In that ‘blest Elysian ground’ which Virgil describes
(where the saddened lovers are shaded by myrtle),
the heroines are conducting their rites, each one with
some sign of the death she died. They wander about
in a dank forest with an ominous light. Reeds
and poppies grow in the stagnant ponds and silent
streams. Flowers of evil thrive in the flickering gloom.
Here are the names of the ancient heroes and kings:
Narcissus, Hyacinthus, Crocus, Adonis
and Aeas, whose name for many meant tragic woe.
These are the names that extend the memory of sorrow
after death. The heroines are summoned to live again
the anguish that brought them down to this dreadful place.
Semele is here, both pregnant and in despair:
shrieking at her lonely labour in the lightning,
she fears the empty cradle her body became;
the fire that seared her now burns only in her mind.
Caenis became a man but now she weeps because
she lost the precious gift that brought her happiness;
without hope, still she longs to be a man again.
Procris still bleeds from the one wound Cephalus made:
she died at his feet, loving the hand that killed her.
Hero carries a sooty terracotta lamp
and throws herself again and again from the tower.
Sappho was much like a man but fell and love and
was slain by love for Phaon: he stands, threatening
to lead from the high foggy cliffs of Leucas.
Eriphyle was saddened by both her husband
and her son, again she rejects Harmonia’s gems.
The tale of Minos and mountainous Crete flickers
like a picture sketched in faint lines: Pasiphae seeks
the tracks of her white bull and Ariadne holds
forever the ball of string in her hand; her sister, Phaedra,
studies the letter she sent to her husband’s son.
One carries a noose, another a hollow crown,
one is ashamed to enter the heifer’s belly.
Laodamia cries for the joy of those two nights
spent with her lords, one dead and the other alive.
There are others with drawn swords: Thisbe, Canace
and Elissa. The first carries her husband’s sword,
the next her father’s, the third the sword of her guest.
Luna, with her torch and a crown of stars set on
her two horns, wanders here as she did when she
tried to seduce the sleeping Endymion. More,
at least a hundred, are there remembering their grief.
But suddenly Love scatters the gloomy darkness
of that place by breaking in on his beating wing.
Each one, you can be sure, recognises him and
each one remembers that he is her enemy.
The steamy air hides his splendour but they know him.
They catch him; that is a place that cannot be his.
The wings that have been his glory are useless there:
the unending dusk is heavy and saps his strength.
A crowd of angry women soon surrounds him and
he cannot escape from them. Fear makes him tremble.
They drag him into the open and there they choose
a myrtle tree. They know that species well because
Prosperine had tortured Adonis with it
when he loved Venus; it is the tree of vengeance.
They bind him hand and foot and hang him high
on the tree. He cries for mercy but there is none.
They pronounce him guilty without accusation.
Condemned without a judge, Love must pay for his crimes.
Each one acquits herself and blames him for her sin.
Accusing him, each one holds the sign of her death.
Those are fine weapons indeed; that is sweet revenge.
One comes with her noose, another her ghostly sword,
another shows him bottomless rivers, pointed
rocks, a white surf and the quiet depths of the sea.
Some in their anger threaten his skin with torches
that burn without flame. Myrrha stands in front of him,
neither living nor dead, but locked in the form of
a tree. She tears her ripe womb and gathers the drops
of yellow amber that flow down her wounded stem.
She hurls the grisly wealth at his trembling body.
Some of them mock him by pretending to pardon
while they pierce his beautiful skin with sharp needles.
Roses grow from the drops of his blood while the flames
of their lamps move across his delicate body.
His mother, Venus, is among that screaming crowd.
Without fear, she approaches her suffering son.
She does not beg for mercy but her bitterness
doubles his fear and intensifies their fury.
She blames him for her disgrace, for all her troubles,
for her shame when she and Mars were snared together
in her husband’s bed. She accuses him because
the grotesque Priapus, her son is mocked by all.
She blames him for the cruelty of Eryx and
for the fact that Hermaphroditus is neither
man nor woman. Speech alone is not enough:
after lashing him with words, golden Venus beats
him with her wreath until he cries, fearing harsher
torture. His broken body colours the roses
with a redness that becomes brighter and brighter.
The menacing voices soon fade away when the
punishment seems to exceed the crime. The ladies
themselves, shocked by a mother’s display of hatred,
try to soften her anger by blaming the fates
for the cruelty of their deaths. Then Venus turns
away and becomes again a loving mother.
She thanks those ladies of the past for their mercy
which overlooks their grief while they pardon her son.
These visions and idle fears come from the darkness
even now to disturb his sleep. When he suffers
through the night with terror he escapes from his gloom
by fleeing through the gate of ivory to the gods above.
From A critical text of the Gratiarum Actio and the Cupido Cruciator by Decimus Magnus Ausonius