Ovid's Metamorphoses (selections)

Week 5: Ancient Rome - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Myrrha, cont.

Reading time: 7 minutes. Word count: 1200 words.

Now you will see Myrrha's nurse in action: in many ways she is the prototype of the crone or witch... she offers Myrrha some powerful "herbs and charms," for example. But what Myrrha needs is a trick: a way to get into her father's bed without her father recognizing who she is. The opportunity arrives when Myrrha's mother is away, celebrating a ritual in honor of the goddess Ceres (Demeter), which requires that women abstain from sexual relations with their husbands. This is the moment when Myrrha, urged on by her nurse this time, commits another desperate act.

Myrrha and her nurse

The girl is mute and still, looking, fixedly, at the ground, and unhappy that her belated attempt at death has been discovered. The old woman insists on knowing, baring her white hair and withered breasts, and begs her to say what grieves her, invoking her infant cradle, and first nurturing. The girl turns away from her pleading, with a sigh.

The nurse is determined to know, and promises more than loyalty. "Tell me," she says, "and let me bring you some help: age does not slow me. If it is some frenzy, I have herbs and charms that heal: if someone is seeking your harm, I will purify you with magic rites: if the gods are angry, anger is appeased by sacrifice. What else could it be? The destiny of your house is fortunate, and on course: they are well, your mother and father."

Hearing the word "father", Myrrha sighed deeply. Even then the nurse had no idea of the sin in her mind, though she guessed it might be some love affair. She begged her, tenaciously, to tell her what it was, and took the weeping girl to her aged breast, and holding her with trembling arms she said: "I know, you are in love! And in this matter (have no fear) my diligence can serve you, your father will never know."

The frenzied girl leapt from her arms, and burying her face in the bed, said, urgently: "Go, I beg you, and forgo the knowledge of my wretched shame! Go, or stop asking why I am grieving. What you are striving to know, is wickedness."

The old woman shuddered, and stretching out her hands that trembled with age and fear, she fell at her foster-child's feet, pleading, then coaxing, then frightening her, into making her party to it. She threatens her with the evidence of the noose, and the attempt on her life, and promises her help in her love affair.

The girl raises her head, and her welling tears rain on her nurse's breast. She often tries to confess, and often stops herself, and hides her face, in shame, in her clothing: then gets as far as "Mother, you are happy in your husband!" and sighs.

A shudder of cold penetrated the nurse's flesh and bone (now she understood) and her white hair stiffened all over her head. She told her at length, to banish, if she could, this fatal passion. Though the girl knew she was being advised rightly, she was still determined to die, if she could not possess her love. "Live," said the nurse, "possess your...." - and did not dare say: "father". She was silent, and confirmed her promise in the sight of heaven.

Myrrha goes to her father

The married women were celebrating that annual festival of Ceres, when, with their bodies veiled in white robes, they offer the first fruits of the harvest, wreathes of corn, and, for nine nights, treat sexual union, and the touch of a man, as forbidden. Cenchreis, the king's wife was among the crowd, frequenting the sacred rites.

Finding Cinyras drunk with wine, the king's bed empty of his lawful partner, the nurse, wrongly diligent, told him of one who truly loved him, giving him a fictitious name, and praised her beauty. He asked the girl's age, and she said: "Myrrha's is the same."

After she had been ordered to bring her, and had reached home, she said: "Be happy, my child, we have won!" The unhappy girl felt no joy at all in her heart, and her heart prophetically mourned, yet she was still glad: such was her confusion of mind.

It was the hour, when all is silent, and Botes, between the Bears, had turned his wagon, with downward-pointing shaft: She approached the sinful act. The golden moon fled the sky; black clouds covered the hidden stars; night lacked its fires. You, Icarius, and you, Erigone, his daughter, immortalised for your pious love of your father, hid your faces first.

Myrrha was checked by an omen, three times, when her foot stumbled: three times, the gloomy screech owl gave her warning, with its fatal cry: she still went on, her shame made less by blindness and black night. With her left hand, she kept tight hold of her nurse, groping with the other she found a way through the dark.

Now she reaches the threshold of the room, now she opens the door, now is led inside. But her trembling knees give way, her colour flees with her blood, and thought vanishes as she goes forward. The closer she is to her sin, the more she shudders at it, repents of her audacity, and wants to be able to turn back, unrecognised.

When she hesitated, the old woman took her by the hand, and, leading her to the high bed, delivered her up, saying: "Take her Cinyras, she is yours", uniting their accursed flesh.

The father admitted his own child into the incestuous bed, calmed her virgin fears, and encouraged her timidity. Perhaps he also said the name, "daughter", in accordance with her age, and she said, "father", so that their names were not absent from their sin.

Myrrha runs away

She left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived. The next night the crime was repeated: nor did it finish there. Eventually, Cinyras, eager to discover his lover after so many couplings, fetching a light, saw his daughter and his guilt, and speechless from grief, he snatched his bright sword out of the sheath it hung in.

Myrrha ran, escaping death, by the gift of darkness and secret night. Wandering the wide fields, she left the land of Panchaea, and palm-bearing Arabia, behind, and after roaming through nine returns of the crescent moon, weary, she rested at last in the land of the Sabaeans.

Now she could scarcely bear the weight of her womb. Tired of living, and scared of dying, not knowing what to pray for, she composed these words of entreaty: "O, if there are any gods who hear my prayer, I do not plead against my well deserved punishment, but lest, by being, I offend the living, or, by dying, offend the dead, banish me from both realms, and change me, and deny me life and death!"

Some god listened to her prayer: certainly the last request found its path to the heavens. While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark.

And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck: she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood, to meet it, and plunged her face into the bark. Though she has lost her former senses with her body, she still weeps, and the warm drops trickle down from the tree. There is merit, also, in the tears: and the myrrh that drips from the bark keeps its mistress's name, and, about it, no age will be silent.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what bad omen warns Myrrha of danger as she goes to her father?
  • what does Myrrha's father do when he discovers the truth?
  • what happens to Myrrha in the end?

Source: A.S.Kline, translator. Ovid's Metamorphoses (2000). Weblink. Kline has made his English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses freely available over the Internet.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM