1855 - BULFINCH'S MYTHOLOGY:
THE AGE OF FABLE OR STORIES OF GODS AND HEROES
by Thomas Bulfinch
ENDYMION- ORION- AURORA AND TITHONUS- ACIS AND
ENDYMION was a beautiful youth who fed his flock on Mount Latmos. One calm, clear
night Diana, the moon, looked down and saw him sleeping. The cold heart of the virgin goddess was warmed by his surpassing beauty, and she came down to him, kissed him, and watched over him while he slept.
Another story was that Jupiter bestowed on him the gift of perpetual youth united
with perpetual sleep. Of one so gifted we can have but few adventures to record. Diana, it was said, took care that his fortunes should not suffer by his inactive life, for she made his flock increase, and guarded
his sheep and lambs from the wild beasts.
The story of Endymion has a peculiar charm from the human meaning which it so thinly
veils. We see in Endymion the young poet, his fancy and his heart seeking in vain for that which can satisfy them, finding his favourite hour in the quiet moonlight, and nursing there beneath the beams of the bright
and silent witness the melancholy and the ardour which consume him. The story suggests aspiring and poetic love, a life spent more in dreams than in reality, and an early and welcome death.- S. G. B.
The "Endymion" of Keats is a wild and fanciful poem, containing some
exquisite poetry, as this, to the moon:
"...The sleeping kine
Couched in thy brightness dream of fields divine.
Innumerable mountains rise, and rise,
Ambitious for the hallowing of thine eyes,
And yet thy benediction passeth not
One obscure hiding-place, one little spot
Where pleasure may be sent; the nested wren
Has thy fair face within its tranquil ken;" etc., etc.
Dr. Young, in the "Night Thoughts," alludes to Endymion thus:
"...These thoughts, O Night, are thine;
From thee they came like lovers' secret sighs,
While others slept. So Cynthia, poets feign,
In shadows veiled, soft, sliding from her sphere,
Her shepherd cheered, of her enamoured less
Than I of thee."
Fletcher, in the "Faithful Shepherdess," tells:
"How the pale Phoebe, hunting in a grove,
First saw the boy Endymion, from whose eyes
She took eternal fire that never dies;
How she conveyed him softly in a sleep,
His temples bound with poppy, to the steep
Head of old Latmos, where she stoops each night,
Gilding the mountain with her brother's light,
To kiss her sweetest."
Orion was the son of Neptune. He was a handsome giant and a mighty hunter. His
father gave him the power of wading through the depths of the sea, or, as others say, of walking on its surface.
Orion loved Merope, the daughter of OEnopion, king of Chios, and sought her in
marriage. He cleared the island of wild beasts, and brought the spoils of the chase as presents to his beloved; but as OEnopion constantly deferred his consent, Orion attempted to gain possession of the maiden by
violence. Her father, incensed at this conduct, having made Orion drunk, deprived him of his sight and cast him out on the seashore. The blinded hero followed the sound, of a Cyclops' hammer till he reached Lemnos,
and came to the forge of Vulcan, who, taking pity on him, gave him Kedalion, one of his men, to be his guide to the abode of the sun. Placing Kedalion on his shoulders, Orion proceeded to the east, and there meeting
the sun-god, was restored to sight by his beam.
After this he dwelt as a hunter with Diana, with whom he was a favourite, and it is
even said she was about to marry him. Her brother was highly displeased and often chid her, but to no purpose. One day, observing Orion wading through the sea with his head just above the water, Apollo pointed it
out to his sister and maintained that she could not hit that black thing on the sea. The archer-goddess discharged a shaft with fatal aim. The waves rolled the dead body of Orion to the land, and bewailing her fatal
error with many tears, Diana placed him among the stars, where he appears as a giant, with a girdle, sword, lion's skin, and club. Sirius, his dog, follows him, and the Pleiads fly before him.
The Pleiads were daughters of Atlas, and nymphs of Diana's train. One day Orion saw
them and became enamoured and pursued them. In their distress they prayed to the gods to change their form, and Jupiter in pity turned them into pigeons, and then made them a constellation in the sky. Though their
number was seven, only six stars are visible, for Electra, one of them, it is said left her place that she might not behold the ruin of Troy, for that city was founded by her son Dardanus. The sight had such an
effect on her sisters that they have looked pale ever since.
Mr. Longfellow has a poem on the "Occultation of Orion." The following
lines are those in which he alludes to the mythic story. We must premise that on the celestial globe Orion is represented as robed in a lion's skin and wielding a club. At the moment the stars of the constellation,
one by one, were quenched in the light of the moon, the poet tells us
"Down fell the red skin of the lion
Into the river at his feet.
His mighty club no longer beat
The forehead of the bull; but he
Reeled as of yore beside the sea,
When blinded by OEnopion
He sought the blacksmith at his forge,
And climbing up the narrow gorge,
Fixed his blank eyes upon the sun."
Tennyson has a different theory of the Pleiads:
"Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid."
Byron alludes to the lost Pleiad:
"Like the lost Pleiad seen no more below."
See also Mrs. Hemans's verses on the same subject.
AURORA AND TITHONUS.
The goddess of the Dawn, like her sister the Moon, was at times inspired with the
love of mortals. Her greatest favourite was Tithonus son of Laomedon, king of Troy. She stole him away, and prevailed on Jupiter to grant him immortality; but, forgetting to have youth joined in the gift, after some
time she began to discern, to her great mortification, that he was growing old. When his hair was quite white she left his society; but he still had the range of her palace, lived on ambrosial food, and was clad in
celestial raiment. At length he lost the power of using his limbs, and then she shut him up in his chamber, whence his feeble voice might at times be heard. Finally she turned him into a grasshopper.
Memnon was the son of Aurora and Tithonus. He was king of the AEthiopians, and dwelt
in the extreme east, on the shore of Ocean. He came with his warriors to assist the kindred of his father in the war of Troy. King Priam received him with great honours, and listened with admiration to his narrative
of the wonders of the ocean shore.
The very day after his arrival, Memnon, impatient of repose, led his troops to the
field. Antilochus, the brave son of Nestor, fell by his hand, and the Greeks were put to flight, when Achilles appeared and restored the battle. A long and doubtful contest ensued between him and the son of Aurora;
at length victory declared for Achilles, Memnon fell, and the Trojans fled in dismay.
Aurora, who from her station in the sky had viewed with apprehension the danger of
her son, when she saw him fall, directed his brothers, the Winds, to convey his body to the banks of the river Esepus in Paphlagonia. In the evening Aurora came, accompanied by the Hours and the Pleiads, and wept
and lamented over her son. Night, in sympathy with her grief, spread the heaven with clouds; all nature mourned for the offspring of the Dawn. The AEthiopians raised his tomb on the banks of the stream in the grove
of the Nymphs, and Jupiter caused the sparks and cinders of his funeral pile to be turned into birds, which, dividing into two flocks, fought over the pile till they fell into the flames. Every year at the
anniversary of his death they return and celebrate his obsequies in like manner. Aurora remains inconsolable for the loss of her son. Her tears still flow, and may be seen at early morning in the form of dew-drops
on the grass.
Unlike most of the marvels of ancient mythology, there still exist some memorials of
this. On the banks of the river Nile, in Egypt, are two colossal statues, one of which is said to be the statue of Memnon. Ancient writers record that when the first rays of the rising sun fall upon this statue a
sound is heard to issue from it, which they compare to the snapping of a harp-string. There is some doubt about the identification of the existing statue with the one described by the ancients, and the mysterious
sounds are still more doubtful. Yet there are not wanting some modern testimonies to their being still audible. It has been suggested that sounds produced by confined air making its escape from crevices or caverns
in the rocks may have given some ground for the story. Sir Gardner Wilkinson, a late traveller, of the highest authority, examined the statue itself, and discovered that it was hollow, and that "in the lap of
the statue is a stone, which on being struck emits a metallic sound, that might still be made use of to deceive a visitor who was predisposed to believe its powers."
The vocal statue of Memnon is a favourite subject of allusion with the poets.
Darwin, in his "Botanic Garden," says:
"So to the sacred Sun in Memnon's fane
Spontaneous concords choired the matin strain;
Touched by his orient beam responsive rings
The living lyre and vibrates all its strings;
Accordant aisles the tender tones prolong,
And holy echoes swell the adoring song."
Book I., 1. 182.
ACIS AND GALATEA.
Scylla was a fair virgin of Sicily, a favourite of the Sea-Nymphs. She had many
suitors, but repelled them all, and would go to the grotto of Galatea, and tell her how she was persecuted. One day the goddess, while Scylla dressed her hair, listened to the story, and then replied, "Yet,
maiden, your persecutors are of the not ungentle race of men, whom, if you will, you can repel; but I, the daughter of Nereus, and protected by such a band of sisters, found no escape from the passion of the Cyclops
but in the depths of the sea;" and tears stopped her utterance, which when the pitying maiden had wiped away with her delicate finger, and soothed the goddess, "Tell me, dearest," said she, "the
cause of your grief." Galatea then said, "Acis was the son of Faunus, and a Naiad. His father and mother loved him dearly, but their love was not equal to mine. For the beautiful youth attached himself to
me alone, and he was just sixteen years old, the down just beginning to darken his cheeks. As much as I sought his society, so much did the Cyclops seek mine; and if you ask me whether my love for Acis or my hatred
of Polyphemus was the stronger, I cannot tell you; they were in equal measure. O Venus, how great is thy power! this fierce giant, the terror of the woods, whom no hapless stranger escaped unharmed, who defied even
Jove himself, learned to feel what love was, and, touched with a passion for me, forgot his flocks and his well-stored caverns. Then for the first time he began to take some care of his appearance, and to try to
make himself agreeable; he harrowed those coarse locks of his with a comb, and mowed his beard with a sickle, looked at his harsh features in the water, and composed his countenance. His love of slaughter, his
fierceness and thirst of blood prevailed no more, and ships that touched at his island went away in safety. He paced up and down the sea-shore, imprinting huge tracks with his heavy tread, and, when weary, lay
tranquilly in his cave.
"There is a cliff which projects into the sea, which washes it on either side.
Thither one day the huge Cyclops ascended, and sat down while his flocks spread themselves around. Laying down his staff, which would have served for a mast to hold a vessel's sail, and taking his instrument
compacted of numerous pipes, he made the hills and the waters echo the music of his song. I lay hid under a rock by the side of my beloved Acis, and listened to the distant strain. It was full of extravagant praises
of my beauty, mingled with passionate reproaches of my coldness and cruelty.
"When he had finished he rose up, and, like a raging bull that cannot stand
still, wandered off into the woods. Acis and I thought no more of him, till on a sudden he came to a spot which gave him a view of us as we sat. 'I see you,' he exclaimed, 'and I will make this the last of your
love-meetings.' His voice was a roar such as an angry Cyclops alone could utter. AEtna trembled at the sound. I, overcome with terror, plunged into the water. Acis turned and fled, crying, 'Save me, Galatea, save
me, my parents!' The Cyclops pursued him, and tearing a rock from the side of the mountain hurled it at him. Though only a corner of it touched him, it overwhelmed him.
"All that fate left in my power I did for Acis. I endowed him with the honours
of his grandfather, the river-god. The purple blood flowed out from under the rock, but by degrees grew paler and looked like the stream of a river rendered turbid by rains, and in time it became clear. The rock
cleaved open, and the water, as it gushed from the chasm, uttered a pleasing murmur."
Thus Acis was changed into a river, and the river retains the name of Acis.
Dryden, in his "Cymon and Iphigenia," has told the story of a clown
converted into a gentleman by the power of love, in a way that shows traces of kindred to the old story of Galatea and the Cyclops.
"What not his father's care nor tutor's art
Could plant with pains in his unpolished heart,
The best instructor, Love, at once inspired,
As barren grounds to fruitfulness are fired.
Love taught him shame, and shame with love at strife
Soon taught the sweet civilities of life."
Bulfinch's Mythology Table of Contents