MYRRHA TRANSFORMED TO A TREEThe royal Cinyras was sprung from her;
and if he had been father of no child,
might well have been accounted fortunate—
but I must sing of horrible events—
avoid it daughters! Parents! shun this tale!
But if my verse has charmed your thought,
do not give me such credit in this part;
convince yourself it cannot be true life;
or, if against my wish you hear and must
believe it, then be sure to notice how
such wickedness gets certain punishment.
And yet, if Nature could permit such crimes
as this to happen, I congratulate
Ismarian people and all Thrace as well,
and I congratulate this nation, which
we know is far away from the land where
this vile abomination did occur.
The land we call Panchaia may be rich
in balsam, cinnamon, and costum sweet
for ointment, frankincense distilled from trees,
with many flowers besides. All this large wealth
combined could never compensate the land
for this detestable, one crime: even though
the new Myrrh-Tree advanced on that rich soil.
Cupid declares his weapons never caused
an injury to Myrrha, and denies
his torches ever could have urged her crime.—
one of the three bad sisters kindled this,
with fire brand from the Styx, and poisoned you
with swollen vipers.—It is criminal
to hate a parent, but love such as hers
is certainly more criminal than hate.
The chosen princes of all lands desire
you now in marriage, and young men throughout
the Orient are vying for your hand.
Choose, Myrrha one from all of these for your
good husband; but exclude from such a thought
your father only. She indeed is quite
aware, and struggles bitterly against
her vile desires, and argues in her heart:—
“What am I tending to? O listening Gods
I pray for aid, I pray to Natural Love!
Ah, may the sacred rights of parents keep
this vile desire from me, defend me from
a crime so great—If it indeed is crime.
I am not sure it is—I have not heard
that any god or written law condemns
the union of a parent and his child.
All animals will mate as they desire—
a heifer may endure her sire, and who
condemns it? And the happy stud is not
refused by his mare-daughters: the he-goat
consorts unthought-of with the flock of which
he is the father; and the birds conceive
of those from whom they were themselves begot.
Happy are they who have such privilege!
Malignant men have given spiteful laws;
and what is right to Nature is decreed
unnatural, by jealous laws of men.
“But it is said there are some tribes today,
in which the mother marries her own son;
the daughter takes her father; and by this,
the love kind Nature gives them is increased
into a double bond.—Ah wretched me!
Why was it not my fortune to be born
in that love-blessed land? I must abide,
depressed by my misfortunes, in this place.
“Why do I dwell on these forbidden hopes?
Let me forget to think of lawless flame.
My father is most worthy of my love,
but only as a father.—If I were
not born the daughter of great Cinyras,
I might be joined to him; but, as it stands,
because he is mine he is never mine;
because near to me he is far from me.
“It would be better for me, if we were
but strangers to each other; for I then,
could wish to go, and leave my native land,
and so escape temptation to this crime:
but my unhappy passion holds me here,
that I may see Cinyras face to face,
and touch him, talk with him and even kiss him—
the best, if nothing else can be allowed.
“But what more could be asked for, by the most
depraved? Think of the many sacred ties
and loved names, you are dragging to the mire:
the rival of your mother, will you be
the mistress of your father, and be named
the sister of your son, and make yourself
the mother of your brother? And will you
not dread the sisters with black snakes for hair.
Whom guilty creatures, such as you, can see
brandish relentless flames before their eyes
and faces? While your body has not sinned
you must not let sin creep into your heart,
and violate great Nature's law with your
unlawful rovings. If you had the right
to long for his endearment, it could not
be possible. He is a virtuous man
and is regardful of the moral law—
oh how I wish my passion could be his!”
And so she argued and declared her love:
but Cinyras, her father, who was urged
by such a throng of suitors for her hand,
that he could make no choice, at last inquired
of her, so she might make her heart's wish known.
And as he named them over, asked her which
she fixed her gaze upon her father's face,
in doubtful agony what she could say,
while hot tears filled her eyes. Her father, sure
it all was of a virginal alarm,
as he is telling her she need not weep
dries her wet cheeks and kisses her sweet lips.
Too much delighted with his gentle words
and kind endearments, Myrrha, when he asked
again, which one might be her husband, said,
“The one just like yourself.”, And he replied
not understanding what her heart would say,
“You answer as a loving-daughter should.”
When she heard “loving-daughter” said, the girl
too conscious of her guilt, looked on the ground.
It was now midnight, peaceful sleep dissolved
the world-care of all mortals, but of her
who, sleepless through the night, burnt in the flame
of her misplaced affection. First despair
compels her to abandon every hope,
and then she changes and resolves to try;
and so she wavers from desire to shame,
for she could not adhere to any plan.
As a great tree, cut by the swinging axe
is chopped until the last blow has been struck,
then sways and threatens danger to all sides;
so does her weak mind, cut with many blows,
waver unsteadily—this way and that—
and turning back and forth it finds no rest
from passion, save the rest that lies in death.
The thought of death gave comfort to her heart.
Resolved to hang herself, she sat upright;
then, as she tied her girdle to a beam,
she said, “Farewell, beloved Cinyras,
and may you know the cause of my sad death.”
And while she spoke those words, her fingers fixed
the noosed rope close around her death-pale neck.
They say the murmur of despairing words
was heard by her attentive nurse who watched
outside the room. And, faithful as of old,
she opened the shut door. But, when she saw
the frightful preparations made for death,
the odd nurse screamed and beat and tore her breast,
then seized and snatched the rope from Myrrha's neck;
and after she had torn the noose apart,
at last she had the time to weep and time,
while she embraced the girl, to ask her why
the halter had been fastened round her neck.
The girl in stubborn silence only fixed
her eyes upon the ground—sad that her first
attempt at death, because too slow, was foiled.
The old nurse-woman urged and urged, and showed
her gray hair and her withered breasts, and begged
her by the memory of her cradle days,
and baby nourishment, to hide no more
from her long-trusted nurse what caused her grief.
The girl turned from her questions with a sigh.
The nurse, still more determined to know all,
promised fidelity and her best aid—
“Tell me,” she said, “and let me give you help;
my old age offers means for your relief:
if it be frantic passion, I have charms
and healing herbs; or, if an evil spell
was worked on you by someone, you shall be
cured to your perfect self by magic rites;
or, if your actions have enraged the Gods,
a sacrifice will satisfy their wrath.
What else could be the cause? Your family
and you are prosperous—your mother dear,
and your loved father are alive and well.”
And, when she heard her say the name of father,
a sigh heaved up from her distracted heart.
But even after that the nurse could not
conceive such evil in the girl's sick heart;
and yet she had a feeling it must be
only a love affair could cause the crime:
and with persistent purpose begged the cause.
She pressed the weeping girl against her breast;
and as she held her in her feeble arms,
she said, “Sweet heart, I know you are in love:
in this affair I am entirely yours
for your good service, you must have no fear,
your father cannot learn of it from me.,”
just like a mad girl, Myrrha sprang away,
and with her face deep-buried in a couch,
sobbed out, “Go from me or stop asking me
my cause of grief—it is a crime of shame—
I cannot tell it!” Horrified the nurse
stretched forth her trembling hands, palsied
with age and fear. She fell down at the feet
of her loved foster-child, and coaxing her
and frightening her, she threatened to disclose
her knowledge of the halter and of what
she knew of her attempted suicide;
and after all was said, she gave her word
to help the girl, when she had given to her
a true confession of her sad heart-love.
The girl just lifted up her face, and laid
it, weeping, on the bosom of her nurse.
She tried so often to confess, and just
as often checked her words, her shamed face hid
deep in her garment: “Oh”, at last she groans,
“O mother blessed in your husband—oh!”
Only that much she said and groaned. The nurse
felt a cold horror stealing through her heart
and frame, for she now understood it all.
And her white hair stood bristling on her head,
while with the utmost care of love and art
she strove to use appropriate words and deeds,
to banish the mad passion of the girl.
Though Myrrha knew that she was truly warned,
she was resolved to die, unless she could
obtain the object of her wicked love.
The nurse gave way at last as in defeat,
and said, “Live and enjoy—” but did not dare
to say, “your father”, did not finish, though,
she promised and confirmed it with an oath.
It was the time when matrons celebrate
the annual festival of Ceres. Then,
all robed in decent garments of snow-white,
they bring garlands of precious wheat, which are
first fruits of worship; and for nine nights they
must count forbidden every act of love,
and shun the touch of man. And in that throng,
Cenchreis, the king's wife, with constant care
attended every secret rite: and so
while the king's bed was lacking his true wife,
one of those nights,—King Cinyras was drunk
with too much wine,—the scheming nurse informed
him of a girl most beautiful, whose love
for him was passionate; in a false tale
she pictured a true passion. — When he asked
the maiden's age, she answered, “Just the same
as Myrrha's.” Bidden by the king to go
and fetch her, the officious old nurse, when
she found the girl, cried out; “Rejoice, my dear,
we have contrived it!” The unhappy girl
could not feel genuine joy in her amazed
and startled body. Her dazed mind was filled
with strange forebodings; but she did believe
her heart was joyful.—Great excitement filled
her wrecked heart with such inconsistencies.
Now was the time when nature is at rest;
between the Bears, Bootes turned his wain
down to the west, and the guilty Myrrha turns
to her enormity. The golden moon
flies from the heaven, and black clouds cover
the hiding stars and Night has lost her fires.
The first to hide were stars of Icarus
and of Erigone, in hallowed love
devoted to her father. Myrrha thrice
was warned by omen of her stumbling foot;
the funeral screech-owl also warned her thrice,
with dismal cry; yet Myrrha onward goes.
It seems to her the black night lessens shame.
She holds fast to her nurse with her left hand,
and with the other hand gropes through the dark.
And now they go until she finds the door.
Now at the threshold of her father's room,
she softly pushes back the door, her nurse
takes her within. The girl's knees trembling sink
beneath her. Her drawn bloodless face has lost
its color, and while she moves to the crime,
bad courage goes from her until afraid
of her bold effort, she would gladly turn
unrecognized. But as she hesitates,
the aged crone still holds her by the hand;
and leading her up to the high bed there
delivering Myrrha, says, “Now Cinyras,
you take her, she is yours;” and leaves the pair
doomed in their crime — the father to pollute
his own flesh in his own bed; where he tries
first to encourage her from maiden fears,
by gently talking to the timid girl.
He chanced to call her “daughter,” as a name
best suited to her age; and she in turn,
endearing, called him “father”, so no names
might be omitted to complete their guilt.
She staggered from his chamber with the crime
of her own father hidden in her womb,
and their guilt was repeated many nights;
till Cinyras — determined he must know
his mistress, after many meetings, brought
a light and knew his crime had harmed his daughter.
Speechless in shame he drew forth his bright sword
out from the scabbard where it hung near by.—
but frightened Myrrha fled, and so escaped
death in the shadows of dark night. Groping
her pathless way at random through the fields,
she left Arabia, famed for spreading palms,
and wandered through Panchaean lands. Until
after nine months of aimless wandering days,
she rested in Sabaea, for she could
not hold the burden she had borne so long.
Not knowing what to pray for, moved alike
by fear of death and weariness of life,
her wishes were expressed in prayer: “O Gods,
if you will listen to my prayer, I do
not shun a dreadful punishment deserved;
but now because my life offends the living,
and dying I offend the dead, drive me
from both conditions; change me, and refuse
my flesh both life and death!”
Some god did listen
to her unnatural prayer; her last petition
had answering gods. For even as she prayed,
the earth closed over her legs; roots grew out
and, stretching forth obliquely from her nails,
gave strong support to her up-growing trunk;
her bones got harder, and her marrow still
unchanged, kept to the center, as her blood
was changed to sap, as her outstretching arms
became long branches and her fingers twigs;
and as her soft skin hardened into bark:
and the fast-growing tree had closely bound
her womb, still heavy, and had covered her
soft bosom; and was spreading quickly up
to her neck.—She can not endure the strain,
and sinking down into the rising wood,
her whole face soon was hidden in the bark.
Although all sense of human life was gone,
as quickly as she lost her human form,
her weeping was continued, and warm drops
distilled from her (the tree) cease not to fall.
There is a virtue even in her tears—
the valued myrrh distilling from the trunk,
keeps to her name, by which she still is known,
and cannot be forgot of aging time.
The guilt-begotten child had growth while wood
was growing, and endeavored now to find
a way of safe birth. The tree-trunk was swelling
and tightened against Myrrha, who, unable
to express her torture, could not call upon
Lucina in the usual words of travail.
But then just like a woman in great pain,
the tree bends down and, while it groans, bedews
itself with falling tears. Lucina stood
in pity near the groaning branches, laid
her hands on them, and uttered charms to aid
the hindered birth. The tree cracked open then,
the bark was rent asunder, and it gave forth
its living weight, a wailing baby-boy.
The Naiads laid him on soft leaves, and they
anointed him with his own mother's tears.
Even Envy would not fail to praise the child,
as beautiful as naked cupids seen
in chosen paintings. Only give to him
a polished quiver, or take theirs from them,
and no keen eye could choose him from their midst.