Childlessness in Old Age: Myth and Reality
Well, all right, admittedly, this one is definitely a myth. From Ovid's Metamorphoses comes the tale of Philemon and Baucis, an aged and implicitly childless couple who welcome the gods and receive a touching reward:
At this, the river-god fell silent. The wonder of the thing had gripped them all. But that daring spirit, Pirithoüs, son of Ixion, scornful of the gods, laughed at their credulity. ‘These are fictions you tell of, Acheloüs, and you credit the gods with too much power, if you think they can give and take away the forms of things.’ The others were startled, and disapproved of his words, Lelex above all, experienced in mind and years, who said: ‘The power of the gods is great and knows no limit, and whatever heaven decrees comes to pass. To help convince you, in the hills of Phrygia, an oak and a lime tree stand side by side, surrounded by a low wall. I have seen the place, since Pittheus, king of Troezen, sent me into that country, where his father Pelops once ruled.
There is a swamp not far from there, once habitable land but now the haunt of diving-birds and marsh-loving coots. Jupiter went there, disguised as a mortal, and Mercury, the descendant of Atlas, setting aside his wings, went with his father, carrying the caduceus. A thousand houses they approached, looking for a place to rest: a thousand houses were locked and bolted. But one received them: it was humble it is true, roofed with reeds and stems from the marsh, but godly Baucis and the equally aged Philemon, had been wedded in that cottage in their younger years, and there had grown old together. They made light of poverty by acknowledging it, and bearing it without discontent of mind. It was no matter if you asked for owner or servant there: those two were the whole household: they gave orders and carried them out equally.
So when the gods from heaven met the humble household gods, and stooping down, passed the low doorway, the old man pulled out a bench, and requested them to rest their limbs, while over the bench Baucis threw a rough blanket. Then she raked over the warm ashes in the hearth, and brought yesterday’s fire to life, feeding it with leaves and dried bark, nursing the flames with her aged breath. She pulled down finely divided twigs and dry stems from the roof, and, breaking them further, pushed them under a small bronze pot. Next she stripped the leaves from vegetables that her husband had gathered from his well-watered garden. He used a two-pronged stick to lift down a wretched-looking chine of meat, hanging from a blackened beam, and, cutting a meagre piece from the carefully saved chine, put what had been cut, to seethe, in boiling water.
In the meantime they made conversation to pass the time, and prevent their guests being conscious of the delay. There was a beech wood tub, suspended by its handle from a crude peg: this had been filled with warm water, and allowed their visitors to refresh their limbs. In the middle of the floor there was a mattress of soft sedges. Placed on a frame and legs of willow it made a couch. They covered it with cloths, that they only used to bring out for the times of sacred festivals, but even these were old and worn, not unworthy of the couch. The gods were seated.
The old woman, her skirts tucked up, her hands trembling, placed a table there, but a table with one of the three legs unequal: a piece of broken pot made them equal. Pushed underneath, it countered the slope, and she wiped the level surface with fresh mint. On it she put the black and green olives that belong to pure Minerva, and the cornelian cherries of autumn, preserved in wine lees; radishes and endives; a lump of cheese; and lightly roasted eggs, untouched by the hot ashes; all in clay dishes. After this she set out a carved mixing bowl for wine, just as costly, with cups made of beech wood, hollowed out, and lined with yellow bees’ wax. There was little delay, before the fire provided its hot food, and the wine, of no great age, circulated, and then, removed again, made a little room for the second course. There were nuts, and a mix of dried figs and wrinkled dates; plums, and sweet-smelling apples in open wicker baskets; and grapes gathered from the purple vines. In the centre was a gleaming honeycomb. Above all, there was the additional presence of well-meaning faces, and no unwillingness, or poverty of spirit.’
To be continued...
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