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Ch. 8: Nisus and Scylla, Echo and Narcissus, Hero and Leander

Minos, king of Crete, made war upon Megara. Nisus was king of
Megara, and Scylla was his daughter. The siege had now lasted
six months, and the city still held out, for it was decreed by
fate that it should not be taken so long as a certain purple
lock, which glittered among the hair of King Nisus, remained on
his head. There was a tower on the city walls, which overlooked
the plain where Minos and his army were encamped. To this tower
Scylla used to repair, and look abroad over the tents of the
hostile army. The siege had lasted so long that she had learned
to distinguish the persons of the leaders. Minos, in particular,
excited her admiration. She admired his graceful deportment; if
he threw his javelin, skill seemed combined with force in the
discharge; if he drew his bow, Apollo himself could not have done
it more gracefully. But when he laid aside his helmet, and in
his purple robes bestrode his white horse with its gay
caparisons, and reined in its foaming mouth, the daughter of
Nisus was hardly mistress of herself; she was almost frantic with
admiration. She envied the weapon that he grasped, the reins
that he held. She felt as if she could, if it were possible, go
to him through the hostile ranks; she felt an impulse to cast
herself down from the tower into the midst of his camp, or to
open the gates to him, or do anything else, so only it might
gratify Minos. As she sat in the tower, she talked thus with
herself: "I know not whether to rejoice or grieve at this sad
war. I grieve that Minos is our enemy; but I rejoice at any
cause that brings him to my sight. Perhaps he would be willing
to grant us peace, and receive me as a hostage. I would fly
down, if I could, and alight in his camp, and tell him that we
yield ourselves to his mercy. But, then, to betray my father!
No! Rather would I never see Minos again. And yet no doubt it
is sometimes the best thing for a city to be conquered when the
conqueror is clement and generous. Minos certainly has right on
his side. I think we shall be conquered; and if that must be the
end of it, why should not love unbar the gates to him, instead of
leaving it to be done by war? Better spare delay and slaughter
if we can. And, oh, if any one should wound or kill Minos! No
one surely would have the heart to do it; yet ignorantly, not
knowing him, one might. I will, I will surrender myself to him,
with my country as a dowry, and so put an end to the war. But
how? The gates are guarded, and my father keeps the keys; he
only stands in my way. Oh, that it might please the gods to take
him away! But why ask the gods to do it? Another woman, loving
as I do, would remove with her own hands whatever stood in the
way of her love. And can any other woman dare more than I? I
would encounter fire and sword to gain my object; but here there
is no need of fire and sword. I only need my father's purple
lock. More precious than gold to me, that will give me all I
wish."

While she thus reasoned night came on, and soon the whole palace
was buried in sleep. She entered her father's bedchamber and cut
off the fatal lock; then passed out of the city and entered the
enemy's camp. She demanded to be led to the king, and thus
addressed him: "I am Scylla, the daughter of Nisus. I surrender
to you my country and my father's house. I ask no reward but
yourself; for love of you I have done it. See here the purple
lock! With this I give you my father and his kingdom." She held
out her hand with the fatal spoil. Minos shrunk back and refused
to touch it. "The gods destroy thee, infamous woman," he
exclaimed; "disgrace of our time! May neither earth nor sea
yield thee a resting place! Surely, my Crete, where Jove himself
was cradled, shall not be polluted with such a monster!" Thus he
said, and gave orders that equitable terms should be allowed to
the conquered city, and that the fleet should immediately sail
from the island.

Scylla was frantic. "Ungrateful man," she exclaimed, "is it thus
you leave me? Me who have given you victory, who have
sacrificed for you parent and country! I am guilty, I confess,
and deserve to die, by not by your hand." As the ships left the
shore, she leaped into the water, and seizing the rudder of the
one which carried Minos, she was borne along an unwelcome
companion of their course. A sea-eagle soaring aloft, it was
her father who had been changed into that form, seeing her,
pounced down upon her, and struck her with his beak and claws.
In terror she let go the ship, and would have fallen into the
water, but some pitying deity changed her into a bird. The sea-
eagle still cherishes the old animosity; and whenever he espies
her in his lofty flight, you may see him dart down upon her, with
beak and claws, to take vengeance for the ancient crime.

ECHO AND NARCISSUS

Echo was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods and hills, where
she devoted herself to woodland sports. She was a favorite of
Diana, and attended her in the chase. But Echo had one failing;
she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument would
have the last word. One day Juno was seeking her husband, who,
she had reason to fear, was amusing himself among the nymphs.
Echo by her talk contrived to detain the goddess till the nymphs
made their escape. When Juno discovered it, she passed sentence
upon Echo in these words: "You shall forfeit the use of that
tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one
purpose you are so fond of REPLY. You shall still have the
last word, but no power to speak first."

This nymph saw Narcissus, a beautiful youth, as he pursued the
chase upon the mountains. She loved him, and followed his
footsteps. Oh, how she longed to address him in the softest
accents, and win him to converse, but it was not in her power.
She waited with impatience for him to speak first, and had her
answer ready. One day the youth, being separated from his
companions, shouted aloud, "Who's here?" Echo replied, "Here."
Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one, called out, "Come."
Echo answered, "Come." As no one came, Narcissus called again,
"Why do you shun me?" Echo asked the same question. "Let us
join one another," said the youth. The maid answered with all
her heart in the same words, and hastened to the spot, ready to
throw her arms about his neck. He started back, exclaiming,
"Hands off! I would rather die than you should have me." "Have
me," said she; but it was all in vain. He left her, and she went
to hide her blushes in the recesses of the woods. From that time
forth she lived in caves and among mountain cliffs. Her form
faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away. Her
bones were changed into rocks, and there was nothing left of her
but her voice. With that she is still ready to reply to any one
who calls her, and keeps up her old habit of having the last
word.

Narcissus was cruel not in this case alone. He shunned all the
rest of the nymphs as he had done poor Echo. One day a maiden,
who had in vain endeavored to attract him, uttered a prayer that
he might some time or other feel what it was to love and meet no
return of affection. The avenging goddess heard and granted the
prayer.

There was a clear fountain, with water like silver, to which the
shepherds never drove their flocks. Nor did the mountain goats
resort to it, nor any of the beasts of the forest; neither was it
defaced with fallen leaves or branches; but the grass grew fresh
around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came
one day the youth fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty. He
stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the water; he
thought it was some beautiful water=spirit living in the
fountain. He stood gazing with admiration at those bright eyes,
those locks curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, the
rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the glow of
health and exercise over all. He fell in love with himself. He
brought his lips near to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to
embrace the beloved object. It fled at the touch, but returned
again after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could not
tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or rest, while he
hovered over the brink of the fountain gazing upon his own image.
He talked with the supposed spirit: "Why, beautiful being, do you
shun me? Surely my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs
love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me. When I
stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you smile upon me and
answer my beckonings with the like." His tears fell into the
water and disturbed the image. As he saw it depart, he
exclaimed, "Stay, I entreat you! Let me at least gaze upon you,
if I may not touch you." With this, and much more of the same
kind, he cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by
degrees he lost his color, his vigor, and the beauty which
formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo. She kept near him,
however, and when he exclaimed, "Alas! Alas!" she answered him
with the same words. He pined away and died; and when his shade
passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look
of itself in the waters. The nymphs mourned for him, especially
the water-nymphs; and when they smote their breasts, Echo smote
hers also. They prepared a funeral pile, and would have burned
the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but in its place a
flower, purple within, and surrounded with white leaves, which
bears the name and preserves the memory of Narcissus.

Milton alludes to the story of Echo and Narcissus in the Lady's
song in Comus. She is seeking her brothers in the forest, and
sings to attract their attention.

"Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph, that liv'st unseen
Within thy aery shell
By slow Meander's margent green.
And in the violet-embroidered vale,
Where the love-lorn nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad song mourneth well;
Canst thou not tell me of a gentle pair
That likes thy Narcissus are?
Oh, if thou have
Hid them in some flowery cave,
Tell me but where,
Sweet queen of parly, daughter of the sphere,
So may'st thou be translated to the skies,
And give resounding grace to all heaven's harmonies."

Milton has imitated the story of Narcissus in the account which
he makes Eve give of the first sight of herself reflected in the
fountain:

"That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave, and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of heaven; I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me. I started back;
It started back; but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love. There had I fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me: 'What thou seest,
What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself.'"
Paradise Lost, Book IV

The fable of Narcissus is often alluded to by the poets. Here
are two epigrams which treat it in different ways. The first is
by Goldsmith:

"ON A BEAUTIFUL YOUTH STRUCK BLIND BY LIGHTNING:

"Sure 'twas by Providence designed,
Rather in pity than in hate,
That he should be like Cupid blind,
To save him from Narcissus' fate"

The other is by Cowper:

"ON AN UGLY FELLOW

"Beware, my friend, of crystal brook
Or fountain, lest that hideous hook.
Thy nose, thou chance to see;
Narcissus' fate would then be thine,
And self-detested thou would'st pine,
As self-enamored he."


CLYTIE

Clytie was a water-nymph and in love with Apollo, who made her no
return. So she pined away, sitting all day long upon the cold
ground, with her unbound tresses streaming over her shoulders.
Nine days she sat and tasted neither food nor drink, her own
tears and the chilly dew her only food. She gazed on the sun
when he rose, and as he passed through his daily course to his
setting; she saw no other object, her face turned constantly on
him. At last, they say, her limbs rooted in the ground, her face
became a sunflower, which turns on its stem so as always to face
the sun throughout its daily course; for it retains to that
extent the feeling of the nymph from whom it sprang.

One of the best known of the marble busts discovered in our own
time, generally bears the name of Clytie. It has been very
frequently copied in plaster. It represents the head of a young
girl looking down, the neck and shoulders being supported in
the cup of a large flower, which by a little effort of
imagination can be made into a giant sunflower. The latest
supposition, however, is that this bust represented not Clytie,
but Isis.

Hood in his Flowers thus alludes to Clytie:

"I will not have the mad Clytie,
Whose head is turned by the sun;
The tulip is a courtly quean,
Whom therefore I will shun;
The cowslip is a country wench,
The violet is a nun;
But I will woo the dainty rose,
The queen of every one."

The sunflower is a favorite emblem of constancy. Thus Moore uses
it:

"The heart that has truly loved never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close;
As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets
The same look that she turned when he rose."

It is only for convenience that the modern poets translate the
Latin word HELIOTROPIUM, by the English sunflower. The
sunflower, which was known to the ancients, was called in Greek,
helianthos, from HELIOS, the sun; and ANTHOS a flower, and in
Latin, helianthus. It derives its name from its resemblance to
the sun; but, as any one may see, at sunset, it does not "turn to
the God when he sets the same look that it turned when he rose."

The Heliotrope of the fable of Clytie is called Turn-sole in old
English books, and such a plant is known in England. It is not
the sweet heliotrope of modern gardens, which is a South American
plant. The true classical heliotrope is probably to be found in
the heliotrope of southern France, a weed not known in America.
The reader who is curious may examine the careful account of it
in Larousse's large dictionary.


HERO AND LEANDER

Leander was a youth of Abydos, a town of the Asian side of the
strait which separates Asia and Europe. On the opposite shore in
the town of Sestos lived the maiden Hero, a priestess of Venus.
Leander loved her, and used to swim the strait nightly to enjoy
the company of his mistress, guided by a torch which she reared
upon the tower, for the purpose. But one night a tempest arose
and the sea was rough; his strength failed, and he was drowned.
The waves bore his body to the European shore, where Hero became
aware of his death, and in her despair cast herself down from the
tower into the sea and perished.

The following sonnet is by Keats:

"ON A PICTURE OF LEANDER

"Come hither, all sweet maidens, soberly,
Down looking aye, and with a chasten'd light,
Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white,
And meekly let your fair hands joined be,
As if so gentle that ye could not see,
Untouch'd, a victim of your beauty bright,
Sinking away to his young spirit's night,
Sinking bewilder'd 'mid the dreary sea.
'Tis young Leander toiling to his death.
Nigh swooning, he doth purse his weary lips
For Hero's cheek, and smiles against her smile.
Oh, horrid dream! See how his body dips
Dead-heavy; arms and shoulders gleam awhile;
He's gone; up bubbles all his amorous breath!"

The story of Leander's swimming the Hellespont was looked upon as
fabulous, and the feat considered impossible, till Lord Byron
proved its possibility by performing it himself. In the Bride of
Abydos he says,

"These limbs that buoyant wave hath borne."

The distance in the narrowest part is almost a mile, and there is
a constant current setting out from the Sea of Marmora into the
Archipelago. Since Byron's time the feat has been achieved by
others; but it yet remains a test of strength and skill in the
art of swimming sufficient to give a wide and lasting celebrity
to any one of our readers who may dare to make the attempt and
succeed in accomplishing it.

In the beginning of the second canto of the same poem, Byron
alludes to this story:

"The winds are high on Helle's wave,
As on that night of stormiest water,
When Love, who sent, forgot to save
The young, the beautiful, the brave,
The lonely hope of Sestos' daughter.
Oh, when alone along the sky
The turret-torch was blazing high,
Though rising gale and breaking foam,
And shrieking sea-birds warned him home;
And clouds aloft and tides below,
With signs and sounds forbade to go,
He could not see, he would not hear
Or sound or sight foreboding fear.
His eye but saw that light of love,
The only star it hailed above;
His ear but rang with Hero's song,
'Ye waves, divide not lovers long.'
That tale is old, but love anew
May nerve young hearts to prove as true."

The subject has been a favorite one with sculptors.

Schiller has made one of his finest ballads from the tragic fate
of the two lovers. The following verses are a translation from
the latter part of the ballad:

"Upon Hellespont's broad currents
Night broods black, and rain in torrents
>From the cloud's full bosom pours;
Lightnings in the sky are flashing,
All the storms below are dashing
On the crag-piled shores.
Awful chasms gaping widely,
Separate the mountain waves;
Ocean yawning as to open
Downward e'en to Pluto's caves."

After the storm has arisen, Hero sees the danger, and cries,

"Woe, ah! Woe; great Jove have pity,
Listen to my sad entreaty,
Yet for what can Hero pray?
Should the gods in pity listen,
He, e'en now the false abyss in,
Struggles with the tempest's spray.
All the birds that skim the wave
In hasty flight are hieing home;
T the lee of safer haven
All the storm-tossed vessels come.

"Ah! I know he laughs at danger,
Dares again the frequent venture,
Lured by an almighty power;
For he swore it when we parted,
With the vow which binds true-hearted
Lovers to the latest hour.
Yes! Even as this moment hastens
Battles he the wave-crests rude,
And to their unfathomed chasms
Dags him down the angry flood.

"Pontus false! Thy sunny smile
Was the lying traitor's guile,
Like a mirror flashing there:
All thy ripples gently playing
Til they triumphed in betraying
Him into thy lying snare.
Now in thy mid-current yonder,
Onward still his course he urges,
Thou the false, on him the fated
Pouring loose thy terror-surges.
Waxes high the tempest's danger,
Waves to mountains rise in anger,
Oceans swell, and breakers dash,
Foaming, over cliffs of rock
Where even navies, stiff with oak,
Could not bear the crash.
In the gale her torch is blasted,
Beacon of the hoped-for strand;
Horror broods above the waters,
Horror broods above the land.

Prays she Venus to assuage
The hurricane's increasing rage,
And to sooth the billows' scorn.
And as gale on gale arises,
Vows to each as sacrifices
Spotless steer with gilded horn.
To all the goddesses below,
To "all the gods in heaven that be,"
She prays that oil of peace may flow
Softly on the storm-tossed sea.

Blest Leucothea, befriend me!
>From cerulean halls attend me;
Hear my prayer of agony.
In the ocean desert's raving,
Storm-tossed seamen, succor craving,
Find in thee their helper nigh.
Wrap him in thy charmed veil,
Secret spun and secret wove,
Certain from the deepest wave
To lift him to its crests above."

Now the tempests wild are sleeping,
And from the horizon creeping
Rays of morning streak the skies,
Peaceful as it lay before
The placid sea reflects the shore,
Skies kiss waves and waves the skies.
Little ripples, lightly plashing,
Break upon the rock-bound strand,
And they trickle, lightly playing
O'er a corpse upon the sand.

Yes, 'tis he! Although he perished,
Still his sacred troth he cherished,
An instant's glance tells all to her;
Not a tear her eye lets slip
Not a murmur leaves her lip;
Down she looks in cold despair;
Gazes round the desert sea,
Trustless gazes round the sky,
Flashes then of noble fire
Through her pallid visage fly!

"Yes, I know, ye mighty powers,
Ye have drawn the fated hours
Pitiless and cruel on.
Early full my course is over.
Such a course with such a lover;
Such a share of joy I've known.
Venus, queen, within thy temple,
Thou hast known me vowed as thine,
Now accept thy willing priestess
As an offering at thy shrine."

Downward then, while all in vain her
Fluttering robes would still sustain her,
Springs she into Pontus' wave;
Grasping him and her, the god
Whirls them in his deepest flood,
And, himself, becomes their grave.
With his prizes then contented,
Peaceful bids his waters glide,
>From the unexhausted vessels,
Whence there streams an endless tide.

Thomas Bulfinch

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