Roman Mythology

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Bulfinch's Age of Fable

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The river-god Achelous told the story of Erisichthon to Theseusand his companions, whom he was entertaining at his hospitableboard, while they were delayed on their journey by the overflow ofhis waters. Having finished his story, he added, "But why should Itell of other persons' transformations when I myself am aninstance of the possession of this power? Sometimes I become aserpent, and sometimes a bull, with horns on my head. Or I shouldsay I once could do so; but now I have but one horn, having lostone." And here he groaned and was silent.

Theseus asked him the cause of his grief, and how he lost hishorn. To which question the river-god replied as follows: "Wholikes to tell of his defeats? Yet I will not hesitate to relatemine, comforting myself with the thought of the greatness of myconqueror, for it was Hercules. Perhaps you have heard of the fameof Dejanira, the fairest of maidens, whom a host of suitors stroveto win. Hercules and myself were of the number, and the restyielded to us two. He urged in his behalf his descent from Joveand his labors by which he had exceeded the exactions of Juno, hisstepmother. I, on the other hand, said to the father of themaiden, 'Behold me, the king of the waters that flow through yourland. I am no stranger from a foreign shore, but belong to thecountry, a part of your realm. Let it not stand in my way thatroyal Juno owes me no enmity nor punishes me with heavy tasks. Asfor this man, who boasts himself the son of Jove, it is either afalse pretence, or disgraceful to him if true, for it cannot betrue except by his mother's shame.' As I said this Herculesscowled upon me, and with difficulty restrained his rage. 'My handwill answer better than my tongue,' said he. 'I yield to you thevictory in words, but trust my cause to the strife of deeds.' Withthat he advanced towards me, and I was ashamed, after what I hadsaid, to yield. I threw off my green vesture and presented myselffor the struggle. He tried to throw me, now attacking my head, nowmy body. My bulk was my protection, and he assailed me in vain.For a time we stopped, then returned to the conflict. We each keptour position, determined not to yield, foot to foot, I bendingover him, clenching his hand in mine, with my forehead almosttouching his. Thrice Hercules tried to throw me off, and thefourth time he succeeded, brought me to the ground, and himselfupon my back. I tell you the truth, it was as if a mountain hadfallen on me. I struggled to get my arms at liberty, panting andreeking with perspiration. He gave me no chance to recover, butseized my throat. My knees were on the earth and my mouth in thedust.

"Finding that I was no match for him in the warrior's art, Iresorted to others and glided away in the form of a serpent. Icurled my body in a coil and hissed at him with my forked tongue.He smiled scornfully at this, and said, 'It was the labor of myinfancy to conquer snakes.' So saying he clasped my neck with hishands. I was almost choked, and struggled to get my neck out ofhis grasp. Vanquished in this form, I tried what alone remained tome and assumed the form of a bull. He grasped my neck with hisarm, and dragging my head down to the ground, overthrew me on thesand. Nor was this enough. His ruthless hand rent my horn from myhead. The Naiades took it, consecrated it, and filled it withfragrant flowers. Plenty adopted my horn and made it her own, andcalled it 'Cornucopia.'"

The ancients were fond of finding a hidden meaning in theirmythological tales. They explain this fight of Achelous withHercules by saying Achelous was a river that in seasons of rainoverflowed its banks. When the fable says that Achelous lovedDejanira, and sought a union with her, the meaning is that theriver in its windings flowed through part of Dejanira's kingdom.It was said to take the form of a snake because of its winding,and of a bull because it made a brawling or roaring in its course.When the river swelled, it made itself another channel. Thus itshead was horned. Hercules prevented the return of these periodicaloverflows by embankments and canals; and therefore he was said tohave vanquished the river-god and cut off his horn. Finally, thelands formerly subject to overflow, but now redeemed, became veryfertile, and this is meant by the horn of plenty.

There is another account of the origin of the Cornucopia. Jupiterat his birth was committed by his mother Rhea to the care of thedaughters of Melisseus, a Cretan king. They fed the infant deitywith the milk of the goat Amalthea. Jupiter broke off one of thehorns of the goat and gave it to his nurses, and endowed it withthe wonderful power of becoming filled with whatever the possessormight wish.

The name of Amalthea is also given by some writers to the motherof Bacchus. It is thus used by Milton, "Paradise Lost," Book IV.:

"... That Nyseian isle,
Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham, Whom Gentiles Ammon call, and Libyan Jove, Hid Amalthea and her florid son, Young Bacchus, from his stepdame Rhea's eye."

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