Idyll XXII. The Sons of Leda

by Theocritus


The pair I sing, that AEgis-armed Zeus
Gave unto Leda; Castor and the dread
Of bruisers Polydeuces, whensoe'er
His harnessed hands were lifted for the fray.
Twice and again I sing the manly sons
Of Leda, those Twin Brethren, Sparta's own:
Who shield the soldier on the deadly scarp,
The horse wild-plunging o'er the crimson field,
The ship that, disregarding in her pride
Star-set and star-rise, meets disastrous gales:--
Such gales as pile the billows mountain-high,
E'en at their own wild will, round stem or stern:
Dash o'er the hold, the timbers rive in twain,
Till mast and tackle dangle in mid-air
Shivered like toys, and, as the night wears on,
The rain of heaven falls fast, and, lashed by wind
And iron hail, broad ocean rings again.
Then can they draw from out the nether abyss
Both craft and crew, each deeming he must die:
Lo the winds cease, and o'er the burnished deep
Comes stillness; this way flee the clouds and that;
And shine out clear the Great Bear and the Less,
And, 'twixt the Asses dimly seen, the Crib
Foretells fair voyage to the mariner.
O saviours, O companions of mankind,
Matchless on horse or harp, in lists or lay;
Which of ye twain demands my earliest song?
Of both I sing; of Polydeuces first.
Argo, escaped the two inrushing rocks,
And snow-clad Pontus with his baleful jaws,
Came to Bebrycia with her heaven-sprung freight;
There by one ladder disembarked a host
Of Heroes from the decks of Jason's ship.
On the low beach, to leeward of the cliff,
They leapt, and piled their beds, and lit their fires:
Castor meanwhile, the bridler of the steed,
And Polydeuces of the nut-brown face,
Had wandered from their mates; and, wildered both,
Searched through the boskage of the hill, and found
Hard by a slab of rock a bubbling spring
Brimful of purest water. In the depths
Below, like crystal or like silver gleamed
The pebbles: high above it pine and plane
And poplar rose, and cypress tipt with green;
With all rich flowers that throng the mead, when wanes
The Spring, sweet workshops of the furry bee.
There sat and sunned him one of giant bulk
And grisly mien: hard knocks had stov'n his ears:
Broad were his shoulders, vast his orbed chest;
Like a wrought statue rose his iron frame:
And nigh the shoulder on each brawny arm
Stood out the muscles, huge as rolling stones
Caught by some rain-swoln river and shapen smooth
By its wild eddyings: and o'er nape and spine
Hung, balanced by the claws, a lion's skin.
Him Leda's conquering son accosted first:--
Luck to thee, friend unknown! Who own this shore?
Luck, quotha, to see men ne'er seen before!
Fear not, no base or base-born herd are we.
Nothing I fear, nor need learn this from thee.
What art thou? brutish churl, or o'erproud king?
E'en what thou see'st: and I am not trespassing.
Visit our land, take gifts from us, and go.
I seek naught from thee and can naught bestow.
Not e'en such grace as from yon spring to sip?
Try, if parched thirst sits languid on thy lip.
Can silver move thee? or if not, what can?
Stand up and fight me singly, man with man.
With fists? or fist and foot, eye covering eye?
Fall to with fists; and all thy cunning try.
This arm, these gauntlets, who shall dare withstand?
I: and "the Bruiser" lifts no woman's-hand.
Wilt thou, to crown our strife, some meed assign?
Thou shalt be called my master, or I thine.
By crimson-crested cocks such games are won.
Lions or cocks, we'll play this game or none.
He spoke, and clutched a hollow shell, and blew
His clarion. Straightway to the shadowy pine
Clustering they came, as loud it pealed and long,
Bebrycia's bearded sons; and Castor too,
The peerless in the lists, went forth and called
From the Magnesian ship the Heroes all.
Then either warrior armed with coils of hide
His hands, and round his limbs bound ponderous bands,
And, breathing bloodshed, stept into the ring.
First there was much manoeuvring, who should catch
The sunlight on his rear: but thou didst foil,
O Polydeuces, valour by address;
And full on Amycus' face the hot noon smote.
He in hot wrath strode forward, threatening war;
Straightway the Tyndarid smote him, as he closed,
Full on the chin: more furious waxed he still,
And, earthward bent, dealt blindly random blows.
Bebrycia shouted loud, the Greeks too cheered
Their champion: fearing lest in that scant space
This Tityus by sheer weight should bear him down.
But, shifting yet still there, the son of Zeus
Scored him with swift exchange of left and right,
And checked the onrush of the sea-god's child
Parlous albeit: till, reeling with his wounds,
He stood, and from his lips spat crimson blood.
Cheered yet again the princes, when they saw
The lips and jowl all seamed with piteous scars,
And the swoln visage and the half-closed eyes.
Still the prince teased him, feinting here or there
A thrust; and when he saw him helpless all,
Let drive beneath his eyelids at his nose,
And laid it bare to the bone. The stricken man
Measured his length supine amid the fern.
Keen was the fighting when he rose again,
Deadly the blows their sturdy gauntlets dealt.
But while Bebrycia's chieftain sparred round chest
And utmost shoulder, the resistless foe
Made his whole face one mass of hideous wounds.
While the one sweated all his bulk away,
And, late a giant, seemed a pigmy now,
The other's limbs waxed ever as he fought
In semblance and in size. But in what wise
The child of Zeus brought low that man of greed,
Tell, Muse, for thine is knowledge: I unfold
A secret not mine own; at thy behest
Speak or am dumb, nor speak but as thou wilt.
Amycus, athirst to do some doughty deed,
Stooping aslant from Polydeuces' lunge
Locked their left hands; and, stepping out, upheaved
From his right hip his ponderous other-arm.
And hit and harmed had been Amyclae's king;
But, ducking low, he smote with one stout fist
The foe's left temple--fast the life-blood streamed
From the grim rift--and on his shoulder fell.
While with his left he reached the mouth, and made
The set teeth tingle; and, redoubling aye
His plashing blows, made havoc of his face
And crashed into his cheeks, till all abroad
He lay, and throwing up his arms disclaimed
The strife, for he was even at death's door.
No wrong the vanquished suffered at thy hands,
O Polydeuces; but he sware an oath,
Calling his sire Poseidon from the depths,
Ne'er to do violence to a stranger more.
Thy tale, O prince, is told. Now sing I thee,
Castor the Tyndarid, lord of rushing horse
And shaking javelin, corsleted in brass.
The sons of Zeus had borne two maids away,
Leucippus' daughters. Straight in hot pursuit
Went the two brethren, sons of Aphareus,
Lynceus and Idas bold, their plighted lords.
And when the tomb of Aphareus was gained,
All leapt from out their cars, and front to front
Stood, with their ponderous spears and orbed shields.
First Lynceus shouted loud from 'neath his helm:
"Whence, sirs, this lust for strife? Why, sword in hand,
Raise ye this coil about your neighbours' wives?
To us Leucippus these his daughters gave,
Long ere ye saw them: they are ours on oath.
Ye, coveting (to your shame) your neighbour's bed
And kine and asses and whatever is his,
Suborned the man and stole our wives by bribes.
How often spake I thus before your face,
Yea I myself, though scant I am of phrase:
'Not thus, fair sirs, do honourable men
Seek to woo wives whose troth is given elsewhere.
Lo, broad is Sparta, broad the hunting-grounds
Of Elis: fleecy Arcady is broad,
And Argos and Messene and the towns
To westward, and the long Sisyphian reach.
There 'neath her parents' roof dwells many a maid
Second to none in godliness or wit:
Wed of all these, and welcome, whom ye will,
For all men court the kinship of the brave;
And ye are as your sires, and they whose blood
Runs in your mother's veins, the flower of war.
Nay, sirs, but let us bring this thing to pass;
Then, taking counsel, choose meet brides for you.'
So I ran on; but o'er the shifting seas
The wind's breath blew my words, that found no grace
With you, for ye defied the charmer's voice.
Yet listen to me now if ne'er before:
Lo! we are kinsmen by the father's side.
But if ye lust for war, if strife must break
Forth among kin, and bloodshed quench our feud,
Bold Polydeuces then shall hold his hands
And his cousin Idas from the abhorred fray:
While I and Castor, the two younger-born,
Try war's arbitrament; so spare our sires
Sorrow exceeding. In one house one dead
Sufficeth: let the others glad their mates,
To the bride-chamber passing, not the grave,
And o'er yon maids sing jubilee. Well it were
At cost so small to lay so huge a strife."
He spoke--his words heaven gave not to the winds.
They, the two first-born, disarrayed and piled
Their arms, while Lynceus stept into the ring,
And at his shield's rim shook his stalwart spear.
And Castor likewise poised his quivering lance;
High waved the plume on either warrior's helm.
First each at other thrust with busy spear
Where'er he spied an inch of flesh exposed:
But lo! both spearpoints in their wicker shields
Lodged ere a blow was struck, and snapt in twain.
Then they unsheathed their swords, and framed new modes
Of slaughter: pause or respite there was none.
Oft Castor on broad shield and plumed helm
Lit, and oft keen-eyed Lynceus pierced his shield,
Or grazed his crest of crimson. But anon,
As Lynceus aimed his blade at Castor's knee,
Back with the left sprang Castor and struck off
His fingers: from the maimed limb dropped the sword.
And, flying straightway, for his father's tomb
He made, where gallant Idas sat and saw
The battle of the brethren. But the child
Of Zeus rushed in, and with his broadsword drave
Through flank and navel, sundering with swift stroke
His vitals: Lynceus tottered and he fell,
And o'er his eyelids rushed the dreamless sleep.
Nor did their mother see her elder son
Come a fair bridegroom to his Cretan home.
For Idas wrenched from off the dead man's tomb
A jutting slab, to hurl it at the man
Who had slain his brother. Then did Zeus bring aid,
And struck the marble fabric from his grasp,
And with red lightning burned his frame to dust.
So doth he fight with odds who dares provoke
The Tyndarids, mighty sons of mighty sire.
Now farewell, Leda's children: prosper aye
The songs I sing. What minstrel loves not well
The Tyndarids, and Helen, and the chiefs
That trod Troy down for Menelaeus' sake?
The bard of Chios wrought your royal deeds
Into his lays, who sang of Priam's state,
And fights 'neath Ilion's walls; of sailor Greeks,
And of Achilles towering in the strife.
Yet take from me whate'er of clear sweet song
The Muse accords me, even all my store!
The gods' most precious gift is minstrelsy.

Last updated January 14, 2019