CAENEUS TRANSFORMED INTO A BIRDThere was a truce
for many days after this opening fight
while both sides resting, laid aside their arms.
A watchful guard patroled the Phrygian walls;
the Grecian trenches had their watchful guard.
Then, on a festal day, Achilles gave
the blood of a slain heifer to obtain
the favor of Athena for their cause.
The entrails burned upon the altar, while
the odor, grateful to the deities,
was mounting to the skies. When sacred rites
were done, a banquet for the heroes was
served on their tables. There the Grecian chiefs
reclined on couches; while they satisfied
themselves with roasted flesh, and banished cares:
and thirst with wine. Nor harp nor singing voice
nor long pipe made of boxwood pierced with holes,
delighted them. They talked of their own deeds
and valor, all that thrilling night: and even
the strength of enemies whom they had met
and overcome. What else could they admit
or think of, while the great Achilles spoke
or listened to them? But especially
the recent victory over Cygnus held
them ardent. Wonderful it seemed to them
that such a youth could be composed of flesh
not penetrable by the sharpest spear;
of flesh which blunted even hardened steel,
and never could be wounded. All the Greeks,
and even Achilles wondered at the thought.
Then Nestor said to them: “During your time,
Cygnus has been the only man you knew
who could despise all weapons and whose flesh
could not be pierced by thrust of sword or spear.
But long ago I saw another man
able to bear unharmed a thousand strokes,
Caeneus of Thessaly, Caeneus who lived
upon Mt. Othrys. He was famed in war
yet, strange to say, by birth he was a woman!”
Then all expressed the greatest wonderment,
and begged to hear the story of his life.
Achilles cried, “O eloquent old man!
The wisdom of our age! All of us wish
to hear, who was this Caeneus? Why was he
changed to the other sex? in what campaigns,
and in what wars was he so known to you?
Who conquered him, if any ever did?”
The aged man replied to them with care:—
“Although my great age is a harm to me,
and many actions of my early days
escape my memory; yet, most of them
are well remembered. Nothing of old days,
amid so many deeds of war and peace,
can be more firmly fixed upon my mind
than the strange story I shall tell of him.
“If long extent of years made anyone
a witness of most wonderful events
and many, truly I may say to you
that I have lived two hundred years; and now
have entered my third century.
The daughter of Elatus, Caenis, was
remarkable for charm—most beautiful
of all Thessalian maidens—many sighed
for her in vain through all the neighboring towns
and yours, Achilles, for that was her home.
But Peleus did not try to win her love,
for he was either married at that time
to your dear mother, or was pledged to her.
“Caenis never became the willing bride
of any suitor; but report declares,
while she was walking on a lonely shore,
the god of ocean saw and ravished her.
And in the joy of that love Neptune said,
‘Request of me whatever you desire,
and nothing shall deny your dearest wish!’—
the story tells us that he made this pledge.
And Caenis said to Neptune, ‘The great wrong,
which I have suffered from you justifies
the wonderful request that I must make;
I ask that I may never suffer such
an injury again. Grant I may be
no longer woman, and I'll ask no more.’
while she was speaking to him, the last words
of her strange prayer were uttered in so deep,
in such a manly tone, it seemed indeed
they must be from a man.—That was a fact:
Neptune not only had allowed her prayer
but made the new man proof against all wounds
of spear or sword. Rejoicing in the gift
he went his way as Caeneus Atracides,
spent years in every manful exercise,
and roamed the plains of northern Thessaly.