A Book of Myths

Page: 25

[Pg 44] passionate intercession for the gift of love to a little nymph. She heard his steps behind her and turned round, proud and angry that one should follow her when she had not willed it.

“Stay!” he said, “daughter of Peneus. No foe am I, but thine own humble lover. To thee alone do I bow my head. To all others on earth am I conqueror and king.”

But Daphne, hating his words of passionate love, sped on. And when his passion lent wings to his feet and she heard him gaining on her as she fled, not as a lover did Daphne look on deathless Apollo, but as a hateful foe. More swiftly than she had ever run beside her mistress Diana, leaving the flying winds behind her as she sped, ran Daphne now. But ever did Apollo gain upon her, and almost had he grasped her when she reached the green banks of the river of which her father, Peneus, was god.

“Help me, Peneus!” she cried. “Save me, oh my father, from him whose love I fear!”

As she spoke the arms of Apollo seized her, yet, even as his arms met around her waist, lissome and slight as a young willow, Daphne the nymph was Daphne the nymph no longer. Her fragrant hair, her soft white arms, her tender body all changed as the sun-god touched them. Her feet took root in the soft, damp earth by the river. Her arms sprouted into woody branches and green leaves. Her face vanished, and the bark of a big tree enclosed her snow-white body. Yet Apollo did not take away his embrace from her who had [Pg 45] been his dear first love. He knew that her cry to Peneus her father had been answered, yet he said, “Since thou canst not be my bride, at least thou shalt be my tree; my hair, my lyre, my quiver shall have thee always, oh laurel tree of the Immortals!”

So do we still speak of laurels won, and worn by those of deathless fame, and still does the first love of Apollo crown the heads of those whose gifts have fitted them to dwell with the dwellers on Olympus.

“I espouse thee for my tree:
Be thou the prize of honour and renown;
The deathless poet, and the poem, crown;
Thou shalt the Roman festivals adorn,
And, after poets, be by victors worn.”

Ovid (Dryden’s translation).

[Pg 46]


Those who read for the first time the story of Psyche must at once be struck by its kinship to the fairy tales of childhood. Here we have the three sisters, the two elder jealous and spiteful, the youngest beautiful and gentle and quite unable to defend herself against her sisters’ wicked arts. Here, too, is the mysterious bridegroom who is never seen and who is lost to his bride because of her lack of faith. Truly it is an old, old tale—older than all fairy tales—the story of love that is not strong enough to believe and to wait, and so to “win through” in the end—the story of seeds of suspicion sown by one full of malice in an innocent heart, and which bring to the hapless reaper a cruel harvest.

Once upon a time, so goes the tale, a king and queen had three beautiful daughters. The first and the second were fair indeed, but the beauty of the youngest was such that all the people of the land worshipped it as a thing sent straight from Olympus. They awaited her outside the royal palace, and when she came, they threw chaplets of roses and violets for her little feet to tread upon, and sang hymns of praise as though she were no mortal maiden but a daughter of the deathless gods.

There were many who said that the beauty of Aphrodite herself was less perfect than the beauty of Psyche, and when the goddess found that men were [Pg 47] forsaking her altars in order to worship a mortal maiden, great was her wrath against them and against the princess who, all unwittingly, had wrought her this shameful harm.

In her garden, sitting amongst the flowers and idly watching his mother’s fair white doves as they preened their snowy feathers in the sun, Aphrodite found her son Eros, and angrily poured forth to him the story of her shame.

“Thine must be the task of avenging thy mother’s honour,” she said. “Thou who hast the power of making the loves of men, stab with one of thine arrows the heart of this presumptuous maiden, and shame her before all other mortals by making her love a monster from which all others shrink and which all despise.” With wicked glee Eros heard his mother’s commands. His beautiful face, still the face of a mischievous boy, lit up with merriment. This was, in truth, a game after his own heart. In the garden of Aphrodite is a fountain of sweet, another of bitter water, and Eros filled two amber vases, one from each fountain, hung them from his quiver, and

“Straight he rose from earth and down the wind
Went glittering ’twixt the blue sky and the sea.”

In her chamber Psyche lay fast asleep, and swiftly, almost without a glance at her, Eros sprinkled some of the bitter drops upon her lips, and then, with one of his sharpest arrows, pricked her snowy breast. Like a child who half awakes in fear, and looks up with puzzled, wondering eyes, Psyche, with a little moan, opened [Pg 48] eyes that were bluer than the violets in spring and gazed at Eros. He knew that he was invisible, and yet her gaze made him tremble.