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    Chapter 16

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    Chapter 16
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    Chapter XVI
    Achelous and Hercules. Admetus and Alcestis. Antigone.

    The river-god Achelous told the story of Erisichthon to Theseus
    and his companions, whom he was entertaining at his hospitable
    board, while they were delayed on their journey by the overflow
    of his waters. Having finished his story, he added, "But why
    should I tell of other persons' transformations, when I myself am
    an instance of the possession of this power. Sometimes I become
    a serpent, and sometimes a bull, with horns on my head. Or I
    should say, I once could do so; but now I have but one horn,
    having lost one." And here he groaned and was silent.

    Theseus asked him the cause of his grief, and how he lost his
    horn. To which question the river-god replied as follows: "Who
    likes to tell of his defeats? Yet I will not hesitate to relate
    mine, comforting myself with the thought of the greatness of my
    conqueror, for it was Hercules. Perhaps you have heard of the
    fame of Dejanira, the fairest of maidens, whom a host of suitors
    strove to win. Hercules and myself were of the number, and the
    rest yielded to us two. He urged in his behalf his descent from
    Jove, and his labors by which he had exceeded the exactions of
    Juno, his step-mother. I, on the other hand, said to the father
    of the maiden, 'Behold me, the king of the waters that flow
    through your land. I am no stranger from a foreign shore, but
    belong to the country, a part of your realm. Let it not stand in
    my way that royal Juno owes me no enmity, nor punishes me with
    heavy tasks. As for this man, who boasts himself the son of
    Jove, it is either a false pretence, or disgraceful to him if
    true, for it cannot be true except by his mother's shame.' As I
    said this Hercules scowled upon me, and with difficulty
    restrained his rage. 'My hand will answer better than my
    tongue,' said he. 'I yield you the victory in words, but trust
    my cause to the strife of deeds. With that he advanced towards
    me, and I was ashamed, after what I had said, to yield. I threw
    off my green vesture, and presented myself for the struggle. He
    tried to throw me, now attacking my head, now my body. My bulk
    was my protection, and he assailed me in vain. For a time we
    stopped, then returned to the conflict. We each kept our
    position, determined not to yield, foot to foot, I bending over
    him, clinching his hands in mine, with my forehead almost
    touching his. Thrice Hercules tried to throw me off, and the
    fourth time he succeeded, brought me to the ground and himself
    upon my back. I tell you the truth, it was as if a mountain had
    fallen on me. I struggled to get my arms at liberty, panting and
    reeking with perspiration. He gave me no chance to recover, but
    seized my throat. My knees were on the earth and my mouth in the

    "Finding that I was no match for him in the warrior's art, I
    resorted to others, and glided away in the form of a serpent. I
    curled my body in a coil, and hissed at him with my forked
    tongue. He smiled scornfully at this, and said, 'It was the
    labor of my infancy to conquer snakes.' So saying he clasped my
    neck with his hands. I was almost choked, and struggled to get
    my neck out of his grasp. Vanquished in this form, I tried what
    alone remained to me, and assumed the form of a bull. He grasped
    my neck with his arm, and, dragging my head down to the ground,
    overthrew me on the sand. Nor was this enough. His ruthless
    hand rent my horn from my head. The Naiades took it, consecrated
    it, and filled it with fragrant flowers. Plenty adopted my horn,
    and made it her own, and called it Cornucopia.

    The ancients were fond of finding a hidden meaning in their
    mythological tales. They explain this fight of Achelous with
    Hercules by saying Achelous was a river that in seasons of rain
    overflowed its banks. When the fable says that Achelous loved
    Dejanira, and sought a union with her, the meaning is, that the
    river in its windings flowed through part of Dejanira's kingdom.
    It was said to take the form of a snake because of its winding,
    and of a bull because it made a brawling or roaring in its
    course. When the river swelled, it made itself another channel.
    Thus its head was horned. Hercules prevented the return of these
    periodical overflows, by embankments and canals; and therefore he
    was said to have vanquished the river-god and cut off his horn.
    Finally, the lands formerly subject to overflow, but now
    redeemed, became very fertile, and this is meant by the horn of

    There is another account of the origin of the Cornucopia.
    Jupiter at his birth was committed by his mother Rhea to the care
    of the daughters of Melisseus, a Cretan king. They fed the
    infant deity with the milk of the goat Amalthea. Jupiter broke
    off one of the horns of the goat and gave it to his nurses, and
    endowed it with the wonderful power of becoming filled with
    whatever the possessor might wish.

    The name of Amalthea is also given by some writers to the mother
    of Bacchus. It is thus used by Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV.:

    "That Nyseian isle,
    Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham,
    Whom Gentiles Ammon call, and Libyan Jove,
    Hid Amalthea and her florid son,
    Young Bacchus, from his stepdame Rhea's eye."


    Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, was endowed by his father with
    such skill in the healing art that he even restored the dead to
    life. At this Pluto took alarm, and prevailed on Jupiter to
    launch a thunderbolt at Aesculapius. Apollo was indignant at the
    destruction of his son, and wreaked his vengeance on the innocent
    workmen who had made the thunderbolt. These were the Cyclopes,
    who have their workshop under Mount Aetna, from which the smoke
    and flames of their furnaces are constantly issuing. Apollo shot
    his arrows at the Cyclopes, which so incensed Jupiter that he
    condemned him as a punishment to become he servant of a mortal
    for the space of one year. Accordingly Apollo went into the
    service of Admetus, king of Thessaly, and pastured his flocks for
    him on the verdant banks of the river Amphrysus.

    Admetus was a suitor, with others, for the hand of Alcestis, the
    daughter of Pelias, who promised her to him who should come for
    her in a chariot drawn by lions and boars. This task Admetus
    performed by the assistance of his divine herdsman, and was made
    happy in the possession of Alcestis. But Admetus fell ill, and
    being near to death, Apollo prevailed on the Fates to spare him
    on condition that some one would consent to die in his stead.
    Admetus, in his joy at this reprieve, thought little of the
    ransom, and perhaps remembering the declarations of attachment
    which he had often heard from his courtiers and dependents,
    fancied that it would be easy to find a substitute. But it was
    not so. Brave warriors, who would willingly have perilled their
    lives for their prince, shrunk from the thought of dying for him
    on the bed of sickness; and old servants who had experienced his
    bounty and that of his house from their childhood up, were not
    willing to lay down the scanty remnant of their days to show
    their gratitude. Men asked, "Why does not one of his parents
    do it? They cannot in the course of nature live much longer, and
    who can feel like them the call to rescue the life they gave from
    an untimely end?" But the parents, distressed though they were
    at the thought of losing him, shrunk from the call. Then
    Alcestis, with a generous self-devotion, proffered herself as the
    substitute. Admetus, fond as he was of life, would not have
    submitted to receive it at such a cost; but there was no remedy.
    The condition imposed by the Fates had been met, and the decree
    was irrevocable. Alcestis sickened as Admetus revived, and she
    was rapidly sinking to the grave.

    Just at this time Hercules arrived at the palace of Admetus, and
    found all the inmates in great distress for the impending loss of
    the devoted wife and beloved mistress. Hercules, to whom no
    labor was too arduous, resolved to attempt her rescue. He went
    and lay in wait at the door of the chamber of the dying queen,
    and when Death came for his prey, he seized him and forced him to
    resign his victim. Alcestis recovered, and was restored to her

    Milton alludes to the story of Alcestis in his Sonnet on his
    deceased wife.

    "Methought I saw my late espoused saint,
    Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
    Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
    Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint."

    James Russell Lowell has chosen the "Shepherd of King Admetus"
    for the subject of a short poem. He makes that event the first
    introduction of poetry to men.

    "Men called him but a shiftless youth,
    In whom no good they saw,
    And yet unwittingly, in truth,
    They made his careless words their law.
    And day by day more holy grew
    Each spot where he had trod,
    Till after poets only knew
    Their first-born brother was a god."

    In The Love of Alcestis, one of the poems in The Earthly
    Paradise, Mr. Morris thus tells the story of the taming of the

    "----- Rising up no more delay he made,
    But took the staff and gained the palace-door
    Where stood the beasts, whose mingled whine and roar
    Had wrought his dream; there two and two they stood,
    Thinking, it might be, of the tangled wood,
    And all the joys of the food-hiding trees.
    But harmless as their painted images
    'Neath some dread spell; then, leaping up, he took
    The reins in hand and the bossed leather shook,
    And no delay the conquered beasts durst make,
    But drew, not silent; and folk just awake,
    When he went by as though a god they saw,
    Fell on their knees, and maidens come to draw
    Fresh water from the fount, sank trembling down,
    And silence held the babbling, wakened town."


    The poems and histories of legendary Greece often relate, as has
    been seen, to women and their lives. Antigone was as bright an
    example of filial and sisterly fidelity as was Alcestis of
    connubial devotion. She was the daughter of OEdipus and Jocasta,
    who, with all their descendants, were the victims of an
    unrelenting fate, dooming them to destruction. OEdipus in his
    madness had torn out his eyes, and was driven forth from his
    kingdom Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all men, as an object of
    divine vengeance. Antigone, his daughter, alone shared his
    wanderings, and remained with him till he died, and then returned
    to Thebes.

    Her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, had agreed to share the
    kingdom between them, and reign alternately year by year. The
    first year fell to the lot of Eteocles, who, when his time
    expired, refused to surrender the kingdom to his brother.
    Polynices fled to Adrastus, king of Argos, who gave him his
    daughter in marriage, and aided him with an army to enforce his
    claim to the kingdom. This led to the celebrated expedition of
    the "Seven against Thebes," which furnished ample materials for
    the epic and tragic poets of Greece.

    Amphiaraus, the brother-in-law of Adrastus, opposed the
    enterprise, for he was a soothsayer, and knew by his art that no
    one of the leaders except Adrastus would live to return. But
    Amphiaraus, on his marriage to Eriphyle, the king's sister, had
    agreed that whenever he and Adrastus should differ in opinion,
    the decision should be left to Eriphyle. Polynices, knowing
    this, gave Eriphyle the collar of Harmonia, and thereby gained
    her to his interest. This collar or necklace was a present which
    Vulcan had given to Harmonia on her marriage with Cadmus, and
    Polynices had taken it with him on his flight from Thebes.
    Eriphyle could not resist so tempting a bribe, and by her
    decision the war was resolved on, and Amphiaraus went to his
    certain fate. He bore his part bravely in the contest, but could
    not avert his destiny. Pursued by the enemy he fled along the
    river, when a thunderbolt launched by Jupiter opened the ground,
    and he, his chariot, and his charioteer, were swallowed up.

    It would not be in place here to detail all the acts of heroism
    or atrocity which marked the contest; but we must not omit to
    record the fidelity of Evadne as an offset to the weakness of
    Eriphyle. Capaneus, the husband of Evadne, in the ardor of the
    fight, declared that he would force his way into the city in
    spite of Jove himself. Placing a ladder against the wall, he
    mounted, but Jupiter, offended at his impious language, struck
    him with a thunderbolt. When his obsequies were celebrated,
    Evadne cast herself on his funeral pile and perished.

    Early in the contest Eteocles consulted the soothsayer Tiresias
    as to the issue. Tiresias, in his youth, had by chance seen
    Minerva bathing. The goddess in her wrath deprived him of his
    sight, but afterwards relenting gave him in compensation the
    knowledge of future events. When consulted by Eteocles, he
    declared that victory should fall to Thebes if Menoeceus, the son
    of Creon, gave himself a voluntary victim. The heroic youth,
    learning the response, threw away his life in the first

    The siege continued long, with various success. At length both
    hosts agreed that the brothers should decide their quarrel by
    single combat. They fought and fell by each other's hands. The
    armies then renewed the fight, and at last the invaders were
    forced to yield, and fled, leaving their dead unburied. Creon,
    the uncle of the fallen princes, now become king, caused Eteocles
    to be buried with distinguished honor, but suffered the body of
    Polynices to lie where it fell, forbidding every one, on pain of
    death, to give it burial.

    Antigone, the sister of Polynices, heard with indignation the
    revolting edict which consigned her brother's body to the dogs
    and vultures, depriving it of those rites which were considered
    essential to the repose of the dead. Unmoved by the dissuading
    counsel of an affectionate but timid sister, and unable to
    procure assistance, she determined to brave the hazard and to
    bury the body with her own hands. She was detected in the act,
    and Creon gave orders that she should be buried alive, as having
    deliberately set at nought the solemn edict of the city. Her
    love, Haemon, the son of Creon, unable to avert her fate, would
    not survive her, and fell by his own hand.

    Antigone forms the subject of two fine tragedies of the Grecian
    poet Sophocles. Mrs. Jameson, in her Characteristics of Women,
    has compared her character with that of Cordelia, in
    Shakespeare's King Lear. The perusal of her remarks cannot fail
    to gratify our readers.

    The following is the lamentation of Antigone over OEdipus, when
    death has at last relieved him from his sufferings:

    "Alas! I only wished I might have died
    With my poor father; wherefore should I ask
    For longer life?
    Oh, I was fond of misery with him;
    E'en what was most unlovely grew beloved
    When he was with me. Oh, my dearest father,
    Beneath the earth now in deep darkness hid,
    Worn as thou wert with age, to me thou still
    Wast dear, and shalt be ever."
    Francklin's Sophocles


    Penelope is another of those mythic heroines whose beauties were
    rather those of character and conduct than of person. She was
    the daughter of Icarius, a Spartan prince. Ulysses, king of
    Ithaca, sought her in marriage, and won her over all competitors.
    When the moment came for the bride to leave her father's house,
    Icarius, unable to bear the thoughts of parting with his
    daughter, tried to persuade her to remain with him, and not
    accompany her husband to Ithaca. Ulysses gave Penelope her
    choice, to stay or go with him. Penelope made no reply, but
    dropped her veil over her face. Icarius urged her no further,
    but when she was gone erected a statue to Modesty on the spot
    where they parted.

    Ulysses and Penelope had not enjoyed their union more than a year
    when it was interrupted by the events which called Ulysses to the
    Trojan war. During his long absence, and when it was doubtful
    whether he still lived, and highly improbable that he would ever
    return, Penelope was importuned by numerous suitors, from whom
    there seemed no refuge but in choosing one of them for her
    husband. Penelope, however, employed every art to gain time,
    still hopping for Ulysses' return. One of her arts of delay was
    engaging in the preparation of a robe for the funeral canopy of
    Laertes, her husband's father. She pledged herself to make her
    choice among the suitors when the robe was finished. During the
    day she worked at the robe, but in the night she undid the work
    of the day. This is the famous Penelope's web, which is used as
    a proverbial expression for anything which is perpetually doing
    but never done. The rest of Penelope's history will be told when
    we give an account of her husband's adventures.

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