Had it been possible, I would gladly have done without all this mythology. But myth, it seems to me, is a language of its own, an instrument of expression. There is nothing arbitrary about it. It is a seedbed of symbolic forms, possessing, like all languages, its own rage of meanings which can be conveyed in no other way. When we retell an old myth—a proper name, an action, a heroic feat—we are expressing, with the utmost economy of means, a general and comprehensive fact, a core of reality which quickens and feeds a whole organic growth of passion and human existence, an entire conceptual complex. If this mythical name or action also happens to be familiar to us from childhood, from our schooldays, so much the better. What is more acutely disturbing than to see familiar stories troubled into new life? In these dialogues I have confined myself to Greek mythology. For obvious reasons these myths have never lost their popularity; they can count on both an immediate and a traditional acceptance. At all costs I wanted to avoid whatever is shapeless, irregular, accidental; even in subject matter, I wanted to confine myself within a given frame; I have tried for a concrete, finite presence. A true revelation, I am convinced, can only emerge from stubborn concentration on a single problem. I have nothing in common with experimentalists, adventurers, with those who travel in strange regions. The surest, and the quickest, way for us to arouse the sense of wonder is to stare, unafraid, at a single object. Suddenly—miraculously—it will look like something we have never seen before.
It seems likely that Ixion was condemned to Tartarus because of his presumptions. But that he fathered the Centaurs on the clouds is false, since the race of Centaurs already existed at the time of his son's marriage. The Lapiths and the Centaurs belong to the age of the Titans, when very different creatures were still permitted to mate and interbreed. The result was that swarm of monsters which Olympus later pursued with implacable hatred.
The Cloud: Ixion, there is a law and we must obey it.
Ixion: The law has no power here, Nephele. Here the law is the glacier, the storm, the darkness. And when at last the weather clears and you drift softly toward the peak, it's no time then to be thinking about the law.
The Cloud: There is a law, Ixion, which didn't exist before. A stronger hand now masses the clouds.
Ixion: That hand doesn't reach here. Look, the weather's clear, and you're laughing, aren't you? And when the sky turns black and the wind howls, who cares about the hand that scatters us like rain? That was what happened in the days when there was no master. Nothing has changed up here on the mountains. We're used to all this.
The Cloud: Much has changed on the mountains. Pelion knows it. Ossa and Olympus know it. Wilder mountains know it too.
Ixion: What has changed on the mountains, Nephele?
The Cloud: Not the sun, not the rain, Ixion. Man's fate has changed. There are monsters. A limit has been imposed upon you mortals. The rain, the wind, the peak, and the clouds are no longer yours to possess. You can no longer hold them in your arms, live with them. Other hands now hold the world. There is a law, Ixion.
Ixion: What law?
The Cloud: You already know. Your fate, the limit imposed upon you—
Ixion: I hold my fate in my fist, Nephele. What has changed? Can these new masters stop me from throwing boulders for the joy of it? Or from going down to the plain and breaking an enemy's back? Are they any more terrible than fatigue and death?
The Cloud: That's not it, Ixion. You can still do all that, and more besides. But you can no longer mate with us, the nymphs of the wind, the goddesses of the earth. Destiny has changed.
Ixion: No longer? What do you mean, Nephele?
The Cloud: I mean that if you try to do what you once did, you'll do something terrible. Like a man who tries to embrace a friend and strangles him, or is strangled himself.
Ixion: I don't understand. You mean you're leaving the mountain? You're afraid of me?
The Cloud: I'll be here on the mountain, here and everywhere. But I'm out of your reach, Ixion. You're powerless against the rain and the wind. You must bow your head. That's your only salvation.
Ixion: You're afraid, Nephele.
The Cloud: Yes, I'm afraid. I've seen the mountain peaks. But I'm not afraid for myself, Ixion. I cannot suffer. I'm afraid for you—you who are only men. These mountains where you were once the masters, where you used to run, and these creatures, our children, conceived when we were both free, now tremble at a nod. We are all the slaves of a stronger hand. The Centaurs, sons of the wind and the rain, are hiding in the deep ravines. They know they are monsters.
Ixion: Who says so?
The Cloud: Don't defy that hand, Ixion. It is fate. I've seen others, more reckless than you or the Centaurs, hurl themselves from the cliff and not die. Understand me, Ixion. Death, in which your courage was defined, can be taken from you, like a blessing refused. Do you know this?
Ixion: You've told me so before. What does it matter? We'll live more intensely.
The Cloud: You can't be serious. You don't know the immortals.
Ixion: I want to know them, Nephele.
The Cloud: Ixion, you think they're presences like us, like Night, Earth, or old Pan. You're young, Ixion, but you were born under the old dispensation. For you there are no monsters, there are only friends. For you death is something that happens, like day, like night. You're one of us, Ixion. What you are is what you do, and that is all. But for them, the immortals, everything you do has a meaning that lingers. And they probe everything from far off, with their eyes, their nostrils, their lips. They are immortal and they cannot live for themselves alone. What you achieve or don't achieve, what you say, what you search for—all these things gladden or displease them. And if you offend them—if you make the mistake of disturbing them on their Olympus —they swoop down upon you, bringing death—the death which they know, a bitterness which lasts, which is felt forever.
Ixion: We can still die.
The Cloud: No, Ixion. They will turn you into a kind of shadow, a shade that wants to live but never dies.
Ixion: Have you seen them, these gods of yours?
The Cloud: I have seen them . . . Oh Ixion, you don't know what you're asking.
Ixion: I've seen some of them too, Nephele. I don't find them so terrible.
The Cloud: I knew it. Your fate is sealed. Which one did you see?
Ixion: How could I tell? It was a young man. He was walking barefoot through the forest. He passed by me, but didn't speak. Then he vanished before a cliff. For a long time I stood there looking for him, too amazed to move. I wanted to ask him who he was. He seemed to be a creature of flesh, like you.
The Cloud: Is he the only one you saw?
Ixion: I saw him again in a dream, with the goddesses. I seemed to be standing beside them, talking and laughing with them. And they were telling me the same things that you're saying, but without fear, without trembling like you. We talked together of fate and death. We talked about Olympus. We laughed at the ridiculous monsters—
The Cloud: O Ixion, Ixion, your fate is sealed! Now you know what has changed up there above the mountains. And you've changed too. And you think you're more than a man.
Ixion: I tell you, Nephele, that you're like them. Why shouldn't I admire them, at least in a dream?
The Cloud: Fool, you can't stop at dreams. You'll climb up to them, aspire to them. You'll do something terrible. Then that death of theirs will come.
Ixion: Tell me all the goddesses' names.
The Cloud: You see? Dreaming isn't enough for you now. You believe in your dream as if it were real. I implore you, Ixion, don't climb to the top. Think of the monsters and how they were punished. The same thing will happen to you.
Ixion: I had another dream last night. You were in it too, Nephele. We were fighting the Centaurs. I had a son whose mother was one of the goddesses—I don't know which. And he looked like that same young god who was walking through the forest. He was stronger than me, Nephele. The Centaurs ran away, and the mountain was ours. You were laughing, Nephele. You see, even in my dreams, I can accept my fate.
The Cloud: Your fate is sealed. No one lifts his eyes to a goddess with impunity.
Ixion: Not even to the Goddess of the Oaks, the Lady of the Peaks?
The Cloud: It doesn't matter which, Ixion. But don't be afraid. I'll be with you till the end.
It was with high hearts that the youth of Greece set out for the East in quest of glory and death. Here their courage and daring took them through a sea of fabulous atrocities, in which some of them failed to keep their heads. There is no point in citing names. Besides, there were more than seven such Crusades. It is Homer himself who—in Book VI of the Iliad—tells us of the melancholy which consumed the killer of the Chimera in his old age, and of his young grandson Sarpedon who died under the walls of Troy.
Hippolochus: Ah, there you are, boy.
Sarpedon: Hippolochus, I found your father. He won't hear of coming home. You should see him. He's a terrible sight— plodding through the countryside, covered with filth, oblivious of the weather. He's an old beggar, Hippolochus.
Hippolochus: What do the peasants say about him?
Sarpedon: The Aleian plain is deserted, a wilderness, Uncle. Reeds and swampland, nothing else. I asked about him in the valley of the Xanthus, but they hadn't seen him for days.
Hippolochus: What about him? What does he say?
Sarpedon: He has no memory of home or us. Whenever he meets somebody, he talks to him about the Solymi, of Glaucus, Sisyphus, and the Chimera. When he saw me, he said, "if I were your age, boy, I'd go drown myself." He doesn't threaten the living. "Boy," he said to me, "you're just, you're merciful. We're just and merciful men. If you want to stay just and merciful, stop living."
Hippolochus: Bellerophon bitter? Bellerophon grumbling? I can't believe it.
Sarpedon: You should hear the terrible threats he makes. He dares the gods to accept his challenge. Night and day he keeps on walking. All his rancor, all his bitterness, is lavished on the dead—or rather on the gods.
Hippolochus: Glaucus and Sisyphus, you mean?
Sarpedon: He says they were punished by treachery. Why wait until they're old and feeble before ambushing them? "Bellerophon," he says, "was just and merciful as long as the blood coursed in his body. And now that he's old and alone, why do the gods decide to abandon him?"
Hippolochus: It's strange that should surprise him. And that he should blame the gods for something which every living thing must suffer. But he was always just. What do he and those dead men have in common?
Sarpedon: Listen, Hippolochus. When I saw those desperate eyes of his, I too wondered if this was really Bellerophon I was talking to. Something has happened to your father. Not just old age. Not just misery and loneliness. Your father is atoning for the death of the Chimera.
Hippolochus: Are you mad, Sarpedon?
Sarpedon: Your father accuses the gods of injustice because they wanted him to kill the Chimera. Over and over again he says, "From the day I stained myself with the monster's blood, I haven't had a real life. I have looked for men to fight, tamed the Amazons, slaughtered the Solymi. I ruled over Lycia and I planted a great garden—but all this was nothing. Where can I find another Chimera? Where is the strength of the arms that killed her? Sisyphus and my father Glaucus were just men, young men—then as they grew old, the gods abandoned them both, let them become wild animals and die. How can the man who met the Chimera resign himself to death?" That's how your father talks. The man who used to be Bellerophon.
Hippolochus: From Sisyphus, who chained the infant Thanatos, to Glaucus who fed living men to his mares, our breed has broken its bounds. But these are men of the past; they belonged to an age of monsters. The Chimera was the last monster they knew. Our land is just and merciful now.
Sarpedon: Are you sure, Hippolochus? You think that killing the Chimera was enough? Our father—I can call him that —should know. And yet he's as gloomy as a god—some white-haired old tramp of a god—and he roams through fields and swamps talking to his dead.
Hippolochus: What is he looking for?
Sarpedon: The arm that killed the Chimera. He wants the pride of Glaucus and Sisyphus, especially now that he, like them, has reached the boundary of things, the limit, the end. Their courage torments him. He knows a second Chimera will never lie in wait for him among the rocks. And he defies the gods.
Hippolochus: Sarpedon, I'm his son, but these are things I can't understand. The earth is just a place now—why can't men grow old in piece? In a young man, almost a boy like you, Sarpedon, I can understand the tumult of the blood. But only in a young man. Only for a just cause. Not revolt against the gods.
Sarpedon: But he knows what it's like to be young, he knows what old age is like. He's seen other days. He has looked at the gods, as you and I look at each other now. He tells of terrible things.
Hippolochus: Why listen then?
Sarpedon: Oh Hippolochus, who could help listening? Bellerophon has seen things which don't often happen.
Hippolochus: I know, Sarpedon, I know. But that world is over. When I was a child, he told me the same stories.
Sarpedon: But there's a difference—he wasn't talking with the dead in those days. They were only stories then. But now every destiny he meets becomes his own.
Hippolochus: What did he tell you?
Sarpedon: Things you already know. But what you can't know is the coldness, the desperation in his eye, like the look of a man who is no longer anything but who knows everything. Stories of Lydia and Phrygia, old stories, without justice, without mercy. You know the story of Silenus? How a god challenged him to a contest on Mt. Celaenae, and then killed him by cutting him to pieces, like a butcher slicing up a goat? And now a spring—of his own blood, they say—wells up from the cave. Or the story of the mother who was turned to stone, touched to weeping rock, because it pleased a goddess to kill her children with arrows, one by one? And the story of Arachne, who shuddered with terror at Athena's hatred and became a spider? These are things that happened. The gods did them.
Hippolochus: And the gods were right to do them. What do they matter? There's no point in thinking of those things. Of those destinies, nothing now remains.
Sarpedon: The spring remains, the mountain, the terror. The dreams remain. Bellerophon can't take a step without stumbling on a corpse, an old rancor, a pool of blood, surviving from those days when it all happened, and things weren't dreams. In those days his right arm had a weight in the world, and he killed.
Hippolochus: Then he was cruel too.
Sarpedon: He was just, he was merciful. He killed the Chimera. And now that he's old and exhausted, the gods abandon him.
Hippolochus: And that's why he roams the countryside?
Sarpedon: He's the son of Glaucus and Sisyphus. He fears the caprices, the ferocity of the gods. He feels himself becoming a wild animal, and he doesn't want to die. "Boy," he says to me, "the mockery and treachery is this: first they strip away your strength and then they despise you for being less than a man. If you want to live, stop living . . ."
Hippolochus: If that's what he thinks, why doesn't he kill himself?
Sarpedon: Nobody kills himself. Death is destiny. All you can do is want it, Hippolochus.
Nothing happened in Thebes in which the blind prophet Tiresias did not play a part. Shortly after this conversation, the misfortunes of Oedipus began—that is, his eyes were opened, and he himself dashed them out in horror.
Oedipus: Old Tiresias, must I believe what they say here in Thebes? That the gods blinded you out of jealousy?
Tiresias: If it's true that everything comes from the gods, then you must believe it.
Oedipus: What do you say?
Tiresias: That there's too much talk about the gods. Being blind is a misfortune no different from being alive. It is my experience that disasters strike in their own good time and strike where they must.
Oedipus: In that case what do the gods do?
Tiresias: The world is older than the gods. Before time was born, the earth was already filling space. It bled, it felt pleasure; the earth was the only god. In those days things themselves had power. It was things that happened. Whereas now the gods turn everything into words, illusions, threats. But the gods can only make trouble, join things together or pull them apart. Not touch them, not change them. They came too late.
Oedipus: This is no way for a priest to be talking.
Tiresias: If I didn't know that much, I wouldn't be a priest. Take the case of a boy who goes swimming in the Asopus. A morning in summer, say. The boy comes out of the water, goes back in happily, dives, dives again. Then he gets cramps and drowns. What do the gods have to do with this? Should he attribute his death to the gods? Or the pleasure he had? Neither one. Something has happened—something which is neither good nor evil, something which has no name—the gods will give it a name later.
Oedipus: And to give things names, to explain them, seems to you a small matter, Tiresias?
Tiresias: You're young, Oedipus, like the gods. And like them you explain things by giving them names. You still don't know that beneath the earth there is rock, and that the bluest sky is the emptiest. For men like me, for the blind, all things are a blow. A blow, Oedipus.
Oedipus: And yet you've spent your life in touch with the gods. You have meditated on the seasons, on human miseries and pleasures. Men tell many stories about you, as they would of a god. And one of them so strange, so improbable, that it must have some kind of meaning—the kind of meaning that the clouds have perhaps.
Tiresias: I have lived a long time. I have lived so long that every story I hear seems to be my own. What meaning do the clouds have?
Oedipus: A presence within the emptiness . . .
Tiresias: But what is this story which you think has a meaning?
Oedipus: Have you always been the man you are now, Tiresias?
Tiresias: Ah, I understand. The story about the snakes. When I was a woman for seven years. Well, what do you make of that story?
Oedipus: It happened to you, and you know it did. But without a god such things don't happen.
Tiresias: You think so? On earth anything can happen. There is nothing which hasn't happened before. In those days I had feelings of sexual disgust. I felt that my spirit, my sanctity as a priest, my character, were degraded by sex. When I saw those two snakes taking their pleasure, making love on the moss, I couldn't suppress my disgust, I touched them with my stick. Shortly afterwards I became a woman—and for years my pride was forced to submit. The things of the world are rock, Oedipus.
Oedipus: But is the woman's sex really so vile?
Tiresias: Not at all. Nothing is vile, except to the gods. There are irritations, feelings of disgust, and illusions which, when they reach the rock, vanish. Here the rock was the force of sex, its ubiquity and omnipresence under all forms and changes. From man to woman, and vice versa (seven years later I saw the two serpents again), what I refused to accept with my spirit was done to me by violence or lust, and I, proud man or humbled woman, let myself go as a woman and was passive as a man. And I learned everything about sex: I reached the point where as a man I looked for men, and as a woman, looked for women.
Oedipus: You see? A god has taught you something.
Tiresias: Above sex there is no god. It is the rock, I tell you. Many gods are beasts, but the snake is the oldest of all the gods. When a snake sinks down into the ground—there you have the image of sex. Life and death are in it. What god can incarnate and include so much?
Oedipus: You yourself. You said so.
Tiresias: Tiresias is old, and he isn't a god. When he was young, he was ignorant. Sex is ambiguous and always equivocal. It is an end that seems an everything. Man succeeds in incarnating it, in living inside it, like a good swimmer in the water; but meanwhile he has grown old, he has reached the rock. In the end one idea, one illusion, remains: that the other sex is satisfied. Well, don't believe it. For all of us it is wasted effort. I know.
Oedipus: It isn't easy to refute what you say. It's not for nothing that your story begins with the snakes. But it also begins with disgust, and sexual fatigue. What would you say to a healthy man who swore to you that he had never felt disgust?
Tiresias: That he isn't a healthy man. He's still a boy.
Oedipus: I have had encounters too, Tiresias, on the streets of Thebes. And in one of them we talked about man—from infancy until death—and we too reached the rock. As of that day I became husband and father, and king of Thebes. For me in my life, there is nothing ambiguous or wasted.
Tiresias: You aren't alone, Oedipus, in thinking that. But words don't reach the rock. May the gods protect you! I too speak to you, and I am old. Only the blind man knows the darkness. It seems to me that I live outside time, that I have lived forever, and I no longer believe in the days. In me too there is something that feels pleasure and something that bleeds.
Oedipus: You were saying that this something was a god. Why, good Tiresias, don't you try praying to it?
Tiresias: We all pray to some god, but what happens has no name. The boy who drowns on a summer morning—what does he know of the gods? What does it help him to pray? There is a great snake in every day of life, and it sinks down and watches us. Have you ever asked yourself, Oedipus, why the unhappy go blind as they grow old?
Oedipus: May the gods spare me that!
Hermes, an ambiguous god, between life and death, between sex and spirit, between the Titans and the gods of Olympus, is a familiar figure. But how did it come about that the good doctor Asclepius sprang from a world where god and beast commingled? That does require explanation.
Hermes: The gods ask you to rear this child, Chiron. You know already that the beautiful Coronis is dead. With his own immortal hands the God snatched the child from her blazing womb. I was summoned to that poor human body, but it was already afire—the hair was flaring like chaff. The shade had left before I came. With a single leap it fled from the pyre down to Hades.
Chiron: They say she became a mare at the moment of death. Is it true?
Hermes: I think so. But her flaring mane and the blazing fire were so alike, I couldn't be sure. I arrived an instant too late. I had to rescue the child and bring it here.
Chiron: Little boy, you'd be better off if you had stayed in the fire. All you have of your mother is that poor human body. Your father is cruel, blinding light, and you must live in a world of bloodless, anguished shadow, a world of festering flesh, of fever and sighs: all this comes to you from the Bright One. The same light that made you will lay bare the world before you, implacably; everywhere it will expose sadness, wounds, the vileness of things . . . Snakes will watch over you.
Hermes: The world of yesterday has fallen indeed if even snakes have gone over to the Light. But why did Coronis die, do you know?
Chiron: Lord of the Ways, we shall not see her again as she was, happy, racing from Didymus to Pelion through the canebrakes and the rocks. Let that suffice. Words are blood.
Hermes: Believe me, Chiron, I mourn for her as much as you. Why the God killed her I don't know. In my own country of Larissa, they tell of encounters with animals in caves and the woods . . .
Chiron: What do you expect? We are animals. And even you, Lord of the Ways, at Larissa you were once bull's sperm. And in those early days you mated in the slime with all the shapeless things of blood. You, Hermes, should understand.
Hermes: That was long ago, Chiron. Now I live beneath the earth or at the crossroads. Sometimes I see you and your brothers bounding down from the hills, like great boulders, vaulting over the ponds and the gorges, racing and calling. Your hooves, your animal nature I can understand. But you're more than that. Look at your arms and your chest, like a man's chest. And that great human laugh of yours. And the girl who was killed, and her love for the God. And her friends who are weeping for her now—you're somehow different things. Your own mother, surely, didn't a god enjoy her once?
Chiron: Yes, the world has changed since then. The old god turned into a stallion to approach her. On the peak of the mountain it was.
Hermes: Yes, but answer me this. Coronis was a woman. She walked through the vineyards and she played with the Bright One till he killed her and burnt her body.
Chiron: Hermes, have you ever looked up from Larissa and seen Mount Olympus profiled against the sky after a night of wind?
Hermes: Yes. And gone up there too, sometimes.
Chiron: So did we once. We galloped up, we raced from ridge to ridge.
Hermes: Why don't you go back?
Chiron: Coronis went back, Hermes.
Hermes: What do you mean by that?
Chiron: That mountain is death. That's what I meant. The new masters live there. They're not like the masters in the old days, Cronos or the Ancient One. They're not like us as we used to be, when we bounded among things like the things we were. In those days wild beasts and swamp brought gods and men together. We were mountain and horse, plant and cloud and running water, we were everything then, everything on earth. Who could die in those days? What was bestial then, if the beast was in us like the god?
Hermes: You have girls, Chiron, and they are mortal women or mares, as they please. Why complain? Here you centaurs have the mountain, the plain, the seasons. There is everything here you could ask for, even human houses, huts, and villages down there by the mouth of the valley, and stables and firesides where poor mortals tell tales about you and are always glad to welcome you. Don't you think the world is governed better by the new masters?
Chiron: You're one of them and you take their side. But once you were bull sperm and bestial rage, Hermes. Now you lead the bloodless shades down to the world below. What are men but shadows before their time? But I'm happy to think that the child's mother leapt down on her own. If she found nothing else, she found herself as she died.
Hermes: Now I know why she died. She climbed the slopes of the mountain, she was a woman and she gave the God such love that she bore his child. The God has no pity, you say. But do you really think Coronis left her animal desires behind her in the swamps? Did she leave behind the shapeless frenzy of the blood which spawned her?
Chiron: Of course she didn't. What then?
Hermes: The new gods of Olympus are always smiling, but there's one thing at which they do not smile. Believe me, I've seen destiny. Whenever chaos spills over into the light, into their light, then they must strike down and destroy and remake. That is why Coronis died.
Chiron: But they can't remake Coronis. I was right when I told you that Olympus is death.
Hermes: But the Bright One loved her. If he were not a god he would have mourned her. He snatched the child from her body—he gives it to you joyfully. He knows that only you can make a true man of him.
Chiron: I have already told you what his fate will be in the homes of men. He will be Asclepius, the lord of bodies, a man-god. He will live among festering flesh and sighs. Men will turn to him to escape their fate, to hold back by one night, by a single instant, the pains of death. This little child will walk between life and death, like you, Hermes, who once were bull sperm and now are only the guide of the shades. This is what the Olympians have in store for mortal men.
Hermes: But isn't it better for men to die like this than come to that ancient damnation, to mate with beast or tree, to become lowing bull or crawling snake, to become eternal rock or weeping spring?
Chiron: Yes. So long as Olympus is heaven. But Olympus too shall pass.
This act of exquisite infamy, insufficient in itself to turn us against a spring god like Apollo the Lucid, must have been witnessed by Leopardi's two divinities, Eros and Thanatos. This is clear as sunlight.
Eros: Were you expecting this, Thanatos?
Thanatos: From an Olympian I expect anything. But not that it would end like this.
Eros: Mortals, luckily, will call it an accident.
Thanatos: It isn't the first time and it won't be the last.
Eros: And in the meantime Hyacinth is dead. His sisters are already mourning for him. The useless flower that was flecked by his blood now everywhere stars the valleys of the Eurotas. It's spring, Thanatos, and this boy won't see it.
Thanatos: Wherever an immortal has been, these flowers bloom. But in the past there was at least some pretext, an attempt to escape or an offense of some sort. They struggled against The god or were guilty of some wickedness. It was that way with Daphne and with Actaeon. But Hyacinth was only a boy. He lived his life doing honor to his master. He played with the god the way a child plays. He was excited, bewildered. You know this, Eros.
Eros: Mortals are already saying it was an accident. No one stops to think that the Bright One rarely misses.
Thanatos: All I saw was his frowning smile as he followed the flight of the discus and watched it come down. He threw it high into the sun, and Hyacinth looked up and raised his hands and waited for it, dazzled. Why did this happen, Eros? You surely must know.
Eros: What can I say, Thanatos? I can't be moved to pity by a god's whim. And you know as well as I do that when a god approaches a mortal, something cruel always happens. It was you who spoke of Daphne and Actaeon.
Thanatos: But what happened this time?
Eros: A whim, as I said. The Bright One wanted to play, he came down among men and he saw Hyacinth. For six days he lived in Amyclae, six days which changed Hyacinth's whole life and reshaped the world for him. Finally, the lord wanted to go away and Hyacinth looked at him, bewildered. So the discus fell and struck him between the eyes.
Thanatos: Maybe Apollo didn't want him to cry.
Eros: No, the Bright One doesn't know what crying is. We know it, though, we young gods and daemons who were alive when Olympus was still bare rock. We have seen many things, we have seen even trees and stones weep. But the lord is different. Six days, a life—they're all the same to him. No one knew this better than Hyacinth.
Thanatos: Did he really know these things? Didn't he perhaps think of the god as a model, an older friend, a brother he trusted and looked up to? I only saw him when he raised his arms to play the game—there was nothing in his eyes but trust and awe. No, Hyacinth didn't know who the Bright One was.
Eros: Perhaps, Thanatos. Perhaps he didn't even know about Actaeon and Daphne. It's hard to tell where fear stops and trust begins. But certainly he spent six days of intense experience.
Thanatos: What do you think he really felt?
Eros: What every young person feels. But this time the center of his thoughts and actions was too much, too much for a boy. He was with the stranger everywhere; wherever the god was, he was—where men wrestled, in the rooms of the palace, beside the Eurotas, talking to him, listening to him. He listened to the god's stories about Delos and Delphi, about Typho and Thessaly and the land of Hyperboreans. One thing is certain, the god said nothing of his home on Olympus, of the other immortals, of divine things. No, he talked about himself and his sister, about the Graces, in the way people talk of ordinary life: wonderful, but ordinary. Sometimes they listened together to a wandering poet who was staying for the night.
Thanatos: Nothing wrong in all this.
Eros: Nothing indeed, very reassuring. Hyacinth learned that the lord of Delos, with those indescribable eyes and his quiet way of speaking, had seen and experienced things which might happen someday to him. The god spoke of him too and of his fate. The everyday life of Amyclae was an open book to him. He made plans for the future, he treated Hyacinth like an equal, like someone of his own age, and the names of Aglaia, Eurynome, and Auxo, distant smiling women, young women, who had lived with the god in strange intimacy—he spoke their names casually, calmly, with an idle relish that made Hyacinth shiver. This was how the boy lived, and felt. When he was with the god, everything seemed easy and clear. He felt he could do anything.
Thanatos: I've known other men too. Men of experience, wiser, stronger than Hyacinth. And every one of them was destroyed by this craving to do everything.
Eros: But in Hyacinth it was only hope, a trembling hope of becoming like the stranger. But the god refused the enthusiasm he read in the boy's eyes—it was enough to arouse it. What he saw in his eyes and his curly hair was the beautiful purpled flower that was Hyacinth's fate. He paid no attention to words or tears—he had come to see a flower. And this flower had to be worthy of him, something at once wonderful and ordinary, like the memory of the Graces. So, tranquilly, he created the flower.
Thanatos: We are ferocious things, we immortals. I wonder how long the Olympians will make destiny. They dare everything: that may destroy them too.
Eros: Who can tell? From the time of chaos, there has been nothing but blood. Men's blood, blood of monsters, of gods. We begin and we die in blood. How do you think you were born, Thanatos?
Thanatos: In order to be born, a thing must die: even men know that. But the Olympians don't know it, they've forgotten it. In a world that passes, they endure. They don't exist, they are. Their every whim is a fatal law. To express a flower, they destroy a man.
Eros: Yes, Thanatos. But shouldn't we take into account the richness of feeling which Hyacinth experienced? That tremulous hope in which he died was also his birth. He was a boy, his mind was still fresh and unformed, still muffled in the early mists of childhood, the son of Amyclas, the unimportant king of an unimportant country—what would he have been without the stranger from Delos?
Thanatos: A man among men, Eros.
Eros: I know. And I know too that no one escapes his fate. But it's not my way to be moved by a god's whim. Hyacinth lived six days in the shadow of a light. He lacked nothing—he knew perfect joy, he knew its rapid, bitter end. Which is something that the Olympians and the immortals do not know. What more could he ask, Thanatos?
Thanatos: That Apollo should weep for him, as we do.
Eros: You ask too much, Thanatos.
The love of Artemis and Endymion was, I am sure, chaste. This, of course, does not mean that the less energetic of the two was not avid to shed blood. There was obviously nothing gentle about the character of the virgin goddess: mistress of wild beasts, she sprang from that horde of indescribable divine mothers spawned by the monster-haunted Mediterranean. As for Endymion, we know that someone who cannot sleep longs to sleep and passes into legend as the eternal dreamer.
Endymion: Listen, you're a stranger, I can talk to you. Don't be frightened if my eyes look mad. Those beggar's rags wrapped around your feet are no prettier than my eyes. And yet you look the sort of man who could settle down in the village of his choice and find shelter and work and make a home there. If you've stayed on the road, I'm certain it's because the only thing you have is your own fate. Here it is, barely dawn, and you're already on the move. That's because you like to be awake when things are just coming out of the dark, still untouched. You see that mountain? Latmos, they call it. I've climbed up there a good many times at night, in the pitch of dark, and waited among the beech trees for dawn. And yet I feel that somehow I have never touched the mountain.
Stranger: Who ever feels he's touched the things around him?
Endymion: Sometimes it seems to me that we're like the wind going by, untouchable. Or like the dreams we have when we're asleep. Do you like to sleep by day, stranger?
Stranger: I sleep any time. When I feel tired I go to sleep.
Endymion: You're a man who walks the roads. Tell me, when you're asleep, do you hear the brushing of wind, and birds, and ponds, the rustling sounds, the way the water talks? Don't you find you're never more alone than when you're asleep?
Stranger: I don't know, friend. I've always lived alone.
Endymion: Sleep no longer gives me rest. I think I've always slept, but I know this isn't so.
Stranger: You look strong and healthy.
Endymion: I am, stranger, I am. Sleep after wine and that heavy sleep by a woman's side—I know what they're like, but they don't help. When I'm in bed I'm tense, ready to leap up at any moment. Look at my eyes, they're the eyes of a man who stares into the dark. I feel as though I'd always lived like this.
Stranger: Have you lost someone you love?
Endymion: Someone? Oh stranger, what do you take us for? Mortals?
Stranger: Is it a friend who died?
Endymion: Much, much more than any friend. Stranger, when I climb Mt. Latmos I am no longer mortal. Don't look at my eyes! I'm not crazy. And I know it's not a dream. It's so long since I slept. You see the dark patches the beech trees make on the mountain? Last night I was up there, waiting. Waiting for her.
Stranger: Who were you waiting for?
Endymion: We mustn't speak her name. Don't speak her name. She has no name—or has many. Friend, you're a man, you know the shiver of terror you have at night when suddenly a kind of clearing opens before you in the forest? No, you don't. Or how at night you remember the clearing you passed through during the day: you saw a flower there, or a kind of berry swaying in the wind—and this flower, this berry, became something wild, something untouchable, mortal, there among all the wild things? Do you know what I mean? A flower like a wild beast? Tell me, friend, have you ever looked at the privates of a she-wolf, a doe, or a snake? Looked with horror and desire?
Stranger: At the sex of a beast?
Endymion: More, more than that. Have you ever known someone who was many things in one, who brought them with her, so that everything she did, every thought of her seems to contain the whole infinity of things of which your countryside, your sky consists, and memories and days gone by you'll never know, and days to come, and certainties, another countryside, another sky forever alien—have you ever known such a person, stranger?
Stranger: I have heard of such things.
Endymion: And if this being were the wild beast, the savage thing, the untouchable nature that no man may name?
Stranger: These are fearful things you speak of.
Endymion: Yes, but there's more, even more. You're listening, and you should. If you walk the roads, you know that divinity and terror are everywhere on this earth. If I talk to you, it's because we both, travelers and strangers, have something divine about us.
Stranger: I have seen many things. And some of them were terrible things. But there's no need to leave home. Remember—I don't know if this will help—there are gods in the fireplace too.
Endymion: Good, you understand. You'll believe me then. I had fallen asleep one evening on Latmos, propped against a tree. It was dark—I'd been wandering late. The moon was shining when I woke. In my dream I felt a shiver of dread at the thought of being there, in the clearing, in the moonlight.
Then I saw her. I saw her looking at me, looking at me with that sidelong glance of hers. But her eyes were steady, clear, with great deeps in them. I didn't know it then, nor even the next day, but I was already hers, utterly hers, caught within the circles of her eyes, in the space she filled, the clearing, and the hill. She smiled at me, timidly. "Lady," I said to her, and she frowned, like a girl, like a shy, wild thing, as though she understood that I was amazed, somehow dismayed, to find myself calling her Lady. The dismay I felt then was always between us.
Then she spoke my name and stood beside me—her tunic barely reached her knees—and stretched out her hand and touched my hair. There was something hesitant in the way she touched me, and she smiled, an incredible, mortal smile. I thought of all the names men call her by, and I would have fallen to my knees but she held me up, as one holds up a child, by putting her hand under my chin. Look at me, I'm a grown man. And she was just a wild thing, a slight awkward girl. Except for her eyes, those eyes of hers. I felt like a small boy. "You must never wake again," she said. "Don't try to follow me. I'll come to you again." And she went off through the clearing.
I walked all over Latmos that night, until dawn. I followed the moon everywhere, through the gorges and the scrub, up to the peaks. I listened, listened, and all I could hear was her voice, like the sound of sea water, a hoarse voice, cold and maternal. Every rustle, every shadow stopped me. I caught glimpses of wild animals, running. When the light came—a livid, veiled light—I looked down on the plain, on this road where we're walking now, and I knew that my home was no longer among men. I was no longer one of them. I was waiting for the night.
Stranger: I find this hard to believe, Endymion. I mean, you've gone back to the mountain, and yet you're still alive, you're still a man, and the Wild One, the lady of many names, hasn't made you hers.
Endymion: I am hers, stranger.
Stranger: I mean . . . Do you know the story of that prying shepherd who was torn to pieces by his dogs, the stag-man?
Endymion: Stranger, I know everything about her, everything. We talk and talk, and I pretend to be asleep, always, all those nights, and I never touch her hand, any more than one would touch a lioness or the green water of a pond or the thing that is nearest and closest. She stands there before me, a slight, unsmiling girl, looking at me. And those great transparent eyes have seen other things. They still do see them. They are those things. Wild berry and wild beast are in her eyes, and the howling, the death, the cruelty of flesh turned stone. The shed blood, the savaged flesh, the ravenous earth, the wilderness—all this I know. For her, the Wild One, this is wilderness, and loneliness. For her the beasts are wilderness. Her caresses are like the caresses you give to a dog or a tree. But she looks at me, stranger, she looks at me—a slight girl standing there in a tunic, like a girl from your own village.
Stranger: But haven't you ever talked with her about your life as a man?
Endymion: Stranger, you've seen terrible things. You must know that the beast and god together blot out the man.
Stranger: True, when you climb Mt. Latmos you are no longer mortal. But immortals know how to live alone, and you refuse loneliness. You require the animal encounter, the touch of sex. When you're with her, you pretend to be asleep. What do you want of her?
Endymion: I want her to smile once more. And then let me spill my blood on the ground at her feet, my flesh torn by her hounds.
Stranger: And what does she say?
Endymion: Nothing. She looks at me. At dawn she goes and leaves me alone. And I look for her among the beech trees. The daylight wounds my eyes. "You must never wake again," she said to me.
Stranger: Oh mortal man, the day you truly waken you'll know why she spared you her smile.
Endymion: I know now. Stranger, you speak like a god.
Stranger: Godlike and terrible presences course the world, and we walk the roads. You said that yourself.
Endymion: Oh wanderer god, her sweetness is like dawn, or like earth and heaven revealed. It is godlike. But for others, for things and beasts alike, she laughs—briefly. She commands—and her command annuls. And no one has ever touched her knee.
Stranger: Mortal heart, resign yourself. No one has touched her, neither god nor man. Her voice, that harsh maternal voice of hers, is all she can give you.
Endymion: And yet—
Stranger: And yet?
Endymion: So long as that mountain stands, I will not sleep in peace.
Stranger: Everyone has his own kind of sleep, Endymion. Your sleep is infinite with the cries and the voices of things, it is full of earth and sky and day following day. Sleep your sleep bravely, you have nothing better. The loneliness, the wild places of earth are yours. Love them as she loves them. And now, Endymion, I must leave you. You will see her tonight.
Endymion: Oh wanderer god, I thank you.
Stranger: Farewell. But you must never wake again, remember that.
Britomart, the Cretan and Minoan nymph, is mentioned in Callimachus. That Sappho was a Lesbian from Lesbos is regrettable, but far sadder is the dissatisfaction which made her throw herself into the Aegean sea. This sea is full of islands and it was on the most easterly of them, Cyprus, that Aphrodite the wave-born came to land. It was a sea that knew many tragic stories. Ariadne, Phaedra, Andromache, Helle, Scylla, Io, Cassandra, Medea—who does not remember their names? They all passed that way and some of them stayed there. Those waters, one might say, were drenched in sperm and tears.
Sappho: It's boring here, Britomart, the sea is boring. You've been here for ages, aren't you sick of it?
Britomart: You liked being alive better, I know. To become a curl of frothing wave isn't enough for you mortals. And yet men seek death, this death. Why did you drown yourself, Sappho?
Sappho: I didn't know it was like this. I thought everything ended with that final jump. I thought the longing and the restlessness and the tumult would all be done with. The sea swallows, the sea annuls, I thought.
Britomart: Everything dies in the sea, and comes to life again. You know now.
Sappho: But you, Britomart, you were one of the nymphs. What did you want from the sea?
Britomart: From the sea? Nothing. I lived on the mountains. A man pursued me and I ran away. You don't know our woods, Sappho, how tall they are. The mountain falls away sheer, and the sea way below . . . I jumped, to save myself.
Sappho: To save yourself? But why?
Britomart: To get away from the man who was pursuing me. To be myself. I had to, Sappho.
Sappho: Had to? Was he horrid?
Britomart: I don't know, I didn't see him. All I knew was that I had to get away.
Sappho: But why? I mean, to leave your daily life, the hills and the fields? To leave the earth and become sea foam—all this because you had to. Had to what? Surely all this meant something to you, weren't these things part of you too?
Britomart: But Sappho dear, it was desire and longing that made you what you are now. And yet you blame me for running away.
Sappho: You weren't mortal, you knew that there is no escaping.
Britomart: But I didn't try to escape from desire, Sappho. I have what I desire. I was a nymph of the rocks, now I am a sea nymph. This is how we're made. Our life is leaf and trunk, spring water, sea foam. We play with the surface of things, we don't run away from them. We change. This is our desire, this is our destiny. Our one terror is that a man should possess us, catch us. That would be the end of everything. You know Calypso?
Sappho: I've heard of her.
Britomart: Calypso let herself get caught by a man. And nothing could help her any more. For years she never left her cave. They all came, Leucothea, Callianeira, Cymodoce, Oreithyia, Amphitrite . . . They spoke to her, they carried her off and saved her. But it took years; and first the man had to go.
Sappho: I can understand Calypso. But I don't understand why she listened to you. If she'd really been in love, how could she have given way?
Britomart: Oh Sappho, mortal wave, will you never learn what it is to smile?
Sappho: I knew when I was alive. And I went in search of death.
Britomart: But that's not smiling, Sappho. Smiling means living like a wave, like a leaf, accepting your fate. It means dying in one form and being reborn in another. It means accepting—accepting oneself, accepting fate.
Sappho: And did you accept, Britomart?
Britomart: I ran away, Sappho. It's easier for the nymphs . . .
Sappho: I knew how to run away too, when I was alive. My way was to look into things, into the tumult, and turn it into speech, into song. But fate is something quite different.
Britomart: Why, Sappho? Fate is joy, and when you sang your song you were happy.
Sappho: I was never happy, Britomart. Desire is not song. It destroys, and burns, like a snake, like the wind.
Britomart: But have you ever known mortal women who lived peacefully in desire and tumult?
Sappho: None. Wait, yes, perhaps . . . But not mortal women like Sappho. You were still a mountain nymph, I wasn't yet born, when a woman crossed this sea, a mortal woman, who lived always in storm and strife. Perhaps she was in peace. She killed, destroyed, blinded. She was like a goddess—always herself, unchanging. Perhaps she didn't even have to smile. She was lovely, no fool, and around her there was nothing but fighting and death. Men fought and died for her, Britomart, asking only for her name to be joined to theirs for a moment, for her name to be given to their living and dying. And they smiled for her. You know her—Helen, the daughter of Leda.
Britomart: And she, was she happy?
Sappho: At least she didn't run away, that much is certain. She was sufficient unto herself. She didn't ask what her fate was. Whoever had the will—and the strength—carried her off. For ten years she followed a hero; they took her away from him and married her to another man. He too lost her, countless men fought for her across the seas. Then the second man took her back and she lived with him, at peace. She was buried, and in Hades she knew even more men. She lied to no one, she smiled at no one. Perhaps she was happy.
Britomart: And you envy this woman?
Sappho: I envy no one. I wanted to die. It's not enough for me to be someone else, and if I can't be Sappho, I would sooner be nothing.
Britomart: Then you accept your fate?
Sappho: I don't accept it. I am my fate. Nobody accepts his fate.
Britomart: Nobody except us. We who know how to smile.
Sappho: What's so hard about that? It's part of your fate. But what does it mean?
Britomart: It means accepting, and accepting oneself.
Sappho: Yes, but what does it mean? How can you accept a force that seizes you and turns you into desire, into shuddering desire that struggles over a body, a man's or a girl's, like the foam between the rocks? And this body rejects you and crushes you, and you fall and long to embrace the rock, to accept it. Sometimes you are the rock yourself, and the foam and the tumult are twisting at your feet. No one is ever at peace. How can one accept all this?
Britomart: You have to accept it. You tried to run away, Sappho, and where are you now? A bit of frothing wave.
Sappho: But don't you feel it, Britomart, this langour, this deep tidal unrest? Everything here is torn and tormented endlessly. Even dead things go on struggling.
Britomart: You should know the sea, Sappho. You came from an island.
Sappho: Oh Britomart, even when I was a child it frightened me. That ceaseless life is monotonous, sad . . . There are no words for the weariness of it.
Britomart: Once in my island I saw people coming and going. There were women like you, Sappho, women who lived for love. They never looked sad or tired to me.
Sappho: I know, Britomart, I know. But did you follow them on their journeys? There was one woman who hanged herself from her own roof beam in a foreign land. And one who woke up one morning on a rock, abandoned. And the others, so many others, from all the islands and all the lands who went down to the sea. Some were enslaved, some were tortured, some killed their own children. There were some who toiled night and day, and some who never touched solid land again and became things, creatures of the sea.
Britomart: But Helen—she came out unscathed, you said?
Sappho: Sowing fire and slaughter. She smiled at no one, she lied to no one. She was a woman worthy of the sea. But Britomart, do you remember who was born over there?
Britomart: Who do you mean?
Sappho: There is one island you've never seen. Every morning when the sun rises, it touches this island first.
Britomart: Oh Sappho.
Sappho: It was there she sprang from the sea, the goddess who has no name, the tormented, restless one who smiles to herself.
Britomart: But she doesn't suffer. She is a great goddess.
Sappho: And everything that is torn and tortured in the sea is her substance and her breath. Have you seen her, Britomart?
Britomart: Oh Sappho, don't ask me. I'm only one of the little nymphs.
Sappho: You must have seen her, then?
Britomart: In her presence we all run away. Don't speak of her, child.
Meleager's life was linked to a brand which his mother Althaea drew from the fire when he was born. She was a woman of strong mind, and when Meleager killed his maternal uncle in a fight over the boarskin, she flew into a rage, thrust the brand back into the fire, and let it burn.
Meleager: Hermes, I burned like a brand.
Hermes: But you can't have suffered much.
Meleager: The fury, the passion before—they were worse than the fire.
Hermes: Listen, Meleager. You're dead now. The flames, the heat, are things of the past. You're less now than the smoke that rose from that fire. You're almost nothing. Resign yourself. For you the things of the world—the morning, the evening, this place or that—are nothing. Look around you now.
Meleager: I don't see anything. What does it matter? I'm an ember again . . . What did you say about the places in the world? Oh, Hermes, how lovely and various and sweet a place the world must be to a god like you! You have a god's eyes, Hermes. Whereas I was only Meleager, a hunter and a son of hunters. I never left my native forests, I spent my life by the hearth, and when I was born my fate was already contained in the brand my mother pulled from the fire. A few friends, the wild animals—this was all I ever knew.
Hermes: Do you think any man in the world has ever known anything else?
Meleager: I don't know. But I've heard of lives that were lived freely beyond the mountains and the rivers; tales of crossing the sea, of archipelagoes, of encounters with monsters and gods. Of men even stronger than I was, younger men, marked with the sign of strange destinies.
Hermes: Everyone of them had a mother, Meleager. And labors to perform. And the same death awaited them all. They all died of another's passion. None of them was his own master, or knew anything else.
Meleager: A mother . . . None of them had a mother like mine. Nobody knows what it means to know that your life lies in her hands, and to feel yourself blazing, and those eyes fixed on the fire. Why did she draw the brand from the fire the day I was born? Why didn't she let me crumble into ashes? And I had to grow up, to become Meleager, to cry and play, go hunting, to watch the winter and the seasons, to be a man—but always knowing the other thing, carrying that weight within me, daily seeing my fate in her eyes. That's what hurts. An enemy is nothing.
Hermes: You're strange, you mortals. The thing you already know amazes you. That an enemy is nothing is obvious. He has a mother too, like anybody else. So why can't you accept the knowledge that your life lies in her hands?
Meleager: Hermes, we hunters have an agreement. When we climb the mountain, each man helps the other. Each holds the other's life in his hands; he never betrays his friend.
Hermes: Fool, a friend is always betrayed . . . But that's not it. Your lives are forever contained in the burning brand, and your mother draws you from the fire, and you live half blazing. The passion of which you die is your mother's passion, smouldering on in you. What are you but her flesh and blood?
Meleager: It was her eyes, Hermes. You have to have seen those eyes. Seen them from childhood on, to know them, live with them, to feel them fixed on your every step, your every action, for days, for years, and to know that they're getting old, that they're dying, and to suffer what they suffer, to hurt yourself by hurting them, to go in terror of offending them. It's then that their staring at the fire, their watching the brand as it burns, becomes unbearable.
Hermes: You know this too, and it surprises you, Meleager? The fact that those eyes grow old and die means that in the interval you become a man, and knowing that you offend them, you go somewhere else in search of them—live eyes, true eyes. And if you find them—and one always finds them, Meleager—the person they belong to is again your mother. And then you no longer know with whom you have to deal, and you're almost happy. But there's one thing you can be certain of—they know. Both of them alike, the old she and the young ones. And no one can escape the fate that has marked him from birth with the sign of the fire.
Meleager: Has anyone else had my fate, Hermes?
Hermes: Everyone, Meleager. Everyone. The same death awaits them all. They all die of another's passion. In every man's flesh and blood, his mother rages. True, many men are cowards, worse cowards than you.
Meleager: I was no coward, Hermes.
Hermes: I speak to you as a shade, not as a mortal. So long as a man doesn't know, he's brave.
Meleager: I'm no coward now, not here, seeing what I see. I know many things now. But I don't believe that she—the young she—knew anything about those eyes.
Hermes: She didn't know, Meleager. She was those eyes.
Meleager: Atalanta . . . Will she become a mother too? Could she stare at the fire? Atalanta?
Hermes: See if you can remember what she said to you, the night when you killed the boar.
Meleager: That night. The night of the pact. I haven't forgotten that night, Hermes. Atalanta was furious because I'd let the boar escape in the snow. She struck at me with her axe and hit me on the shoulder. I barely felt the blow, but I burst out, even angrier than she, "Get back to the house, Atalanta! Go back with the women! This is no place for your silly outbursts." And later that evening when the boar was killed, Atalanta walked beside me, among the other hunters, and handed me the axe. She'd gone back alone to look for it in the snow. That evening we made a pact that when we went out hunting, one of us would take no weapons. That way the other wouldn't be tempted by anger.
Hermes: And what did Atalanta say?
Meleager: I remember clearly, Hermes. "Son of Althaea", she said, "the boarskin will lie on our marriage-bed. It will be like your blood-price—yours and mine." And she smiled, as though asking for forgiveness.
Hermes: Meleager, no mortal succeeds in thinking of his mother as a girl. But don't you think the person who could say such words would be capable of staring at the fire? It was old Althaea who killed you, for a blood-price.
Meleager: Hermes, all this is my fate. But surely there must have been mortals who lived full lives, men whose lives didn't lie in somebody else's hands . . .
Hermes: Do you know of any, Meleager? They would be gods. Oh, a few cowards may have succeeded in hiding, but they too carried their mothers' blood, and sooner or later the hatred, the passion, the rage blazed out in their hearts. On some evening of life even they felt themselves blazing again. Not all of you, true, have died of this. All of you, when you know, lead the life of the dead. Believe me, Meleager, you were lucky.
Meleager: But not even to see my own children, barely to know my own bed . . .
Hermes: You've been lucky. Your children will not be born. Your bed is empty. Your friends go hunting as they did before you existed. You are a shade, a nothing.
Meleager: And Atalanta? What about her?
Hermes: The house is empty as it used to be when night was falling and you and the men came home late from hunting. Atalanta, who drove you to revenge, is not dead. The two women live together without speaking. They stare at the hearth where your mother's brother was murdered and where you became ashes. Maybe they don't even hate each other. They know each other too well. Without a man, women are nothing.
Meleager: Then why did they kill me?
Hermes: Ask why they made you, Meleager.
There is no point in doing Homer over again. My purpose is simply to report a conversation that took place on the eve of Patroclus' death.
Achilles: Patroclus, why is it that when men want to encourage themselves they always say: "I've seen worse than this." What they should say is: "There's worse to come. A day will come when we are corpses."
Patroclus: Achilles, I don't recognize you.
Achilles: I recognize you, though. It takes more than a drop of wine to down Patroclus. This evening I know that when all is said and done there's no difference between us and the common run of men. There is a worst for all of us. It's the last thing to come and it stuffs your mouth like a fistful of earth. Oh, it's all very well to be able to say, "I've seen this, I've suffered that," but isn't it unjust that when the cruelest thing of all comes, we can't even remember it?
Patroclus: Well, at least one of us will be able to remember for the other. That way we'll fool destiny.
Achilles: That's why men drink at night. Has it ever occurred to you that a child doesn't drink because for him death doesn't exist? Did you drink when you were a boy, Patroclus?
Patroclus: Everything I've done has been done with you. And as you would do it.
Achilles: What I mean is, when we were always together, playing and hunting, and the day was short but the years never passed, did you know then what death was, your death? A boy can kill himself, but he doesn't know what death is. Then suddenly comes the day when you understand, death is inside you, and from that moment on you're a grown man. You fight and dice, you drink, you wish the nights away. But have you ever seen a boy drunk?
Patroclus: I wonder when I was first drunk. I don't know, I can't remember. It seems to me that I've always drunk, that I never knew what death was.
Achilles: You're like a boy, Patroclus.
Patroclus: Ask your enemies about it, Achilles.
Achilles: I will. But for you death doesn't exist. And the man who doesn't fear death is not a good soldier.
Patroclus: And yet I'm with you tonight, drinking.
Achilles: But haven't you any memories, Patroclus? Don't you ever say: "I've done this, I've seen that," and asked yourself what you've really done, what sort of life you've led, what mark you have left on the world? What good is it to live if we leave no memories behind us?
Patroclus: When we were boys together, Achilles, we remembered nothing. Just being together all day was enough.
Achilles: Does anyone in Thessaly still remember those days, I wonder? And when this war is over and our comrades go home, who will walk the streets we used to walk, who will know that we were once boys there too—two boys no different from any others there now? Do the boys who are growing up there know what's waiting for them?
Patroclus: A boy doesn't think of such things.
Achilles: So many days still to dawn which we shall never see.
Patroclus: Yes, but haven't we seen a good many already, Achilles?
Achilles: No, Patroclus, not so many! The day will come when we are corpses. When our mouths will be stuffed with a fistful of earth. And we won't even know what we've seen.
Patroclus: Why think of these things?
Achilles: How not think of them? A boy's like an immortal, he looks and laughs. He doesn't know what things cost. He doesn't know the sweat and the bitterness. His fighting is a game. He throws himself down on the ground and plays dead, then he laughs and goes on with the game.
Patroclus: But we have other games. Women and plunder. The enemy. And our drinking together at night. Achilles, when are we going back to the fighting?
Achilles: We're going back, you can be sure of that. A destiny awaits us. When you see ships on fire, that will be the moment.
Patroclus: Not till then?
Achilles: Does waiting frighten you? Haven't you seen worse than this?
Patroclus: The waiting gets on my nerves. We came here to finish it off. Why not tomorrow?
Achilles: There's no hurry, Patroclus. Let the gods say Tomorrow. It's only for them that what has been will be.
Patroclus: But whether or not we can say, I've seen worse than this—that depends on us. To the very end. So drink, Achilles. Drink to the spear, drink to the shield. What has been will be again. We'll go back to the fighting, the danger.
Achilles: I drink to mortal men and to the immortals. To my father and my mother. To what has been, the things we remember. And to the two of us.
Patroclus: Do you have so much to remember?
Achilles: No more than an old servant or a beggar. They've been young too.
Patroclus: You're rich, Achilles, and for you wealth is just a rag to be thrown away. It's only a man like you who can compare himself to a beggar. You, the man who stormed the citadel of Tenedos and tore the girdle of the Amazon and fought with bears on the hills. What other child was tempered by his mother on the fire? You are sword and spear, Achilles.
Achilles: Except for the fire, you've always been with me.
Patroclus: As the shadow after the cloud. As Pirithous with Theseus. One day, Achilles, perhaps you too will come down to Hades, to rescue me.
Achilles: It was better when there was no Hades. When we wandered through the forests and by the streams and washed the sweat off our bodies, when we were boys . . . Every gesture, then, every motion, was a game. We were memory and no one knew it. Were we brave? I don't know, it doesn't matter. I know that on the centaur's mountain it was summer, it was winter, it was all of life. We were immortal.
Patroclus: And then the worst came. Danger came, and death. And we left for Troy.
Achilles: There's no escaping fate. I never saw my son. Even Deidamia is dead. Oh why did I ever leave the island with the women?
Patroclus: Your memories would have been poor then, Achilles. Better to suffer than never to have lived.
Achilles: But how could I tell that life was to be like this? Oh Patroclus, this is what it is. We had to see the worst.
Patroclus: Tomorrow I'm going out to the fighting. With you.
Achilles: No, my day hasn't yet come.
Patroclus: Then I'll go alone. And to put you to shame, I'll take your spear.
Achilles: I wasn't born when they cut down the ash to make it. I wonder if the clearing in the woods is still there.
Patroclus: Come and fight, and you'll see that your spear is worthy of you. An enemy for every stump.
Achilles: The ships aren't burning yet.
Patroclus: I'll take your greaves and your shield. It will be like having you beside me. Nobody will be able to touch me. It'll be a kind of game.
Achilles: You really are like a boy that drinks, Patroclus.
Patroclus: When you were a boy, Achilles, running with the centaur, you didn't think of your memories. And you were no more immortal than you are tonight.
Achilles: Only the gods know destiny and live. But you play at destiny.
Patroclus: Another drink, Achilles. Then tomorrow, perhaps in Hades, I shall say, "Drink again, Achilles."
Everyone knows that after Oedipus had defeated the Sphinx and married Jocasta, he discovered who he was by questioning the shepherd who had saved him on Mt. Cithaeron. It was then that the prophecy that he was to kill his father and marry his mother was proved true. So Oedipus put out his eyes in horror and went away from Thebes and died a beggar.
Oedipus: I am not a man like other men, friend. I have been condemned by fate. I grew up on the mountains. The sight of a mountain or a tower excited me—or a town seen in the distance as I walked along in the dust. And I didn't know I was searching for my fate. These days I no longer see anything, and the mountains tire me. Everything I do is destiny. Do you understand?
Beggar: I'm old, Oedipus, and I've seen my share of destinies. But don't you think other people—even slaves, hunchbacks, cripples—would have liked to be the king of Thebes like you?
Oedipus: But that's not it, I tell you. My troubles go further back, to the time before I was born, when I might still have been a man like other men. But no, there was that destiny of mine. I had to end up at Thebes. I had to kill that man. Father those children. What's the point of doing something that was as good as done before you were born?
Beggar: There is a point, Oedipus. It's our fate, that's point enough for us. Leave the rest to the gods.
Oedipus: There are no gods in my life. My fate is crueler than the gods. I was ignorant, as all men are ignorant. I wanted to do good, I wanted to find some good—what, I didn't know—something to console me in the nights, a hope of doing something more tomorrow. Even the wicked can hope for that. But suspicion followed me everywhere, vague rumors, threats. At first it was only an oracle, an ill-omened word, and I hoped to escape. I lived all those years like a fugitive, looking behind me. I dared believe only in my own thoughts, in the instants of truce, in the unforeseen awakenings. It was like an ambush. I was always on the alert. And I didn't escape. It was precisely at that instant that my fate fulfilled itself.
Beggar: But Oedipus, it's the same for us all. This is what a fate means. Not that you haven't suffered terribly.
Oedipus: No, you don't understand. That's not it. I'd rather my sufferings had been far worse. I'd rather have been the lowest man on earth if only I could have willed what I did. Not merely suffered it when I wanted to do something else. What is Oedipus, what are all men on earth if our most secret desire already stirs in the blood before we were born, if everything has been spoken already?
Beggar: Even you, Oedipus, have surely known a few days of happiness. I don't mean when you overcame the Sphinx and all Thebes acclaimed you or when your first son was born, or when you sat in state among your councillors. Of course, you can't let yourself think of things like that. All the same, you've lived the life we all live. You were young, you saw the world, you laughed and joked and talked—like the wise man you were. You've enjoyed things, waking and sleeping and walking the roads. You're blind now, yes. But you've seen better days, Oedipus.
Oedipus: I'd be a fool to deny it. And my life has been a long one. But I tell you again: I was born to rule over you, to be king. To a sick man even the finest fruit tastes foul. And my sickness is destiny—the fear, the perpetual horror of doing precisely the thing you're fated to do. I knew, I've always known, that I was like the squirrel who thinks he's climbing up his cage when he's only making the treadmill turn. And I ask myself: who is Oedipus?
Beggar: And you can answer: a great man. That's how people used to talk about you in the streets of Thebes. And there was a man who left home and traveled about Boeotia and saw the sea and went to Delphi to consult the oracle—all this to achieve the same fate as you, Oedipus. Your fate was so exceptional, you see, that it altered other people's. But what about the man who's always lived in the same village, done the same job every day, had the usual children, the usual festivals, and dies at the same age as his father of the usual trouble?
Oedipus: I know I'm not a man like other men. But I also know that the lowest slave, the village idiot, if he knew what his life was going to be like would loathe even the poor pleasure it affords. And those poor devils who wanted to achieve my fate—do you think they escaped their own?
Beggar: Much can happen in a man's life, Oedipus. I myself was one of those men. I left home and traveled all over Greece. I consulted the oracle at Delphi and reached the sea. What I wanted was an encounter, to make my fortune, to meet the Sphinx . . . I knew you were happy in your palace at Thebes. I had my health then. And even if I didn't meet the Sphinx and no oracle had spoken of me, I've enjoyed the life I made for myself. You were my oracle, you transformed my life, my fate. Beggar or prince, what's the difference? Both of us have lived. Leave the rest to the gods.
Oedipus: You'll never know if what you've done is what you really wanted. But certainly there's something human, something uniquely human, in walking the open road. Tortuous, lonely, it is an image of the sorrow that eats us away. A sorrow which is almost relief, like rain after heat: so still, so tranquil that it seems as though it welled up from things, from the depth of the heart. This fatigue, this peace, after all the uproar of our destiny—they're perhaps the only things that are truly our own.
Beggar: There was a time when we didn't exist, Oedipus. That means that even the deepest desires of our heart, our blood, our moments of awakening, have sprung from nothing. Even your desire to escape destiny is perhaps destiny. It isn't we who made our own blood. It's enough to feel it and live like free men, as the oracle bids us.
Oedipus: Yes, as long as a man is still searching. You had the luck never to reach your goal. But the day comes when you go back to Cithaeron, you forget everything and the mountain seems to bring back your childhood. You look at it day after day and maybe you climb it. Then someone tells you that you were born up there. And everything crumbles.
Beggar: I understand, Oedipus. But we all have a mountain which is part of our childhood. And however far away we wander we always find ourselves walking its paths again. There we were made what we are.
Oedipus: Talking is one thing, friend, suffering another. But certainly talking brings a kind of comfort to the heart. Like walking the roads day and night as we do, with no goal in sight. Not like the travels of young men seeking their fortune. And you, you have talked a lot and seen a lot: did you really want to be king?
Beggar: Who knows? What I do know is that I had to change, to become something else. You look for one thing and find something quite different. But talking helps us find ourselves.
Oedipus: You have a family? Anyone at all?
Beggar: A family? I wouldn't be what I am.
Oedipus: Strange. To understand our neighbor we have to get away from him. And it's only with strangers, in chance encounters, that we really speak the truth. That's the way I should have lived—I, Oedipus, along the roads of Phocis and the Isthmus, when I still had my eyes. And not climbing mountains, not listening to oracles . . .
Beggar: But there's one encounter you've forgotten, Oedipus.
Oedipus: Which, friend?
Beggar: The encounter at the crossroads. When you met the Sphinx.
In world history, the era named after the Titans was peopled with men and monsters and with gods not yet organized on Olympus. But some people believe that only monsters existed then—that is, intelligences enclosed in misshapen animal bodies. Hence the suspicion that many of the monster-killers, beginning with Heracles, shed kindred blood.
Heracles: Prometheus, I've come to free you.
Prometheus: I was expecting you. I'm very grateful. You've had a long and fearful journey. But you don't know the meaning of fear.
Heracles: You're much worse off than I was, Prometheus.
Prometheus: You really don't know what fear is? No, I don't suppose you do.
Heracles: If fear is not doing what you ought to do, then I've never known fear. But I'm a man, and sometimes I'm not sure what I ought to do.
Prometheus: Man is pity and fear. Nothing else.
Heracles: Prometheus, you keep me here talking, and every moment that passes your torture continues. I've come to set you free.
Prometheus: I know, Heracles. I knew when you were still only a baby in swaddling clothes, I knew before you were even born. But I'm like someone who has suffered a great deal—in prison, in exile, from some danger. When the moment comes for him to go, he can hardly bring himself to leave the place where he's suffered so much.
Heracles: You mean you don't want to leave your rock?
Prometheus: I must leave it, Heracles—I said I was expecting you. But this is a hard moment, as hard for me as for the man in prison. You know this is a place of suffering?
Heracles: I can tell that by looking at you, Prometheus.
Prometheus: You suffer till you want to die. One day you will climb your own mountain and you will know this too. But I cannot die. For that matter, you won't die either, Heracles.
Heracles: What do you mean?
Prometheus: A god will lift you up. Or rather a goddess.
Heracles: I wouldn't know, Prometheus. Here, let me untie you.
Prometheus: Yes, you'll be like a baby, overflowing with gratitude and love. You'll forget your labors and Hera's cruelty and spend your days praising the gods for their wisdom and goodness.
Heracles: Why not? Doesn't everything we have come from them?
Prometheus: Oh Heracles, there's a wisdom more ancient than theirs. The world is old, older than this rock. Even they know that. Everything has a destiny. But the gods are young, almost as young as you are.
Heracles: Aren't you a god too?
Prometheus: I will be someday. So destiny wills. But once I was a Titan and I lived in a world without gods. Yes, there was such a world. Can you imagine it, Heracles?
Heracles: It was a world of rocks and mountains.
Prometheus: Every man has his rock—that is why I love men. It's only the gods who don't yet know the rock. They don't know how to laugh or cry. They smile at destiny.
Heracles: Who nailed you here, Prometheus? Tell me that.
Prometheus: Oh Heracles, the victor is always a god. So long as the Titan-man struggles and endures, he can laugh and cry. And if they nail you here, or you climb your mountain, that is the victory that fate allows you. We should be grateful for this. What is a victory but pity turned gesture, saving others at your own expense? Everyone works for others, under the law of destiny. Even I, Heracles, if I am freed today, owe it to someone.
Heracles: I've had harder tasks than this, Prometheus. Besides, I haven't freed you yet.
Prometheus: I'm not talking about you, Heracles. You're brave and compassionate. But you've already done your job.
Heracles: I haven't done anything, Prometheus.
Prometheus: You wouldn't be a man if you knew what was destined. But you live in a world of gods, and the gods have taken this knowledge from you too. You know nothing and you've already done everything. Remember the centaur.
Heracles: The beast-man I killed this morning?
Prometheus: Monsters can't be killed. Not even the gods can do that. A day will come when you'll think you've killed a second monster, far less human than the first, and all you'll have done is prepare your rock. Do you know who you struck down this morning?
Heracles: A centaur.
Prometheus: It was Chiron you killed, the good, compassionate Chiron, friend of Titans and men.
Heracles: Oh Prometheus . . .
Prometheus: Don't be troubled, Heracles. Our fates are fused. By the world's law, no one goes free unless another's blood is shed for him. The same will happen with you, on Mt. Oeta. And Chiron knew this.
Heracles: You mean he sacrificed himself?
Prometheus: What else? Just as once I knew that the theft of fire would mean my rock.
Heracles: Let me untie you, Prometheus. Then you can tell me all about Chiron and Mt. Oeta.
Prometheus: I'm free already. I could be released only if someone took my place. Chiron let himself be struck down by you; and you were sent by fate. But in this world born of chaos there is a law of justice. Pity, fear, and courage are only its instruments. Whatever is done must one day recur. The blood which you have shed, which you will shed will drive you up to Oeta to die your own death there. It will be the blood of the monsters which you now live to destroy. And the pyre you mount will burn with the fire I stole.
Heracles: But you told me I couldn't die.
Prometheus: Death entered this world with the gods. You mortals fear death because you know that the gods, by being gods, are immortal. But everyone has the death he deserves. Their day will come too.
Heracles: What do you mean, Prometheus?
Prometheus: Not everything can be explained. But always remember that monsters do not die. What dies is the fear they inspire. So with the gods: when men no longer fear them, they will vanish.
Heracles: And will the Titans return then?
Prometheus: Rocks and forests don't return. They are. What has been will be.
Heracles: And yet you Titans were changed by the gods. You too, Prometheus.
Prometheus: Titan is a name, nothing more. Understand me, Heracles. The world has its seasons, like the fields, like the earth. Winter returns, summer returns. How can we say that the forest dies, or remains the same? Before long, men will be the Titans.
Heracles: We mortals?
Prometheus: You mortals—or immortals. The name doesn't matter.
Sex, drunkenness, and blood always evoked the world below and, to a select few, gave promise of a blessèd life among the dead. But the Thracian Orpheus—singer, voyager to Hades, and victim, torn to pieces like Dionysus himself—promised even more.
Orpheus: This is how it happened. We were climbing the path through the Forest of Shadows. Cocytus, the Styx, Charon's skiff, and the screams of the damned were far behind us. Reflected on the leaves I could just make out the first glimmer of the sky. But I was still down there in Hades, and that chill was still with me. I was thinking that someday I would have to go back down, that what has been will be again. I was thinking of my life with her, how it had been before; someday it would have to finish again. What has been, will be. I was thinking of that cold, of that emptiness I had passed through and which she was carrying with her in her bones, in her marrow, her blood. Was it worth the anguish of coming back to life? I was thinking of this, when I saw the first glimmer of the light. Then I said, "Let's finish it once and for all." And I turned around. Eurydice disappeared like a snuffed candle. All I heard was a faint squeal, like a mouse skittering to its hole.
Bacchante: A strange story, Orpheus. I can barely believe it. People here used to say that you were loved by the gods and the Muses. And like me, many Bacchantes follow you because they know you're in love and unhappy. You were so much in love that you alone among men have gone through the gates of nothingness. No, I don't believe you, Orpheus. It isn't your fault if destiny misled you.
Orpheus: Destiny has nothing to do with it. My destiny does not mislead. It's absurd that after such a journey, after looking nothingness in the face, I should have turned around on a sudden impulse, or by mistake.
Bacchante: Here they say you did it for love.
Orpheus: Nobody loves the dead.
Bacchante: And yet you mourned her, wandering the mountains and hills—searching for her, calling her. You went down into Hades. Wasn't that love?
Orpheus: You claim to see things like a man. Then you must know that there's nothing a man can do with death. The Eurydice I mourned was a season of life. I was looking down there for something very different from my love. I was looking for a past which Eurydice knows nothing of. I understood this among the dead while I was singing my song. I saw the shades stiffen and stare vacantly, heard the lamentation stop. Persephone hid her face, and Hades himself, the inscrutable lord of the shadows, leaned forward like a mortal man and listened. I understood that the dead are nothing.
Bacchante: Grief has distracted your mind, Orpheus. Who wouldn't want his past again? Eurydice was almost reborn.
Orpheus: Reborn for what? Only to die all over again, Bacchante. To carry in her blood the horror of Hades and to tremble at my side night and day. You don't know what nothingness is.
Bacchante: Through your singing you had recovered the past. But instead you rejected it and destroyed it. No, I can't believe it.
Orpheus: Listen, Bacchante. Only in my song was the past real. No sooner had I started on the way back than that past vanished away, became memory, tasted of death. When I saw the first flicker of light, I jumped for joy like a child, barely believing it. It was joy for myself, selfish joy, joy for the world of the living. The season I had been searching for was there in that glimmer of light. The woman following me no longer mattered. My past was that first glimmer of light, it was the song, and the morning. And I turned around.
Bacchante: I can't believe it, Orpheus. How could you have endured such a loss? Those who saw your face when you came back were frightened. For you Eurydice was a season of life.
Orpheus: Nonsense. When Eurydice died, she became something else. The Orpheus who went down into Hades was no longer either husband or widower. The grief I felt at the same time was like the grief of a child—you smile when you remember it. That season is over. When I wept, I was no longer looking for her, but for myself. For a fate, if you like. I was listening to myself.
Bacchante: Many of us follow you because we believe in your sorrow. Have you misled us then?
Orpheus: Oh Bacchante, Bacchante, why won't you understand? My destiny does not mislead. I was looking for myself. What else can one look for?
Bacchante: We're simple people, Orpheus. Here we believe in love and death; we laugh and feel sorrow with others. Our most joyful festivals are those in which blood flows. The women of Thrace are not afraid of things like this.
Orpheus: If life is all you know, everything is beautiful. But once you've been among the dead . . . Believe me, you can't say that.
Bacchante: You weren't like this once. You didn't use to talk about nothingness. It's the encounter with death that makes us like gods. It was you yourself who taught us that ecstasy confounds life and death and makes us more than human . . . You've seen the festival.
Orpheus: It isn't the blood that matters, girl. Ecstasy and blood—these things aren't enough. A man's fate is not so easily defined. You don't know the answer, Bacchante.
Bacchante: You'd be nothing without us, Orpheus.
Orpheus: I've never denied that. What does it matter? I went down to Hades without you . . .
Bacchante: You went there to look for us—
Orpheus: But I didn't find you there. I wanted something very different. Something I found when I returned to the light.
Bacchante: There was a time when you sang of Eurydice on the mountains—
Orpheus: Time passes, Bacchante. The mountains are still there, Eurydice isn't. These things have a name, and their name is man. Invoking the gods of your rite is no help here.
Bacchante: You once invoked them too.
Orpheus: In life a man does everything. Believes everything. He even believes that his own blood runs in the veins of others. Or that what has been can be undone. He believes his ecstasy can shatter fate. I know all this, and it is nothing.
Bacchante: You don't know what to make of death, Orpheus, and yet death is your only thought. There was a time when our rite made us immortal.
Orpheus: Go on then, enjoy your rite. Only your ignorance makes it possible. Everyone must descend at least once into his own private hell. The ritual of my destiny ended in Hades, when I sang, as only I have the right to sing, of death and life.
Bacchante: You say your destiny doesn't mislead. What do you mean?
Orpheus: I mean that it's inside you, the fact of your being, deeper than blood, beyond all ecstasy. No god can touch it.
Bacchante: Perhaps, Orpheus. But we aren't looking for Eurydice. So why tell us that we all must go down to hell?
Orpheus: Every time you invoke a god, you meet death. And you go down to Hades to bring something back, to violate a destiny. You don't defeat the darkness, and you lose the light. You're torn apart, like a man possessed.
Bacchante: You're evil, Orpheus . . . You mean you lost the light?
Orpheus: I was almost lost, and then I sang. By comprehension I found myself.
Bacchante: If that's the price, is it worth it? There's a simpler way, the way of ignorance and joy. The god is like a lord, midway between life and death. You yield to his ecstasy, you're torn to pieces and you tear others to pieces. And we're reborn, Orpheus, every time, and we waken—like you when you returned to the light.
Orpheus: Don't talk of daylight, of waking. Few men know. Women like you don't know what it is.
Bacchante: Maybe this is why the women of Thrace follow you. For them you're like the god. You came down from the mountains. You sing songs of love and death . . .
Orpheus: Fool. But at least I can talk to you. Perhaps someday you'll be like a man.
Bacchante: So long as the women of Thrace—
Bacchante: Don't tear the god to pieces.
Zeus changed Lycaon, lord of Arcadia, into a wolf as punishment for inhumanity. But the myth does not say where and how Lycaon died.
1st Hunter: It's not the first time an animal's been killed.
2nd Hunter: But it's the first time we've killed a man.
1st Hunter: That's not our worry. The dogs flushed him. It's none of our business who he was. When we saw him turn at bay against the rocks, splashing in the mud, his white fur splattered with blood and his fangs redder than his eyes—who worried then about who he was and the old stories? He died savaging the javelin as though it were a dog's throat. Had the heart of an animal as well as the hide. It's been a long time since a wolf that size has been seen in these woods.
2nd Hunter: I worried about it. I remembered who he was. People were talking about him when I was a boy. Incredible stories of what happened when he was human—how he tried to murder the Lord of the Mountain. His pelt was the color of trampled snow—he was old, gray, a phantom—and his eyes were the color of blood.
1st Hunter: What's done is done. Let's skin him and get back down to the valley. Think of the feast they'll give us.
2nd Hunter: Let's leave at dawn. We'll make a fire tonight to keep ourselves warm. The dogs will watch the corpse.
1st Hunter: It isn't a corpse, it's a carcass. But we'd better skin him now, or he'll be hard as a rock tomorrow.
2nd Hunter: What do you think? Should we bury him after we skin him? He was a man once. It's his animal blood that's soaked the ground. And once he's skinned, there'll be nothing left but a little naked pile of bone and flesh—like an old man's or a child's.
1st Hunter: He's old all right. He was a wolf before there were men in these mountains. He was older than the lichens on the trees. Who remembers now that he had a name, was somebody? If you ask me, he should have died a long time ago.
2nd Hunter: But can we leave his body unburied? This was Lycaon. He was a hunter like us.
1st Hunter: Anyone of us could meet his death up here on the mountain and nobody but the rain or the buzzards would ever find him. If he was really a hunter, he met a bad end.
2nd Hunter: He fought like an old man, with his eyes. But you don't really believe he was ever a man, do you? You don't believe he had a name. If you did, you wouldn't want to insult his corpse. You'd know that he too dishonored the dead, that he too lived brutally and cruelly—and this was why the Lord of the Mountain turned him into a wild animal.
1st Hunter: They say he roasted men alive.
2nd Hunter: I know men who've done much less, and except for howling and skulking in the forest, they're wolves. Are you so sure of yourself that you don't sometimes feel a Lycaon in you? Most of us have days when, if a god touched us, we'd howl and tear out the throat of anyone who got in our way. The only thing that saves us is waking up and finding we have hands and a mouth and human speech. But for him there was no escape—he left the eyes and the homes of men behind him forever. Now that he's dead, let him lie in peace.
1st Hunter: Peace wasn't what he wanted. Peace for him was curling up among the rocks and howling at the moon. I've lived in the woods long enough to know that wild things have no terror of the holy: animals look at heaven only to yawn, the trees rustle their leaves. And in one respect, they're like gods: they have no sense of guilt.
2nd Hunter: To hear you talk, being a wolf is a fine fate.
1st Hunter: I wouldn't know whether it's fine or not, but I do know this—I never heard of a plant or an animal that wanted to turn into a human being. Whereas these woods are full of men and women who were touched by divinity and became bush or bird or wolf. No matter how evil they were or what crimes they committed, their hands were cleansed of blood, they were freed from guilt and hope, they forgot they were humans. Isn't that what it is to be a god?
2nd Hunter: A punishment is a punishment. But it removes the sinner's hopes and fears, and makes destiny of his remorse. Even if the animal has no memory of the past and lives solely for his prey, for death, the thing he was remains. Over there on the hill old Callisto lies buried. Who remembers what her crime was now? The lords of the sky punished her severely. Think of it. A beautiful woman, they say she was, turned into a growling, sobbing bear. She was afraid of the dark and wanted to go home. There's an animal that had no peace. Her son came and killed her with his lance, and the gods didn't move a finger. Some say the gods repented later and turned her into a tangle of stars. But the body remained, and that was buried.
1st Hunter: And so? I know the old stories too. It wasn't the gods' fault if Callisto didn't know how to accept her fate. It's like someone who wears mourning to a feast, or gets drunk at a funeral. If I were a wolf, I'd be a wolf even in my sleep.
2nd Hunter: Because you don't know the way of the blood. The gods add nothing, take nothing away. All they do is touch you lightly—and nail you where you are. What once was wish or choice, you find is fate. That means becoming a wolf. But something of you remains, the you who ran from the house, the old Lycaon in us all.
1st Hunter: You mean that Lycaon suffered like a man when the dogs sank their teeth in his throat?
2nd Hunter: He was old, on his last legs. You said just now that he couldn't defend himself. While he was dying there on the rocks, unable to speak a word, I thought of those poor old beggars and how they stop short just outside the gate while the dogs strain at their leashes trying to get at them. This is something we've seen even here. Admitted, he lived like a wolf. But when he died and looked at us, he knew he was a man. His eyes said he was.
1st Hunter: Friend, the last thing he saw was men hunting him down. Do you think it matters to him whether he rots underground, like a man?
2nd Hunter: There's a peace beyond death. A common lot. It matters to the living, it matters to the wolf in us all. It was our fate to kill him. The least we can do is honor custom, and leave the insults to the gods. Let's go home with clean hands.
Phrygia and Lydia were countries about which the Greeks
liked to tell terrible stories. There can be no doubt
that they all took place in Greece, but that was in earlier
No need to say who won the reaping contest.
Lityerses: Here's the field, stranger. Don't think of leaving. We know what hospitality is as well as you Greeks. You're our guest and we want you to stay on here. You've eaten with us, you've drunk our wine, and now these fields of ours will drink your blood. There'll be a bumper crop in the Meander Valley next year.
Heracles: You must have had quite a number of killings in these fields?
Lityerses: Oh, a fair number. But nobody with a build like yours. We won't need anyone but you this year. Your skin's as ruddy as fresh-turned earth, and your eyes are like flowers. You'll fertilize these fields all right.
Heracles: Who taught you this practice of yours?
Lityerses: This is the way it's always been. If a man doesn't feed the earth, why should the earth feed him?
Heracles: This year's crop looks like a splendid one. The wheat stands as high as the reaper's shoulders. Who was the victim?
Lityerses: We couldn't get any foreigners last year. So we had to make do with an old slave and a goat. It was flabby blood. The earth barely felt it. Look how thin the ears are. Before cutting up the body, we have to sweat him in the sun till he comes to a lather. And that's why we're going to put you to work, reaping and bringing in the sheaves until you're running with a sweat. And then, at the last minute, when your blood is boiling pure and foaming like a living thing—that's the moment when we'll slit your throat. Yessir. You're a strong young man.
Heracles: Your gods approve of this practice?
Lityerses: Above this field there are no gods. There is only the earth, the Mother, the Cave. She's always waiting, and she comes to life when the blood streams down to her. Tonight you'll go down to her cave, stranger.
Heracles: Don't any of you Phrygians ever visit the cave?
Lityerses: We leave it when we're born—there's no hurry about going back.
Heracles: I think I understand. Then you manure your gods with human blood?
Lityerses: Not the gods, stranger. The earth is our god. Don't you worship the earth where you live?
Heracles: Our gods aren't underground. They rule the sea and the earth, the forest and the cloud, as a shepherd keeps his flock or a master governs his servants. They live apart, on the mountains, like the thoughts you see in a man's eye when he speaks to you, or like the clouds in the sky. They don't demand blood.
Lityerses: Stranger, I don't understand. For us the cloud and the mountain and the cave all have the same name, they're all one. The blood the Mother has given us we give back to her in our sweat and death and dung. You must come from a long way off, stranger. Those gods of yours don't make sense.
Heracles: Their breed is immortal. They have conquered the forest, and the earth and its monsters. As for men like you who feed the earth with blood, they have driven them down to the cave.
Lityerses: I'm not saying your gods don't know their business. They must have fed the earth with a lot of blood too. Besides, no famished earth ever brought forth a man like you.
Heracles: Lityerses, shall we start reaping?
Lityerses: You're a strange fellow. You know, this is the first time anyone ever said that to me. Aren't you afraid of dying among the windrows? I suppose you think you'll run off through the furrows like a squirrel or a quail?
Heracles: If I understand you, this isn't dying; it's a return to the mother, a guest's gift of friendship. All these peasants sweating in the fields will hail the man who gives his blood for them. They'll offer him songs and prayers. It's a great honor.
Lityerses: Say, stranger, thanks. That slave we killed last year didn't talk like that, I can tell you! He was an old man, on his last legs, but we had to tie him up with withies anyway. Even so, he thrashed about trying to dodge the sickles for so long that he'd lost all his blood before he fell.
Heracles: That won't happen this time, Lityerses. But when you've killed the poor man, what do you do with him?
Lityerses: His flesh is hacked off while he's still alive. And then we scatter the pieces over the fields to waken the Mother and touch her into life. We wrap the head in sheaves and flowers, then we sing and dance and throw it into the Meander. She's cloud and running water too.
Heracles: You're a wise man, Lityerses, and I can see why you're king of the fields at Celaenae. But how about Pessinus? Are there killings there too?
Lityerses: They kill people everywhere, stranger. Our wheat can only grow from earth which has been touched to life. The earth is a living thing. She too must be fed.
Heracles: But why do you always kill strangers? Surely the earth, the cave from which you came, would sooner take back its own, wouldn't it? Don't you like the bread and wine from your own fields best?
Lityerses: You know, I like you, stranger. You might almost be one of us. But ask yourself why we endure the sweat and the toil of working these fields. To live—right? Well then, it's only fair that we stay alive and enjoy the harvest, and let the other people die. But I suppose you wouldn't know. You're no peasant.
Heracles: But wouldn't it be even better to find a way of putting an end to the killings and letting everyone, strangers and your own people alike, enjoy the harvest? Wouldn't it be better to have one last killing which of itself would make the earth and the clouds and the strength of the sun forever fruitful?
Lityerses: You're no countryman, anyone can see that. Why, you don't even know that every solstice the earth begins anew, and the year in its course wears everything away.
Heracles: But there must be someone who's been nourished, from generation to generation, by the sap of every season, someone so rich and strong and full-blooded that he could at one stroke renew the earth forever?
Lityerses: You make me laugh, stranger. You know, you might almost be talking about me. My family's the only one in Celaenae that's been here for generations. I'm the king here, and you know it.
Heracles: Yes, you're the man I had in mind, Lityerses. So let's start reaping. I came from Greece for this deed of blood. We'll reap, Lityerses, and tonight you'll go down to the cave.
Lityerses: You want to kill me? On my own field?
Heracles: I want to fight you. To the death.
Lityerses: You sure you can handle a sickle, stranger?
Heracles: Don't worry, Lityerses. Let's get going.
Lityerses: You know, stranger, you look strong . . .
Heracles: Let's get going, Lityerses.
Even the Greeks practiced human sacrifice. Every peasant culture has done so, and all cultures were at one time peasant cultures.
Son: The whole mountain's blazing!
Father: Oh, it's nothing much, son. Over on the Cithaeron, now, that'll be something to see. Or pastures are too high this year. Have you rounded up the animals?
Son: Our bonfire's so small nobody can see it.
Father: We've kindled it, that's what counts.
Son: Look, there are more fires than stars!
Father: Throw on the coals, son.
Son: Here goes.
Father: O Zeus, accept this offering of milk and honey. We're just poor shepherds, lord, and the sheep aren't ours to give. And may this blazing fire drive away our troubles. And as this smoke coils up over this fire, so may the rain clouds gather over our fields.
Quick, son, sprinkle on the water. They'll be killing a calf on one of the big farms tonight. That'll bring rain for us. If it rains in one place, it rains everywhere.
Son: Are those fires down there, dad, or stars?
Father: Hey, look what you're doing. You've got to sprinkle over this way, towards the sea. That's where the rain comes from.
Son: If it rains in one place, does it rain everywhere? Even at Thespiae? Even at Thebes? They don't have any sea at Thebes.
Father: But they've got pastures, stupid. That's why they have wells. They've lit bonfires tonight too.
Son: And what about after Thespiae? And after that? Where the people live who walk all night and all day and never get out of the mountains? I've heard that it doesn't ever rain up there.
Father: There are fires burning everywhere tonight.
Son: Why isn't it raining now? They've kindled the fires.
Father: Because it's a holiday, son. Rain would put the bonfires out. Wouldn't do anyone a drop of good. It'll rain tomorrow.
Son: And it's never rained on the bonfires while they were still burning?
Father: Who knows, son. They were lighting these bonfires long before you or I were born. Same night every year. Come to think of it, there was one time when it did rain on the bonfire. Or so they say.
Son: It really did?
Father: Yes, but it was a long time ago. People were better than they are now, and even kings' sons were shepherds in those days. This whole country looked like a threshing floor then, threshed neat and clean, and it did what king Athamas told it to do. People worked and lived their lives, they didn't have to hide the young goats from the landowners. One year, they say, the August dog days brought a spell of heat so bad that the fields and the wells dried up and the people were dying. They lit the bonfires, but it didn't do a bit of good. So Athamas took counsel. But he was an old man, and he'd married a young wife not so long back. She ordered him around, the way those young women do. And she kept telling him that this was a time for strong measures if he didn't want to lose credit. I suppose you want to know why they didn't pray and sprinkle water? Well, they did. Why didn't they sacrifice a calf and a bull, lots of bulls? Well, they did. And what happened? Nothing, that's what.
So they had to sacrifice his sons. Not his sons by her. No sir. He didn't have any sons by her. No, these were two grown-up sons by his first wife—they worked out in the fields all day long. Well, Athamas, the crazy fool, decided to do it. Go get them, he said. But the kings' sons aren't so stupid, you know. So they took off. Then what? Well, as soon as some god heard what was happening, he sent the rain clouds down. And the minute the boys took off, those clouds disappeared. The next thing was that witch of a wife of his was saying, "You see! I told you so. The clouds were piling up already. We've got to kill some one." Well, she kept on like this till the people decided to take Athamas and burn him alive. They made the bonfire and lit it. They brought in Athamas, tied up and covered with flowers like a sacred ox. But suddenly, just when they were about to throw him on to the fire, the sky turned black. Thunder and lightning, and then the rain came flooding down. The harvest was saved. The rain put out the fire, and what do you think that old fool Athamas does? He forgives them all, even his wife. Look out for women, son. It's easier to tell a snake from his missus than know what's going on in a woman's mind.
Son: But what happened to the king's sons?
Father: Never heard of again. But two young fellows like that will always make out.
Son: But if men were good in those days, dad, why did they want to burn the two boys?
Father: Because it was August, silly. You don't know what the real dog days are like. But I know them, and your grandfather knew them. Compared to them, winter's nothing. Winter's rough, sure, but you always know it's doing the crops good. Not the dog days. The dog days mean drought. Everything dies, and thirst and hunger do things to a man. A man who hasn't eaten wants to pick a fight. And don't forget that in those days people got along with each other. Everyone had his bit of land, they were decent, prosperous people. Then suddenly the wells go dry, the wheat burns up, people go hungry and thirsty. Before long they turn into wild animals.
Son: Then they must have been bad.
Father: No worse than we are. The dog days are our masters now, and there's no rain can set us free from them.
Son: I don't like these bonfires. Not now. What good do they do the gods? Is it true there were people burnt on them once?
Father: Oh, not just anyone. They burnt crippled children, loafers, idiots. Useless people, or people who stole wheat. And that was enough for the gods. Good or bad, it always rained.
Son: What did the gods like about it? I mean, if it rained anyway. And what about Athamas? Didn't the gods put out the fire?
Father: Look, the gods are our masters. They're like the landowners—they're our masters too. You think they'd let one of their kind burn? Not them. They help each other out. But with us, it's different. Nobody helps us. Rain or shine, what do the gods care? We're lighting the bonfires tonight. Brings on the rain, they say. But do the landowners care? Ever seen one of them come down to the fields?
Son: No, never.
Father: Figure it out for yourself. Let's suppose a bonfire can make it rain, and burning some useless loafer can save the harvest. Well, how many owners' houses would you have to burn, how many owners would you have to kill in the streets to bring some justice back to the world and make us our own masters again?
Son: What about the gods?
Father: What have the gods got to do with it?
Son: Didn't you say the gods and the owners are in it together? They're masters.
Father: Yes, they're the masters. Well, we'll give them their goat. What else can we do? We'll burn the useless loafers, the thieves who steal our wheat! We'll make a real bonfire.
Son: I wish it was morning, dad. These gods frighten me.
Father: You're right, son. That's why we have to try and get the gods on our side. At your age it would be a bad thing to forget what the gods are like.
Son: I want to forget. The gods aren't just. Why do they have to burn people alive?
Father: They wouldn't be gods if they didn't. They don't have to work—how else do you expect them to spend their time? In the days before there were landowners and there was still some justice in the world, someone had to be killed every once in a while to keep the gods happy. That's the way they are. But nowadays they don't need that sort of thing any more. There's so many of us being miserable that the gods are happy just sitting there, watching us. That satisfies them.
Son: So they're the useless loafers!
Father: You're right, son. Useless loafers is just what they are.
Son: What about the crippled children? What did they do when they were burned? Did they scream?
Father: It's not the screaming that matters, son, it's who does the screaming. Crippled people or criminals—they're both useless. But when a man with children of his own sees a lot of loafers getting fat at his expense, that's what hurts. That's the injustice.
Son: It makes me shiver when I think of the bonfires they had in the old days. Look down there. Bonfires burning everywhere.
Father: It wasn't the way you think, son. There wasn't a boy burned on every bonfire. They did it then as we do now with the goats. Figure it out for yourself. If one goat makes it rain, there's rain enough for everybody. One man was enough for a whole mountainside, a whole village.
Son: I don't want to think about it. I won't. If that's the way we treated each other, then the landowners have every right to eat us alive. The gods are right to watch us suffer. We're evil, we're all evil.
Father: Wet down the branches, son, and sprinkle on the water. You're too young to understand. Who are you to be talking about what's right and wrong? No, stupid, over there, towards the sea.
O Zeus, accept this offering . . .
Everybody knows that when Odysseus was shipwrecked on his way home from Troy, he spent nine years on the island of Ogygia, where his only companion was Calypso, an ancient goddess.
Calypso: Odysseus, our situations are much the same. You want to live on an island, and so do I. You've seen and suffered everything. Someday perhaps I'll tell you what I've suffered. We're both tired of a burdensome duty. Why go on? What do you care if this island isn't the one you were looking for? Nothing ever happens here. A bit of land and a horizon. Here you can live forever.
Odysseus: An immortal life.
Calypso: Immortality means accepting the moment, no longer recognizing a tomorrow. But if you like the word, use it. Have you really reached that point?
Odysseus: I used to think the man who wasn't afraid of death was immortal.
Calypso: No, the immortal is the man who doesn't hope to live. The man you almost are. You too have suffered a great deal. But why this eagerness to return home? You're still restless. Why do you wander off by yourself among the rocks and talk to the sea?
Odysseus: Would it upset you if I left tomorrow?
Calypso: You want to know too much, dear. Let's say that I'm immortal. But if you don't renounce your memories and your dreams, if you don't put your longing aside and accept the horizon, you'll never escape that fate you know so well.
Odysseus: Always the same advice. Accept the horizon. And what will it get me?
Calypso: Peace and quiet, Odysseus. Have you ever wondered why is it that even we gods want sleep? Have you ever asked yourself where the old gods go, the gods whom the world has forgotten? Why it is that they sink deep into time, like stones in the ground, though they live forever? Why I am, who Calypso is?
Odysseus: I asked you if you were happy.
Calypso: It isn't that, Odysseus. The air, even the air of this desert island, which quivers now with the dull roar of the sea and the cries of the birds, is too empty. In this emptiness there is nothing to be regretted, nothing at all. But haven't you felt it too—on certain days, a silence, a pause, like the trace of an old tension and presence, long since vanished?
Odysseus: So you talk to the rocks too?
Calypso: It's a silence, I tell you. Something remote, almost dead. Something which has been and which will never be again, from the old world of the gods when anything I did was destiny. I had terrible names, Odysseus. The earth and sea obeyed me. Then I grew tired. Time passed. I lost the will to move. A few of us resisted the new gods; I let my names sink deep into time. Everything changed and everything remained the same; it wasn't worth the trouble to contest destiny with the new gods. From that time on I knew my horizon and why the Old Ones hadn't fought at our side.
Odysseus: But weren't you immortal?
Calypso: Was and am, Odysseus. I have no hope of dying. And no hope of living either. I accept the moment. You mortals accept something like it, old age and regret. Why won't you bow your head as I have, here on this island?
Odysseus: I would, if I thought you were resigned. Once you were mistress of all things. But now you need me, a mortal, to help you endure,
Calypso: The favor is mutual, Odysseus. The only real silences are shared.
Odysseus: It isn't enough that I'm here with you now?
Calypso: You aren't here with me, Odysseus. You don't accept the horizon of this island. There is something you regret.
Odysseus: What I regret is a living part of myself, just as your silence is a part of you. What has changed for you since that day when earth and sea obeyed you? You noticed that you were alone, that you were tired and had forgotten your names. Nothing has been taken from you. What you wanted to be, you are.
Calypso: What I am is almost nothing, dear. Almost mortal, almost a shade like you. It is all a long sleep which began who knows when. And you arrived in this sleep like a dream. I am afraid of the dawn, of waking up. If you leave me, I will waken.
Odysseus: That's no way for a goddess to be talking.
Calypso: I'm afraid of waking up, as you are afraid of death. Yes. Once I was dead, now I know it. The only thing left of me in this island was the voice of the wind and the sea. Oh, I didn't suffer, I was asleep. But when you came, you brought another island with you.
Odysseus: I've been looking too long for that island. You don't know what it's like, catching sight of land and then shutting your eyes in order to deceive yourself. I can't accept, can't be silent.
Calypso: But according to you men, Odysseus, no good ever came of recovering what you have lost. The past does not come back. Nothing resists the passing of time. You are a man who has looked at Ocean, the monsters, the Elysian Fields. Will you still be able to recognize human houses, your own home?
Odysseus: It was you who said I carried an island with me.
Calypso: Oh, but changed, lost, a silence. The echo of the sea between two rocks, or a wisp of smoke. No one can share it with you. The houses will look like an old man's face. Your words will have a meaning which is not their own. You will be lonelier than you were at sea.
Odysseus: At least I'll know that's where my journey ends.
Calypso: It's no good, Odysseus. If you don't stop now, here and now, you'll never stop again. What you do now, you will do forever. You must break with your fate once and for all; you must stop and let yourself sink deep into time . . .
Odysseus: I'm not immortal.
Calypso: You will be, if you listen to me. What is eternal life if it's not accepting the moment that comes and the moment that goes? Drunkenness, pleasure, and death have no other aim. What else has your restless wandering been until now?
Odysseus: If I knew, I would have stopped. But you forget something.
Odysseus: The object of my quest is inside me. And so is yours.
Hippolytus, the chaste huntsman of Troezen, met a
terrible death through the anger of Aphrodite. But
Diana restored him to life and carried him off to
Italy (Hesperia). Here in the Alban Hills she attached
him to her cult and gave him the name of Virbius.
Virbius had children by the nymph Aricia.
For the ancients the West was—as in the Odyssey—the land of the dead.
Virbius: I'll admit that I was glad to come here. This lake reminded me of the old sea. And I was happy to live your life, to be dead to the world, to serve you in the forest and on the mountains. Here the wild animals, the peaks, the peasants know nothing but you. It is a place where things have no past, a place of the dead.
Virbius: Hippolytus is dead. Virbius is the name you gave me.
Diana: Hippolytus, don't you mortals forget your lives even when you're dead?
Virbius: Listen. So far as the world is concerned, I am dead; I am your servant. When you snatched me away from Hades and brought me back to the light, all I wanted was to move, to breathe, and worship you. You set me here where earth and heaven blaze with light, where everything is vigorous and green, everything is new. Even the night here is fresh and deep, fresher and deeper than it was at home. Here time doesn't pass. There are no memories. And you are the only power here.
Diana: You're drenched with memories, Hippolytus. But suppose I admit for a moment that this is a land of the dead. What do the dead in Hades do but rehearse the past?
Virbius: Hippolytus is dead, I tell you. And this lake that looks so much like the sky has never heard of Hippolytus. If I weren't here, this country would be exactly as it is now. It looks like some imagined place, a distant land glimpsed through the clouds. When I was still a boy, I thought that if I climbed to the other side of my native mountains, far off in the distance where the sun sets—all I had to do was keep on walking—I would come to the land of childhood, where it was always morning, the land of the hunt and perpetual play. A slave said to me, "Beware of what you desire, my boy. The gods always grant it." It was this place I wanted. I didn't know I wanted to die.
Diana: Merely another memory. Why are you unhappy?
Virbius: Oh, Wild One, I don't know. It seems only yesterday that I opened my eyes here. I know that a great deal of time has passed, and that these mountains, this lake, these great trees are just the same, mute and unmoving. Who is Virbius? Am I any different from a boy who wakes up every morning and goes back to his games as though time had no existence?
Diana: You are Hippolytus, the boy who died to follow me. And now you live beyond time. You have no need of memories. Those who live with me live for the day, like the hare, like the stag, like the wolf. They flee and are pursued forever. This is no country of the dead, but the living twilight of an enduring morning. You have no need of memories because this is the only life you have ever known.
Virbius: If anything, this country is more vivid than my own. In everything, in the sun too, there is a radiance of light as though it came from within, a vigor that seems somehow untouched by the days. What does this land of Hesperia mean to you gods?
Diana: Nothing different from any other country anywhere. We don't live on past or future. For us each day is like the first day. What seems to you a vast silence is our sky.
Virbius: But I have lived in places you prefer to this. I've gone hunting on Didymus; I've run along the beaches of Troezen, places as poor and as wild as myself. But this inhuman silence, this life beyond life—I've never breathed anything like this before. What makes it so lonely here?
Diana: Lonely, child? A place where no man has ever set foot will always be a land of the dead. From your seas and islands other men will come, and they will think they are entering Hades. And there are other countries even farther away . . .
Virbius: Other lakes, other mornings like these. The water is bluer than the plums among the leaves. I seem to be a shadow among the shadows of the trees. The more I warm myself in this sun and take nourishment from this earth, the more I seem to dissolve into rustlings and drops of water, in the sound of the lake, and the growls of the forest. Behind the trunks of the trees, in the stones, in my own sweat, there is a remoteness, a distance.
Diana: These are the anxieties of your childhood.
Virbius: I'm not a child any more. I know you, and I have been in Hades. My own country is as far away as those clouds up there. Look, I slip between trees and objects as though I were a cloud.
Diana: You're happy, Hippolytus. If happiness is possible for man, you are happy.
Virbius: The boy I was, the boy who died, is happy. You saved him, and I thank you. But the man who was reborn, your servant, the fugitive from Hades who guards your oaks and your forests—he isn't happy because he doesn't even know if he exists. Who answers his voice, who speaks to him? Does his today add anything to his yesterday?
Diana: Is that all, Virbius? You want company?
Virbius: You know what I want.
Diana: Mortals always end by wanting that. Why? Is it something in your blood?
Virbius: Are you asking me what blood is?
Diana: Sacrificial blood has the savor of god in it. How many times have I seen you pull back the head of a kid or the wolf, slash its throat, and plunge your hands into its blood! I liked you for that. But that other blood, your own blood, which swells your veins and blazes in your eyes—I'm less familiar with that blood. I know that for you it is life and destiny.
Virbius: I have already shed that blood. And feeling it run restless and confused in me today is my proof of being alive. The light of the lake, the green thrust of the trees—these are not enough for me. They are things like clouds, everlasting wanderers of morning and evening, guardians of the horizons, shapes of Hades. Only other blood can still my own. Blood running restlessly, and then stilled. Sated.
Diana: In short, you want to sacrifice?
Virbius: That is what I want, Wild One. Before, when I was Hippolytus, I sacrificed wild animals. They were enough. But here in this land of the dead, even the animals dissolve between my hands like clouds. It is my fault, I think. But I need the closeness of warm blood, blood of my own kind. I need to have a voice and a fate. O Wild One, grant me this.
Diana: Beware, Virbius-Hippolytus. You have been happy.
Virbius: I don't care, lady. I've looked at my reflection in the lake too often. It's life I want, not happiness.
When Odysseus came to Circe's island, he had been warned of the danger and immunized, magically, against her spells. But the witch Circe—an ancient Mediterranean goddess who had come down in the world—had known for some time that an Odysseus would enter her life. In this respect Homer's account leaves something to be desired.
Circe: Believe me, Leucò, I didn't understand all at once. Sometimes you get the formula wrong, your mind suddenly goes blank. And yet I'd touched him. The truth is I'd been expecting him so long that I wasn't thinking about it anymore. The moment I understood—he made a sudden movement and reached for his sword—I almost smiled, I felt so happy and at the same time disappointed. I even thought I could avoid the whole affair and escape what had been fated. After all, I said to myself, Odysseus is a man who wants to go home. I thought about putting him in a boat immediately. There he was, Leucò my dear, waving that sword of his, ridiculous and clever as only a mortal can be—and I had to smile and look at him square in the eye the way I do with them, then look surprised and draw back. I felt as though I were a girl again—when we were girls and they told us what we'd do when we were grown up, and we all giggled. The whole thing was like a dance. He took me by the wrists, raised his voice, I blushed—I paled inwardly, Leucò—I clasped his knees and went into my act. "Who are you, what land gave birth to you . . ." Poor fellow, I thought to myself, he doesn't know what's in store for him. He was a big man, curly haired, handsome, Leucò. What a wonderful boar he would have made—or maybe a wolf.
Leucothea: But did you tell him all this, during the year he spent with you?
Circe: Oh child, you don't speak of the things of destiny with a mortal. They think they've said the last word when they call it the Iron Chain, the Fatal Decree and so on. They call us the Fatal Ladies, you know.
Leucothea: They don't know how to smile.
Circe: Yes. Some of them can laugh in the face of destiny, but they laugh afterwards. At the time they have to be serious about it or they die. They don't know how to joke about divine things, they don't have the sense of playing a role, as we do. Their life is so short they can't bear to do things already done or already known. If I talked to Odysseus in this vein, he looked mystified and started talking about Penelope. And he was a brave man.
Leucothea: How tiresome.
Circe: Yes, but you see I really understood him. With Penelope he didn't have to smile; with her everything, even their daily meal, was serious and unrehearsed—they might have been preparing themselves for death. You can't imagine the way death fascinates them. They're destined to die, of course, it's a repetition, something they know in advance. And yet they deceive themselves into thinking that it changes something.
Leucothea: Then why didn't he want to become a boar?
Circe: Oh Leucò, he didn't even want to become a god, though Calypso, that silly creature, kept nagging him about it. But that was the way Odysseus was, neither boar nor god, just man, a very intelligent man and clever in the face of destiny.
Leucothea: Tell me, my dear, did you enjoy yourself with him?
Circe: Something occurs to me, Leucò. Not one of us goddesses has ever tried to become mortal, no one has ever wanted it. Yet this might be the new thing, the thing that might break the chain.
Leucothea: Would you like to?
Circe: Really, Leucò. Odysseus didn't understand why I smiled. Often he didn't even understand that I was smiling. I thought once I had explained to him why animals are more like us immortals than a brave, intelligent man can be. An animal eats, it mounts, it has no memory. He answered that at home there was a dog waiting for him, a poor dog that may have been dead already. And he told me its name. That dog had a name, Leucò.
Leucothea: They give us names too, you know.
Circe: Odysseus gave me many names when he was in bed with me. There was a new one every time. At first it was like the noise an animal makes, a boar or a wolf, but bit by bit he himself realized that he was spelling out the syllables of a single word. He called me by the names of all the goddesses, of our sisters, he called me by the names of the Mother of all living things. It was as though he were struggling with me, with fate. He wanted to name me, to hold me, make me mortal. He wanted to break something. He brought intelligence and courage to the job—he had both—but he could never smile. He never understood the smile of the gods, the way we, who know destiny, smile.
Leucothea: No man understands us, or the animals either. I've seen these men of yours—transformed into wolves or wild boars they still howl like real men. It's tormenting. They're so crude in spite of their intelligence. Have you played with them much?
Circe: I amuse myself with them, Leucò, as best I can. I wasn't granted a god in my bed, and the only man was Odysseus. All the others turn into animals at my touch; they go crazy and come after me, like wild beasts. Their frenzy is no better and no worse than the love of a god. But with them I mustn't even smile. I feel them mount me and then run off back to their lairs. I don't lower my eyes.
Leucothea: And Odysseus . . .
Circe: I don't ask myself their names. Do you know who Odysseus was?
Leucothea: Yes, Circe?
Circe: One evening he described his arrival at Aeaea. His men were frightened, they posted guards by the ships, and he told me how all night long, stretched out their on the shore under their cloaks, they listened to the roaring and the snarling. Then when the sun rose, they saw a spiral of smoke beyond the woods and they shouted for joy as they recognized their country and their homes. He smiled as he told me about this—in the way men smile—sitting beside me in front of the fire. He said he wanted me to forget who I was and where he was. That evening he called me Penelope.
Leucothea: Oh Circe, how silly!
Circe: I was silly too, Leucò, and I told him to cry.
Leucothea: Why, the idea.
Circe: No, but he didn't cry. He knew that Circe loves wild animals, who don't cry. He cried later on, the day I told him of the long journey still to make and the descent into Avernus and the blackness of Ocean. But they were the kind of tears that clean your eyes and give you strength—I too can understand them. But that evening, laughing strangely, he spoke to me about his childhood and his destiny, and he asked about me. He spoke playfully, of course.
Leucothea: I don't understand.
Circe: His mouth and his voice laughed, but his eyes were full of memories. And then he told me to sing. And as I sang, I went to the loom, and I put his home and his childhood into that harsh voice of mine, I gentled it, I was his Penelope. He took his head between his hands.
Leucothea: Who had the last laugh?
Circe: No one, Leucò. That evening, I was mortal too. I had a name: Penelope. That was the only time I looked my fate in the face without laughing, the only time I lowered my eyes.
Leucothea: And this man loved a dog?
Circe: A dog, a woman, his son, and a boat to sail the sea. He never looked on the endless cycle of days as destiny, he ran towards his death knowing what it was, and enriched the earth with words and actions.
Leucothea: I don't have eyes like you, Circe, but here I feel it's my turn to smile. You were naive. If you'd told him that the wolves and boars mounted you like an animal, he'd have turned into an animal himself.
Circe: I did tell him. His mouth contracted, only a little though, and after a while he said—"So long as they're not my men."
Leucothea: So he was jealous.
Circe: No, not jealous. He was loyal to them. He understood everything, that man, except the way we gods smile. The day when he wept in my bed, it wasn't because he was afraid, but because his last journey was imposed on him by fate, it was something he knew in advance. "Why trouble to make the journey, in that case?" he asked me as he buckled on his sword and walked down to the sea. I brought him the black lamb and while his men were weeping, he noticed a flight of swallows over the roof. "So they're going too," he said. "They don't know what they're doing. But you know, lady."
Leucothea: Is that all he said?
Circe: That was all.
Leucothea: Circe, why didn't you kill him?
Circe: I'm a real fool. Sometimes I forget that we immortals know. Then I'm as happy as though I were still a girl. As though all these things happened to the great gods, to the Olympians, and happened in this way, inexorably, but absurdly, unforeseen. What I never manage to foresee is precisely this, that I have foreseen, that I always know what I'm going to do and say. And in this way what I do and say becomes something always new and surprising. Like a game—like that game of chess which Odysseus taught me, all rules and regulations, but so new and exciting, with those lovely ivory pieces! That game is like life, he used to say. According to him, it was a way of overcoming time.
Leucothea: You have too many memories of him, Circe. You didn't turn him into a boar or a wolf. You turned him into memory.
Circe: That's the one immortal thing about a mortal, Leucò. The memory he carries with him, the memory he leaves behind him. That is what names and words are. When they remember even men smile. A smile of resignation.
Leucothea: Circe, you're speaking words too.
Circe: I know my destiny, Leucò. Never fear.
Everyone knows that Theseus, on his way home from Crete, pretended to forget the black sails flying from his mast in token of mourning. The result was that his father, thinking him dead, threw himself into the sea and left his kingdom to Theseus. This is thoroughly Greek. And equally Greek is the distaste for any mystical cult of monsters.
Lelegus: That hill is home, sir.
Theseus: When you're away from home, any hill seen at twilight looks like your own hills.
Lelegus: Yes, when we saw the sun sinking behind Mt. Ida, we drank a toast to our return.
Theseus: It's good to come home, Lelegus, and good to go away. Let's drink again. Let's drink to the past. Things we've lost and then recovered are good things.
Lelegus: While we were in Crete, you never spoke of home. You didn't think of all the things we'd left behind. You lived for the day. And I saw you leave Crete in the same way you left home, without once looking back. Are you thinking of the past this evening?
Theseus: We're alive, Lelegus; there's wine on the table, we're in home waters. A man thinks of a good many things on an evening like this. Tomorrow, perhaps, these things—the wine, the sea—won't give us the same peace.
Lelegus: What are you afraid of? Why don't you give the order to lower these black sails and break out the white? You promised your father you would.
Theseus: Time enough for that later, Lelegus. Time enough tomorrow. I like listening to these sails cracking in the wind. The same sails we carried when we set our course for Crete and danger, and not a man of you knew if he'd ever see home again.
Lelegus: But you knew, Theseus?
Theseus: More or less. My axe never misses.
Lelegus: You don't sound very sure.
Theseus: It's not that. I'm thinking of the Cretans and how little I knew about them. I'm thinking of the great mountain and our role in the island. And those last days in the palace, with its endless courtyards one after the other, and the soldiers calling me the Bull-King—do you remember, Lelegus? You become what you kill in Crete. Later I began to think I understood them. Then they told us about the forests of Ida where the caves of the gods are, where the gods were born and where they died. Did you know, Lelegus? In the island the gods are killed, killed like animals. And the man who kills a god becomes a god himself. It was then that we tried to climb Mt. Ida.
Lelegus: A man feels brave when he's away from home.
Theseus: And they told us unbelievable things. Their women—you remember those tall blonde women who spend the morning basking in the sun on the palace terraces and at night go up to the fields of Ida and lie with trees and beasts? Sometimes they stay there for good.
Lelegus: Only the women are brave there. You know that, Theseus.
Theseus: I know one thing—I prefer women who stay at their looms.
Lelegus: But there aren't any looms in Crete. They buy foreign cloth. What do you expect them to do?
Theseus: Not sit around ripening in the sun, thinking about gods all the time. Not look for gods in the trunks of trees and in the sea. Not chase after bulls. At first I thought it was their fathers' fault—those decadent merchants who dress like women and spend their time watching boys vaulting over bulls. And that isn't all. It's as though they were another race, another breed. There was a time when there were only goddesses on Ida. Only a single goddess. She was the sun, she was the trees, she was the sea. And in her presence gods and men were trampled underfoot. When a woman runs away from a man to be with the sun and the beasts, it is not a man's fault. The blood is rotten. This is chaos.
Lelegus: Only you can say, sir. Is it Ariadne you're speaking of?
Theseus: Yes, her too.
Lelegus: You're the captain, sir, and it's not our place to criticize you. But to us she seemed a gentle, docile girl.
Theseus: Too docile, Lelegus. Like grass, like sea water. You looked at her and realized she wasn't even aware of you. Like the meadows of Ida—you move forward, your hand on your axe, and then suddenly the silence becomes suffocating and you have to stop. There's a sound of breathing, like a beast about to spring. Even the sun seems to be lying in wait, even the air . . . There's no fighting with the great Goddess. You can't fight the earth and its silences.
Lelegus: Yes, I have known these things too. But Ariadne—she let you out of the maze. She left home for you. She abandoned her gods to follow you. If her blood was rotten, as you say, she wouldn't have done that.
Theseus: But her gods didn't abandon her.
Lelegus: Didn't you say they kill the gods on Ida?
Theseus: And the killer is the new god. Oh Lelegus, you can kill gods and bulls in a cave, but the god you carry in your blood cannot be killed. Ariadne too was blood and breed of the island. I knew her as I knew the bull.
Lelegus: You were too cruel, Theseus. What do you suppose she said, poor girl, when she woke on Naxos?
Theseus: I know, I know. She must have howled, like a wild thing. But in vain. She'll have called on her country and her home and her gods. She still has the earth and the sun. We Greeks are nothing to her now.
Lelegus: She was beautiful, sir. She was made of earth and sun.
Theseus: Whereas we are only men. I'm certain that a god will be sent to console her, some soft ambiguous god, a god of sorrows, one of those who have already savored death, and whom the Great Mother carries in her lap. What will he be, I wonder? A tree, a horse, a ram? Or perhaps a lake or a cloud? Anything can happen on that sea of hers.
Lelegus: Sir, forgive me for speaking plainly. But I don't understand you. Sometimes you speak like a boy playing a game. And sometimes you sound old and cruel, as though the island had left something of itself in you.
Theseus: Perhaps, you may be right. A man becomes the thing he kills. But we've come from a long way away, you forget that.
Lelegus: This good Greek wine should cheer you up, sir.
Theseus: We haven't reached home yet, Lelegus.
The tragic events which afflicted the house of Atreus are well known. Here I need only recall certain family relationships. Tantalus was the father of Pelops; Pelops of Thyestes and Atreus; Atreus was the father of Menelaus and Agamemnon, and Agamemnon of Orestes, who killed his mother. It has long been my conviction that the Arcadian sea goddess Artemis enjoyed a special cult in this family. Think for instance of the proposed sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father.
Castor: Remember, Poly, how we got her back after she eloped with Theseus?
Polydeuces: That was a great night!
Castor: She was just a child then. I remember thinking as we rode through the night how terrified she must be, galloping through the forest on Theseus' horse, with us galloping after her. We were naive.
Polydeuces: This time she's taken better precautions.
Castor: Yes, this time she's got the whole Trojan army to fight for her. She's put the sea between us.
Polydeuces: Then we'll cross the sea.
Castor: I've had enough. It's up to the Atreidae now. It's no concern of ours.
Polydeuces: We'll cross the sea!
Castor: Believe me, Poly, it's not worth it. Don't be naive. Let the Atreidae take care of her—she's their worry now.
Polydeuces: But she's our sister!
Castor: We should have known she'd never stay put at Sparta. She's not the sort of girl you can keep shut up in a palace.
Polydeuces: What else does she want, Castor?
Castor: She doesn't want anything, that's just it. She's the same child she always was! She's incapable of taking a home or a husband seriously. But there's no use chasing after her. She'll come back some day, you'll see.
Polydeuces: Heaven knows what the Atreidae will do to avenge this affront to their family. They're not people to swallow an insult. Where their honor's at stake, they're as touchy as the gods.
Castor: Leave the gods out of it. These are people who have eaten each other in the past. Beginning with Tantalus, who served up his own son at table . . .
Polydeuces: You really believe those stories?
Castor: That's what you'd expect from them. People who live in castles at Mycenae and Sparta, who wear golden masks; rulers of the sea who squint out at it through arrow-slits—they're capable of anything. Don't you sometimes wonder, Polydeuces, why their women—and I include Helen—sooner or later turn wild and violent, why they murder and drive others to murder? There's not one man of the house of Pelops, not one, whose wife has closed his eyes at death. If that's what being touchy about their honor means . . .
Polydeuces: But our little sister Clytemnestra—she's not like those women.
Castor: Don't count your chickens, Poly.
Polydeuces: If you knew all this, why did you let the girls marry into that family?
Castor: I didn't let them. These things happen. Everyone gets the wife he deserves.
Polydeuces: What do you mean by that? That their women are as bad as they are? Are you criticizing our sister?
Castor: Come off it, Poly. Nobody's listening. Don't you understand that the men of this family always marry the same woman? We're Helen's brothers, maybe we don't really know her. It took Theseus to give us an idea. Then there was Menelaus. Now it's Paris, a foreigner. I ask you, is all this just coincidence? Does she always have to fall for men like that? No, it's obvious that they were made for each other.
Polydeuces: You're crazy!
Castor: Nothing crazy about it! If the Tantalids lost their heads—literally, in some cases—that's their business. A race of sea kings who live cooped up in those mountain castles of theirs . . . There may have been a time when they saw the world—Tantalus certainly did. But after him they shut themselves up with their women and their piles of gold—suspicious and discontented, incapable of energy or action. The sea fed them, fed them well: fat, gross, gluttonous men. A family of feasters! That's why they wanted strong, half savage women to shut up in their castles with them. They've always found what they wanted.
Polydeuces: But I don't see what Helen has to do with all this. Or why you say she was made for men like Theseus and Paris.
Castor: For them or others, Poly, the names don't matter. It's the house of Atreus we're talking about. And if the women of that house, from Hippodameia on, were as like one another as a herd of wild mares, it wasn't their fault. You could almost say the story of that family is the same man looking for the same woman: and finding her, over and over. Every one of their women, from Hippodameia down to Helen and Clytemnestra, has had to fight and defend herself. This is obviously what the Tantalids like in their women. They don't know it, but it's what they want. They're schemers, men of blood. Fat men, bloated with power. They need a woman with a whip.
Polydeuces: Who cares what Hippodameia did? All right, so she whipped her horses in that chariot race. I know the story too. What's that got to do with our sister? Helen has the hand of a child, a hand that's never held a whip. How can you compare them?
Castor: We don't know much about women, do we, Poly? We all grew up together, and to us she's still a little girl playing ball. But a woman doesn't have to whip horses to feel her blood run wild. It's enough to please the fancy of a man like Menelaus.
Polydeuces: Anyway, what was so bad about Hippodameia?
Castor: She treated men as though they were horses. That's what. She got her charioteer to murder her father. Then she had Pelops murder the charioteer. She gave birth to Atreus and Thyestes, both murderers. She made blood flow in torrents. She didn't run away, not her.
Polydeuces: But didn't you say that all this was Pelops' fault?
Castor: I said that Pelops and all the men of his family preferred women like that. That they deserved the women they got.
Polydeuces: But Helen doesn't murder. She doesn't make men murder.
Castor: Are you sure, Poly? Remember when we got her back from Theseus—three horses galloping through the forest? If we weren't all killed then, it was because we were boys and to us it was almost a game. And wasn't it you who asked just now how much blood the Atreidae will shed?
Polydeuces: But she doesn't drive anyone to murder.
Castor: Do you think Hippodameia drove the charioteer? She simply smiled and said her father wanted her. She didn't even say she disliked the idea . . . A look can kill. Then when Myrtilus saw he'd been tricked by Pelops and he wanted to shout out the truth, all Hippodameia had to say to her husband was: "Keep your eyes on that man—he knows about Oenomaus." The Tantalids have a liking for that kind of talk.
Polydeuces: Do all their women kill, then?
Castor: No, not all. Some bow their heads and resign themselves. But sooner or later the castle unleashes the beast in them. The Tantalids kill and are killed. They have to whip or be whipped.
Polydeuces: Helen just ran away.
Castor: You think so, Poly? Remember Atreus' wife, Aerope?
Polydeuces: She was drowned.
Castor: But not before she drove her lover to steal the golden ram. There's a woman who was driven wild by the castle. A woman who could have spent her days in idle lechery, growing fat beside her lover. But her lover was Thyestes, her husband was Atreus. They had chosen her and they left her no way out. They unleashed the beast in her too, like the other women. The Tantalids have a craving for violence.
Polydeuces: Our sister too? You mean they'll put her to death for adultery? You mean she's a whore?
Castor: If only she were, Poly, if only she were. But being a whore isn't a matter of choice. Not when you're married to one of the Atreidae. Don't you see that for them sexual pleasure means taking a woman by force, beating her till she bleeds? They wouldn't know what to do with a tame, submissive woman. They need a woman with cold, killer's eyes, eyes without shame. Eyes like arrow-slits. Like Hippodameia's.
Polydeuces: I've seen that look in Helen's eyes.
Castor: They need the cruelty of a virgin. The virgin who moves on the mountains. She, she is the woman they marry. For her they serve up their sons, for her they murder their daughters . . .
Polydeuces: Those days are gone forever.
Castor: They're just beginning, Polydeuces.
The temple on the Acrocorinth, with its attendant hierodules, is mentioned by no less an author than Pindar. That the young monster-slayers should all (Theseus the Athenian included) have had trouble with women is something we might have imagined for ourselves, even if the tradition did not unanimously suggest it. With one of the worst of these women, Medea—witch, jealous wife, infanticide—Euripides deals at generous length in a famous play.
Jason: Go ahead, pull the curtains wide, Melita. I can feel the breeze swelling it. On a morning like this, even Jason wants to see the sky. Tell me what the sea is like, tell me what's been happening in the harbor.
Melita: Oh king Jason, it's lovely from up here. The docks are crammed with people and there's a big ship going out between the boats. It's so clear you can see it reflected upside down in the water. Oh, look at the flags and the prows hung with flowers—if only you could see them! And what a lot of people! They've even climbed up the statues on the docks. Now the sun's in my eyes.
Jason: The other girls are probably there to say goodbye. Can you see the, Melita?
Melita: I don't know, there are so many people. Look, the sailors are waving to us. Oh, how tiny they look, up there on the rigging.
Jason: Wave to them, Melita. It must be the Cyprus ship. They'll pass by your islands, and when they talk about Corinth and its famous temple, they'll talk about you too.
Melita: What would they say about me, sir? Who in the islands remembers me?
Jason: Young people always have someone who remembers them. It's good to remember the young. The gods are young, aren't they? That's why we all remember them and envy them.
Melita: We serve them, king Jason. I serve the goddess too in my own way.
Jason: There'll be someone, Melita, a guest or a sailor who climbs up to the temple to sleep with you and not with any of the others. Someone who leaves part of his offering to you alone. I'm old, Melita, and I can't climb up there now. But there was a time once, in Iolchos—you weren't even born then—when I would have climbed more than a mountain to be with you.
Melita: You give the orders, sir. At the temple we do what you say. Oh look, the ship is spreading sail! It's all white. Come and look, king Jason.
Jason: No, you stay by the window, Melita, and I'll look at you while you look at the ship. I can almost see the pair of you catching the wind together. The morning air would make me shiver. I'm an old man. I'd see too many things if I looked down there.
Melita: The ship's keeling in the sun. How she flies! She's skimming the water like a dove.
Jason: And she's only making for Cyprus. Nowadays ships put out from Corinth and the islands, furrowing the sea everywhere. But there was a time when this sea was like a desert. You weren't born then, Melita. How long ago it all seems.
Melita: You really mean, sir, that no one dared cross the sea?
Jason: There's a virginity in things, Melita, more frightening than danger. Think of the terror of the mountain peaks, how sound re-echoes there.
Melita: The mountains aren't for me. But I can't believe the sea ever frightened any one.
Jason: As a matter of fact, it didn't. It was on a morning like that we put out from Iolchos. We were all young and the gods were with us. It was wonderful just sailing on, without a thought of tomorrow. Then strange, incredible things began to happen . . . It was a younger world, Melita, with days like clear mornings, nights of dense blackness, a world where anything could happen. Sometimes the strange things were men, sometimes they were monsters, or springs, or rocks. Some of us disappeared, some died. Every landfall was a loss. Every day the sea was more beautiful, more virginal. The days went by in waiting for something . . . Then the rains came, fogs, black foam.
Melita: Yes, you have told me of these things.
Jason: The danger wasn't the sea. We realized, from one landfall to the next, that we had grown during our journey. We were stronger, more detached. We were like gods, Melita, but it was this that led us toward fatal risks. So we made land at Phasis, there on the fields of golden crocus. Oh I was young then, and I looked squarely at my fate.
Melita: When we talk of you and your companions, in the temple, we lower our voices.
Jason: Yes, and sometimes you laugh, Melita, I know. Corinth is a gay place and people like to laugh. When will that old fellow stop running on about his gods, they say. Anyway, those gods are dead, aren't they, like the rest of the gods?—Life is what Corinth wants.
Melita: Up at the temple, we talk about the witch, king Jason. Some people still remember her. Tell me about her, sir.
Jason: Everyone knows a witch, except here at Corinth where the temple teaches people to laugh. We Argonauts, old or young, we all knew a witch.
Melita: But what about your witch, sir?
Jason: We violated the sea, we destroyed monsters, we walked through the fields of saffron. A golden cloud glittered in the wood. And yet everyone of us died through the arts of a witch, everyone of us died by the spells of the passion of a witch. One of our crew had his head torn off and thrown into a river. One has grown old. He's talking to you now . . . He saw his children sacrificed by their mother in her madness.
Melita: They say she isn't dead, sir, they say her spells have conquered death.
Jason: It's her destiny—I don't envy her. She breathed death, she spattered it around her. Perhaps she's gone home.
Melita: But how could she have laid hands on her own children? She must have cried terribly . . .
Jason: I never saw her cry, Medea couldn't cry. And the only time she ever smiled was when she said she would go away with me.
Melita: But she did go away with you, king Jason, she left her country and her home, she accepted her fate. You were cruel like all young men. Even you.
Jason: I was young, Melita. Nobody laughed at me in those days. But I didn't know then that your way, the way of the temple, is wiser, and that what I asked of the goddess was impossible. But for us everything seemed possible. We had destroyed the dragon, captured the golden cloud. Men do evil trying to be great, trying to be gods.
Melita: But why is your victim always a woman?
Jason: Little Melita, you're one of the temple girls. Surely you all know that when a man climbs up there it's because he wants to become a god, at least for a day, for an hour. Because he wants to sleep with you as though you were the goddess. He always pretends he's sleeping with her, then he realizes it's only mortal flesh he was dealing with, poor human creatures like you and your friends up there, like all women. Then he flies into a rage and tries to be a god somewhere else.
Melita: Though some men seem quite happy with us, sir.
Jason: Oh yes, men grown old before their time, men who pay your visits . . . But not before they've tried everything else. Not someone who's seen other days. Have you heard of the son of Aegeus who went down to Hades to bring back Persophone—the son of that king of Athens who threw himself into the sea?
Melita: The men from Phaleron speak of him. He was a sailor like you.
Jason: Little Melita, he was almost a god. He found his woman overseas, a woman who helped him in a fatal task, as the witch helped me. He abandoned her, on an island, early one morning. Then there were new conquests, new horizons, and lunar Antiope, that restless Amazon, was his. And then Phaedra, the light of the day, and she too killed herself. And Helen, the daughter of Leda. Till at last he tried to snatch Persephone from the jaws of Hades. There was only one woman he never wanted—the one who fled from Corinth, who murdered her children, the witch . . . You know about her.
Melita: But you still remember her, sir. You're kinder than king Theseus. And since then you haven't made any woman cry.
Jason: Here at Corinth I've learned not to be a god. And I know you, Melita.
Melita: Oh king Jason, what am I?
Jason: A girl of the islands who comes down from her temple when the old man calls her. And you are the goddess too.
Melita: I am her slave.
Jason: She has a great sanctuary in an island in the west which bears your name.* Did you know?
Melita: It's an ordinary name, sir, they gave it to me as a joke. Sometimes I think of those lovely names the witches have and the women who wept for great men like you.
Jason: Megara, Iole, Auge, Hippolyta, Omphale, Deianeira . . . Do you know what man it was who wept for them?
Melita: Oh, but he was a god. And now he lives with the gods.
Jason: So they say. Poor Heracles, he was one of us too. I don't envy him.
* Melita = Malta. [Trans.]
After the adventure in the labyrinth, Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. It was there that Dionysus, on his return from India, made harvest of her beauty and set her among the constellations of heaven.
Leucothea: How much longer are you going to cry, Ariadne?
Ariadne: Oh. Where did you come from?
Leucothea: From the sea, like you. Well, have you stopped sobbing?
Ariadne: I can't very well cry with you here, can I?
Leucothea: I thought you mortal women only cried when you had an audience.
Ariadne: For a nymph, you've got a sharp tongue.
Leucothea: So he's gone away too, has he? Why do you think he deserted you?
Ariadne: Look, who are you?
Leucothea: A girl who did what you didn't do. I tried to drown myself. Ino was my name then. A goddess rescued me, and now I'm the nymph of the island.
Ariadne: Well, what do you want with me?
Leucothea: If that's your tone, you already know the answer. I've come to tell you that your handsome boyfriend with the fine promises and the violet curls, is gone for good. He's jilted you. The black sail disappearing from sight will be your last memory of him. So sob and carry on as much as you like. It's all over.
Ariadne: You tried to kill yourself. Were you jilted too?
Leucothea: We're not talking about me, dear. You're a silly, stubborn girl. You don't deserve what I'm going to tell you.
Ariadne: Listen, sea-nymph, what you want with me I don't know. You've told me very little—or a great deal too much. If I want to kill myself, I'll manage it on my own, thank you.
Leucothea: Believe me, silly. Your tears are trivial.
Ariadne: Is that what you came to tell me?
Leucothea: Why do you think he deserted you?
Ariadne: Oh nymph, please don't . . .
Leucothea: Go on, cry. It makes things easier. Talking won't help you. Only crying will rid you of your silly pride, and expose your grief for the petty thing it is. But until your heart breaks, until you howl like a bitch and want to snuff yourself in the sea like a blazing brand, you won't know what grief is.
Ariadne: My heart . . . is broken . . . already.
Leucothea: Go on. Cry. Don't say a word . . . You don't know anything. Someone else is waiting for you.
Ariadne: What's your name now, nymph?
Leucothea: Leucothea. Listen, Ariadne. The black sail has gone for good. That chapter's finished.
Ariadne: And my life is finished with it.
Leucothea: Someone else awaits you, silly girl. Tell me, what god did you worship in your country?
Ariadne: What god can send his ship back to me?
Leucothea: I asked you what god you worshipped.
Ariadne: In my country there's a mountain which inspired even the sailors with terror. Great gods are born on that mountain, and they are the gods we worship. I've already prayed to them all, but none of them has heard me. What can I do?
Leucothea: What do you expect from the gods?
Ariadne: I don't expect anything any more.
Leucothea: Then listen. Someone is coming.
Ariadne: What do you mean?
Leucothea: I tell you, someone is coming.
Ariadne: But you're only a nymph.
Leucothea: Perhaps. But even a nymph can announce a great god.
Ariadne: A god, Leucothea? Which god?
Leucothea: Are you thinking of the god? Or your boyfriend?
Ariadne: I don't know. What do you mean? I kneel before the gods.
Leucothea: Then you understand. He is a new god. The youngest of all the gods. He has seen you, and he likes you. His name is Dionysus.
Ariadne: I've never heard of him.
Leucothea: He was born at Thebes, and he courses the world. He is a god of joy. All mankind follows him and acclaims him.
Ariadne: Is he strong?
Leucothea: He kills with laughter. Bulls and tigers walk beside him. His life is a festival, and he likes you.
Ariadne: But when did he see me?
Leucothea: Who knows? Have you ever been in a vineyard on a hillside by the sea, in that drowsy hour when the earth gives off its own particular fragrance? A lingering smell of grapevines, halfway between fig and pine? At the hour when the grapes ripen, and the air is heavy with must? Have you ever seen a pomegranate, blooming and fruiting? This is where Dionysus grows and is, and in the cool of the ivy, among the pines and over the threshing-floors.
Ariadne: Isn't there any place on earth so lonely that the gods can't see us there?
Leucothea: My dear, the gods are the place itself, the loneliness, the passing of time. Dionysus will come, and you'll think you've been whirled away by a great wind, like those dust devils that swirl over the threshing-floors and the vineyards.
Ariadne: When will he come?
Leucothea: I'm here to announce his coming, dear. This is why the boat sailed away.
Ariadne: Who told you all this?
Leucothea: My home is Thebes, Ariadne. I'm his mother's sister.
Ariadne: In my country people say that the gods were born on Mt. Ida. No mortal has ever climbed beyond the timberline. Even the shadow thrown by the mountain frightens us. How can I accept what you say?
Leucothea: You have run risks before, little one. Wasn't your friend with the violet curls like a god to you?
Ariadne: He was a god—whose life I saved. What good did it do me?
Leucothea: A great deal. You've been afraid, you've suffered. You've thought of dying. You've learned what waking is. Now you're alone, and you're expecting a god.
Ariadne: What's he like? Is he cruel?
Leucothea: All gods are cruel. Divinity is cruel by nature. It shatters the frail being who resists. To waken, to waken well, you must yield to sleep. No god can know remorse.
Ariadne: This Theban god of yours . . . You said he kills with laughter?
Leucothea: Those who resist him. Those who resist him are torn to pieces. But he is no more pitiless than other gods. For him laughing is like breathing.
Ariadne: Then he's no different from any mortal.
Leucothea: This too is an awakening, child. It will be like loving a place, a stream of water, an hour of the day. No man can give you this. The gods last as long as the things that make them gods. So long as the goats frisk through the pines and the vineyards, he will please you and you will please him.
Ariadne: I'll die like any goat.
Leucothea: The stars shine over the vineyards at night. The god who waits for you is a god of the night. Don't be afraid.
Kratos and Bia—Power and Strength—lived, Hesiod tells us, "not far from Zeus." This was their reward for the help they gave him in his struggle against the Titans. Everyone knows about Zeus' flight and his many adventures.
Kratos: He's gone off to visit mankind. He has taken to road through the valleys, he lingers among the vineyards or by the seashore. Sometimes he goes up to the gates of a town. No one would take him for the Lord, the Father of gods and men. I can't understand what he's looking for. After all that trouble we had putting the world in his hands—giving him the fields and the mountain peaks and the clouds . . . He could sit up there at his ease. And what does he do? He goes off to visit mankind.
Bia: What's so strange about that? If you're the chief, you do what you want.
Kratos: Without a thought of Olympus or us. And it's thanks to us, his humble servants, that he's in charge. He ought to be satisfied with having the world afraid of him and praying to him. Why is he interested in men, the wretched little creatures?
Bia: They're part of the world too, you know.
Kratos: Things aren't what they used to be, somehow. "He'll come like the storm," Mother said, "and the seasons will change." This son of the Mountain who rules with his nod isn't like the old masters, Night and Earth and Father Ouranos and Chaos. The world seems to be divided. Every event had its goal, and everything that lived was one. But now there's a law and a mind. Zeus has made himself immortal and us along with him. Even men pay attention to us: they know they have to die, and that sets them to thinking about us. Up to that point I can understand them—that was why we fought the Titans. But what I don't like is that he, the Lord, who from his seat on the mountains promised us these gifts should leave the peaks and go off to amuse himself among mankind. I don't like it, I tell you. What do you think, sister?
Bia: He wouldn't be the Lord if he were bound by the laws he made. But do you think he really breaks his own laws?
Kratos: I don't understand him and that's a fact. When we made our assault on the mountains, he smiled—as though he'd won already. He fought with nods, with a few brief words. He never showed he was angry with the Titans for their revolt. They were defeated and he simply smiled, smiled. That was how he crushed the Titans, and mankind. I admired him then; he was merciless. And I remember another occasion when he smiled in the same way: when he decided to give mankind the woman, Pandora, to punish them for the theft of fire. I simply don't understand after this how he can spend his time in vineyards and towns.
Bia: Maybe the woman, Pandora, is not mere misfortune. Perhaps he sees some good in her, perhaps he takes pleasure in her. After all, he did give her to men.
Kratos: But do you realize what men are? Wretched little creatures who are bound to die. More wretched than worms or last year's leaves: they're dead and they don't even know they die. But men do know and they talk about it, they never stop invoking us, trying to snatch a favor or a glance from us. They light fires to us—the fires they stole away in the fennel stalk. And with their women and their offerings and their songs and their fine words they have persuaded some of us immortals to go down among them and be kind to them and have children by them. Do you see what they're after, their wretched, brazen deceit? Do you understand now why I'm angry?
Bia: Mother was right, the world has changed. That's what you're saying. This isn't the first time the lord of the Mountain has gone down among men. Have you forgotten how long ago he lived in exile on an island in the sea where he died and was buried. That used to happen to the gods in those days.
Kratos: Yes, it's an old story.
Bia: But that didn't mean his power was lost. No, it was the lords of Chaos who were lost, they who once ruled over a world without law. In the beginning, men and animals and even stones were gods. Everything happened without a name and without a law. The change came later. It took a great deal to turn the son of Kronos into the good Judge, into restless, immortal mind. He had first to take flight and suffer the unjust punishment of living in exile among men when he was still a baby, suckled by a goat. He had to grow up on the mountain and the forests. Men had first to find words and the laws to live by, grief and death and the sense of loss. Only then did the son of Kronos change his nature. And you, do you think you really helped him to crush the Titans? Why, he fought as though he had won already. You said so yourself. The reborn child became the master living among men.
Kratos: So be it. Law was worth fighting for. But why does he have to go down there again now that he's master of us all?
Bia: Brother, dear, will you try to understand that even though the world is no longer divine, for this very reason the gods who come down from the Mountain find it always new and always rewarding. To hear the speech of men—what a marvelous experience that can be! They know they suffer, they struggle, they possess the earth. All this is revealed in their words. No wonder the young gods, who have come after the lords of Chaos, are all down on earth among men. And if some of the gods still keep their love for the high places, for the caves and the savage skies, this is because men have penetrated even there. There voices love to violate our silence.
Kratos: If the son of Kronos would only be content with visiting men. With listening to them and punishing them, according to the law. But how can he bring himself to enjoy them and be enjoyed by them? How can he steal away their women and their sons?
Bia: If you had known them, you'd understand. Men are poor worms, but with them everything is unforeseen, everything is a discovery. You can understand an animal and even a god, but no one, not even we immortals, knows what is going on in the hearts of men. Some of them even dare to make a stand against destiny. Only if you live with them and for them can you enjoy the savor of the world.
Kratos: Or the savor of the women? The daughters of Pandora, animals—
Bia: Women or animals, it's all the same. Or brother, you don't understand. They're the choicest fruit of mortal life.
Kratos: Does Zeus approach them as animal or as god?
Bia: As man, silly. That's the point.
Everyone likes hearing that the Eleusinian mysteries presented the initiate with a divine image of immortality in the person of Dionysus and Demeter (also Core and Pluto). What one likes less is the reminder that Demeter is the ear of wheat—bread—and Dionysus the grape—wine. "Take and eat this . . ."
Dionysus: These mortals are really amusing. We know things, and they do them. I wonder what our lives would be like without them. What would we Olympians be? They call on us with their feeble voices, and they give us names.
Demeter: I existed before there were men, and I can tell you it was lonely. The earth was forest, snakes, turtles. We were the earth, the air, the water. What could one do? It was in those days that we began the custom of being immortal.
Dionysus: With men that never happens.
Demeter: True. Everything they touch becomes time. Becomes action. Waiting and hope. Even their dying is something.
Dionysus: They have a way of giving names to themselves and things and us which enriches life. Like the vineyards that they've taught themselves to grow on these hillsides. When I brought the first vine to Eleusis, I never dreamed they would make such a delicious place of these wild, rocky slopes. And the same is true of their crops and their gardens. Wherever they lavish their sweat and their speech, a rhythm, a sense, a repose is born.
Demeter: And that talent they have for making stories about us! I sometimes wonder if I really am Gaia, Rhea, Cybele, the Great Mother, as they say I am. They have the knack of giving us names that reveal us to ourselves, Iacchus. They lift us from the grey eternity of fate and quicken us with colors, painting us in the days and places where we are.
Dionysus: For us you will always be Deo.
Demeter: Who could have guessed that their wretched lives could hold such riches? For them I am a fierce mountain, bristling with forest; I am cloud and cave, goddess of harvests and towers and cities; Lady of the Lions, goddess of cradle and tomb, and mother of Core. Everything I am I owe it to them.
Dionysus: They're always talking about me, too.
Demeter: Then shouldn't we help them more, Dionysus? Make amends to them somehow? Stand at their side in the brief instant of their lives?
Dionysus: You gave them grain, Deo. I gave them the vine. Let them be. What more do they need?
Demeter: I don't know why it is, but our gifts are always ambiguous. Double-bladed axes. My son Triptolemus almost had his throat cut when he brought that Scythian stranger his gift of grain. Even your gifts cause the shedding of innocent blood, Dionysus. Or so I hear.
Dionysus: But they wouldn't be men if they weren't miserable. Death is what they're born for. It's death that drives them to their efforts, to memory and foresight. And don't go supposing, Deo, that their blood is any better than the wheat or wine with which we feed it. Blood is vile, foul, wretched.
Demeter: You're young Iacchus, and you don't know that they discovered us in blood. You course restlessly through the world, and for you death is like wine: exalting, an ecstasy. But you forget that mortals have suffered every story they tell of us. How many mortal mothers have lost their Core and never seen her again? Even today the richest offering they can make is blood.
Dionysus: Is it an offering, Deo? You know better than I that there was a time when they thought that in killing their victim they were killing us.
Demeter: Can you blame them? This is why I said they discovered us in blood. If for them death is the end and the beginning, then they have to kill us in order to see us reborn. They are very unhappy, Iacchus.
Dionysus: You think so? They seem stupid to me. But maybe not. They are so mortal that by killing themselves they give a meaning to life. They have to live and die their own stories. Take what happened to Icarius . . .
Demeter: Poor Erigone.
Dionysus: Yes, but Icarius was killed because he wanted to be killed. Maybe he thought his blood was wine. He gathered the grapes, pressed them, and drew off the wine. He worked like a madman. It was the first time a froth of must was ever seen on a threshing-floor. The bushes, the walls, the shovels were spattered with it. Even Erigone plunged her hands in it. Then what did the stupid old fool do but go down to the fields and ask the herdsmen to drink with him? And when they were drunk on it, poisoned, raging like wild animals, they tore him to pieces like a goat among the scrub and then buried him in order to grow more wine. He knew what would happen, it was what he wanted. Was Erigone surprised? No, she'd tasted that wine, she knew it would happen too. So how else could she round off this story except by hanging herself in the sun like a bunch of grapes? There's nothing sad about it. Mortals tell their stories with blood.
Demeter: And do you think this sort of thing is worthy of us? You were wondering what we would be like without them. You know that someday they may grow tired of us gods. You understand? Your own interests as a god are bound up with blood—that wretched blood, as you call it.
Dionysus: But what should we give them? Whatever it is, they'll turn it into blood. Always blood.
Demeter: There's only one thing to do, and you know what it is.
Demeter: Give a meaning to their dying.
Dionysus: But how?
Demeter: By teaching them the life of the blessèd.
Dionysus: But that's tempting fate, Deo. They're mortals.
Demeter: Listen. The day will come when they'll think of it themselves. And they'll do it without us, with a story. They'll tell stories of men who have conquered death. They've already put one of their number in heaven. Every six months one of them goes down to Hades. One of them has fought with Death and won back a living creature . . . Mark my words, Iacchus. They'll do it on their own. And then we'll go back to being what we were: air, water, and earth.
Dionysus: It won't help them live longer.
Demeter: Of course not, silly boy. But their dying will have a meaning. They too will die in order to be reborn, and they won't need us anymore.
Dionysus: What do you suggest, Deo?
Demeter: Teach them that they can become like us, beyond grief and death. But we'll tell them ourselves. Teach them that just as the wheat and the vine go down beneath the earth in order to be born again, so death is a new life for them too. Give them this holy story. Lead them upward by means of this story. Teach them a fate which is woven with our own.
Dionysus: They'll die anyway.
Demeter: They'll die, and they will conquer death. They will see something beyond blood, they will see the two of us. They'll no longer be afraid of death, and they won't have to placate it by shedding other blood.
Dionysus: We can do it, Deo, we can. We can give them the story of eternal life. I almost envy them. They won't know destiny and they will be immortal. But don't expect the bloodshed to stop.
Demeter: Their only thought will be eternity. But there's one danger. They may neglect these fertile fields.
Dionysus: For a while. But once the grain and the vineyard take on the meaning of eternal life, do you know what men will see in bread and wine? Flesh and blood, as now, as always. Flesh and blood will be spilled, not to placate death but to reach the eternal which awaits them.
Demeter: It's as though you could read the future. How do you know?
Dionysus: From looking at the past, Deo. Believe me. But I agree with you. It will always be a story.
The Greek flood too was a punishment for a mankind which had lost respect for its gods. It is well known that the earth was later repopulated by the throwing of certain stones . . .
Hamadryad: I wonder what mortals think of this rain.
Satyr: What do they know about it? They take it. Maybe some of them hope it will mean a bigger harvest.
Hamadryad: The rivers are already in flood, sweeping away the trees. Everywhere it rains, it rains on water now.
Satyr: They're huddled together in caves and huts on the mountains. They listen to the rain. They think of the people down in the valleys who are fighting the flood, and they hope.
Hamadryad: They'll go on hoping for the rest of the night. But tomorrow morning, in that terrible dawn, when they see nothing but a sheet of water stretching to the horizon, and the mountains shrunk to nothing, they won't go back to the caves. They'll look. They'll cover their heads against the rain, and they'll look.
Satyr: You're confusing them with wild animals. No mortal can know that he's dying and look directly at death. Men have to run, think, talk. Talk to the survivors.
Hamadryad: This time there won't be any survivors. What will they do then? That's what I want to see.
Satyr: When they realize they're all doomed, every man on earth, they'll celebrate. You'll see. Perhaps they'll come looking for us.
Hamadryad: Us? What do we have to do with them?
Satyr: A great deal. For them we are the festival they celebrate. We are life. They'll come to us in search of life. They'll look for life to the very end.
Hamadryad: I don't see what life we can give them. We can't even die. All we can do is look. Look and know. But according to you they can't look at death and they don't know how to resign themselves. So what can they want with us?
Satyr: Many things, sweet goat. For them we are like wild animals. Animals are born and die like the leaves. They glimpse us disappearing between the branches and they begin to think of us as being somehow divine—that when we run to hide we are the life that endures in the forest—a life like their own, but everlasting, a richer life. They'll come looking for us. Mark my words. We'll be their last hope.
Hamadryad: Hope? In a rain like this? And what will they do?
Satyr: Don't you know what it means to hope? They'll believe that a forest where we live can't possibly be flooded. They'll tell themselves that it's inconceivable that mankind should utterly, totally, disappear; otherwise what meaning would there be in being born and knowing us? They'll realize that the great gods, the gods of Olympus, desire their death. But we, like them, like the little animals, are life, earth, the reality that matters. The seasons of their life are festivals, and we are their festivals, the life they celebrate.
Hamadryad: That's convenient. They have the hope, and we have the destiny. But it's stupid.
Satyr: Not so stupid as you think. They'll salvage something.
Hamadryad: Yes, but who provoked the great gods' anger in the first place? Who was it who made such a mess of things that even the sun hid his face? They did, if you ask me. So it serves them right.
Satyr: Come, my dear, do you really believe that nonsense? Don't you think, if they had really violated life, that life itself could have punished them without any need for Olympus to send down this flood? Believe me, if anybody has violated anything, it isn't them.
Hamadryad: Yes, but they're doing the dying. How will they feel tomorrow when they know what has happened?
Satyr: Listen to the torrent, little one. Tomorrow we'll be under water too. You like to look; well, you'll see some ugly sights. It's a good thing we can't die.
Hamadryad: Sometimes I'm not so sure. I wonder what it would be like to die. Dying's the only thing we really don't have. We know everything, and yet this one simple thing we don't know. I'd like to try it—and then wake up, of course.
Satyr: Listen to the girl. But dying is precisely this—no longer knowing that you're dead. And this is what this flood means: dying in such numbers that there won't be anyone left to know it. That's why they'll come to look for us. And they'll ask us to save them and they'll want to become like us, like plants and stones—insensible things that are nothing but destiny. In them they will save themselves. When the waters retreat, they'll come forth as stones and trees, just as they did before. And this is all that mortals want, just as before.
Hamadryad: Strange people. They treat destiny and the future as though it were a past.
Satyr: That's the meaning of hope. Giving destiny a name to remember it by.
Hamadryad: And you think they'll really be turned into stones and trees?
Satyr: They have the knack of making myths, these mortals. Their future lives will be modeled upon the imaginative shape they give to their terror of tonight and tomorrow. They will be wild animals and rocks and plants. They will be gods. They will even dare to kill the gods in order to make them live again. They will give themselves a past in order to escape death. They are only and always these two things: hope or destiny.
Hamadryad: If that's so, I can't pity them. It must be wonderful to live in a world of utter make-believe.
Satyr: Yes, it's wonderful. But you mustn't suppose that they're aware of improvising, of their make-believe. Their most miraculous escapes have been made quite by accident, when they were already caught in the crushing grip of destiny. They don't have time to savor their own make-believe. All they can do is pay for it in person. That much they can do.
Hamadryad: Well, I hope this flood at least serves to teach them the meaning of festival and play. After all, there's a make-believe which destiny imposes upon us immortals and which we are aware of—why can't they learn to live their make-believe as though each moment of their wretched little lives was eternal? Why won't they realize that it's precisely the shortness of their lives that gives them their value?
Satyr: One can't have everything, little one. We who know—we have no preferences. And they, who live unpredictable, unique moments, are ignorant of their value. They envy us our eternity. Such is the world.
Hamadryad: They too will learn something tomorrow. And the clods of earth and the stones in which they will someday make their return to the light, will not live solely in hope or anguish. You'll see. In the new world even the shortest lives will be in some way blessed.
Satyr: God willing, little one. I'd like that too.
A vast theme. The writer who has glimpsed a single deity behind the nine Muses of tradition—or Muses and Graces together, three by three, or only three, or even two—takes no small risk, as he well knows. But he is convinced of his vision, as he is of many other things. In the world of which we write, mothers are often daughters—and vice versa. The point could be proven. Is proof necessary? I prefer asking my readers to savor the fact that, for the Greeks, the festivals of imagination and memory were almost always celebrated on mountains, or rather hills, and continually refounded as the Greeks moved down the peninsula.
Mnemosyne: In short, you aren't happy.
Hesiod: Listen. If I think of some event that has happened, of seasons already past, it seems to me that I was happy then. But day by day it's different. I feel a weariness for things and works that a drunkard feels. Then I stop work and climb up here on the mountain. But when I think back, it seems to me again that I've been happy.
Mnemosyne: It will always be like that.
Hesiod: You know all names. What do you call this state of mind?
Mnemosyne: You can give it my name, or your own.
Hesiod: Melete, my name as a man is nothing. But how should I invoke you? The name which summons you is different every time. You are like a mother whose name is lost in the past. Down in the valley where men live and on the paths from which one glimpses the mountains, there is much talk of you. There was a time, they say, when you were to be found on the most inaccessible mountains, among black trees, snow, and monsters, in Thrace and Thessaly, and men called you the Muse. Others call you Calliope or Clio. What is your real name?
Mnemosyne: I come from those places. And I have many names. I will have still other names when I come down again—Aglaia, Hegemony, Phaenna, according to the whim of the place.
Hesiod: You mean the same weariness I feel drives you from place to place? You aren't a goddess then?
Mnemosyne: Neither weariness, nor goddess, my dear. Today I like this mountain of Helicon because you're here. I like being where men are, but a little bit apart. I don't look for anybody in particular, and I converse with those who know how to talk.
Hesiod: But, Melete, I don't know how to talk. And it seems to me that it's only when I'm with you that I know anything at all. In your voice and in your names is the past, every season I remember.
Mnemosyne: In Thessaly my name was Mneme.
Hesiod: Some man once said that you were as old as the tortoise, tough and decrepit. According to others you're an adolescent nymph, like a rosebud or a cloud . . .
Mnemosyne: What do you say?
Hesiod: I don't know. You're Calliope, you're Mneme. Your voice and your glance are immortal. You're like a hill or running water—things which are neither young nor old because for them there is no time. They exist. That's all we know.
Mnemosyne: But you exist too, my dear, and for you existence is weariness and unhappiness. How do you imagine the life we immortals live?
Hesiod: I don't imagine it, Melete. I worship it as I can, with a pure heart.
Mnemosyne: Go on, I like your words.
Hesiod: That's all there is to say.
Mnemosyne: I know you mortals. You never tell the whole story.
Hesiod: When we come face to face with gods, all we can do is adore.
Mnemosyne: Forget the gods. I existed before there were gods. You can talk to me. Men tell me everything. Adore us if you must, but tell me what you think my life is like.
Hesiod: How should I know? No goddess ever thought me worthy of her bed.
Mnemosyne: Fool, the world has its seasons too, and that season is over.
Hesiod: All I know is the land I work.
Mnemosyne: You're proud, shepherd. You have that mortal pride. But it will be your fate to know other things. Tell me why you feel happy when you talk to me.
Hesiod: I can answer you that. Because there's a candor, a freshness, in the things you say which is missing in daily life. The names you give to things make them different, strange, and yet as familiar and sweet as a voice for a long time silent. Or as when you suddenly see yourself mirrored in the water, and cry out, "Who is this man?"
Mnemosyne: My dear, has it ever happened to you that when you saw a plant, a stone, a gesture, you experienced the same thing?
Hesiod: Yes, it has.
Mnemosyne: And did you discover why?
Hesiod: It was only an instant, Melete. How could I grasp it?
Mnemosyne: Have you ever asked yourself why an instant can suddenly make you happy, happy as a god? You are looking, say, at the olive tree, the olive tree on the path you have taken every day for years, and suddenly there comes a day when the sense of staleness leaves you, and you caress the gnarled trunk with a look, as though you had recognized an old friend, and it spoke to you precisely the one word your heart was hoping for. At times it's the glance of a man passing in the street. Sometimes the rain that drives down for days on end. Or the hoarse cry of a bird. Or a cloud you think you've seen somewhere before. For an instant time stops, and you experience the trivial event as though before and after had no existence. Have you ever asked yourself why this should be?
Hesiod: It's you who say why. That instant has made the event a memory, a model.
Mnemosyne: Can't you conceive of an existence entirely composed of these instants?
Hesiod: I can conceive of it.
Mnemosyne: Then you know what my life is like.
Hesiod: I believe you, Melete, because your eyes confirm it. And the fact that many men call you Euterpe no longer surprises me. But these mortal instants are not a life. If I wanted to repeat them, they would lose their freshness. The staleness always comes back.
Mnemosyne: But you said that instant was a memory. And what else is memory but an experience repeated in its intensity? Do you understand me?
Hesiod: No. What do you mean?
Mnemosyne: I mean that you know what immortal life is like.
Hesiod: When I talk with you, it's hard for me not to believe. You saw things as they were in the beginning. You are the olive tree, the glance, the cloud. You speak of a name, and the thing exists forever.
Mnemosyne: Hesiod, I find you up here every day. Before you I found others in the mountains to the north, by the barren torrents of Thrace and Pieria. I like you more than the others. You know that immortal things are close at hand.
Hesiod: It's not hard to know that. What's hard is touching them.
Mnemosyne: You have to live for them, Hesiod. That means purity of the heart.
Hesiod: When I listen to you, yes. But a man's life is down there in the valley, in the fields, at home. Beside a hearth and in a bed. And every day that dawns confronts you with the same toils, the same failures. In the end it wears a man down, Melete. A sudden storm can refresh the fields—it isn't death and the great sorrows that make a man lose heart. But the everlasting, grinding toil, the effort to stay alive from day to day, the recognition of evil in others, petty evil, as tiresome as summer flies—that's the life that cripples a man, Melete.
Mnemosyne: I come from places far bleaker still, from foggy inhuman ravines, where nonetheless life took root. Among these olives and beneath this sky, you do not know that fate. Have you ever heard of the swamp of Boibeïs?
Mnemosyne: A dank swamp of slime and reeds, exactly as it was at the beginning of time, a seething, bubbling silence. It spawned monsters of excrement and blood. Even today the Thessalians seldom speak of it. Neither time nor the seasons change it. No voice reaches there.
Hesiod: But meanwhile you speak of it, Melete, and you have hallowed its fate. Your voice has reached it. Now it is a terrible and a sacred place. The olives and the sky of Helicon are not the whole of life.
Mnemosyne: Neither is the staleness or the toil, nor returning to the daily round. Don't you understand that man, every man, is born in that swamp of blood? That the sacred and the divine are with you too? In bed, in the fields, before the fire? In everything you do, you renew a divine model. Day and night, there is not an instant, not even the most futile, which has not sprung from the silence of your origins.
Hesiod: You speak, Melete, and I cannot help believing. Only let me adore you.
Mnemosyne: My dear, you have an alternative.
Hesiod: What is that?
Mnemosyne: Try telling mortals the things you know.
— The mountain is wild, friend. On the rusty grass of last winter there are still patches of snow. It looks like the centaur's robe. These high places are all like this. A few tiny changes, and the countryside becomes exactly what it was when these things happened.
— I wonder if they really saw them.
— Who can say? But surely they did see them. They told their names, and that was all. There lies the whole difference between stories and the truth. "It was this man, or that man." "He did this, he said that." The man who tells the truth is satisfied with that. He doesn't even suspect that his listeners might not believe him. We are the liars. We have never seen these things, and yet we know exactly what robe the centaur wore or the color of the grapes on the threshing-floor of Icarius.
— All it takes is a hill, a peak, a shore. Any lonely place where your eyes lift up and stop at the sky. The incredible relief of things outlined in the air still seizes the heart. For my part I believe that a tree, a rock, profiled against the sky, were gods from the very beginning.
— There was a time when even those things didn't exist up here.
— Agreed. Before them there were the voices of the earth—the roots, the springs, the snakes. If the daemon links earth with heaven, he must emerge into the light from the darkness of the ground.
— I don't know. Those people knew too many things. With a simple name they told the story of the cloud, the forest, the fates. They saw with certainty what we barely know. They had neither the time nor the taste for losing themselves in dreams. They saw terrible, incredible things, and weren't even surprised. They knew what it was. If what they said was false, who could blame them? In those days even you couldn't have said "It's morning" or "it looks like rain" without losing your head.
— Yes, they spoke names. So much so that at times I wonder whether the things or those names came first.
— Believe me, they came together. And it happened here, in these wild and lonely places. Is there anything surprising in their coming here? What else could those people have looked for in a place like this, if not an encounter with the gods?
— Who can say why they stopped here? But in every abandoned place, an emptiness, an expectation remains.
— It's the only thing a man could think of, here. These places have names forever. All that remains is the grass and the sky, and yet the breath of the wind is more fragrant to the memory than a storm in a forest. There is neither emptiness nor expectation. What has been exists forever.
— But those people are dead and buried. These places now are what they were before there were men. I am willing to grant you that what they said was true. But what else remains? You'll admit that we no longer have encounters with gods on the mountain paths. When I say, "It's morning" or "It looks like rain," I'm not talking about gods.
— We talked about the gods tonight. Yesterday you were talking about summer, and the desire you feel when you breathe the warm evening air. At other times you talk about man, about people you have known, of your past tastes, of unexpected encounters. All things that once existed. I can assure you that I listened to you as I listen once again to those ancient names within me. When you tell me the things you know, I don't ask you, "But what else remains?" or whether the word or the things came first. I live with you, and I feel myself alive.
— It isn't easy to live as though what happened in another age were real. Yesterday when the fog overtook us in lonely country, and a couple of stones tumbled down from the hill to our feet, we didn't think of divine things or a fantastic encounter, but only of the night and the hares we had startled. Who we are and what we believe emerge when we are confronted with hardship, in the hour of risk.
— When we are home again it will be pleasant to talk with our friends about last night and the hares we startled. But our fear is something to smile at if we think of the terror of those people to whom everything that happened was mortal, fatal. People for whom the air was crowded with nocturnal terrors, mysterious threats, dreadful memories. Think, for instance, of storms or earthquakes. And if their uneasiness was real—as it certainly was—then the hope, the courage, the joyous discovery of powers, of promises, of encounters, were also real. For my part, I never tire of hearing them tell of the terrors in the night and the things in which they set their hopes.
— And you believe in the monsters? In the tales of men turned into beasts, in the breathing rocks, in the divine smiles, and the words that annihilated?
— I believe in what every man has hoped for and suffered. If they in their time climbed up to these rock-strewn heights, or scoured the world for fatal swamps, it was because they found in those places something of which we are ignorant. Not bread, not pleasure. Not precious health. Men know where those things are found. Not here. As for us who live far away, down by the shore or in the fields, we have lost that other thing.
— That other thing? What do you mean?
— You know. Those encounters of theirs.