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Nefele

 

PHRIXUS AND HELLE

 

One mild spring day, long, long ago in those distant years when history fades into myth, a lone cloud sailed its stately course across the sky. Upon it sat a beautiful maiden. Her name was Nephele and she was a nymph of the heavens. Travelling on high she could admire the enchanting scene which spread itself beneath her. She gazed down on the wooded mountains and the green meadows, the lakes and the rivers, the islands and the lacy pattern of the coastline, and marvelled at all that beauty which the gods had showered so richly on the corner of the world which they called Greece.

 

Then, as she soared above the earth, Nephele caught sight of a city far below. Its name was Orchomenus and it was built on a rocky outcrop above the great lake of Copais. A large and beautiful building, no doubt the royal palace, stood proudly at the highest point. Impressed by its grandeur and its marble columns, the lovely nymph flew down lower to examine it more closely. The nearer she drew, the more impressed she became, until finally, unable to restrain her curiosity, she stepped lightly from the cloud and set foot on the great terrace of the palace.

 

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At that very moment, Athamas, the young king of Orchomenus, came through a door onto the same terrace. The moment he set eyes on this fair creature from the skies he stood rooted in surprise – and Nephele, too, gazed at the handsome young man in equal wonder. Then Eros, Aphrodite’s winged son, who follows all and sees all, flew invisible towards them and in an instant loosed his arrows at their hearts with unerring aim. So it was that the two young people fell in love and married, and Nephele rose no more into the skies but stayed below in Athamas’ marble palace.

 

The fruit of this union was Phrixus, and his sister Helle, two delightful children whom their happy parents loved above all others in this world. And yet, as time went by, Nephele’s happiness began to fade. So long accustomed to the freedom of the boundless air, she could not reconcile herself to the limitations of the life she now led upon the earth. Although she lived in a splendid palace, she felt herself a prisoner. She would often wander out upon the terrace, and as she gazed at the clouds which passed across the sky a great sadness would weigh upon her heart. Times came when she would half make up her mind to leave, but the moment she thought of her children the mood would pass and she would blame herself for allowing such thoughts to steal into her mind. Yet with the passage of the years her sorrow grew so deep that she would lock herself in her chamber and dissolve in bitter tears.

 

At last a day came when she could endure no longer. She had walked out on the terrace once again, and was gazing with longing at the vast canopy of the heavens when a cloud came down and floated at her feet.

 

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This time, Nephele did not hesitate for a moment. Nothing could hold her now – neither her love of children or of husband – and soon, forgetting all she had left behind her on the earth below, she was soaring free once more across the boundless azure of the skies.

 

Athamas had hardly begun to recover from this blow when an unknown girl appeared at his palace gates. The robes she wore showed that she came from a noble family, but her face was drawn with exhaustion and deep grief.

 

“My name is Ino,” she said. I was a princess of Thebes, the daughter of Cadmus. But the goddess Hera had me banished from that city. She was angry with my sister, Semele, so she punished me for good measure. Since then I have been an outcast, wandering from place to place until fortune brought me to your palace. And now I beg you, if you have any pity, let me stay by your side – even as your slave.”

 

As Ino spoke these words, Athamas said to himself, “How strange! Just as one leaves, so another arrives. Clearly, this is the will of the gods.”

 

“You have come at the right moment,” he told her. “Just as you need my help, so I need yours. You shall stay in my palace, and if you wish you may become my wife as well. All I ask is that you promise to love and care for my children, Phrixus and Helle, now that their heartless mother has abandoned them.”

 

“Even if they are not my children,” Ino replied, “it is enough that they are the children of my husband. I would be worse than ungrateful if I did not love and care for them like a real mother and a devoted wife.”

 

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And so Athamas married the daughter of Cadmus.

 

In the beginning, Ino truly loved the two children and cared for them as if they were hers. But when she gave birth to her own first child she began to pay rather less attention to them than before. When she bore a second infant her negligence increased, and when yet a third child came, her indifference hardened into hatred.

 

Phrixus and Helle led a miserable existence at Ino’s hands. They would often go out on the terrace and search the skies in the hope that they might espy their true mother seated upon some cloud, for they always continued to believe that she had not forgotten them. But in vain. Although Nephele never ceased to think of them with love, she stayed well away from the skies above Orchomenus. She could not bear the thought that down there lived her children, who longed to have her with them once again. And even if she decided to return it was now too late, for her place had been taken by another.

 

A few more years went by. Phrixus had now become a wonderfully handsome young man, and in the fresh bloom of her youth his sister Helle was as fair as a little goddess. And yet, while all the people of Orchomenus looked on them with loving pride, Ino could not even bear to set eyes upon the pair. When Athamas eventually felt the burden of the years grow heavy on his shoulders and decided to proclaim Phrixus his heir and successor, Ino’s jealous fury knew no bounds. Without, of course, letting any of her hatred betray itself to her husband, she schemed and plotted night and day to ensure that it would not be Phrixus who succeeded to the throne of Orchomenus, but her own son, Learchus.

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Finally she decided: the only way to remove the obstacle was for Nephele’s son to die. And having made up her mind, she conceived a plan as cunning as it was evil.

 

When the time to plant the corn drew near, she commanded her most trusted slaves to roast all the grain which had been kept aside for sowing; and when, as was the custom in those days, the villagers came to take the seed-corn from the palace granaries, the grain was all parched and lifeless. Suspecting nothing, the farmers ploughed their fields to a fine tilth and sowed all the rich plain. Gentle rains watered the earth, but time went by and not a single blade of wheat showed its head above the fertile dark red earth, and only a few coarse weeds broke the monotony of the endless bare expanse which stretched around Orchomenus.

 

“What has gone wrong? Why is the land not clothed in green? What will our children eat? Why are the gods punishing us?” These and many other questions sprang to the lips of the local people. And when starvation began to stalk from house to house, Athamas decided to consult the oracle at Delphi to discover what was to blame and how to turn aside the evil which had befallen them.

 

This was exactly what Ino had been waiting for. She herself chose the representatives who would be sent to Delphi; and Athamas, who suspected nothing, raised no objection. Ino’s scheme proceeded smoothly: having first bribed her chosen people royally, she gave them secret instructions to bring back an answer which she herself had prepared in advance.

 

 

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And so, when the representatives, who had not needed to go to Delphi at all, “returned” from their mission, they presented themselves at the palace before Athamas and Ino and said:

 

“Alas, we bring heavy tidings from Delphi. All the gods are angered because Phrixus has been declared heir to the throne of Orchomenus. The earth will never bear fruit again unless the son of Nephele is sacrificed to Zeus on the summit of Mount Laphystium!”

 

A thunderbolt could not have struck Athamas as hard as the news which he now heard.

 

“That I shall never permit!” he roared. “I will die myself before I let my son be harmed. And mark my words well: no-one shall learn of this oracle if you value your lives!”

 

It shall be as you say,” replied Ino smoothly, but she lost no time in revealing the secret to the women of the palace, and so it was not long before the whole of Orchomenus knew not only of the oracle, but that Athamas intended to defy it.

 

Phrixus, however, was so popular with the people that no one wished to see him die. A large crowd gathered in the market-place and began an anxious discussion.

 

“Who can be sure,” said many of them, “that after the sacrifice the earth will be fertile once again? What if we have to offer Helle, too, and after that our own children as well?”

 

“And as if all oracles come true!” added others.

 

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There were also those among them who said, “How can the gods want the blood of an innocent man?”

 

Just as it seemed that popular opinion would upset Ino’s schemes another voice broke in:

 

“Phrixus is no innocent! The gods are right to seek his punishment!” The cry had been uttered by a woman. Her name was Biadice and she was Phrixus’ aunt, having married one of his father’s brothers; but what few people knew was the extent of her cunning and malice. At this moment she was seizing the opportunity to be revenged on the unfortunate youth because he had once spurned her lustful advances. And so she now began to tell the crowd how Phrixus had allegedly made a shameless attack on her virtue, and that it was for this reason the gods were angry with him.

 

This false charge was soon known throughout Orchomenus, and the people’s hunger had brought them to such a pitch of desperation that it did not take much to persuade them of its truth and turn them against Phrixus. Until a day before, not a single one of them had wished to see him sacrificed, now they all demanded it as the only way to make the earth bear seed again.

 

Although Athamas could not bring himself to believe that Phrixus was guilty, the people could endure no more and rose against him. Angry crowds gathered outside the palace, and there were many who were ready to burst in, seize Phrixus and drag him to the place of sacrifice. And while Athamas paced back and forth in an agony of indecision, Ino decided that the time had come for her to add her voice:

 

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“You will have to decide,” she said, “and now. Everything Biadice says is the plain truth. If you doubt it, the anger of the gods is all the proof you need. The people have every right to rise against you and demand that Phrixus be led to Laphystium for punishment. Face the facts: the salvation of Orchomenus lies in your hands!”

 

Athamas saw that he had no other choice. Besides, how was he to know that the oracle was a fake? How could he have imagined that his wife could be so sly, or Biadice such a liar? And so the sacrifice was decided upon. The son of Athamas was doomed to die for the disaster he had supposedly brought upon the people of Orchomenus.

 

Phrixus accepted the news of his harsh fate with calm courage. Although he stood accused of a crime he had never committed, he was willing to lay down his life if only he knew that by his death he would save his people from starvation. But on the other hand he was no fool; he saw what lay behind the charge, and that his sacrifice would be in vain. Helle, too, though younger, sensed that a hideous injustice was about to be enacted – but she still had a secret hope.

 

“Our mother roams the skies,” she said to Phrixus. “I am sure she can see everything and will not leave us to our fate.”

 

At sunrise the next day, they took Phrixus and led him up to the place of sacrifice. They did not wish to let Helle accompany her brother, but nothing could keep her away, and she refused to be parted from him. Shattered with grief, their unhappy father followed in their footsteps.

 

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The procession reached the summit of Mount Laphystium and halted before the altar of Zeus. When the soldiers had prepared the pyre for the sacrifice, the priest, a knife concealed beneath his cloak, seized Phrixus by the arm. Hoping for a miracle, Phrixus and Helle searched the sky with anxious eyes. Suddenly they saw a cloud, which drew ever closer. On it, the young people could just make out a tiny dot. Their hearts began to beat in wild hope. Now the figure of a woman could be clearly distinguished. “Our mother is coming!” Helle cried, and, weak though she was, she tried to tear her brother from the priest’s grasp. He attempted to push her away, but Helle cried again:

“But our mother is coming! Won’t you even let her kiss her children, and bid farewell to a son who’s to be slain?” The priest relented. All those on the mountain-top watched the cloud in awe as it rapidly approached. Upon it sat Nephele, returning to her children in the hour of their greatest need. At her side was a ram with a golden fleece that glinted in the bright beams of the sun. All who saw the scene were moved, except Ino, who glared at Nephele with hatred in her eyes. The priest, his heart softened too, relaxed his hold on Phrixus, who ran with Helle into the arms of their mother. Nephele embraced her two children with tears of joy, then, wiping the teardrops from her eyes, whispered urgently to her son:

“Climb on the back of this golden-haired beast. It is a magic ram that can fly through the sky, even though it has no wings. Without any need for you to guide it, it will bear you to distant Colchis, the land ruled by Aeëtes, son of Helius. Seek his protection, and in return make him a gift of the golden fleece, after you have first sacrificed the ram to Zeus. It will prove more precious than he could ever begin to imagine.”

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Phrixus leapt on the beast’s back, while behind him Helle cried:

 

“Take me, too! How can I stay here all alone?” And she also jumped onto the ram, which immediately rose from the earth before the astonished eyes of the gathered crowd.

 

“A happy journey to you, my children,” called Nephele, as the golden ram with its precious cargo faded rapidly from view. And her words were echoed by their astonished father, who could not conceal his joy at this unhoped-for aid. All who stood on the summit added their farewells, dazzled by the great miracle, and filled with remorse for the fate they had so recently reserved for the innocent young man.

 

Soon the shining ram was but a tiny golden speck, and then it faded from sight into the vault of the heavens.

 

Phrixus and Helle flew on calmly and peacefully, filled with boundless joy. They sped swiftly over mountains and plains, then crossed above a broad sea filled with islands of all sizes. How wonderful it would have been if their flight had continued as smoothly as it had begun. But this, alas, was not to be. When they reached the narrow channel which links the Aegean to the Sea of Marmara, the weather suddenly changed for the worse. Heavy black clouds filled the sky, while bolts of lightning and the rumbling of thunder made them fear that the world was about to come to its end. At the same time a furious wind blew up, lashing the air to wild turbulence. For all this, the ram kept straight on course.

 

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Helle, meanwhile, was terrified. Her courage failed her as she stared in dread at the stormlashed waves below. Phrixus, calm and brave as ever, tried to reassure his sister, telling her that if she clung on tightly there was nothing to be feared. But Helle, who was not a strong girl, grew more and more terrified, and could not hold her own against the raging storm. Exhaustion and fear had weakened her so much that in the end her grip loosened. By a cruel irony of fate, at the very moment when the first sign of clear blue sky appeared on the horizon, she slid from the slippery back of the golden ram and with a cry of despair hurtled into the void beneath. There was no saving her. Phrixus had lost his sister and now, alone and desolate, he continued his flight with a heart torn by grief. The unlucky girl had died, but her name was destined to remain alive for all time – for the narrow strait in which she fell to her death has been known as the Hellespont ever since. And men say that the flow of the waters through its narrow walls may sometimes rise to a roar and sometimes fall to a murmur, but it will never cease entirely, for its sound is the lullaby which sweetens the eternal sleep of the daughter of Nephele.

 

At last, the tireless ram brought Phrixus to Colchis, and set him down before the gates of the palace, where Aeëtes himself stood waiting. Impressed by the manner of the young man’s arrival, he invited him into the great hall. Phrixus entered with the golden ram, and there he told the king his whole tragic story and how his sister had been lost.

 

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Aeëtes listened to him with grave attention; and seeing the golden fleece of the splendid beast which had brought Phrixus to Colchis, he realised that fortune had smiled upon him. Not only did he receive the young man with an open heart, but he gave him his daughter Chalciope in marriage, and four sons were eventually born of this union.

As his mother had counselled him, Phrixus sacrificed the magnificent ram to Zeus, protector of outcasts, and its skin, which has ever since been known as the golden fleece, he presented to Aeëtes. Delighted with his precious gift, the king hung it from a thousand-year old oak tree in the sacred grove of Ares, and set a fearsome dragon to guard it night and day.

 

The golden fleece soon proved to be even more precious than it appeared. Unbelievable changes began to take place in Colchis. Poverty was banished from every household, and wealth and abundance flowed across the breadth of the land. Aeëtes himself became the richest of kings, and his army the most powerful in the world. Word soon spread far and wide that all this good fortune was due to the magic powers of the golden fleece. Of course this in turn made the magic ram’s hide the target of countless brave adventurers with visions of happiness and wealth for their own homelands and themselves – if they could lay their hands upon it. But one and all lived in fear of the king of Colchis and hesitated to risk their lives in such a reckless venture. And when they learned that the golden fleece was guarded by a dragon which was said to belch flames from its mouth and never sleep, so one by one these would-be heroes abandoned the idea of relieving Aeëtes of his treasured possession.

 

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Yet in the end a man was born who would achieve this impossible exploit – Jason, the hero from Iolcus, finally brought the golden fleece to Greece after interminable adventures and unbelievable feats of daring. But with it he brought neither wealth nor happiness. Perhaps this shows us wealth and happiness are dreams that slip like water through the hands, or again, perhaps the story was intended to hold another message for us. Whatever the case may be, let the reader judge for himself after he has read the whole enthralling story.

 

Phrixus and Helle - the fall

 

 

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Excerpted from Jason and the Argonauts by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

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5. Jason and the Argonauts

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