“Philemon and Baucis” Metamorphoses: Ovid. Sarah Kunjummen, translator.

Translator’s Note: The following sequence of poems is in response to the story of Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story, in Ovid, is set within a frame story: the Athenian hero Theseus and his men have just won a battle and on their way home, they take refuge from harsh weather at the home of the river-god Achelous. Achelous describes how a maiden he was in love with was turned into an island by the gods, and when one of the companions doubts the gods’ ability to perform such marvels, another of Theseus’ men tells the story of Baucis and Philemon. Zeus and Mercury visit a human village in disguise, but only the impoverished old couple Philemon and Baucis show them hospitality. Zeus punishes the town, by turning it into a swamp, but he turns Baucis and Philemon’s hovel into a golden temple and offers them a wish. They wish to die at the same time, and so after they have tended the temple happily for some years, they come out of their house one morning and both turn into trees.

I. The Prologue

They were relieved to have escaped
The chill of the flood, to be received
With kind words and warm food,
The barefoot nymphs bringing and clearing the platters,
Glad, Theseus and his company,
To be sitting now,
The campaigns concluded for a season,
To have leisure for laughter
And tales.

The hall has grown dark around them,
Despite the fire.
Slowly all tongues lapse into silence,
And they half-dream they see before them
The horns swelling from Io’s smooth forehead,
The clods of earth which cling to Perimele’s light limbs
Dragging the girl from Achelous
Weighting her to the river-bed, an island.

But Ixion’s son, young and over-pleased
To have found a place here among the heroes,
Exclaims, “These fantasies are worth
A snap of my fingers, fit for
Women, men on the edge of senility.
Why should warriors sit here,
Shivering in the dark
Over the wills and wiles
Of Juno and great Jove?”

Grave-eyed Lelex answers,
“Let me tell you of
A thing my own eyes have seen,
An oak tree and a linden
Grown together, entwined.”

II. The Visit

Haud procul hinc stagnum est,
Tellus habitabilis olim

Marsh

And the smell of marsh
And the quivering cry
Of marsh birds upon the air

Instead of plough and sickle,
The gradual discovery
Of the many types of crawling thing
Swamp gives birth to.

Instead of the agora,
The snatch and wheeling
Of the gulls,
Wrangling over their
Indistinguishable morsels

But on the hillside
Baucis and Philemon
Stand embracing,
And because they are walled-in,
They are a garden.

III. The Visitation

It was the wine
That made him realize,
Though these men
Were almost too large, anyway,
For the little cottage,
Stretching the corners of it
When Philemon glanced aside,
And shimmering back into place
When he looked directly at them.
No matter—
An old man grows used to dismissing
The tricks his body plays on him.

But the wine
He could not be mistaken about,
As Baucis poured cup after cup,
More than the house held,
Out from the little mixing bowl.

And finally
The moment when they both,
Blinking down at the basin,

Realized this was miracle:
The red pool welling up
In the carved wood,
Like water from a spring.

IV. And Jupiter came there, in mortal guise

Not a reproach, exactly,
But surely some breath here
Must have set
Chimes humming
In the wide avenues
Of his divine mind.

When they asked to die
Together,
Each unwilling
To survive the other

Surely he remembered
Semele crumbling into ashes
Her eyes, first,
And the tips of her hair,
And how he ripped the child
From her womb.

And he knew
That he was an immortal
With different rules

And that, even among mortals,
Some live sweet-rooted,
Changing their clothing
With the seasons,
And learn to bend their bodies to
The winds, the demands
Of ivy and neighbouring trees,

But others
Throw themselves
Down like lightning,
Forking away,
Though the place
Had seemed exactly right,
Driven on by the smallest spurs,

The winds, the shuttling mercury,
The weight of water in the air.

And that one of these
Makes a better story.

Still, when the sky-dwellers
Visit the humble household gods,
They stoop their heads to enter.

And after the wish was granted,
As he left, perhaps he was
Saying their names
Over again to himself

Io
Callisto
Europa
Semele
Danae

Translated from the Latin epic poem Metamorphoses.

About the translator: Sarah Kunjummen is a senior at the University of Michigan, majoring in Classical Languages and English. She has received a Phillip’s Prize for sight translation in Latin and an award from Contexts for Classics for creative translation. Her academic interests include Early Modern and modern reception of classical literature, lyric poetry both English and classical, and gender in the ancient world.

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