Metamorphoses VIII:616-724 – Baucis and Philemon

Baucis and Philemon

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

Everyone fell silent in horror to hear Pirithous deny the physical existence of the gods. Lelex, a man of age and maturity, replied before others could, saying, “The power of heaven is immense and boundless: whatever the gods wish, happens. As evidence of this, I offer a lime tree growing with an oak on the Phrygian hills, both encircled by a wall. I have seen the very place, because Pittheus, whose father once ruled the region, sent me into those hills whence Pelops came.

Nearby is a marsh which once was habitable land but is now famous as a haunt for coots and divers. Jupiter came here in human form; and with his father came Mercury, the caduceus-bearing grandson of Atlas, who had put aside his winged sandals. They visited a thousand houses, looking for a place to sit and rest; and a thousand households barred their gates against them.

Nevertheless one house received them: a wicker hut thatched with reeds from the marsh. Pious old Baucis and her equally aged husband Philemon had lived there since they were married in youth. They had grown old together in this cottage, accepting their poverty and thus reducing it, bearing it with untroubled minds. You needn’t have looked for masters and servants here: the two of them were the entire household, each giving and obeying orders.

Therefore when the heaven-dwellers touched the small shrine at the door and ducked their heads as they entered because the doorposts were low, the old man ordered them to take the weight off their limbs. He had placed a low couch for them, and dutiful Baucis had covered it with a coarse blanket. Then she stirred up the ashes on the hearth and fed yesterday’s embers with leaves and dry bark, rousing them to flame with her feeble breath.

Baucis split kindling and trimmed shavings from the dry branches of the roof, then set a little bronze vessel on them. She took the cabbage which her husband had gathered from their irrigated garden and cut the leaves into the pot. With a two-tined fork she lifted the flitch of bacon which long had hung from the smoky roof beam and scraped a little of it into the boiling water.

They chatted while dinner was being prepared and none of them sensed the passage of time. There was a beechwood bowl hanging by its sturdy handle from a crane in the fireplace: filled with warmed water, it served to wash the limbs of the guests.

They fluffed the mattress filled with sedges from the gentle stream and placed it on a willow bedframe, then made it into a couch by covering it with the garments which they only wore on special occasions. Even these garments were cheap and old, well suited for the willow frame.

The gods reclined for dinner. Their old hostess, trembling and with her dress tucked up, placed the table before them. One of the table’s three legs was short, so she put a pot under it to make it level. When she had taken care of the leg, she wiped the table down with fresh sedges and placed on it green and black olives, the offering of Minerva, and dogwood berries preserved in wine lees, and endives and radishes and cottage cheese and an egg lightly rolled over warm ashes. Afterwards the wine bowl became silver, as did the cups which had been hollowed from beechwood and sealed with a coating of yellow beeswax.

Immediately after the first course came the main dish still warm from the hearth, which they ate with wine that hadn’t aged long. Finally the main course gave way to the dessert table. It held nuts and figs and wrinkled dates and plums and fragrant apples on wicker trays and purple grapes fresh-picked from the vine. In the midst of the offerings was a white honeycomb. Over all the goodfolk beamed with eager, active expressions.

Meanwhile, whenever the winebowl emptied, it refilled of its own accord–the wine seemed to well up from below. The couple astonished, when they noticed the marvel, abased themselves in fear, pressing their palms to the floor. Baucis and trembling Philemon babbled prayers and begged pardon for not having a worthy banquet prepared.

They had one lone gander, the guardian of their miserable hut. They prepared to kill it for the gods, their guests, but it, flapping away, wore out their age-slowed bodies. Eluding them, it seemed to take refuge with the gods themselves.

The high ones forbade that the goose be slain. “We are gods,” they said. “Your impious neighborhood will justly pay for its evil, but you have gained immunity from this catastrophe. Leave your house now and come with us up the the trail to the heights of this hill. ”

Both obeyed, leaning on their staffs as they struggled up the long slope in the gods’ footprints. Finally they had come within bow-shot of the peak. Turning around, they saw everything below them had sunk into a swamp save for their house alone.

As they marvelled, they bewailed the fate of their neighbors. The old house, small even for only two inhabitants, had become a temple. The forked end posts were turned into columns and the thatch gleamed so yellow that the roof seemed to be covered in gold. The door became an engraved gate, and the floor became marble.

While these things were taking place, Saturnian Jupiter said gently, “Tell us, decent old man and wife fit for a decent husband, what do you wish?”

Philemon in a few words answered the gods for himself and Baucis: “We ask to become the priests and to care for your sanctuary. When we have lived out our years together, may the same hour carry us off so that neither may I see the pyre of my wife nor may she entomb me.”

Their wish was accepted. They were  attendants of the temple so long as life remained. Finally, worn by years and age, they were standing before the temple steps and discussing how it had come to exist, when Baucis saw Philemon begin to leaf out and Philemon, a little the older, saw Baucis leaf out also.

So long as their faces remained at the top of the growing trees, they repeated, “Farewell, my spouse; farewell!” Finally bark covered their mouths simultaneously. A local man, a Bithynian, showed me the twin trees twisting together. The old man told me this story with no wish to trick me, and I took it to heart.

I saw fresh garlands hanging from the branches. Placing one myself, I said to the old couple, “You worshipped the gods as long as you lived; and you, who worshipped the gods, shall be worshipped yourselves.”

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