Achelous et Hercules.
HERCULES AND ACHELOUSTo him the hero, who proclaimed himself
a favored son of Neptune, answered now;
“Declare the reason of your heavy sighs,
and how your horn was broken?” And at once
the Calydonian River-God replied,
binding with reeds his unadorned rough locks:
“It is a mournful task you have required,
for who can wish to tell his own disgrace?
But truly I shall speak without disguise,
for my defeat, if rightly understood,
should be my glory.—Even to have fought
in battle with a hero of such might,
affords me consolation.
(you may have heard some tales of her) was once
the envied hope of many. She was then
a lovely virgin.—I, among the rest
who loved this maiden, entered the fair home
of her great father Oeneus, and I said;
“ ‘Consider all my claims, Parthaon's son,
for I am come to plead your daughter's cause
and mine—So you may make me son-in-law.,—’
no sooner was it said, than Hercules
in such words also claimed the virgin's hand:
all others quickly yielded to our claims.
“He boasted his descent from Jupiter;
the glory of his labors and great deeds
performed at his unjust stepmother's wish.
“But as he was not then a God, it seemed
disgraceful if my state should yield my right;
so I contended with these haughty words,
‘Why should this alien of a foreign land,
contending for your daughter, match himself
to me! king of the waters in this realm!
For as I wind around, across your lands,
I must be of your people, and a part
of your great state. Oh, let it not be said,
because the jealous Juno had no thought
to punish me by labors, my descent
is not so regal! This tremendous boast,
that you, Alcmena's son, are sprung from Jove,
falls at the touch of truth;—or it reveals
the shame of a weak mother, who so gained
your doubtful glory of descent from Heaven!
Prove your descent from Jupiter is false,
or else confess you are the son of shame!’
“But Hercules, unable to control
the flame of his great wrath, scowled as I spoke.
He briefly answered me, ‘My hand excels
my tongue; let me now overcome in fight,
and I may suffer your offence of words.’
“Full of unvented rage he rushed on me,
but firm I stood, ashamed to yield a foot—
I had so largely boasted, no retreat was left,
and so I doffed my green robe—Striking guard,
with clenched hands doubled at my breast,
I stood my ground. He scooped up in his hand
fine, yellow dust; and tossed it on the air
so that the tawny powder sprinkled us;
quick-shifting then he sought to strike my neck,
or feint at my quick-moving legs, and turn
swift moving to attack me at all points.
But as a huge cliff in the sea remains
unmoved, unshaken by the sounding waves,
so my great size, against his vain attacks,
defended me securely—Back we went;
retiring for a space; then rushed again
together, furious, and with foot to foot,
determined not to yield, defiant stood,
till, forward-bending from my waist and hips,
I pressed my forehead against his and locked
his fingers into mine: so, have I seen
two strong bulls rush in combat for the good
of some smooth heifer in the pasture—while
the herd a-tremble and uncertain, wait;
ready to give allegiance to the one
most worthy of dominion.
“Thrice in vain
Hercules strove to push my breast from his,
but I pressed ever closer—till, the fourth
attempt succeeding, he unloosed my grip,
and breaking from my circling arms drew back,
and struck me such a buffet with his hand,
it twisted me about, and instantly
he clung with all his weight upon my back—
“Believe me I have not suppressed the truth.
Nor shall I try to gain applause not due:
I seemed to bear a mountain on my back. —
straining and dripping sweat, I broke his hold,—
with great exertion I unlocked his grip.
He pressed upon me, as I strained for breath,
preventing a renewal of my strength,
and seized upon my neck. Then at the last,
my bent knee went down on the gritty earth,
I bit the sand. So, worsted in my strength,
I sought diversion by an artifice,
and changed me to a serpent.—I then slipped
from his tight clutches my great length, and coiled
my body now transformed to snaky folds—
hissing I darted my divided tongue.
“But Hercules, Alcides, only laughed
and in derision of my scheming, said,
‘It was the pastime of my cradle days
to strangle better snakes than you—and though
your great length may excel all of your kind,
how small a part of that Lernaean snake
would you—one serpent be? It grew from wounds
I gave (at first it had one hundred heads)
and every time I severed one head from
its neck two grew there in the place of one,
by which its strength increased. This creature then
outbranching with strong serpents, sprung from death
and thriving on destruction, I destroyed.—
What do you think will then become of you,
disguised so in deceitful serpent-form,
wielding a borrowed weapon not your own
“And after he had ridiculed me thus,
he gouged his fingers underneath my jaws,
so that my throat was tortured, as if squeezed
with forceps, while I struggled in his grip.
“Twice was I vanquished, there remained to me
a third form so again I changed to seem
a savage bull, and with my limbs renewed
in that form fought once more. He threw his arms
about the left side of my ponderous neck,
and dragging on me followed as I ran.
He seized on my hard horns, and, tugging turned
and twisted me, until he fastened them
firm in the surface of the earth; and pushed
me, helpless, to the shifting sand beneath.
Not yet content he laid his fierce right hand
on my tough horn, and broke and tore it from
my mutilated head.—This horn, now heaped
with fruits delicious and sweet-smelling flowers,
the Naiads have held sacred from that hour,
devoted to the bounteous goddess Plenty.’
All this the River-god said; then a nymph,
a lovely nymph like fair Diana dressed,
whose locks were flowing down on either side,
came graceful to the board, and brought to them
of Autumn's plenty in an ample horn,
and gave to them selected apples for
a second course.
And now, as early dawn
appeared, and as the rising sunlight flashed
on golden summits of surrounding hills,
the young men waited not until the stream
subsiding, had resumed its peaceful way,
but all arose, reluctant, and went forth.
Then Achelous, in his moving waves,
hid his fine rustic features and his head,
scarred by the wound which gave the Horn of Plenty.