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

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“Succeeding times a silver age behold,
Excelling brass, but more excell’d by gold.
Then summer, autumn, winter, did appear,
And spring was but a season of the year;
The sun his annual course obliquely made,
Good days contracted, and enlarg’d the bad.
The air with sultry heats began to glow,
The wings of winds were clogg’d with ice and snow;
And shivering mortals into houses driven,
Sought shelter from the inclemency of heaven.
Those houses, then, were caves or homely sheds,
With twining osiers fenc’d, and moss their beds.
Then plows, for seed, the fruitful furrows broke,
And oxen labor’d first beneath the yoke.”
Ovid (Dryden’s tr.).

Yet, in spite of these few hardships, the people were happy, far happier than their descendants during the Age of Brass, which [36] speedily followed, when strife became customary, and differences were settled by blows.

But by far the worst of all was the Iron Age, when men’s passions knew no bounds, and they even dared refuse all homage to the immortal gods. War was waged incessantly; the earth was saturated with blood; the rights of hospitality were openly violated; and murder, rape, and theft were committed on all sides.

The Deluge.

Jupiter had kept a close watch over men’s actions during all these years; and this evil conduct aroused his wrath to such a point, that he vowed he would annihilate the human race. But the modes of destruction were manifold, and, as he could not decide which would eventually prove most efficacious, he summoned the gods to deliberate and aid him by their counsels. The first suggestion offered, was to destroy the world by fire, kindled by Jupiter’s much-dreaded thunderbolts; and the king of gods was about to put it into instant execution, when his arm was stayed by the objection that the rising flames might set fire to his own abode, and reduce its magnificence to unsightly ashes. He therefore rejected the plan as impracticable, and bade the gods devise other means of destruction.

After much delay and discussion, the immortals agreed to wash mankind off the face of the earth by a mighty deluge. The winds were instructed to gather together the rain clouds over the earth. Neptune let loose the waves of the sea, bidding them rise, overflow, and deluge the land. No sooner had the gods spoken, than the elements obeyed: the winds blew; the rain fell in torrents; lakes, seas, rivers, and oceans broke their bonds; and terrified mortals, forgetting their petty quarrels in a common impulse to flee from the death which threatened them, climbed the highest mountains, clung to uprooted trees, and even took refuge in the light skiffs they had constructed in happier days. Their efforts were all in vain, however; for the waters rose higher and higher, overtook them one after another in their ineffectual efforts to escape, closed over the homes where they might have [37] been so happy, and drowned their last despairing cries in their seething depths.

“Now hills and vales no more distinction know,
And level’d nature lies oppress’d below;
The most of mortals perish in the flood.”
Ovid (Dryden’s tr.).
Story of Deucalion and Pyrrha.

The rain continued to fall, until, after many days, the waves covered all the surface of the earth except the summit of Mount Parnassus, the highest peak in Greece. On this mountain, surrounded by the ever-rising flood, stood the son of Prometheus, Deucalion, with his faithful wife Pyrrha, a daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. From thence they, the sole survivors, viewed the universal desolation with tear-dimmed eyes.

In spite of the general depravity, the lives of this couple had always been pure and virtuous; and when Jupiter saw them there alone, and remembered their piety, he decided not to include them in the general destruction, but to save their lives. He therefore bade the winds return to their cave, and the rain to cease. Neptune, in accordance with his decree, blew a resounding blast upon his conch shell to recall the wandering waves, which immediately returned within their usual bounds.

“At length the world was all restor’d to view,
But desolate, and of a sickly hue;
Nature beheld herself, and stood aghast,
A dismal desert and a silent waste.”
Ovid (Dryden’s tr.).

Deucalion and Pyrrha followed the receding waves step by step down the steep mountain side, wondering how they should repeople the desolate earth. As they talked, they came to the shrine of Delphi, which alone had been able to resist the force of the waves. There they entered to consult the wishes of the gods. Their surprise and horror were unbounded, however, when a voice exclaimed, “Depart from hence with veiled heads, and [38] cast your mother’s bones behind you!” To obey such a command seemed sacrilegious in the extreme; for the dead had always been held in deep veneration by the Greeks, and the desecration of a grave was considered a heinous crime, and punished accordingly. But, they reasoned, the gods’ oracles can seldom be accepted in a literal sense; and Deucalion, after due thought, explained to Pyrrha what he conceived to be the meaning of this mysterious command.

“The Earth,” said he, “is the mother of all, and the stones may be considered her bones.” Husband and wife speedily decided to act upon this premise, and continued their descent, casting stones behind them. All those thrown by Deucalion were immediately changed into men, while those cast by Pyrrha became women.

Thus the earth was peopled for the second time with a blameless race of men, sent to replace the wicked beings slain by Jupiter. Deucalion and Pyrrha shortly after became the happy parents of a son named Hellen, who gave his name to all the Hellenic or Greek race; while his sons Æolus and Dorus, and grandsons Ion and Achæus, became the ancestors of the Æolian, Dorian, Ionian, and Achaian nations.