Milton alludes to the story of Venus and Adonis in his “Comus”:
Venus, playing one day with her boy Cupid, wounded her bosom with one of his arrows. She pushed him away, but the wound was deeper than she thought. Before it healed she beheld Adonis, and was captivated with him. She no longer took any interest in her favorite resorts—Paphos, and Cnidos, and Amathos, rich in metals. She absented herself even from heaven, for Adonis was dearer to her than heaven. Him she followed and bore him company. She who used to love to recline in the shade, with no care but to cultivate her charms, now rambles through the woods and over the hills, dressed like the huntress Diana; and calls her dogs, and chases hares and stags, or other game that it is safe to hunt, but keeps clear of the wolves and bears, reeking with the slaughter of the herd. She charged Adonis, too, to beware of such dangerous animals. “Be brave towards the timid,” said she; “courage against the courageous is not safe. Beware how you expose yourself to danger and put my happiness to risk. Attack not the beasts that Nature has armed with weapons. I do not value your glory so high as to consent to purchase it by such exposure. Your youth, and the beauty that charms Venus, will not touch the hearts of lions and bristly boars. Think of their terrible claws and prodigious strength! I hate the whole race of them. Do you ask me why?” Then she told him the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, who were changed into lions for their ingratitude to her.
Having given him this warning, she mounted her chariot drawn by swans, and drove away through the air. But Adonis was too noble to heed such counsels. The dogs had roused a wild boar from his lair, and the youth threw his spear and wounded the animal with a sidelong stroke. The beast drew out the weapon with his jaws, and rushed after Adonis, who turned and ran; but the boar overtook him, and buried his tusks in his side, and stretched him dying upon the plain.
Venus, in her swan-drawn chariot, had not yet reached Cyprus, when she heard coming up through midair the groans of her beloved, and turned her white-winged coursers back to earth. As she drew near and saw from on high his lifeless body bathed in blood, she alighted and, bending over it, beat her breast and tore her hair. Reproaching the Fates, she said, “Yet theirs shall be but a partial triumph; memorials of my grief shall endure, and the spectacle of your death, my Adonis, and of my lamentations shall be annually renewed. Your blood shall be changed into a flower; that consolation none can envy me.” Thus speaking, she sprinkled nectar on the blood; and as they mingled, bubbles rose as in a pool on which raindrops fall, and in an hour’s time there sprang up a flower of bloody hue like that of the pomegranate. But it is short-lived. It is said the wind blows the blossoms open, and afterwards blows the petals away; so it is called Anemone, or Wind Flower, from the cause which assists equally in its production and its decay.
Milton alludes to the story of Venus and Adonis in his “Comus”:
“Beds of hyacinth and roses
Where young Adonis oft reposes,
Waxing well of his deep wound
In slumber soft, and on the ground
Sadly sits th’ Assyrian queen;”
Glaucus was a fisherman. One day he had drawn his nets to land, and had taken a great many fishes of various kinds. So he emptied his net, and proceeded to sort the fishes on the grass. The place where he stood was a beautiful island in the river, a solitary spot, uninhabited, and not used for pasturage of cattle, nor ever visited by any but himself. On a sudden, the fishes, which had been laid on the grass, began to revive and move their fins as if they were in the water; and while he looked on astonished, they one and all moved off to the water, plunged in, and swam away. He did not know what to make of this, whether some god had done it or some secret power in the herbage. “What herb has such a power?” he exclaimed; and gathering some of it, he tasted it. Scarce had the juices of the plant reached his palate when he found himself agitated with a longing desire for the water. He could no longer restrain himself, but bidding farewell to earth, he plunged into the stream. The gods of the water received him graciously, and admitted him to the honor of their society. They obtained the consent of Oceanus and Tethys, the sovereigns of the sea, that all that was mortal in him should be washed away. A hundred rivers poured their waters over him. Then he lost all sense of his former nature and all consciousness. When he recovered, he found himself changed in form and mind. His hair was sea-green, and trailed behind him on the water; his shoulders grew broad, and what had been thighs and legs assumed the form of a fish’s tail. The sea-gods complimented him on the change of his appearance, and he fancied himself rather a good-looking personage.
One day Glaucus saw the beautiful maiden Scylla, the favorite of the water-nymphs, rambling on the shore, and when she had found a sheltered nook, laving her limbs in the clear water. He fell in love with her, and showing himself on the surface, spoke to her, saying such things as he thought most likely to win her to stay; for she turned to run immediately on the sight of him, and ran till she had gained a cliff overlooking the sea. Here she stopped and turned round to see whether it was a god or a sea animal, and observed with wonder his shape and color. Glaucus partly emerging from the water, and supporting himself against a rock, said, “Maiden, I am no monster, nor a sea animal, but a god; and neither Proteus nor Triton ranks higher than I. Once I was a mortal, and followed the sea for a living; but now I belong wholly to it.” Then he told the story of his metamorphosis, and how he had been promoted to his present dignity, and added, “But what avails all this if it fails to move your heart?” He was going on in this strain, but Scylla turned and hastened away.
Glaucus was in despair, but it occurred to him to consult the enchantress Circe. Accordingly he repaired to her island—the same where afterwards Ulysses landed, as we shall see in one of our later stories. After mutual salutations, he said, “Goddess, I entreat your pity; you alone can relieve the pain I suffer. The power of herbs I know as well as any one, for it is to them I owe my change of form. I love Scylla. I am ashamed to tell you how I have sued and promised to her, and how scornfully she has treated me. I beseech you to use your incantations, or potent herbs, if they are more prevailing, not to cure me of my love,—for that I do not wish,—but to make her share it and yield me a like return.” To which Circe replied, for she was not insensible to the attractions of the sea-green deity, “You had better pursue a willing object; you are worthy to be sought, instead of having to seek in vain. Be not diffident, know your own worth. I protest to you that even I, goddess though I be, and learned in the virtues of plants and spells, should not know how to refuse you. If she scorns you scorn her; meet one who is ready to meet you half way, and thus make a due return to both at once.” To these words Glaucus replied, “Sooner shall trees grow at the bottom of the ocean, and sea-weed on the top of the mountains, than I will cease to love Scylla, and her alone.”
The goddess was indignant, but she could not punish him, neither did she wish to do so, for she liked him too well; so she turned all her wrath against her rival, poor Scylla. She took plants of poisonous powers and mixed them together, with incantations and charms. Then she passed through the crowd of gambolling beasts, the victims of her art, and proceeded to the coast of Sicily, where Scylla lived. There was a little bay on the shore to which Scylla used to resort, in the heat of the day, to breathe the air of the sea, and to bathe in its waters. Here the goddess poured her poisonous mixture, and muttered over it incantations of mighty power. Scylla came as usual and plunged into the water up to her waist. What was her horror to perceive a brood of serpents and barking monsters surrounding her! At first she could not imagine they were a part of herself, and tried to run from them, and to drive them away; but as she ran she carried them with her, and when she tried to touch her limbs, she found her hands touch only the yawning jaws of monsters. Scylla remained rooted to the spot. Her temper grew as ugly as her form, and she took pleasure in devouring hapless mariners who came within her grasp. Thus she destroyed six of the companions of Ulysses, and tried to wreck the ships of Æneas, till at last she was turned into a rock, and as such still continues to be a terror to mariners.
Keats, in his “Endymion,” has given a new version of the ending of “Glaucus and Scylla.” Glaucus consents to Circe’s blandishments, till he by chance is witness to her transactions with her beasts. 1 Disgusted with her treachery and cruelty, he tries to escape from her, but is taken and brought back, when with reproaches she banishes him, sentencing him to pass a thousand years in decrepitude and pain. He returns to the sea, and there finds the body of Scylla, whom the goddess has not transformed but drowned. Glaucus learns that his destiny is that, if he passes his thousand years in collecting all the bodies of drowned lovers, a youth beloved of the gods will appear and help him. Endymion fulfils this prophecy, and aids in restoring Glaucus to youth, and Scylla and all the drowned lovers to life.
The following is Glaucus’s account of his feelings after his “sea-change”:
“I plunged for life or death. To interknit
One’s senses with so dense a breathing stuff
Might seem a work of pain; so not enough
Can I admire how crystal-smooth it felt,
And buoyant round my limbs. At first I dwelt
Whole days and days in sheer astonishment;
Forgetful utterly of self-intent,
Moving but with the mighty ebb and flow.
Then like a new-fledged bird that first doth show
His spreaded feathers to the morrow chill,
I tried in fear the pinions of my will.
’Twas freedom! and at once I visited
The ceaseless wonders of this ocean-bed,”
The Ptolemies came to power after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, who in a caffeinated burst of activity beginning in 332 B.C. swept through Lower Egypt, displaced the hated Persian occupiers, and was hailed by the Egyptians as a divine liberator. He was recognized as pharaoh in the capital, Memphis. Along a strip of land between the Mediterranean and Lake Mareotis he laid out a blueprint for Alexandria, which would serve as Egypt's capital for nearly a thousand years. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., Egypt was given to Ptolemy, one of his trusted generals, who, in a brilliant bit of marketing, hijacked the hearse bearing Alexander's body back to Greece and enshrined it in a tomb in Alexandria. Ptolemy was crowned pharaoh in 304 B.C. on the anniversary of Alexander's death. He made offerings to the Egyptian gods, took an Egyptian throne name, and portrayed himself in pharaonic garb.
The dynasty's greatest legacy was Alexandria itself, with its hundred-foot-wide main avenue, its gleaming limestone colonnades, its harborside palaces and temples overseen by a towering lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, on the island of Pharos. Alexandria soon became the largest, most sophisticated city on the planet. It was a teeming cosmopolitan mix of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Romans, Nubians, and other peoples. The best and brightest of the Mediterranean world came to study at the Mouseion, the world's first academy, and at the great Alexandria library. It was there, 18 centuries before the Copernican revolution, that Aristarchus posited a heliocentric solar system and Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth. Alexandria was where the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek and where the poet Sotades the Obscene discovered the limits of artistic freedom when he unwisely scribbled some scurrilous verse about Ptolemy II's incestuous marriage to his sister. He was deep-sixed in a lead-lined chest.
The Ptolemies' talent for intrigue was exceeded only by their flair for pageantry. If descriptions of the first dynastic festival of the Ptolemies around 280 B.C. are accurate, the party would cost millions of dollars today. The parade was a phantasmagoria of music, incense, blizzards of doves, camels laden with cinnamon, elephants in golden slippers, bulls with gilded horns. Among the floats was a 15-foot Dionysus pouring a libation from a golden goblet. Where could they go from there but down? By the time Cleopatra VII ascended the throne in 51 B.C. at age 18, the Ptolemaic empire was crumbling. The lands of Cyprus, Cyrene (eastern Libya), and parts of Syria had been lost; Roman troops were soon to be garrisoned in Alexandria itself. Still, despite drought and famine and the eventual outbreak of civil war, Alexandria was a glittering city compared to provincial Rome. Cleopatra was intent on reviving her empire, not by thwarting the growing power of the Romans but by making herself useful to them, supplying them with ships and grain, and sealing her alliance with the Roman general Julius Caesar with a son, Caesarion.
Lest her subjects resent her Roman overtures, Cleopatra embraced Egypt's traditions. She is said to have been the first Ptolemaic pharaoh to bother to learn the Egyptian language. While it was politic for foreign overlords to adopt local deities and appease the powerful religious class, the Ptolemies were genuinely intrigued by the Egyptian idea of an afterlife. Out of that fascination emerged a hybrid Greek and Egyptian religion that found its ultimate expression in the cult of Serapis—a Greek gloss on the Egyptian legend of Osiris and Isis. One of the foundational myths of Egyptian religion, the legend tells how Osiris, murdered by his brother Seth, was chopped into pieces and scattered all over Egypt. With power gained by tricking the sun god, Re, into revealing his secret name, Isis, wife and sister of Osiris, was able to resurrect her brother-husband long enough to conceive a son, Horus, who eventually avenged his father's death by slaughtering uncle Seth.
By Cleopatra's time a cult around the goddess Isis had been spreading across the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. To fortify her position, and like other queens before her, Cleopatra sought to link her identity with the great Isis (and Mark Antony's with Osiris), and to be venerated as a goddess. She had herself depicted in portraits and statues as the universal mother divinity. Beginning in 37 B.C., Cleopatra began to realize her ambition to enlarge her empire when Antony restored several territories to Egypt and decreed Cleopatra's children their sovereigns. She appeared in the holy dress of Isis at a festival staged in Alexandria to celebrate Antony's victory over Armenia in 34 B.C., just four years before her suicide and the end of the Egyptian empire.
It was Cleopatra's intense identification with Isis, and her royal role as the manifestation of the great goddess of motherhood, fertility, and magic, that ultimately led Kathleen Martinez to Taposiris Magna. Using Strabo's ancient descriptions of Egypt, Martinez sketched a map of candidate burial sites, zeroing in on 21 places associated with the legend of Isis and Osiris and visiting each one she could find. "What brought me to the conclusion that Taposiris Magna was a possible place for Cleopatra's hidden tomb was the idea that her death was a ritual act of deep religious significance carried out in a very strict, spiritualized ceremony," Martinez says. "Cleopatra negotiated with Octavian to allow her to bury Mark Antony in Egypt. She wanted to be buried with him because she wanted to reenact the legend of Isis and Osiris. The true meaning of the cult of Osiris is that it grants immortality. After their deaths, the gods would allow Cleopatra to live with Antony in another form of existence, so they would have eternal life together."
After studying more than a dozen temples, Martinez headed west of Alexandria along the coastal road to explore the ruin she had begun to believe was the last, best hope for her theory. The temple at Taposiris Magna had been dated to the reign of Ptolemy II, though it may have been even older. The suffix Osiris in its name implied the site was a sacred spot, one of at least 14 throughout Egypt where legend holds that the body of Osiris (or a dismembered part of it) had been buried. With the Mediterranean on her right and Lake Mareotis on the left, Martinez mused on the possibility that Cleopatra might have traveled a similar route, selecting this strategic location for her burial because it was inside the limits of ancient Alexandria and not yet under the control of the Romans during those last days before her death. "When I saw the place my heart beat very fast," she recalls. As she walked the site, she trailed her hands along the white and beige limestone blocks of the temple's enclosure. This is it! she thought. This is it!
In 1935 British traveler Anthony de Cosson had called Taposiris Magna "the finest ancient monument left to us north of the Pyramids." What was surprising was how little work had been done at the site. In 1905 Evaristo Breccia, the renowned Italian archaeologist, had excavated the foundation of a small fourth-century A.D. Coptic basilica in the otherwise vacant courtyard of the enclosure and discovered an area of Roman baths. In 1998 a Hungarian team led by Győző Vörös found evidence of a colonnaded structure inside the enclosure that they concluded (incorrectly, as it turned out) had been an Isis temple. It was clear when Vörös's book, Taposiris Magna, was published in 2004 that the temple had had three incarnations—as a Ptolemaic sanctuary, a Roman fort, and a Coptic church. But was that the whole story? Zahi Hawass found himself pondering the possibility that a black granite bust of Isis that Vörös had coaxed from the dirt of Taposiris Magna might well be the face of Cleopatra herself. In October 2005 the dig got under way.
Today it's easy to imagine that the view from the pylon of Taposiris Magna looks much like it did in Cleopatra's day—if you can block out the unsightly band of condominiums and resort hotels between the coastal highway and the broad white sand beach and glimmering blue expanse of the Mediterranean. One hot, sun-washed morning at the temple in May 2010, Kathleen Martinez was bundled in a long-sleeve shirt, head scarf, and fingerless woolen gloves. "For some reason I am always cold when I am here," she said. The two months of excavation she had requested had turned into three months, and three months had become five years. On the bedrock in the middle of the site an array of column fragments showed the ghostly outlines of what Hawass and Martinez have concluded was not a temple to Isis, but a temple to Osiris. It was oriented on the east-west axis. At an angle just north were the faint hints of an Isis chapel; to the south, an excavated rectangular pit: "That was the sacred lake," Martinez says.
It's a cliché that you can stick a shovel in the ground almost anywhere in Egypt and find something amazing from the long-gone past. When Martinez and a team of excavators began probing the ground in 2005, she was focused less on the ultimate prize of Cleopatra's tomb than on simply finding sufficient evidence to sustain her theory that Taposiris Magna might be the place to look. She hoped to demonstrate that the temple was among the most sacred of its day, that it was dedicated to the worship of Osiris and Isis, and that tunnels had been dug underneath the enclosure walls. Within the first year, she was rewarded by the discovery of a shaft and several underground chambers and tunnels. "One of our biggest questions is why did they dig tunnels of this magnitude," she says. "It had to be for a very significant reason." During the 2006-07 season the Egyptian-Dominican team found three small foundation deposits in the northwest corner of the Osiris temple, just inches from where the Hungarian expedition had stopped digging. The deposits conclusively linked the Osiris temple to the reign of Ptolemy IV, who ruled a century and a half before Cleopatra. In 2007, further supporting the view that the site was very important to the Greeks of ancient Egypt, the excavators found a skeleton of a pregnant woman who had died in childbirth. The tiny bones of the unborn baby lay between the skeleton's hips. Her jaw was distended, suggesting her agony, and her right hand was clutching a small white marble bust of Alexander the Great. "She is a mystery," said Martinez, who had a coffin built for the remains of the mother.
In six years Taposiris Magna has become one of Egypt's most active archaeology sites. More than a thousand objects have been recovered, 200 of them considered significant: pottery, coins, gold jewelry, the broken heads of statues (probably smashed by early Christians). An important discovery was a large cemetery outside the temple walls, suggesting that the subjects of a monarch wished to be buried near royal remains.
Yet the tomb of Cleopatra still hovers out of reach, like a tantalizing mirage, and the theory of who is buried at Taposiris Magna still rests more on educated speculation than on facts. Might not Cleopatra's reign have unraveled too quickly for her to build such a secret tomb? A fantastic story, like a horse with wings, flies in the face of the principle of parsimony. But it's a long hard haul from not-yet-proved to disproved. Critics of Martinez's theory point out that it is rare in archaeology for someone to announce they are going to find something and then actually find it. "There is no evidence that Cleopatra tried to hide her grave, or would have wanted to," says Duane Roller, a respected Cleopatra scholar. "It would have been hard to hide it from Octavian, the very person who buried her. All the evidence is that she was buried with her ancestors. The material associated with her at Taposiris Magna is not meaningful because material associated with her can be found in many places in Egypt."
"I agree that Octavian knew and authorized the place where she was buried," Martinez says. "But what I believe—and it is only a theory—is that after the mummification process was complete, the priests at Taposiris Magna buried the bodies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in a different place without the approval of the Romans, a hidden place beneath the courtyard of the temple."
If Cleopatra's tomb is ever found, the archaeological sensation would be rivaled only by Howard Carter's unearthing of the tomb of King Tut in 1922. But will finding her tomb, not to say her body itself, deepen our portrait of the last Egyptian pharaoh? On one hand, how could it not? In the last hundred years about the only new addition to the archaeological record is what scholars believe is a fragment of Cleopatra's handwriting: a scrap of papyrus granting a tax exemption to a Roman citizen in Egypt in 33 B.C. On the other hand, maybe finding her tomb would diminish what Shakespeare called "her infinite variety." Disembodied, at large in the realm of myth, more context than text, Cleopatra is free to be of different character to different times, which may be the very wellspring of her vitality. No other figure from antiquity seems so versatile in her ambiguities, so modern in her contradictions.
It was lunch hour at the dig site, and the workers had gone to eat in the shade. We were sitting on top of the temple pylon in the radiance of noon, staring out at the sea beyond. There was a feeling of stillness in the air, an inkling of eternity, as if the old Egyptian gods were about—Re, who ruled over the earth, sky, and the underworld, and Isis, who saved Osiris by tricking Re into revealing his secret name.
The search for Cleopatra has come at no small cost to Martinez. She gave up her thriving law practice in Santo Domingo and poured much of her savings into her quest. She moved to an apartment in Alexandria, where she has begun studying Arabic. But it's not an easy life, far from her family and friends. During the revolution earlier this year, she was confronted by a group of aggressive men as she worked at the excavation site. For now, work at the site is on hold. She hopes to return in the fall. "I believe we are going to find what we are looking for," she says. "The difference is now we're digging in the ground, not in books."
When Jupiter and his brothers had defeated the Titans and banished them to Tartarus, a new enemy rose up against the gods. They were the giants Typhon, Briareus, Enceladus, and others. Some of them had a hundred arms, others breathed out fire. They were finally subdued and buried alive under Mount Ætna, where they still sometimes struggle to get loose, and shake the whole island with earthquakes. Their breath comes up through the mountain, and is what men call the eruption of the volcano.
The fall of these monsters shook the earth, so that Pluto was alarmed, and feared that his kingdom would be laid open to the light of day. Under this apprehension, he mounted his chariot, drawn by black horses, and took a circuit of inspection to satisfy himself of the extent of the damage. While he was thus engaged, Venus, who was sitting on Mount Eryx playing with her boy Cupid, espied him, and said, “My son, take your darts with which you conquer all, even Jove himself, and send one into the breast of yonder dark monarch, who rules the realm of Tartarus. Why should he alone escape? Seize the opportunity to extend your empire and mine. Do you not see that even in heaven some despise our power? Minerva the wise, and Diana the huntress, defy us; and there is that daughter of Ceres, who threatens to follow their example. Now do you, if you have any regard for your own interest or mine, join these two in one.” The boy unbound his quiver, and selected his sharpest and truest arrow; then straining the bow against his knee, he attached the string, and, having made ready, shot the arrow with its barbed point right into the heart of Pluto.
In the vale of Enna there is a lake embowered in woods, which screen it from the fervid rays of the sun, while the moist ground is covered with flowers, and Spring reigns perpetual. Here Proserpine was playing with her companions, gathering lilies and violets, and filling her basket and her apron with them, when Pluto saw her, loved her, and carried her off. She screamed for help to her mother and companions; and when in her fright she dropped the corners of her apron and let the flowers fall, childlike she felt the loss of them as an addition to her grief. The ravisher urged on his steeds, calling them each by name, and throwing loose over their heads and necks his iron-colored reins. When he reached the River Cyane, and it opposed his passage, he struck the river-bank with his trident, and the earth opened and gave him a passage to Tartarus.
Ceres sought her daughter all the world over. Bright-haired Aurora, when she came forth in the morning, and Hesperus when he led out the stars in the evening, found her still busy in the search. But it was all unavailing. At length, weary and sad, she sat down upon a stone, and continued sitting nine days and nights, in the open air, under the sunlight and moonlight and falling showers. It was where now stands the city of Eleusis, then the home of an old man named Celeus. He was out in the field, gathering acorns and black-berries, and sticks for his fire. His little girl was driving home their two goats, and as she passed the goddess, who appeared in the guise of an old woman, she said to her, “Mother,”—and the name was sweet to the ears of Ceres,—“why do you sit here alone upon the rocks?” The old man also stopped, though his load was heavy, and begged her to come into his cottage, such as it was. She declined, and he urged her. “Go in peace,” she replied, “and be happy in your daughter; I have lost mine.” As she spoke, tears—or something like tears, for the gods never weep—fell down her cheeks upon her bosom. The compassionate old man and his child wept with her. Then said he, “Come with us, and despise not our humble roof; so may your daughter be restored to you in safety.” “Lead on,” said she, “I cannot resist that appeal!” So she rose from the stone and went with them. As they walked he told her that his only son, a little boy, lay very sick, feverish, and sleepless. She stooped and gathered some poppies. As they entered the cottage, they found all in great distress, for the boy seemed past hope of recovery. Metanim, his mother, received her kindly, and the goddess stooped and kissed the lips of the sick child. Instantly the paleness left his face, and healthy vigor returned to his body. The whole family were delighted—that is, the father, mother, and little girl, for they were all; they had no servants. They spread the table, and put upon it curds and cream, apples, and honey in the comb. While they ate, Ceres mingled poppy juice in the milk of the boy. When night came and all was still, she arose, and taking the sleeping boy, moulded his limbs with her hands, and uttered over him three times a solemn charm, then went and laid him in the ashes. His mother, who had been watching what her guest was doing, sprang forward with a cry and snatched the child from the fire. Then Ceres assumed her own form, and a divine splendor shone all around. While they were overcome with astonishment, she said, “Mother, you have been cruel in your fondness to your son. I would have made him immortal, but you have frustrated my attempt. Nevertheless, he shall be great and useful. He shall teach men the use of the plough, and the rewards which labor can win from the cultivated soil.” So saying, she wrapped a cloud about her, and mounting her chariot rode away.
Ceres continued her search for her daughter, passing from land to land, and across seas and rivers, till at length she returned to Sicily, whence she at first set out, and stood by the banks of the River Cyane, where Pluto made himself a passage with his prize to his own dominions. The river nymph would have told the goddess all she had witnessed, but dared not, for fear of Pluto; so she only ventured to take up the girdle which Proserpine had dropped in her flight, and waft it to the feet of the mother. Ceres, seeing this, was no longer in doubt of her loss, but she did not yet know the cause, and laid the blame on the innocent land. “Ungrateful soil,” said she, “which I have endowed with fertility and clothed with herbage and nourishing grain, no more shall you enjoy my favors.” Then the cattle died, the plough broke in the furrow, the seed failed to come up; there was too much sun, there was too much rain; the birds stole the seeds—thistles and brambles were the only growth. Seeing this, the fountain Arethusa interceded for the land. “Goddess,” said she, “blame not the land; it opened unwillingly to yield a passage to your daughter. I can tell you of her fate, for I have seen her. This is not my native country; I came hither from Elis. I was a woodland nymph, and delighted in the chase. They praised my beauty, but I cared nothing for it, and rather boasted of my hunting exploits. One day I was returning from the wood, heated with exercise, when I came to a stream silently flowing, so clear that you might count the pebbles on the bottom. The willows shaded it, and the grassy bank sloped down to the water’s edge. I approached, I touched the water with my foot. I stepped in knee-deep, and not content with that, I laid my garments on the willows and went in. While I sported in the water, I heard an indistinct murmur coming up as out of the depths of the stream; and made haste to escape to the nearest bank. The voice said, ‘Why do you fly, Arethusa? I am Alpheus, the god of this stream.’ I ran, he pursued; he was not more swift than I, but he was stronger, and gained upon me, as my strength failed. At last, exhausted, I cried for help to Diana. ‘Help me, goddess! help your votary!’ The goddess heard, and wrapped me suddenly in a thick cloud. The river god looked now this way and now that, and twice came close to me, but could not find me. ‘Arethusa! Arethusa!’ he cried. Oh, how I trembled,—like a lamb that hears the wolf growling outside the fold. A cold sweat came over me, my hair flowed down in streams; where my foot stood there was a pool. In short, in less time than it takes to tell it I became a fountain. But in this form Alpheus knew me and attempted to mingle his stream with mine. Diana cleft the ground, and I, endeavoring to escape him, plunged into the cavern, and through the bowels of the earth came out here in Sicily. While I passed through the lower parts of the earth, I saw your Proserpine. She was sad, but no longer showing alarm in her countenance. Her look was such as became a queen—the queen of Erebus; the powerful bride of the monarch of the realms of the dead.”
When Ceres heard this, she stood for a while like one stupefied; then turned her chariot towards heaven, and hastened to present herself before the throne of Jove. She told the story of her bereavement, and implored Jupiter to interfere to procure the restitution of her daughter. Jupiter consented on one condition, namely, that Proserpine should not during her stay in the lower world have taken any food; otherwise, the Fates forbade her release. Accordingly, Mercury was sent, accompanied by Spring, to demand Proserpine of Pluto. The wily monarch consented; but, alas! the maiden had taken a pomegranate which Pluto offered her, and had sucked the sweet pulp from a few of the seeds. This was enough to prevent her complete release; but a compromise was made, by which she was to pass half the time with her mother, and the rest with her husband Pluto.
Ceres allowed herself to be pacified with this arrangement, and restored the earth to her favor. Now she remembered Celeus and his family, and her promise to his infant son Triptolemus. When the boy grew up, she taught him the use of the plough, and how to sow the seed. She took him in her chariot, drawn by winged dragons, through all the countries of the earth, imparting to mankind valuable grains, and the knowledge of agriculture. After his return, Triptolemus built a magnificent temple to Ceres in Eleusis, and established the worship of the goddess, under the name of the Eleusinian mysteries, which, in the splendor and solemnity of their observance, surpassed all other religious celebrations among the Greeks.
There can be little doubt of this story of Ceres and Proserpine being an allegory. Proserpine signifies the seed-corn which when cast into the ground lies there concealed—that is, she is carried off by the god of the underworld. It reappears—that is. Proserpine is restored to her mother. Spring leads her back to the light of day.
Milton alludes to the story of Proserpine in “Paradise Lost,” Book IV.:
“…Not that fair field
Of Enna where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world,—
…might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive.”
Hood, in his “Ode to Melancholy,” uses the same allusion very beautifully:
“Forgive, if somewhile I forget,
In woe to come the present bliss;
As frighted Proserpine let fall
Her flowers at the sight of Dis.”
The River Alpheus does in fact disappear underground, in part of its course, finding its way through subterranean channels till it again appears on the surface. It was said that the Sicilian fountain Arethusa was the same stream, which, after passing under the sea, came up again in Sicily. Hence the story ran that a cup thrown into the Alpheus appeared again in Arethusa. It is this fable of the underground course of Alpheus that Coleridge alludes to in his poem of “Kubla Khan”:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.”
In one of Moore’s juvenile poems he thus alludes to the same story, and to the practice of throwing garlands or other light objects on his stream to be carried downward by it, and afterwards reproduced at its emerging:
“O my beloved, how divinely sweet
Is the pure joy when kindred spirits meet!
Like him the river god, whose waters flow,
With love their only light, through caves below,
Wafting in triumph all the flowery braids
And festal rings, with which Olympic maids
Have decked his current, as an offering meet
To lay at Arethusa’s shining feet.
Think, when he meets at last his fountain bride,
What perfect love must thrill the blended tide!
Each lost in each, till mingling into one,
Their lot the same for shadow or for sun,
A type of true love, to the deep they run.”
The following extract from Moore’s “Rhymes on the Road” gives an account of a celebrated picture by Albano, at Milan, called a Dance of Loves:
“Tis for the theft of Enna’s flower from earth
These urchins celebrate their dance of mirth,
Round the green tree, like fays upon a heath;—
Those that are nearest linked in order bright,
Cheek after cheek, like rosebuds in a wreath;
And those more distant showing from beneath
The others’ wings their little eyes of light.
While see! among the clouds, their eldest brother,
But just flown up, tells with a smile of bliss,
This prank of Pluto to his charmed mother,
Who turns to greet the tidings with a kiss.”
On a certain hill in Phrygia stands a linden tree and an oak, enclosed by a low wall. Not far from the spot is a marsh, formerly good habitable land, but now indented with pools, the resort of fen-birds and cormorants. Once on a time Jupiter, in human shape, visited this country, and with him his son Mercury (he of the caduceus), without his wings. They presented themselves, as weary travellers, at many a door, seeking rest and shelter, but found all closed, for it was late, and the inhospitable inhabitants would not rouse themselves to open for their reception. At last a humble mansion received them, a small thatched cottage, where Baucis, a pious old dame, and her husband Philemon, united when young, had grown old together. Not ashamed of their poverty, they made it endurable by moderate desires and kind dispositions. One need not look there for master or for servant; they two were the whole household, master and servant alike. When the two heavenly guests crossed the humble threshold, and bowed their heads to pass under the low door, the old man placed a seat, on which Baucis, bustling and attentive, spread a cloth, and begged them to sit down. Then she raked out the coals from the ashes, and kindled up a fire, fed it with leaves and dry bark, and with her scanty breath blew it into a flame. She brought out of a corner split sticks and dry branches, broke them up, and placed them under the small kettle. Her husband collected some pot-herbs in the garden, and she shred them from the stalks, and prepared them for the pot. He reached down with a forked stick a flitch of bacon hanging in the chimney, cut a small piece, and put it in the pot to boil with the herbs, setting away the rest for another time. A beechen bowl was filled with warm water, that their guests might wash. While all was doing, they beguiled the time with conversation.
On the bench designed for the guests was laid a cushion stuffed with sea-weed; and a cloth, only produced on great occasions, but ancient and coarse enough, was spread over that. The old lady, with her apron on, with trembling hand set the table. One leg was shorter than the rest, but a piece of slate put under restored the level. When fixed, she rubbed the table down with some sweet-smelling herbs. Upon it she set some of chaste Minerva’s olives, some cornel berries preserved in vinegar, and added radishes and cheese, with eggs lightly cooked in the ashes. All were served in earthen dishes, and an earthenware pitcher, with wooden cups, stood beside them. When all was ready, the stew, smoking hot, was set on the table. Some wine, not of the oldest, was added; and for dessert, apples and wild honey; and over and above all, friendly faces, and simple but hearty welcome.
Now while the repast proceeded, the old folks were astonished to see that the wine, as fast as it was poured out, renewed itself in the pitcher, of its own accord. Struck with terror, Baucis and Philemon recognized their heavenly guests, fell on their knees, and with clasped hands implored forgiveness for their poor entertainment. There was an old goose, which they kept as the guardian of their humble cottage; and they bethought them to make this a sacrifice in honor of their guests. But the goose, too nimble, with the aid of feet and wings, for the old folks, eluded their pursuit, and at last took shelter between the gods themselves. They forbade it to be slain; and spoke in these words: “We are gods. This inhospitable village shall pay the penalty of its impiety; you alone shall go free from the chastisement. Quit your house, and come with us to the top of yonder hill.” They hastened to obey, and, staff in hand, labored up the steep ascent. They had reached to within an arrow’s flight of the top, when turning their eyes below, they beheld all the country sunk in a lake, only their own house left standing. While they gazed with wonder at the sight, and lamented the fate of their neighbors, that old house of theirs was changed into a temple. Columns took the place of the corner posts, the thatch grew yellow and appeared a gilded roof, the floors became marble, the doors were enriched with carving and ornaments of gold. Then spoke Jupiter in benignant accents: “Excellent old man, and woman worthy of such a husband, speak, tell us your wishes; what favor have you to ask of us?” Philemon took counsel with Baucis a few moments; then declared to the gods their united wish. “We ask to be priests and guardians of this your temple; and since here we have passed our lives in love and concord, we wish that one and the same hour may take us both from life, that I may not live to see her grave, nor be laid in my own by her.” Their prayer was granted. They were the keepers of the temple as long as they lived. When grown very old, as they stood one day before the steps of the sacred edifice, and were telling the story of the place, Baucis saw Philemon begin to put forth leaves, and old Philemon saw Baucis changing in like manner. And now a leafy crown had grown over their heads, while exchanging parting words, as long as they could speak. “Farewell, dear spouse,” they said, together, and at the same moment the bark closed over their mouths. The Tyanean shepherd still shows the two trees, standing side by side, made out of the two good old people.
The story of Baucis and Philemon has been imitated by Swift, in a burlesque style, the actors in the change being two wandering saints, and the house being changed into a church, of which Philemon is made the parson. The following may serve as a specimen:
“They scarce had spoke, when, fair and soft,
The roof began to mount aloft;
Aloft rose every beam and rafter;
The heavy wall climbed slowly after.
The chimney widened and grew higher,
Became a steeple with a spire.
The kettle to the top was hoist,
And there stood fastened to a joist,
But with the upside down, to show
Its inclination for below;
In vain, for a superior force,
Applied at bottom, stops its course;
Doomed ever in suspense to dwell,
’Tis now no kettle, but a bell.
A wooden jack, which had almost
Lost by disuse the art to roast,
A sudden alteration feels.
Increased by new intestine wheels;
And, what exalts the wonder more,
The number made the motion slower;
The flier, though ’t had leaden feet,
Turned round so quick you scarce could see ’t;
But slackened by some secret power,
Now hardly moves an inch an hour.
The jack and chimney, near allied,
Had never left each other’s side:
The chimney to a steeple grown,
The jack would not be left alone;
But up against the steeple reared,
Became a clock, and still adhered;
And still its love to household cares
By a shrill voice at noon declares,
Warning the cook-maid not to burn
That roast meat which it cannot turn;
The groaning chair began to crawl,
Like a huge snail, along the wall;
There stuck aloft in public view,
And with small change, a pulpit grew.
A bedstead of the antique mode,
Compact of timber many a load,
Such as our ancestors did use,
Was metamorphosed into pews,
Which still their ancient nature keep
By lodging folks disposed to sleep.”