Pyramus and Thisbe. The next tale, which is much more tragic, comes from Ovid. There were two young lovers named Pyramus and Thisbe who lived in Babylon, in houses that shared a common wall. They wanted to get married but their parents forbade it. Pyramus and Thisbe discover a crack in the wall between them, and they whisper loving words back and forth to each other.
Many of these stories, like that of Psyche and Cupid, come from Roman writers who sought tales of love – even tragic love – that were less existentially depressing than the stories of the Greek tragedians. The wall becomes another famous obstacle to love.
Eventually they decide to elope, and they plan to meet outside the city beneath a mulberry tree (whose berries are, in this story, still white). Thisbe gets there first, but while she waits a lioness appears with bloody jaws. Thisbe flees and drops her cloak, and the lion tears it apart. Then Pyramus arrives, sees the bloody cloak and the lion’s tracks, and thinks that Thisbe has been killed.
This story is a precursor to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and an archetypal tale of tragic young lovers killing themselves over a misunderstanding.
Despairing, Pyramus kills himself with his sword, and his blood covers the berries of the mulberry tree and stains them red. Then Thisbe returns and sees Pyramus’s body, and she plunges the same sword into her own body. The gods take pity on the dead lovers, and they keep the red fruit of the mulberry as a reminder of their tragic story.
Even in this tragic story, love is rewarded with a famous myth and a memorial in the red mulberries. This is another example of the deaths of beautiful youths being associated with plants.
Orpheus and Eurydice. This story comes from Virgil and Ovid, and introduces Orpheus, the son of one of the nine Muses and the greatest musician among mortals. Orpheus grows up in Thrace, and the music of his lyre deeply moves anyone – whether mortal, god, animal, or inanimate object – who hears it. Once he even overpowers the deadly song of the Sirens and saves the Argonauts.
Orpheus is a prime example of the Greek value of beauty, though in his case it is beauty in music and art. Like the great physical beauty of Narcissus or Psyche, his musical talent is a powerful resource that can be used for sorrow or happiness. The gentle artist is another kind of hero as well.
Orpheus marries a woman named Eurydice, but immediately after the wedding she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus’s grief is unbearable, and he uses the power of his music to pass by Cerberus and enter the gates of Hades to try and bring Eurydice back. Orpheus even draws tears from Pluto’s eyes, and he convinces him to release Eurydice, but on one condition – Eurydice must walk behind Orpheus on the journey back to earth, and Orpheus cannot turn to look at her.
Love is stronger than death, as other myths have shown, but here music and beauty can be stronger than death as well. Orpheus being forbidden to look back is another arbitrary command from a god to a mortal. Whenever these rules are mentioned in the myths, it always means that they will be broken, and then the mortal punished for their disobedience.
Orpheus and Eurydice make the journey out of Hades, but just before they reach the earth Orpheus is overcome by doubt, and he looks back at Eurydice. Eurydice slips away and returns to the underworld forever. Desolate, Orpheus avoids other people and wanders the earth aimlessly, playing his music for the rocks and trees. Then one day a band of Maenads comes upon him and rips him to pieces.
Orpheus is a hero for his musical talent and his journey into Hades, but like most of the heroes he has a tragic flaw, which is often disobeying a simple, arbitrary command. The wild madness of Dionysus suddenly returns to end Orpheus’s story tragically.
Ceyx and Alcyone. Hamilton takes this story from Ovid. Ceyx is a king in Thessaly, and his wife is Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus. They love each other deeply, but one day Ceyx decides he must depart to visit the oracle. Alcyone has a premonition of disaster, and she prays to Juno to protect her husband.
These are more lovers who will be rewarded for their passion and piety, though Ceyx and Alcyone are different in that they are older and already married.
Ceyx does indeed meet disaster on his journey, as his ship is destroyed by a hurricane and Ceyx is killed. Juno is touched by Alcyone’s prayers, however, and she asks Somnus, the God of Sleep, to send Alcyone a dream explaining what happened to her husband. Alcyone wakes up grieving, and goes to a ledge overlooking the ocean.
Prophetic dreams usually come true, and Ceyx cannot escape his disastrous fate. The gods can then try to make amends as a reward for Alcyone’s love. They can never change fate, but only try to amend it after the fact.
Alcyone looks out over the water and then sees the tide bringing in her husband’s floating body. Alcyone leaps into the water, but the gods take pity on her and transform her into a bird, and they do the same for Ceyx. Since then the two fly together at all times, and the phrase “Halcyon days” comes from Alcyone’s name, and refers to one week out of the year when the seas are calm and Alcyone can lay her eggs on the smooth waters.
Another example of lovers being rewarded by being transformed into something that allows them to stay together forever. This also becomes an “explanation myth” for both seabirds and the patterns of winds and currents in the ocean.
Pygmalion and Galatea. This story comes from Ovid. Pygmalion is a young sculptor who hates women and finds fulfillment only in his art. He decides to prove the deficiencies of mortal women by making a perfect statue, and he does indeed make a beautiful statue – so beautiful that Pygmalion himself falls hopelessly in love with it.
Pygmalion, like Narcissus, is punished for rejecting love out of pride and vanity. Pygmalion, though, is rewarded in the end simply because his kind of love is more unique than most. This is another example of the sometimes arbitrary judgments of the gods.
Venus is intrigued by this new, unique kind of love, and she decides to help Pygmalion by giving his statue life. Pygmalion is overjoyed, and he names the woman Galatea. Venus herself attends their wedding, and Pygmalion and Galatea’s son Paphos later gives his name to Venus’s favorite city.
This is another story about the value of beauty and the power of beauty in art. Pygmalion suffers because of his pride, but is ultimately rewarded because he was able to create something so beautiful.
Baucis and Philemon. The next tale is also from Ovid. One day Jupiter and Mercury (Hermes) disguise themselves as mortals and descend to earth, looking for adventure. They decide to test the hospitality of the people of Phrygia. No one lets them in except for a poor old couple, Baucis and Philemon. They treat the gods like honored guests with what little they have, and offer to cook their only goose for them.
This tale emphasizes the importance of hospitality to the Greeks and their gods. The bond between guest and host is one of the sacred moral rules that many poets and playwrights will use to tragic and ironic effect in other stories.
Jupiter and Mercury then reveal themselves as gods, and they drown the rest of the people of Phrygia with a flood, sparing only Baucis and Philemon, and transforming their shack into a magnificent temple. Then they offer to grant any wish for the old couple, and Baucis and Philemon ask only that they should never have to live apart, but might die together.
This part of the story is an example of the gods justly punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous, and it also emphasizes the importance of hospitality. The love of Baucis and Philemon is also rewarded.
The gods grant this wish, and Baucis and Philemon live to an old age as priests in their temple-house. When they die, the gods transform them into two trees, an oak and a linden, growing together out of one trunk.
Most of these lover myths become explanation stories for the nature of Greece. The story also emphasizes the couple’s piety as one of their greatest virtues.
Endymion. The story of Endymion comes from the Greek poet Theocritus. Endymion is a beautiful young shepherd who Selene, the Moon, falls in love with. She kisses him one night and puts him in a magical sleep so that she can visit him whenever she wants. He remains sleeping forever, and Selene is always tormented by longing for him.
This is a rare case of the male “lover” being the powerless one and the female taking advantage of him. It is tragic because the situation does not work for either the Moon or Endymion, but it creates a sad, beautiful image.
Daphne. Ovid tells this story. Daphne is an independent young nymph who scorns marriage and loves hunting. Apollo falls in love with her and she runs away from him. Apollo pursues her relentlessly, and the panicked Daphne calls out for help to her father, the river god Pentheus, as she approaches his river. Pentheus transforms Daphne into a laurel tree before Apollo can catch her. Apollo then declares that the laurel will be his sacred tree from now on, and it now symbolizes music and victory.
This myth shows Apollo’s crueler side as he pursues Daphne against her will. Even after she is transformed she never really escapes him, as Apollo makes the laurel his sacred tree. This was seen as a reward for Daphne, as she is immortalized in legend, but in reality she is punished for refusing to be raped by a god.
Alpheus and Arethusa. This story comes from Ovid and the Alexandrian poet Moschus. Arethusa is another nymph who loves hunting and scorns love, a follower of Artemis. Like Daphne, Arethusa is also pursued by an impassioned god, but in her case it is the river god Alpheus. Just as Alpheus is about to catch her, Arethusa appeals to Artemis, and Artemis transforms her into a spring of water plunging deep into the earth.
This story is similar to Daphne’s. Both women love their independence but then have it stolen by a deity. The lesson of these many similar myths seems to be that it is unfortunate to be loved by a god, and it is even worse if you reject that love. Many of the women of these stories have no agency, and are seen as mere objects of love.
Arethusa still cannot escape Alpheus, however. He changes back into a river and follows Arethusa through her tunnel so that their waters mingle together. Because of this, there is a connection between the Alpheus river in Greece and Arethusa’s well in Sicily.
Again Arethusa is “rewarded” by becoming a famous spring, but she still cannot escape her divine pursuer, so the ending of the story feels more like a punishment and less like a “lovers’ tale.”