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Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 136

Refer to caption

CHIMÆRA. (Egyptian Museum, Florence.)

[294] Bridle in hand, Bellerophon stood pondering her words, and gradually remembered that Pegasus was a wonderful winged steed, born from the blood which fell into the foam of the sea from Medusa’s severed head (p. 244). This horse, as white as snow, and gifted with immortal life as well as incredible speed, was the favorite mount of Apollo and the Muses, who delighted in taking aërial flights on his broad back; and Bellerophon knew that from time to time he came down to earth to drink of the cool waters of the Hippocrene (a fountain which had bubbled forth where his hoofs first touched the earth), or to visit the equally limpid spring of Pirene, near Corinth.

Pegasus bridled.

Bellerophon now proceeded to the latter fountain, where, after lingering many days in the vain hope of catching even a glimpse of the winged steed, he finally beheld him sailing downward in wide curves, like a bird of prey. From his place of concealment in a neighboring thicket, Bellerophon watched his opportunity, and, while the winged steed was grazing, he boldly vaulted upon his back.

Pegasus, who had never before been ridden by a mortal, reared and pranced, and flew up to dizzy heights; but all his efforts failed to unseat the brave rider, who, biding his time, finally thrust Minerva’s golden bit between his teeth, and immediately he became gentle and tractable. Mounted upon this incomparable steed, Bellerophon now went in search of the winged monster Chimæra, who had given birth to the Nemean lion and to the riddle-loving Sphinx.

Chimæra slain.

From an unclouded sky Bellerophon and Pegasus swooped suddenly and unexpectedly down upon the terrible Chimæra, whose fiery breath and great strength were of no avail; for after a protracted struggle Bellerophon and Pegasus were victorious, and the monster lay lifeless upon the blood-soaked ground.

This mighty deed of valor accomplished, Bellerophon returned to Iobates, to report the success of his undertaking; and, although the king was heartily glad to know the Chimæra was no more, [295] he was very sorry to see Bellerophon safe and sound, and tried to devise some other plan to get rid of him.

He therefore sent him to fight the Amazons; but the hero, aided by the gods, defeated these warlike women also, and returned to Lycia, where, after escaping from an ambush posted by the king for his destruction, he again appeared victorious at court.

These repeated and narrow escapes from certain death convinced Iobates that the youth was under the special protection of the gods; and this induced the king not only to forego further attempts to slay him, but also to bestow upon the young hero his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Bellerophon, having now attained his dearest wishes, might have settled down in peace; but his head had been utterly turned by the many lofty flights he had taken upon Pegasus’ back, and, encouraged by the fulsome flattery of his courtiers, he finally fancied himself the equal of the immortal gods, and wished to join them in their celestial abode.

Bellerophon’s fall.

Summoning his faithful Pegasus once more, he rose higher and higher, and would probably have reached Olympus’ heights, had not Jupiter sent a gadfly, which stung poor Pegasus so cruelly, that he shied viciously, and flung his too confident rider far down to the earth below.

“Bold Bellerophon (so Jove decreed
In wrath) fell headlong from the fields of air.”
Wordsworth.

This fall, which would doubtless have killed any one but a mythological hero, merely deprived Bellerophon of his eyesight; and ever after he groped his way disconsolately, thinking of the happy days when he rode along the paths of air, and gazed upon the beautiful earth at his feet.

Bellerophon, mounted upon Pegasus, winging his flight through the air or fighting the Chimæra, is a favorite subject in sculpture and painting, which has frequently been treated by ancient artists, [296] a few of whose most noted works are still extant in various museums.

This story, like many others, is merely a sun myth, in which Bellerophon, the orb of day, rides across the sky on Pegasus, the fleecy white clouds, and slays Chimæra, the dread monster of darkness, which he alone can overcome. Driven from home early in life, Bellerophon wanders throughout the world like his brilliant prototype, and, like it, ends his career in total darkness.

[297]

CHAPTER XXVI.

MINOR DIVINITIES.

Naiades and Oreades.

According to the ancients’ belief, every mountain, valley, plain, lake, river, grove, and sea was provided with some lesser deity, whose special duty was assigned by the powerful gods of Olympus. These were, for instance, the Naiades, beautiful water nymphs, who dwelt in the limpid depths of the fountains, and were considered local patrons of poetry and song.

The Oreades, or mountain nymphs, were supposed to linger in the mountain solitudes, and guide weary travelers safely through their rocky mazes.

“Mark how the climbing Oreads
Beckon thee to their Arcades!”
Emerson.
Napææ and Dryades.

As for the Napææ, they preferred to linger in the valleys, which were kept green and fruitful by their watchful care, in which task they were ably seconded by the Dryades, the nymphs of vegetation.

The very trees in the forest and along the roadside were supposed to be each under the protection of a special divinity called Hamadryad, said to live and die with the tree intrusted to her care.

“When the Fate of Death is drawing near,
First wither on the earth the beauteous trees,
The bark around them wastes, the branches fall,
And the nymph’s soul, at the same moment, leaves
The sun’s fair light.”
Homer.
Story of Dryope.

[298] A sweet and touching story was told by the ancients of a mortal who was changed into a Hamadryad. This young girl, whose name was Dryope, was a beautiful young princess, the daughter of Baucis, so bright and clever, that all who knew her loved her dearly. Of course, as soon as she was old enough to think of marriage, a host of suitors asked her hand, each eager to win for his bride one so beautiful and gifted.

“No nymph of all Œchalia could compare,
For beauteous form, with Dryope the fair.”
Ovid (Pope’s tr.).

Fully aware of the importance of making a wise choice, Dryope took her time, and finally decided to marry Andræmon, a worthy young prince, who possessed every charm calculated to win a fair girl’s heart. The young people were duly married, and daily rejoiced in their happiness, which seemed almost too great for earth, when they became the parents of a charming little son.

Every day Dryope carried the child along the banks of a little lake close by the palace, where bloomed a profusion of gay-colored flowers.

“A lake there was, with shelving banks around,
Whose verdant summit fragrant myrtles crown’d.
Those shades, unknowing of the Fates, she sought,
And to the Naiads flowery garlands brought;
Her smiling babe (a pleasing charge) she press’d
Between her arms.”
Ovid (Pope’s tr.).

One day, while wandering there as usual, accompanied by her sister, she saw a lotus blossom, and pointed it out to her little son. He no sooner saw the brilliant flower, than he stretched out his little hands. To please him, the fond mother plucked it and gave it to him.

She had scarcely done so, when she noticed drops of blood trickling from the broken stem; and while she stood there, speechless [299] with wonder, a voice was heard accusing her of having slain Lotis, a nymph, who, to escape the pursuit of Priapus, god of the shade, had assumed the guise of a flower.

“Lotis the nymph (if rural tales be true),
As from Priapus’ lawless love she flew,
Forsook her form; and fixing here became
A flowery plant, which still preserves her name.”
Ovid (Pope’s tr.).

Recovering from her first speechless terror, Dryope turned to flee, with a pitiful cry of compassion on her pale lips, but, to her astonishment, she could not leave the spot: her feet seemed rooted to the ground. She cast a rapid glance downward to ascertain what could so impede her progress, and noticed the rough bark of a tree growing with fearful rapidity all around her.

Higher and higher it rose, from her knees to her waist, and still it crept upward, in spite of her frantic attempts to tear it away from her shapely limbs. In despair she raised her trembling hands and arms to heaven to implore aid; but, ere the words were spoken, her arms were transformed into twisted branches, and her hands were filled with leaves.

Nothing human now remained of poor Dryope except her sweet, tear-stained face; but this too would soon vanish under the all-involving bark. She therefore took hasty leave of her father, sister, husband, and son, who, attracted by her first cry, had rushed to give her all the assistance in their power. The last words were quickly spoken, but none too soon, for the bark closed over the soft lips and hid the lovely features from view.

“She ceased at once to speak, and ceased to be,
And all the nymph was lost within the tree:
Yet latent life through her new branches reign’d,
And long the plant a human heat retain’d.”
Ovid (Pope’s tr.).


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