burn for a stranger? Why, why must you dream
of wedding one whose world is alien?
“… I don’t abandon great things; I sail toward
greatness: I’ll gain much fame for having saved
the young Achaeans; I shall learn the ways
and manners of a better land than mine,
of cities whose renown has reached these shores,
of countries known for culture and the arts;
and I shall gain the man I’d not exchange
for all the gold the world may hold: the son
of Aeson. As his wife I shall be known
as the most blessed of women, whom the gods
most cherish; I shall touch the very stars!”
He swore by the holy mysteries
of Hecate—the triform goddess he
supposed was in that grove—and by the Sun,
who sees all things, the father of the one
now destined to become his father-in-law—
and by his triumphs over such great dangers.
His oath convinced her: she believed the stranger.
… You, stranger—
Medea—would embrace the victor, too,
but are restrained by modesty, although
that would in truth have been no curb to you—
it was your public name that held you back.
But you’re allowed your secret joy; you watch
in silence, thanking magic and the gods
who are the source of those compelling arts.
… Nine days, nine nights
had seen Medea travel: driven by
winged dragons, she had searched through every land.
That done, the sorceress came home again.
And though those herbs had touched no dragon, just
the odor was enough: the dragons sloughed
their aged skin—they were renewed, transformed.
Now, left alone, Medea—with her hair
disheveled, like a bacchant—round the pair
of blazing altars, circles; and she soaks
the many-headed torches that she grips
in the dark blood of sacrificial pits
and, at the altar fires, lights these brands.
Then she proceeds to purify the body
of the old king: three times with fire, three
with water, and three times with sulfur, she
cleanses his flesh of all impurities.
Meanwhile a potent potion boils and seethes
and foams within a brazen pot, for she
is now concocting roots that she had plucked
in a Thessalian valley, brewing these
with the most pungent juices, flowers, and seeds.
To these, she’s added stones from the far East,
and sands the Ocean washed up on the beach,
and hoarfrost gathered when the moon was full;
and filthy wings—flesh still attached—of screech-owls;
together with the guts of a werewolf,
which has the power to change its savage snout
and show a human face. Nor was that brew
without the liver of a long-lived stag,
the thin and scaly skin of Libyan snakes,
and—added to all these—the head and beak
of a crow whose life spanned nine full centuries.
When the barbarian sorceress—with these
as well as countless other nameless things…
“I’d have you gain still greater confidence
in what I want to do—my gift to you:
my potions will transform your oldest ram,
the leader of your sheep, into a lamb.”
Three times the sun had loosed
its steeds into the Spanish sea, and stars
had plunged into the waves of Ebro’s stream.
On that fourth night, the stars were glittering
when the deceptive daughter of Aeëtes
began to boil a caldron of fresh water
to which she added herbs that had no power.
At long last, borne upon her dragons’ wings,
Medea came to Corinth’s sacred spring.
Here, when the world was born—so we are told
by ancient legends—mortal bodies sprang
from mushrooms risen in the wake of rain.
“Would I tell you of the end without
recounting the beginning! But I speak
directly—bones and ashes, corpses, these
are what became of those your memory seeks!
“… To start, thick darkness fell upon the earth;
beneath the mantle of the clouds, the heat
was stifling; when the waxing moon had reached
its full orb, joining horns for the fourth time,
then, thinning, had undone its fourth full orb,
the torrid south-wind breathed its lethal breath.
The pestilence infected lakes and springs;
and—thousands upon thousands—serpents swarmed
across the untilled fields, contaminating
our streams with poison.”
“You could have seen the half-dead roam the streets
as long as they could stand, while those too weak
lay stretched along the ground; there they would weep;
their straining eyes looked up—a final plea—
their arms stretched toward the sky; and then they breathed
their last beneath the hanging heaven’s shroud—
here, there—wherever death had found them out.
“And at the sanctuary’s doors I saw
abandoned corpses; and along the altars,
to render death more hateful, some had used
a noose to end their lives: with death they drive
away their fear of death—it would arrive
in any case, but they would have it haste.… “
“…’Come see a thing
beyond all hope and all imagining!
O Father, follow me!’…”
“… We ringed the fields with nets to trap the fox,
but she leaped over them—across the top.
Then we unleashed our hounds to track her down,
but she—swift as a bird—outraced the pack.…”
“… For even if she could have wedded Jove,
she would have chosen me as her dear love;
as for my heart, no other woman could
have tempted me—not even Venus’ self;
in our two hearts there burned one equal flame.
“…’You are my chief delight; you comfort me,
refresh me; it’s because of you I love
the woods, the solitary glades; my lips
are never weary of your gentle breath.’… “
These were the things that, even as he wept,
the hero called to mind. The others shed
their share of tears. Just then King Aeacus,
with his two other sons and the fresh ranks
of soldiers they had mobilized, came in.
And Cephalus received those well-armed men.
—from The Metamorphoses of Ovid: a new verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum.
Why Not Smile 4:02 R.E.M. Up Rock 79 4/29/06 7:44 AM