Metamorphoses III: 577-691 – Bacchus


Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

Pentheus’ eyes glinted with rage when he saw the captured follower of Bacchus. Though talking would delay the man’s punishment, Pentheus said, ‘You who are going to die and by your death give a lesson to others, tell me your name, your country, and why you have joined this new religion.’ 

Fearlessly the prisoner replied, “My name is Acoetes, and I come from Maeonia. My parents were of the working class. My father didn’t bequeath me fields for sturdy cattle to plow, nor did he have herds: he was a poor man who made his living by catching leaping fish with his line, hook, and rod.

“This skill was his entire stock in trade. When he was ready to pass it on to me, he said, ‘Receive such wealth as I have, heir and successor to all my possessions!’ When he died, he left me nothing but the waters; I was able to call them alone my inheritance.

“Soon, because I didn’t choose to cling to the same rock, I learned to guide a ship with my right hand on the tiller and to recognize the rainy constellation of Amaltheia, the Olenian she-goat who suckled Zeus, and Taygete the Pleiad, and the Hyades, and the Great Bear; I learned the winds’ quarters and where a ship could safely anchor.

“Perchance I approached the shore of Chios on my way to Delos. I ordered my crew to drive onto the beach with their starboard oars, where we jumped easily down to the wet sand.

“When the night was almost over–the first light of dawn was reddening–I roused the crew, telling them to find fresh water and pointing out a path that led to a spring. I myself climbed to the top of a high mound to check the wind, then called to my comrades as I returned to the ship.

“‘Here we are!’ `said Opheltes, the stroke oar, and showed me what he thought was loot he’d found in an empty field: a boy of girlish beauty whom he was leading along the shore. The boy seemed to stagger from drowsiness and too much wine; he could scarcely walk.

“When I viewed the captive’s clothing, face, and gait, I was sure that he whom I looked at was no mortal man. To my fellows I said what I sensed: ‘I don’t know what soul there is in this body, but I know it isn’t a human soul. Whoever you are, bless us and favor our endeavors!’

“‘You don’t speak for us!’ said Dictys, the quickest of the crew at climbing to the top of the mast and sliding down a stay rope. Libys agreed, as did blond Melanthus, the bow lookout, and Alcimedon and the coxswain Epopeus who cheered on the oarsmen. They were all in agreement, blinded by their desire for loot.

“‘I won’t let you foul my ship with this sacred burden!’ I said, putting myself in their way. ‘It’s my right to prevent you!’

“They all became furious, especially Lycabas, an Etruscan who’d been exiled from his city as punishment for manslaughter. When I resisted, he struck me a fierce blow in the throat. It would’ve knocked me into the sea if I hadn’t grabbed a rope and held it despite being barely semi-conscious. The impious gang cheered his action.

“Then at last Bacchus–for the youth was Bacchus–wakened at the clamor and regained his wine-drugged senses. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Why are you shouting? Tell me, sailors, what you intend by this business? Where do you plan to take me?’

“‘Don’t worry,’ Proreus said. ‘We’ll put you ashore at the port of whichever land you want to go to.’

“‘Then turn our course to Naxos,’ the god Liber said. ‘That is my home. The land will welcome you.’

“The liars swore by the sea and all spirits that they would do so, then ordered me to set the sails of our painted ship. Naxos was off to starboard. As I set the sails to take us in that direction, Opheltes said, ‘What are you doing, you fool? Are you out of your mind?’ They should have shivered when he said that. With a combination of nods and whispers, he indicated what he really wanted: ‘Turn us to port!’

“I froze. ‘Let somebody else take over!’ I said, removing myself from execution of the criminal plot. They all cursed me, and the whole band muttered. Aethalion said, ‘Maybe you think you’re the only one who knows how to navigate?’ as he sat down to take my place at the tiller. We set off, leaving Naxos behind us.

“When the God finally realized they were lying, he began playing with them. ‘These are not the shores you promised me, fellows,’ he said. ‘This is not the land I asked for. What did I do to deserve this ill-treatment? What honor can you claim that so many grown men were able to deceive a boy?’

“I began to weep. The impious band mocked my tears and drove the ship through the sea with hastening oars.

“I swear by the God himself (for he is present with us now) that I’m telling you the truth, though I’ll admit it takes some believing: the ship halted in mid-sea as if it were sitting in dry-dock. The amazed crew continued to lash their oars and also set the sails, hoping by this doubled effort to proceed.

“Ivy bound the oars. It snaked around them in twisting bonds and hung clusters of berries over the sails. Bacchus himself stood with grape-heavy vines about his forehead, shaking a staff wreathed in leafy vine-shoots. Around him sprawled mirages of fierce beasts, tigers and lynxes and spotted leopards.

“The men leaped overboard, either from madness or from fear. First Medon’s body turned black and his back curved. Lycabas shouted to him, ‘Into what wonder are you transformed?’ As he spoke his grin broadened, his nose stretched, and his skin thickened and grew scaly.

“Libys, still trying to drive the immobile oars, saw his hands shorten and become not hands but fins. Another sailor, reaching into the knotted rigging, no longer had arms; with a shortened body and humped back, he leaped into the waves. At his tail was a crescent fin, like the horns of the partial moon.

“As dolphins they leaped on all sides, dripping with spray; rising again and plunging into the depths. They danced like the chorus of a play, blowing their lungs clear of seawater through their broad nostrils.

“I alone remained of the twenty–for that was the number of our crew. The god was scarcely able to rouse me from my frozen terror. ‘Strike the fear from your heart and hold your course to Naxos,’ he said.

“Delivered to that place, I found his worshippers and since then have frequented the rites of Bacchus.”

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