The Cranes Of Ibycus
Source: A Book Of Myths
“For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.”
Ibycus, the poet friend of Apollo, was a happy man as he journeyed on foot through the country where the wild flowers grew thick and the trees were laden with blossom towards the city of Corinth. His tuneful voice sang snatches of song of his own making, and ever and again he would try how his words and music sounded on his lyre. He was light of heart, because ever had he thought of good, and not evil, and had always sung only of great and noble deeds and of those things that helped his fellow-men. And now he went to Corinth for the great chariot-races, and for the great contest of musicians where every true poet and musician in Greece was sure to be found.
It was the time of the return to earth of Adonis and of Proserpine, and as he was reverently about to enter the sacred grove of Poseidon, where the trees grew thick, and saw, crowning the height before him, the glittering towers of Corinth, he heard, overhead, the harsh cries of some other returned exiles. Ibycus smiled, as he looked up and beheld the great flock of grey birds, with their long legs and strong, outstretched wings, come back from their winter sojourn on the golden sands of Egypt, to dance and beck and bow to each other by the marshes of his homeland.
“Welcome back, little brothers!” he cried. “May you and I both meet with naught but kindness from the people of this land!”
And when the cranes again harshly cried, as if in answer to his greeting, the poet walked gaily on, further into the shadow of that dark wood out of which he was never to pass as living man. Joyous, and fearing no evil, he had been struck and cast to the ground by cruel and murderous hands ere ever he knew that two robbers were hidden in a narrow pass where the brushwood grew thick. With all his strength he fought, but his arms were those of a musician and not of a warrior, and very soon he was overpowered by those who assailed him. He cried in vain to gods and to men for help, and in his final agony he heard once more the harsh voices of the migratory birds and the rush of their speeding wings. From the ground, where he bled to death, he looked up to them.
“Take up my cause, dear cranes!” he said, “since no voice but yours answers my cry!”
And the cranes screamed hoarsely and mournfully as if in farewell, as they flapped their way towards Corinth and left the poet lying dead.
When his body was found, robbed and terribly wounded, from all over Greece, where he was known and loved, there uprose a great clamour of lamentation.
“Is it thus I find you restored to me?” said he who had expected him in Corinth as his honoured guest; “I who hoped to place the victor’s laurels on your head when you triumphed in the temple of song!”
And all those whom the loving personality of Ibycus and the charm of his music had made his friends were alert and eager to avenge so foul a murder. But none knew how the wicked deed had come to pass—none, save the cranes.
Then came the day to which Ibycus had looked forward with such joy, when thousands upon thousands of his countrymen sat in the theatre at Cyprus and watched a play that stirred their hearts within them.
The theatre had for roof the blue vault of heaven; the sun served for footlights and for the lights above the heads of those who acted. The three Furies—the Eumenides—with their hard and cruel faces and snaky locks, and with blood dripping from their eyes, were represented by actors so great that the hearts of their beholders trembled within them. In their dread hands lay the punishment of murder, of inhospitality, of ingratitude, and of all the cruellest and basest of crimes. Theirs was the duty of hurrying the doomed spirits entrusted to their merciless care over the Phlegethon, the river of fire that flows round Hades, and through the brazen gates that led to Torment, and their robes were robes worn
“With all the pomp of horror, dy’d in gore.”
In solemn cadence, while the thousands of beholders watched and listened enthralled, the Furies walked round the theatre and sang their song of terror:
“Woe! woe! to him whose hands are soiled with blood! The darkness shall not hide him, nor shall his dread secret lie hidden even in the bowels of the earth! He shall not seek by flight to escape us, for vengeance is ours, and swifter than a hawk that strikes its quarry shall we strike. Unwearying we pursue, nor are our swift feet and our avenging arms made slow by pity. Woe! woe! to the shedder of innocent blood, for nor peace nor rest is his until we have hurried his tormented soul down to torture that shall endure everlastingly!”
As the listeners heard the dirge of doom, there were none who did not think of Ibycus, the gentle-hearted poet, so much beloved and so foully done to death, and in the tensity of the moment when the voices ceased, a great thrill passed over the multitudes as a voice, shrill with amazed horror, burst from one of the uppermost benches:
“See there! see there! behold, comrade, the cranes of Ibycus!”
Every eye looked upwards, and, harshly crying, there passed overhead the flock of cranes to whom the poet had entrusted his dying message. Then, like an electric shock, there came to all those who beheld the knowledge that he who had cried aloud was the murderer of Ibycus.
“Seize him! seize him!” cried in unison the voices of thousands. “Seize the man, and him to whom he spoke!”
Frantically the trembling wretch tried to deny his words, but it was too late. The roar of the multitudes was as that of an angry sea that hungers for its prey and will not be denied. He who had spoken and him to whom he spoke were seized by a score of eager hands.
In white-faced terror, because the Furies had hunted them down, they made confession of their crime and were put to death. And the flock of grey-plumaged, rosy-headed cranes winged their way on to the marshes, there to beck and bow to each other, and to dance in the golden sunset, well content because their message was delivered, and Ibycus, the poet-musician who had given them welcome, was avenged.