Love in the time of gods: Philemon and Baucis

philemon-and-baucisWhen it came to love, the ancient Greeks and Romans had it covered. Amidst their tales of sex, entrapment and betrayal comes my favourite tale of all time… and it’s a romance. Sure, there’s mass death in it too, but oh well.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a story that borders Greek and Roman myth. This isn’t your average story of boy-meets-girl and gives her an ‘I Wuv You’ bear.

This is true love.

Philemon and Baucis

Disguised as humble travellers, Zeus, King of the Gods, and Hermes, walked the earthly realm, seeking comfort and rest. They approached a thousand houses, and a thousand houses bolted their doors against them, unwilling to offer shelter.

Growing angry and despairing of the nature of humankind, the two gods approached one last dwelling. It was a humble shack, roofed with reeds and stems from the nearby marsh. It belonged to the aged Baucis and equally old Philemon, a married couple of meagre means. They had been wedded in the cottage in their younger years, and grown old together.

It was this house that received them gladly, welcoming the disguised travellers and making light of their poverty by acknowledging it, and bearing it without discontent of mind.

The old couple prepared their house quickly to receive guests: Philemon pulled out a bench, over which Baucis threw a blanket, then raked over the warm ashes of the hearth to reignite yesterday’s fire. Philemon gathered vegetables from his own garden, and Baucis helped prepare the meal of their last, carefully-saved joint of wretched-looking meat.

They offered their guests water to refresh themselves after their journey, and created a makeshift couch so their guests could be seated. In conversation and hospitality, they offered the best they could, although it was little – it was all they had.

Soon, the old couple noticed that their food bowls refilled unaided, and wine appeared of its own accord. Growing fearful that they were in the presence of gods, Philemon and Baucis offered their apologies at the paltry spread they had provided, even though it was the most they could have given. Zeus and Hermes dismissed their fears, revealing themselves and praising the couple for their hospitality, bid them climb the mountain-side with them.

Philemon and Baucis obeyed, although the climb was hard with only sticks to support them, and soon they watched from the safety of the mountain and grieved as Zeus and Hermes punished their neighbours for their inhospitable natures.

Then, Zeus turned to Philemon.
“Ask of us, virtuous old man, and you, wife, worthy of a virtuous husband, what you wish.”

Philemon spoke with Baucis, deciding together what they should ask for. When they had agreed, he replied, “Since we have lived our whole lives together, I would that I never have to see my wife’s grave, nor she have to bury me. We would like to share our death, at the very hour, the very minute, so neither has to be without the other.”

Years later, when the death hour came, Philemon and Baucis stood by the sacred steps of the gods’ temple. They embraced each other, sharing a last breath, but instead of passing, the gods rewarded them one last time. Zeus stole them from the hand of death, transforming them both into everlasting trees, entwined together in an eternal embrace.


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