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A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin


 

 

THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH

[29] THE next morning, before the sun had risen, the voyagers launched their ship again, and sailed out of the little harbor into the long bay of Crissa. And Pallas Athené sent the west wind early, to help them forward on their way; and they spread their sail, and instead of longer hugging the shore, they ventured boldly out into the middle of the bay. All day long the ship held on its course, skimming swiftly through the waves like a great white-winged bird; and those on board beguiled the hours with song and story as on the day before. But when the evening came, they were far from land; and the captain said that as the water was deep, and he knew the sea quite well, they would not put into port, but would sail straight on all night. And so, when the sun had gone down, and the moon had risen, flooding earth and sea with her pure, soft light, Odysseus wrapped his warm cloak about him, and lay down again to rest upon his bed of skins between the rowers' benches. But the helmsman stood at his place, and guided the vessel over the shadowy [30] waves; and through the watches of the night, the west wind filled the sails, and the dark keel of the little bark ploughed the waters, and Pallas Athené blessed the voyage.

When, at length, the third morning came, and Helios arose at summons of the Dawn, Odysseus awoke. To his great surprise, he heard no longer the rippling of the waves upon the vessel's sides, nor the flapping of the sail in the wind, nor yet the rhythmic dipping of the oars into the sea. He listened, and the sound of merry laughter came to his ears, and he heard the twittering of many birds, and the far-away bleating of little lambs. He rubbed his eyes, and sat up, and looked about him. The ship was no longer floating on the water, but had been drawn high up on a sandy beach; and the crew were sitting beneath an olive tree, at no great distance from the shore, listening to the melodies with which a strangely-garbed shepherd welcomed on his flute the coming of another day.

Odysseus arose quickly and leaped out upon the beach. Then it was that a scene of beauty and quiet grandeur met his gaze,—a scene, the like of which had never entered his thoughts nor visited his dreams. He saw, a few miles to the northward, a group of high mountains whose summits towered above the clouds; and highest among them all were twin peaks whose snow-crowned tops seemed but little lower than the skies themselves. And as the light of the newly risen sun gilded the gray crags, and painted the rocky slopes, [31] and shone bright among the wooded uplands, the whole scene appeared like a living picture, glorious with purple and gold and azure, and brilliant with sparkling gems.

"Is it not truly a fitting place for the home of beauty and music, the dwelling of Apollo, and the favored haunt of the Muses?" asked Phemius, drawing near, and observing the boy's wondering delight.

"Indeed it is," said Odysseus, afraid to turn his eyes away, lest the enchanting vision should vanish like a dream. "But is that mountain really Parnassus, and is our journey so nearly at an end?"

"Yes," answered the bard, "that peak which towers highest toward the sky is great Parnassus, the centre of the earth; and in the rocky cleft which you can barely see between the twin mountains, stands sacred Delphi and the favored temple of Apollo. Lower down, and on the other side of the mountain, is the white-halled dwelling of old Autolycus, your mother's father. Although the mountain seems so near, it is yet a long and toilsome journey thither,—a journey which we must make on foot, and by pathways none the safest. Come, let us join the sailors under the olive tree; and when we have breakfasted, we will begin our journey to Parnassus."

The strange shepherd had killed the fattest sheep of his flock, and had roasted the choicest parts upon a bed of burning coals; and when Odysseus and his tutor came to the olive tree, they found a breakfast fit indeed for kings, set out ready before them.

[32] "Welcome, noble strangers," said the shepherd; "welcome to the land most loved of the Muses. I give you of the best of all that I have, and I am ready to serve you and do your bidding."

Phemius thanked the shepherd for his kindness; and while they sat upon the grass, and ate of the pleasant food which had been provided, he asked the simple swain many questions about Parnassus.

"I have heard that Parnassus is the hub around which the great earth-wheel is built. Is it really true?"

"A long, long time ago," answered the man, "there were neither any shepherds nor sheep in Hellas, and not even the gods knew where the centre of the earth had been put. Some said that it was at Mount Olympus, where Zeus sits in his great house with all the deathless ones around him. Others said that it was in Achaia; and others still, in Arcadia, now the land of shepherds; and some, who, it seems to me, had lost their wits, said that it was not in Hellas at all, but in a strange land beyond the western sea. In order that he might know the truth, great Zeus one day took two eagles, both of the same strength and swiftness, and said, 'These birds shall tell us what even the gods do not know.' Then he carried one of the eagles to the far east, where the Dawn rises out of Ocean's bed; and he carried the other to the far west where Helios and his sun-car sink into the waves; and he clapped his hands together, and the thunder rolled, and the swift birds flew at the same moment to meet each [33] other; and right above the spot where Delphi stands, they came together, beak to beak, and both fell dead to the ground. 'Behold! there is the centre of the earth,' said Zeus. And all the gods agreed that he was right."

"Do you know the best and shortest road to Delphi?" asked Phemius.

"No one knows it better than I," was the answer. "When I was a boy I fed my sheep at the foot of Parnassus; and my father and grandfather lived there, long before the town of Delphi was built, or there was any temple there for Apollo. Shall I tell you how men came to build a temple at that spot?"

"Yes, tell us," said Odysseus. "I am anxious to know all about it."

"You must not repeat my story to the priests at Delphi," said the shepherd, speaking now in a lower tone. "For they have quite a different way of telling it, and they would say that I have spoken lightly of sacred things. There was a time when only shepherds lived on the mountain slopes, and there were neither priests nor warriors nor robbers in all this land. My grandfather was one of those happy shepherds; and he often pastured his flocks on the broad terrace where the town of Delphi now stands, and where the two eagles, which I have told you about, fell to the ground. One day, a strange thing happened to him. A goat which was nibbling the grass from the sides of a little crevice in the rock, fell into a fit, and lay bleating and helpless [34] upon the ground. My grandfather ran to help the beast; but as he stooped down, he too fell into a fit, and he saw strange visions, and spoke prophetic words. Some other shepherds who were passing by saw his plight, and lifted him up; and as soon as he breathed the fresh air, he was himself again.

"Often after this, the same thing happened to my grandfather's goats; and when he had looked carefully into the matter, he found that a warm, stifling vapor issued at times from the crevice, and that it was the breathing of this vapor which had caused his goats and even himself to lose their senses. Then other men came; and they learned that by sitting close to the crevice, and inhaling its vapor, they gained the power to foresee things, and the gift of prophecy came to them. And so they set a tripod over the crevice for a seat, and they built a temple—small at first—over the tripod; and they sent for the wisest maidens in the land to come and sit upon the tripod, and breathe the strange vapor, so that they could tell what was otherwise hidden from human knowledge. Some say that the vapor is the breath of a python, or great serpent; and they call the priestess who sits upon the tripod Pythia. But I know nothing about that."

"Are you sure," asked Phemius, "that it was your grandfather who first found that crevice in the rock?"

"I am not quite sure," said the shepherd. "But I heard the story when I was a little child, and I know that it was either my grandfather or my grandfather's [35] grandfather. At any rate, it all happened many, many years ago."

By this time they had finished their meal; and after they had given thanks to the powers who had thus far kindly prospered them, they hastened to renew their journey. Two of the oarsmen, who were landsmen as well as seamen, were to go with them to carry their luggage and the little presents which Laertes had sent to the priests at Delphi. The shepherd was to be their guide; and a second shepherd was to keep them company, so as to help them in case of need.

The sun was high over their heads when they were ready to begin their long and toilsome walk. The road at first was smooth and easy, winding through meadows and orchards and shady pastures. But very soon the way became steep and uneven, and the olive trees gave place to pines, and the meadows to barren rocks. The little company toiled bravely onward, however, the two shepherds leading the way and cheering them with pleasant melodies on their flutes, while the two sailors with their heavy loads followed in the rear.

It was quite late in the day when they reached the sacred town of Delphi, nestling in the very bosom of Parnassus. The mighty mountain wall now rose straight up before them, seeming to reach even to the clouds. The priests who kept the temple met them on the outskirts of the town, and kindly welcomed them for the sake of King Laertes, whom they knew and had seen; and they besought the wayfarers to abide for some time [36] in Delphi. Nor, indeed, would Phemius have thought of going farther until he had prayed to bright Apollo, and offered rich gifts at his shrine, and questioned the Pythian priestess about the unknown future.

And so Odysseus and his tutor became the honored guests of the Delphian folk; and they felt that surely they were now at the very centre of the world. Their hosts dealt so kindly with them, that a whole month passed, and still they were in Delphi. And as they talked with the priests in the temple, or listened to the music of the mountain nymphs, or drank sweet draughts of wisdom from the Castalian spring, they every day found it harder and harder to tear themselves away from the delightful place.


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