Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Curse of Immortality

Eos, the daughter of Theia and Hyperion, was the Greek goddess of the dawn. In Homer she is referred to as 'rosy-fingered' and 'saffron-robed', a clear reference to the shades of the morning sky. But she was also a woman with strong sexual appetites, not beyond carrying off those whom she found appealing. She had a particular passion for handsome hunters. As Cephalous and Orion stalked their prey by the twilight of dawn they were stalked in turn by Eos. She also took a fancy to the Trojan prince Tithonus, the son of King Laomedon, rather unfortunately for him.

The imagery is beautiful and romantic, with Eos leaving the bed of Tithonus as day breaks in book five of the Odyssey. She was to bear him two sons, Memnon and Emathion. In the Trojan War Memnon, who had his own kingdom in the east, came to the aid of his father's city only to be killed on the plain of Troy by Achilles, the greatest of the Greek heroes. It's a fate that Tithonus might very well have envied.

In her devotion to her husband Eos asked Zeus, king of the gods, to grant him the boon of immortality that they might be together forever. As always there is more sorrow over answered than unanswered prayers; for while her wish was granted, Eos had forgotten to ask for eternal youth also. Tithonus was doomed to age and shrivel with age until nothing was left but a wizened husk

His fate is described in the “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite”;

…when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs.

In the end he turned into a cicada, living endlessly, endlessly chirping for death, something worth remembering when one hears those calls by the light of a Mediterranean dawn.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man -
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seemed
To his great heart none other than a God!
I asked thee, "Give me immortality."
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant worked their wills,
And beat me down and marred and wasted me,
And though they could not end me, left me maimed
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, though even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renewed.
Thy cheek begins to redden through the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosened manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.

Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.

Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts."

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch -if I be he that watched -
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimsoned all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kissed
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.


  1. OC, I wrote this after someone on another blog site I belong to said that hell for him would be growing older and older, never being allowed to die.