This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
You have come to understand, by this time, that the Shining People were the greatest magicians that ever came, with their enchantments, among the human beings who walk the world. It would take dozens of books to tell you of even half their deeds. But certainly one of the most wonderful of all was something that Aphrodite did for a king called Pygmalion.
This king did not care about fighting, like other monarchs who lived near. Nor did he want to hunt, nor feast, nor show his strength in the great games that everybody played. Instead, he was always carving, either in ivory or marble. He said he would never marry, for the maidens he carved with his marvelous chisel were more beautiful than any princess he was ever likely to meet. So he shut himself up in his studio and worked at his creations in dreamy solitude.
Then, one day, he carved the statue of a maiden that was lovelier than any sculptor had ever made. It had rounded, delicate limbs, dainty hands and feet, and a face full of sweetness and charm. Pygmalion looked at it for a long, long time when he had finished. And, while he looked, he positively fell in love with it.
What despair, yet what delight, the poor king felt! To be deeply in love with an ivory statue was a hopeless affair; yet he was proud that anything so beautiful should be the work of his own hands. He kissed her pretty slender fingers, her still feet, and even her curved, quiet mouth. He hung jewels about her rounded neck, and soft fragrant silks upon her white shoulders. All among her chiseled hair he wound wreaths of real blossoms, red roses, purple windflowers, and jessamine like little stars. He brought in birds from the forest to sing to her, and he made her a golden bed. How sweet the flowers smelled when he went to visit his ivory lady in the twilight! How pure and good her face looked in the dusk! But how silent her pale lips were, and how unseeing her creamy-lidded eyes!
At last, poor Pygmalion began to fade away for love of his statue. So he went to the temple, where a great feast was being held in honor of Aphrodite. There he stood before a fire which burned fragrantly, sending little clouds of rosy smoke floating through the pillars; while crowds of people stood around, singing about the lady of love. And, as he stood there, he sang a special song to Aphrodite himself.
“Sweet immortal!” sang Pygmalion, very softly. “Lady of love! I have carved a statue from my dreams. It is in the form of a maiden, such a maiden as was never seen before! I have named her Galatea! I love her as I shall never love any mortal. Sweetest lady of the Shining Ones, give my lady life!”
As Pygmalion finished singing, he saw a wonderful sight. The little fire before which he stood, which had glowed fragrantly through his song, suddenly sent up a slender tongue of high, clear flame — once, twice, thrice! Pygmalion’s heart leaped in answer to the flame. He felt sure that this was Aphrodite’s reply.
He almost ran home in his excitement and hurried to his studio at full speed. Opening the door, he looked eagerly at the statue of his fair maiden as she stood there in her meek stillness, the flowers resting on her head, the long rich robes gleaming about her quiet form. All at once a little tremble ran through her, the flowers quivered as if a breeze shook them, and the silken hems stirred about her feet. Then her eyelids flickered, her head moved, and her fingers unclasped themselves, as if she were a child awaking from sleep. Life came into her beautiful face — and with life came immediate love. Before Pygmalion could speak or move, he saw his Galatea step down, slowly and dreamily, from her pedestal, and come toward him holding out her hands!
With a cry of joy, the king caught the maiden to him, and, as he kissed her lips, he felt them soft and warm. Aphrodite had granted his wish and had given the statue life.
So Pygmalion married his lovely ivory lady and made her his queen, and they lived for many years, two of the happiest people who ever wore crowns.
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But, if Aphrodite turned a statue into a maiden, Athena once turned a maiden, not into a statue, but into a spider!
It happened this way. Arachne was a young girl who was very clever with her loom, on which she would weave most marvelous tapestries. She wove so much better than anybody else that at last she grew intolerably conceited and was always boasting of her skill. She even declared that her purple and gold embroideries were more beautiful than those of Athena herself.
One day, when Arachne was boasting more loudly than usual, she suddenly heard a little grunt at her elbow. Looking around, she saw a queer old woman, rather like a witch, who was leaning on a long stick and staring hard at Arachne’s latest tapestry. The old lady grunted again and shook her white-haired head.
“Boastful! Too boastful!” she muttered. “This will never do!”
Then she looked full at Arachne, and went on, more loudly:
“So you think your work is finer than that of Athena, do you?”
“There is no doubt that it is!” answered Arachne. “If she herself does not think so, why does she not come down from Olympus and show me that she can do better?”
“She will show you!” exclaimed the old lady angrily. And, lo and behold! her stick turned into a spear, her hood into a helmet, and her ragged cloak fell off and showed her shining breastplate and rich tunic. The old woman was Athena herself!
“Now,” said the indignant immortal lady, “bring me another loom, and we will begin!”
So another loom was set up by the side of Arachne’s, and she and Athena began to weave, the sound of their shuttles mingling with the song of the swallows under the eaves. The shining visitor from Olympus wove a marvelous design, showing all the great things that the immortals had done. But Arachne, full of conceit and mischief, made a great picture, in many-colored threads, of the silly quarrels and jealousies of the Shining Ones, turning them, one by one, into ridicule! When she had finished, she showed her work to Athena, laughing in the great lady’s face!
Now, was she not a rash and foolish maiden? Athena gave a cry of anger, and, seizing the tapestry, tore it to pieces. Then she threatened to do such terrible things to Arachne that the poor girl, proud no longer, thought she had really better be dead than alive, and took a rope with which to hang herself! Athena, however, would not even allow her to die. Sprinkling Arachne with some magical oil, she turned the rope into a long, delicate, silken thread. Arachne, who was already dangling at the end of it, felt her body becoming small, round, and hairy! Her arms disappeared, and she grew eight legs instead of her own two pretty ones! Her eyes started out on either side of her head, and her skin went hard and brown. She ran up the silken thread as fast as she could, and sat down in a little gossamer web that she found at the top! And there she sat, spinning and weaving forever, for Athena had turned her into a spider! Whenever you see a spider spinning its web among the ivy leaves now, you will always think of Arachne.
And when you see the bluebells in the spring woods, you can remember another story — the story of Hyacinth. He was a handsome and noble youth, and Apollo himself came down from Olympus to make friends with him. They used to play at quoits together; but one day, Zephyr, the spirit of the west breeze, passed by and became very angry. He was always rather jealous of Apollo, and he wanted himself to play at quoits with handsome Hyacinth. So he sent a great puff of wind which caught Apollo’s quoit and blew it right against poor Hyacinth’s head. The youth sank down like a broken flower, and Apollo, catching him in his arms, saw that he was dying. The great Sun Spirit, in deep distress, tried to staunch his mortal playmate’s blood; but he could not save Hyacinth. So he turned all the drops, as they fell, into lovely blue flowers, which soon began to nod their fragrant heads among the shine and shadow of the wood where the two friends had laughed and run together at their games, while Zephyr, heart-broken at what he had done, moved softly among the blossoms and carried their perfume far and wide through the fields.
Another spring flower there is on those Greek mountains which also blooms in memory of a beautiful youth. Adonis was a hunter, very bold and daring, and one day he came across a fierce wild boar in the forest. He chased it eagerly through the glades with his long spear; but, just as he came near enough to kill it, the great beast turned on him and drove its ivory tusk into his side. With a cry, he sank down, and Aphrodite, who loved Adonis very tenderly for the sake of his beauty, heard the cry and instantly turned her snowy doves in the direction of the sound. But she was too late: the spirit of Adonis had been led away to the shadowed garden of Persephone.
In despair, Aphrodite hurried through the glades toward Olympus, and the tears which fell from her eyes unheeded turned into delicately blue anemones, with petals like fairy silk. At the same time, the blood which flowed from the wound of Adonis turned also into anemone blossoms, as scarlet as the drops themselves. When Aphrodite reached Olympus, she begged Zeus to let Adonis return to Earth; and the king said that he might come back for six months every year, like Persephone herself.
Sometimes, too, in Greece, you may see beautiful cypress trees, planted to shade people’s graves. The first cypress tree had once been a youth as handsome as Hyacinth, who loved Apollo just as much. He killed Apollo’s pet stag, by accident, and pined away with remorse, so Apollo changed him into a cypress, dark-boughed, faithful, and strong.
There is a delicately-flowering shrub, too, called Daphne. This pretty bush was once a maiden whom Apollo loved and wanted to make love him in return. But she was frightened and ran away, and, when Apollo pursued her and tried to kiss her, she turned into a bush.
These are some of the wonderful things on the Greek mountains, where Glaucus and Poseidon peep up through the sparkling waters of the bays. Pan pipes to the goats and hares; and the reeds by the river where Midas bathed gleam with gold. Zephyr plays softly in the dawn with the hyacinth bells, and the crown of Ariadne sparkles in the evening sky.