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THE BLACK STEEDS OF AIDONEUS
HEY lived for the most of the time in a land of dread,
deep down in the earth, where the light of the sun
could not reach them; and that, it may be, is what made
them so dark. Men said that they were as black as coal,
as ink, as tar, as the ace of spades. But they were so
strong and swift and proud, and their eyes were so
bright, and their coats were so sleek, that no one
could see them and not wish to have them for his own.
And yet so sharp of tooth, so light of heel, so full of
fire were they, that it would have been worth your life
to touch them. King Aidoneus kept them in stalls of
gold that he had built for them near the banks of the
stream which is called the Styx, and there he fed them
and cared for them with his own hands.
Since in all his realms there was no light of the sun,
nor smiles of friends, nor joy of life,—naught but
tears and the shades of night,—Aidoneus liked at times
to come up to the world of
 love and hope to see what
kind of cheer he might find there. And so now and then
men caught sight of him in a cloud-like car drawn by
his four coal-black steeds, which flew through the air
with the speed of the wind, or pranced and reared on
the edge of some steep cliff, or leaped down from the
top of some far-off height. And the tales which they
told of his deeds were such as fill the heart with
fear; for they said that his breath was cold as the
blast of the north wind, or else hot as the fire that
leaps from Mount Etna's mouth; and cloud and storm, and
hail and snow, and dire pain and dread—all these he
brought to the earth in the wake of his swift car and
Now one day in the late fall, when the frost had not
yet touched the leaves, and the fields were still
bright with bloom, he thought that he would ride out
and see some of the fair things that had been born of
the earth and the sun. He rode up by way of Mount Etna,
and out through the smoke and clouds that poured from
its top, and looked down toward the green fields of
Enna, not far from its base. Then, with a sharp word to
his team, he drove in great haste down the steep
slopes, and paused not till he reached the plain.
 Some girls who lived near the foot of Mount Etna had
gone out to spend the day in the fields, and with them
was a fair young maid named Persephone, the child of
Dame Demeter. The sun was warm, the sky was fair, the
grass was soft. The girls, free as the wild birds of
the wood, ran here and there, and dreamed of no harm.
At length Persephone, tired of play, sat down on a
stone to rest; but the others went on, and were soon
out of sight. Then all at once she heard a strange
sound as of huge wheels and the tramp of hoofs, and ere
she had time to run home to the safe arms of Dame
Demeter, a black car drawn by four coal-black steeds
was at her side. In the car stood a tall, sad-faced
man, who wore a crown of gold on his head. Persephone
screamed and stood still—it was all that she could do.
Then she was caught up in the strong arms of Aidoneus,
who, swinging his long whip in the air, cried out to
"On, Eton, thou who art swift as birds on the wing! On,
Nonios, thou whom no flash of light can outspeed! On,
Abatos; no storm is so fleet as thou, no thought can
run so fast! On, Abastor; race thou with the stars that
shoot through the sky! Speed ye all! Speed ye all! "
 And the wild steeds, urged thus by lash and speech,
flew through the air, as it were, and climbed up, up,
up the steep slopes of Etna, and paused not till they
stood on the edge of the great black cup and the flue
whence smoke and blue flames came up from the dim
depths of Aidoneus's realm. Poor Persephone shrieked,
and tried to leap out of the car; but the stern old
King soothed her fears with kind words, and told her
that so long as she would stay with him she should be
safe from harm. Then a sheet of flame shot up and shut
out the light of day, and the steeds, the car, the
King, and the maid went down, down, down, and were seen
When the news was brought to good Dame Demeter that her
child was lost, she did not faint nor cry out in her
great grief and fear, for she was too brave and wise
for that. But she went out at once in search of the
maid, and vowed that she would find her or come back no
more. With a black veil wound round her head, and with
a torch in her hand, she crossed the seas, and went
from land to land, and asked all that dwelt on the
earth if they had seen her child. For a whole year she
searched in vain. Then she thought
 that she would go to
Helios, him who drives the sun-car through the skies,
and ask him.
"Great Helios," she said, "I know that your eye takes
in all the world, and that the deeds of both gods and
men are known to you. Tell me, I pray you, have you
seen my lost child Persephone?"
Kind Helios was glad that she had come to him. Yes, he
had seen Persephone. As chance would have it, he had
seen Aidoneus when he rushed out from Etna; he had seen
him lift the child from the ground and place her in his
black car; he had seen the last wild leap down Mount
"She is with Aidoneus," said he; "and he has made her
the queen of his dark realms. But he would not have
seized her as he did had he not had leave of Zeus, the
king of gods and men."
Then Dame Demeter gave way to her grief and rage; and
she sent word to Zeus that no fruits nor grain should
grow in all the world so long as Aidoneus kept
Persephone in his halls. For it was Dame Demeter, men
said, who gave life to the trees and plants, and made
them bloom and bear fruit. Zeus and the gods that were
with him knew that the dame would be as good as her
 word, and the thought filled them with fear. If there
should be no food for men, save flesh and fish, they
would soon be as wild as they were in the old, old
time, and would care naught for the gods.
"It is hard to have to give up to her whims," said
great Zeus; "but the best that we can do is to fetch
Persephone back to her."
And so he bade Hermes, him who had the winged feet, to
go down to the halls of Aidoneus and bring the lost
Aidoneus was glad to see Hermes, but he frowned when he
learned why he had come.
"Do you not know the law?" he asked.
"There is a law which none of the gods—no, not
yourself, nor even Zeus—can break. I will read it to
you." And he took a black book from the shelf on the
wall, and, when he had found the place, read these
"That one, be it god or man, maid or child, who tastes
food while in the realms of Aidoneus, shall not go out
therefrom so long as the world stands."
Then Hermes asked Persephone if food had passed her
lips since the day that Aidoneus had
 brought her to his
halls. And the maid told him that she had been too sad
to think of food; yet once, as she stood on the bank of
the Styx, she had plucked some bright red fruit that
"Did you taste it?"
"Yes, I took just one small bite, and then threw it far
Aidoneus clapped his hands with glee.
"What kind of bright red fruit grows on the banks of
the Styx?" asked Hermes.
"Pomegranates," said the King.
"But what is a pomegranate?" asked Hermes. "It is a
poor kind of food. At the best, not more than one third
of it is fit to eat. The rest is skin and seeds."
And so he took Persephone back to Dame Demeter, and
said that for eight months of each year she should live
on the glad green earth; but that for four months
Aidoneus might claim her as his queen. Hence it is that
so long as the grains of corn lie dead in the ground,
Persephone stays in the drear realms of Aidoneus. But
when the stalks begin to grow and the buds of the fruit
trees to burst, then the sad-faced King comes in his
dark cloud-car, drawn by his
 four night-black steeds,
to bring Persephone back to Dame Demeter's door. And
there the fair maid lives all through the spring and
the warm months of the year, till at last the chill
days of the late fall bring snow and ice and hoar
frost. Then comes Aidoneus on the wings of the
storm-cloud, with Eton, swift as birds, and Nonios,
quick as light, and Abatos, fleet as thought, and
Abastor, who outspeeds the stars. And they bear the
maid up Etna's slopes, and are lost to sight in the
smoke and blue flames.
And now each year, when the leaves fall and the days
grow cold, dark clouds are sure to come. They hide the
sky and chill the air and drive joy from the fields and
woods. You may see them as they sweep along, blown by
wild gusts of wind, with snow and hail and driving
sleet in their train.
Bas-relief from an arch in Rome.
Do you know what these clouds are? Look and you will
They are, in truth, the four black steeds of Aidoneus,
and the dark car, and the sad-faced King; and they bear
Persephone to the shades deep down in the earth. But in
four months there-from the sun will call; the seeds in
the ground will sprout and grow; the buds will swell
 burst; the dark clouds will come with the winds, as
of yore, but this time they will bring life in their
train. The fair Queen will come home in the car that is
drawn by the four black steeds of Aidoneus.