Idas And Marpessa

: A Book Of Myths

By day, while the sun-god drove his chariot in the high heavens and turned the blue-green Ægean Sea into the semblance of a blazing shield of brass, Idas and Marpessa sat together in the trees’ soft shades, or walked in shadowy valleys where violets and wild parsley grew, and where Apollo rarely deigned to come. At eventide, when, in royal splendour of purple and crimson and gold, Apollo sought his rest in the western sky, Idas and Marpessa wandered by the seashore watching the little wavelet
softly kissing the pebbles on the beach, or climbed to the mountain side from whence they could see the first glimpse of Diana’s silver crescent and the twinkling lights of the Pleiades breaking through the blue canopy of the sky. While Apollo sought in heaven and on earth the best means to gratify his imperial whims, Idas, for whom all joys had come to mean but one, sought ever to be by the side of Marpessa. Shadowy valley, murmuring sea, lonely mountain side, or garden where grew the purple amaranth and where roses of pink and amber-yellow and deepest crimson dropped their radiant petals on the snowy marble paths, all were the same to Idas—Paradise for him, were Marpessa by his side; without her, dreary desert.

More beautiful than any flower that grew in the garden was Marpessa. No music that Apollo’s lute could make was as sweet in the ears of Idas as her dear voice. Its music was ever new to him—a melody to make his heart more quickly throb. New, too, ever was her beauty. For him it was always the first time that they met, always the same fresh ravishment to look in her eyes. And when to Idas came the knowledge that Marpessa gave him love for love, he had indeed won happiness so great as to draw upon him the envy of the gods.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” and, like many and many another father since his day, Evenos, the father of Marpessa, was bitterly opposed to a match where the bridegroom was rich only in youth, in health, and in love. His beautiful daughter naturally seemed to him worthy of something much more high. Thus it was an unhappy day for Marpessa when, as she sat alone by the fountain which dripped slowly down on the marble basin, and dreamed of her lover, Idas, Apollo himself, led by caprice, noiselessly walked through the rose bushes, whose warm petals dropped at his feet as he passed, and beheld a maiden more fair than the fairest flower that grew. The hum of bees, the drip, drip of the fountain, these lulled her mind and heart and soothed her day-dreams, and Marpessa’s red lips, curved like the bow of Eros, smiled as she thought of Idas, the man she loved. Silently Apollo watched her. This queen of all the roses was not fit to be the bride of mortal man—Marpessa must be his.

To Evenos Apollo quickly imparted his desire. He was not used to having his imperial wishes denied, nor was Evenos anxious to do so. Here, indeed, was a match for his daughter. No insignificant mortal, but the radiant sun-god himself! And to Marpessa he told what Apollo wished, and Marpessa shyly looked at her reflection in the pool of the fountain, and wondered if she were indeed beautiful enough to win the love of a god.

“Am I in truth so wondrous fair?” she asked her father.

“Fair enough to mate with Apollo himself!” proudly answered Evenos.

And joyously Marpessa replied, “Ah, then am I happy indeed! I would be beautiful for my Idas’ sake!”

An angry man was her father. There was to be no more pleasant dallying with Idas in the shadowy wood or by the seashore. In the rose garden Apollo took his place and charmed Marpessa’s ears with his music, while her eyes could not but be charmed by his beauty. The god had no doubts or fears. Only a little time he would give her, for a very little only would he wait, and then undoubtedly this mortal maiden would be his, her heart conquered as assuredly as the rays from his chariot conquered the roses, whose warm crimson petals they strewed at his feet. Yet as Marpessa looked and listened, her thoughts were often far away and always her heart was with Idas. When Apollo played most exquisitely to her it seemed that he put her love for Idas into music. When he spoke to her of his love she thought, “Thus, and thus did Idas speak,” and a sudden memory of the human lad’s halting words brought to her heart a little gush of tenderness, and made her eyes sparkle so that Apollo gladly thought, “Soon she will be mine.”


And all this while Idas schemed and plotted and planned a way in which he could save his dear one from her obdurate father, and from the passion of a god. He went to Neptune, told his tale, and begged him to lend him a winged chariot in which he could fly away with Marpessa. Neptune good-naturedly consented, and when Idas flew up from the seashore one day, like a great bird that the tempests have blown inland, Marpessa joyously sprang up beside her lover, and swiftly they took flight for a land where in peace they might live and love together. No sooner did Evenos realise that his daughter was gone, than, in furious anger against her and her lover, he gave chase. One has watched a hawk in pursuit of a pigeon or a bird of the moors and seen it, a little dark speck at first, gradually growing larger and more large until at length it dominated and conquered its prey, swooping down from above, like an arrow from a bow, to bring with it sudden death.

So at first it seemed that Evenos must conquer Idas and Marpessa in the winged chariot of Neptune’s lending. But onwards Idas drove the chariot, ever faster and faster, until before the eyes of Marpessa the trees of the forest grew into blurs of blue and brown, and the streams and rivers as they flew past them were streaks of silver. Not until he had reached the river Lycormas did the angry father own that his pursuit had been in vain. Over the swift-flowing stream flew the chariot driven by Idas, but Evenos knew that his horses, flecked with white foam, pumping each breath from hearts that were strained to breaking-point, no longer could go on with the chase. The passage of that deep stream would destroy them. The fierce water would sweep the wearied beasts down in its impelling current, and he with them. A shamed man would he be forever. Not for a moment did he hesitate, but drew his sharp sword from his belt and plunged it into the breast of one steed and then of the other who had been so willing and who yet had failed him in the end. And then, as they, still in their traces, neighed shrilly aloud, and then fell over and died where they lay, Evenos, with a great cry, leaped into the river. Over his head closed the eddies of the peat-brown water. Once only did he throw up his arms to ask the gods for mercy; then did his body drift down with the stream, and his soul hastened downwards to the Shades. And from that day the river Lycormas no more was known by that name, but was called the river Evenos forever.

Onwards, triumphantly, drove Idas, but soon he knew that a greater than Evenos had entered in the chase, and that the jealous sun-god’s chariot was in pursuit of the winged car of Neptune. Quickly it gained on him—soon it would have swept down on him—a hawk indeed, this time, striking surely its helpless prey—but even as Apollo saw the white face of Marpessa and knew that he was the victor, a mighty thunderbolt that made the mountains shake, and rolled its echoes through the lonely fastnesses of a thousand hills, was sent to earth by Jupiter. While the echoes still re-echoed, there came from Olympus the voice of Zeus himself.

“Let her decide!” he said.

Apollo, like a white flame blown backward by the wind, withheld his hands that would have seized from Idas the woman who was his heart’s desire.

And then he spoke, and while his burning gaze was fixed upon her, and his face, in beautiful fury, was more perfect than any exquisite picture of her dreams, his voice was as the voice of the sea as it calls to the shore in the moonlit hours, as the bird that sings in the darkness of a tropic night to its longing mate.

“Marpessa!” he cried, “Marpessa! wilt thou not come to me? No woe nor trouble, never any pain can touch me. Yet woe indeed was mine when first I saw thy fairest face. For even now dost thou hasten to sorrow, to darkness, to the dark-shadowed tomb. Thou art but mortal! thy beauty is short-lived. Thy love for mortal man shall quickly fade and die. Come to me, Marpessa, and my kisses on your lips shall make thee immortal! Together we shall bring the sunbeams to a cold, dark land! Together shall we coax the spring flowers from the still, dead earth! Together we shall bring to men the golden harvest, and deck the trees of autumn in our liveries of red and gold. I love thee, Marpessa—not as mere mortal loves do I love thee. Come to me, Marpessa—my Love—my Desire!”

When his voice was silent, it seemed as if the very earth itself with all its thousand echoes still breathed his words: “Marpessa—my Love—my Desire.”

Abashed before the god’s entreaties stood Idas. And the heart of Marpessa was torn as she heard the burning words of the beautiful Apollo still ringing through her head, and saw her mortal lover, silent, white-lipped, gazing first at the god and then into her own pale face. At length he spoke:

“After such argument what can I plead?

Or what pale promise make? Yet since it is

In woman to pity rather than to aspire,

A little I will speak. I love thee then

Not only for thy body packed with sweet

Of all this world, that cup of brimming June,

That jar of violet wine set in the air,

That palest rose sweet in the night of life;

Nor for that stirring bosom all besieged

By drowsing lovers, or thy perilous hair;

Nor for that face that might indeed provoke

Invasion of old cities; no, nor all

Thy freshness stealing on me like strange sleep.

Nor for this only do I love thee, but

Because Infinity upon thee broods;

And thou art full of whispers and of shadows.

Thou meanest what the sea has striven to say

So long, and yearned up the cliffs to tell;

Thou art what all the winds have uttered not,

What the still night suggesteth to the heart.

Thy voice is like to music heard ere birth,

Some spirit lute touched on a spirit sea;

Thy face remembered is from other worlds,

It has been died for, though I know not when,

It has been sung of, though I know not where.

It has the strangeness of the luring West,

And of sad sea-horizons; beside thee

I am aware of other times and lands,

Of birth far-back, of lives in many stars.

O beauty lone and like a candle clear

In this dark country of the world! Thou art

My woe, my early light, my music dying.”

Stephen Phillips.

Then Idas, in the humility that comes from perfect love, drooped low his head, and was silent. In silence for a minute stood the three—a god, a man, and a woman. And from on high the watching stars looked down and marvelled, and Diana stayed for a moment the course of her silver car to watch, as she thought, the triumph of her own invincible brother.

From man to god passed the eyes of Marpessa, and back from god to man. And the stars forgot to twinkle, and Diana’s silver-maned horses pawed the blue floor of the sky, impatient at the firm hand of the mistress on the reins that checked their eager course.

Marpessa spoke at last, in low words that seemed to come “remembered from other worlds.”

For all the joys he offered her she thanked Apollo. What grander fate for mortal woman than to rule the sunbeams—to bring bliss to the earth and to the sons of men? What more could mortal woman crave than the gift of immortality shared with one whose power ruled the vast universe, and who still had stooped to lay the red roses of his passionate love at her little, human feet? And yet—and yet—in that sorrow-free existence that he promised, might there not still be something awanting to one who had once known tears?

“Yet I, being human, human sorrow miss.”

Then were he indeed to give her the gift of immortal life, what value were life to one whose beauty had withered as the leaves in autumn, whose heart was tired and dead? What uglier fate than this, to endure an endless existence in which no life was, yoked to one whose youth was immortal, whose beauty was everlasting?

Then did she turn to Idas, who stood as one who awaits the judgment of the judge in whose hands lies the power of meting out life or death. Thus she spoke:

“But if I live with Idas, then we two

On the low earth shall prosper hand in hand

In odours of the open field, and live

In peaceful noises of the farm, and watch

The pastoral fields burned by the setting sun.

And he shall give me passionate children, not

Some radiant god that will despise me quite,

But clambering limbs and little hearts that err.

... So shall we live,

And though the first sweet sting of love be past,

The sweet that almost venom is; though youth,

With tender and extravagant delight,

The first and secret kiss by twilight hedge,

The insane farewell repeated o’er and o’er,

Pass off; there shall succeed a faithful peace;

Beautiful friendship tried by sun and wind,

Durable from the daily dust of life.”

The sun-god frowned as her words fell from her lips. Even now, as she looked at him, he held out his arms. Surely she only played with this poor mortal youth. To him she must come, this rose who could own no lesser god than the sun-god himself.

But Marpessa spoke on:

“And thou beautiful god, in that far time,

When in thy setting sweet thou gazest down

On his grey head, wilt thou remember then

That once I pleased thee, that I once was young?”

So did her voice cease, and on the earth fell sudden darkness. For to Apollo had come the shame of love rejected, and there were those who said that to the earth that night there came no sunset, only the sullen darkness that told of the flight of an angry god. Yet, later, the silver moonbeams of Diana seemed to greet the dark earth with a smile, and, in the winged car of Neptune, Idas and Marpessa sped on, greater than the gods, in a perfect harmony of human love that feared nor time, nor pain, nor Death himself.