PHILEMON AND BAUCIS

PHILEMON AND BAUCIS

In the Middle East, in the hill-country of an ancient land once named Phrygia, stands a tree. 

It is of course, not the only tree there, with roots that cling to rocky crags on the hills. But it is unique in that this one tree is of two varieties; an Oak tree and a Linden, and that these two grow from a single trunk. 

Its branches at the center tightly intertwine, as if holding one another in a close embrace. To all other sides, they extend in a thick canopy of leaves which cast a broad circle of shade on the ground beneath.

Many a weary traveler has taken rest here and has said that in a sweet half-slumber they were certain they heard the Linden whisper softly to the Oak, ‘Philemon’, and heard the Oak reply lovingly, ‘Baucis’. 

By the tree once stood a humble little cottage built of stones. This was one day miraculously transformed into a beautiful temple, built of marble and plated in parts, with gold. How this came to be is at first, a story of love and a tale of the immeasurable act of just reward by Gods to the humble, and the pious.

This story we know because of the great Roman poet, Ovid, who heard of it in later ancient days and wrote it in an epic poem. 

PHILEMON AND BAUCIS 

High on a hill in the land of Phrygia, in a little house of tumble-down stones lived an aged couple, Philemon and Baucis. Long had they had loved one another, from the days when they were children. Their love never waned throughout the many years they lived but grew over the course of time, into ever deeper compassion. 

Their belongings were few but enough to eke out a humble existence. A healthy goat gave them fresh, daily milk, and a busy hive of buzzing bees provided them with sweet, golden, honey. Grapes grew wild on vines at the edge of their little plot of land. These good Philemon gathered and made into wine.

What vegetables they had to eat, grew in the little garden Baucis lovingly tended and bread was fashioned into loaves and baked from grain she ground. Their only goose, a prized, sturdy, white and grey feathered bird kept faithful watch overall they owned. Indeed, it was a simple life the old couple lived but all they had ever known, and all they needed. 

Quite some distance below the little house of Philemon and Baucis, nestled at the foot of the hill and between pleasant pastures, lay the city of Thoana. It was a prosperous city of fine roads flanked by grand houses built of polished marble and granite. Flourishing markets at its center offered cheeses, meats, fragrant perfumes, pottery, hand-woven textiles and the like, in abundance. The people of Thoana, for the most part, thrived in great prosperity.

But they had allowed their fortune to make them become less generous and became ever more concerned with only themselves. 

 

Zeus – the feared and most respected, mighty of mightiest King of all Gods, thus observed the people of Thoana.

Word had come that in their selfishness they had disobeyed the laws of hospitality. Strangers were no longer welcomed at their doors.

To the Gods, this was most unacceptable. Zeus straightaway called on the fleet, wing-footed messenger, Hermes. Together they devised a plan by which to test the generosity of the people of Thoana. 

Those were the days of ancient Greece when God’s kept a close and watchful eye on mortals from the heights of their perch, on Mt. Olympus. Oft they would descend to set things right when it was necessary, or at times out of simple mischief,  wreak some playful havoc when it was not. 

And so it was but a small surprise when Zeus announced his intention to visit.

Word spread rapidly as wildfire through the streets of Thoana and oh! then the preparations began! 

For weeks from that day forward, basket upon basket of fruits and vegetables were harvested. Grapes were picked and pressed into countless jugs of wine. The finest livestock was slaughtered and roasted on spits, and barley and wheat were ground and baked into all shapes of bread. Women cooked and cleaned. All the houses were decorated. Boughs of laurel were strung into garlands, fresh flowers picked and woven into wreaths to place on dancing maidens heads. New strings were strung on lyres, fresh reeds were fitted to flutes.

From all corners of the city, the songs of practicing musicians could be heard. But in all the throes of preparation, grace and gratitude were quite forgotten. Instead, each landowner tried to outdo the next. In everything they did, they thought only about what gifts and blessings the one who pleased the mighty god Zeus best, would gain.

 

High on the hill and far beyond the clamor, Philemon and Baucis quietly went about their tasks.

Smiling on one another throughout every day as they always did, blissfully unaware of the commotion upending the beautiful village below. 

One evening at dusk, two lowly travelers entered the gates of Thoana. Their clothing was ragged, and their faces and bodies covered in dust from the road. In a prosperous place such as this, they thought, surely they would be offered a meal and a place to sleep for the night. The people of the city had turned in early, worn out from weeks of preparation. They had quite outdone themselves in anticipation of Zeus’s arrival. Every house was spotless. Every table groaned with a bounty of food for the feast.

The two travelers approached the first house they came to and knocked on the door. The man of the house peered out at the weary, dusty, strangers through the partly opened door.

Scarce did they open their mouths to introduce themselves and beg for food and lodging when the man shouted out, “What do you want here??! Do you not know that we are expecting a visit from the almighty God Zeus?! There is no food to spare for anyone else. Even the floors are too clean to house the likes of you! Be off with you, lowly beggars!!” and reaching through the crack in the door, the man of the house pushed the travelers from his steps.

On they walked, from house to house. At every door upon which they knocked they were met with kicks, insults, and curses. Not a word of kindness was offered. Not a single, hospitable word of welcome, was given. Heartsick and ever more cold and hungry than before, they gave up and made their way toward the steep hillside. After climbing up a ways they stumbled upon the little home of Philemon and Baucis. 

Having just tied the goat up for the night Baucis stood at the door, wiping her hands on her apron. In the half-light, she turned to see the two bedraggled, weary strangers approaching.

She hobbled over toward them and clasping her hands together she cried, “Indeed, you appear to be in great need! Mighty Zeus, whose temple is in the sky has decreed that anyone in need of shelter or fool should be welcomed! We do not have much to offer but what we have, shall also be yours. Come inside! ” Immediately, she called out to Philemon and ducking their heads through the small doorway, the strangers were ushered inside.

On a willow couch, they had sometimes used in earlier festive days, Philomen placed a cushion of springy sedge and offered the strangers a seat. Baucis meanwhile tucked up her skirts and promptly fetched a little table for the meal. She placed a little shard of pottery beneath one leg that was too short and scoured the wooden top with fresh mint. Philomel blew on the ashes of the grate and in no time a fire was roused from the coals. And then the old couple began preparing a meal. 

Green endive and relish made from cucumbers, and radishes served with curdled milk; grapes and fresh figs with a small chunk of simple cheese were all set up in earthenware bowls. Eggs were cooked in the glowing embers of the fire. When all these had been eaten they brought on a flat, fine-woven basket the second course of sweet nuts, sliced apples, dates, and plums set around a glistening, dripping, comb of honey. All they had to offer they emptied from their stores without grumble or remorse.

In fear they did not have enough, Baucis and Philemon said “ Here is the wine. It is not very much, but what there is, you may drink.” and into two cups of beechwood made smooth with beeswax, Philemon poured what was left – a scant two cups. But lo and behold! When he set the pitcher back on the table, he saw that it was full again! “Baucis, Baucis, what is this? Surely it is a miracle!” and looking amazed into each other’s eyes, Baucis said “Philemon, these are no simple beggars here before us! Surely we are in the presence of Gods!” And then they raised their hands and bowed in supplication before the strangers. 

Anxious now, to bestow their most precious possession on the Gods, Philemon hastened to chase the goose, the faithful guardian of their little home. But the goose was swift and soon outflew the old man, taking refuge behind the feet of the smiling Gods.

“Enough,” Zeus said, for indeed, the strangers were Zeus and Hermes in disguise, “ You have offered enough. So generous, have you been, you who have so little. And so wicked were the people of the neighborhood below! Not a word of kindness or a simple crust was offered by those with plenty. A righteous punishment shall befall the wicked people of Thoana,  but by the might of divinity, no evil shall befall this humble home! Fear not, but come now, and follow us to the summit of this mountain.” 

Philomel and Baucis obeyed. Looking back lovingly once more on their little home, they followed the Gods up the mountain as hastily as their aging bodies allowed. 

Once at the top, they saw that a great storm had come over the land. Thunder and lightning in such force as they had never seen before engulfed the fields and city below. They wept as they watched deep and raging waters cover the grand houses and fine roads, washing all the people and the city away. But as they dried their tears they beheld their home take on new splendor.

 

The crumbling stones were transformed before their eyes into shining marble blocks. The low wooden doorway rose into a portico held by tall, carved columns and legends were inscribed on the walls in pure gold.

After the temple was complete, Hermes gently said to Philemon and Baucis “ And now, kind, worthy people, tell us what your hearts desire.” In hushed and earnest, voices the old couple spoke for a while with one another, and then said to the listening Zeus and Hermes, “ this is our wish: We pray you to allow us to care for this new temple for the rest of our days. And when the time comes, we ask that you let us depart this world together. For we have spent our entire lives in loving harmony together and know not how to be alone in the world, one without the other.” 

Zeus and Hermes smiled, and at once, the wishes of Philemon and Baucis were fulfilled. For many years they became the trusted keepers of the temple, and food and refuge were offered by them to all who came. 

One day, years later as they stood in the sun on the sacred steps, memories of all that had come before them flooded into their thoughts. By now, both were in extreme old age; deep wrinkles lined their skin, their hair was as white as the marble of the temple. They reached to hold the hands of each other, and as they smiled on one another Baucis saw Philemon, her old husband, and Philemon, too, saw Baucis his dear wife, as their arms put forth leaves. And while branches grew of their bodies and tops of trees grew above their faces, they spoke. As long as they could speak, they shared the words of love and then, when new leaves and branches covered them whole, they said at last, together, “Farewell, farewell, my own.” 

 

And so it is that in the hill-country of the ancient land once named Phrygia, there stands a tree. It is no ordinary tree, as two trees grow from a single trunk. The Oaktree, Philemon, and the Linden, Baucis. 

Those who have rested in their shade have heard them whisper to one another, and have heard as well the voices of Gods say “Those whom the Gods care for, are Gods! And those who worshipped are now worshipped here.”