Ovid's Metamorphoses: Dis and Proserpine

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

Calliope sings: Dis and the rape of Proserpine

Not far from the walls of Enna, there is a deep pool. Pergus is its name. Caÿster does not hear more songs than rise from the swans on its gliding waves. A wood encircles the waters, surrounds them on every side, and its leaves act as a veil, dispelling Phoebus’s shafts. The branches give it coolness, and the moist soil, Tyrian purple flowers: there, it is everlasting Spring.

While Proserpine was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, Dis, almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love.

The frightened goddess cries out to her mother, to her friends, most of all to her mother, with piteous mouth. Since she had torn her dress at the opening, the flowers she had collected fell from her loosened tunic, and even their scattering caused her virgin tears. The ravisher whipped up his chariot, and urged on the horses, calling them by name, shaking out the shadowy, dark-dyed, reins, over their necks and manes, through deep pools, they say, and the sulphurous reeking swamps of the Palici, vented from a crevice of the earth, to Syracuse where the Bacchiadae, a people born of Corinth between two seas, laid out their city between unequal harbours.

Between Cyane and Pisaean Arethusa, there is a bay enclosed by narrow arms. Here lived Cyane, best known of the Sicilian nymphs, from whom the name of the spring was also taken. She showed herself from the pool as far as her waist, and recognising the goddess, cried out to Dis, ‘No,’ and ‘Go no further! You cannot be Ceres’s son against her will: the girl should have been asked, and not abused. If it is right for me to compare small things with great, Anapis prized me and I wedded him, but I was persuaded by talk and not by terror.’

Speaking, she stretched her arms out at her sides, obstructing him. The son of Saturn could scarcely contain his wrath and, urging on the dread horses, he turned his royal sceptre with powerful arm, and plunged it through the bottom of the pool. The earth, pierced, made a road to Tartarus, and swallowed the headlong chariot, into the midst of the abyss.

Calliope sings: Ceres searches for Proserpine

Cyane, mourning the rape of the goddess, and the contempt for the sanctities of her fountain, nursed an inconsolable grief in her silent heart, and pined away wholly with sorrow. She melted into those waters whose great goddess she had previously been. You might see her limbs becoming softened, her bones seeming pliant, her nails losing their hardness. First of all the slenderest parts dissolve: her dusky hair, her fingers and toes, her feet and ankles (since it is no great transformation from fragile limbs to cool waters). Next her breast and back, shoulders and flanks slip away, vanishing into tenuous streams. At last the water runs in her ruined veins, and nothing remains that you could touch.

Meanwhile the mother, fearing, searches in vain for the maid, through all the earth and sea. Neither the coming of dewy-haired Aurora, nor Hesperus, finds her resting. Lighting pine torches with both hands at Etna’s fires, she wanders, unquiet, through the bitter darkness, and when the kindly light has dimmed the stars, she still seeks her child, from the rising of the sun till the setting of the sun.

She found herself thirsty and weary from her efforts, and had not moistened her lips at any of the springs, when by chance she saw a hut with a roof of straw, and she knocked on its humble door. At that sound, an old woman emerged, and saw the goddess, and, when she asked for water, gave her something sweet made with malted barley.

While she drank what she had been given, a rash, foul-mouthed boy stood watching, and taunted her, and called her greedy. The goddess was offended, and threw the liquid she had not yet drunk, mixed with the grains of barley, in his face. His skin, absorbing it, became spotted, and where he had once had arms, he now had legs. A tail was added to his altered limbs, and he shrank to a little shape, so that he has no great power to harm. He is like a lesser lizard, a newt, of tiny size. The old woman wondered and wept, and, trying to touch the creature, it ran from her and searched out a place to hide. It has a name fitting for its offence, stellio, its body starred with various spots.

It would take too long to tell through what lands and seas the goddess wandered. Searching the whole earth, she failed to find her daughter: she returned to Sicily, and while crossing it from end to end, she came to Cyane, who if she had not been changed would have told all. But though she wished to, she had neither mouth nor tongue, nor anything with which to speak. Still she revealed clear evidence, known to the mother, and showed Persephone’s ribbon, fallen, by chance, into the sacred pool.

As soon as she recognised it, the goddess tore her dishevelled hair and beat her breast again and again with her hands, as if she at last comprehended the rape. She did not know yet where Persephone was, but condemned all the lands, and called them thankless and unworthy of her gift of corn, Sicily, that Trinacria, above all, where she had discovered the traces of her loss.

So, in that place, with cruel hands, she broke the ploughs that turned up the soil, and, in her anger, dealt destruction to farmers, and the cattle in their fields, alike, and ordered the ever-faithful land to fail, and spoiled the sowing. The fertility of that country, acclaimed throughout the world, was spoken of as a fiction: the crops died as young shoots, destroyed by too much sun, and then by too much rain. Wind and weather harmed them, and hungry birds gathered the scattered seed. Thistles and darnel and stubborn grasses ruined the wheat harvest.”

(1100 words)

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