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Vergil (Proteus)


Vergil’s depiction of Proteus begins (Georgics 4. 315) with Aristaeus (the son of Cyrene and Apollo), who is distraught because his bees are sick, starved, and gone. He fled to the source of the river Peneus and complained to his mother Cyrene, who allowed him to enter the depths of her watery home.

Cyrene bid the deep waters to recede and make a broad swath that the youth might approach. And the waters, bent back like a bow, towered over him like a mountain, received him in its vast embrace, and drew him beneath the flood. Now, in awe of the halls of his mother and her liquid realm, Aristaeus reached a pool shut up in caverns and echoing groves. He was dumbfounded at the immense movement of waters, as he watched all the rivers in their separate beds gliding under the great earth . . .

Then he entered her cavernous chamber with stalactites of pumice. Cyrene knows the vain tears of her son. Her sisters pour clear spring-water over one of his hands and then the other; they carry towels with a closely clipped nap. Some load tables with food and refresh brimming cups. Altars burn with perfumed Panchaean fires.

“Lift your goblets of Maeonian wine and let us pour a libation in honor of Oceanus,” Cyrene says. She herself invokes Oceanus, the father of the world, and the nymphs, her sisters, who watch over a hundred woods and a hundred rivers. Three times she sprinkles clear nectar over the gleaming fire. Three times the flames blaze up anew and lick the ceiling. Strengthening her resolve by this omen she begins.

“There is in the Carpathian gulf of Neptune a dark blue seer, Proteus, who traverses the great surface of the sea with fish and a chariot yoked with two-hoofed horses. He is now paying another visit to the harbors of Emathia and his homeland Pallene. Even we nymphs and aged Nereus himself venerate him. For the seer knows everything: what is, what was, and what is being drawn out for the future soon to come. Indeed thus it seemed good to Neptune, whose great herds and shapeless seals he pastures under the swell.

“First, my son, you must bind him in chains that he may explain the full cause of the sickness and favor the outcome. For without violence no instruction will he give and you will not prevail upon him by entreaty. Exert hard force and chains when he is taken. His empty stratagems at last will break around these fetters. When the sweltering sun has reached its zenith, when the vegetation becomes parched and the flocks find the shade more pleasant, I will lead you to the secret lair of the old man, where, tired from the buffeting waves, he refreshes himself, so that you may easily approach him as he lies asleep. But when you hold him bound fast in chains, then his many appearances and faces of wild beasts will sport with you. For he will suddenly become a bristly boar and a black tigress, a scaly serpent and a lioness with her yellow neck. Or he will give forth the crackling sound of a flame and thus slip out of his fetters. Or he will melt into clear water and escape. But the more he transforms himself into every shape, the tighter, my son, you must draw the shackling bonds, until he is in his final metamorphosis just as you saw him when he closed his eyes and sleep first took hold.”

This is what she said and poured forth the pure scent of ambrosia, which she rubbed over her son’s entire body. But the sweet perfume wafted down upon him from his smoothed locks and a supple strength invigorated his limbs.

There is an enormous grotto in the hollow flank of a mountain, where many waves are driven by the wind, and, drawn back into a bay, they are broken up; it was once a most safe harbor for sailors who had been overtaken by storm. Within, a great rock as a barrier, Proteus hides away. The nymph brings her son out  of the light of day into this hidden retreat, while she herself retires at a distance, shrouded in mist. Now swift Sirius, the Dog-Star, parching India dry, was glittering in the sky and the fiery sun had reached the middle of its arc. The vegetation was withering, and the rays of the sun were boiling the deep-channelled streams, warmed in their courses dried to clay, when Proteus, seeking his usual lair, departed from the waves. Around him the watery race of the vast sea gamboled and shook off a spray of brine. The seals lay scattered about the shore in sleep. As a stable watch in the hill country, as soon as night returns the calves from pasture to their stalls and the lambs arouse the wolves with their noisy bleating, he himself in their midst sits down upon a crag and surveys their number. And since the opportunity for capturing him presented itself to Aristaeus, he had barely allowed the old one to relax his weary limbs, when he rushed upon him with a great shout and took hold of him with fetters as he lay. Now Proteus, not unmindful of his art, transforms himself into all manner of wondrous disguises: fire, a terrifying beast, and a running stream. But when no deceit afforded escape and he was beaten, he returned to himself and at length spoke with a human voice.

“Who ordered you, my most reckless lad, to approach our dwelling? What do you want here?”

“You know, Proteus, you of all people know. Nothing can deceive you. Stop your questions. I have followed the commands of the gods and have come here to seek answers to my sagging fortunes.”

That was all Aristaeus said. Finally the seer at these words with a great force rolled his eyes burning with a green cast. He gnashed his teeth violently and loosened his tongue to the fates.

“No god”s anger makes trial of you. You are atoning for great wrongs. Orpheus, wretched, though undeserving of it, stirs up these punishments against you, unless the fates should oppose it; he rages terribly for his wife who has been snatched from him. The truth is, while she was running from you in headlong flight along the rivers, her death almost upon her, that girl did not see in her path the monstrous serpent keeping to the bank in the tall grass. But a chorus of Dryads, all alike, filled the mountain tops with their cry.

Proteus then continues to recount the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which is translated in M/L, Chapter 14. Then the story of Aristaeus continues as he learns of the solution to his woes:

When Proteus had finished, he dove into the deep and in his wake turned the water to foam around his head. But not Cyrene. With a mind to address her trembling son, she said:

“My son, you may lay aside sorrowful cares from your mind. This is the entire cause of the sickness. For this reason the nymphs, with whom Eurydice used to dance in the deep groves, sent destruction to your bees. As for you, seek peace with them, and as a suppliant bestow upon them gifts and worship the kindly nymphs of the wooded dell. For they will grant pardon for your vows and relax their wrath. As for the manner of your entreaty, I will first tell you step by step what it should be. Choose four splendid bulls of unblemished body, which now pasture on the heights of verdant Lycaeus, and the same number of young cows that have never worn the yolk. For these build four altars by the lofty shrine of the goddesses, let stream the sacred blood from their throats, and leave the carcasses of the cattle in a leafy grove. Later, after nine days, at daybreak, you will sprinkle Lethean poppies, the funeral offerings to Orpheus, you will sacrifice a black sheep, and you will revisit the grove. You will worship Eurydice and she will be placated with a slaughtered calf.”

Aristeus immediately obeyed the instructions of his mother and when he revisited the grove, he witnessed an awe-inspiring miracle.

. . . within the entire cavity bees buzz throughout the liquified entrails of the cattle; they burst forth from the broken sides, huge clouds are drawn out, they crowd together at the top of a tree, and let down a cluster from the pliant branches.

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