Translated by Ian Johnston, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada


[For publication and copyright details, please use the following link: Table of Contents. Note that the numbers without brackets refer to the English text; those in square brackets refer to the Latin text.]




[Cadmus searches for Europa; he consults Apollo, who tells him to follow a heifer; Cadmus fights and kills the dragon, sows the dragon’s teeth; warriors spring up and fight; Cadmus founds Thebes; Actaeon sees Diana naked, is changed into a stag, and ripped apart by his dogs; Juno tricks and kills Semele; birth of Bacchus; Juno and Jupiter argue about sex, agree to consult Teiresias; how Teiresias became a woman and then a man again; Juno blinds Teiresias, Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy; Narcissus and Echo; Juno punishes Echo; Narcissus rejects Echo; suffering of Echo; Narcissus falls in love with his own image, pines away, dies, and is changed into a flower; Pentheus and Bacchus; the story of Acoetes; Bac-chus changes sailors into dolphins; Pentheus is killed.]


By now Jupiter, discarding the form                                                    CADMUS FOUNDS THEBES
of a deceiving bull, has revealed himself
and reached the land of Crete. In the meantime,
Europa’s father, who has no knowledge
of what has taken place, orders Cadmus
to look for the abducted girl, saying
that he will punish him with banishment
if he does not find her, thus revealing
both his piety and his wickedness
in the selfsame act.(1) So Agenor’s son                                               10
wanders the world (for who can uncover
Jupiter’s secret plans?). By running off,
he stays away from his own native land
and his father’s rage. As a suppliant,
he seeks advice from Phoebus’ oracle
and asks what country he should settle in.
Phoebus says:


                                    “In uninhabited fields                                                  [10]
a cow will meet you, one that has never
felt the yoke and has no experience
of the curving plough. With her to guide you,                                  20
choose your path, and wherever she lies down
on the grass, construct walls for your city,
and give that region the name Boeotia.”


Cadmus has scarcely gone down from that cave
beside Castalius when he sees a cow
moving slowly without a guard, showing
on her neck no signs of being harnessed.(2)
He follows, closely tracking where she goes,
and pays tribute silently to Phoebus,
who instructed him to make this journey.                                             30
Once he has passed the fords of Cephisus
and fields of Panope, the heifer stops.(3)
Raising her wide forehead and long horns                                                              [20]
up to the heavens, with her lowing sounds
she makes the air vibrate and, looking back
at her companions following behind,
she lies down on her side and rests there,
on the tender grass. Cadmus then gives thanks,
kissing the foreign soil and saluting
the unknown hills and fields.


                           Intending now                                                           40
to offer Jupiter a sacrifice,                                                                   CADMUS AND THE SERPENT
he orders servants to bring up water
from a flowing stream for a libation.
An ancient grove stands there, as yet untouched
by any human hand. It has a cave
in the middle, thickly covered with twigs
and willow sticks, creating a low arch                                                                 [30]
with the adjoining rocks. A rich supply
of water is there, too. In this cavern
is hidden a serpent sacred to Mars,                                                    50
with golden skin distinguished by its crests.
Its eyes are gleaming fire, its whole body
is puffed with poison, and its three-forked tongue
flickers beside teeth set in triple rows.
When that race of men from Tyre directed
their ill-fated footsteps into this grove
and a jar they set down in the water
made a noise, from deep within the cavern
the dark green serpent stuck its head outside
with a fearful hissing noise. The jars fall                                               60
out of the men’s hands, blood leaves their bodies,
and their astonished limbs immediately                                                                [40]
begin to shake. Twisting its scaly coils
into rolling circles and with one leap
bending itself up in an enormous arc,
it raises more than half its body length
up in the air and looks at the whole grove.
Its body, viewed as a totality,
is as huge as that Serpent in the sky
which separates the Great and Little Bears.(4)                                     70
It does not hesitate but charges out,
straight at those Phoenicians, whether they wish
to fight or flee or whether instant panic
hinders them from both. The beast then slaughters
some with bites, some in prolonged embraces,
and others by breathing deathly poison
which destroys them.


                              The sun, now at its height,                                                     [50]
had made the shadows small. Agenor’s son
wondered what was holding up his comrades.
He set off searching for the men, covered                                            80
with skins stripped from a lion, carrying
a lance of gleaming iron, a javelin,
and a heart more firm than any weapon.
He went in the grove and saw the corpses
of his butchered men and the enemy,
their conqueror, with its monstrous body,
as its bloody tongue licked their dreadful wounds.
He cried:


               “Either I will avenge your deaths,
my faithful comrades, or I will share it.”


With these words, in his right hand he raised up                                   90
a huge rock and, with tremendous effort,                                                            [60]
hurled the massive weight. High walls with towers
would shake under the impact of that stone,
but the dragon was not hurt. Protected
by its scales, which were like a coat of mail,
and by the hardness of its murky hide,
its skin repelled the heavy blow. But still,
that same protective hide cannot prevail
against the javelin which stands firmly fixed
in the centre of its curving, supple spine,                                              100
with the whole iron point skewering its gut.
Writhing in pain and twisting its head round
towards its back, the beast looks at the wound
and bites down on the impaled javelin.
Its huge strength loosens it on every side                                                             [70]
and then, with a great effort, rips the shaft
out of its back, but the iron point remains
stuck in its bones. And then, when a fresh blow
has really added to its usual rage,
the swollen veins in its throat grow bloated,                                         110
white foam flecks its man-killing jaws, the earth
echoes from the scraping scales, and the breath
pumping from its black Stygian mouth poisons
the infected air. At times the serpent
coils itself in massive circles, at times
it rears up straighter than a lengthy plank,
and sometimes it charges on relentlessly,
like rivers fully roused by falling rain,
its chest flattening trees which block its way.                                                       [80]
Agenor’s son backs off a little, blocking                                              120
the attack with his lion’s hide, checking
the menacing jaws by thrusting the spear
in front of him. The serpent, mad with rage,
tries in vain to wound the tempered iron,
but its teeth break on the metal. By now,
from that dragon’s poisonous gullet, blood
is already dripping out. Its spatter
stains the grassy turf. But the wound is slight.
It moves back from the blow, pulling away
its wounded throat, and by retreating                                                  130
stops the spear thrust sinking any deeper
and does not let it penetrate too far.
So Agenor’s son, always in pursuit,                                                                    [90]
keeps shoving the iron spear lodged in its throat,
until an oak tree blocks the beast’s retreat,
and he can jam the spear right through its neck
into the wood. The beast’s enormous weight
bends the tree, which groans as the very tip
of the serpent’s tail beats against its trunk.


While the victor was looking at the size                                               140
of the enemy he had overcome,                                                           CADMUS AND ATHENA
suddenly a voice rang out (it was hard
to tell where it was coming from, but still,
Cadmus heard it):


                                                 “Son of Agenor,
why are you staring at that serpent’s corpse?
You, too, will be a snake men gaze upon.”


For a while, Cadmus trembles, his colour
and his confidence are gone, while his hair                                                          [100]
in chill terror stands on end. Then, behold,
Pallas is there, the hero’s guardian,                                                      150
after gliding down from the air above.
She orders him to open up the earth
and sow the dragon’s teeth into the ground,
to ensure the growth of future people.
He obeys. After he has sunk a plough
into the soil and carved a furrow there,
deep in that earth he sows the dragon’s teeth,
the seeds of mortals, as he was ordered.


What happened then was quite beyond belief.                                     EARTH BORN WARRIORS FIGHT
Lumps of earth began to move, and spear points                                 160
first appeared to rise up from the furrows,
then, a short time later, heads with helmets
and nodding painted crests, then shoulder blades
and chests emerged, as well as limbs weighed down
with weapons. A crop of men armed with shields                                                [110]
sprang up—just as in drama festivals
when curtains are pulled up, the figures there
usually rise, show their faces first,
and then, little by little, other parts,
so every form moves up in peaceful order,                                           170
until the lower margin shows their feet.(5)


Cadmus, frightened by a new enemy,
holds his weapons ready, but one of those
created from the earth cries out:


                                 “Stand back,
and do not interfere in civil war!”


That said, in a combat settled hand-to-hand
he runs at one of his earth-born brothers
and strikes him with his cruel sword. But then,
he himself is cut down by a javelin
thrown from far away. The man who killed him                                    180            [120]
does not survive. He dies, gasping for air,
just moments after he began to breathe.
In the same way, the whole crowd of warriors
is in a frenzy, and these brothers born
a minute ago are being butchered
in their own battle from wounds inflicted
on one another. Now those youthful men,
whom Fate had granted such a short life span,
were hammering at the sorrowful heart
of their bloodstained mother. Five men were left,                                 190
and one was Echion. On the advice
of the Tritonian deity, he threw
his weapons down on the ground, requesting
and pledging tokens of fraternal peace.
Thus, Cadmus, a foreigner from Sidon,
had these men as his comrades in the work,
when he carried out what Phoebus ordered
and founded his new city.                                                                                    [130]


                                      Thebes was now built,                                   ACTAEON AND DIANA
and you, Cadmus, would seem to be happy
in your exile: Venus and Mars were now                                             200
your in-laws, and add to this the family
from such a noble wife, so many sons
and daughters, and those dear assurances
of grandchildren, already youthful men.(6)
But there is no doubt we should always wait
for someone’s final day and call no man
content before he’s dead and laid to rest.
The first reasons for your sorrow, Cadmus,
in the midst of so much prosperity,
were your grandson, Actaeon, whose forehead                                   210
had strange horns attached to it and you, too,
his hunting dogs, who gorged yourselves on blood                                              [140]
from your own master. But if one enquires
with all due care, one finds the blame for that
in chance, not in some wicked act he did.
What crime is there is making a mistake?


There is a mountain, bloody with the slaughter
of various wild beasts. By now shadows
have contracted under the mid-day light
and the sun is at an equal distance                                                       220
from each end of its path, when Actaeon,
the young lad from Hyantia, speaks out
in a friendly way to the companions
in his hunting group, as they make their way
through secluded undergrowth:(7)


                                                      “Friends, these nets
and spears are dripping with wild creatures’ blood.
Our good luck today has been sufficient.
When a new dawn appears on golden wheels                                                [150]
and brings back daylight, let us continue
the task we have proposed. Right now, Phoebus                            230
is poised halfway between the east and west,
and his heat is opening up the fields.
So stop what you are doing, and remove
the knotted nets.”(8)


                                         His comrades carry out
what he has asked and then rest from their work.


There was a valley men called Gargaphia,
thick with pine and sharp-pointed cypress trees,
sacred to Diana, who wears her tunic
tucked high up on her legs.(9) Deep in this place,
there is a wooded cave, not formed by art,                                         240
for nature with her own ingenuity
has imitated art, by tracing out
a natural arch of native limestone rock                                                                [160]
and lighter sandstone. A sparkling fountain pool
of limpid water murmurs on the right,
and grassy banks enclose its open streams.
Here the forest goddess, when exhausted
from her hunting, would bathe her virgin limbs
in the clear waters. Once she reached the place,
she would give one of her armed nymphs her spear,                            250
quiver, and unstrung bow. Another nymph
held in her arms the robe she’d taken off,
while two undid the sandals on her feet.
Then a Theban girl, Crocale, who was
more skillful than the rest, tied up the hair
tangled across her neck, into a knot,
though she herself kept her hair hanging down.                                                    [170]
Nephele, Hyale, Rhanis, Psecas,
and Phiale fetched water in large jars
and poured it out.


               While the Titanian goddess                                                   260
is bathing there in her usual stream,
lo and behold, Actaeon arrives there,
at that very spot.(10) He has set aside
his hunting and is wandering around
the unknown wood, uncertain where he is.
The Fates have led him there. Once he enters
the cave watered by those springs, all the nymphs,
naked as they are, once they see a man,
beat their breasts and fill the entire forest
with their sudden cries, rushing to surround                                         270
and conceal Diana with their bodies.                                                                   [180]
But the goddess herself, who is taller,
stands there head and shoulders above them all.
Since she was being watched without her clothes,
Diana’s face changed colour to the blush
one sees quite commonly when clouds are struck
by sunlight from an opposite direction
or by the purple dawn. And though a crowd
of her companions was standing round her,
she turned sideways and twisted her head back.                                  280
How she wished she had her arrows with her!
But she did have water. She scooped some up
and splashed it in Actaeon’s face, sprinkling
his hair with her avenging drops, adding                                                              [190]
words which prophesied his future ruin:


“Now you may say you have seen me naked,
if you still retain the power of speech!”


Without any further threats, she places                                                ACTAEON IS TRANSFORMED
the horns of a full-grown stag upon his head
where she has sprinkled. She stretches out his neck,                            290
alters his ears so the tops are pointed,
changes his hands to feet, his arms to legs,
and covers his body with dappled hide.
Then, added to that, she makes him timid.
The son of Autonoë runs away,
astonished, as he flees, he is so fast.
Still, when he gazes in the water and sees                                                            [200]
his face and horns, he is about to say


 “I feel so wretched.”


                                        But no voice comes out!
He groans. That is his voice. Tears trickle down                                  300
a face that is not his. All that remains
from what he was earlier is his mind.
What is he to do? Should he go back home
to the royal palace? Or hide himself
here in the woods? Shame hinders him from one,
fear from the other.


                                    While he is in doubt,                                        ACTAEON’S DOGS
his dogs see him. First of all, Melampus
and keen Ichnobates give a signal
by howling (Ichnobates comes from Crete,
Melampus from a Spartan breed) and then                                          310
all the other hounds run up, more swiftly
than racing winds—Pamphagos, Dorceus,
and Oribasus, all from Arcadia,                                                                          [210]
brave Nebrophonos and savage Theron,
with Laelaps and swift-footed Pterelas,
keen-nosed Agre, ferocious Hylaeus,
recently wounded by a boar, Nape,
born from a wolf, Poemenis, trained to work
with cattle, Harpyia, with her two pups,
slender-flanked Sicyonian Ladon, Dromas,                                         320
Canace, Sticte, Tigris, and Alce,
white-haired Leucon and black Asbolus,
strong-bodied Lacon and fast Aëllo,
Thoüs, swift Lycisca and her brother                                                                  [220]
Cyprian Harpalus, his black forehead
marked with a white spot in the middle,
Melaneus, Lachne with a shaggy hide,
and two born from a Dictaean father
and a Spartan mother—Agriodos
and Labros—and shrill-barking Hylactor                                             330
(there were others, too, but the total list
would be too tedious).(11) The pack of hounds
is driven by its eagerness for prey
over remote cliffs, rocks, and pinnacles,
where the going is rough, without a path.
Actaeon flees through places where often
he pursued before. Now, alas, he runs
from his own helpers! He longs to cry out:


“I am Actaeon. Know your own master!”                                                      [230]


But he has no words to express that wish.                                           340
The barking echoes in the upper sky.
Melanchaetes is the first to wound him
along the back, and then Theridamas.
Oresitrophus bites into his shoulder.
These dogs had gone out later but had found
a quicker route by shortcuts through the hills.
They keep their master pinned, as the whole pack
rushes in a mass and buries its teeth
in Actaeon’s flesh. By this point no place
on his body remains without a wound.                                                 350
He groans, making sounds which are not human,
but yet not ones a stag could make, and fills
the well-known hills with dismal cries. His knees
are bent, just like a begging suppliant,                                                                 [240]
and he moves his silent features here and there,
as he might move his arms.


                                  His companions,
quite ignorant of who he is, urge on
the ferocious pack with their usual cries,
while their eyes are searching for Actaeon.
They keep calling eagerly,


                                      “Actaeon!”                                              360


as if he were not there (he turns his head
when he hears the name). They criticize him
for not being present, for being too tired
to enjoy the spectacle of their prey.
He might well prefer he could be absent,
but he is there. And he might well desire
to see and yet not feel the savage acts
of his own dogs. They stand all around him,
sinking jaws inside his body, ripping
to pieces their own master, whom they see                                          370             [250]
as the deceiving image of a stag.

 Men say quiver-bearing Diana’s rage
was not appeased until Actaeon’s life,
after countless wounds, finally was gone.


This event is viewed in different ways.                                                 JUNO AND SEMELE
To some, the goddess seems more violent
than just. Others praise her for holding to
her strict virginity. Each point of view
comes up with its own reasons. Only Juno,
Jupiter’s wife, says not a word about it,                                              380
whether she approves or blames the action,
but she rejoices that this calamity
has fallen on Agenor’s family,
for she has transferred the hatred in her heart
from that Tyrian rival to her relatives.(12)
And now, following that earlier cause,
she has another reason for her loathing.
She is enraged that Semele is pregnant
from the seed of powerful Jupiter.(13)                                                                 [260]
She loosens her tongue to abuse the girl                                              390
and cries:


               “All those numerous complaints of mine—
what good have they done me? I must attack
that girl in person. I have to kill her,
if I am rightly called most mighty Juno,
if it is fitting that in my right hand
I hold the jewelled sceptre and am queen,
Jupiter’s wife and sister—well, at least
his sister. But, I suppose, if the girl
is happy with a secret love, the harm
done to my marriage bed is trivial.                                                  400
Still, she has conceived—that’s all we needed—
carries clear proof of her disgraceful act
in her full womb, and wishes to become
the mother of a child from Jupiter,
something difficult for me to manage.
She has such great faith in her own beauty,                                                    [270]
I’ll make sure that confidence deceives her.
I am not Saturn’s daughter if that girl
does not fall into waters of the Styx,
dumped down in them by Jupiter himself.”                                     410


Having said this, she rises from her throne
and, hidden in tawny clouds, makes her way
to Semele’s door. She does not disperse
the clouds until she has disguised herself
as an old woman, seeding her temples
with white hair, ploughing wrinkles in her skin,
keeping her limbs bent, her steps unsteady.
She makes her voice like an old woman’s, too.
In fact, she now resembles Semele’s nurse,
Beroë, from Epidaurus.(14) And so,                                                    420
when they have a chance to talk together
and have been chatting for a while, the name
Jupiter comes up. Juno sighs and says:                                                                [280]


“I really hope Jupiter is the one,
but I have my doubts about all such things.
Several men, using the names of gods,
have entered virtuous women’s bedrooms.
It’s not enough he says he’s Jupiter,
if indeed that is the truth. Let him give
some token of his love. You must ask him                                      430
to embrace you with the style and power
with which he is welcomed by great Juno,
and before he does that, he should put on
the symbols of his full magnificence.”


Saying words like these, Juno goes to work
on Cadmus’ unsuspecting daughter.
When the girl asks Jupiter for a gift,
without saying what it is, he tells her:


“Choose something. I shall refuse you nothing.
To help you have more faith in what I say,                                      440           [290]
let the god of the Stygian torrents
stand as witness, who makes the gods afraid,
the god of all the gods.”


                               Pleased by what was
to be her doom, prevailing too easily,
and about to die because her lover
desires to please her, Semele replies:


“Present yourself to me in the same form
in which Saturn’s daughter is accustomed
to embrace you, when you are entering
sexual union, the act of Venus.”                                                     450


As she was speaking, Jupiter wanted
to close her mouth, but her voice already
had moved into the air. He gave a groan,
for she could not take back what she had wished,
and he could not take back what he had sworn.
And so, with utmost sorrow, he rose up
to lofty heaven and, with a nod, gathered
the clouds that followed him, then added rains,
lightning mixed in with stormy winds, thunder,                                                     [300]
and the inevitable lightning bolt.                                                           460
Still, he tries to minimize his power,
as much as he is able, and refuses
to arm himself with the fire he once used
to bring down hundred-handed Typhoëus—
there was too much destructiveness in that.(15)
There is another less forceful lightning,
to which the right hands of the Cyclopes
attach less flame, less savagery and rage.
Gods call these his second-order weapons.
Jupiter takes some of them and enters                                                 470
Agenor’s home. But the mortal body
of Semele cannot withstand the blast
which comes from heaven, and she is consumed
by her fiery marriage gift. The baby,                                                    BIRTH OF BACCHUS
not yet completely formed, is then torn out
from his mother’s womb and, still premature,                                                      [310]
is sewn up (if such things can be believed)
in his father’s thigh and completes the term
he would have spent inside his mother’s belly.

While in the cradle, his maternal aunt,                                                  480
Ino, raises him in secret. After that,
he is given to the nymphs of Nysa
who hide him in their caves and feed him milk.(16)


While these events are happening on earth                                           JUPITER, JUNO, AND TEIRESIAS
through laws of Fate and the crib of Bacchus,
twice born, remains secure, the story goes
that Jupiter, who happened to be full
of nectar, shelved his serious concerns
and shared some slight, amusing anecdotes
at ease with Juno. Jupiter remarked:                                                   490


“To tell the truth, the pleasure women get                                                       [320]
from sex is greater than what men receive.”


Juno denied the claim. They both agreed
to ask wise Teiresias his opinion,
since he had known both male and female love.
Once in the green forest he had used his staff
to strike two massive copulating snakes,
and (amazingly!) he was then transformed
from man to woman. He spent seven years
like that, and in the eighth year came across                                        500
the selfsame sight once more. And so he said:


“If the power in the stroke which hits you
is so immense it can change the gender
of the person who delivers the blow
into its opposite, then I will now
strike at you once more.”


                              When he hit those snakes,                                                     [330]
his previous form returned, and once again
he was a man. And so he is the one
they choose to resolve their playful quarrel,
and he confirms what Jupiter has said.                                                 510
Juno, they say, was seriously displeased,
unjustly so, out of all proportion
to the dispute. So she condemned the eyes
of the one who had pronounced the judgment
to eternal darkness. But Jupiter,
the almighty Father, to mitigate
his loss of sight (since no god is allowed
to reverse the actions of another god),
gave Teiresias the power to see
into the future and with this honour eased                                            520
his punishment.


                               Throughout Aonia                                                NARCISSUS
Teiresias’ fame was highly praised
in every city. When people asked him,                                                                [340]
he provided accurate replies.
Dark Liriope was the first to test
and to confirm the truth of what he said.(17)
The winding river Cephisus had once
embraced her, enclosed her in his waters,
and taken her by force. From her full womb
this loveliest of nymphs had given birth                                                530
to an infant one could fall in love with,
even at that age. She called him Narcissus.
When Teiresias was asked about him—
whether the child was destined to pass through
the distant season of mature old age—
the visionary prophet then replied:


“Only if he never gazes at himself.”


For some time the prophet’s words seemed worthless.
But what in fact took place—the way the young lad died
and the bizarre nature of his madness—                                               540           [350]
proved those words were true.


                                    The son of Cephisus
was now sixteen—one might consider him
both boy and youth. Many young men and girls
desired him, but in his tender frame
there was such fearful pride that no young men
or girls affected him.


                                                       The nymph Echo,                         NARCISSUS AND ECHO
with the resounding voice, who has not learned
to hold her tongue when someone speaks or else
to speak out first herself, saw Narcissus
driving panicked stags towards his hunting nets.                                   550
Back then Echo was not just a voice.
She still had a body. But nonetheless,
though she loved to talk, she could only speak                                                    [360]
as she does now. If a person uttered
many words, she could repeat the last ones.
Juno had made her talk this way, because,
when she could have caught out those mountain nymphs
lying beside her husband Jupiter,
Echo would deliberately detain her
with a long chat, until the nymphs had fled.                                          560
After the goddess realized the trick,
she said:


               “That tongue of yours has swindled me.
I will give you less power over it,
the very briefest use of your own voice.”


And she made good her threat by what she did.
Echo just repeats the last words spoken,
merely duplicating what she has heard.
So when she sees Narcissus wandering                                                               [370]
through solitary fields and burns with love,
she tracks him surreptitiously. The more                                              570
she follows him, the more she is on fire,
just as quick-burning sulphur smeared around
the tops of torches seizes any flames
which approach too close. O how many times
she longed to meet him with flirtatious words,
using soft entreaties! Nature stops her
and does not allow her to begin. But she
is ready for what Nature does permit.
She waits for sounds which her voice can repeat.

Now, it so happens that the boy, enticed                                             580
away from a group of faithful comrades,
shouts out:


                                “Is there anybody here?”                                                     [380]


Echo answers:




                                         He is astonished.
He casts his eye in all directions and,
in a loud voice, cries:


                             “Come over here!”


She calls back to the person calling her.
He looks around and, when no one comes out,
he shouts again:


                         “Why run away from me?”


He gets back all the words he has called out.
Narcissus stands there, misled by what seems                                     590
a voice which answers his, and calls again:


“Let’s meet here together.”


                               She could not reply
more willingly to any sound, and cried:


“Meet here together.”


                                    To support her words,
she came out from the woods and ran to him,
to throw her arms around the neck she loved.
He ran away and, as he ran, complained:


“Take your hands off me! Stop these embraces!                                                 [390]
I’ll die before you have your way with me!”


All she replied was:


“Have your way with me.”                                                              600


Now spurned, she conceals herself in forests,
and, in her shame, covers her face with leaves.
From that time on, she lives in lonely caves.
But still her love is there and even grows
from the pain of her rejection. Worries
and lack of sleep waste her wretched body.
Poverty shrinks her skin, and all juices
in her body move out into the air.
Only her voice and bones are left. Her voice
still lives. The story goes her bones were changed                               610
to shapes of stone. Since that time, she hides out
in the woods. No one has ever seen her                                                              [400]
in the mountains, but she is heard by all.
It is the sound which still lives on in her.


Narcissus scorned her, just as he had scorned                                     NARCISSUS IN LOVE
other nymphs born in the streams and mountains,
and just as he had previously scorned
whole companies of men. Then one of those
Narcissus had rejected raised his hands
up to the sky and prayed:


                              “Though he may love                                        620
another in this way, let him not have
what he desires from love.”


                                       The prayer was just,
and goddess Nemesis agreed to it.(18)


There was a clear stream, with limpid waters
like silver, as yet untouched by shepherds
or goats and cattle grazing mountain slopes,
undisturbed by any bird, savage beast,                                                                [410]
or bough split off a tree. All around it
there was grass fed by adjacent waters
and trees which would not let the pool grow warm                              630
from any sun. Here Narcissus, weary
from eager hunting and the heat, lay down,
attracted by the scenery of the place
and by the water springs. And while he tries
to slake his thirst, another thirst begins.
As he is drinking, he sees an image,
the reflection of his face, and falls in love,
desiring a thing which has no substance.
He thinks the shadow must possess a body.
Astonished by himself, he remains there,                                             640
motionless, wearing the same expression,
like a statue made of Parian marble.
Stretched out along the ground, he contemplates                                                 [420]
the double constellation of his eyes,
his hair, which looks suitable for Bacchus
or worthy of Apollo, his beardless cheeks,
his ivory neck, his sensuous mouth,
and the blush mixed in with snowy whiteness,
admiring every feature which makes him
worth admiring. Without a sense of shame,                                          650
he desires himself. The one approving
is the person being approved, and while
he is pursuing, he is being pursued.
He kindles fire and burns at the same time.
How often he kisses the devious spring
without success! How often he reaches in
to clutch the neck he sees in the centre
of the water, and yet his arms cannot
embrace himself! What he is looking at
he does not recognize, but what he sees                                              660            [430]
sets him aflame, and the very error
which deceives his eyes excites them. Why then,
you foolish lad, do you keep trying to clutch
that fleeting image? What you are seeking
does not exist. And if you turn away,
you will lose the thing you love. What you see
is the shadow of a mirror image,
which has nothing of its own. It arrives
with you and stays with you and leaves with you,
if you can leave. No need for Ceres’ food,                                          670
no need for rest can take him from the place.
Instead he lies on the thick grass and peers
at the misleading image, for his eyes
can never gaze enough. He lifts himself                                                                [440]
a little, holds out his arms, and cries:


“You forest trees, has anyone ever
been more cruelly in love? You should know,
for you have offered useful hiding places
to many lovers. In all those ages
your life has passed, that huge expanse of time,                              680
have you known anyone who pined away
like this? I see him, and he pleases me.
But still, what I see and what pleases me
I cannot find. My loving has been caught
in such a huge mistake! To make my grief
more painful still, we are not held apart
by the mighty sea or by some journey,
or by mountains, or walls with bolted gates.
The only thing which keeps us separate
is that tiny pool! He himself desires                                                690             [450]
to be embraced. Every time I lean down
with my lips to the clear water, he lifts
his upturned face to mine. And you would think
he could be touched. It’s such a little thing
that blocks our love. Whoever you may be,
come here! O you extraordinary boy,
why play these tricks with me? When I seek you,
where do you go? You cannot be running
from my shape and youth, and I am someone
who has been loved by nymphs! You promise me,                         700
with that loving face of yours, unknown hope.
When I hold out my arms to you, then you
are happy to hold out your own. When I smile,
you smile. Often I have seen you weeping
when I shed tears. And if I nod my head,                                                       [460]
you return my gesture. From the motion
of your fair mouth I guess you send back words
which do not reach my ears. I am in you.
I have felt it. I am not being deceived
by my own image. I am burning up                                                 710
with love for my own self. I rouse the flames
and suffer from them, too. What do I do?
Should I be the person asking or being asked?
But what is there to ask for? What I want
is with me. My riches have made me poor.
O how I wish I could divide myself
from my own body! What a novel wish
for someone who’s in love, for I desire
to be divided from the one I love.
Now sorrow saps my strength. My time of life                                720
will soon run out, and I will pass away                                                           [470]
in the prime of youth. And for me my death
will not be a burden, since, by dying,
I put my pain to rest. I would prefer
the one I love to keep on living longer,
but now the two of us, both in one life,
will die together.”


                                         Narcissus finished.
Not thinking clearly, he went back again
to the same image and splashed the waters
with his tears. Once he disturbed the surface,                                      730
the reflection was obscured. When he saw
the image disappearing, he cried out:


“Where are you going? Stay! Do not leave me,
you pitiless boy, the one who loves you!
Let me gaze upon the face I cannot touch,
the food I need to feed my wretched madness.”


In his grief, he ripped the upper border                                                               [480]
of his clothing and beat his naked chest
with hands as white as marble. As he struck,
his chest turned rosy red, just like apples,                                            740
in which some parts are usually red
and some are white, or just as unripe grapes
in various bunches commonly possess
a purple colour. Once he saw his image
in the water, he could not endure it
a moment longer, but, as yellow wax
drips in a tiny flame, as morning frost
dissolves in the warm sun, so Narcissus,
wasted by love, gradually melts away,                                                                 [490]
consumed by hidden fire. And now his face                                         750
has no more colour red mixed in with white.
He lacks vitality and strength, those things
which, only recently, gave such delight
to the body Echo earlier had loved.
She was still angry and remembered him,
but when she saw Narcissus, she was sad.
Whenever the poor boy would cry:




her echoing voice would then repeat:




And when he struck his shoulders with his hands,
she sent him back the same sound as the blow.                                    760
His final words as he was looking in
those waters he habitually watched
were these:


                      “Alas, my beloved boy, in vain!”                                              [500]


The place gave every word back in reply.
He cried:




                                   And Echo called:




He set his weary head down on green turf,                                                         NARCISSUS IS TRANSFORMED
and death closed up those eyes which so admired
the beauty of their master. Even then,
after he had been received in houses
of the dead, he would keep gazing into                                                770
waters of the Styx. His naiad sisters
wept for Narcissus. They cut off their hair
and laid it out for him. The dryads, too,
lamented, and Echo returned their cries.
Now they were preparing the funeral pyre,
the torches they would brandish, and the bier.
But there was no body. Instead they found
a flower with a central yellow part
surrounded by white petals on all sides.                                                              [510]


When cities in Achaea heard of this,                                                     780
talk about it made Teiresias famous,                                                    PENTHEUS AND TEIRESIAS
and rightly so. His reputation soared.
Of all the people, there was only one—
Pentheus, son of Echion, a man
contemptuous of the gods—who scorned him,
ridiculing the old man’s prophecies
and mocking his darkness, his loss of sight
(for Juno had removed his power to see).(19)
Shaking his temples covered with white hair,
Teiresias said:


                         “How happy you would be                                    790
if you, too, were deprived of light, so then
you could not witness Bacchus’ sacred rites!
For the day is coming—and I predict
it is not far away—when the new god,
Bacchus, son of Semele, will be here.                                                            [520]
If you do not think of him as worthy
of worship in the temples, you will be
torn up, scattered in a thousand places,
and will pollute the forests, your mother,
and her sisters with your blood. So be it!                                       800
For you will not believe this deity
merits those honours. Then you will complain
that in this darkness I have seen too much.”


As Teiresias is muttering these things,
Pentheus dismisses him. But his words
prove true. What the prophet has predicted
comes to pass.


                           Bacchus appears. Fields resound                              PENTHEUS AND BACCHUS
with festive shouting, crowds rush about—men,
married women, common folk, and leaders,
all mixed up, carried off to unknown rites.                                           810            [530]
Pentheus shouts:


                                  “Children of the dragon,
you warlike people, what is this madness
which has seized your minds?(20) Can the clash of brass
against brass, curved-horn pipes, and magic tricks
have such a powerful effect, that sounds
of women’s screams and the insanity
stirred by wine, obscene mobs, and senseless drums
conquer people who were not terrified
of warlike swords, or trumpets, or columns
of drawn steel? You old men, should I be proud                            820
that you, who were borne far across the sea
and in this very region set up Tyre
and your once banished household gods, are now
letting them be taken without a fight?                                                             [540]
You young men, whose age is more vigorous,
closer to my own, you are better suited
to bear weapons than to hold a thyrsus,
and to have helmets covering your heads
rather than a bunch of leaves.(21) I beg you
to recall the race of those you come from,                                      830
and take on the spirit of that dragon.
He was just one, but he slaughtered many.
He died for his spring and pool, and you men,
you should be winning glorious triumphs!
He put brave men to death. You should drive out
these degenerates and guard the honour
of your ancestors. If Fates have decreed
Thebes will not long survive, then how I wish
siege engines and warriors would demolish
the city walls with crashing fire and steel!                                        840            [550]
We would be sad, but there would be no guilt.
Our fate would be something we could lament,
not something we should hide, and our weeping
would be free from shame. But now Thebes will fall
to an unarmed boy, who does not delight
in war, or weapons, or using horses,
but likes hair doused with myrrh, tender garlands,
purple garments, and gold embroidery.
But if you stand aside, I will force him
quickly to acknowledge that his father                                            850
is a pretense and his rites are fictions.(22)
If Acrisius has sufficient courage
to slur a worthless deity and shut                                                                   [560]
the gates of Argos to stop him entering,
should Pentheus, along with all of Thebes,
be conquered by some foreign charlatan?”(23)


Pentheus then ordered his attendants:


“Leave quickly. Go and drag him here in chains,
this so-called leader. And with these commands
there must be no slackness, no malingering!”                                  860


His grandfather, his uncle Athamas,
and all the others in his crowds of friends
tell Pentheus he is wrong, and they try,
without success, to hold him back.(24) Warnings
increase the fierceness of his rage, which chafes
and grows when it is checked. And the delays
just make things worse. I have seen streams like that.
When no obstruction blocks the water’s flow,
it runs down easily, without much noise,
but wherever logs and stones are in the way,                                       870            [570]
holding back the stream, it grows turbulent
and races from the barrier enraged.


The king’s attendants soon return, covered
with blood. Pentheus asks where Bacchus is.
The servants say they have not seen him, adding:


“But we captured one of his companions,
someone who helps him in the sacred rites.”


They show the king a prisoner, with his hands                                     ACOETES
tied behind his back, a stranger who has come
from Tyrrhenian people and follows                                                    880
the rituals of Bacchus. Pentheus,
whose rage has made his eyes look horrible,
looks at the man and, though he finds it hard
to postpone the time of punishment, says:


“You who are about to die and whose death
will provide a warning to the others,
tell us your name, the country you come from,                                               [580]
who your parents are, and why you carry on
these newly fashionable rituals.”


The stranger, with no sign of fear, replies:                                            890


“My name is Acoetes, my country
Maeonia, and, as for my parents,
they were humble common folk.(25) My father
left no fields to till with hardy oxen,
no flocks or sheep, or any cattle herds.
He himself was poor. It was his custom
to hunt for leaping fish with line and hook,
using his rod to bring them in. That skill
was all his wealth. When he passed it to me,
he said:


                    ‘Accept the riches I possess.                                 900
You are my heir, successor to my work.’


So when he died, he left nothing to me                                                           [590]
but the streams, the only things I can call
my patrimony. Later, to avoid
being always stuck on the same rocks, I learned
to steer a ship, handling the rudder
in my right hand and keeping my eyes fixed
on rainy stars of the Olenian goat,
as well as Taygete and Hyades,
the Bear, the houses of the winds, and harbours                             910
suitable for ships.(26) Well, it so happened
while on my way to Delos, I was blown
onto coastal lands of Chios. With oars
we deftly brought the ship up to the shore.
I leapt out quickly, landing on wet sand.
We spent the night there. And when Aurora                                                  [600]
first began to redden, then I get up
and tell the men to bring fresh water on,
pointing out a pathway leading to a stream.
I myself from a high hill look around                                               920
to see what the wind is promising me.
After that I call to my companions
and go back to the ship. My chief comrade,
Opheltes, shouts out:


                              ‘See, all of us are here.’


And he leads up across the shore a boy
with all the beauty of a virgin girl.
He found him in an isolated field
and considers him a prize. The young lad,
heavy with wine and sleep, seems to stagger
and has trouble keeping up. I observe                                            930
his clothing, his appearance, and his gait.
I see nothing in him which could make me think                                              [610]
he is a mortal being. Sensing this,
I say to my companions:


                            ‘I’m not sure
just what deity is in that body,
but inside that young boy there is a god.
Whoever you may be, be kind to us,
assist our efforts, and forgive these men.’


Dictys, the fastest man at climbing up
the top part of the sails, grabbing a rope,                                        940
and sliding down again, speaks up:


                                       ‘Stop praying
on our behalf.’


                                    Libys agrees with him,
as do blond Melanthus, our bow lookout,
Alcimedon, and Epopeus, too,
who shouted out the stroke-beat for the oars,
called for a rest, and kept their spirits up.
The others all agree with him, so blind                                                           [620]
is their desire for plunder. I cry out:


‘But I will not let a sacred cargo
violate this ship. And in this matter                                             950
by rights the greatest share belongs to me.’


I block their way. The boldest of them all,
Lycabas, is enraged. He’d been banished
from a town in Tuscany, punished
with exile for an appalling murder.
While I hold him, he hits me in the throat
with his young fist and would have thrown me
in the sea, if I had not, though shaken,
been held up by a rope. That ruffian crew
applauds his action. And then, finally,                                             960
Bacchus (for it is Bacchus), as if the noise                                                      [630]
has dispelled his torpor and his senses
are returning from the wine inside his heart,
speaks up:


                ‘What are you doing? What’s this din?
You sailors, tell me how I reached this place?
And where do you propose to carry me?’


Proreus then replied:


                                              ‘Don’t be afraid.
Tell us the harbours you would like to reach.
We’ll take you to the land you’re looking for.’


Bacchus said:


                      ‘Then set your course for Naxos.                         970
That is my home. The land will welcome you.’


The treacherous men swear by all the gods
and by the sea that that’s what they will do
and bid me hoist sail on our painted ship.
Naxos was on the right. As I spread out                                                        [640]
the right-hand sails, each one of them in turn
asks me:


                   ‘What are you up to, you idiot?
What madness grips you now, Acoetes?
Steer to the left-hand side.’


                                                     Most of the men
show me what they mean by nodding, and some                             980
whisper in my ear what they are after.
I was horrified and said:


                                            ‘Someone else
should take the tiller.’


                             And I moved away,
not taking any part in what they did
or in their crime. Each one of them shouts out
at me. The entire crew is muttering.
One man—Aethalion—says:


                                         ‘It’s not as if
our entire safety rests on you alone.’


He shifts himself across to my position,
takes on my work, sets a different course,                                      990
and sails away from Naxos. Then the god,
in a mocking way, as if only now                                                                    [650]
he has at last realized their deceit,
looks out on the sea from the curving stern
and, like a man in tears, cries out:


                                                         ‘You sailors,
these shores are not the ones you promised me,
not the lands I asked for! What have I done
to deserve such punishment? What glory
do you win for yourselves if you mislead
a boy, if many men deceive just one?’                                       1000


I had been weeping for some time. The crew,
those profane men, just ridicule my tears
and with oars rowing at a rapid rate
keep striking at the sea. Now I swear to you
by the god himself (and there is no god
more powerful than he) that the events
which I describe are every bit as true
as they defy belief. Our ship stops there,                                                        [660]
in the open sea, just as if it sat
in dry dock. The sailors, astonished, keep                                      1010
pulling on their oars. They unfurl the sails
and try in these two ways to move ahead.
But ivy locks the oars and, creeping up
in winding tendrils, hangs in heavy bunches
from the sail. The god himself, his forehead
wrapped in a wreath of clustered grapes, holds up
a spear decked out with ivy leaves. Round him
lie phantom visions of tigers, lynxes,
and threatening shapes of spotted panthers.
The men, afraid or mad, jump overboard.                                      1020           [670]
Medon is the first whose entire body
turns black and whose spine begin to twist
in a curving arc. Then Lycabas yells:


‘What sort of monster are you turning into?’


As he said these words, his jaws expanded,
his nostrils bent, his skin grew hard and scaly.
Then Libys, who was still trying to get
the seized-up oars to move, suddenly saw
his hands were shrinking. Then he had no hands!
They both had changed to fins. Another man                                  1030
tried to stretch his arms to the twisted ropes,
but he had no arms, and, arching backwards,
his limbless body tumbled in the sea.                                                             [680]
He had a tail, a curving hook, like horns
on a partial moon. Dolphins jump around
in all directions, dripping lots of spray.
They jump again and then dive down once more
deep beneath the waves, in a playful group.
They look just like a company of dancers,
throwing their wanton bodies here and there,                                  1040
and spouting water they have taken in
through open nostrils. Of the twenty men
some moments earlier (that was the crew
we carried on the ship) I alone remained.
I was afraid and cold, my body shook,
with almost no control. The god spoke up
to reassure me:


                                ‘Free your heart from fear,                                        [690]
and make for Naxos.’


                                     So I was taken
to his island home, and at altar fires
I supervise the sacred rites of Bacchus.”                                        1050


Pentheus replied:


                     “We have leant our ears
to this long story, so that this delay
might mitigate the power of our rage.
You attendants, take this fellow away,
and quickly, too. Tear his body apart
with dreadful tortures, and then send it down
to Stygian darkness.”


                                             So Acoetes,
the Tyrrhenian, is at once dragged off
and imprisoned in a solid building.
But while, as ordered, they are preparing                                            1060
fire and iron, the vicious tools of death,
doors of the prison, so the story goes,
spontaneously open, and the chains,
on their own, with no one loosening them,                                                           [700]
fall off. Echion’s son remains unchanged.
But now he does not tell his men to march
to Mount Cithaeron—he goes in person,
right to the place they’ve chosen to enact
the sacred ritual. The mountain echoes
to the loud songs and shouts of worshippers                                        1070
celebrating Bacchus. Just as a keen horse
neighs when the warlike trumpeter sends out
his signal with resounding brass and shows
his love of war, so Pentheus is stirred
by a heaven pierced with drawn-out screaming.
As he listened, his anger blazed once more.


Almost in the middle of that mountain                                                  PENTHEUS AND AGAVE
there is a forest, whose edges enclose
a treeless field, open on every side.
Here Pentheus’ mother was the first                                                    1080
to see him watching, with his profane eyes,
the sacred rites. She was the very first
roused to rush insanely at him, the first
to hurl her thyrsus stem against her son                                                                [710]
and wound him. She cried out:


                                          “Come here, sisters,
both of you! There’s a huge boar wandering
in our fields! I must kill that boar!”


                                                The crowd,
one common frenzy, all massed together
and charged, attacking frightened Pentheus,
already terrified and speaking words                                                   1090
far less violent, already shouting
he was in the wrong and pleading guilty
to a crime. Though wounded, he shouted out:


“Bring help, Autonoë. You are my aunt.
Let Actaeon’s spirit move your heart!”


                                                      But she
has no sense at all who Actaeon might be.(27)
As he is pleading with her, she rips off
his right arm. Ino, in a frenzy, pulls out                                                                 [720]
the other one. The poor man has no arms
to hold out to his mother. He shows her                                              1100
his mutilated body, with its limbs
torn out, and screams:


                               “Mother! Look at me!”


Agave looks at him and howls. She turns
her neck, letting her hair toss in the breeze,
then seizes his head in bloodstained fingers,
tears it off, and shouts:


                               “Friends, look over here!
This conquest is our work!”


                                                     From a high tree
winds do not rip leaves touched by autumn’s cold                                               [730]
and still clinging on precariously
faster than Pentheus’ limbs were stripped                                             1110
by their abominable hands. And so,
warned by such examples, Theban women
take part in the new rites, offer incense,
and worship at Bacchus’ sacred altars.





(1) Europa’s father is Agenor, king of Sidon, in Asia Minor. Cadmus is her brother. [Back to Text]

(2) Castalius is a fountain near Delphi, below Mount Parnassus, in central Greece. [Back to Text]

(3) Cephisus is a river flowing through Boeotia. Panope is a town in Phocis. [Back to Text]

(4) The Serpent is a constellation in the northern sky. [Back to Text]

(5) Riley notes that the theatre curtain, which contained designs with human figures on it, was lowered to the floor to start a performance and raised again at the end. The process described here is the gradual raising of the curtain at the end of the play. [Back to Text]

(6) Cadmus’ wife is Harmonia, the daughter of Venus and Mars. [Back to Text]

(7) The Hyantes were the original inhabitants of Boeotia, the region in which Thebes was built. Hence, the term is equivalent here to Boeotia. [Back to Text]

(8) Nets were commonly used in hunting. The animals would be driven into them, and the hunters would kill them once they became entangled. [Back to Text]

(9) Gargaphia is near Plataea, a region in Boeotia. [Back to Text]

(10) The adjective Titanian means “related to the Titans.” It is commonly applied to Diana, although she was not a Titan but a daughter of Jupiter.
Autonoë, mother of Actaeon, is one of Cadmus’ daughters. [Back to Text]

(11) Most of the names of these dogs come from Greek words associated with characteristics of hunting dogs: “deer killer,” “hunter,” “tracker,” “howler,” and so on. [Back to Text]

(12) The Tyrian rival is Europa, daughter of Agenor and sister of Cadmus. For the origin of Juno’s hatred of Europa see the story of the seduction and abduction of Europa (1.865 ff). [Back to Text]

(13) Semele is a daughter of Cadmus, thus part of the same family as Europa and Actaeon. [Back to Text]

(14) Epidaurus is a city in the Peloponnese. [Back to Text]

(15) Typhoëus is a monster who fought against Jupiter. He was overthrown and buried deep in the earth, traditionally under Mount Etna, a volcano in Sicily. For further details about Typhoëus, see below 5.510 ff. [Back to Text]

(16) The child of Semele and Zeus is Bacchus. Ino is a daughter of Cadmus and thus Semele’s sister. Nysa is a mountain far to the east. The baby was hidden to prevent Juno from harming him. [Back to Text]

(17) Aonia is a mountainous region of Boeotia. Liriope is the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. [Back to Text]

(18) Ovid calls the goddess of Retribution Rhamnasia, an alternative name for Nemesis, daughter of Jupiter, who had a temple at Rhamnus, in Athens. [Back to Text]

(19) Pentheus is the son of Agave, a daughter of Cadmus, and thus part of the royal family of Thebes. For details about Teiresias’ loss of sight, see 3.511 above. [Back to Text]

(20) The Thebans are those who came from Tyre with Cadmus as well as the descendants of those who appeared out of the earth when Cadmus sowed the dragon’s teeth (3.153 ff.). [Back to Text]

(21) The Bacchic rites involved ecstatic worship out in the countryside, with plenty of drinking and group dancing. The thyrsus is a plant stalk, an important symbol in the ritual. [Back to Text]

(22) Bacchus, the new god, claims that he is the son of Jupiter. [Back to Text]

(23) Acrisius was king of Argos. He refused to allow the new god Bacchus or his rites in the city. His story is told in Book 4. [Back to Text]

(24) Athamas is married to Ino, sister of Agave, Pentheus’ mother. Pentheus’ grandfather is Cadmus. [Back to Text]

(25) Maeonia is a region in the Near East (part of modern Turkey). [Back to Text]

(26) These names refer to figures set among the constellations. The Olenian she goat suckled infant Jupiter (as a constellation it was associated with rainstorms). Taygete was one of the daughters of Atlas, set in the Pleiades. The Hyades were the nurses of Bacchus. They had been changed into constellations. [Back to Text]

(27) Autonoë, sister of Agave, is the mother of Actaeon, whose story is told earlier in this book (3.217 ff). [Back to Text]

[Link to Metamorphoses, Book 4]


[Link to Metamorphoses, Table of Contents]