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.’
‘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, until 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 Philomen 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.” ’
- Ovid, Metamorphoses (VIII.611-724)
I was so happy to read this during the Classics Marathon today. Well, I was happy about reading all of Metamorphoses, but this one has a special place in my heart.
Funny thing is…I spent an hour and a half writing this today during one of my classes instead of listening to the actual lecture. I didn’t know Truthful Tuesday existed until now.
Today, you would have turned ninety, and I have no doubt that you would have lived to see this day had you not gotten that terrible disease which took you from us. I can only wish that you suffered less during those final years, and it breaks my heart knowing that you were in so much pain. I hated seeing your smile fade as the disease spread, even though I knew how much you wanted us to see you in good spirits. Things don’t always turn out the way we want them to, unfortunately.
I have many regrets. I wish that my own mental struggles never reached you. Mom says that it broke your heart when I was admitted to the Institute. I just wasn’t strong enough. I blamed you, which was so wrong of me. Your disease became my disease. I wish I could have spared you my anger, even though I never vocalised it to you directly. I blamed you for the dwindling of Mom and Dad’s attention towards me. I was selfish, or maybe I was just ignorant, but I am nonetheless sorry for it. Again and again, my mind drifts back to the apple orchard, and guilt still washes over me. If I had been in that one damn photograph, things would have been so different. I’ll never know how much this hurt you or if you held this against me, and I don’t want to. But, my mind still drifts back to the “what-ifs.” Nana, I’m so sorry. Even after your death, I was selfish and angry. When Mom, Uncle Bob, and I went to Gurney’s for my fourteenth birthday the year after your death, I threw a fit. I didn’t think it fair that Uncle Bob put your ashes to the sea on my special day. It was irrational, and I almost prevented you from being put to your much-deserved peace. Please, please forgive me.
I’ve changed so much since then, and I wish you could be alive to see how much I’ve grown. I’d have treated you so much better. You didn’t deserve some of the things I did, even if you didn’t know about them. Your number is still on my phone, and I can’t bring myself around to deleting it. I sometimes wish that I could just call you to ask about your day and tell you about mine. Instead, I dream about your gaunt face and the pain the tumour caused you. I’m terrified that I’ll forget your laugh, your smile, your voice. Mom, Dad, and Uncle Bob seem to have moved on, but I can’t. Maybe it’s because yours was the first death to impact me so. All I want is to forget looking at your corpse since it still haunts my dreams. I want to see you smile, full of life, when I dream of you. These nightmares have taken their toll on me over the past five years.
I wish I could be celebrating your life today. Instead, all I can think about is your death and my own regrets. I’m so, so sorry that it has to be this way. If you can see me writing this, I want you to know how much I love you and how much I always will love you. You never fail to let me see the good in humanity.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.”—