The Tale of Baucis and Philemon
Originally published in Parabola: Myth, Tradition, and the Search for Meaning, Vol. 29, No. 1;
reprinted by permission
"What is marriage?" muses Joseph Campbell. "The myth tells you what it is. It's the reunion of the separated duad. Originally you were one. You are now two in the world, but the recognition of the spiritual identity is what marriage is" (1). And of course, in the rich language of metaphor this is the case. But for every folk and fairytale that concludes ". . . and they lived happily ever after," there is another that speaks of the betrayal and bitterness, the hostility and disappointment of marriage.
It would be difficult to find a human relationship that embodies a greater complexity than marriage, with its blend of the civil, the social, the spiritual, and the physical, and the stories reflect this. An examination of Greco-Roman mythology, so profound an influence on the symbolic systems of Western society, provides models of marriage that few mortals would wish to emulate. There is the tale of poor cuckolded Hephaestus, trapping Aphrodite and Ares in the act of adultery, then calling all the other gods and goddesses to witness their shame; or the kidnapping and rape of Persephone by Hades, who has arranged the marriage with the young woman's father, Zeus. And of course, there are Zeus and Hera, the very archetypes of marriage, who seem to spend eternity in battle over his philandering and her reprisals against his countless conquests and their offspring. The deities don't seem to fare much better than characters in folk tales when it comes to a long-lasting marriage.
How ironic, then, that it is in the work of Ovid, that brilliant, cynical, and gifted poet, author of the manipulative Art of Love, that we find one of the most touching and beautiful stories of marriage ever written, and that it involves both Zeus and Hermes, whom Ovid calls by their Roman names of Jupiter and Mercury. Ovid's masterwork, The Metamorphoses, focuses on myths and stories of transformation, most of which occur under duress. One of the few that has a truly happy ending is the tale of Baucis and Philemon, and it presents us with a model of an ideal marriage. This story, of two elderly people whose one remaining wish is to be united in death as they have been in life, represents not only the final days of a fulfilling relationship between two people who love and care for one another--a recognition of that unity which Campbell celebrates- -but also provides a metaphor for the ultimately enviable state of a human soul, just before death, when it has found final wholeness and integrated all its disparate parts.
In the opening lines of Ovid's tale, the poet brings the old story to life by placing the narrator on site, in the everyday world rather than the otherworld of the gods, though of course they must play a major role. We know immediately that his recounting will be on a human scale. He tells us,
"An oak-tree stands Beside a linden, in the Phrygian hills. There's a low wall around them. I have seen The place myself." (2)
Ovid then speaks of a time when Zeus and Hermes descend to earth, disguised as wanderers. They go from house to house asking for food and shelter, but are turned from the door at each one. At last they come to a tiny cottage on the very edge of the town, higher in the foothills of the mountain. At their knock, an elderly man bids them enter, and his equally elderly wife prepares a meal for them. They have little, but they share all. Ovid's loving description of the meal preparation is enchanting, rather like reading an M. F. K. Fisher essay on a memorable dinner savored in Provence decades ago. The utensils are those of a peasant household: beechwood cups and earthenware bowls. The ingredients are simple, but gathered ripe from their garden or freshly made from the milk of their own goats; provided by the labor of their own bees; or plucked from their own fruit trees and arbors. ("Remember how apples smell?" Ovid asks the reader with poignant nostalgia.) At this meal there was "nothing mean or poor or skimpy in good will" (3).
Mysteriously, the earthenware bowl of wine never empties, no matter how much is drawn out, and the old couple become fearful. At this point, the gods reveal their true identity. Zeus tells Baucis and Philemon that he is going to punish their neighbors, but that they will be spared for their devotion to his dictum that a traveler and a guest must be welcomed as a god. The old couple weep when their neighbors are destroyed as punishment for flouting the god's command. But as they stand on the mountainside, watching the flood that has swept away the town below, their tiny cottage gradually, magically, becomes an exquisite temple. Zeus tells them that they are "good people, worthy of each other" (4) and that he will grant them any favor.
Baucis and Philemon are unlike the countless couples in folk and fairytales. They do not demand a mansion, great riches, youth or beauty. Instead, they respond to Zeus's offer by asking for a few moments of privacy to talk it over. And upon their return Baucis voices their humble request.
'What we would like to be Is to be priests of yours, and guard the temple, And since we have spent our happy years together, May one hour take us both away; let neither Outlive the other, that I may never see The burial of my wife, nor she perform That office for me.' And the prayer was granted." (5)
Zeus tells them that their wish will be fulfilled. The old couple lives on until one day when "both are very old, talking the old days over, each saw the other put forth leaves, Philemon watched Baucis changing, Baucis watched Philemon, and as the foliage spread, they still had time to say 'Farewell, my dear!' and the bark closed over sealing their mouths" (6). One becomes an oak, the other a linden tree, and the two grow on together, side by side, branches entwined.
More than any other retelling of a myth from the Greco-Roman canon, this one speaks to the longing all couples have that their love can outlast death, that neither should have to bury the other. The story also dwells intimately on the beauty of lives well lived: the warmth of a harmonious household; the awareness that the most important things in life are not wealth and power over others, but rather love for one another; the delight of welcoming others into one's home; and the joy of preparing the fruits of the earth for one's guests. These are the years when the volatile flames of early passion have burned off, leaving mature coals on Hestia's hearth; still capable of a sudden flare, but primarily the radiant heart of home, providing warmth and light.
In the myth of Baucis and Philemon, we see a marriage that glows with a patina of authenticity and integration. As Ovid tells us, "It would do you little good to ask for servants or masters in that household, for the couple were all the house; both gave and followed orders" (7). This couple has found a balance in their lives together. Their simplicity has honed them down to the precious essentials, and in their generosity towards the gods they reveal a sharing of tasks developed over years of interacting in the maintenance of their home. The external transformation of the house into a temple is echoed in their own transformation into priest and priestess: as Ovid reminds his reader, "the couple were all the house." Baucis and Philemon's is a household of harmony and love, and such generosity of spirit that even those extremely cynical gods Zeus and Hermes, inured to the vices of humanity and so familiar with the underbelly of human behavior, even they are moved to grant these two mortals their final rest together. For Zeus especially, with his eternal search for union with the feminine, this relationship must touch that unfulfilled longing, must show him something which humans could achieve even if it is beyond his godly capacity. The Baucis and Philemon story demonstrates a purity of mortal love that moves the gods by its beauty.
The presence of the god Hermes in this myth also hints at the topsy-turvy ending of the story, in which humble peasants become honored priests. Ever the shape-shifter and the patron god of liars and thieves, the duplicitous Hermes sees in this old couple an integrity and honesty that allows no room for cunningness or deception. Hermes is invoked in celebrations when slaves and masters change roles, when the lord of misrule holds sway, and in a sense this attribute will play a part in the story. Ovid has told us that in the home of Baucis and Philemon, neither controlled the other; "both gave and followed orders." This unassuming and elderly couple, so poor and living simply at the edge of town, will be chosen by the gods to become priest and priestess of a magnificent temple built by Zeus himself. Their world will be turned upside down. Rather than dying and losing one another, they will live on for a while longer and then remain together in the form of venerable trees.
Both Hermes and Zeus are superb at disguise and come to the door of the humble cottage dressed as poor human wanderers. This motif assumes the doubleness of a pun: in ancient Greece the guest in one's home was to be considered as a god, but these guests are already gods. The act of grace that Baucis and Philemon commit is that they are treating the gods as gods while in ignorance of their true identity. Finally, there is the emotional satisfaction of witnessing Hermes himself shift roles: from god of instability and duplicity, and one who makes light of adultery, we see him honor the value and the beauty of a deep, loving, and lasting relationship.
In Baucis and Philemon's final request, that of asking these particular gods to grant them union in death as in life, there is an irony. Neither of these restless deities will ever experience Joseph Campbell's definition of marriage: "the two that are one, the two become one flesh" (8). I think here, as well, of mythologist Wendy Doniger's statement concerning the attraction mortals have for the gods: that the precious fleeting life of constant change is more alive than static immortality (9). When we view the integration of Baucis and Philemon as a metaphor for the fortunate person who has reached the end of life and knows that body and soul are in harmony, that the events of a lifetime have joined them, we see yet another gift of mortality that is denied to the gods. The tale of Baucis and Philemon shows a marriage that has aged to perfection. This union has weathered the storms of life, honored the beloved other and the divine, and as a result is blessed with the gift of complete integration. On both a marital and a personal level, it is "happily ever after" most profoundly expressed.
1. The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday, 1988. p. 6.
2. Metamorphoses. Ovid. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Indiana U P, Bloomington, 1955. Lines 617-620.
3. Ibid., lines 682-683.
4. Ibid., line 705.
5. Ibid., lines 710-716.
6. Ibid., lines 719-794.
7. Ibid., lines 637-639.
8. Campbell, p. 6.
9. Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Wendy Doniger. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999, p. 198