Orpheus sings: Myrrha’s crime and punishment
The married women were celebrating that annual festival of Ceres, when, with their bodies veiled in white robes, they offer the first fruits of the harvest, wreathes of corn, and, for nine nights, treat sexual union, and the touch of a man, as forbidden. Cenchreis, the king’s wife was among the crowd, frequenting the sacred rites.
Finding Cinyras drunk with wine, the king’s bed empty of his lawful partner, the nurse, wrongly diligent, told him of one who truly loved him, giving him a fictitious name, and praised her beauty. He, asking the girl’s age, she said: “Myrrha’s is the same.”
After she had been ordered to bring her and had reached home, she said: “Be happy, my child, we have won!”
The unhappy girl felt no joy at all in her heart, and her heart prophetically mourned, yet she was still glad: such was her confusion of mind.
It was the hour when all is silent, and Boötes, between the Bears, had turned his wagon, with downward-pointing shaft: she approached the sinful act. The golden moon fled the sky; black clouds covered the hidden stars; night lacked its fires. You, Icarius, and you, Erigone, his daughter, immortalised for your pious love of your father, hid your faces first. Myrrha was checked by an omen, three times, when her foot stumbled: three times, the gloomy screech owl gave her warning, with its fatal cry; she still went on, her shame made less by blindness and black night. With her left hand, she kept tight hold of her nurse, groping with the other she found a way through the dark.
Now she reaches the threshold of the room, now she opens the door, now is led inside. But her trembling knees give way, her colour flees with her blood, and thought vanishes as she goes forward. The closer she is to her sin, the more she shudders at it, repents of her audacity, and wants to be able to turn back, unrecognised.
When she hesitated, the old woman took her by the hand and, leading her to the high bed, delivered her up, saying: “Take her Cinyras, she is yours,” uniting their accursed flesh.
The father admitted his own child into the incestuous bed, calmed her virgin fears, and encouraged her timidity. Perhaps he also said the name, “daughter,” in accordance with her age, and she said, “father,” so that their names were not absent from their sin.
She left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived. The next night the crime was repeated: nor did it finish there. Eventually, Cinyras, eager to discover his lover after so many couplings, fetching a light, saw his daughter and his guilt and, speechless from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in.
Myrrha ran, escaping death, by the gift of darkness and secret night. Wandering the wide fields, she left the land of Panchaea and palm-bearing Arabia behind, and after roaming through nine returns of the crescent moon, weary, she rested at last in the land of the Sabaeans.
Now she could scarcely bear the weight of her womb. Tired of living, and scared of dying, not knowing what to pray for, she composed these words of entreaty: “O, if there are any gods who hear my prayer, I do not plead against my well deserved punishment, but lest, by being, I offend the living, or, by dying, offend the dead, banish me from both realms, and change me, and deny me life and death!”
Some god listened to her prayer; certainly the last request found its path to the heavens. While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark. And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck; she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood to meet it and plunged her face into the bark.
Though she has lost her former senses with her body, she still weeps, and the warm drops trickle down from the tree. There is merit, also, in the tears, and the myrrh that drips from the bark keeps its mistress’s name, and about it no age will be silent.’
Next: Venus and Adonis