AUSTRIA: Baucis et Philemon, retold as myth, fairy tale, fable & poem

Discover Ovid’s Baucis et Philemon, retold as myth, fairy tale, fable, poem and as seen in art.

Jupiter and Mercury come to Earth and are treated poorly by all but Philemon and Baucis. They are so outraged about the non existing hospitality in the village-  they send a terrible storm to flood the land sparing only Philemon, Baucis, and their humble dwelling and granting them immortality by transforming them into trees.

I stand in front of Jupiter und Merkur bei Philemon und Baucis (1630–33) by the workshop of Rubens, a baroque painting, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie Saal XIII, in Vienna,  Austria, I can not but think about Xenia and Tree Lore.

AUSTRIA: Baucis et Philemon, retold as myth, fairy tale, fable & poem
Detail. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatenbank.

XENIA

In ancient times people recognized the importance of receiving strangers and foreigners hospitably and giving them food and shelter. Guests were seen as sacred in those days and hosts did everything they could to protect them. Hospitality, was like a divine right of the guest and a duty of the host.

The ancient Greeks were famous for their rules of hospitality. The word Xenia is of Greek origin, from ξεῖνος, which means “foreigner, stranger, guest.” This word appears in a number of other English words, such as “Xenophilia” and “Xenophobia”.

Zeus, the Greek god, is sometimes called Xenios and Xenia is Athena, in their role as a protectors of travelers and presiding over the laws of hospitality. Both embodying the religious obligation to be hospitable to travelers and to protect strangers.

Theoxeny or theoxenia is a theme in Greek mythology in which humans demonstrate their virtue or piety by extending hospitality to a humble stranger (xenos), who turns out to be a disguised deity (theos) with the capacity to bestow rewards.

These stories caution mortals that any guest should be treated as if potentially a disguised divinity and help establish the idea of xenia as a fundamental Greek custom.

The Romans called the concept of xenia, hospitium – derived from the word hospes, hospitis, which originated the English word “hospitality”. Hospitality and hostility are both derived from the same root word but they couldn’t be more different. Whereas hospitality is about welcoming all, hostility thrives on insider- outsider conflicts.

Hospitium involves being willing to take risks to welcome individuals as well as the broader goal of staying open to the insights of cultures other than our own, the old Romans already knew.

Giving alms to the one in need and hospitality to strangers are traditional virtues encouraged in religions worldwide:

 

Charity–to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity–is the spring of virtue.

~Jainism. Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

 

See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.

~Native American Religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts

 

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

~Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

 

Let him who believes in Allah and the Last Day be generous to his neighbor, and let him who believes in Allah and the Last Day be generous to his guest.

~Islam. Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 15

 

The husband and wife of the house should not turn away any who comes at eating time and asks for food. If food is not available, a place to rest, water for refreshing one’s self, a reed mat to lay one’s self on, and pleasing words entertaining the guest–these at least never fail in the houses of the good.

~Hinduism. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2

 

All beings should be accommodated and served by me as attentively as I would show filial respect to my parents, due respect to my teachers, to elders, and arhats, up to the Tathagatas, all in equality…To make all beings happy, is to please the Tathagatas.

~Buddhism. Gandavyuha Sutra, Vows of Samantabhadra

 

Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor.

~Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way

While travelling we were often shown generosity and courtesy by perfect strangers,

hospitality everywhere, thank you all.

Discover Baucis et Philemon as myth, fairy tale, fable, poem:

THE MYTH

The myth describing the tradition of hospitium among the Romans is here in front of me, masterly painted by an unknown artist working in the studios of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, wrote the episode about Philemon and Baucis in his Metamorphoses. A collection of 250 myths in a 15-book catalogue written in dactylic hexameter about transformations in Greek and Roman mythology set within a loose mytho- historical framework. The Roman poet living 43 B.C.- 17 C.E., stands on the periphery of Greek and Roman mythology.

As Larry Brown states

“This story is unique to Ovid. It provides both the actual and thematic center of the poem, a mini-theodicy demonstrating the justice of god, along with the contrasting story of Erysichthon.

Each tale provides an unusual portrait of the gods acting justly by rewarding virtue and punishing wickedness: a generous couple feeds the gods and are turned into trees, to live together forever;

in the second case Erysichthon (son of Cecrops) cuts down a sacred tree and is punished with hunger (poetic justice).

Brooks Otis sees Ovid holding up true, mutual, heterosexual passionate love as a model, in classical literature a rare theme (tragedies were usually not about love unless it was unnatural).”

The unusual Greek names, Philemon and Baucis, are perhaps derived from words respectively meaning “kiss” and “coy”, a rather touching example of “opposites attract” that also stresses their mutual affection. – When the old couple dies, they are transformed into trees that grow forever in each other’s embrace.

Rubens. Landscape with Philemon and Baucis. 1620. Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna, Austria.

Jupiter and Mercury-  roman for Zeus and Hermes, decided to test man’s character and disguised themselves as travelers who went around asking strangers for hospitality. Everyone denied them their right to xenia, except an old couple who received the two guests and treated them with due kindness. Afterwards, the gods saved them, telling them to leave the city and run towards a mountain. Since the other citizens had failed in their duties toward the gods, Jupiter decided to send a flood and destroy the city.

This tale shows how important it was to abide by the laws of hospitium. It also serves as a warning to wicked people, reminding them that the guest they refuse could be a god in disguise who might punish them later.

DENDROLATRY- TREE WORSHIP

Ovid’s tale suggests also ancient tree cults (worship of trees); indeed, in lines following the Anthology passage, he states that Philemon and Baucis, as trees, were worshiped.

First, Ovid has his narrator (Lelex) tell about what he has seen growing side by side in the Phrygian hills, long after the transformation in their anonymous almost endless life as the yet-unnamed Baucis and Philemon are an oak (quercus) and linden (tilia) tree intertwined (tiliae contermina quercus 8.620).

Although he doesn’t specify which person was turned into which tree. Some possible arboreal interpretations are:

I can only offer tenuous but interesting associations, Hunt Patrick writes and cites Theophrastus:

Theophrastus might be a textual source for Ovid, since he divides trees into ‘male’ and ‘female’ types with oak apparently being ‘male’ and linden both ‘male’ and ‘female’. Theophrastus also describes oak as having a black core – recalling the blackened wooden beam (nigro…tigno 6.648). Furthermore, he distinguishes oak (drus in Greek) as “heavy” and linden (philura in Greek) as “light”, a dichotomy possibly reflected in the old couple. Theophrastus also mentions that both oak and linden can have winter budding, perhaps like Philemon and Baucis in old age.

He also quotes Hesiod (Works and Days, 233) saying that the oak produces honey and that the leaves of the linden are sweet, a gracious sweetness in common with the old couple who so hospitably receive the gods.

Later in Book 10, Ovid describes the oak and linden in direct sequence with the thickly-foliaged oak and soft linden (arbor… frondibus aesculus altibus nec tilia mollis 10.90-92).

Virgil before Ovid praises the rich linden (pinguem tiliam) for bees in the Georgics 4.183, just the sort of image for Ovid to subtext a possible transformation of oak and linden leaves into golden honey like their house (which also embodies them) into a gold-roofed temple.

Last but not least, it is also likely an important detail that Jupiter’s tree is the oak (=Philemon); could Mercury’s tree here be the light and graceful linden (=Baucis?).

Naomi Levin states, very rarely has man lived in complete harmony with his surroundings, like Baucis and Philemon:

For Ovid, the myth of Philemon and Baucis might have represented the joy of civilizing nature while still cultivating and appreciating the goodness of the earth.

The Greeks believed not only that trees and brooks had spirits but also that natural phenomena could be explained by means of myths. Every element of nature stemmed from divine intervention. Storms, earthquakes, and plagues were physical manifestations of godly anger.

Attributing emotions to nature helped man to understand the world around him. This tight understanding bridged a gap between man and nature, which enabled – with a small leap of imagination – the transformation of one matter into the other.

Philemon and Baucis are humans who become part of their landscape. Flesh becomes bark, hair becomes leaves… Man becomes nature. The result of this naturalization of man is the humanization of nature. The land becomes an entity with a human soul…Man and nature… The story of humanity has been an unending conflict between civilization and that needing civilizing. One is constantly assaulting the other: man with his axes and ploughs, and nature with its tempests and floods.

MYTH: Lelex tells of Philemon and Baucis

At this, the river-god fell silent. The wonder of the thing had gripped them all. But that daring spirit, Pirithoüs, son of Ixion, scornful of the gods, laughed at their credulity. ‘These are fictions you tell of, Acheloüs, and you credit the gods with too much power, if you think they can give and take away the forms of things.’ The others were startled, and disapproved of his words, Lelex above all, experienced in mind and years, who said:

‘The power of the gods is great and knows no limit, and whatever heaven decrees comes to pass. To help convince you, in the hills of Phrygia, an oak and a lime tree [linden tree] stand side by side, surrounded by a low wall. I have seen the place, since Pittheus, king of Troezen, sent me into that country, where his father Pelops once ruled.

There is a swamp not far from there, once habitable land but now the haunt of diving-birds and marsh-loving coots. Jupiter went there, disguised as a mortal, and Mercury, the descendant of Atlas, setting aside his wings, went with his father, carrying the caduceus. A thousand houses they approached, looking for a place to rest: a thousand houses were locked and bolted. But one received them: it was humble it is true, roofed with reeds and stems from the marsh, but godly Baucis and the equally aged Philemon, had been wedded in that cottage in their younger years, and there had grown old together. They made light of poverty by acknowledging it, and bearing it without discontent of mind. It was no matter if you asked for owner or servant there: those two were the whole household: they gave orders and carried them out equally.

So when the gods from heaven met the humble household gods, and stooping down, passed the low doorway, the old man pulled out a bench, and requested them to rest their limbs, while over the bench Baucis threw a rough blanket. Then she raked over the warm ashes in the hearth, and brought yesterday’s fire to life, feeding it with leaves and dried bark, nursing the flames with her aged breath. She pulled down finely divided twigs and dry stems from the roof, and, breaking them further, pushed them under a small bronze pot. Next she stripped the leaves from vegetables that her husband had gathered from his well-watered garden. He used a two-pronged stick to lift down a wretched-looking chine of meat, hanging from a blackened beam, and, cutting a meagre piece from the carefully saved chine, put what had been cut, to seethe, in boiling water.

In the meantime they made conversation to pass the time, and prevent their guests being conscious of the delay. There was a beech wood tub, suspended by its handle from a crude peg: this had been filled with warm water, and allowed their visitors to refresh their limbs. In the middle of the floor there was a mattress of soft sedges. Placed on a frame and legs of willow it made a couch. They covered it with cloths, that they only used to bring out for the times of sacred festivals, but even these were old and worn, not unworthy of the couch. The gods were seated.

The old woman, her skirts tucked up, her hands trembling, placed a table there, but a table with one of the three legs unequal: a piece of broken pot made them equal. Pushed underneath, it countered the slope, and she wiped the level surface with fresh mint. On it she put the black and green olives that belong to pure Minerva, and the cornelian cherries of autumn, preserved in wine lees; radishes and endives; a lump of cheese; and lightly roasted eggs, untouched by the hot ashes; all in clay dishes. After this she set out a carved mixing bowl for wine, just as costly, with cups made of beech wood, hollowed out, and lined with yellow bees’ wax. There was little delay, before the fire provided its hot food, and the wine, of no great age, circulated, and then, removed again, made a little room for the second course. There were nuts, and a mix of dried figs and wrinkled dates; plums, and sweet-smelling apples in open wicker baskets; and grapes gathered from the purple vines. In the centre was a gleaming honeycomb. Above all, there was the additional presence of well-meaning faces, and no unwillingness, or poverty of spirit.’

Old-Philemon-Old-Baucis-earthstoriez
Bartolomeo Suardi – Bramantino. Philemon and Baucis, c.1500 oil on Canvas, location: Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Westfalen, Germany.

The transformation of Philemon and Baucis.

‘Meanwhile the old couple noticed that, as soon as the mixing bowl was empty, it refilled itself, unaided, and the wine appeared of its own accord. They were fearful at this strange and astonishing sight, and timidly Baucis and Philemon murmured a prayer, their palms upwards, and begged the gods’ forgiveness for the meal, and their unpreparedness. They had a goose, the guard for their tiny cottage: as hosts they prepared to sacrifice it for their divine guests. But, quick-winged, it wore the old people out and, for a long time, escaped them, at last appearing to take refuge with the gods themselves. Then the heaven-born ones told them not to kill it. “We are gods,” they said, “and this neighbourhood will receive just punishment for its impiety, but to you we grant exemption from that evil. Just leave your house, and accompany our steps, as we climb that steep mountainside together.”

They both obeyed, and leaning on their sticks to ease their climb, they set foot on the long slope. When they were as far from the summit as a bowshot might carry, they looked back, and saw everywhere else vanished in the swamp: only their own roof was visible. And while they stood amazed at this, mourning their neighbours’ fate, their old cottage, tiny even for the two of them, turned into a temple. Wooden poles became pillars, and the reed thatch grew yellow, until a golden roof appeared, richly carved doors, and a marble pavement covering the ground. Then the son of Saturn spoke, calmly, to them: “Ask of us, virtuous old man, and you, wife, worthy of a virtuous husband, what you wish.”

When he had spoken briefly with Baucis, Philemon revealed their joint request to the gods.

“We ask to be priests and watch over your temple, and, since we have lived out harmonious years together, let the same hour take the two of us, so that I never have to see my wife’s grave, nor she have to bury me.”

The gods’ assurance followed the prayer. They had charge of the temple while they lived: and when they were released by old age, and by the years, as they chanced to be standing by the sacred steps, discussing the subject of their deaths, Baucis saw Philomen put out leaves, and old Philemon saw Baucis put out leaves, and as the tops of the trees grew over their two faces, they exchanged words, while they still could, saying, in the same breath: “Farewell, O dear companion”, as, in the same breath, the bark covered them, concealing their mouths.

The people of Bithynia still show the neighbouring trees, there, that sprang from their two bodies. Trustworthy old men related these things to me (there was no reason why they should wish to lie). For my part, I saw garlands hanging from the branches, and placing fresh ones there said: “Let those who love the gods become gods: let those who have honoured them, be honoured.” ’

~ Metamorphoses Book VIII . A. S. Kline’s Version.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Philemon and Baucis. © 2017 National Gallery of Art. Wiki commons.

TRANSCRIPT in verse form near Ovids Latin original narrative POEM:

The Story of Baucis and Philemon

Thus Achelous ends: his audience hear With admiration, and admiring, fear The Pow’rs of Heav’n; except Ixion’s Son, Who laugh’d at all the Gods, believ’d in none: He shook his impious head, and thus replies. These legends are no more than pious lies: You attribute too much to heav’nly sway, To think they give us forms, and take away. The rest of better minds, their sense declar’d Against this doctrine, and with horror heard. Then Lelex rose, an old experienc’d man, And thus with sober gravity began; Heav’n’s pow’r is infinite: Earth, Air, and Sea, The manufacture mass, the making Pow’r obey: By proof to clear your doubt; in Phrygian ground Two neighb’ring trees, with walls encompass’d round, Stand on a mod’rate rise, with wonder shown, One a hard oak, a softer linden one: I saw the place, and them, by Pittheus sent To Phrygian realms, my grandsire’s government. Not far from thence is seen a lake, the haunt Of coots, and of the fishing cormorant: Here Jove with Hermes came; but in disguise Of mortal men conceal’d their deities; One laid aside his thunder, one his rod; And many toilsome steps together trod: For harbour at a thousand doors they knock’d, Not one of all the thousand but was lock’d. At last an hospitable house they found, A homely shed; the roof, not far from ground, Was thatch’d with reeds, and straw, together bound. There Baucis and Philemon liv’d, and there Had liv’d long marry’d, and a happy pair: Now old in love, though little was their store, Inur’d to want, their poverty they bore, Nor aim’d at wealth, professing to be poor. For master, or for servant here to call, Was all alike, where only two were all. Command was none, where equal love was paid, Or rather both commanded, both obey’d. From lofty roofs the Gods repuls’d before, Now stooping, enter’d through the little door: The man (their hearty welcome first express’d) A common settle drew for either guest, Inviting each his weary limbs to rest. But ere they sate, officious Baucis lays Two cushions stuff’d with straw, the seat to raise; Coarse, but the best she had; then rakes the load Of ashes from the hearth, and spreads abroad The living coals; and, lest they should expire, With leaves, and bark she feeds her infant fire: It smoaks; and then with trembling breath she blows, ‘Till in a chearful blaze the flames arose. With brush-wood, and with chips she strengthens these, And adds at last the boughs of rotten trees. The fire thus form’d, she sets the kettle on (Like burnish’d gold the little seether shone), Next took the coleworts which her husband got From his own ground (a small well-water’d spot); She stripp’d the stalks of all their leaves; the best She cull’d, and them with handy care she drest. High o’er the hearth a chine of bacon hung; Good old Philemon seiz’d it with a prong, And from the sooty rafter drew it down, Then cut a slice, but scarce enough for one; Yet a large portion of a little store, Which for their sakes alone he wish’d were more.
This in the pot he plung’d without delay, To tame the flesh, and drain the salt away. The time beween, before the fire they sat, And shorten’d the delay by pleasing chat. A beam there was, on which a beechen pail Hung by the handle, on a driven nail: This fill’d with water, gently warm’d, they set Before their guests; in this they bath’d their feet, And after with clean towels dry’d their sweat. This done, the host produc’d the genial bed, Sallow the feet, the borders, and the sted, Which with no costly coverlet they spread, But coarse old garments; yet such robes as these They laid alone, at feasts, on holidays. The good old housewife, tucking up her gown, The table sets; th’ invited Gods lie down. The trivet-table of a foot was lame, A blot which prudent Baucis overcame, Who thrusts beneath the limping leg a sherd, So was the mended board exactly rear’d: Then rubb’d it o’er with newly gather’d mint, A wholsom herb, that breath’d a grateful scent. Pallas began the feast, where first was seen The party-colour’d olive, black, and green: Autumnal cornels next in order serv’d, In lees of wine well pickled, and preserv’d. A garden-sallad was the third supply, Of endive, radishes, and succory: Then curds, and cream, the flow’r of country fare, And new-laid eggs, which Baucis’ busie care Turn’d by a gentle fire, and roasted rare. All these in earthen ware were serv’d to board; And next in place, an earthen pitcher stor’d, With liquor of the best the cottage could afford. This was the table’s ornament and pride, With figures wrought: like pages at his side Stood beechen bowls; and these were shining clean, Varnish’d with wax without, and lin’d within. By this the boiling kettle had prepar’d, And to the table sent the smoaking lard; On which with eager appetite they dine, A sav’ry bit, that serv’d to relish wine: The wine itself was suiting to the rest, Still working in the must, and lately press’d. The second course succeeds like that before, Plums, apples, nuts, and of their wintry store Dry figs, and grapes, and wrinkled dates were set In canisters, t’ enlarge the little treat: All these a milk-white honey-comb surround, Which in the midst the country-banquet crown’d: But the kind hosts their entertainment grace With hearty welcome, and an open face: In all they did, you might discern with ease, A willing mind, and a desire to please. Mean-time the beechen bowls went round, and still, Though often empty’d, were observ’d to fill; Fill’d without hands, and of their own accord Ran without feet, and danc’d about the board. Devotion seiz’d the pair, to see the feast With wine, and of no common grape, increas’d; And up they held their hands, and fell to pray’r, Excusing, as they could, their country fare. One goose they had (’twas all they could allow), A wakeful centry, and on duty now, Whom to the Gods for sacrifice they vow: Her with malicious zeal the couple view’d; She ran for life, and limping they pursu’d:
Full well the fowl perceiv’d their bad intent, And would not make her master’s compliment; But persecuted, to the Pow’rs she flies, And close between the legs of Jove she lies: He with a gracious ear the suppliant heard, And sav’d her life; then what he has declar’d, And own’d the God. The neighbourhood, said he, Shall justly perish for impiety: You stand alone exempted; but obey With speed, and follow where we lead the way: Leave these accurs’d; and to the mountain’s height Ascend; nor once look backward in your flight. They haste, and what their tardy feet deny’d, The trusty staff (their better leg) supply’d. An arrow’s flight they wanted to the top, And there secure, but spent with travel, stop; Then turn their now no more forbidden eyes; Lost in a lake the floated level lies: A watry desart covers all the plains, Their cot alone, as in an isle, remains. Wondring, with weeping eyes, while they deplore Their neighbours’ fate, and country now no more, Their little shed, scarce large enough for two, Seems, from the ground increas’d, in height and bulk to grow. A stately temple shoots within the skies, The crotches of their cot in columns rise: The pavement polish’d marble they behold, The gates with sculpture grac’d, the spires and tiles of gold. Then thus the sire of Gods, with looks serene, Speak thy desire, thou only just of men; And thou, o woman, only worthy found To be with such a man in marriage bound. A-while they whisper; then, to Jove address’d, Philemon thus prefers their joint request: We crave to serve before your sacred shrine, And offer at your altars rites divine: And since not any action of our life Has been polluted with domestick strife; We beg one hour of death, that neither she With widow’s tears may live to bury me, Nor weeping I, with wither’d arms may bear My breathless Baucis to the sepulcher. The Godheads sign their suit. They run their race In the same tenour all th’ appointed space: Then, when their hour was come, while they relate These past adventures at the temple gate, Old Baucis is by old Philemon seen Sprouting with sudden leaves of spritely green: Old Baucis look’d where old Philemon stood, And saw his lengthen’d arms a sprouting wood: New roots their fasten’d feet begin to bind, Their bodies stiffen in a rising rind: Then, ere the bark above their shoulders grew, They give, and take at once their last adieu. At once, Farewell, o faithful spouse, they said; At once th’ incroaching rinds their closing lips invade. Ev’n yet, an ancient Tyanaean shows A spreading oak, that near a linden grows; The neighbourhood confirm the prodigy, Grave men, not vain of tongue, or like to lie. I saw my self the garlands on their boughs, And tablets hung for gifts of granted vows; And off’ring fresher up, with pious pray’r, The good, said I, are God’s peculiar care, And such as honour Heav’n, shall heav’nly honour share.

~Metamorphoses, by Ovid, written 1 A.C. , translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al.

Old-Philemon-Old-Baucis-earthstoriez
17th century engraving from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

TRANSCRIPT- prose Version II: Baucis and Philemon

In a hilly land, called Phrygia, there is a steep-sided valley. Most of the valley is filled with a dark lake.

Beside the lake grow two trees, an oak and a linden, their branches entwined. Hanging from every bough and branch there are ribbons. Long ago, great Zeus, whose temple is the sky, and Hermes, the messenger of the gods, heard whispers from the House of Rumour that there was a town at the bottom of a steep-sided valley in the hilly land of Phrygia where the sacred laws of hospitality were flouted, where strangers were not welcomed. They decided to see if these stories were true.

They changed their shapes as the gods can, so that to all the world they looked like a pair of travellers.

They flashed down from the sky into the town on the night of a terrible storm. From house to house they ran in the rain begging for food, begging for shelter. Every request was greeted with kicks and curses and insults. A hundred homes they visited.

At last, tired, foot-sore, hungry, wet through they trudged up the side of the valley leaving the town behind. As they did so, they saw they were approaching a little hut. Standing in front of it was an old woman. This was Baucis. She and her husband Philemon had met in this place, had married in this place, had grown grey and white together. Children had never come. They were very poor but they had accepted their plight and so they had made light of it. They were devoted to one another. The only thing in the world they had that they valued was a goose, who guarded their home. Now Baucis saw these bedraggled strangers approaching and she hobbled over eagerly.

“You! Mighty Zeus, whose temple is the sky, has decreed anyone who approaches our home in need of food, in need of shelter, ought to be welcomed. What we have, we’ll share with you. Come inside now, come inside.”

Zeus and Hermes, disguised as men, had to stoop to enter the hut. They were welcomed warmly by the old man Philemon. He shook them each by the hand; he gave them each a stool to sit on. They sat. The old woman, she blew into the ashes at the bottom of the grate so that the grey glowed red again. The old man put on his cloak. He hobbled out into the storm to pick some vegetable from his garden. The old woman cut a hunk from their lump of long-cherished pork. She threw it into the pot. The old man threw in the vegetables. They poured on water, sprinkled on herbs, threw in garlic, and then they talked about whatever they could, in the hope they could keep their guests’ minds off the long delay before it was time to eat.

The old man gave them a beech wood bowl, full of warm water, to wash off the dust and grime of their journey. The old woman dragged a table from the shadows into the centre of the room so that they could sit around it when the time came to eat. One leg was far too short: the table wobbled very badly. But she kept a shard of tile, just for this purpose, and she slid it under the short leg. She rubbed the surface of the table with stalks of fresh mint so that it smelled fragrant. They sat around it. She gave them things to nibble while they waited: olives, wild cherries that had been steeped in wine, lumps of cheese, radishes, eggs that had been roasted in the embers. One jug full of wine was all they had. She poured it out carefully between the four of them. They sipped it, making it last as long as they could. Then came the stew, and, after the stew, they had nuts and grapes and figs and dates and a slice of sweet honeycomb.

All through the meal there was talk, there was laughter, and, outside, the rain came down in black sheets.

The woman Baucis looked at the wine jug. She was sure it had been empty and yet it was full. She poured it out between the four of them and still it was filled to the brim. She turned to her husband and whispered,

“These are gods, two of the great Olympian gods, here in our home. What kind of meal was this to give to two of the great Olympian gods? We have no choice. Husband, go outside and kill the goose! We will pluck it and roast it in their honour.”

The husband stood. He smiled at the strangers and shuffled out of the cottage. Inside the old woman raised her voice, hoping she could drown out the squawking and the honking of the dying goose. But the old man was old. Age had made him slow, and the goose could tell something was wrong. He chased the goose back and forth, then back and forth. Inside the cottage, by now the old woman was shouting. In burst the goose. It took shelter behind the strangers. The two travellers stood.

“There is no need for you to kill this creature whom you love so much. We are gods but already you’ve given us far more than we could have hoped for. Old man, old woman, follow us now.”

Puffing and grunting, Baucis and Philemon followed the travellers to the top of the valley. When they reached the ridge, they turned and they sank to their knees in awe. For the town at the bottom of the valley had gone. Where it had been, there was a dark lake. They turned towards the travellers. They shielded their eyes, for no strangers standing there now: Zeus and Hermes, awful in their bright glory.

“We have punished this town. Only you were spared. We were touched by the warmth of your welcome.

We will give you both a wish. Speak now! Anything will be granted you. Speak now!”

The old woman spoke first: “Mighty Zeus, transform our hut into a golden temple, that we might worship there for however many years of life we have left.”

Zeus bowed his head. “Another wish!”

It was the old man who spoke then, but it could have been his wife – they were of one mind.

“Will you make us die together? Will you make us die in the same moment, so that I will not have to stand beside her grave, so that she will not have to bury me?”

Both of their wishes were granted them. For many more years, they were priestess and priest of a golden temple. Then one morning, early, the old man was digging his garden before the heat of the sun was too fierce. His wife called to him.

He saw her standing outside the temple staring at her feet, and, when he looked, her toes had taken root and brown bark was spreading up her legs. He hobbled towards her. He put his arms around her waist; she put her arms around his back. As they embraced, they could feel buds emerging from the tips of their fingers. He could feel leaves growing from the bald crown of his head. As the bark spread across their faces, they looked into one another’s eyes for the last time and said,

“Goodbye, dear one.”

The lake can still be found even now. The temple is long gone; but beside the lake still grow two trees, an oak and a linden, their branches entwined as though they are embracing. And hanging from every bough and branch there are ribbons, offerings, gifts left by lovers.

Old Philemon and Old Baucis. Arthur Rackham.
From a “A Wonder Book” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. London: Hodder & Stoughton, (1922).

FAIRY TALE: Baucis and Philemon

Long ago, on a high hill in Greece, lived Philemon and Baucis.

They were poor, but never unhappy. They had many hives of bees from which they got honey, and many vines from which they gathered grapes. One old cow gave them all the milk that they could use, and they had a little field in which grain was raised.

The old couple had as much as they needed and were always ready to share whatever they had with any one in want. No stranger was ever turned from their door.

At the foot of the hill lay a beautiful village, with pleasant roads and rich pasture lands all around. But it was full of wicked, selfish people, who had no love in their hearts and thought of only themselves.

At the time of this story, the people in the village were very busy. Zeus, who they believed ruled the world, had sent word that he was about to visit them. They were cooking a great feast and making everything beautiful for his coming.

One evening, just at dark, two beggars came into the valley. They stopped at every house and asked for food and a place to sleep; but the people were too busy or too tired. They were thinking only of the coming of Zeus.

With sore feet and being very tired, the two beggars came to the hut of Philemon and Baucis. These good people had eaten very little, for they were saving their best food for Zeus.

When they saw the beggars, Philemon said, “Surely these men need food more than Zeus. They look almost starved.”

“Indeed, they do!” said Baucis, and she ran quickly to fix supper for the men.

She spread her best white cloth upon the table, and fixed bacon, herbs, honey, grapes, bread, and milk. She set these upon the table in all the best dishes she had and called the strangers in.

Then what do you think happened? The dishes that the strangers touched turned to gold. The pitcher was never empty, although they drank glass after glass of milk. The loaf of bread stayed always the same size, although the strangers cut slice after slice.

“These are very strange travelers,” whispered the old couple to each other.

“They do wonderful things.”

That night Philemon and Baucis slept upon the floor so the beggars might have their one bed. In the morning they went with the travelers to the foot of the hill to see them safely started on their way.

“Now, good people,” said one of the strangers, “we thank you, and whatever you wish shall be yours.”

As he said this, his face became like that of the sun. Then Philemon and Baucis knew that Zeus had spoken to them.

“Grant, O Zeus, that one of us may not outlive the other,” they cried in one voice.

“Your wish is granted,” said Zeus; “yes, and more. Go to your home and be happy.”

Philemon and Baucis walked home and lo! Their hut was changed into a beautiful castle.

The old people turned around to thank their guests, but they had disappeared.

In this castle Philemon and Baucis lived many years. They still did all they could for others, and were always so happy that they never thought of whishing anything for themselves.

As the years went by, the couple grew very old and feeble.

One day Baucis said to Philemon,

“I wish we might never die, but could always live together.”

“Ah, that is my wish too!” sighed old Philemon.

The next morning the palace was gone; Baucis and Philemon were gone; but there on the hill stood two beautiful trees, an oak and a linden.

No one knew what became of the good people. After many years however, a traveler lying under the trees heard them whispering to each other.

“Baucis,” whispered the oak.

“Philemon,” replied the linden.

There the trees stood through sun and rain, always ready to spread their leafy shade over every tired stranger who passed that way.

FABLE: Philemon and Baucis

Jean de La Fontaine. Wikimedia.

Jean de La Fontaine, was one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century.

He is known above all for his Fables, which provided a model for subsequent fabulists across Europe and numerous alternative versions in France, and in French regional languages.

He adapted Philemon and Baucis into French free verse.

Subject taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

For Monseigneur le Duc de Vendôme

Nor gold nor grandeur brings us happiness:

 

The wealth and fleeting pleasure we possess From those unsure, fickle divinities Are brief at best. Therewith our miseries, Our agonies abide: vultures that pluck At the poor son of Japhet, whose ill luck It was to be chained to a cliff; whereas The humble, lowly habitation has No need to pay such tribute. There, peace-blessed, The sage lives out his life and scorns the rest. Roaming the wood, content with simplest things, He sees, spread at his feet, minions of kings, Of wealth possessed, and reads the eloquent Proof-on the brows of those whose lives are spent In empty luxury–that one must pay Fortune for what she sells, not gives away. And, when comes time to quit his life, it is As if far evening bears that day of his Off to its peaceful night… Well, Philemon– Who with his Baucis dwelt-was such a one. Couple much loving and much loved, they were Devoted, she to him and he to her, Since the sweet springtime of their youth; and love Had turned their but into a shrine thereof. Clotho took pleasure measuring out the thread Of each; and, though long years they had been wed, Their flame was not by time or marriage faded. Each was the other’s all; and both, unaided By servant’s hands, for two score summers, tilled Garden and field, with soul deeply fulfilled Thereby. But everything in time grows old. Furrows wrinkled their brows; and, though not cold, Their passion cooled a bit. Friendship became Its surrogate, and yet could heat to flame When love’s darts pricked it ho…Now then, their town Was filled with folk of scurrilous renown– Cold and hard-hearted–such that Jupiter Decides to purge the earth of them. Demur He will not. Leaving, rather, then and there, With his son, quick of tongue, he rends the air… Arrives… The pair, decked out in pilgrim guise, Knock on a thousand doors: no one replies. Not one! And, as the gods prepare to qui Such a vile, shameful place, lo! their eyes hit Upon a humble hut, off from the road, That seems an honest, welcoming abode, Free of disgrace. Whereat god Mercury– The son, eloquent one (for it was he)– Wishing to try once more, knocks on the door. It opens in a trice…Standing before Our pilgrim-gods, good Philemon declares: “Methinks you travel far. The thoroughfare’s Journey has tired you both, no doubt. Come, rest. We have but little, but it is the best That we can offer you. Alas, messieurs, Gone is the wondrous day when Jupiter, Though carved of wood, heeded our every prayer! Now that they fashion him of gold, we fare Far worse! Deaf is he to our pleas, I fear!” Then, to his Baucis: “Go, make haste my dear And warm the water for our guests, though we Are not so quick as once we used to be.” Blowing the charcoal embers back to life, Slowly, laboriously, his gentle wife Obeys. They wash the travelers’ feet and ask Their pardon for the slowness of the task. Philemon speaks to them the while, but not Of grandeur, gaming, wealth–the kingly lot. Rather he talks of pleasures innocent And rare, in woods, fields, orchards, sweetly spent. Meantime, Baucis the rustic meal lays out Upon a rough-hewn table, wrought without Compass or such, one of whose legs–ill-starred, Wracked too by time–was held firm by a shard Of earthenware, time-wracked as well. (At least So it was said.) A cloth, for solemn feast Reserverd–worn, flower-spread–had but a bit Of Ceres’bounty fair to cover it; A little milk as well. Our voyageurs Divine, most thirsty from their travels, were Content to mis their lowly country wine With a stream’s waters, pure and crystalline. But as they do, behold! The more they pour, The more the jug contains! Kneeling before The godly pair, Baucis and Philemon Know that a miracle has here been done! The veil is lifted from their eyes, and there Stands Jupiter, dark-browed, with that fierce air That shakes the skies from pole to pole. “Pray, sire,” Begs Philemon, “spare us your holy ire At our most modest welcome! How could we Have dreamed that such as Your Divinity
Would be our guest? The food we offered you Was paltry, sire, at best. Still, thereunto, Even if we were kings, how could we serve What you, the masters of the world, deserve? True, it came from the heart. But finer yet The gods expect. And surely they would whet Their appetite not on the heart’s intent Sincere, but on more worldly nourishment. Baucis, “my love, “he asks, “what worthier fare Can we yet offer them? Pray, go prepare As best you can!” Out in the garden she Had kept a partridge, and has tenderly Raised it since birth. She gives it chase; but it Flees from her trembling grasp and, t o outwit Her vain pursuit, perches betwixt the knees Of Jupiter himself, as he decrees The town’s demise, decides the time has come To cast his shadow over sinnerdom. Down from the mountains roll the shades, and spill Over the valleys. Now the two gods will Quit the abode and lead there from their pair Of hosts. Cries Jove: “No longer will I bear The ills this race commits! Now shall it be Destroyed. Come”, say the god. “You, Mercury, Summon the winds. And you, iniquitous, Foul folk, who closed your homes and hearts to us, Be now undone!” As thus he spoke, a gale Bellowed across the plain. The couple, frail And bent with years, followed as best they could, Tottering, each, with a slim cane of wood To lean upon, until, by both the grace Of the two gods–and fright!–they reach the place Proposed: a hill hard by. The pair peer down, Watch as a hundrer clouds lash at the town Below, unleash their wrath, go crashing, sweep Off in a flood divine, all in a heap– Acolytes of the gods–people, beasts, trees, Houses, and orchards, till no trace of these, Or those, or anything at all remains. In secret Baucis weeps; the havoc pains And grieves her. What? That beasts should suffer so? Just was the peopl’s punishment. But oh! Innocent beasts as well? Meanwhile, in but An instant, lo! the thatched roof of their hut Turns to a glistening golg before their eyes, With marbled pillars rising to the skies, Gleaming in all its new magnificence; And, painted on the wainscot, the events I have described, traced by no mortal hand– No Zeuxis, no Apelles, or their band Of human limners! Awed, confounded, our Husband and wife, thinking some godly power Has brought them to Olympus, say: “Might we, Your humble servants, have such purity Of hand and heart, that we, in priestly wise, May bring to you, O Jove, the prayers, the cries, The pleas of simple pilgrims!” Whereupon The god grants their request; whence Philemon Makes yet one more: “Would that our mortal tether Come to an end, my wife’s and mine, together, Serving you altars. No more could we ask Of Clotho tan this final twofold task! I should not mourn my Baucis, and her tears Would irk you not.” Jupiter listens, hears, Agrees…Now let me tell you, if I dare, A fact hard to believe. One day, as there They sat–our saintly pair, that is–before The temple gate, as pilgrims more and more astounded, listened, Philemon said: “This Has not forever been an edifice Unto the gods immortal. No! It was Surrounded by a city without laws; A foul, barbaric place, whose people scorned The very gods, and who–undone, unmourned– Knew wrath celestial! And we two are all That still remains. Herein each sacred wall Recounts the tale, and what is yet to be, Painted by Jove himself…”As lovingly He spoke, he cast now and again a glance At Baucis, who, motionless in her stance, Was turning to a tree, har arms outspread. It not please you enough. Apollo had– Or so, at least, they tell us–promptly bade Her and her sister Muses to convey That sacred valley to your fair Anet. And so they did. Now may we long give thanks In the shade of the boughs that line its banks! May they lift up their verdant brows, anon, As once did Baucis and her Philemon!

~ Jean de La Fontaine, Book 12, Fable 25.

Jacob van Oost- Mercury and Jupiter in the House of Philemon and Baucis. Wikicomons

As Diderot puts it:

How instructive this fable is!

Conjugal love, peace, and happiness that have taken refuge in a hut; the sensitivity that the poor and unfortunate only find among the humble;

the hut changed into a temple because the couple rendered the purest worship to the gods through their union;

the simplicity of their wishes, which shows that happiness is to be found in the middle way and in anonymity, and how irrational mankind is to seek it so far from themselves.

POEM: Baucis and Philemon

 

Life lies to hand in hoe, spade, pruning-knife,

Plain wooden furniture and wattle walls,

In those unspoken words ‘my husband’, ‘wife’,

In one another’s flesh which still recalls

Beneath the map of age their savoured youth.

It is an ambience in which they move

Having no need to grasp or grub for truth;

It is the still persistence of their love.

 

That one should die before the other’s death

And drain the world of meaning is their fear:

Their hope, to draw together their last breath

And leave the sunlight on a common bier.

Life is the meaning and the bread they share;

Because they need no Gods, the Gods are there.

 

~Dick Davis. From The Covenant, Anvil Press, © 1984.

~ ○ ~

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