Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Glaucus and Scylla

One of the most timeless aspects of the myths of the ancient world is the sheer humanity of the gods they worshipped. Powerful and wise though they were, they were susceptible to very familiar faults and emotions, and envy is a potent force indeed. Here is the story of one man who discovered the terrible consequences of the envy of a goddess...

Detail of a painting
by Bartholomäus Spranger
There was once a strange cove on the eastern coast of Greece called Anthedon. It was a place men avoided, fearful of a strange power which seemed to radiate from its shores. Isolated it remained, until one day a fisherman happened upon the sheltered beach, weary from a long, exhausting day on the ocean waves. Sweating under the blazing sun, Glaucus hauled his bountiful catch ashore, dragging his nets across the springy grass of a wild meadow. Though a little untamed, and perhaps rather quiet, there was nothing to suggest that the meadow was more special than any other. Soon tired out, Glaucus came to rest in the long grass by the waves, and laid out his nets to dry, as he surveyed the day's catch. It was an impressive sight, a splendid array of the choicest specimens of the high seas. Even more impressive was what followed. For in the moment the fish touched the soft grass, they suddenly quivered. Glaucus stared. Barely a moment later, the nearest fish flopped right over. The fisherman looked on, utterly perplexed. These fish had been in his boat for hours and must have been dead for some time. Glaucus blinked. There was no denying it now, for the whole shoal of his catch was now defiantly leaping its way back to the sea, invigorated by some unseen force. Glaucus looked around for the sign of some god who might be behind this miracle. But there was no other on that isolated cove.

Sculpture by Pietro Bracci, centrepiece
of the Trevi Fountain, Rome
Glaucus looked down, wondering whether there was more to this strange grass than met the eye. Tearing a handful of blades from the swaying meadow, the fisherman chewed them, and the sap flowed into his mouth. Glaucus had barely swallowed a mouthful when a strange feeling overcame him. The burning rays of the sun suddenly seemed to sear his skin. The gentle tide nearby seemed more inviting than ever. A strange shudder within his heart, and Glaucus knew what to do. It seemed so strange to live on land, now he thought of it, especially when the cool waves appeared to almost call out to him. So, bidding a swift farewell to the Earth, Glaucus dived into the azure ocean. What a feeling it was, to glide through the water, with the freedom of a bird in the sky! Deep below the surface, Glaucus was welcomed to his new home by the Titan Oceanus and his consort Tethys, who both ruled over this domain, having escaped the wrath of Zeus by remaining neutral in the War of the Titans (for this story, please click here). Oceanus greeted Glaucus joyfully, and at the Titan's command, the former fisherman was purged of his mortality, embracing the eternal life of a sea god. Nine times the Titan chanted, and in a hundred streams Glaucus was purified. As the thundering torrents rushed over his head in a deluge, Glaucus felt his body begin to change. Where once there was an auburn beard, now there was green, as though seaweed. His shoulders, broader now than ever they had been before, were host to strong new arms, blue as the sea. Glaucus kicked his legs. But there were legs there no more, for in their place was a poweful tail, studded with fins. With a single flick of his new tail, Glaucus could soar through the depths, surrounded with fish more beautiful than any he had seen on his days as a fisherman.

Glaucus beseeches Scylla
Painting by Painting by Laurent de la Hyre
Glaucus rejoiced in the freedom of his new life, revelling in the company of gods. One day, however, whilst powering through the waves where the shores of Sicily and Italy are all but one, Glaucus caught sight of a young maiden reclining in a small rock pool by the ocean's edge. Her name was Scylla, one of the nymphs who came to the aid of those who lose their way at sea. From the moment his eyes saw her, Glaucus was utterly transfixed. Overcome in the heat of the moment, Glaucus came to her, surfacing suddenly. Though he tried to placate her with words which he prayed would make her stay, it was to no avail. Horrified by the creature she saw, Scylla fled in terror to a high crag of rock hanging over the Strait. The nymph eyed him suspiciously, unaware if Glaucus were god or monster. Relentless, Glaucus called out to her, telling the story of how he had once been a humble fisherman, how the Titan of the Ocean had granted him immortality and new life. Glaucus was, however, still recanting his tale when Scylla fled once more. Distraught at her harsh rejection, desperate Glaucus remembered stories he had once heard of a powerful witch who called nearby her home, and set off without delay, praying that she might help him in his plight.

Painting by John William Waterhouse
Making straight for Aeaea, the island where dwelled the daughter of the Sun god, the Titan Helios, Glaucus found it impossible to cast his thoughts to anything but Scylla and her cruel retreat. Soaring through the Tyrrhenian Sea, Glaucus soon arrived on the island of Aeaea, and made his way to the halls of Circe, whose skills with magic were known the world over. Throwing himself at the witch's feet, Glaucus begged for her pity, releasing his pent up emotions:

" Oh Circe, if spells can hold any sway,
   now open those holy lips to utter a spell! "
               - GLAUCUS PRAYS TO CIRCE

Circe was startled by this impassioned plea, and could not fail to be impressed by Glaucus' devotion. The witch responded by urging Glaucus to forget Scylla, and turn to her instead. Glaucus, horrified, declared that as long as Scylla lived and until the day grass grew on the ocean floor and seaweed rested on the mountaintops, he would always be loyal to Scylla. Circe was wracked by envy that she, a goddess, would be refused, but could not bear to harm Glaucus. Instead she turned her wrath upon innocent Scylla. She assured Glaucus that she would create a potion that would cool Scylla's fire and make her fall for him. Elated, Glaucus thanked the witch and dived back into the sea, eager to see Scylla again.

Circe, however, had cold fury in her heart. She too, could think of nothing but Scylla, but with feelings all too different. Taking the most noxious herbs from the woods, Circe ground the poisons into a drug, laying upon it both curse and malice. Her dark work complete, Circe soared through the Heavens, coming to the pool where Scylla liked to bathe. The nymph herself was on her way, and Circe was swift, pouring  her fell concoction into the calm waters. Where the poison touched the glassy tide, it hissed and bubbled, but soon was tranquil, hiding its evil purpose. Her work done, Circe withdrew just as Scylla arrived on the scene. Gently lowering herself in the water, Scylla found the water pleasantly warm, and soon fell asleep, as Glaucus relentlessly approached.

The Metamorphosis of Scylla
Painting by Rubens
It was a strange, growling noise which awoke Scylla. Still drowsy, she opened one eyelid. With a pang of terror, she saw a monstrous hound snapping near her waist. Almost paralysed with fright, slowly she edged away. But the creature followed her every move. Soon snarling surrounded her, and soon the terrible truth dawned on her - they were her. Circe's magic had fused the monsters to her waist, yet the beasts knew no mind or master other than their own. Circe had transformed Scylla into a ravenous monster, who could not control the six pairs of jaws bound to her. Six pairs of jaws which had a taste for human flesh. After a frantic journey back to be at Scylla's side, the former fisherman was thrown into a pit of despair at what he saw. Realising Circe's treachery, with tears in his eyes, he hurled himself back into the waves, shouting in deranged frustration. What of Scylla? As she lay in her lair, torn with grief, she cursed Circe's name, thinking only of vengeance. Until that day, however, sailors seeking to cross the treacherous Straits of Messina did so at their own peril, for fear of finding more than rapids there...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A lyrical Roman poem which tells the stories of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)

Oxford World's Classics:
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A more accessible version of the Roman poem, which tells the story of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A lyrical Roman poem which tells the stories of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)

Oxford World's Classics:
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A more accessible version of the Roman poem, which tells the story of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla) 

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