Updated: Sep 19
From Jacek Bocheński's Naso the Poet:
There were other such cases, mainly among river deities. Take a fellow like Achelous, for example: a god, in fact, but whoever did not know any better might have taken him for, say, a moderately wealthy patrician, an owner of a seaside villa.
The villa was quite modest, rather old-fashioned, though stylish. A mossy mansion on a dike washed by waves, an interior without excessive luxuries or coffered ceilings, and lined with shells because the host was a river. He himself was delightful, even jovial. Once, on their way back from the hunt for the Calydonian boar, Theseus and his companions got stuck there. They just couldn’t get over the rising waters. Achelous, very effusive, invited them inside. Spring thaw in the mountains, he said, the flooding river carries even cows and horses, many men have drowned, I saw it all myself. It is better to wait it out at my place. The old man must have been a little bored in his lonely palace.
Theseus accepted the invitation. The table was immediately set, the cuisine was tasty, wine was brought in, shapely nymphs served it. Theseus glanced down the legs of one, then another, swallowed, and in order to say something, asked: and over there, he said, pointing his finger to a rock at sea, what is this island? The host had been waiting for it. Heheheh, he chuckled, you can’t see it from here, but there are actually five islands, and they were all once nymphs. They are called Echinades. He laughed and began to talk about how he slept with one of them. Then Neptune turned her into an island.
There was a slight commotion at the table. Despite so many painful lessons, people still did not believe in the omnipotence of the gods. The notorious atheist Piritous was among the guests. He said quite brutally: you regale us with fantasies, my dear host, and you greatly exaggerate this power of the gods. There is no way that they can transform everything into just anything anytime they like.
There was a consternation. The old and wise Lelex decided that something uplifting should be said. And do you know the story of Philemon and Baucis? An old, poor couple, a reed-covered hut, one goose on the farm. These paupers took in Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as humans staggering with exhaustion and hunger because they had been shown the door everywhere else. Lelex told very vividly how Baucis bustled around, set a fire in the fireplace, peeled vegetables. How the table’s leg was too short, so Philemon put a shell under it for balance. How they ate radishes, chicory, cheese, eggs baked in the ash, a piece of smoked ham which they took off the hook and cooked. They served everything they had in earthenware, with young wine, fruit, and honey for dessert. They even wanted to kill the goose, but the gods would not let them. Well, today, the old couple are trees. For when they were asked what they wanted for a reward, they replied that they would like to die at the same hour so that neither would have to attend the funeral of the other. I don’t tell fairy tales, added Lelex. In Phrygia, they showed me two tree trunks standing next to each other, into which the gods had turned Philemon and Baucis. I put a wreath there.
The story impressed Theseus. Only Piritous did not seem convinced. Lelex missed an important thing. He wanted to prove that the gods could do anything, but he talked mostly about the old folks’ honesty, which meant that there were good people in the world. The gods demanded worship, while the deed of Philemon and Baucis had little to do with religion. These poor people simply thought Jupiter and Mercury were hungry, so they fed them. Theseus said: miracles, miracles, what is all this business about miracles, I would like to hear more about them. An interesting discussion ensued, though somewhat chaotic, as is usually the case with wine.
Achelous intervened again. You see, my hero, he said, turning to Theseus, miracles consist in change. After the moralist Lelex, Achelous tried to illuminate the subject from a different angle, with the matter-of-factness of the analyst, which he, alas, was not. There are two kinds of transformation, he said. Either a body transforms only once and remains in this changed form, or it can transform many times and appear in various versions. For example, the sea god Proteus is seen as a youth, a lion, a boar, a serpent, and a bull. He can also be a stone, a tree, a stream, or a fire. Achelous made no mention of something he could not have known and which Ovid probably knew: that Plato saw in Proteus a sophist, another author an orator, and another yet—a politician. There were those for whom Proteus was an artist and others who took him for a dancer.
And how about Mestra! Achelous said. The daughter of that ever-hungry Erysichthon. She also turned into things: a fish, a deer, or a bird whenever her father wanted to sell her in order to buy food for himself. But what is significant is this: while Ceres punished him with eternal, unassuageable hunger, in order to do so, she did not turn herself into hunger—this was impossible—she had to use an intermediary. Ceres, the epitome of fertility, can never become hunger, there is no contact between her and hunger, the two never even come close, never merge into one another, so certain types of transformation are impossible.
Since the guests were curious about Erysichthon’s fate, Achelous, a storyteller rather than a theorist, eagerly entertained them with a longer story about the torment of this sacrilegious man who had eaten everything and ended up devouring himself. The audience, goblets in hand, munching this and that, experienced perverse impressions. But why all this talk, their host said suddenly, why all this talk about other miracles when you do not have to look far. In fact, I am able to take various shapes myself. A murmur rippled across the atrium. After all, a strong argument had just been used. Oh, added Achelous, I do not take any old shape without restriction, but I have already appeared in the form of a snake and a bull.
Here, the host sighed. His guests bombarded him with questions. How? When? Where? Oh, sorry, Achelous teased. No one likes to talk about their own defeats, although, frankly speaking, it is not a shame to lose to a great champion. Theseus, however, asked to hear the story.
Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous and Hercules, 1947, tempera and oil on canvas mounted on plywood, 627⁄8 x 2641⁄8 in. (159.6 x 671.0 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Allied Stores Corporation, and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1985.2
Have you ever heard about Deianira? the god asked. Of course, who has not heard about her, the wife of Hercules. Well, I tried to bed her and had to fight Hercules. As long as the duel was verbal, I was undoubtedly on top. Things got worse when Hercules said that in talking, yes, I was better, but maybe we should try to settle the matter like men. What to do! I shed my shirt and stood my ground. The fellow first threw sand in my face. I responded in kind. Then he grabbed me by my throat, then by my legs, then by the throat, then by the legs. But I flowed through his paws, I am a river, after all, and not a small one, either. Achelous was carried off by his own topic again. So then I dunk him, and how! He dives, but I dunk him again and hold him under. Only the fourth time, I remember well, the fourth time he somehow wriggled out, and then he sat down on me. I had a mountain on my back, I tell you, a mountain, such a burden fell on me. He pushed my lips to the ground, squeezed my neck, and started to choke me. That was when I turned into a snake—there was no other way. One flick, I slipped out of his hands, and stuck out my tongue at him. He laughed. I dealt with snakes in my cradle, he roared and grabbed me by the throat again, and, boy, did he have a grip! Iron tongs, not a hand, I tell you. I try this and that to break out, all for nothing. So, I tried the last defense. Suddenly, I became a bull in his embrace. He was struck stupid for a moment and let go. I caught my breath and went at him. He flexed his muscles and went at me. I did not win, of course. He grabbed me by the horns, knocked me down, dragged me in the sand, and finally drove my horns into the soil. And as if that were not humiliation enough, he tore one horn off—the nymphs later turned it into Cornucopia. Oh, there it is, Achelous said to his guests. A nymph bearing a horn came in to serve dessert. Maybe some fruit? asked the host. It was already daybreak, and the feast was over.
Part of the Notorious Roman Trilogy by Jacek Bocheński