“Hermaphroditus and Salmacis” (Metamorphoses 4.285-388)
Hear how the Salmacis pool got an evil name
for its powerful waters that enervate men.
The potency’s famous—the cause, not so known.
In the caves of Ida, nymphs once nursed a boy,
the child of Mercury and divine Venus.
You could see both mother and father in his face,
and his name came from the two of them, too.
When he turned fifteen, he left his mountain home
and the peaks of Ida where he’d grown, eager
to see rivers he’d never seen and go places
he’d never been: excitement sped his feet.
He went far—the towns of Lycia and Caria
nearby—and there he saw a still, deep pool,
translucent all the way down. Beside it grew
no marshy reeds, spiky rush, or swamp grass:
its water clear as glass. The pool was rimmed
with fresh herbs and moss, bright and ever green.
A nymph lived there, but not one who hunted
or bent a bow or ran hot in the races—
the only nymph quick Diana did not know.
They say her sister-nymphs would often cry
‘Salmacis, pick up a painted quiver or spear
and have a holiday from lounging, come hunt.’
But she’d touch no painted quiver or spear
and take no holiday from lounging to hunt.
She just bathed her lovely self in her pond,
often drew a boxwood comb through her hair,
or gazed in her glassy pool to see what looked best.
Sometimes, a see-through dress like light on her skin,
she lay back on the soft silky grass, the soft leaves;
often she picked flowers. She was picking flowers
when she saw the boy and wanted what she saw.
She was dying to approach him—but held back
until she’d smoothed her dress and her face, composed
herself, and made certain she was stunning.
Then she went to him and said: ‘Boy, oh, you
look like a god, and if so, you could be Cupid . . .
But if you’re human—well, your parents are lucky,
your brother’s lucky, your sister, if you have one,
is luckier still, and the nurse whose breast touched your lips.
But more lucky than they, far more lucky than they,
is the girl you marry, if you’ve found one to wed.
If you have one, then let my pleasure be secret.
But if not, let me be the one: let’s go to bed.’
The nymph said no more. But the boy blushed bright
(he knew nothing of love). Even blushes became him:
the glow of apples ripening on trees soaked in sun,
or tinged ivory, or the mottled flush of the moon
in eclipse when the cymbals clash in vain.
She kept begging for kisses, a sister’s at least,
and was circling his ivory neck with her hands
when he said, ‘Stop—or I’ll leave your place and you.’
At this Salmacis panicked and said, ‘No, strange boy,
please take the spot,’ and turned and pretended to go.
But she kept glancing back, hid in a thicket
of shrubbery, and bent down on her knees. Then he,
being a boy and unwatched in the private glade,
danced back and forth, dabbled the tips of his toes
in the lapping pool, dipped a foot to the ankle.
He couldn’t wait: lured by the water’s light touch
he slipped the soft clothes from his slender self.
This really stirred her: the boy’s naked body lit
Salmacis with lust. The nymph’s eyes glittered
hot, as when the bright burning sun glows back
from a mirror, glows back a brilliant disk.
She can hardly wait, hardly keep back her pleasure,
she’s wild to hold him, wants so badly she’ll burst.
He slaps his body briskly with open palms
and leaps into the pond. Arms stroking in turn
he gleams in that translucent pool like a figurine
of ivory or white lilies encased in glass.
‘I win him—he’s mine!’ cries the nymph as she flings
away all her clothes. She plunges into the pool,
clutches the boy as he squirms, forces hard kisses,
and runs her hands over his chest as he writhes,
clinging first to one side of him, then the other.
At last she twines about him as he strains to slip
free, like a snake an eagle has snatched and lifts
in the air (dangling, the snake grips the bird’s talons
and head, slinking its tail around beating wings),
or like vines that climb trees and smother the trunks,
or an octopus entangling the prey it’s dragged
deep undersea, its tentacles clasping all over.
The boy fights hard and won’t give up the pleasure
she wants, but she presses so tight she seems sealed
to his skin and says, ‘You can fight, nasty boy,
but you won’t get away. Gods, give me this: let him
never be severed from me, nor me ever from him.’
The gods hear her wish: the two bodies fuse
together and join, one look smoothing over them
both. As when you graft a new sprig to a stem
and see the two join and grow together as one—
just like this, as their limbs entangle and meld,
they are no longer two but one doubled form,
not woman or boy: instead neither—or both.
Seeing how waters that were stepped in by a man
have engendered a half-man, softening,
Hermaphroditus holds up hands and in a voice
not so deep says, ‘Give me this, mother and father,
give this to the child who has both of your names:
let any man who steps into this pool
step from it a half-man, made limp by this liquid.’
Both parents hear their biform child’s plea
and grant it, tainting that pool with poison.
<. . .>
I’ve stood so much for so long; now I’m through with your tricks.
Sick love, leave my heart: it’s done.
I’ve served my time but have broken free of these chains—
wasn’t sorry to bear them, now sorry I did.
But I’ve won and I’m crushing Love under my foot.
I’ve finally sprouted a backbone.
Hold up. Be tough. One day this pain will pay off:
a bitter drink can be bracing.
Did I really put up with rejection so often, setting my
thoroughbred self in the dirt by your door?
Did I really sleep outside your dark house like a slave,
while inside you loved up some no one?
I’ve seen a worn-out lover stumble from your front gate
and stagger home, spent, service done.
Still, this is far better than him seeing me:
I’d wish that shame on enemies.
But when did I ever not cleave close beside you,
your protector, your man, your friend?
Of course being with me made you a popular darling:
my love is what launched your affairs.
Oh why tell the sickening lies that slid from your tongue
or oaths broken at my expense
or the meaningful nods of strange men at parties
or messages coded in signs?
I’m told she’s ill: I bolt to her house, rushing with love.
I get there: she’s not sick for him.
I’ve put up with this and more I won’t say: now I’m tough.
Find someone else to endure you.
My ship’s floating becalmed with a garland of thanks,
aloof from the wild swelling sea.
So stop your sweet nothings. To hell with words so magical
once. I’m not the fool I was.
My mercurial heart’s a tempest, blowing opposite ways—
now love, now hate. I think love’ll win.
I run from your worthlessness, am dragged back by your looks.
I hate your corruption; your body, I love.
So I’m unable to live either with or without you
and don’t seem to know what I want.
I wish you were either less bad or less lovely:
your looks don’t deserve wicked ways.
What you do makes me hate you, your face cries for love:
oh god, beauty undoes her badness.
Spare me, by the secrets we’ve whispered in bed,
by the gods you so often cheat,
by your beauty, which seems almost holy to me . . .
and your eyes, which have made me blind.
Whatever you’ll be, you’ll always be mine. Do you want me
to want you, or love you by force?
Let me unfurl sails, fly with following winds, and want what
I must love, even if I don’t want.
<. . .>