This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
Among the Immortals were several people of whom you have not yet heard, but about whom many songs were sung and numberless tales told, not only by the shepherds of the mountain pastures, but by the huntsmen who rode with their hounds through the leafy woods, in pursuit of the wild deer.
First of all were the Centaurs, marvelous creatures who were half horses, half men. Very wild they were, very strong, and gay, and free. They lived in the green glades of the deep forests, and sometimes the sound of their galloping might be heard in the hush of the noonday heat; or, under the starlight, a glimpse caught of their eyes that shone like glow worms, and of their tossing manes of human hair. How startled anyone who saw them must have been! For they had strange men’s faces with which they could peer through the branches; yet, when they took to flight, their four hoofs might clearly be seen kicking up the grass and moss as they sped away!
Sometimes they would come and fight in the armies of the different kings; now and then, if they took a fancy to a beautiful princess, they would steal her and carry her to their far-off hidden caves. Most of them knew no law but their own fancies; yet, strangely enough, one of their number, called Chiron, was a great teacher, and those kings who wanted their sons to grow up good, and brave, and wise, would send the young princes to spend their early years in fine old Chiron’s school.
Then, besides the Centaurs, there was a very odd Immortal, called Pan, who had the feet and legs not of a horse but of a goat, and who produced the loveliest music in the world from a sort of flute, made from a bunch of reeds. Pan knew all the secrets of the woods — where the nightingales nested and where the small furry rabbits were born. The hunters who went after the hares in the snow would always murmur a sort of little prayer to Pan. At one time he had been without his sweet-toned pipes, and he had come by them in a very strange manner. He had fallen in love with a beautiful nymph called Syrinx, as he saw her standing on the bank of a river; and, without waiting to see how she liked him, had sprung forward to catch her in his arms.
Of course, Syrinx was terribly startled when such a fierce-looking lover, with tangled hair, and a goat’s feet and legs, suddenly bounded out of the thicket to embrace her. She gave a loud scream and the kindly spirit of the earth on which she stood instantly turned her into a bunch of reeds. It was now Pan’s turn to be startled. He had just seized her by her pretty slender waist, and there she was, turned into a bunch of reeds in his very arms! He called to her longingly, and, behold, his voice echoed through the reeds with the most delicate melody possible, like thrushes and linnets and willow warblers all making music together. Pan caught his breath with surprise and delight and called into the bunch of reeds a second time, very softly indeed. Again they gave back their pretty music. He was so pleased that he sat down by the riverbank, bound the reeds together with wax, and went on playing with them until nightfall. By that time, he had forgotten all about Syrinx and thought of nothing but the music of his reeds. And from that day to this he has made melody with them, wandering happily along the margins of the rivers, or through the meadows deep in summer flowers.
Sometimes Pan’s music would be interrupted by much gayer sounds — timbrels, and bells, and tambourines. Then, down the moonlit glades would come a rollicking company of merrymakers, laughing, shouting, and dancing around a beautiful youth, with a crown of vine leaves on his hair, who sat in a wonderful car drawn by wild beasts. Sometimes these beasts were lions; sometimes they were panthers; and sometimes they were tawny leopards with spots all over their skins. This youth was Bacchus, and he had grown up in a cave among the wood nymphs. He was a great friend of Pan’s, for he had known the man who was half a goat from the time when Pan, as a little baby, had been carried down from Olympus in Hermes’s arms, cozily wrapped up in the warm skins of mountain hares. In fact, Pan and Bacchus were rather alike in some ways — in their love of music and laughter and the dances of fairies in moonlit forest glades. But, while Pan spent many lonely hours afoot on the snowy hillcrests and among the rushing torrents, Bacchus never liked to be alone. He always wanted his friends to be singing and shouting around him as he drove about the woodlands in his car. He had taught his followers how to make wine out of grapes, and that was the reason he wore vine leaves in his hair.
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
Another man, who was also half a goat, had been the tutor of Bacchus when he was a little boy in the cave among the wood nymphs. This tutor’s name was Silenus, and he used to ride alongside the car of his pupil, mounted on a prancing wild ass. The woodlands must have been marvelous places in those days, what with the galloping Centaurs, and the exquisite pipes of Pan, and the songs of Bacchus and his merry crowd of friends!
Once, when Bacchus was not much more than a boy, he had a very strange adventure. He was sitting on the rocks by the sea, with the sun shining on his thick, dark hair and his purple robe, when a ship came sailing along over the sparkling waters. In the ship were a company of pirates who, when they saw this handsome youth, thought he must certainly be the king’s son. So they sprang ashore and kidnapped him, thinking they would be sure to get a large ransom for so grand a prince. But, when they tried to put bonds on his hands and feet, the cords fell away; and Bacchus just sat still, smiling quietly to himself, in the bows of the vessel.
Then the helmsman understood, and cried out to his fellow pirates:
“Madmen! You have captured no human prince, but one of the Shining Immortals! No ship will carry him away! Put him ashore before it is too late!”
But the captain of the ship laughed at the helmsman and ordered all sails set, to catch the wind.
“This is a rich prince whom we have kidnapped!” said he. “We will make him tell us where his money is, and steal it for ourselves!”
The pirates had just begun to hoist the sails when a marvelous thing happened. First of all, the whole ship began to run with sweet, fragrant wine. Then, out of the top of the mast, a vine commenced to grow, spreading its green leaves and purple bunches of grapes among the black pirate sails. After that, long trails of ivy were seen to be twining themselves below the vine, mingling their black berries with the grapes. Garlands of flowers appeared in other parts of the ship; and, instead of the prince whom they thought they had captured, the terrified crew saw a great lion standing in the bows.
As he stood there, roaring loudly, a second wild beast, in the form of a bear, suddenly appeared amidships; and then, across the waves, came riding a great company of the followers of Bacchus, all mounted on forest animals, and all singing and shouting at the very top of their voices. Never was so strange a sight seen on the high seas before.
While the pirates stood still, frozen with fear, staring at all these wonders, the lion sprang upon the captain and killed him. Then the terrified crew tried to escape. As there was nowhere for them to go, except the sea itself, they all flung themselves headfirst into the water. And, no sooner had their bodies touched the ripples than they were, everyone, turned into dolphins. So there they were, with big heads, and goggling eyes, and curly tails; while the wild friends of Bacchus, seated astride their panthers and tigers and asses, plunged and splashed and shouted on the top of the waves, and the purple wine poured from the deck of the ship and mixed with the clear, salt water of the ocean! Through it all the bunches of grapes which hung from the mast swayed in the breeze, and the yellow-maned lion stood in the bows and roared with all its might.
But when the helmsman —who had not at once thrown himself into the sea with the other pirates— was about to follow their example, the lion turned back again into a beautiful youth and prevented him, saying:
“No, no! You must not be afraid! I am indeed one of the Shining People. My name is Bacchus, and I will make you a happy, fortunate man forever.”