Virgil, Georgics 4.419-558
Here the Nymph stations the youth in ambush, away from the light; she herself, veiled in mist, stands aloof. And now the Dog Star, fiercely parching the thirsty Indians, was ablaze in heaven, and the fiery Sun had consumed half his course; the grass was withering and the hollow streams, in their parched throats, were scorched and baked by the rays down to the slime, when Proteus came from the waves, in quest of his wonted cave. About him the watery race of the vast deep gamboled, scattering afar the briny spray. The seals lay them down to sleep, here and there along the shore; he himself – even as at times the warder of a sheepfold on the hills, when Vesper brings the steers home from pasture, and the cry of bleating lambs whets the wolf’s hunger – sits down on a rock in the midst and counts their number. Soon as the chance came to Aristaeus, he scarce suffered the aged one to settle his weary limbs, before he burst upon him with a loud cry and surprised him in fetters as he lies. On his part, the seer forgets not his craft, but changes himself into all wondrous shapes – into flame and hideous beast and flowing river. But when no stratagem wins escape, vanquished he returns to himself, and at last speaks with human voice: “Why, who,” he cried, “most presumptuous of youths, bade you invade our home? Or what seek you hence?” But he: “You know, Proteus; you know of yourself, nor may one deceive you in aught, but give up your wish to deceive. Following the counsel of Heaven, we are come to seek hence an oracle for our weary fortunes.” So much he spoke. On this the seer, yielding at last to mighty force, rolled on him eyes ablaze with grey-green light, and grimly gnashing his teeth, thus opened his lips to tell of fate’s decrees:
“It is a god, no other, whose anger pursues you: Great is the crime you are paying for; this punishment, far less than you deserve, unhappy Orpheus arouses against you – did not Fate interpose – and rages implacably for the loss of his bride. She, in headlong flight along the river, if only she might escape you, saw not, doomed maiden, amid the deep grass the monstrous serpent at her feet that guarded the banks. But her sister band of Dryads filled the mountaintops with their cries; the towers of Rhodope wept, and the Pangaean heights, and the martial land or Rhesus, the Getae and Hebrus and Orithyia, Acte’s child. But he, solacing an aching heart with music from his hollow shell, sang of you, dear wife, sang of you to himself on the lonely shore, of you as day drew nigh, of you as day departed. He even passed through the jaws of Taenarum, the lofty portals of Dis, the grove that is murky with black terror, and made his way to the land of the dead with its fearful king and hearts no human prayers can soften. Stirred by his song, up from the lowest realms of Erebeus came the unsubstantial shades, the phantoms of those who lie in darkness, as many as the myriads of birds that shelter among the leaves when evening or a wintry shower drives them from the hills – women and men, and figures of great-souled heroes, their life now done, boys and girls unwed, and sons placed on the pyre before their fathers’ eyes. But round them are the black ooze and unsightly reeds of Cocytus, the unlovely mere enchaining them with its sluggish water, and Styx holding them fast within this ninefold circles. Still more: the very house of Death and deepest abysses of Hell were spellbound, and the Furies with livid snakes entwined in their hair; Cerberus stood agape and his triple jaws forgot to bark; the wind subsided, and Ixion’s wheel came to a stop.
“And now, as he retraced his steps, he had avoided all mischance, and the regained Eurydice was nearing the upper world, following behind – for that condition had Proserpine imposed – when a sudden frenzy seized Orpheus, unwary in his love, a frenzy meet for pardon, did Hell know how to pardon! He halted, and on the very verge of light, unmindful, alas, and vanquished in purpose, on Eurydice, now regained looked back! In that instant all his toil was split like water, the ruthless tyrant’s pact was broken and thrice a peal of thunder was heard amid the pools of Avernus. She cried: ‘What madness, Orpheus, what dreadful madness has brought disaster alike upon you and me, pour soul? See, again the cruel Fates call me back, and sleep seals my swimming eyes. And now farewell! I am borne away, covered in night’s vast pall, and stretching towards you strengthless hands, regained, alas! no more.’ She spoke, and straightway from his sight, like smoke mingling with thin air, vanished afar and saw him not again, as he vainly clutched at the shadows with so much left unsaid; nor did the ferryman of Orcus suffer him again to pass the barrier of the marsh. What could he do? Whither turn, twice robbed of his wife? With what tears move Hell? To what deities address his prayers? She indeed, already death-cold, was afloat in the Stygian barque. Of him they tell that for seven whole months day after day beneath a lofty crag beside lonely Strymon’s stream he wept, and in the shelter of cool dales unfolded his tale, charming tigers and drawing oaks with his song: even as a nightingale, mourning beneath a poplar’s shade, bewails her young ones’ loss, when a heartless ploughman, watching their resting place, has plucked them unfledged from the nest: the mother weeps all night long, as, perched on a branch, she repeats her piteous song and fills all around with plaintive lamentation. No thought of love or wedding song could bend his soul. Alone he roamed the frozen North, along the icy Tanais, and the fields ever wedded to Riphaean snows, mourning his lost Eurydice and Pluto’s cancelled boon; till the Ciconian women, resenting such devotion, in the midsts of their sacred rites and their midnight Bacchic orgies, tore the youth limb from limb and flung him over the far-spread plains. And even when Oeagrian Hebrus rolled in mid-current that head, severed from its marble neck, the disembodied voice and the tongue, now cold for ever, called with departing breath on Eurydice – ah, poor Eurydice! ‘Eurydice’ the banks re-echoed, all along the stream.”
Thus Proteus, and at a bound plunged into the deep sea, and where he plunged, whirled the water into foam beneath the eddy. Cyrene stayed, and straightway spoke to the startled youth: “You may dismiss from your mind the care that troubles it. This is the whole cause of the sickness, and hence it is that the Nymphs, with whom she used to tread the dance in the deep groves, have sent this wretched havoc on your bees. You must offer a suppliant’s gifts, sue for peace, and pay homage to the gentle maidens of the woods; for they will grant pardon to prayers, and relax their wrath. But first I will tell you in order the manner of your supplication. Pick out four choice bulls, of surpassing form, that now graze among your herds on the heights of green Lycaeus, and as many heifers of unyoked neck. For these set up four altars by the stately shrines of the goddesses, and drain the sacrificial blood from their throats, but leave the bodies of the steers within the leafy grove. Later, when the ninth Dawn displays her rising beams, you must offer to Orpheus funeral dues of Lethe’s poppies, slay a black ewe, and revisit the grove. Then with Eurydice appeased you should honour her with the slaying of a calf.”
Tarrying not, he straightway does his mother’s bidding. He comes to the shrine, raises the altars appointed, and leads there four choice bulls, of surpassing form, and as many heifers of unyoked neck. Later, when the ninth Dawn had ushered in her rising beams, he offers to Orpheus the funeral dues, and revisits the grove. But here they espy a portent, sudden and wondrous to tell – throughout the paunch, amid the molten flesh of the oxen, bees buzzing and swarming forth from the ruptured sides, then trailing in vast clouds, till at last on a treetop they stream together, and hang in clusters from the bending boughs.