Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
ON the plaza abandoned by the musicians Demetrios remained alone, resting on his elbows. He heard the sea murmur, the vessels creak slowly, the wind pass beneath the stars. The whole town was lighted by a little dazzling cloud which had lingered over the moon and the light in the sky was softened.
The young man looked about him; the tunics of the flute-players had left two imprints in the dust. He recalled their faces; they were two Ephesians. The eldest had seemed pretty to him, but the youngest was without charm; and, as ugliness made him suffer, he avoided thinking of her.
At his feet shone an object of ivory. He picked it up; it was a writing tablet whence hung a silver stylus. Its wax was almost used up but the letters must have been traced over several times so that, the last time, they were cut into the ivory.
He saw but three words written there:
MYRTIS LOVES RHODOCLEIA
And he asked himself to which of the two women this belonged and whether the other were the loved woman or, indeed, some unknown, abandoned at Ephesos. Then he thought a moment of rejoining the musicians to give back what was, perhaps, the souvenir
of some dead beloved; but he could not have found them again without trouble and as he was already ceasing to be interested in them he turned around idly and threw the little object into the sea.
It fell rapidly, gliding like a white bird, and he heard the splash the distant black water made. This little noise made him feel the vast silence of the port.
Leaning with his back against the cold parapet, he tried to drive away every thought and began to look about him.
He had a horror of life. He left his dwelling only at the hour when life ceased and returned when the first dawn drew the fishermen and the kitchen gardeners toward the town. The pleasure of seeing in the world only the shadow of the town and his own figure became such a delight to him that, for several months, he no longer remembered having seen the sun at mid-day.
He was wearied. The queen was fastidious.
He could hardly understand, this night, the joy and the pride which had filled him when, three years before, the queen, seduced perhaps more by the rumor of his beauty than by the reports of his genius, had ordered him invited to the palace and announced at the Gate of Evening by the blowing of silver trumpets.
This entrance enlightened his memory sometimes with one of those souvenirs which, by reason of too much sweetness, become more and more acute in the soul to the point of becoming intolerable. The queen had received him alone in her private apartments which were composed of three little rooms enviably soft and soundless. She was lying on her left side and as though buried in a cavern of greenish silks which bathed the black locks of het head-dress in purple reflections. Her young body was robed in a fantastically embroidered costume.
Demetrios, kneeling respectfully, had taken in his hand the little bare foot of the queen Berenice, as a precious and sweet object, to be kissed.
Then she had risen.
Simply, like a handsome slave who serves as a model, she had undone her corselet, her little bandstaken even the circlets from her arms, even the rings from her toes, and she had stood, hands open before her shoulders which lifted her head beneath the coral ornaments that swayed in long strings by her cheeks.
She was the daughter of a Ptolemy and of a Syrian princess descended from all the gods through Astarte, whom the Greeks called Aphrodite. Demetrios knew this and that she was proud of her Olympian lineage. Therefore he was not troubled when the sovereign, without moving, said to him: "I am Astarte. Take marble and thy chisel and reveal me to the people of Egypt. I wish my image to be adored."
Demetrios gazed at her, and guessing beyond all doubt what simple and fresh emotion moved this young girl, he said, "I am the first to adore it."
The queen was not angry at this precipitancy, but demanded, drawing back, "Dost think thyself Adonis, to touch the goddess?"
He replied, "Yes."
She gazed at him, smiled a little, and concluded, "Thou art right."
It was for this reason that he became insupportable and that his best friends were lost to him; but the hearts of all women doted upon him.
When he passed into a hall of the palace the slaves stopped, the
women of the court became silent, the strangers listened to him also, for the sound of his voice was ravishing. If he retired to the queen they came even there to importune him under pretexts always new. If he wandered through the streets, the folds of his tunic became filled with little papyri on which the passers-by had written their names with anguished words but which he, tired of such matters, crumpled without reading. When they had put his work in place in the temple of Aphrodite the enclosure was filled at every hour of the night by the crowds of adoring women who came to read his name in the stone and to offer to their living god all the doves and all the roses.
Soon his house was encumbered with gifts which he at first accepted indifferently but which later he invariably refused when he understood. Even his slaves besought him. He had them whipped and sold. Then his male slaves, bribed by presents, opened the door to unknown women. The little objects of his toilette and of his table disappeared one after another. More than one woman in the town had a sandal or a girdle of his, a cup from which he had drunk, even the kernels of fruit he had eaten. If he dropped a flower while walking he found it no more behind him. They would have gathered up even the dust crushed by his feet.
Beyond the fact that this persecution became dangerous and threatened to kill all his sensitiveness he had arrived at the epoch of youth where the man who thinks believes it necessary to make two parts of his life and to mingle no longer the affairs of the spirit with the necessities of the senses. The statue of Aphrodite-Astarte was for him the sublime pretext for this moral conversion. All that the queen had of beauty, all that could be invented of
ideals around the supple lines of her body, Demetrios had evoked from the marble and from that day he imagined no other woman on earth would ever again attain the level of his dreams. His statue became the object of his desire; henceforth he adored nothing save it alone, and madly separated from the flesh the supreme Idea of the goddess, all the more immaterial if he had attached it to life.
When he again saw the queen herself, he found her despoiled of all which had constituted her charm. She was at once too different from the Other One and too similar, as though an intruder had taken the semblance of the admired woman. Her arms were slighter, her hips narrower, than those of the True One. In the end he tired of her.
His adorers knew it and though he continued his daily visits it was known that he had ceased to love Berenice. And around him the ardor redoubled. He did not notice it. In fact, the change which he needed was of another nature.
It is rare that, between two mistresses, a man should not have an interval of life where vulgar debauch tempts and satisfies him. Demetrios abandoned himself to it. When the necessity of going to the palace displeased him more than usual, he went at night to the garden of the sacred courtesans which surrounded the temple on all sides. The women who were there did not know him at all. They had no more cries or tears, and there at least he was not troubled by the amorous whining with which the queen enervated him. The conversation that he held with these beautiful calm persons was idle and without research. The visitors of the day, the weather of the morrow, the sweetness of the grass and of the night, were its charming subjects. They did not beseech him to expose his theories on sculpture and did not give their
opinions of the Achilles of Skopas. If they happened to thank the visitor, to find him well made and to tell him so, he had the right not to believe in their disinterestedness.
Leaving them, he would mount the steps of the temple and fall into ecstasy before the statue.
Between the slender columns topped with Ionian volutes, the goddess, on a pedestal of rosy stone laden with pendent treasures, appeared as though living. She was nude, softly tinted in feminine tones; she held in one hand her symbolic mirror, and with the other adorned her beauty with a seven-fold necklace of pearls. One pearl, larger than the others, silvery and elongated, shone upon her bosom like a crescent moon between two snowy clouds.
Demetrios contemplated her tenderly and longed to believe, like the people, that those were the true sacred pearls born of the water drops which had rolled in the shell of the Anadyomene.
"O divine Sister," he said, "O flowering, O transfigured one! thou art no longer the little Asiatic whom I made thine unworthy model. Thou art her immortal Idea, the terrestrial Soul of the Astarte who was the progenitor of her race. Thou didst shine in her ardent eyes, thou didst burn in her somber lips, thou didst faint in her soft hands, thou didst pant in her swelling bosom, in former times, before thy birth; and that which would please the daughter of a fisherman would delight thee also, thee, goddess, theemother of gods and menthe joy and the sorrow of the world! But I have seen, evoked, seized thee, O marvelous Cytheræa! I have revealed thee to the earth. It is not thine image, it is thyself to whom I have given thy mirror and whom I have covered with pearls as on the day when thou wert born of the bleeding sky and the foamy smile of the waters, and Aurora, dripping
with dew, with a cortege of blue tritons, acclaimed thee to the shores of Cypros."
He had adored her thus when he entered upon the jetty at the hour when the crowd was dispersing and heard the sorrowful song of the flute-players. But this evening he had refused to visit the women of the temple. because a couple, half seen under the branches, had filled him with disgust and revolted his very soul.
Little by little, the gentle influence of the night worked upon him. He turned his face toward the wind which had passed over the sea and seemed to draw toward Egypt the scent of the roses of Amathus.
Lovely feminine forms sketched themselves in his thought. He had been requested to make, for the garden of the goddess, a group of the three Charities enlaced; but his youth revolted at copying conventions and he dreamed of uniting on the same block of marble three gracious movements of woman: two of the Charities would be clothed, one holding a fan and half closing her eyelids at the breath of the swaying plumes; the other dancing among the folds of her robe. The third, behind her sisters, would be nude and her raised arms would twist upon the nape of her neck the mass of her rolled hair.
He engendered in his spirit still other projectsas to attach to the rocks of the Pharos an Andromeda of black marble before the rough monster of the sea; to enclose the hill of Bruchion between the four horses of the rising sun, each one a mettlesome Pegasusand with what intoxication did he not exult at the idea which was coming to birth in him of a Zagreus terrified before the approach of the Titans. Ah! how he was seized by all beauty! How he tore
himself from love! How he "separated from the flesh the supreme Idea of the goddess!" How free he felt, at last!
Now he turned his head toward the quays and saw, shining in the distance, the yellow veil of a sauntering woman.