Love stories

Myth of the Week: Nisus and Euryalus

Monday, March 26th, 2012

As those of you who are regular readers know, I love the Aeneid.  Encountering Vergil’s great epic poem in high school was an absolute revelation to me—and it has never stopped being a revelation, no matter how many times I read it.  With Vergil, there is always a greater depth, another subtlety, a further shining moment of poetry.

Mosaic of the poet Vergil, flanked by the muses of tragedy and history

Within the Aeneid, one of the saddest episodes (and one of my favorites) is the story of the lovers Nisus and Euryalus. Both are Trojans, refugees from their burned and fallen city, who are following the Trojan noble Aeneas to a new home.  Euryalus is described as surpassingly beautiful, and also very young—still in the time of “green youth,” beardless, and tenderly connected to his mother.  Nisus is a bit older, but still young himself, and deeply in love with Euryalus.  When we meet them, it is in a rare moment of leisure: they have both signed up as contestants in a footrace.

Initially, Nisus flashes ahead of the other runners, but then disaster strikes: he slips on the grass, blood-soaked from the sacrifice, and tumbles to the ground.  Salius, the Trojan in second place, surges into the lead; Euryalus is close behind.  But Nisus knows how much it would mean to his beloved to triumph.  He trips Salius, and Euryalus finishes first.  Understandably, Salius complains about Nisus’ cheating, and the good Aeneas ends up awarding all three of them prizes.  It’s a slight scene—sweet and almost comic.  But given what comes later, it also carries strains of darkness.  We see already how deep Nisus and Euryalus’ bond runs—and we see that Nisus will do anything for his lover.

Ancient footrace, in armor. Photo by Matthias Kabel

When we see them next in book IX, games have been replaced by bloody war. The Trojans have arrived in Italy, only to find themselves opposed by a native Latin force.  Aeneas has gone off to look for allies, leaving the Trojan forces besieged by the Latins.  Nisus bravely proposes a night raid, which Euryalus insists on joining.  Vergil again emphasizes the depth of feeling they have for each other, the “single love between them.”  Nisus tries to convince Euryalus to stay behind, fearing for his safety, but Euryalus won’t let his beloved go alone.

The scene that follows is a brutal one: the two young men venture into the sleeping camp, and begin killing all the men they can find.  It’s a strange mix—as if Achilles and Patroclus had been possessed by the spirits of Odysseus and Diomedes.  Nisus is like “a hungry lion” as he tears through the sheep-like, helpless Latins;  Euryalus is no less vicious.  Vergil, always sensitive to the cost of war, lingers a moment over the victims, who are themselves beautiful young men with their own stories, and their own families who will mourn them.

Euryalus, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

As dawn creeps near, Nisus urges Euryalus to leave off slaughter and make their escape.  Euryalus agrees, stopping to gather a few pieces of armor as his spoils, including a beautiful helmet.  But as they flee the camp, the polished metal of the helm catches the moonlight, alerting a group of Latin horsemen, who immediately give chase.  Nisus and Euryalus plunge through the woods.  Nisus, who grew up in the mountains, escapes; Euryalus does not.  When Nisus realizes he has lost his friend he immediately races back, only to see Euryalus being taken captive.  Hurling his javelin, he kills one guard, then another.  The Latins, enraged, prepare to stab Euryalus.

It is a terrifying moment.  Vergil keeps us with the desperate Nisus, who bursts from the woods screaming that they should attack him instead, that Euryalus is blameless.  But it is too late.  The Latins stab Euryalus, whose slumps forward like “a blood-red flower, cut by a plow.” Nisus flings himself among them, desperate to kill the man who killed his lover, before he himself is slain.  With his last breath, he falls upon his beloved’s body.

Nisus, over the fallen Euryalus. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Vergil does not stop the story there.  The angry Latins take their revenge, cutting off the heads of the young men, and sticking them on spikes. For all their bravery and tragic love, we can’t help but see that Nisus and Euryalus’ night-raid has single-handedly escalated the war’s brutalities.  Vergil also does not forget Euryalus’ mother, whose grief-stricken lament for her lost son is perhaps the most heart-breaking of all.

One of the things I love most about Vergil is his profound sympathy for human nature.  Nisus and Euryalus aren’t idealized heroes, but flawed, and very real young men, with maybe more courage than good sense.  Vergil’s great heart mourns for their lost youth and honors their love, even stepping outside the bounds of his narrative to deliver a moving epitaph:

“If my song has any power, no day shall ever remove you from memory.”

Myth of the Week: Psyche and Eros

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Maybe it’s just the dark and cold of February getting to me, but it seems like a good time of the year for love stories.  This one comes at the suggestion of the lovely Kayleigh and Sam: the story of Psyche and Eros.

Eros and Psyche has proved one of most enduring and beloved Greek myths.  Partially, I think its popularity stems from the combination of its specific, romantic story, and its allegorical implications— the two main characters have names that literally mean “Soul” and “Desire.” So you can see why those interested in myth and psychology, like Carl Jung, loved it.

Eros and Psyche, by a favorite painter of mine, William-Adolphe Bouguereau

For me the story has always felt more fairy-tale than Greek myth. There are jealous sisters, quests of penance, helpful animals, and a supposedly-hideous monster who turns out to be a handsome god.  And, as I noted last week, it is one of the few love stories in mythology with a happy ending.  The first extant version of it is by a Roman author, Apuleius, but I’m going to use the Greek names throughout (Eros, rather than Cupid, and Aphrodite, rather than Venus).

The story begins with Psyche, a girl so surpassingly beautiful that the neighbors mistake her for Aphrodite and begin to worship her.  This only makes Psyche miserable.  Not only is she worried that Aphrodite will be angry with her, she’s desperately lonely—her beauty is so intimidating, no one will speak to her.  She envies her plainer sisters, who each have husbands and families already.

Aphrodite, goddess of love, and her winged son Eros

This doesn’t, of course, stop Aphrodite from being enraged when she hears that her rightful worship is being diverted to a mere mortal.  She orders her son, Eros, to go and punish the girl by—a touch of Midsummer Night’s Dream—making her fall in love with the most hideous creature imaginable. One of the creepiest details of the story is that, after asking him this, Aphrodite kisses her son “with open mouth for a long time.”  I guess this is what it’s like if your mother is the goddess of love?

Meanwhile, back on earth, Psyche’s father has consulted Apollo’s oracle about what he should do with his beautiful, but apparently unmarriagable daughter.  The oracle tells him that Psyche is destined to marry a hideous, flying snake-creature, and the only way to appease the angry gods is to tie her to a mountain crag and let the creature carry her off. The father obeys, dressing his daughter in bridal finery, and sending her to the mountain.

Eros and an enraptured Psyche

Up on the rock, it turns out that there isn’t a snake-creature after all, only the (invisible) god Eros, waiting to avenge his mother.  But instead of punishing Psyche, he falls madly in love with her.  He tells the west wind, Zephyr, to waft her to his palace—a beautiful place of gold, marble and jewels, filled with luxuries and helpful invisible servants.  Definitely some strains of this filtered into the story of Beauty and the Beast.  The servants feed and bathe the girl, then lead her to her bedroom and let her know that their master, her new husband, will come to visit her that evening.  Which, if this were a realistic story, would be a frightening announcement.

Cupid and Psyche as husband and wife

But this is a fairy-tale, and we know that the husband is Eros, and that Psyche will of course fall in love with him–he is the god of desire, after all.  The two consummate their love that night, though in total darkness because Eros has forbidden her to look at him.   An interesting moment that could be taken a lot of different ways, the most appealing of which is that love is about trust: having faith in your feelings for the other person, rather than obsessing about appearances.  But (maybe it’s the cynic in me) I can’t ever completely ignore the other interpretation—that Psyche, as a woman, is supposed to blindly trust her husband, and obey him without question.

Eros, with sleeping Psyche. I find this painting hilarious. The adolescent expression on Eros' face is amazing.

And so it goes.  Psyche spends her nights with her beloved but unseen husband, and her days alone (except for the invisible servants).  After a time, she asks her husband if she may invite her sisters for a visit.  He warns her to be careful of them, but innocent, trusting Psyche doesn’t believe him.  Already envious of their sister’s greater beauty, the two are enraged by her further good fortune.  They decide to try to destroy her relationship with her new husband, by implying that he’s a hideous monster. They convince her that she must get a look at him, so she can know for sure.

Psyche and Eros

Of course, on some level, Psyche does already know—after all, she’s been sleeping with him at night and it’s difficult to mistake a handsome human body for a hideous snake creature when everybody’s naked.  But the moment still resonates.  It speaks to a universal human experience—struggling to trust our own understanding, in the face of familial or societal pressure.  It is always harder to do than we think it will be.  If I had been Psyche, I probably would have looked.

That night, Psyche waits until her husband has fallen asleep, and lights the oil lamp.  She finds not a hideous monster, but a divinely beautiful young man.  She is so entranced that she doesn’t notice the hot oil begin to spill from the lamp.  It falls on Eros, waking him.  He leaps from the bed, tells her that she has ruined everything, and flies away.  Without faith there can be no love.

Psyche, lifting the lamp to see her lover, and waking him with the spill of hot oil

Poor Psyche wanders from place to place, searching in vain for her husband.  Her sisters are delighted by her misfortune, and both rush to the crag where Psyche had been carried off. They leap from it, expecting to be wafted to the god’s bedchamber to take her place.  Instead, they smash on the stones below.  Of all the ends of evil sisters in fairy-tales, that’s definitely one of the more decisive.

Psyche decides to pray to Aphrodite, hoping that she will intervene with her son.  But Aphrodite is still angry about the girl’s beauty, and jealous of her son’s love for her.  She says that she will help the girl, as long as Psyche performs several tasks as penance.  Here is where the fairy-tale really takes hold: the first task is to sort a huge pile of mixed grain over night, an impossible task for one girl.  But not for some valiant, friendly ants!  They sort the entire pile for her.

Eros, leaving Psyche's bed

Aphrodite is angry and tells Psyche that she will next have to collect the fleeces from a special flock of vicious sheep (I’ll take your word for it, Apuleius.  But I do think that another animal would have been more convincing.).  Bravely, Psyche sets off to do so, but is stopped by a helpful reed (yes, a reed) who whispers to her that the sheep are too dangerous to be approached, but if she waits a little, she can collect the fleece that they leave behind on bushes. She does so, and once again, Aphrodite is angry.

The quests continue, culminating in Aphrodite sending Psyche down to the underworld to fetch some of Persephone’s beauty.  Psyche, in despair, knows that she cannot succeed, and goes to a high tower to throw herself off—but the tower prevents her, and gives her valuable advice about how to slip into the underworld past Cerberus (feed him a seed-cake), and then slip out again.  Most importantly, the tower warns, she is not to look in the box of “beauty” under any circumstances.

Psyche traveling through the underworld

I think we can see where this is going.  Psyche, wanting her husband to love her again, does indeed look in the box of beauty, hoping to take a little for herself.  But instead of beauty, what she finds is deathly sleep—and she falls, unconscious, to the ground.

Eros rushing to the aid of his fallen Psyche

At last, Eros takes pity on his poor Psyche.  He appeals to Zeus, who uses his power to wake her from her sleep, and to make her immortal.  She and Eros are reunited, and even Aphrodite is reconciled to her new daughter-in-law, acknowledging that while Psyche is imperfect, her dedication to her husband cannot be doubted, since she was willing to go into death itself to win him back. The two live happily every after, and have a daughter, whose name is Hedone (pleasure).

As you can see from above, the story made a wildly popular subject for artists.  C. S. Lewis also wrote a fascinating version of this story from the point of view of one of the evil sisters.  It has the great title Till We Have Faces. 

Finally, the loveliest bit of linguistic trivia I know: in Greek, the word for soul—psyche—also means butterfly.

Myth of the Week: Baucis and Philemon

Monday, February 13th, 2012

In honor of Valentine’s, a love story.

There are two problems with looking for romance in Greek mythology. The first is that many of the so-called “love” myths are anything but.  For instance, I’ve often seen Daphne and Apollo classed as a love story.  But, of course, Daphne is fleeing from Apollo, and only narrowly escapes being raped by him.  So, there’s that.

The second problem is that the stories which are about genuine love are almost uniformly tragic.  The list of these is quite long: Hector and his beloved Andromache, Achilles and Patroclus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hero and Leander, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Atalanta and Meleager, and on, and on.

Hector, Andromache, and their infant son, Astyanax

But there are a few—a very few—stories that are both romantic and happy. The best known ones are Psyche and Eros (more on that soon), and my favorite: the story of Baucis and Philemon.

At first glance, Baucis and Philemon make non-traditional romantic leads.  For one thing, when the story begins they are bent over with age.  For another, they are poor commoners, while the lovers in Greek myths tend towards aristocrats or divinities.  Thirdly, there is no question of “will they or won’t they?” Baucis and Philemon have been married for years, living happily together in the same humble, straw-roofed dwelling.

Their rustic routine is interrupted by two weary strangers, knocking at the door looking for food and shelter—they have been turned away, they say, by all the finer houses in the neighborhood.  Baucis, the wife, and Philemon, the husband, welcome the two men warmly.  Even though their resources are scant, they set about cheerfully making the best of what they have.  One of my favorite parts of this story is the elaborate preparations: Baucis scrubbing the dinner table with mint to make it smell fresh (good idea!), and Philemon carving the meat.

Baucis and Philemon prepare a humble welcome for their guests

We also get a lovely description of their rustic dinner, which sounds much more appetizing than many of the absurd Greco-Roman dishes that have come down to us (larks’ tongues, eel pastries, jellyfish).  Instead there are:

“olives, and cherries preserved in wine…, endive and radish, cheese, eggs roasted in the hearth-embers… nuts, and figs scattered among wrinkly dates, plums and apples fragrant in their broad baskets, grapes collected from their purple vines, and a gleaming honeycomb.”

Baucis and Philemon at dinner with their mysterious guests

YUM.  But even more important than the food is the care that the old couple uses in preparing it, the generous goodwill they show in laying out the best they have.  Hospitality was a virtue in the ancient Greek world—guests were sacred to Zeus himself.  Myth texts often note that this is because you never knew when a stranger might prove to be a god.  But Baucis and Philemon aren’t so calculating.  They are reflexively kind, not fearfully so.   There are also some lovely descriptions of the couple working together in practiced synchronicity—carrying the wood, putting a wedge under the wobbly leg of the table, setting out the earthenware plates. Ovid beautifully captures the house’s domestic harmony and contentment—these are people at peace with themselves.

The four sit down to the meal.  But as they eat and drink, they notice that the wine bowl, filled with the best humble vintage the couple has, never seems to empty.  No matter how often Baucis and Philemon pour for their guests, the bowl is always brimming.  Beginning to suspect that their guests may be gods, they are fearful that they haven’t done enough to please them, and decide to kill their beloved pet goose to add to the dinner spread.  However, slow with age as they are, they cannot catch him, and end up pursuing him around and around the house.

Baucis chasing the troublesome goose, while Zeus looks on.

Many people have seen a sort of humor in this moment—the old couple stumbling after their nimble goose.  But to be honest, I have always found it sad.  This good old couple is afraid for their lives, and are desperately trying to offer the only thing they have left to appease the gods.

Luckily, all ends well.  The goose runs to the two travelers for sanctuary, and they stand to reveal themselves as, yes, gods: Zeus and Hermes himself.  They tell the old couple to forget about the goose, and to come with them up the mountain to its top.  The couple obeys (Ovid offers a nice detail about them leaning on their walking sticks), and  when they reach the top and turn around they see that their old neighborhood, with all its houses and people, has been swept away. Only Baucis and Philemon’s house remains, which—even as they look—is transformed into a beautiful, marble-and-gold temple.

It is a miraculous and upsetting moment.  Yes, Baucis and Philemon have been saved but all their neighbors are dead. For the sake of the happy ending, Ovid does not dwell on this, beyond mentioning that the couple grieves for those who have been lost.  But it is hard to forget the swift and unforgiving punishment—there is no second chance, if you displease the gods.

Zeus and Hermes lead the old couple up the hill and out of danger.

Fortunately, the gods are pleased with Baucis and Philemon.  Zeus offers to grant the pious, good-hearted pair whatever they wish.  The two whisper together for a moment, and then Philemon announces that they would like to live out their lives as servants of the gods in the new temple.  Further, because of their great love for each other, they do not wish to have to live alone, without the other.  They ask the gods to let them die at the same moment:

“Let the same hour bear us both off; let me never see the tomb of my wife, nor be buried by her.”

Zeus agrees, and the couple spend many joyful years together in their new home.  Then, one day, as they stand outside their temple talking of their lives, they notice something strange—branches are beginning to grow from their heads, their hair is transforming into leaves.  With their last breaths, they call out their farewells to each other.  A moment later, two trees, an oak and a linden tree, stand where the old couple was.  And, just as  in life, the two are bound together, sprung from the same trunk, their branches entwining into eternity.

A sweet story.  May we all be as lucky in love as Baucis and Philemon.

Myth of the Week: Hyacinthus

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Recently, a friend and I were talking about how the homosexual undertones (or overtones) are often bowdlerized from retellings of Greek myths.  As children, we had both been puzzled by the story of Ganymede, the beautiful youth whom Zeus falls in love with and, in the form of an eagle, abducts to Mount Olympus to be his lover and cupbearer.  In the version I read, there was no mention of Zeus’ desire, and I remember feeling confused as to how Zeus knew he was such an excellent cupbearer just by looking at him, and why cupbearers were so hard to come by, and furthermore, why did it make Hera so mad?

All this is by way of leading up to today’s story about the youth Hyacinthus and the god Apollo, which was the first myth where I realized that the two men were definitely lovers, not just “close companions.”

Apollo and the dying Hyacinthus, with the fateful discus on the ground. Alexander Kiselev.

Hyacinthus was a beautiful Spartan youth, beloved by the god Apollo.  As the good Spartan he was, Hyacinthus loved athletics, and one day the two decided to practice throwing the discus.  Apollo went first, sending the disc flying up to “scatter the clouds” as Ovid says.  Hyacinthus ran laughing after it, thinking to catch the disc, but instead it hit him in the head, killing him.  Ovid has a beautiful passage about Apollo holding the dying youth, desperately trying to use his skill with medicine to keep him alive.  But even the mighty god of healing could not save the one he loved.

In honor of his lover, Apollo makes a flower spring up from Hyacinthus’ blood.  Confusingly, this flower isn’t actually what we today call a hyacinth.  Most sources agree that it was most likely an iris or a larkspur, since the myth tells us that Apollo writes on the flower the sound of his grief (Ai, Ai).  The iris, with its yellow markings on the purple leaf, seems the likeliest to me, though disagrees, offering this helpful visual aid on behalf of the larkspur.  (On a side note, some say this flower, whichever it was, actually sprang from the dead Ajax’s blood, not Hyacinthus’. In that case, the markings spell out AI, in honor of Aias, Ajax’s Greek name.)

An iris. I know, I don't see the "AI" either. Photo taken by Danielle Langlois, July 2005, Forillon National Park of Canada, Quebec, Canada

In a second, quite popular variant of the myth, Hyacinthus’ death is actually a murderous crime of passion.  Turns out that not only was Apollo in love with Hyacinthus, but so was Zephyrus, the west wind.  Seeing how attached Apollo and Hyacinthus were, he grew jealous, and in an old-fashioned twist on “If I can’t have him no one can” he deliberately blows the discus into Hyacinthus’ path, killing him.  This version emphasizes the terrifying pettiness of the gods, and the dangers of mixing with them, even if–especially if–they love you.  Like nearly all ancient love affairs between mortals and divinities, it ends in tragedy for the mortal.

Apollo and a swooning, strategically modest Hyacinthus

Whenever I tell this story, I always wish that there were more of it.  Its final image of Apollo cradling Hyacinthus is beautiful and sad, but we don’t know anything about Hyacinthus and Apollo’s love beyond that moment, how they came to meet, or who Hyacinthus was.  It’s almost more of a triptych then a story, three moments caught in amber: the youth and Apollo happy together, the youth chasing the discus, the lover grieving over his dying beloved.  It’s enough to make me feel sympathy for Apollo, who has never been a particular favorite of mine.

Apollo catches the falling youth. Jean Broc

Aside from its tragedy, Hyacinthus’ story also has a historical significance.  The “-nth” suffix in Hyacinthus indicates that the name is actually quite old, a remnant of some sort of pre-Greek language, from before the development of ancient Greek culture as we know it.  Other examples include “Corinth” and the word “labyrinth” (see the Minotaur myth).

Some speculate (the Oxford Classical Dictionary included), that the story of Apollo tragically killing Hyacinthus is actually symbolic.  Given the antiquity of his name, it’s likely that Hyacinthus was some sort of older native nature deity, who was replaced by the Olympian Apollo. The myth preserves this cultural change in story form, having the new god “kill” the old one.

Classical statue of Apollo, known as "Apollo Belvedere"

Either way, Hyacinthus became an important religious figure, who was particularly worshipped in Sparta during a three-day festival, called Hyacinthia.  The festival included mourning rites for the youth’s death, then celebration of his rebirth as a flower. In this regard, Hyacinthus seems similar to the god Adonis, and the eastern Attis, all three of whom are youths who die in order to ensure the earth’s fertility—the male versions of Persephone. The festival was important enough to the Spartans that they were said to have broken off a military campaign in order to return home and celebrate it.

Vase painting of a discus-thrower, with other athletic gear.

A final story about Apollo and Hyacinthus.  Though the myth has had a long life in visual art, it hasn’t been nearly as popular in other types of media.  The only exception I could find was an opera composed by the eleven-year-old Mozart, entitled “Apollo et Hyacinthus.” The libretto for the piece was written by a priest, Rufinus Widl, who apparently found the story too scandalous because he invented a sister for Hyacinthus, Melia, to replace Hyacinthus as Apollo’s love interest.  In this version, the youth’s death is more tragic to the family than Apollo, affecting the god only because it is an impediment to wooing the sister.

The lovely thing about myths is how adaptable they are, how much they can be shaped and molded by each new teller.  But there is bending, and then there is breaking.  To remove Apollo and Hyacinthus’ love from this story is to take out the spine of the tale, rendering it unrecognizable.  There is certainly a beautiful story to be told about a lover who kills his beloved’s kinsmen (as Shakespeare knew when Romeo killed Tybalt), but that is another story, not this one.  Hyacinthus and Apollo (and Zephyrus), do well enough on their own.

Thanks to reader Sam for the suggestion!