as they pressed forward he drove them back

With twigs tied by sacred ribbons, pointing to the blood.

The shade of Laius stood alone on Cocytus’ sad shore.

Mercury had already returned him to pitiless Avernus.

Now, breathing endless hatred, looking askance at his

Fell grandson (whose face he knew) he kept far from

The blood and offerings, yet still the Aonian seer drew

Him in: ‘Great king of Tyrian Thebes, where no kindly

Day has shone on Amphion’s citadel since your death,

Now sufficiently avenged for your blood-stained end,

Your shade appeased by the disasters of your progeny,

Whom, wretched one, do you avoid? Oedipus, whom

You curse, lies long in the grave, and knows the close

Confines of death, his exhausted visage sunk in blood

And filth, cast from the light of day: a fate worse than

Any death, believe me! What reason have you to shun

Your innocent grandson? Confer, face to face; sate

Yourself on sacrificial blood; and, with anger or pity

Towards your family’s fate, reveal events to come,

The war’s disasters. Then I’ll let you cross that Lethe

Forbidden you, in the boat you long for, and restore

You to pious ground, and entrust you to the deities

Of the Styx.’ Softened by the promise of such gifts,

Laius moistened his cheeks with blood, and replied:

‘My peer as prophet why, as you reviewed the host

Of spirits, did you choose me, from all this crowd,

As augur, to speak to you of the future? It is enough

To know the past. Does my noble grandson (shame

On him) ask counsel of me? Bring Oedipus, bring

Him to your wicked rites, who was happy to put

His father to the sword, and return to his source,

Thrusting himself on his innocent mother. Now,

His son must weary the gods and the dark councils

Of the Furies, and ask my shade for help in battle!

Yet if I am welcome so, as a prophet for sad times,

I will speak, so far as Lachesis and grim Magaera

Let me. War is upon you, war from every quarter

In innumerable numbers; Mars, at fate’s command,

Urges on Lerna’s children with his goad. Earth’s

Portents, and the weapons of the gods, await them;

Lovely death; sinful decree that delays the final fire:

Thebes victory is certain, but fear not! Your fierce

Brother shall not have the kingdom, only the Furies.

Through twin impieties and luckless weapons (alas!)

Your cruel father will prevail.’ With this, he sank back,

And left them troubled by his enigmatic prophecies.

BkIV:646-696 Bacchus perceives the Argive threat

Meanwhile the Argives, a host on the march, held to

Shady Nemea and the thickets that knew Hercules’

Glory. Already they burned with desire to gather

Theban plunder, to raze and ravage homesteads.

Phoebus, say now, who deflected their anger, what

Caused delay, what events intervened on the way.

Of its inception, a few elements of the tale remain.

Bacchus was returning with his exhausted army

From conquered Haemus. There beneath the stars

Of two winters he had taught the warlike Getae

To bear his emblems, with Othrys’ frosty ridge;

And Rhodope to grow green with Icarian vines.

Now he brought his leafy chariot to his mother’s

Argos. Wild lynxes followed him on either side,

While his tigers licked at the wine-damp bridles.

Victorious Macedonian Bacchantes in the rear

Carried the spoils; cattle, and half-dead wolves,

And wounded bears. His was no idle train: Anger

And Madness, and Fear, and Courage were there,

Ever-intoxicated Ardour, and wavering footsteps,

And a host with all the hallmarks of their leader.

Seeing Nemea in arms, beneath a cloud of dust,

And the daylight on fire with the glitter of steel,

Yet Thebes unprepared for war, he was stunned.

Though subdued in speech, and lacking vigour,

He commanded the cymbals, drums, twin pipes

That blared round his deafened ears to fall silent,

Then he spoke: ‘This army seeks to destroy me,

And my race. Their ancient rage finds new heat.

Savage Argos and my implacable stepmother’s

Wrath fuel this war against me. My mother turned

To ashes, the flames I was born in, the lightning

I myself saw flare, are not those enough? Now

The wicked goddess even attacks with steel what

Survives: a dead mistress’ tomb, unarmed Thebes.

I’ll weave delay by guile. Onward, my companions,

Onward to the plain!’ His Hyrcanian tigers bristled

At his signal; and before he ended, reached Argos.

It was the moment when breathless noon lifts the sun

To heaven’s high zenith, when heat stands sluggishly

In the gasping fields, and every grove admits the light.

He summoned the watery powers, and surrounded by

Their silent host, began: ‘Nymphs of the wild, deities

Of the streams, and you, the greater part of my army,

Perform this task I set you faithfully. Choke the Argive

Founts, and rivers, the marshes, and wandering brooks

With dust, for me, awhile. In Nemea, above all, where

War against my city is afoot let all the deeps run dry.

Phoebus is at the summit of his path as yet, only let

Your goodwill not fail. The stars grant power to my

Plan, and Erigone’s scorching dog-star Sirius foams.

Go with a will; enter the hidden places of the earth.

Later I shall see you in full flow, and the finest gifts

Offered in worship of me shall be yours in honour,

And I will ward off the licentious Satyrs’ nocturnal

Mischief, and those lustful approaches of the Fauns.’

BkIV:697-738 Bacchus causes drought in Argos

He spoke, and a thin film seemed to spread over their

Faces, and their moist emerald-green tresses grew dry.

At once a burning drought drained the fields of Argos.

The waters evaporated; founts, lakes were encrusted;

Riverbeds hardened to baking mud. The impoverished

Soil was sick, and the stalks of wheat folded at each

Tender base. The flocks stood helpless by the shores,

The herds sought in vain the rivers they once waded.

Thus when the ebbing Nile conceals himself in his

Vast cavern; holds at their source the liquid snows

Of an eastern winter; the valley steams abandoned

By the flood, and gasping Egypt waits for the sound

Of her watery patron, until he grants their prayers,

In bringing nourishment down to the Pharian fields,

Granting the precursor of a long year of harvests.

Guilty Lerna was dry; Lyrcus, and mighty Inachus,

And Charadros that rolled rocks in his flood; bold

Erasious that ever overflowed his banks; Asterion,

Boisterous as the sea, a familiar sound on pathless

Heights, keeping the shepherds from their slumber.

Langia alone, also by order of the god, nurtured her

Silent waters in secret shade. The death of Opheltes

Had not yet granted the goddess sad renown, fame

Was not yet hers. But she watched grove and stream

In the wilderness. Great glory awaited the Nymph,

For the Nemean games, of alternate years, at which

Achaea’s finest labour, and the funereal rites, would

Revive the tale of sad Hypsipyle and sacred Opheltes.

Now men no longer had the strength to lift hot shields,

Or endure the constraints of armour (such the savage

Thirst that parched them). Not only were their mouths

And dry throats afire, but an inner agony gripped them:

Their pulse beat raggedly, their veins congealed, sour

Blood clung to their parched organs. Then crumbling

Soil, the dusty earth, breathed out hot vapour. No foam

Flowed from the horses’ mouths, they champed dry bits,

Thrusting their tongues against the bridles. The riders’

Rule was scorned; inflamed, the creatures raged over

The land. Adrastus sent scouts in all directions. Were

The marshes of Tiryns still moist, did Amymone’s

Waters still remain? All stagnated, drained by hidden

Fire, nor was there hope of rain from the sky. They

Might as well have scoured sandy Libya, the pale

Deserts of African Syene that no cloud ever shades.

BkIV:739-796 Hypsipyle guides the Argives

Then suddenly (for Bacchus himself had planned it),

As they wandered the woodlands they saw Hypsipyle,

Lovely in her sorrow. Opheltes was clasped to her breast,

The ill-fortuned child of Inachian Lycurgus, not her own;

Her hair was dishevelled, her clothes in rags, yet her face

Had the marks of royalty, and her dignity was clearly

Not eclipsed by misfortune. Adrastus, amazed, now spoke

To her: ‘Divine lady of the forest (for your fair visage

And your modesty show you are no mortal) blessed

In not needing to seek for water under this blazing sky,

Give succour to your neighbours. Whether Diana, Leto’s

Daughter, the bow-bearer, sent you to some marriage

Chamber from her chaste company, or some lover of no

Common order descended from the stars to beget a child

(For the ruler of the gods is himself no stranger to Argive

Nuptial beds) behold our wretched ranks. Our mission is

To put guilty Thebes to the sword, but savage thirst now

Robs us of courage, an unwarlike fate consumes our idle

Powers. Help us in our trouble, lead us to some turbid

River or muddy swamp; nothing is too shaming, nothing

Too vile, for our plight. You now we ask in lieu of winds

And rainy sky; restore our ebbing strength and sinking

Courage for war; and let your child then prosper beneath

Favourable stars. Let Jupiter grant us merely to retrace our

Steps, and what war-spoils will we gift you! I’ll repay you,

Goddess, with Theban flocks and copious blood, and here

A mighty altar will mark the grove.’ He gasped out these

Words, panting with the heat, his parched tongue impeded

By his rasping breath. His men were subject to like pallor,

Their mouths gaping helplessly. The Lemnian, her eyes

Downcast replied: ‘Would that I had not suffered sorrows

Beyond the mortal! Though I am descended from celestial

Race, how should I be your goddess? You witness a mother

Bereaved, fostering a child entrusted to her care. The gods

Alone know whether mine are nurtured at the breast; yet I

Owned to a kingdom and a mighty father. But why speak,

Why keep you, weary, from the water you crave? Come

With me, and let us see if Langia’s channel still holds her

Perennial stream. She it is that ever flows; under the zenith

Of raging Cancer and when Sirius shakes his blazing crest.’

The poor child, alas, clung to her, and lest she proved too

Slow a guide to the Pelasgi, she set him down on the ground

Nearby (so the Fates ordained) and when he would not be

Left behind consoled his sweet tears with knots of flowers

Loving murmurs: as Mount Ida re-echoes to mighty wails,

When Cybele, the Great Berecyntian Mother, commands

The quivering Curetes to dance round the tiny Thunderer,

And they strike their sacred drums in emulation; so now

The child, on the breast of the vernal earth, in dense grass,

Cries for his dear nurse, calling for milk, and then smiles

And attempts words that his tender lips struggle to sound.

He wonders at the forest noises or plucks at what comes

His way, or with open mouth breathes in the day. Thus he

Wanders through the woods unaware of danger, careless

Of life. Such was tender Mars in the Thracian snow, such

The winged boy Mercury on the Arcadian peak, such was

Mischievous Apollo, crawling on the shore, swaying Delos.

BkIV:797-843 The Argives drink at Langia’s stream

Now the Argives made their way through the undergrowth,

The wilds dimmed with green shade, Some surrounded their

Guide, others followed en masse or pushed ahead. Hypsipyle,

Dignified and swift, pressed onwards in the midst of them.

Now they approached the stream, the sounding valley echoed,

And the splashing of water on stone struck their ears. Argus

Was in the lead; showing his standard to the prompt platoons

He raised the joyful call of ‘Water! Then from mouth to mouth

The cry ran: ‘Water!’ So run the shouts of sailors at the oars

On the shores of the Ambracian sea (loud the land returns

The echo) when the helmsman points, in salute to Apollo,

At Actium’s looming promontory. Now officers and ranks

Plunge indiscriminately in the flow, a shared thirst uniting

The mingled throng. Bridled teams enter with their chariots,

And horses, carrying their armed riders, are borne along.

Some are deceived by whirling currents, slippery rocks.

They have no scruples in trampling kings caught in the flow,

Or swamping the upturned faces of yelling comrades. Waves

Break and the waters are torn apart all along their course.

Once a gentle lucent green in a liquid track, now its channel

Is muddied, churned to the depths, and the tumbled banks,

The uprooted turf, darken it. Yet they drink it regardless,

As it flows, thick with mud and debris, even if their thirst

Is slaked, like armies fighting a pitched battle in the flood,

Or conquerors sacking a city they have captured. But now,

One of the kings surrounded in the midst by water cried:

‘Nemea, long queen of the green glades, Jove’s chosen one,

When will your opposition end? You were not crueller even

To Hercules when he throttled the raging lion, and drove

Its breath back into its swollen chest. Let it to be enough,

That you counter your people’s actions thus far. And you,

Horned source of everlasting streams, you who never yield

To any sun, flow freely from whatever source your cool

Mouth lets loose its immortal torrent. For you do not rely

On frosty winter granting you unknown snows, the rains

Returning you water snatched from some other fount, nor

Some favour from the pregnant clouds of the northerlies;

You are self-reliant and no star counteracts your course.

Not Apollo’s Ladon, nor Xanthus, menacing Spercheus,

Nor Nessus the Centaur’s Lycormas, will surpass you.

You I shall celebrate (honoured next to Jove), in peace

Beneath a host of gleaming spoils, at the festive table:

Only welcome us joyfully in triumph, once more yield

Your streams to our weariness, in generous hospitality,

And graciously then receive this army you have saved.’

End of Book IV