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Tantalus – Chapter 4

Author: W. M. L. Hutchinson
Demon: Tantalus
Region: Southern Europe
Themes: aesthetic reality over physical reality, denial of reality, initiation, poetic justice, reality as a game, and the mysterious stranger

As Pelops grew up to manhood, all said of him that he was grave and thoughtful beyond his years, and in truth the story his mother had told him was ever in his mind, nor could he take pleasure in the pastimes of his comrades for thinking of his lost father.  No one in the city would willingly set foot now upon the mountain, for the people believed that the place where the Golden House had stood was accursed ground, and neither hunter nor shepherd ever visited those hillsides, once so often climbed by the guests of Tantalus.

But Pelops had often said to the Queen, “my father, who had eaten the bread of immortality, cannot be dead, and when I become a man, I will go up the mountain and look for him in that valley among the cliffs, for something tells me he is there.”  And though his mother besought him not to venture to that fearful place in the vain hope of finding one whom the gods had assuredly hidden from them forever, the young prince held steadfastly to that purpose.

At last, on a day that he went hunting, the chase brought him and his companions to the foot of the mountain, and all the rest turned back, but he called to them that he would not lose the hart they followed for an idle fear, and went on alone.  It was noon when he left them, but the sun was already low in the west when he stood among the rocks on the mountain top and gazed with a beating heart into the crag-walled hollow between the peaks.

What was it he saw, or thought he saw yonder, at the far end of the ravine?  A great fragment of rock, loosened from the face of the precipice, seemed toppling forward as though it must fall in another instant, and close under it sat a dim, kingly figure, with upturned face, holding both arms above his head to ward off the coming blow.

Pelops ran forward, shouting to him to rise and fly, or the rock would crush him to death, and calling him “Father,” for he knew it must be Tantalus, though he could not clearly see his face across the valley.  But the figure did not stir, and suddenly the trembling mass above him was still.

Then, hurrying nearer, Pelops could see that it was indeed Tantalus who sat there, robed and crowned as of old, and that a golden table stood beside him, with a shining cup and platter upon it.  The King’s form was so worn and wasted that he was more like a shadow than a living man, and his son’s heart grew chill with fear as he looked into his eyes, for they seemed not to see him, nor did Tantalus give the least sign that he heard his eager, pleading words.

In sorrowful bewilderment, Pelops saw him snatch up the cup, which was brimful of honey-colored wine, and put it to his lips; no sooner did it touch them than the cup was empty, and he set it down with a despairing sigh.  Then he broke a morsel from the cake that was on the platter, and would have eaten it, but it vanished in his hand.

The young prince could not bear the sight; he sprang towards his father that he might take him in his arms and bring him away from the dreadful spot, where he had so long suffered these strange torments.  But instantly a thick white mist from the heights above rolled down like a curtain between him and the King, and a voice came from behind the cloud, “Depart hence, O Pelops, for you cannot deliver this prisoner of the gods.  As Tantalus has sown, so must he also reap, till the time is fulfilled.”

Slowly and sadly Pelops went out of the glen; he turned at the entrance and looked back, and once more the King was sitting with upturned face, raising his arms towards the overhanging rock that trembled as before.

Pelops told no one what he had seen; but in after years, when people began to forget their fear of that mountain, it chanced more than once that herdsmen on the hill went into the glen of rocks and were affrighted by the same sight.  So the spot was held in dread for many ages, and men told that it was haunted by the specter of Tantalus, a king, whom the gods had doomed for his pride to a threefold punishment—endless thirst, endless hunger, and endless terror of a rock that seemed ever falling, but never fell.  And because Tantalus was forever tormented by the vanishing of the nectar and ambrosia when they touched his lips, people say to this day that a man is tantalized, when they mean that he sees something he longs for very near him, and cannot get it.

Now the land of Lydia became hateful to Pelops, after he learned the fate of his father, and he resolved to make his home in some other country, where the sight of that lonely mountaintop, whence he could not deliver the prisoner of the gods, would grieve his eyes no more.  At this time, travelers from beyond the sea brought tales of strange doings at a city called Pisa, which lay in the far land of Greece.  The King of Pisa, they said, had an only child, a maiden of surpassing beauty, and many princes sought her in marriage, but all her suitors had perished miserably—for this reason.

King Oenomaus, her father, had promised the maiden to whoever could outstrip him in a chariot-race, but if he, the King, could overtake the other chariot, the suitor must die by his spear.  Thirteen princes, one after another, had already dared the perilous race, and always, although Oenomaus gave them a start of six furlongs, he overtook them with his peerless horses, and struck them dead with a well-aimed spear-throw.

Pelops no sooner heard all this, than he said to himself, “That is the adventure for me,” and he took farewell of the Queen his mother, saying that he desired to seek his fortune across the sea, where men would not know him for the son of the hapless Tantalus.  The Queen was willing he should go, for she had seen that he was restless and unhappy; but she said, “Take companions with you, and slaves of our household, and let a ship be loaded with treasure, and good store of all things needful, that you may appear as befits a king’s son, in the land whither you sail.”

“Not so, my mother,” answered Pelops; “I am bound on a certain quest I hear spoken of, and neither treasure nor following will serve me to win it.  I go alone, but when I come to the seashore, I am in hopes to find a friend there, who will give me what help I need.”

So Pelops journeyed alone for three days and three nights, and came to the sea one morning very early before the sun was up.  There, standing on the solitary shore, in the faint light of dawn, he called aloud the name of Poseidon.

Immediately the calm deep was troubled, a long foam-crested billow came rolling shoreward, and broke at his feet in clouds of spray, and out of that wave the tall Poseidon rose up before him.  “Earth-shaking God,” said Pelops, “if you have not forgotten the joy we had once together in Aphrodite’s garden, now grant to me a boon, for the sake of those pleasant hours.”

“Ask what you will,” answered Poseidon, “for I am no forgetful friend.”

Then Pelops told his desire to race with the King of Pisa for the prize of his daughter’s hand and his fear that he would nowhere be able to find such fleet horses as the King’s.  “For I hear,” he said, “that this King Oenomaus has a wonderful breed of horses from the far North, and some say he had them in a gift from Ares, the Lord of War, whom he honors above all other gods.  Now therefore, O Poseidon, send me quickly over the sea by your divine power, and give me two coursers swifter than any earthly steeds, to win me the victory.”

Poseidon turned, and struck the water with his trident; then he said, “Look seaward, Pelops,” and the youth beheld two white crests tossing far out at sea, like the crests of waves plunging toward the land.  But as they neared the shore, he saw they were the flying manes of two white horses, which drew a golden chariot without a driver, and flew like the wind over the gray waters, till they halted at his side.

At Poseidon’s bidding, he mounted the chariot and took the reins, and forthwith those immortal horses bore him so swiftly out to sea, that the shore was already dim in the distance before he could look back to speak his thanks to the god.  Soon the speed of his going and the rushing sound of the waves lulled him into drowsiness, nor did he fully awake till the golden car stood still, and he found himself on land once more.  The first wayfarer he met told him that this was the country of King Oenomaus, and before sunset he came to Pisa, a little city built upon a hill.

King Oenomaus was glad at the coming of this handsome stranger, who proclaimed himself a suitor for the hand of the Princess, for he made sure of overtaking and slaying him as he had done the rest.  “There is another wooer come to try his fortune,” he told his daughter, “a king’s son, by the look of him, with goodly white horses, and a chariot gay with gold.  Tomorrow you shall ride in it, and see him fall at your side, like the others.  That will be good sport, and those white horses will be the best of all my spoil from the fools who have raced with me.

Next morning, the King brought his guest on foot to a broad and level valley near the city, and slaves followed them, leading their chariots.  Pelops saw that a tall maiden, wearing the veil of a bride, stood in his own car and held the reins.  When they came to the place appointed, Oenomaus said, “It is my custom to set Hippodameia, my daughter, in the car of him who races here to win her, that he may carry off the prize, if he can.  Drive forward now, king’s son, for I wait till you have gone six furlongs, but woe betide you if your horses are overtaken by those mares of mine, that came from the stalls of Ares, the War-god.”

“Let me first see the face of this maiden,” said Pelops, “since I have good hope to make her my bride this day.”

“Throw back your veil, girl,” said the King, and he laughed a cruel laugh; “let your suitor look on you while he may.”

The Princess lifted her veil, and looked Pelops straight in the eyes; now her fierce father had reared her like a young warrior, till she could rein in the wildest horses, and see blood shed without flinching, nor had she ever known pity, but had taken delight in the deaths of those thirteen strangers who came seeking to carry her away as a bride.  Yet as she looked at this beautiful youth, she wished, on a sudden, that she might not see him slain like those others, and at the strangeness of so wishing, she blushed and drew down her veil.

Then Pelops looked well to the harness of the white horses, and took his stand beside her, and drove them onward along the valley.  They had not passed far beyond the stone that marked six furlongs from the starting-place when they heard the King’s chariot thundering behind them, but his wondrous mares were no match for the steeds of Poseidon, and soon Oenomaus saw that the race was lost.

With a cry of rage, he leaned forward and hurled his spear at Pelops; so mightily he threw that the spear-point struck the side of the golden car, and would have pierced it, had it not been of heavenly metal.  But in the doing of that treacherous deed, the King ended his life of wickedness; as he cast the spear with his full force, he over-balanced himself, and fell headlong from the chariot and broke his neck.

Thus, by Poseidon’s help, Pelops gained a bride and a kingdom, for he reigned at Pisa in the stead of Oenomaus.  He built the god an altar in the valley of the chariot-race, and held a yearly feast there in his honor, with sacrifices and rejoicings, on the day of the victory.  Also he ordained a race of chariots to be run at the festival, for prizes of golden vessels and costly armor, and in the after time the princes of all lands contended in that race, so glorious was the fame of it.  But never came such horses thither as the white steeds of Poseidon, which were seen no more from the day when Pelops died in a good old age, but vanished out of their stalls that same hour.

Now as for the Princess Hippodameia, she mourned but little for her father, whom she had rather feared than loved, and lived in all happiness with her wedded lord, forgetting the wild and warlike life of her youth.  The sons who were born to her became mighty warriors, who won lands and cities by the sword, and their children fulfilled t he promise of the gods to Tantalus concerning the glory that should come upon his house.  For these were they who led a host out of all Greece to that siege of Troy town, which the poets of ancient ages made into the finest story in the world.

Here ends this tale; yet let it be told what befell when Pelops had sent for the Queen his mother, to dwell with him at Pisa, who, because he would not return to the land of Lydia, had given to Niobe the kingdom of their father.  There the daughter of Tantalus reigned and prospered many years, but, even as he had done, she provoked the wrath of the Immortals, through exceeding pride.  For she had seven sons and seven daughters, incomparably beautiful, and she boasted that she had borne fairer children than any of the goddesses.

This boast was heard in heaven by the divine mother of Apollo, who appeared to Niobe in the guise of an old woman, and bade her take back her words, lest the Archergod and Artemis, his sister, should avenge the slight offered to their mother Leto.

“Away, prating hag,” answered the Queen, “or I will have you scourged from my doors for this insolence.  Shall Leto, who has but the two children, be named equal to Niobe, the mother of twice seven?”

Forthwith the old woman vanished, and a cry was heard from the garden where the children were at play.  “The arrows!  The arrows!  O mother, save us!”  The Queen flew to the place, only to see her young sons and daughters fall one by one at her feet, pierced to the heart by the arrows of invisible archers.  None escaped those shafts save the youngest of all, a little maid, whom Niobe shielded in her arms, and she, who lived to be a woman, was ever after pale as marble from the terror of that hour.

Now there was a saying in those days that mortals whom the gods loved, died young, being delivered from all the toils of life, and the miseries of feeble age; moreover, it was counted a happy fate to die by the swift painless arrows that Apollo and Artemis shot from their silver bows.  Let no one think, then, that Queen Niobe’s innocent children were punished for their mother’s pride; she, not they, suffered, and even to her the Immortals were not unmerciful.  Day and night she wept by the children’s tomb, refusing to be comforted, till at last the gods in pity turned her to a rock, in the semblance of a woman, and her tears to a spring of water that trickles for ever down its face, and there it is unto this day.