Her. So gay, Charon? What makes you leave your ferry to come up here? You are quite a stranger in the upper world.
Ch. I thought I should like to see what life is like; what men do with it, and what are these blessings of which they all lament the loss when they come down to us. Never one of them has made the passage dry-eyed. So I got leave from Pluto to take a day off, like that Thessalian lad 18, you know; and here I am, in the light of day. I am in luck, it seems, to fall in with you. You will show me round, of course, and point out all that is to be seen, as you know all about it.
Her. I have no time, good ferryman. I am bound on certain errands of the Upper Zeus, certain human matters. He is short-tempered: any loitering on my part, and he may hand me over to you Powers of Darkness for good and all; or treat me as he did Hephaestus the other day — hurl me down headlong from the threshold of Heaven; there would be a pair of lame cupbearers then, to amuse the gods.
Ch. And you would leave an old messmate wandering at large on the face of the earth? Think of the cruises we have sailed together, the cargoes you and I have handled! You might remember one thing, son of Maia; I have never set you down to bale or row. You lie sprawling about the deck, you great strong lubber, snoring away, or chatting the whole trip through with any communicative shade you can find; and the old man plies both oars at once. Come, stand by me, like a true son of Zeus as you are, and show me all the ins and outs, there’s a dear lad. I want to see something of life before I go back, and if you leave me in the lurch, I shall be no better off than a blind man: he comes to grief because he is always in the dark, and, contrariwise, I can make nothing of it in the light. Do me this good turn, and I’ll not forget it.
Her. Clearly this is to be a flogging matter for me. There will go some shrewd knocks to the settlement of this reckoning. However, I must give you a helping hand. What is one to do, when a friend is so pressing? Now, as to going over everything thoroughly, it is out of the question; it would take us years. Meanwhile, I should have the hue-and-cry out after me, you would be neglecting your ghostly work, Pluto would lose the shades that you ought to be shipping over all that time, and Aeacus would never take a single toll, and would be proportionately furious. We have only to think, therefore, of contriving you a general view of what is going on.
Ch. You must do the best you can for me. I know nothing of the matter, being a stranger up here.
Her. The main thing is to get an elevation from which you may see in every direction. If you could come up to Heaven, we should be saved any further trouble; you would then have a good bird’s-eye view of everything. But it would be sacrilege for one so conversant with phantoms to set foot in the courts of Zeus. Let us lose no time, therefore, in looking out a good high mountain.
Ch. You know what I sometimes say to you on the ship, Hermes. — If a sudden gust strikes the sail from a new quarter, and the waves are rising high, you landsmen know not what to make of it; you are for taking in sail, or slackening the sheet, or letting her go before the wind, and then I tell you not to trouble your heads, for I know what to do. Well, now it is your turn; you are sailing this ship; do as you think best, and I’ll sit quiet, as a passenger should, and obey orders.
Her. Just so; leave it to me, and I will find a good look-out. How would Caucasus do? Or is Parnassus higher? Olympus, perhaps, is higher than either of them. Olympus! stay, that reminds me; I have a happy thought. But there is work for two here; I shall want your assistance.
Ch. Give your orders, I’ll bear a hand, to the best of my ability.
Her. Homer tells us how the sons of Aloeus 19 (they were but two, like ourselves) took it into their heads, when they were yet children, to drag up Ossa from its foundations, and plant it on the top of Olympus, and then Pelion on the top of all; they thought that would serve as a ladder for getting into heaven. The two boys were rightly punished for their presumption. But we have no design against the Gods: why should not we take the hint, and make an erection of mountains piled one on the top of another? From such a height we should get a better view.
Ch. What, shall we two be able to lift Pelion or Ossa?
Her. Why not? We are gods; I should hope we are as good as those two infants.
Ch. Yes; but I should never have thought we could do such a job as that.
Her. Ah, my dear Charon, you don’t understand these things; you have no imagination. To the lofty spirit of Homer this is simplicity itself. Just a couple of lines, and the mountains are in place; — we have only to walk up. I wonder you make such a marvel of this. You know Atlas, of course? He holds up the entire heaven by himself, Gods and all. And I dare say you have heard how my brother Heracles relieved him once, and took the burden on his own shoulders for a time?
Ch. Yes, I have heard it. But you and the poets best know whether it is true.
Her. Oh, perfectly true. What should induce wise men to lie? — Come, let us get to work on Ossa first; for so the masterbuilder directs:
Ossa first; On Ossa leafy Pelion.
There! What think you of this? Is it suave work? is it poetry? I must run up, and see whether we shall want another storey. Oh dear, we are no way up as yet. On the East, it is all I can do to make out Ionia and Lydia; on the West is nothing but Italy and Sicily; on the North, nothing to be seen beyond the Danube; and on the South, Crete, none too clear. It looks to me as if we should want Oeta, my nautical friend; and Parnassus into the bargain.
Ch. So be it; but take care not to make the height too great for the width; or down we shall come, ladder and all, and pay our footing in the Homeric school of architecture with a cracked crown apiece.
Her. No fear; all will be safe enough. Pass Oeta along. Now trundle Parnassus up. There; I’ll go up again. . . . That’s better! A fine view. You can come now.
Ch. Give me a hand up, Hermes. This is an erection, and no mistake!
Her. Well, you know, you would see everything. Safety is one thing, my friend, and sight-seeing is another. Here is my hand; hang on, and keep clear of the slippery bits. There, now you are up. Let us sit down; here are two peaks, one for each of us. Now take a general look round at the prospect.
Ch. I see a vast stretch of land, and a huge lake surrounding it, and mountains, and rivers bigger than Cocytus and Pyriphlegethon; and men, tiny little things! and I suppose their dens.
Her. Dens? Those are cities!
Ch. I tell you what it is, Hermes; all this is no use. Here have we been shifting about Parnassus (Castalia and all complete), and Oeta, and these others, and we might have spared ourselves the trouble!
Her. How so?
Ch. Why, I can make nothing out up here. These cities and mountains look for all the world like a map. It is men that I am after; I want to see what they do, and hear what they say. That is what I was laughing about just now, when first you met me, and asked me what the joke was. I had heard something that tickled me hugely.
Her. And what might that be?
Ch. One of them had been asked by a friend to dinner, I think it was, the next day. ‘Depend on it,’ says he, ‘I’ll be with you.’ And before the words were out of his mouth, down came a tile — started somehow from the roof — and he was a dead man! Ha, ha, thought I, that promise will never be kept. So I think I shall go down again; I want to see and hear.
Her. Sit where you are. I will soon put that right; you shall see with the best; Homer has a charm for this too. Now, the moment I say the lines, there must be no more dull eyes; all must be clear as daylight. Don’t forget!
Ch. Say on.
See, from before thine eyes I lift the veil; So shalt thou clearly know both God and man.
Well? Are the eyes any better?
Ch. A marvellous improvement! Lynceus is blind to me. Now, the next thing I want is information. I have some questions to ask. Will you have them couched in the Homeric style, to convince you that I am not wholly unversed in his poems?
Her. And how should you know anything of Homer? A seaman, chained to the oar!
Ch. Come, come; no abuse of my profession. The fact is, when he died, and I ferried him over, I heard a good many of his ballads, and a few of them still run in my head. There was a pretty stiff gale on at the time, too. You see, he began singing a song about Posidon, which boded no good to us mariners — how Posidon gathered the clouds, and stirred the depths with his trident, as with a ladle, and roused the whirlwind, and a good deal more (enough to raise a storm of itself) — when suddenly there came a black squall which nearly capsized the boat. The poet was extremely ill, and disgorged such an avalanche of minstrelsy (Scylla, Charybdis, the Cyclops, all came up bodily), that I had no difficulty in preserving a few snatches. I should like to know, for instance,
Who is yon hero, stout and strong and tall, O’ertopping all mankind by head and shoulders?
Her. That is Milo of Croton, the athlete. He has just picked up a bull, and is carrying it along the race-course; and the Greeks are applauding him.
Ch. It would be more to the point, if they were to offer their congratulations to me. I shall presently be picking up Milo himself, and putting him into my boat; that will be after he has had his fall from Death, that most invincible of antagonists, who will have him on his back before he knows what is happening. We shall hear a sad tale then, no doubt, of the crowns and the applause he has left behind him. Meanwhile, he is mightily elated over the bull exploit, and the distinction it has won him. What is one to think? Does it ever occur to him that he must die some day?
Her. How should he think of death? He is at his zenith.
Ch. Well, never mind him. We shall have sport enough with him before long; he will come aboard with no strength left to pick up a gnat, let alone a bull. But pray,
Who is yon haughty hero? No Greek, to judge by his dress.
Her. That is Cyrus, son of Cambyses, who transferred to the Persians the ancient empire of the Medes. He has lately conquered Assyria, and reduced Babylon; and now it looks as if he meditated an invasion of Lydia, to complete his dominion by the overthrow of Croesus.
Ch. And whereabouts is Croesus?
Her. Look over there. You see the great city with the triple wall? That is Sardis. And there, look, is Croesus himself, reclining on a golden couch, and conversing with Solon the Athenian. Shall we listen to what they are saying?
Ch. Yes, let us.
Cr. Stranger, you have now seen my stores of treasure, my heaps of bullion, and all my riches. Tell me therefore, whom do you account the happiest of mankind?
Ch. What will Solon say, I wonder?
Her. Trust Solon; he will not disgrace himself.
So. Croesus, few men are happy. Of those whom I know, the happiest, I think, were Cleobis and Biton, the sons of the Argive priestess.
Ch. Ah, he means those two who yoked themselves to a waggon, and drew their mother to the temple, and died the moment after. It was but the other day.
Cr. Ah. So they are first on the list. And who comes next?
So. Tellus the Athenian, who lived a righteous life, and died for his country.
Cr. And where do I come, reptile?
So. That I am unable to say at present, Croesus; I must see you end your days first. Death is the sure test; — a happy end to a life of happiness.
Ch. Bravo, Solon; you have not forgotten us! As you say, Charon’s ferry is the proper place for the decision of these questions. — But who are these men whom Croesus is sending out? And what have they got on their shoulders?
Her. Those are bars of gold; they are going to Delphi, to pay for an oracle, which oracle will presently be the ruin of Croesus. But oracles are a hobby of his.
Ch. Oh, so that is gold, that glittering yellow stuff, with just a tinge of red in it. I have often heard of gold, but never saw it before.
Her. Yes, that is the stuff there is so much talking and squabbling about.
Ch. Well now, I see no advantages about it, unless it is an advantage that it is heavy to carry.
Her. Ah, you do not know what it has to answer for; the wars and plots and robberies, the perjuries and murders; for this men will endure slavery and imprisonment; for this they traffic and sail the seas.
Ch. For this stuff? Why, it is not much different from copper. I know copper, of course, because I get a penny from each passenger.
Her. Yes, but copper is plentiful, and therefore not much esteemed by men. Gold is found only in small quantities, and the miners have to go to a considerable depth for it. For the rest, it comes out of the earth, just the same as lead and other metals.
Ch. What fools men must be, to be enamoured of an object of this sallow complexion; and of such a weight!
Her. Well, Solon, at any rate, seems to have no great affection for it. See, he is making merry with Croesus and his outlandish magnificence. I think he is going to ask him a question. Listen.
So. Croesus, will those bars be any use to Apollo, do you think?
Cr. Any use! Why there is nothing at Delphi to be compared to them.
So. And that is all that is wanting to complete his happiness, eh? — some bar gold?
So. Then they must be very hard up in Heaven, if they have to send all the way to Lydia for their gold supply?
Cr. Where else is gold to be had in such abundance as with us?
So. Now is any iron found in Lydia?
Cr. Not much.
So. Ah; so you are lacking in the more valuable metal.
Cr. More valuable? Iron more valuable than gold?
So. Bear with me, while I ask you a few questions, and I will convince you it is so.
So. Of protector and protege, which is the better man?
Cr. The protector, of course.
So. Now in the event of Cyrus’s invading Lydia — there is some talk of it — shall you supply your men with golden swords? or will iron be required, on the occasion?
Cr. Oh, iron.
So. Iron accordingly you must have, or your gold would be led captive into Persia?
So. Oh, we will hope for the best. But it is clear, on your own admission, that iron is better than gold.
Cr. And what would you have me do? Recall the gold, and offer the God bars of iron?
So. He has no occasion for iron either. Your offering (be the metal what it may) will fall into other hands than his. It will be snapped up by the Phocians, or the Boeotians, or the God’s own priests; or by some tyrant or robber. Your goldsmiths have no interest for Apollo.
Cr. You are always having a stab at my wealth. It is all envy!
Her. This blunt sincerity is not to the Lydian’s taste. Things are come to a strange pass, he thinks, if a poor man is to hold up his head, and speak his mind in this frank manner! He will remember Solon presently, when the time comes for Cyrus to conduct him in chains to the pyre. I heard Clotho, the other day, reading over the various dooms. Among other things, Croesus was to be led captive by Cyrus, and Cyrus to be murdered by the queen of the Massagetae. There she is: that Scythian woman, riding on a white horse; do you see?
Her. That is Tomyris. She will cut off Cyrus’s head, and put it into a wine-skin filled with blood. And do you see his son, the boy there? That is Cambyses. He will succeed to his father’s throne; and, after innumerable defeats in Libya and Ethiopia, will finally slay the god Apis, and die a raving madman.
Ch. What fun! Why, at this moment no one would presume to meet their eyes; from such a height do they look down on the rest of mankind. Who would believe that before long one of them will be a captive, and the other have his head in a bottle of blood? — But who is that in the purple robe, Hermes? — the one with the diadem? His cook has just been cleaning a fish, and is now handing him a ring — “in yonder sea-girt isle”; “’tis, sure, some king.”
Her.Ha, ha! A parody, this time. — That is Polycrates, tyrant of Samos. He is extremely well pleased with his lot: yet that slave who now stands at his side will betray him to the satrap Oroetes, and he will be crucified. It will not take long to overturn his prosperity, poor man! This, too, I had from Clotho.
Ch. I like Clotho; she is a lady of spirit. Have at them, madam! Off with their heads! To the cross with them! Let them know that they are men. And let them be exalted in the meantime; the higher they mount, the heavier will be the fall. I shall have a merry time of it hereafter, identifying their naked shades, as they come aboard; no more purple robes then; no tiaras; no golden couches!
Her. So much for royalty; and now to the common herd. Do you see them, Charon; — on their ships and on the field of battle; crowding the law-courts and following the plough; usurers here, beggars there?
Ch. I see them. What a jostling life it is! What a world of ups and downs! Their cities remind me of bee-hives. Every man keeps a sting for his neighbour’s service; and a few, like wasps, make spoil of their weaker brethren. But what are all these misty shapes that beset them on every side?
Her. Hopes, Fears, Follies, Pleasures, Greeds, Hates, Grudges, and such like. They differ in their habits. The Folly is a domestic creature, with vested rights of its own. The same with the Grudge, the Hate, the Envy, the Greed, the Know-not, and the What’s-to-do. But the Fear and the Hope fly overhead. The Fear swoops on its prey from above; sometimes it is content with startling a man out of his wits, sometimes it frightens him in real earnest. The Hope hovers almost within reach, and just when a man thinks he is going to catch it, off it flies, and leaves him gaping — like Tantalus in the water, you know. Now look closely, and you will make out the Fates up aloft, spinning each man his spindle-full; from that spindle a man hangs by a narrow thread. Do you see what looks like a cobweb, coming down to each man from the spindles?
Ch. I see each has a very slight thread. They are mostly entangled, one with another, and that other with a third.
Her. Of course they are. Because the first man has got to be murdered by the second, and he by the third; or again, B is to be A’s heir (A’s thread being the shorter), and C is to be B’s. That is what the entangling means. But you see what thin threads they all have to depend on. Now here is one drawn high up into the air; presently his thread will snap, when the weight becomes too much for it, and down he will come with a bang: whereas yonder fellow hangs so low that when he does fall it makes no noise; his next-door neighbours will scarcely hear him drop.
Ch. How absurd it all is!
Her. My dear Charon, there is no word for the absurdity of it. They do take it all so seriously, that is the best of it; and then, long before they have finished scheming, up comes good old Death, and whisks them off, and all is over! You observe that he has a fine staff of assistants at his command; — agues, consumptions, fevers, inflammations, swords, robbers, hemlock, juries, tyrants — not one of which gives them a moment’s concern so long as they are prosperous; but when they come to grief, then it is Alack! and Well-a-day! and Oh dear me! If only they would start with a clear understanding that they are mortal, that after a brief sojourn on the earth they will wake from the dream of life, and leave all behind them — they would live more sensibly, and not mind dying so much. As it is, they get it into their heads that what they possess they possess for good and all; the consequence is, that when Death’s officer calls for them, and claps on a fever or a consumption, they take it amiss; the parting is so wholly unexpected. Yonder is a man building his house, urging the workmen to use all dispatch. How would he take the news, that he was just to see the roof on and all complete, when he would have to take his departure, and leave all the enjoyment to his heir? — hard fate, not once to sup beneath it! There again is one rejoicing over the birth of a son; the child is to inherit his grandfather’s name, and the father is celebrating the occasion with his friends. He would not be so pleased, if he knew that the boy was to die before he was eight years old! It is natural enough: he sees before him some happy father of an Olympian victor, and has no eyes for his neighbour there, who is burying a child; that thin-spun thread escapes his notice. Behold, too, the money-grubbers, whom the aforesaid Death’s-officers will never permit to be money-spenders; and the noble army of litigant neighbours!
Ch. Yes! I see it all; and I ask myself, what is the satisfaction in life? What is it that men bewail the loss of? Take their kings; they seem to be best off, though, as you say, they have their happiness on a precarious tenure; but apart from that, we shall find their pleasures to be outweighed by the vexations inseparable from their position — worry and anxiety, flattery here, conspiracy there, enmity everywhere; to say nothing of the tyranny of Sorrow, Disease, and Passion, with whom there is confessedly no respect of persons. And if the king’s lot is a hard one, we may make a pretty shrewd guess at that of the commoner. Come now, I will give you a similitude for the life of man. Have you ever stood at the foot of a waterfall, and marked the bubbles rising to the surface and gathering into foam? Some are quite small, and break as soon as they are born. Others last longer; new ones come to join them, and they swell up to a great size: yet in the end they burst, as surely as the rest; it cannot be otherwise. There you have human life. All men are bubbles, great or small, inflated with the breath of life. Some are destined to last for a brief space, others perish in the very moment of birth: but all must inevitably burst.
Her. Homer compares mankind to leaves. Your simile is full as good as his.
Ch. And being the things they are, they do — the things you see; squabbling among themselves, and contending for dominion and power and riches, all of which they will have to leave behind them, when they come down to us with their penny apiece. Now that we are up here, how would it be for me to cry out to them at the top of my voice, to abstain from their vain endeavours, and live with the prospect of Death before their eyes? ‘Fools’ (I might say), ‘why so much in earnest? Rest from your toils. You will not live for ever. Nothing of the pomp of this world will endure; nor can any man take anything hence when he dies. He will go naked out of the world, and his house and his lands and his gold will be another’s, and ever another’s.’ If I were to call out something of this sort, loud enough for them to hear, would it not do some good? Would not the world be the better for it?
Her. Ah, my poor friend, you know not what you say. Ignorance and deceit have done for them what Odysseus did for his crew when he was afraid of the Sirens; they have waxed men’s ears up so effectually, that no drill would ever open them. How then should they hear you? You might shout till your lungs gave way. Ignorance is as potent here as the waters of Lethe are with you. There are a few, to be sure, who from a regard for Truth have refused the wax process; men whose eyes are open to discern good and evil.
Ch. Well then, we might call out to them?
Her. There again: where would be the use of telling them what they know already? See, they stand aloof from the rest of mankind, and scoff at all that goes on; nothing is as they would have it. Nay, they are evidently bent on giving life the slip, and joining you. Their condemnations of folly make them unpopular here.
Ch. Well done, my brave boys! There are not many of them, though, Hermes.
Her. These must serve. And now let us go down.
Ch. There is still one thing I had a fancy to see. Show me the receptacles into which they put the corpses, and your office will have been discharged.
Her. Ah, sepulchres, those are called, or tombs, or graves. Well, do you see those mounds, and columns, and pyramids, outside the various city walls? Those are the store-chambers of the dead.
Ch. Why, they are putting flowers on the stones, and pouring costly essences upon them. And in front of some of the mounds they have piled up faggots, and dug trenches. Look: there is a splendid banquet laid out, and they are burning it all; and pouring wine and mead, I suppose it is, into the trenches! What does it all mean?
Her. What satisfaction it affords to their friends in Hades, I am unable to say. But the idea is, that the shades come up, and get as close as they can, and feed upon the savoury steam of the meat, and drink the mead in the trench.
Ch. Eat and drink, when their skulls are dry bone? But I am wasting my breath: you bring them down every day; — you can say whether they are likely ever to get up again, once they are safely underground! That would be too much of a good thing! You would have your work cut out for you and no mistake, if you had not only to bring them down, but also to take them up again when they wanted a drink. Oh, fools and blockheads! You little know how we arrange matters, or what a gulf is set betwixt the living and the dead!
The buried and unburied, both are Death’s. He ranks alike the beggar and the king; Thersites sits by fair-haired Thetis’ son. Naked and withered roam the fleeting shades Together through the fields of asphodel.
Her. Bless me, what a deluge of Homer! And now I think of it, I must show you Achilles’s tomb. There it is on the Trojan shore, at Sigeum. And across the water is Rhoeteum, where Ajax lies buried.
Ch. Rather small tombs, considering. Now show me the great cities, those that we hear talked about in Hades; Nineveh, Babylon, Mycenae, Cleonae, and Troy itself. I shipped numbers across from there, I remember. For ten years running I had no time to haul my boat up and clean it.
Her. Why, as to Nineveh, it is gone, friend, long ago, and has left no trace behind it; there is no saying whereabouts it may have been. But there is Babylon, with its fine battlements and its enormous wall. Before long it will be as hard to find as Nineveh. As to Mycenae and Cleonae, I am ashamed to show them to you, let alone Troy. You will throttle Homer, for certain, when you get back, for puffing them so. They were prosperous cities, too, in their day; but they have gone the way of all flesh. Cities, my friend, die, just like men; stranger still, so do rivers! Inachus is gone from Argos — not a puddle left.
Ch. Oh, Homer, Homer! You and your ‘holy Troy,’ and your ‘city of broad streets,’ and your ‘strong-walled Cleonae’! — By the way, what is that battle going on over there? What are they murdering one another about?
Her. It is between the Argives and the Lacedaemonians. The general who lies there half-dead, writing an inscription on the trophy with his own blood, is Othryades.
Ch. And what were they fighting for?
Her. For the field of battle, neither more nor less.
Ch. The fools! Not to know that though each one of them should win to himself a whole Peloponnesus, he will get but a bare foot of ground from Aeacus! As to yonder plain, one nation will till it after another, and many a time will that trophy be turned up by the plough.
Her. Even so. And now let us get down, and put these mountains to rights again. After which, I must be off on my errand, and you back to your ferry. You will see me there before long, with the day’s contingent of shades.
Ch. I am much obliged to you, Hermes; the service shall be perpetuated in my records. Thanks to you, my outing has been a success. Dear, dear, what a world it is! — And never a word of Charon!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52