Baucis and Philemon
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In Ovid's moralizing fable (Metamorphoses VIII), which stands on the periphery of Greek mythology and Roman mythology, Baucis and Philemon were an old married couple in the region of Tyana, which Ovid places in Phrygia, and the only ones in their town to welcome disguised gods Zeus and Hermes (in Roman mythology, Jupiter and Mercury respectively), thus embodying the pious exercise of hospitality, the ritualized guest-friendship termed xenia, or theoxenia when a god was involved.
Zeus and Hermes came disguised as ordinary peasants, and began asking the people of the town for a place to sleep that night. They were rejected by all before they came to Baucis and Philemon's simple rustic cottage. Though the couple were poor, their generosity far surpassed that of their rich neighbours, at whose homes the gods found "all the doors bolted and no word of kindness given, so wicked were the people of that land."
After serving the two guests food and wine (which Ovid depicts with pleasure in the details), Baucis noticed that, although she had refilled her guest's beechwood cups many times, the pitcher was still full (from which derives the phrase "Mercury's Pitcher"). Realising that her guests were gods, she and her husband "raised their hands in supplication and implored indulgence for their simple home and fare." Philemon thought of catching and killing the goose that guarded their house and making it into a meal, but when he went to do so, it ran to safety in Zeus's lap. Zeus said they need not slay the goose and that they should leave the town. This was because he was going to destroy the town and all those who had turned them away and not provided due hospitality. He told Baucis and Philemon to climb the mountain with him and Hermes, not to turn back until they reached the top.
After climbing to the summit ("as far as an arrow could shoot in one pull"), Baucis and Philemon looked back on their town and saw that it had been destroyed by a flood and that Zeus had turned their cottage into an ornate temple. The couple's wish to be guardians of the temple was granted. They also asked that when time came for one of them to die, that the other would die as well. Upon their death, the couple were changed into an intertwining pair of trees, one oak and one linden, standing in the deserted boggy terrain.
The story of Baucis and Philemon does not appear elsewhere in Greek mythology nor in any cult, but the notion of hospitality's sacred nature was widespread in the ancient world. After Lot and his wife had feasted them, two strangers were revealed as "two angels" (Genesis 19:1; the story is in the previous chapter). Like the story of Baucis and Philemon, Lot and his family were told to flee to the mountains and not look back, before God destroyed the city that he was living in. In addition, Hebrews 13:2 reads "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
The possibility that unidentified strangers in need of hospitality were gods in disguise was ingrained in first century culture. Less than two generations after Ovid's publication, Acts 14:11-12 relates the ecstatic reception given to Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas as they ministered in the city of Lystra: "The crowds shouted 'The gods have come down to us in human form!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes."
In later texts
- Nathaniel Hawthorne repeated the story of Baucis and Philemon in "The Miraculous Pitcher".
- Jean de la Fontaine's poem follows Ovid closely.
- John Dryden translated Ovid's poem in 1693
- Jonathan Swift wrote a poem on the subject of Baucis and Philemon in 1709.
- Joseph Haydn wrote a marionette opera Philemon und Baucis, oder Jupiters Reise auf die Erde in 1773.
- Baucis and Philemon are characters in the fifth act of Goethe's Faust II (1832).
- Gogol wrote an ironic and bittersweet reworking of the legend in his 1835 novella The Old World Landowners.
- Charles Gounod wrote his opéra comique Philémon et Baucis in 1860.
- One of the cities in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972) is named after Baucis.
- Charles Frazier's novel, Cold Mountain (1997), ends with a reading of this myth.
- Film director Károly Makk sets his film Philemon és Baucis during the Hungarian uprising of 1956.
- Referenced by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing when Don Pedro courts Hero for Claudio (2.1.95), and also in As You Like It by Jaques (3.3.7-8).
- Australian writer Ursula Dubosarsky published a play for children, The Goose Who Was Nearly Cooked based on the story of Philemon and Baucis.
- Referenced in Nadja by André Breton.
- Referenced in Thom Gunn's poem "Philemon and Baucis" in The Man with Night Sweats
- Barbey D'Aurevilly describes a couple as Philemon and Baucis in his short story "Happiness in Crime" from the collection Les Diaboliques.
- The narrator in Max Frisch's 1964 novel Gantenbein refers to the main characters as Baucis and Philemon for a whole chapter.
- Philemon (and occasionally Baucis) is a central protagonist in Carl Jung's revelatory text, the Red Book
References and sources
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