Our Heracles is known among the Gauls under the local name of Ogmius; and the appearance he presents in their pictures is truly grotesque. They make him out as old as old can be: the few hairs he has left (he is quite bald in front) are dead white, and his skin is wrinkled and tanned as black as any old salt’s. You would take him for some infernal deity, for Charon or Iapetus — any one rather than Heracles. Such as he is, however, he has all the proper attributes of that God: the lion’s-skin hangs over his shoulders, his right hand grasps the club, his left the strung bow, and a quiver is slung at his side; nothing is wanting to the Heraclean equipment.
Now I thought at first that this was just a cut at the Greek Gods; that in taking these liberties with the personal appearance of Heracles, the Gauls were merely exacting pictorial vengeance for his invasion of their territory; for in his search after the herds of Geryon he had overrun and plundered most of the peoples of the West. However, I have yet to mention the most remarkable feature in the portrait. This ancient Heracles drags after him a vast crowd of men, all of whom are fastened by the ears with thin chains composed of gold and amber, and looking more like beautiful necklaces than anything else. From this flimsy bondage they make no attempt to escape, though escape must be easy. There is not the slightest show of resistance: instead of planting their heels in the ground and dragging back, they follow with joyful alacrity, singing their captor’s praises the while; and from the eagerness with which they hurry after him to prevent the chains from tightening, one would say that release is the last thing they desire. Nor will I conceal from you what struck me as the most curious circumstance of all. Heracles’s right hand is occupied with the club, and his left with the bow: how is he to hold the ends of the chains? The painter solves the difficulty by boring a hole in the tip of the God’s tongue, and making that the means of attachment; his head is turned round, and he regards his followers with a smiling countenance.
For a long time I stood staring at this in amazement: I knew not what to make of it, and was beginning to feel somewhat nettled, when I was addressed in admirable Greek by a Gaul who stood at my side, and who besides possessing a scholarly acquaintance with the Gallic mythology, proved to be not unfamiliar with our own. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I see this picture puzzles you: let me solve the riddle. We Gauls connect eloquence not with Hermes, as you do, but with the mightier Heracles. Nor need it surprise you to see him represented as an old man. It is the prerogative of eloquence, that it reaches perfection in old age; at least if we may believe your poets, who tell us that
Youth is the sport of every random gust,
whereas old age
Hath that to say that passes youthful wit.
Thus we find that from Nestor’s lips honey is distilled; and that the words of the Trojan counsellors are compared to the lily, which, if I have not forgotten my Greek, is the name of a flower. Hence, if you will consider the relation that exists between tongue and ear, you will find nothing more natural than the way in which our Heracles, who is Eloquence personified, draws men along with their ears tied to his tongue. Nor is any slight intended by the hole bored through that member: I recollect a passage in one of your comic poets in which we are told that
There is a hole in every glib tongue’s tip.
Indeed, we refer the achievements of the original Heracles, from first to last, to his wisdom and persuasive eloquence. His shafts, as I take it, are no other than his words; swift, keen-pointed, true-aimed to do deadly execution on the soul.’ And in conclusion he reminded me of our own phrase, ‘winged words.’
Now while I was debating within myself the advisability of appearing before you, and of submitting myself for a second time to the verdict of this enormous jury, old as I am, and long unused to lecturing, the thought of this Heracles portrait came to my relief. I had been afraid that some of you would consider it a piece of youthful audacity inexcusable in one of my years. ‘Thy force,’ some Homeric youth might remark with crushing effect, ‘is spent; dull age hath borne thee down’; and he might add, in playful allusion to my gouty toes,
Slow are thy steeds, and weakness waits upon thee.
But the thought of having that venerable hero to keep me in countenance emboldens me to risk everything: I am no older than he. Good-bye, then, to bodily perfections, to strength and speed and beauty; Love, when he sees my grey beard, is welcome to fly past, as the poet of Teos 81 has it, with rush of gilded wings; ’tis all one to Hippoclides. Old age is Wisdom’s youth, the day of her glorious flower: let her draw whom she can by the ears; let her shoot her bolts freely; no fear now lest the supply run short. There is the old man’s comfort, on the strength of which he ventures to drag down his boat, which has long lain high and dry, provision her as best he may, and once more put out to sea.
Never did I stand in more need of a generous breeze, to fill my sails and speed me on my way: may the Gods dispose you to contribute thereto; so shall I not be found wanting, and of me, as of Odysseus, it shall be said
How stout a thigh lurked ‘neath the old man’s rags!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52