Our next reading will be Sophocles' Women of Trachis, but given our recent involvement with Ovid, the plan is to spend one session on Ovid's treatment of the theme, which mostly falls into Metamorphoses 9.
Achelous below the fold, including the tales at the end of book 8, since that is where Theseus, returning from the Calydonian Boar hunt, meets the river, hears his stories, including those about Heracles, before moving on. The text is from here. The blog pertaining to the Metamorphoses is here.
Acheloüs tells Theseus and his friends of Perimele
Meanwhile, Theseus, having played his part in the united effort, turned back towards Athens, Tritonia's city, where Erectheus once ruled. But the River Acheloüs, swollen with rain, blocked his immediate path, and stalled his journey. "Come under my roof, famous scion of Cecrops," the river-god said, "and do not commit yourself to my devouring waters. They are liable to carry solid tree-trunks along, in their roaring, and roll great boulders over on their sides. I have seen whole byres, near the bank, swept away, with all their livestock: and neither the cattle's strength nor the horses' speed was of any use. Many a strong man has been lost in the whirling vortices, when the torrent was loosed, after mountain snows. You will be safer to stay till my river runs in its normal channel, when its bed holds only a slender stream."
Aegeus's son nodded, and replied: "I will make use of your house, and your counsel, Acheloüs." And so he did. He entered the dark building, made of spongy pumice, and rough tufa. The floor was moist with soft moss, and the ceiling banded with freshwater mussel and oyster shells. Now Hyperion, the sun, had measured out two thirds of his path of light, when Theseus and his companions of the hunt seated themselves on couches. Here was Pirithoüs, Ixion's son, and there, Lelex, Troezen's hero, his temples already streaked with thinning grey hair, and there were others whom the Acarnanian river-god, greatly delighted to have such a guest, judged worthy of equal honour. Quickly the barefoot nymphs set out dishes of food on the nearby tables, and when they had been cleared again, poured wine in jewelled cups. Then the greatest of heroes looking out over the waters below, asked: "What is that place?" (He pointed with his finger.) "Tell me what name the island has, though it seems more than an island!"
The river-god replied "What you see is not one island: five pieces of land lie together, but the distance conceals their distinctiveness. This will make you less astonished at what Diana did to Calydon when she was slighted. Those islands were once nymphs, who, though they had slaughtered ten bullocks and invited the rural gods to the festival, forgot me as they led the festal dance. I swelled with anger, as fierce as when my flood is at its fullest, and terrible in wind and wave, I tore forest from forest and field from field, and swept the nymphs, who then, at last, remembered me, along with the place they trod, into the sea. There the ocean and my waters separated what had been continuous ground, and split it into as many parts as you see islands, the Echinades, there in the midst of the waves.
But as you can see for yourself, far off, far off one island vanishes, dear to me: the sailors call it Perimele. I loved her and stole her virginity. At which her father, unable to accept it, threw his daughter from the cliffs into the deep, intending to destroy her. I caught her, and holding her as she swam, I cried: "O God of the Trident, to whom rule over the restless waves, closest to earth, fell by lot, give your aid I beg, and grant a place to one whom a father's anger drowns, or allow her to be that place herself!" While I spoke, new earth clasped her body, as she swam, and a solid island rose, round her changed limbs.
Lelex tells of Philemon and Baucis
At this, the river-god fell silent. The wonder of the thing had gripped them all. But that daring spirit, Pirithoüs, son of Ixion, scornful of the gods, laughed at their credulity. "These are fictions you tell of, Acheloüs, and you credit the gods with too much power, if you think they can give and take away the forms of things." The others were startled, and disapproved of his words, Lelex above all, experienced in mind and years, who said: "The power of the gods is great and knows no limit, and whatever heaven decrees comes to pass. To help convince you, in the hills of Phrygia, an oak and a lime tree stand side by side, surrounded by a low wall. I have seen the place, since Pittheus, king of Troezen, sent me into that country, where his father Pelops once ruled.
There is a swamp not far from there, once habitable land but now the haunt of diving-birds and marsh-loving coots. Jupiter went there, disguised as a mortal, and Mercury, the descendant of Atlas, setting aside his wings, went with his father, carrying the caduceus. A thousand houses they approached, looking for a place to rest: a thousand houses were locked and bolted. But one received them: it was humble it is true, roofed with reeds and stems from the marsh, but godly Baucis and the equally aged Philemon, had been wedded in that cottage in their younger years, and there had grown old together. They made light of poverty by acknowledging it, and bearing it without discontent of mind. It was no matter if you asked for owner or servant there: those two were the whole household: they gave orders and carried them out equally.
So when the gods from heaven met the humble household gods, and stooping down, passed the low doorway, the old man pulled out a bench, and requested them to rest their limbs, while over the bench Baucis threw a rough blanket. Then she raked over the warm ashes in the hearth, and brought yesterday's fire to life, feeding it with leaves and dried bark, nursing the flames with her aged breath. She pulled down finely divided twigs and dry stems from the roof, and, breaking them further, pushed them under a small bronze pot. Next she stripped the leaves from vegetables that her husband had gathered from his well-watered garden. He used a two-pronged stick to lift down a wretched-looking chine of meat, hanging from a blackened beam, and, cutting a meagre piece from the carefully saved chine, put what had been cut, to seethe, in boiling water.
In the meantime they made conversation to pass the time, and prevent their guests being conscious of the delay. There was a beech wood tub, suspended by its handle from a crude peg: this had been filled with warm water, and allowed their visitors to refresh their limbs. In the middle of the floor there was a mattress of soft sedges. Placed on a frame and legs of willow it made a couch. They covered it with cloths, that they only used to bring out for the times of sacred festivals, but even these were old and worn, not unworthy of the couch. The gods were seated.
The old woman, her skirts tucked up, her hands trembling, placed a table there, but a table with one of the three legs unequal: a piece of broken pot made them equal. Pushed underneath, it countered the slope, and she wiped the level surface with fresh mint. On it she put the black and green olives that belong to pure Minerva, and the cornelian cherries of autumn, preserved in wine lees; radishes and endives; a lump of cheese; and lightly roasted eggs, untouched by the hot ashes; all in clay dishes. After this she set out a carved mixing bowl for wine, just as costly, with cups made of beech wood, hollowed out, and lined with yellow bees' wax. There was little delay, before the fire provided its hot food, and the wine, of no great age, circulated, and then, removed again, made a little room for the second course. There were nuts, and a mix of dried figs and wrinkled dates; plums, and sweet-smelling apples in open wicker baskets; and grapes gathered from the purple vines. In the centre was a gleaming honeycomb. Above all, there was the additional presence of well-meaning faces, and no unwillingness, or poverty of spirit."
The transformation of Philemon and Baucis
"Meanwhile the old couple noticed that, as soon as the mixing bowl was empty, it refilled itself, unaided, and the wine appeared of its own accord. They were fearful at this strange and astonishing sight, and timidly Baucis and Philemon murmured a prayer, their palms upwards, and begged the gods' forgiveness for the meal, and their unpreparedness. They had a goose, the guard for their tiny cottage: as hosts they prepared to sacrifice it for their divine guests. But, quick-winged, it wore the old people out and, for a long time, escaped them, at last appearing to take refuge with the gods themselves. Then the heaven-born ones told them not to kill it. "We are gods," they said, "and this neighbourhood will receive just punishment for its impiety, but to you we grant exemption from that evil. Just leave your house, and accompany our steps, as we climb that steep mountainside together."
They both obeyed, and leaning on their sticks to ease their climb, they set foot on the long slope. When they were as far from the summit as a bowshot might carry, they looked back, and saw everywhere else vanished in the swamp: only their own roof was visible. And while they stood amazed at this, mourning their neighbours' fate, their old cottage, tiny even for the two of them, turned into a temple. Wooden poles became pillars, and the reed thatch grew yellow, till a golden roof appeared, richly carved doors, and a marble pavement covering the ground. Then the son of Saturn spoke, calmly, to them: "Ask of us, virtuous old man, and you, wife, worthy of a virtuous husband, what you wish."
When he had spoken briefly with Baucis, Philemon revealed their joint request to the gods. "We ask to be priests and watch over your temple, and, since we have lived out harmonious years together, let the same hour take the two of us, so that I never have to see my wife's grave, nor she have to bury me." The gods' assurance followed the prayer. They had charge of the temple while they lived: and when they were released by old age, and by the years, as they chanced to be standing by the sacred steps, discussing the subject of their deaths, Baucis saw Philemon put out leaves, and old Philemon saw Baucis put out leaves, and as the tops of the trees grew over their two faces, they exchanged words, while they still could, saying, in the same breath: "Farewell, O dear companion", as, in the same breath, the bark covered them, concealing their mouths.
The people of Bithynia still show the neighbouring trees, there, that sprang from their two bodies. Trustworthy old men related these things to me (there was no reason why they should wish to lie). For my part, I saw garlands hanging from the branches, and placing fresh ones there said: "Let those who love the gods become gods: let those who have honoured them, be honoured." "
Erysichthon fells Ceres's sacred oak tree
Lelex finished, and the tale and the teller of it had moved them all, Theseus particularly. He wished to hear more of the marvellous acts of the gods. Acheloüs, the river-god of Calydon, leaning on his elbow, said: "Hero, there are those who, once changed in form, retain that transformation: there are others who are allowed to transmute into many shapes: you, for instance, Proteus, inhabitant of the earth-encircling sea. A moment ago they saw you as a young man, then as a lion: now as a raging boar, then as a serpent, they fear to touch: and, in a moment, horns revealed you as a bull. Often you might have appeared as a stone, often, also, as a tree: sometimes, you formed the likeness of running water, and became a river: sometimes fire, water's opposite.
Mestra, Erysichthon's daughter, the wife of Autolycus, had no less power. Her father was a man scornful of the gods, who burnt no incense on their altars. Erysichthon, it is said, once violated the grove of Ceres with an axe, and desecrated the ancient woods with iron. Within them stood a great oak, massive with the years, a sacred grove in itself: strands of wool, wreaths of flowers and votive tablets surrounded it, evidence of prayers granted. Often beneath it the Dryads held their festive dances: often, also, linking hands, in line, they circled its trunk's circumference, its massive girth measuring fifteen arm's-lengths round. The other trees were not less far below it than the grass was far below all of them. Triopas's son would not hold back the blade, even for those reasons, commanding his servants to fell the sacred oak.
When he saw them hesitating at the order, the wretched man snatched the axe from one of them, saying: "Though this be, itself, the goddess, not just what the goddess loves, now its leafy crown will meet the earth." As he spoke, while he balanced the blade, for the slanting stroke, Ceres's oak-tree trembled all over and gave a sigh, and at the same time its acorns and its leaves began to whiten, and its long branches grew pale. And, when his impious hand made a gash in the trunk, blood poured out of its damaged bark, like the crimson tide from its severed neck, when the mighty bull falls, in sacrifice, before the altar.
All stood astonished, and one of them tried bravely to prevent the evil, and hinder the barbarous double-edged weapon. But the Thessalian glared at him, saying: "Here's the prize for your pious thought!" and swinging his blade at the man not the tree, struck his head from his trunk. He was hewing at the oak-tree repeatedly, when the sound of a voice came from inside the oak, chanting these words:
"I am a nymph, most dear to Ceres,
under the surface of this wood,
who prophesy to you, as I die,
that punishment will follow blood:
out of my ruin, the only good."
But he pursued his course of evil, and at last, weakened by innumerable blows, and dragged down by ropes, the tree fell, its weight cutting a swathe through the wood."
Ceres sends Famine to Erysichthon
"All her sister Dryads, mourning and dressed in black, horrified at the forest's loss and their own, went to Ceres, and begged her to punish Erysichthon. She assented, and, with a motion of her head, that most beautiful of goddesses stirred the fields, heavy with ripened grain. She devised a punishment to rouse men's pity, if his actions had deserved any pity: to torment him with baleful Hunger. But since the goddess herself could not approach her (for fate does not allow Famine and Ceres to meet) she called for one of the mountain spirits, an Oread of wild places, and said to her: "There is a place at the furthest bounds of icy Scythia, with sombre, sterile ground, a land without crops or trees. Torpid Cold inhabits it, Fear and Trembling and barren Hunger. Order Famine to immure herself in the belly of that sacrilegious wretch, and let no plenty oust her, and let her overcome me in any trial of strength. So that the length of the journey does not worry you, take my chariot, take my winged dragons, and govern their bridles on high." And she gave her the reins. The nymph came to Scythia, carried through the air, in the chariot she was given. On the summit of a frozen mountain chain (they call the Caucasus) she loosed the dragons' necks, and, searching for Famine, saw her in a field of stones, picking at the sparse grass with her nails and teeth. Her hair was matted, her eyes sunken, her face pallid: her lips were grey with mould, her throat with scabrous sores: through the hardened skin, her inner organs could be seen: dry bones stuck out beneath her hollow loins: her belly was only the excuse for a belly: her breastbone seemed to hang loosely, only held by the frame of her spine. Emaciation made the joints look large: the curve of her knees seemed swollen: and the ankles appeared as extravagant lumps.
When the Oread saw her, she relayed the goddess's command, from a distance (since she did not dare to approach her), and though she only delayed an instant, and stayed far off, though she had only arrived there a moment before, she still seemed to feel the hunger. Changing course, high in the air, she directed the dragons towards Haemonia.
Famine carried out Ceres's orders, though their tasks are ever opposed, and flew down through the eye of the wind to the appointed house. Straight away she entered the bedroom of the sacrilegious man, who was sunk in profound sleep (since it was night), and breathed herself into him, covering his throat, and chest, and lips, with her exhalations, and causing a lack of nourishment in his hollow veins. Completing her mission, she left the fertile lands, returning to the houses of poverty, and her customary caves.
Gentle Sleep still lulls Erysichthon, with his peaceful wings. He, in sleep, in imagination, dreams of feasts, closes his mouth on vacancy, grinds tooth on tooth, exercises his gluttony on insubstantial food, and, instead of a banquet, fruitlessly eats the empty air. But when indeed peace departs, a desperate desire to eat possesses his famished jaws and burning belly. Without a moment's delay he calls out for whatever earth, air and sea produce, and at table complains of hunger, and in the midst of eating demands to eat. What would feed a city, or satisfy a people, is not enough for one. The more he puts away inside, the greater his desire. As the ocean receives the rivers of all the earth, and unfilled by the waters, swallows every wandering stream: as the devouring flames never refuse more fuel, burn endless timber, and look for more, the greater the piles they are given, more voracious themselves by being fed: so Erysichthon's profane lips accept and demand all foods, in the same breath. All nourishment in him is a reason for nourishment, and always by eating he creates an empty void."
The fate of Erysichthon and his daughter Mestra
"Now hunger, and the deep pit of his gut had consumed his wealth, but even so, Famine worked unabated and his burning appetite was unappeased. Eventually, when all he owned was inside him, only his daughter, Mestra, was left, a girl whom the father was not worthy of. Having nothing, he tried to sell her too. The honourable child refused to accept a possessor, and stretching her hands out over the waves of the shore, she cried: "You god, who stole away the prize of my virginity", for Neptune had stolen it, "save me from slavery." He did not scorn her prayer. Although the buyer had been following her, and had seen her a moment ago, the god altered her shape, giving her a man's features, and clothes appropriate to a fisherman.
Her purchaser looked at her, and said: "O, you who control the rod, and hide your bronze hook in a little bait, may you have calm sea, and gullible fish, that feel nothing of the hook till they bite. Tell me where she is, the girl with shabby clothes and straggling hair, who stood here on this beach a moment ago (since I saw her, standing on the beach): there are no footprints further on!" She sensed the god's gift was working well for her, and delighted that he was asking her for news of herself, replied to his question: "Forgive me, whoever you are: I have had no eyes for anything except this pool: I have been occupied taking pains over my fishing. To convince you, and may the sea god help me in these arts of mine, no man has been on this beach, except myself, for a long time, and no woman either."
He believed her, and turning round on the sand, having been outplayed, departed. Then her true shape was restored. When her father realised that she could change her shape, he often surrendered Mestra to others, so that she, escaping in the form of a mare, or a bird, or again as a heifer or a hind, repeatedly obtained her price, dishonestly, for her gluttonous father. In the end when the evil had consumed everything they had, and his grave disease needed ever more food, Erysichthon began to tear at his limbs and gnaw them with his teeth, and the unhappy man fed, little by little, on his own body."
'But why do I entertain you with stories of others?" said Acheloüs, "Indeed, young man, I have often changed shape myself, though the number of shapes I can achieve is limited. Sometimes I am seen as I am now: sometimes I become a snake: or, again, the lead bull of the herd, my power in my horns - horns, when I still had two. Now one side of my brow has lost its weapon, as you can see for yourself." His words were followed by a sigh.
Acheloüs wrestles with Hercules
Theseus, the hero, reputed son of Neptune, asked Acheloüs why he had sighed, and the reason for his damaged forehead: to which the Calydonian river-god, his uncut hair wreathed with reeds, replied: "You ask something painful of me. Who wants to recall the battles he has lost? But, I will tell it as it happened: since the shame of being beaten is no less than the honour of having fought. It is a great consolation to me that the victor was so famous.
If her name has ever come to your notice, Deianira was once the most beautiful girl, and the jealous hope of many suitors. When, with them, I entered Oeneus's house, her father, and the man I sought as my father-in-law, I said: "Accept me as your son-in-law, son of Parthaon." Hercules, scion of Alceus, said the same. The others gave way before the two of us. Hercules declared that he could offer Jove as his bride's father-in-law, spoke of his famous labours, and of how he had survived what his stepmother, Juno, had prescribed for him. On my side I said: "It would be shameful for a god to concede to a mortal" - He was not yet a god - "In me you see the lord of the waters, that flow in winding rivers, through your kingdom. As your son-in-law I would not be a stranger sent from a foreign shore, but a native, and wedded to your own interests. Only don't let it harm my case that Queen Juno does not hate me, and all the punishment of the labours, she demanded, passed me by!"
"Now, listen, Hercules, you, son of Alcmena: Jupiter, whose child you boast of being, is either wrongly called your father, or is truly a wrongdoer. You seek your father in a mother's adultery. Choose whether you prefer this fiction of Jove as a father, or to be born the son of shame." As I spoke, he gazed at me fiercely, all the while, and unable to act like a man and control his blazing anger, he merely replied in these words: "My right hand is more powerful than my tongue. As long as I beat you at wrestling, you can win the talking", and he came at me ferociously. I was ashamed to retreat, after my words: I took off my green robes; put up my arms; held my hands, fingers curved, in front of my chest in fighting stance; and readied my limbs for the match. He caught up dust in the hollow of his hands and threw it over me, and, in turn, was, himself, gilded by the yellow sand. Now he caught at my neck, or you might think he caught me, now at my legs, now at my loins: and attacked me from every side. My weight protected me, and his attempts were useless. I was like a massive pile that the roaring flood assaults with all its might: it remains, secure in its own bulk.
We pulled away for a moment, returned to the conflict, and stood firm, determined not to concede. Foot was set against foot, and I pushed at him, with my chest full forward, fingers locked with fingers, and head to head. I have seen two strong bulls come together like that, when they try for the sleekest heifer in the pasture as their prize in the contest. The herd watches in fear, not sure to which one victory will grant overriding supremacy. Three times without success Hercules tried to push my gleaming chest away from him. At the fourth attempt, he broke my grip, loosed himself from my constricting arms, and with a blow of his hand - Certainly, I myself confess it is the truth - he turned me about, and clung, with all his weight, to my back.
If you can believe it - I am not seeking to gain false credit by saying it - I seemed to have a mountain pressing on top of me. With difficulty I thrust my arms, pouring with sweat from the great effort it took, under him, and, with difficulty, freed his firm hold on my body. He pressed me hard, as I gasped for breath, prevented me from gathering my strength, and gripped my neck. Then, at last, my knee touched the ground, and my mouth tasted sand. Inferior to him in strength, I turned to my magic arts, and slipped from his grasp in the shape of a long snake. But when I had wound my body in sinuous coils, and, hissing fiercely, darted my forked tongue at him, Tiryns's hero laughed, and mocking my magic arts, said: "My task in the cradle was to defeat snakes, and, though you are greater than other reptiles, Acheloüs, how big a slice of the Lernean Hydra would your one serpent be? It was made fecund by its wounds, and not one of its hundred heads was safely cut off without its neck generating two more. I overcame it, and having overcome it, disemboweled that monster, with branching snake-heads, that grew from their own destruction, thriving on evil. What do you think will happen to you, who are only a false snake, using unfamiliar weapons, whom a shifting form hides?"
He spoke and knotted his fingers round my throat. I was suffocating, as if my throat was gripped by a vice, and struggled to tear his thumbs away from my windpipe. Overpowered in this form, only my third, fierce, bull-shape remained. So I fought on, my limbs those of a bull. From the left he threw his arms round my bulging neck; and followed me as I charged off; dragging at me, my horns piercing the hard ground as he pulled me down; and toppling me into the deep sand. As if that was not enough, holding the tough horn in his cruel hand, he broke it and tore it away from my mutilated brow. The Naiades took it, filling it with fruit and scented flowers, and made it sacred: the Goddess of Abundance is rich now because of my horn of plenty."
The shirt of Nessus
He spoke: and a nymph, one of his attendants, dressed like Diana, her hair streaming over her shoulders, came to them, bringing all of autumn's harvest in an overflowing horn, and, for an aftertaste, delicious fruits. Light gathered, and as the first rays struck the mountain summits, the warriors left, not waiting for the river to flow calmly and placidly or for the falling waters to subside. Acheloüs hid his wild features and his head, marred by its broken horn, in the depths of the waves.
Nevertheless he only had the loss of that adornment, which had been taken from him, to lament: he was otherwise unhurt. Also he hid his loss with a wreath of willow leaves or reeds. But you, fierce Nessus, the centaur, a passion for that same virgin girl destroyed you, hit in the back by a flying arrow.
Hercules, son of Jupiter, on his way to his native city with Deianira, his new bride, came to the swift waters of the River Euenus. The flood was higher than normal, increased by winter rains, with frequent whirlpools, and impassable. He had no fear of going on himself, but was anxious for his bride, when Nessus approached, strong of limb, and knowing the fords. "With my help, Alcides," he said, "she will be set down on the far bank. Use your strength to swim!" The Theban handed over the Calydonian girl, she, pale with fear, frightened of the river and of the centaur himself.
Straight away, weighed down as he was by his quiver and his lion's skin - he had thrown his club and his curved bow across to the other bank - the hero said: "Let me endure the river since I have started to cross." He did not hesitate, and did not search for where the river was calmest, scorning to claim the water's allegiance. He had gained the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown, when he heard his wife's voice, and shouted to Nessus, who was preparing to betray his trust: "Where are you carrying her off to, you rapist, trusting in vain to your swiftness of foot? I am speaking to you, Nessus, the twice-formed. Listen: do not steal what is mine. If you have no respect for me, the thought of your father, Ixion, on his whirling wheel might prevent this illicit union. However much you trust in your horse-craft, you will not escape. With wounds, not feet, I will follow you." He made good his last words with his actions, shooting the arrow he fired, across, at the fleeing back. The barbed tip jutted from the centaur's chest. When the shaft was pulled out, blood, mixed with the deadly arrow-poison of the Lernean Hydra, gushed out simultaneously from the entry and exit wounds. Nessus trapped this, and murmured, to himself of course: "I will not die without revenge" and gave his tunic soaked with warm blood to Deianira, whom he had abducted, presenting it to her as if it were a gift for reviving a waning love.
A long space of intervening time passed by, and the tales of mighty Hercules had filled the world, and overcome his stepmother's hatred. As the victor at Oechalia, in Euboea (where he had avenged an insult offered him by King Eurytus) he was preparing to sacrifice to Jupiter at Cenaeum, when loquacious Rumour, who loves to add lies to fact, and expands from the tiniest truth by her falsehoods, brought her tale on ahead, to your ears, Deianira. She claimed that Hercules, reputed son of Amphitryon, was filled with passion for Iole, daughter of Eurytus. The loving wife believes it, and terrified at first by the rumour of this new affair, she indulges in tears, and the poor girl vents her misery in weeping. But she soon says "Why do I weep? That adulteress will laugh at my tears. Since she is coming here, I must plan quickly, while I can, while another has not yet taken my place. Should I complain, or keep silent? Return to Calydon or stay? Should I leave my house? Or, if I can do nothing else, should I at least stand in their way? What if, remembering I am your sister, Meleager, I prepare, boldly, to commit a crime, and, by cutting that adulteress's throat, show what revenge and a woman's grief can do?"
Her thought traced various courses. Of all of them she preferred that of sending the shirt, imbued with Nessus's blood, to restore her husband's waning love. Unwittingly, she entrusted what became her future grief, to the servant, Lichas, he not knowing what he had been entrusted with: and the unfortunate woman, ordered him, with persuasive words, to give the present to her husband. Hercules, the hero, took it, without a thought, and put on the shirt of Nessus, soaked in the poison of the Lernean Hydra.
The agony of Hercules
He was making offerings of incense and reciting prayers over the first flames, and pouring a libation bowl of wine on to the marble altar. The power of the venom, warmed and released by the flames, dissolved, dispersing widely through the limbs of Hercules. With his usual courage, he repressed his groans while he could. When his strength to endure the venom was exhausted, he overturned the altar, and filled woody Oeta with his shouts.
He tries at once to tear off the fatal clothing: where it is pulled away, it pulls skin away with it, and, revolting to tell, it either sticks to the limbs from which he tries in vain to remove it, or reveals the lacerated limbs and his massive bones. His blood itself hisses and boils, with the virulence of the poison, like incandescent metal, dipped in a cold pool. There is no end to it: the consuming fires suck at the air in his chest: dark sweat pours from his whole body: his scorched sinews crackle. His marrow liquefying with the secret corruption, he raises his hands to the heavens, crying: "Juno, Saturnia, feed on my ruin: feed, cruel one: gaze, from the heights, at this destruction, and sate your savage heart! Or if this suffering seems pitiable even to an enemy, even to you, take away this sorrowful and hateful life, with its fearful torments, that was only made for toil. Death would be a gift to me, a fitting offering from a stepmother.
Was it for this I overcame Busiris who defiled the temples with the blood of sacrificed strangers? For this that I lifted fierce Antaeus, robbing him of the strength of his mother Earth? For this, that I was unmoved, by Geryon's triple form, the herdsman of Spain, or your triple form, Cerberus? For this, you hands of mine, that you dragged down the horns of the strong Cretan bull: that the stables of King Augeas of Elis know of your efforts: the Stymphalian Lake: and the woods of Mount Parthenius, with its golden-antlered stag? For this, that, by your virtue, the gold engraved girdle of Hippolyte of Thermodon was taken, and the apples of the Hesperides, guarded by the sleepless dragon? Was it for this, that the Centaurs could not withstand me, nor the Erymanthian Boar that laid Arcady waste? For this, that it did not help the Hydra to thrive on destruction and gain redoubled strength? What of the time when I saw Thracian Diomede's horses, fed on human blood, their stalls filled with broken bodies, and, seeing them, overthrew them, and finished off them, and their master? The Nemean Lion lies crushed by these massive arms: and for Atlas these shoulders of mine held up the sky. Jupiter's cruel consort is tired of giving commands: I am not tired of performing them.
But now a strange disease affects me that I cannot withstand by courage, weapons or strength. Deep in my lungs a devouring fire wanders, feeding on my whole body. But Eurystheus, my enemy is well! Are there those then who can believe that the gods exist?" So saying he roamed, in his illness, over the heights of Oeta, as a bull carries around a hunting spear embedded in its body, though the hunter who threw it has long gone. Picture him there, in the mountains, in his anger, often groaning, often shouting out, often attempting, again and again, to rid himself of the last of the garment, overturning trees, or stretching his arms out to his native skies.
The death and transformation of Hercules
Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury. "Was it not you, Lichas," he said, "who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?" The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking, and trying to clasp the hero's knees, Alcides seized him, and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow; whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass; and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright, and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths, and keeps the semblance of a human shape. This sailors are afraid to set foot on, as though it could sense them, and they call it, Lichas.
But you, famous son of Jove, felled the trees that grew on steep Oeta, and made a funeral pyre, and commanded Philoctetes, son of Poeas, who supplied the flame that was plunged into it, to take your bow, your ample quiver, and the arrows, that were fated to see, once more, the kingdom of Troy (as they did when you rescued Hesione.) As the mass caught light from the eager fire, you spread the Nemean Lion's pelt on the summit of the pile of logs, and lay down, your neck resting on your club, and with an aspect no different from that of a guest, reclining amongst the full wine cups, crowned with garlands.
Now the fierce flames, spreading on every side, were crackling loudly, and licking at his body, he unconcerned and scornful of them. The gods were fearful for earth's champion. Saturnian Jupiter spoke to them, gladly, since he understood their feelings. "O divine beings, your fear for him delights me, and I willingly congratulate myself, with all my heart, that I am called father and ruler of a thoughtful race, and that my offspring is protected by your favour also. Though this tribute is paid to his great deeds, I am obliged to you, also. But do not allow your loyal hearts to feel groundless fears. Forget Oeta's flames! He, who has defeated all things, will defeat the fires you see, nor will he feel Vulcan's power, except in the mortal part that he owes to his mother, Alcmene. What he has from me is immortal, deathless and eternal: and that, no flame can destroy. When it is done with the earth, I will accept it into the celestial regions, and I trust my action will please all the gods. But if there is anyone, anyone at all, who is unhappy at Hercules's deification, and would not wish to grant this gift, he or she should know that it was given for merit, and should approve it, though unwillingly." The gods agreed. Juno, also, appeared to accept the rest of his words with compliance, but not the last ones, upset that she was being censored.
Meanwhile, Mulciber had consumed whatever the flames could destroy, and no recognisable form of Hercules remained, no semblance of what came to him from his mother: he only retained his inheritance from Jove. As a snake enjoys its newness, sloughing old age with its skin, gleaming with fresh scales; so, when the Tirynthian hero had shed his mortal body, he became his better part, beginning to appear greater, and more to be revered, in his high majesty. The all-powerful father of the gods carrying him upwards, in his four-horse chariot, through the substanceless clouds, set him among the shining stars.
Alcmena tells of Hercules's birth and of Galanthis
Atlas felt the weight of the new constellation. But even now the anger of Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus, was not appeased, and he pursued his unyielding hatred of the father through the children. Argive Alcmena, troubled by endless cares, had Iole, as one to whom she could confide an old woman's miseries, to whom she could relate her son's labours, known to all the world, and her own misfortunes. At Hercules request, Hyllus, his son by Deianira, had taken Iole to his marriage-bed, and his heart, and had planted a child of that noble race in her womb. Alcmena said to her: "Let the gods at least favour you, and shorten that time when, in childbirth, you call on Ilithyia, that Lucina who watches over frightened women, who, thanks to Juno's influence, made things hard for me.
When the time for Hercules's difficult birth came, and Capricorn, the tenth sign, was hidden by the sun, the weight of the child stretched my womb: what I carried was so great, you could tell that Jove was the father of my hidden burden. I could not bear my labour pains much longer. Even now, as I speak, a cold horror grips my body, and part of me remembers it with pain. Tortured for seven nights and as many days, worn out with agony, stretching my arms to heaven, with a great cry, I called out to Lucina, and her companion gods of birth, the Nixi. Indeed, she came, but committed in advance, determined to surrender my life to unjust Juno. She sat on the altar, in front of the door, and listened to my groans. With her right knee crossed over her left, and clasped with interlocking fingers, she held back the birth, She murmured spells, too, in a low voice, and the spells halted the birth once it began. I laboured, and, maddened, made useless outcries against ungrateful Jove. I wanted to die, and my moans would have moved the flinty rocks. The Theban women who were there, took up my prayers, and gave me encouragement in my pain.
Tawny-haired, Galanthis, one of my servant-girls, was there, humbly born but faithful in carrying out orders, loved by me for the services she rendered. She sensed that unjust Juno was up to something, and, as she was often in and out of the house, she saw the goddess, Lucina, squatting on the altar, arms linked by her fingers, clasping her knees, and said "Whoever you are, congratulate the mistress. Alcmena of Argolis is eased, and the prayers to aid childbirth have been answered."
The goddess with power over the womb leapt up in consternation, releasing her clasped hands: by releasing the bonds, herself, easing the birth. They say Galanthis laughed at the duped goddess. As she laughed, the heaven-born one, in her anger, caught her by the hair, and dragged her down, and as she tried to lift her body from the ground, she arched her over, and changed her arms into forelegs. Her old energy remained, and the hair on her back did not lose her hair's previous colour: but her former shape was changed to that of a weasel. And because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she gives birth through her mouth, and frequents my house, as before."