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

Page: 74

These fair maidens were the Danaides, daughters of Danaus, who had pledged his fifty daughters to the fifty sons of his brother Ægyptus. The marriage preparations were all completed, when Danaus suddenly remembered an ancient prophecy which had quite escaped his memory, and which foretold that he would perish by the hand of his son-in-law.

It was now too late to prevent the marriages, so, calling his daughters aside, he told them what the oracle had said, and, giving them each a sharp dagger, bade them slay their husbands on their wedding night. The marriages were celebrated, as was customary, with mirth, dance, and song; and the revelry continued until late at night, when, the guests having departed, the newly married couples retired. But as soon as Danaus’ daughters were quite certain their husbands were fast asleep, they produced their daggers and slew their mates.

“Danaus arm’d each daughter’s hand
To stain with blood the bridal bed.”
Euripides (Potter’s tr.).

One of the brides only, Hypermnestra, loved her husband too dearly to obey her father’s command, and, when morning broke, only forty-nine of Ægyptus’ sons were found lifeless. The sole survivor, Lynceus, to avenge his brothers’ death, slew Danaus, thus fulfilling the ominous prophecy; while the gods, incensed [167] by the Danaides’ heartlessness, sent them to Hades, where they were compelled to fill the bottomless cask.

Tartarus also detained within its brazen portals a cruel king named Tantalus (the father of Niobe), who, while on earth, had starved and ill-treated his subjects, insulted the immortal gods, and on one occasion had even dared to cook and serve up to them his own son Pelops. Most of the gods were immediately aware of the deception practiced upon them, and refused the new dish; but Ceres, who was very melancholy on account of the recent loss of her daughter, paid no heed to what was offered her, and in a fit of absent-mindedness ate part of the lad’s shoulder.

The gods in pity restored the youth to life, and Ceres replaced the missing shoulder with one of ivory or of gold. Driven away from his kingdom, which was seized by the King of Troy, Pelops took refuge in Greece, where he ruled the extensive peninsula, the Peloponnesus, which still bears his name.

To punish the inhuman Tantalus, the gods then sent him to Tartarus, where he stood up to his chin in a stream of pure water, tormented with thirst; for, whenever he stooped to drink, the waters fled from his parched lips. Over his head hung a branch of luscious fruit. His hunger was as intolerable as his thirst; but, whenever he clutched at the fruit, the branch swung upward, and eluded his eager grasp.

“Above, beneath, around his hapless head,
Trees of all kinds delicious fruitage spread.
The fruit he strives to seize; but blasts arise,
Toss it on high, and whirl it to the skies.”
Homer (Pope’s tr.).