The Full Story of Alcyone and Ceyx

—from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ceyx, son of Lucifer, the morning star, ruled, without force or shedding blood, his face filled with his father’s radiance. At that time he was sad and unlike his normal self, mourning the loss of his brother, Daedalion. . .

The separation of Ceyx and Alcyone

Ceyx, troubled by heart’s anxiety, was preparing to go and consult the sacred oracle of Apollo, at Claros, that reveals human affairs. The infamous Phorbas, leader of the Phlegyans, had made Delphi inaccessible. Nevertheless, before he set out, he discussed it with his faithful Alcyone.

She felt a chill, immediately, deep in her marrow, her face grew boxwood-pale, and her cheeks were drenched in flowing tears. Three times she tried to speak, three times her face was wet with weeping, and sobs interrupting her loving reproaches, she said: ‘What sin of mine has turned your mind to this, dear one? Where is that care for me that used to come first? Can you now leave Alcyone behind, without a thought? Does it please you now to travel far? Am I dearer to you, away from you? But I suppose your way is overland, and I shall only grieve, not fear, for you. My anxieties will be free from terror.

The waters scare me, and the somber face of the deep: and lately I saw wrecked timbers on the shore, and I have often read the names on empty tombs. Do not allow your mind to acquire false confidence, because Aeolus, son of Hippotas, is your father-in-law, who keeps the strong winds imprisoned, and, when he wishes, calms the sea. When once the winds are released and hold sway over the waters, nothing can oppose them: every country, every ocean is exposed to them. They vex the clouds in the sky, and create the red lightning-flashes from their fierce collisions. The more I know of them (I do know them, often seeing them as a child in my father’s house) the more I consider them to be feared. But if no prayers can alter your purpose, dear one, husband, if you are so fixed on going, take me with you, also! Then we shall be storm-tossed together, and at least I shall know what I fear, together we shall bear whatever comes, together we shall be borne over the waters.’

The star-born husband was moved by the daughter of Aeolus’s words and tears: there was no less love in himself. But he would not relinquish his planned sea-journey, nor did he want to put Alcyone in peril. His anxious heart tried to comfort her, with many words, yet, despite that, he could not win his case. He added this further solace, the only one that moved his lover: ‘Every delay will seem long to us indeed, but I swear to you by my father’s light, to return to you as long as the fates allow it, before the moon has twice completed her circle.’

When her hopes had been revived by these promises of return, he immediately ordered the ship to be dragged down the slipway, launched into the sea, and fitted out with her gear. Alcyone, seeing this, as if she foresaw what was to come, shuddered again, and she gave way to a flood of tears. She hugged him, and, in wretched misery, said a last ‘Farewell’ and her whole body gave way beneath her. With Ceyx still seeking reasons for delay, the young crew, double-ranked, pulled on the oars, with deep-chested strokes, and cut the water with their rhythmic blows.

She raised her wet eyes, and leaning forward could see her husband standing on the curved afterdeck, waving his hand, and she returned the signal. When he was further from shore, and she could no longer recognize his features, she followed the fleeting ship with her gaze, while she could. When even that was too far off to be seen, she still could see the topsails unfurling from the masthead. When no sails could be seen, with heavy heart, she sought out the empty bedroom, and threw herself on the bed. The room and the bed provoked more tears and reminded her of her absent half.

The Tempest

They had left the harbor, and the breeze was stirring the rigging: the captain shipped the oars, ran the yard up to the top of the mast, and put on all sail to catch the freshening breeze. The ship was cutting through the waves, no more than mid-way across, maybe less, far from either shore, when, at nightfall, the sea began to whiten with swelling waves, and the east wind to blow with greater strength.

The captain shouts: ‘Lower the yards, now, and close reef all sails.’ He shouts the order but the adverse wind drowns it, and his voice cannot be heard above the breaking seas. Yet, some of the crew, on their own initiative, remove the oars, some protect the bulwarks, some deny the wind canvas-room. Here one bails water back into the water, another secures the spars. While these things are being done, randomly, the storm increases its severity, and the roaring winds attack from every quarter, stirring the angry waves. The captain himself is fearful, and admits he does not know how things stand, what to order, what to prevent: such is the weight of destruction, so much more powerful than his skill.

There is uproar: men shouting, the rigging straining, the sound of the breaking sea from a weight of sea, and the crash of thunder. The waves rise up and seem to form the sky, and their spray touches the lowering clouds. Now the water is tainted yellow, with sand churned from the depths, now blacker than the Styx, while the waves break white with hissing foam. The Trachinian ship is driven in the grip of fate, now lifted on high, as if looking down on the valleys from a mountain summit, into the depths of Acheron: now sinking, caught in the trough of the wave, staring at heaven from the infernal pool. Again and again the force of the flood strikes the sides with a huge crash, sounding no lighter a blow than when, sometime, an iron ram, or a ballista, strikes a damaged fortress. As fierce lions, on the attack, drive themselves onto the armored chests and extended spears of the hunters, so the waves drove forward in the rising winds, reaching the height of the ship, and higher, above it.

And now the wooden wedges give way, and, stripped of their wax covering, cracks appear, offering the lethal waves a passage. Look how the heavy rain falls from the melting clouds, and you would think the whole heaven was emptying into the sea, and the sea was filling the heavenly zones. The sails are soaked with spray, and the seawater mingles with water from the heavens. The sky is starless, and the murky night is full of its own and the storm’s gloom. Flashes of lightning cleave it, and give light: the rain is illuminated by the lightning flares.

Now the sea pours into the ship’s hollow hull, as well. As a soldier, more outstanding than the rest, who has often tried to scale the battlement of a besieged city, succeeds at last, and fired with a love of glory, takes the wall, one man in a thousand; so when the waves have battered nine times against the steep sides, the tenth wave surging with greater impetus rushes on, and does not cease its assault on the beleaguered craft, until it breaches the conquered vessel’s defenses. So one part of the sea is still trying to take the ship, and part is already inside.

All is confusion, as a city is confused when some are undermining the walls from outside, while others hold them from within. Skill fails, and courage ebbs, and as may separate deaths as advancing waves seem to rush upon them and burst over them. One cannot hold his tears, another is stupefied, and one cries out that they are fortunate whom proper burial rites await. One worships the gods in prayer, and, lifting his arms in vain to the sky, he cannot see, begs for help. Some think of fathers and brothers, some of home and children, or whatever they have left behind. But Alcyone is what moves Ceyx: nothing but Alcyone is on Ceyx’s lips, and though he only longs for her, he rejoices that she is not there.

How he would like to see his native shores again, and turn his last gaze towards his home, but he knows not where it is: the sea swirls in such vortices, and the covering shadows of pitch-black clouds so hide the sky, that it mirrors the aspect of night. The mast is shattered by the onset of a storm-driven whirlwind, and the rudder is shattered. One ultimate wave, like a conqueror delighting in his spoils, rears up gazing down at the other waves, and, as if one tore Pindus, and Athos, from their base, and threw them utterly into the open sea, it fell headlong, and the weight and the impulse together, drove the ship to the bottom. The majority of the crew met their fate with the ship, driven down by the mass of water, never to return to the light. The rest clung to broken pieces of the vessel.

Ceyx himself, held on to a fragment of the wreck, with a hand more used to holding a scepter, and called on his father, Lucifer, and his father-in-law, Aeolus, but alas, in vain. Mostly it is his wife’s, Alcyone’s, name on his lips.

He thinks of her, and speaks to her, and prays that the waves might carry his body to her sight, and that, lifeless, he might be entombed by her dear hands. While he can swim, and as often as the waves allow him to open his mouth, he speaks the name of Alcyone, far off, until the waves themselves murmur it, See, a black arc of water breaks over the heart of the sea, and the bursting wave buries his drowning head.

Lucifer was indistinct, and not to be known, that dawn, and since he was not allowed to leave the sky, he covered his face in dense cloud.

The House of Sleep

Meanwhile, Alcyone, Aeolus’s daughter, counts the nights, unaware of this great misfortune, quickly weaving clothes for him to wear, and for herself, for when he returns, and she promises herself the homecoming that will not be. She piously offers incense to all the gods, but worships mostly at Juno’s temple, coming to the altars for a man who is no more, hoping her husband is safe, and returning to her, preferring her above any other woman. Of all her prayers, only this could be granted.

The goddess could no longer bear these appeals for one who was dead, and, to free her altar from those inauspicious hands, she said: ‘Iris, most faithful carrier of my words, go quickly to the heavy halls of Sleep, and order him to send Alcyone a dream-figure in the shape of her dead Ceyx, to tell her his true fate.’ As she spoke, Iris donned her thousand-colored robe, and, tracing her watery bow on the sky, she searched out, as ordered, the palace of that king, hid under cloud.

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamor of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

When the nymph entered and, with her hands, brushed aside the dreams in her way, the sacred place shone with the light of her robes. The god, hardly able to lift his eyes heavy with sleep, again and again, falling back, striking his nodding chin on his chest, at last shook himself free of his own influence, and resting on an elbow asked her (for he knew her) why she had come, and she replied:

‘Sleep, all things’ rest: Sleep, gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labors: Sleep, order a likeness, that mirrors his true form, and let it go, the image of King Ceyx, to Alcyone, in Trachin of Hercules, and depict a phantasm of the wreck. This, Juno commands.’

After she had completed her commission, Iris departed no longer able to withstand the power of sleep, and, feeling the drowsiness steal over her body, she fled, and recrossed the arch by which she had lately come.

From a throng of a thousand sons, his father roused Morpheus, a master craftsman and simulator of human forms. No one else is as clever at expressing the movement, the features, and the sound of speech. He depicts the clothes and the usual accents. He alone imitates human beings. A second son becomes beast, or bird, or long snake’s body. The gods call him Icelos, the mortal crowd Phobetor. The third, of diverse artistry, is Phantasos: he takes illusory shapes of all inanimate things, earth, stones, rivers, trees. These are the ones that show themselves by night to kings and generals, the rest wander among citizens and commoners. Old Somnus passed them by, choosing one of all these brothers, Morpheus, to carry out the command of Iris, daughter of Thaumas, and relaxing again into sweet drowsiness, his head drooped, and he settled into his deep bed.

Morpheus goes to Alcyone in the form of Ceyx

Flying through the shadows on noiseless wings, Morpheus, after a short delay, comes to the Haemonian city. Shedding his wings, he takes the shape of Ceyx, pallid like the dead, and naked, and stands before his unfortunate wife’s bed. He appears with sodden beard, and seawater dripping from his matted hair. Then he bends over her pillow, with tears streaming down his face, and says: ‘My poor wife, do you know your Ceyx, or has my face altered in death? Look at me: you will recognize me, and find for a husband, a husband’s shade! Your prayers have brought me no help, Alcyone! I am dead! Do not hold out false hopes of my return! Storm-laden Austere, the south wind, caught the ship in Aegean waters, and tossed in tempestuous blasts, wrecked her there. My lips, calling helplessly on your name, drank the waves. No dubious author announces this news to you, nor do you hear it as a vague report: I myself, drowned, as you see me before you, tell my fate. Get up, act, shed tears, wear mourning: do not let me go down unwept to Tartarus’s void.’

Morpheus spoke these words in a voice she would believe to be her husband’s (the tears that he wept also seemed real tears) and his hands revealed Ceyx’s gestures. Alcyone groaned, tearfully, stirring her arms in sleep, and seeking his body, grasped only air, and cried out: ‘Wait for me! Where do you vanish? We will go together.’ Roused by her own voice, and her husband’s image, she started up out of sleep. First she gazed round to see if he was still there, the one she had just seen. At the sound of her cry the servants had brought a lamp. Not finding him anywhere, she struck her face with her hands, tore her clothes from her breasts, and beat at the breasts themselves. She did not wait to loosen her hair, but tore at it, and shouted at her nurse, who asked the cause of her grief: ‘Alcyone is nothing, is nothing: she has died together with her Ceyx. Be done with soothing words! He is wrecked: I saw him, I knew him, I stretched out my hands towards him as he vanished, eager to hold him back. It was a shadow, yet it was my husband’s true shadow, made manifest. True, he did not have his accustomed features, if you ask me, nor did his face shine as before. But pallid and naked, with dripping hair, I, the unfortunate one, saw him. Look, my poor husband stood on that very spot,’ and she tried to find a trace of his footprints. ‘This is what I feared, with my divining mind, this: and I begged you not to leave me, chasing the winds. But, for certain, I should have desired you to take me with you, since you were going to your death. How good it would have been to have gone with you: then no part of my life would have lacked your presence, nor would we be separated by death. Now I have died absent from myself, and am thrown through the waves, absently, and the sea takes me, without me.

My mind would treat me more cruelly than the sea, if I should try to live on, and fight to overcome my sorrow! But I shall not fight, nor leave you, my poor husband, and at least now I shall come as your companion. If not the sepulchral urn the lettered stone will join us: if I shall not touch you, bone to my bone, still I will touch you, name to name.’ Grief choked further words, and lamentation took their place wholly, and sighs drawn from a stricken heart.

They are turned into birds

Morning had broken. She went out of the house towards the shore, sadly seeking the place where she had watched him depart. And while she stayed there, and while she was saying: ‘Here he loosed the rope, on this strand he kissed me as he left,’ and while she recalled the significant actions by their locations, and looked seawards, she saw in the flowing waves what looked like a body, unsure at first what it was: after the tide had brought it a little nearer, though it was some way off, it was clearly a body. She did not know whose it was, but was moved by the omen of this shipwrecked man, and as if she wept for the unknown dead, she cried out: ‘Alas for you, poor soul, whoever you may be, and your wife, if you have one!’ The body had been washed nearer by the sea, and the more she gazed at it, the smaller and smaller shrank her courage: woe! Now it was close to land, now she could see who it was: it was her husband! She cried out: ‘It’s him!’ and together tearing at cheeks, and hair, and clothes she stretched out her trembling hands to Ceyx, saying: ‘O, is it like this, dear husband, is it like this, wretched one, you return to me?

A breakwater built by the waves, broke the initial force of the sea, and weakened the onrush of the tide. Though it was amazing that she could do so, she leapt onto it: she flew, and, beating the soft air on new-found wings, a sorrowing bird, she skimmed the surface of the waves. As she flew, her plaintive voice came from a slender beak, like someone grieving and full of sorrows. When she reached the mute and bloodless corpse, she clasped the dear limbs with her new wings and kissed the cold lips in vain with her hard beak.

People doubted whether Ceyx felt this, or merely seemed to raise his face by a movement of the waves, but he did feel it: and at last through the gods’ pity, both were changed to birds, the halcyons. Though they suffered the same fate, their love remained as well: and their bonds were not weakened, by their feathered form. They mate and rear their young, and Alcyone broods on her nest, for seven calm days in the wintertime, floating on the water’s surface. Then the waves are stilled: Aeolus imprisons the winds and forbids their roaming, and controls his grandsons’ waves.