Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

This is not my story — not that any of the other stories here are really original to me, but with the others, I’ve tweaked and played with them a bit here and there.  This story comes to you fairly directly from Ovid the original author. Ovid was a Roman poet at the beginning of the Current Era (CE). In his book, “The Metamorphoses” he tells the story of Baucis and Philemon. It is one of my favorite love stories. I think it speaks very powerfully to the alchemy of love.

The story begins with Jupiter and Mercury disguising themselves as mortals, and wandering the earth to see who would offer them food and rest. They were sent away from a thousand homes until finally they came to a humble dwelling, a small little cottage where they were invited in to shelter.  This was the home of Baucis and Philemon who were both in their later years. The furnishings of the home were very basic and simple and the food was meager, but all that was had was offered to the guests without hesitation. As the meal continued, Baucis and Philemon noticed that the bowls of food and the container of wine kept filling themselves of their own accord. The two surmise that their guests were immortals, and they were filled with awe and fear, concerned with the humble nature of the food they had shared with their guests.  Baucis and Philemon then tried to catch and kill their one goose, but the bird was too young and too fast for them and they could not trap it. The gods quickly told them not to kill the goose.

While all their neighbors had denied the gods hospitality, Baucis and Philemon willingly shared what they had. Because of this, the neighbors would be destroyed, but they would be spared the anger of the gods.  Baucis and Philemon were told to climb to the top of the nearest mountain. They did so, and when they looked back their valley was filled with water, with only their home remaining above the water line.  While they wept for their neighbors, their house changed into a temple to the gods. Then Jupiter spoke to them and offered to grant them whatever they would ask.  The husband and wife stepped back, consulted with each other, and asked to be priests in the temple, and since they had lived their lives together there; and they asked to die together.  And their request was granted.  

When they were of an extreme old age, they were standing in front of the temple, talking of old times, and Baucis saw Philemon sprouting leaves, and Philemon noticed the same of Baucis, and as the bark formed over their faces, they each spoke to the other their last words, “Farewell, my dear one.” And to this day, Bithynian peasants point to two trees standing close, growing from one double trunk. 

This story speaks of care and commitment; of lifelong love and love for strangers. Jacob Needleman (2005) notes that while most myths have their mystery in the middle, this one poses the mystery at the end: what kind of love can we search for and build in our journey of living together? What do we serve in each other with our love?  The story of Baucis and Philemon evokes questions about the meaning, nature and evolution of love.  What is love? What does love mean to you? What does it mean to be in love? What does it mean to love someone (or something)? What kinds of love are there? What does it feel like to be loved? What are the costs of love?  What do you get from love? What do you give in love?

Needleman, J. (2005). The Wisdom of Love: Toward a Shared Inner Life. Standpoint, ID: Morning Light Press.

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