Art / poetry

Acis and Galatea

The Featured Image: The Loves of Acis and Galatea by Alexandre Charles Guillemot (1827).

 

One of my favorite books was written in the time of Augustus, the one who exiled the imprudent and lurid Ovid for violating the new Roman sexual decorum. For those that don’t know, the eventually Divine Augustus, after assuming the position of Imperator, decided that modesty and chastity were preferable to debauchery and a life living as a swinging single. He created a series of laws to financially punish men who did not marry. His new morality not only included social constructs such as marriage and respectable living but, also, a clamp down on works of literature that promoted a greater liberality. (The word liberal comes from the Roman god Liber, the god of wine.)

Ovid was a grave sinner. He had the audacity to promote, in a series of books and poems such as Ars Amatoria ( the Art of Love ), Remedia Amoris ( The Cure for Love ), all sorts of fun that could not be tolerated. For this he was exiled to Tomis, now in Romania.

This account is disputed, in as much as the reason is not exactly certain. The story is alluded to by Pliny the Elder, Statius, and Ovid himself. Some say that instead his affiliation with the Julians caused the friction. Augustus and his successor Tiberius were Claudians. 

Back to the matter at hand, my favorite book, Metamorphosis tells the story of Acis and Galatea in Book 13. I mention the story of the jealousy of the Cyclops Polyphemus who hurled a rock upon Galatea’s lover Acis. From this rock flowed a spring and so forth sprang innumerable paintings, poems, and sculptures.

This particular description of the wrath of the Cyclops, who was eventually blinded by Odysseus, may be entirely the creation of Ovid who should not be denigrated in anyway since we know of the elaborations of Virgil in the Aeneid, for instance.

Acis and Galatea receives mention here because of the incredible interest this story generated in western art.

 

Atis and Galathea by Pompeo Batoni (1761).

Atis and Galathea by Pompeo Batoni (1761).

 

GALATEA AND POLYPHEMUS
[705] Then, recollecting how the Trojans had derived their origin from Teucer’s race, they sailed to Crete but there could not endure ills sent by Jove, and, having left behind the hundred cities, they desired to reach the western harbors of the Ausonian land. Wintry seas then tossed the heroic band, and in a treacherous harbor of those isles, called Strophades, Aello frightened them. They passed Dulichium’s port, and Ithaca, Samos, and all the homes of Neritos,—the kingdom of the shrewd deceitful man, Ulysses; and they reached Ambracia, contended for by those disputing gods; which is today renowned abroad, because of Actian Apollo, and the stone seen there conspicuous as a transformed judge; they saw Dodona, vocal with its oaks; and also, the well known Chaonian bays, where sons of the Molossian king escaped with wings attached, from unavailing flames.

[718] They set their sails then for the neighboring land of the Phaeacians, rich with luscious fruit: then for Epirus and to Buthrotos, and came then to a mimic town of Troy, ruled by the Phrygian seer. With prophecies which Helenus, the son of Priam, gave, they came to Sicily, whose three high capes jut outward in the sea. Of these three points Pachynos faces towards the showery south; and Lilybaeum is exposed to soft delicious zephyrs; but Peloros looks out towards the Bears which never touch the sea The Trojans came there. Favored by the tide, and active oars, by nightfall all the fleet arrived together on Zanclaean sands. Scylla upon the right infests the shore, Charybdis, restless on the left, destroys. Charybdis swallows and then vomits forth misfortuned ships that she has taken down; Scylla’s dark waist is girt with savage dogs. She has a maiden’s face, and, if we may believe what poets tell, she was in olden time a maiden. Many suitors courted her, but she repulsed them; and, because she was so much beloved by all the Nereids, she sought these nymphs and used to tell how she escaped from the love-stricken youths.

[738] But Galatea, while her loosened locks were being combed, said to her visitor,—“Truly, O maiden, a gentle race of men courts you, and so you can, and do, refuse all with impunity. But I, whose sire is Nereus, whom the azure Doris bore, though guarded by so many sister nymphs, escaped the Cyclops’ love with tragic loss.” And, sobbing, she was choked with tears. When with her fingers, marble white and smooth, Scylla had wiped away the rising tears of sorrow and had comforted the nymph, she said, “Tell me, dear goddess, and do not conceal from me (for I am true to you) the cause of your great sorrows.” And the nymph, daughter of Nereus, thus replied to her:—

[750] “Acis, the son of Faunus and the nymph Symaethis, was a great delight to his dear father and his mother, but even more to me, for he alone had won my love. Eight birthdays having passed a second time, his tender cheeks were marked with softest down. While I pursued him with a constant love, the Cyclops followed me as constantly. And, should you ask me, I could not declare whether my hatred of him, or my love of Acis was the stronger.—They were equal. O gentle Venus! what power equals yours! That savage, dreaded by the forest trees, feared by the stranger who beholds his face contemner of Olympus and the gods, now he can feel what love is. He is filled with passion for me. He burns hot for me, forgetful of his cattle and his caves. Now, Polyphemus, wretched Cyclops, you are careful of appearance, and you try the art of pleasing. You have even combed your stiffened hair with rakes: it pleases you to trim your shaggy beard with sickles, while you gaze at your fierce features in a pool so earnest to compose them. Love of flesh, ferocity and your keen thirst for blood have ceased. The ships may safely come and go!

[770] “While all this happened, Telemus arrived at the Sicilian Aetna—Telemus, the son of Eurymus, who never could mistake an omen, met the dreadful fierce, huge Cyclops, Polyphemus, and he said, `That single eye now midmost in your brow Ulysses will take from you.’ In reply, the Cyclops only laughed at him and said, `Most silly of the prophets! you are wrong, a maiden has already taken it!’ So he made fun of Telemus, who warned him vainly of the truth—and after that, he either burdened with his bulk the shore, by stalking back and forth with lengthy strides, or came back weary to his shaded cave.

[778] “A wedge-formed hill projects far in the sea and either side there flow the salty waves. To this the giant savage climbed and sat upon the highest point. The wooly flock, no longer guided by him, followed after. There, after he had laid his pine tree down, which served him for a staff, although so tall it seemed best fitted for a ship’s high mast, he played his shepherd pipes—in them I saw a hundred reeds. The very mountains felt the pipings of that shepherd, and the waves beneath him shook respondent to each note. All this time I was hidden by a rock, reclining on the bosom of my own dear Acis; and, although afar, I heard such words as these, which I can not forget:—

[789] “`O Galatea, fairer than the flower of snow-white privet, and more blooming than the meadows, and more slender than the tall delightful alder, brighter than smooth glass, more wanton than the tender skipping kid, smoother than shells worn by continual floods, more pleasing than the winter sun, or than the summer shade, more beautiful than fruit of apple trees, more pleasing to the sight than lofty plane tree, clearer than pure ice, and sweeter than the ripe grape, softer than soft swan-down and the softest curdled milk; alas, and if you did not fly from me, I would declare you are more beautiful than any watered garden of this world.

[798] “`And yet, O Galatea; I must say, that you are wilder than all untrained bullocks, harder than seasoned oak, more treacherous than tumbled waters, tougher than the twigs of osier and the white vine, harder to move than cliffs which front these waves, more violent than any torrent, you are prouder than the flattered peacock, fiercer than hot fire, rougher than thistles, and more cruel than the pregnant she-bear, deafer than the waves of stormy seas, more deadly savage than the trodden water-snake: and, (what I would endeavor surely to deprive you of) your speed is fleeter than the deer pursued by frightful barkings, and more swift than rapid storm-winds and the flitting air. But Galatea, if you knew me well you would regret your hasty flight from me, and you would even blame your own delay, and strive for my affection. I now hold the choice part of this mountain for my cave, roofed over with the native rock. The sun is not felt in the heat of middle day, nor is the winter felt there: apples load the bending boughs and luscious grapes hang on the lengthened vines, resembling gold, and purple grapes as rich—I keep for you those two delicious fruits. With your own hands, you shall yourself uncover strawberries, growing so soft beneath the woodland shade; you shall pluck corners in the autumn ripe, and plums, not only darkened with black juice but larger kinds as yellow as new wax. If I may be your mate, you shall have chestnuts, fruits of the arbute shall be always near, and every tree shall yield at your desire.

[821] “`The ewes here all are mine, and many more are wandering in the valleys; and the woods conceal a multitude—and many more are penned within my caves. If you perchance should ask me, I could never even guess or count the number; it is for the poor to count their cattle. Do not trust my word, but go yourself and see with your own eyes, how they can hardly stand up on their legs because of their distended udders’ weight. I have lambs also, as a future flock, kept in warm folds, and kids of their same age in other folds. I always have supplies of snow-white milk for drinking, and much more is hardened with good rennet liquefied.

[831] “`The common joys of ordinary things will not be all you should expect of me—tame does and hares and she-goats or a pair of doves, or even a nest from a tall tree—for I have found upon a mountain top, the twin cubs of a shaggy wild she-bear, of such appearance you can hardly know the one from other. They will play with you. The very day I found them I declared, these I will keep for my dear loved one’s joy.

[838] “`Do now but raise your shining head above the azure sea: come Galatea come, and do not scorn my presents. Certainly, I know myself, for only recently I saw my own reflection pictured clear in limpid water, and my features pleased and charmed me when I saw it. See how huge I am. Not even Jove in his high heaven is larger than my body: this I say because you tell me how imperial Jove surpasses.—Who is he? I never knew. My long hair plentifully hangs to hide unpleasant features; as a grove of trees overshadowing my shoulders. Never think my body is uncomely, although rough, thick set with wiry bristles. Every tree without leaves is unseemly; every horse, unless a mane hangs on his tawny neck; feathers must cover birds; and their soft wool is ornamental on the best formed sheep: therefore a beard, and rough hair spread upon the body is becoming to all men. I have but one eye centered perfectly within my forehead, so it seems most like a mighty buckler. Ha! does not the Sun see everything from heaven? Yet it has but one eye.—

[854] “`Galatea, you must know, my father is chief ruler in your sea, and therefor I now offer him to you as your own father-in-law—But oh, do take some pity on a suppliant,—and hear his prayer, for only unto you my heart is given. I, who despise the power of Jove, his heavens and piercing lightnings, am afraid of you — your wrath more fearful than the lightning’s flash — but I should be more patient under slights, if you avoided all men: why reject the Cyclops for the love that Acis gives? And why prefer his smiles to my embraces, but let him please himself, and let him please you, Galatea, though against my will. If I am given an opportunity he will be shown that I have every strength proportioned to a body vast as mine: I will pull out his palpitating entrails, and scatter his torn limbs about the fields and over and throughout your salty waves; and then let him unite himself to you.—I burn so, and my slighted passion raves with greater fury and I seem to hold and carry Aetna in my breast—transferred there with its flames—Oh Galatea! can you listen to my passion thus unmoved!’

 

Acis and Galatea by Nicolas Poussin (circa 1629-1630).

Acis and Galatea by Nicolas Poussin (circa 1629-1630).

 

[870] “I saw all this; and, after he in vain had uttered such complaints, he stood up like a raging bull whose heifer has been lost, that cannot stand still, but must wander on through brush and forests, that he knows so well: when that fierce monster saw me and my Acis—we neither knew nor guessed our fate—he roared: ‘I see you and you never will again parade your love before me!’ In such a voice as matched his giant size. All Aetna shook and trembled at the noise; and I amazed with horror, plunged into the adjoining sea. My loved one, Acis turned his back and fled and cried out, `Help me Galatea, help! 0, let your parents help me, and admit me safe within their realm; for I am now near my destruction!’ But the Cyclops rushed at him and hurled a fragment, he had torn out from the mountain, and although the extreme edge only of the rock could reach him there. It buried him entirely.

[885] “Then I did the only thing the Fates permitted me: I let my Acis take ancestral power of river deities. The purple blood flowed from beneath the rock, but soon the sanguine richness faded and became at first the color of a stream, disturbed and muddied by a shower. And presently it clarified.—The rock that had been thrown then split in two, and through the cleft a reed, stately and vigorous, arose to life. And soon the hollow mouth in the great rock, resounded with the waters gushing forth. And wonderful to tell, a youth emerged, the water flowing clear about his waist, his new horns circled with entwining reeds, and the youth certainly was Acis, though he was of larger stature and his face and features all were azure. Acis changed into a stream which ever since that time has flowed there and retained its former name.

 

Acis and Galatea by Nicolas Bertin (Date Unknown).

Acis and Galatea by Nicolas Bertin (Date Unknown).

 

Acis und Galatea by Jacob van Schuppen (circa 1730).

Acis und Galatea by Jacob van Schuppen (circa 1730).

 

Coastal landscape with Acis and Galatea by Claude Lorrain (1657).

Coastal landscape with Acis and Galatea by Claude Lorrain (1657).

 

Landscape with Polyphemus by Nicolas Poussin (Date Unknown).

Landscape with Polyphemus by Nicolas Poussin (Date Unknown).

 

Acis, Galatea, and Polyphemus by François Perrier (1645 and 1650).

Acis, Galatea, and Polyphemus by François Perrier (1645 and 1650).

 

HBosler

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas.

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