1855 - BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY:
THE AGE OF FABLE OR STORIES OF GODS AND HEROES
by Thomas Bulfinch
ARION- IBYCUS- SIMONIDES- SAPPHO.
THE poets whose adventures compose this chapter were real persons some of whose
works yet remain, and their influence on poets who succeeded them is yet more important than their poetical remains. The adventures recorded of them in the following stories rest on the same authority as other
narratives of the "Age of Fable," that is, of the poets who have told them. In their present form, the first two are translated from the German, Arion from Schlegel, and Ibycus from Schiller.
Arion was a famous musician, and dwelt at the court of Periander, king of Corinth,
with whom he was a great favourite. There was to be a musical contest in Sicily, and Arion longed to compete for the prize, He told his wish to Periander, who besought him like a brother to give up the thought.
"Pray stay with me," he said, "and be contented. He who strives to win may lose." Arion answered, "A wandering life best suits the free heart of a poet. The talent which a god bestowed on
me, I would fain make a source of pleasure to others. And if I win the prize, how will the enjoyment of it be increased by the consciousness of my widespread fame!" He went, won the prize, and embarked with his
wealth in a Corinthian ship for home. On the second morning after setting sail, the wind breathed mild and fair. "O Periander," he exclaimed, "dismiss your fears! Soon shall you forget them in my
embrace. With what lavish offerings will we display our gratitude to the gods, and how merry will we be at the festal board!" The wind and sea continued propitious. Not a cloud dimmed the firmament. He had not
trusted too much to the ocean- but he had to man. He overheard the seamen exchanging hints with one another, and found they were plotting to possess themselves of his treasure. Presently they surrounded him loud and
mutinous, and said, "Arion, you must die! If you would have a grave on shore, yield yourself to die on this spot; but if otherwise, cast yourself into the sea." "Will nothing satisfy you but my
life?" said he. "Take my gold, and welcome, I willingly buy my life at that price." "No, no; we cannot spare you. Your life would be too dangerous to us. Where could we go to escape from
Periander, if he should know that you had been robbed by us? Your gold would be of little use to us, if, on returning home, we could never more be free from fear." "Grant me, then," said he, "a
last request, since nought will avail to save my life, that I may die, as I have lived, as becomes a bard. When I shall have sung my death song, and my harp-strings shall have ceased to vibrate, then I will bid
farewell to life, and yield uncomplaining to my fate." This prayer, like the others, would have been unheeded,- they thought only of their booty,- but to hear so famous a musician, that moved their rude hearts.
"Suffer me," he added, "to arrange my dress. Apollo will not favour me unless I be clad in my minstrel garb."
He clothed his well-proportioned limbs in gold and purple fair to see, his tunic
fell around him in graceful folds, jewels adorned his arms, his brow was crowned with a golden wreath, and over his neck and shoulders flowed his hair perfumed with odours. His left hand held the lyre, his right the
ivory wand with which he struck its chords. Like one inspired, he seemed to drink the morning air and glitter in the morning ray. The seamen gazed with admiration. He strode forward to the vessel's side and looked
down into the deep blue sea. Addressing his lyre, he sang, "Companion of my voice, come with me to the realm of shades. Though Cerberus may growl, we know the power of song can tame his rage. Ye heroes of
Elysium, who have passed the darkling flood,- ye happy souls, soon shall I join your band. Yet can ye relieve my grief? Alas, I leave my friend behind me. Thou, who didst find thy Eurydice, and lose her again as
soon as found; when she had vanished like a dream, how didst thou hate the cheerful light! I must away, but I will not fear. The gods look down upon us. Ye who slay me unoffending, when I am no more, your time of
trembling shall come. Ye Nereids, receive your guest, who throws himself upon your mercy!" So saying, he sprang into the deep sea. The waves covered him, and the seamen held on their way, fancying themselves
safe from all danger of detection.
But the strains of his music had drawn round him the inhabitants of the deep to
listen, and Dolphins followed the ship as if chained by a spell. While he struggled in the waves, a Dolphin offered him his back, and carried him mounted thereon safe to shore. At the spot where he landed, a
monument of brass was afterwards erected upon the rocky shore, to preserve the memory of the event.
When Arion and the dolphin parted, each to his own element, Arion thus poured forth
his thanks: "Farewell, thou faithful, friendly fish! Would that I could reward thee; but thou canst not wend with me, nor I with thee. Companionship we may not have. May Galatea, queen of the deep, accord thee
her favour, and thou, proud of the burden, draw her chariot over the smooth mirror of the deep."
Arion hastened from the shore, and soon saw before him the towers of Corinth. He
journeyed on, harp in hand, singing as he went, full of love and happiness, forgetting his losses, and mindful only of what remained, his friend and his lyre. He entered the hospitable halls, and was soon clasped in
the embrace of Periander. "I come back to thee, my friend," he said. "The talent which a god bestowed has been the delight of thousands, but false knaves have stripped me of my well-earned treasure;
yet I retain the consciousness of widespread fame." Then he told Periander all the wonderful events that had befallen him, who heard him with amazement. "Shall such wickedness triumph?" said he.
"Then in vain is power lodged in my hands. That we may discover the criminals, you must remain here in concealment, and so they will approach without suspicion." When the ship. arrived in the harbour, he
summoned the mariners before him. "Have you heard anything of Arion?" he inquired. "I anxiously look for his return." They replied, "We left him well and prosperous in Tarentum." As
they said these words, Arion stepped forth and faced them. His well-proportioned limbs were arrayed in gold and purple fair to see, his tunic fell around him in graceful folds, jewels adorned his arms, his brow was
crowned with a golden wreath, and over his neck and shoulders flowed his hair perfumed with odours; his left hand held the lyre, his right the ivory wand with which he struck its chords. They fell prostrate at his
feet, as if a lightning bolt had struck them. "We meant to murder him, and he has become a god. O Earth, open and receive us!" Then Periander spoke. "He lives, the master of the lay! Kind Heaven
protects the poet's life. As for you, I invoke not the spirit of vengeance; Arion wishes not your blood. Ye slaves of avarice, begone! Seek some barbarous land, and never may aught beautiful delight your
Spenser represents Arion, mounted on his dolphin, accompanying the train of Neptune
"Then was there heard a most celestial sound
Of dainty music which did next ensue,
And, on the floating waters as enthroned,
Arion with his harp unto him drew
The ears and hearts of all that goodly crew;
Even when as yet the dolphin which him bore
Through the AEgean Seas from pirates' view,
Stood still, by him astonished at his lore,
And all the raging seas for joy forgot to roar."
Byron, in his "Childe Harold," Canto II., alludes to the story of Arion,
when, describing his voyage, he represents one of the seamen making music to entertain the rest:
"The moon is up; by Heaven a lovely eve!
Long streams of light o'er dancing waves expand;
Now lads on shore may sigh and maids believe;
Such be our fate when we return to land!
Meantime some rude Arion's restless hand
Wakes the brisk harmony that sailors love;
A circle there of merry listeners stand,
Or to some well-known measure featly move
Thoughtless as if on shore they still were free to rove."
In order to understand the story of Ibycus which follows it is necessary to
remember, first, that the theatres of the ancients were immense fabrics capable of containing from ten to thirty thousand spectators, and as they were used only on festal occasions, and admission was free to all,
they were usually filled. They were without roofs and open to the sky, and the performances were in the daytime. Secondly, the appalling representation of the Furies is not exaggerated in the story. It is recorded
that AEschylus, the tragic poet, having on one occasion represented the Furies in a chorus of fifty performers, the terror of the spectators was such that many fainted and were thrown into convulsions, and the
magistrates forbade a like representation for the future.
Ibycus, the pious poet, was on his way to the chariot races and musical competitions
held at the Isthmus of Corinth, which attracted all of Grecian lineage. Apollo had bestowed on him the gift of song, the honeyed lips of the poet, and he pursued his way with lightsome step, full of the god. Already
the towers of Corinth crowning the height appeared in view, and he had entered with pious awe the sacred grove of Neptune. No living object was in sight, only a flock of cranes flew overhead taking the same course
as himself in their migration to a southern clime. "Good luck to you, ye friendly squadrons," he exclaimed, "my companions from across the sea. I take your company for a good omen. We come from far
and fly in search of hospitality. May both of us meet that kind reception which shields the stranger guest from harm!"
He paced briskly on, and soon was in the middle of the wood. There suddenly, at a
narrow pass, two robbers stepped forth and barred his way. He must yield or fight. But his hand, accustomed to the lyre, and not to the strife of arms, sank powerless. He called for help on men and gods, but his cry
reached no defender's ear. "Then here must I die," said he, "in a strange land, unlamented, cut off by the hand of outlaws, and see none to avenge my, cause." Sore wounded, he sank to the earth,
when hoarse screamed the cranes overhead. "Take up my cause, ye cranes," he said, "since no voice but yours answers to my cry." So saying he closed his eyes in death.
The body, despoiled and mangled, was found, and though disfigured with wounds, was
recognized by the friend in Corinth who had expected him as a guest. "Is it thus I find you restored to me?" he exclaimed. "I who hoped to entwine your temples with the wreath of triumph in the strife
The guests assembled at the festival heard the tidings with dismay. All Greece felt
the wound, every heart owned its loss. They crowded round the tribunal of the magistrates, and demanded vengeance on the murderers and expiation with their blood.
But what trace or mark shall point out the perpetrator from amidst the vast
multitude attracted by the splendour of the feast? Did he fall by the hands of robbers or did some private enemy slay him? The all-discerning sun alone can tell, for no other eye beheld it. Yet not improbably the
murderer even now walks in the midst of the throng, and enjoys the fruits of his crime, while vengeance seeks for him in vain. Perhaps in their own temple's enclosure he defies the gods, mingling freely in this
throng of men that now presses into the amphitheatre.
For now crowded together, row on row, the multitude fills the seats till it seems as
if the very fabric would give way. The murmur of voices sounds like the roar of the sea, while the circles widening in their ascent rise tier on tier, as if they would reach the sky.
And now the vast assemblage listens to the awful voice of the chorus personating the
Furies, which in solemn guise advances with measured step, and moves around the circuit of the theatre. Can they be mortal women who compose that awful group, and can that vast concourse of silent forms be living
The choristers, clad in black, bore in their fleshless hands torches blazing with a
pitchy flame. Their cheeks were bloodless, and in place of hair writhing and swelling serpents curled around their brows. Forming a circle, these awful beings sang their hymns, rending the hearts of the guilty, and
enchaining all their faculties. It rose and swelled, overpowering the sound of the instruments, stealing the judgment, palsying the heart, curdling the blood.
"Happy the man who keeps his heart pure from guilt and crime! Him we avengers
touch not; he treads the path of life secure from us. But woe! woe! to him who has done the deed of secret murder. We, the fearful family of Night, fasten ourselves upon his whole being. Thinks he by flight to
escape us? We fly still faster in pursuit, twine our snakes around his feet, and bring him to the ground. Unwearied we pursue; no pity checks our course; still on and on, to the end of life, we give him no peace nor
rest." Thus the Eumenides sang, and moved in solemn cadence, while stillness like the stillness of death sat over the whole assembly as if in the presence of superhuman beings; and then in solemn march
completing the circuit of the theatre, they passed out at the back of the stage.
Every heart fluttered between illusion and reality, and every breast panted with
undefined terror, quailing before the awful power that watches secret crimes and winds unseen the skein of destiny. At that moment a cry burst forth from one of the uppermost benches- "Look! look! comrade,
yonder are the cranes of Ibycus!" And suddenly there appeared sailing across the sky a dark object which a moment's inspection showed to be a flock of cranes flying directly over the theatre. "Of Ibycus!
did he say?" The beloved name revived the sorrow in every breast. As wave follows wave over the face of the sea, so ran from mouth to mouth the words, "Of Ibycus! him whom we all lament, whom some
murderer's hand laid low! What have the cranes to do with him?" And louder grew the swell of voices, while like a lightning's flash the thought sped through every heart, "Observe the power of the
Eumenides! The pious poet shall be avenged! the murderer has informed against himself. Seize the man who uttered that cry and the other to whom he spoke!"
The culprit would gladly have recalled his words, but it was too late. The faces of
the murderers, pale with terror, betrayed their guilt. The people took them before the judge, they confessed their crime, and suffered the punishment they deserved.
Simonides was one of the most prolific of the early poets of Greece, but only a few
fragments of his compositions have descended to us. He wrote hymns, triumphal odes, and elegies. In the last species of composition he particularly excelled. His genius was inclined to the pathetic, and none could
touch with truer effect the chords of human sympathy. The "Lamentation of Danae," the most important of the fragments which remain of his poetry, is based upon the tradition that Danae and her infant son
were confined by order of her father, Acrisius, in a chest and set adrift on the sea. The chest floated towards the island of Seriphus, where both were rescued by Dictys, a fisherman, and carried to Polydectes, king
of the country, who received and protected them. The child, Perseus, when grown up became a famous hero, whose adventures have been recorded in a previous chapter.
Simonides passed much of his life at the courts of princes, and often employed his
talents in panegyric and festal odes, receiving his reward from the munificence of those whose exploits he celebrated. This employment was not derogatory, but closely resembles that of the earliest bards, such as
Demodocus, described by Homer, or of Homer himself, as recorded by tradition.
On one occasion, when residing at the court of Scopas, king of Thessaly, the prince
desired him to prepare a poem in celebration of his exploits, to be recited at a banquet. In order to diversify his theme, Simonides, who was celebrated for his piety, introduced into his poem the exploits of Castor
and Pollux. Such digressions were not unusual with the poets on similar occasions, and one might suppose an ordinary mortal might have been content to share the praises of the sons of Leda. But vanity is exacting;
and as Scopas sat at his festal board among his courtiers and sycophants, he grudged every verse that did not rehearse his own praises. When Simonides approached to receive the promised reward Scopas bestowed but
half the expected sum, saying, "Here is payment for my portion of thy performance; Castor and Pollux will doubtless compensate thee for so much as relates to them." The disconcerted poet returned to his
seat amidst the laughter which followed the great man's jest. In a little time he received a message that two young men on horseback were waiting without and anxious to see him. Simonides hastened to the door, but
looked in vain for the visitors. Scarcely, however, had he left the banqueting hall when the roof fell in with a loud crash, burying Scopas and all his guests beneath the ruins. On inquiring as to the appearance of
the young men who had sent for him, Simonides was satisfied that they were no other than Castor and Pollux themselves.
Sappho was a poetess who flourished in a very early age of Greek literature. Of her
works few fragments remain, but they are enough to establish her claim to eminent poetical genius. The story of Sappho commonly alluded to is that she was passionately in love with a beautiful youth named Phaon, and
failing to obtain a return of affection she threw herself from the promontory of Leucadia into the sea, under a superstition that those who should take that "Lover's-leap" would, if not destroyed, be cured
of their love.
Byron alludes to the story of Sappho in "Childe Harold," Canto II.:
"Childe Harold sailed and passed the barren spot
Where sad Penelope o'erlooked the wave,
And onward viewed the mount, not yet forgot,
The lover's refuge and the Lesbian's grave.
Dark Sappho! could not verse immortal save
That breast imbued with such immortal fire?
"'Twas on a Grecian autumn's gentle eve
Childe Harold hailed Leucadia's cape afar; etc.
Those who wish to know more of Sappho and her "leap" are referred to the
"Spectator," Nos. 223 and 229. See also Moore's "Evenings in Greece."
Bulfinch's Mythology Table of Contents