Byblis and Caunus:
Metamorphoses, by Ovid (Book 9.455-665 )
Young girls, beware! Before rushing headlong into love, listen well to the story of Byblis:
Byblis was seized by wild love for Caunus. She didn’t realize, at first, when she kissed her twin brother too lingeringly and too often, twining her arms around his Apollonian shoulders, thinking this was how all sisters kiss brothers. But little by little her love went terribly astray.
Soon she spent hours dressing before she called on him, striving to appear beautiful. The sight of pretty women around him filled her with rage. She didn’t cast any love spells—not yet—or light a votive for her desire. But inside she burned. She started thinking of Caunus as “Master.” She started to hate the blood they shared. She preferred he call her “Byblis” rather than “sister.”
Awake, she could ignore her mounting feelings, but when she slept—oh! Enfolded in sleep, she saw delicious scenes of love: her body joining with her brother’s, making her blush. When she woke, she was silent awhile, replaying the salacious dream in her mind. Finally, into the silence, she spoke these words:
“Ah me,” she said. “What’s this dream trying to tell me? Would I want it to come true? Yes, Caunus would dazzle even his worst enemy. If he weren’t my brother I could wed him. If I weren’t his sister I might be chosen as his bride. As long as I don’t act on it, it’s no crime to pray for this dream again and again! Sleep has no witnesses, but god—so much pleasure! Bless you, Venus, winged Cupid, cause of all this bliss. Lust touched my whole body, melting my insides. The memory still excites me. Night must have been jealous of my pleasure to end so soon. Caunus, if I changed my name and gave up my birthright, what a perfect daughter-in-law I’d be to your father—what a perfect son-in-law you’d be to mine! I want to share everything with you but parents. Alas, you’ll make a mother of some other girl, whom fortune blesses, while she punishes me with your family name. You can only be a brother. The blood we share will be my doom!
“What mysteries should we read into our dreams? Should we give them weight—or substance? The gods frown on a love like mine, but they loved their sisters. Saturn took Ops to bed; Oceanus slept with Tethys; the king of Olympus married his sister Juno. The gods have their own separate laws, laws we humans can’t live by. If I can’t rid myself of this fever, all I can do is hope to die. Laid out dead, at last I’ll feel the warmth of my brother’s lips.
“If I revealed my feelings to Caunus? He’d think my love a crime! No matter that the Aeolidae shared their sister’s beds—Ah, why this example? Where did it come from and where is it leading me? Danger’s my teacher: danger tempts me. Get away, flames! Let me only love what I’m permitted to love!
“But suppose—just suppose—Caunus burned for me too? Suppose we gave in to our delirium? If there’s a chance he loves me, what do I lose by pursuing him? After all, if he pursued me, I’d never turn him away. What do you think, Byblis? Can you confess? Love moves me—I can and I must! I’m ashamed to speak it aloud, but I can come clean in a secret letter.
These words cleared the doubts from Byblis’ mind. She rose to her side, leaning on her elbow. She said, “Now let him see everything… my wild passion… my insanity… my fever dreams.”
Her hands trembled as she collected her thoughts. In her right hand she held the stylus. In her left, the wooden tablets, their surfaces brushed with wax. She began to write in the wax, and then she cursed the words she’d written. She inscribed, scratched out and corrected. She wrote again, then altered and condemned, and finally approved. As soon as she laid the tablets down, she picked them back up. Picking them up, she quickly put them back down. She hated every word she wrote. Shame and audacity battled on her face. She wrote sister. She erased sister. Finally she carved this into the torn-up wax:
I wish you health. If you wish not the health of she who sends you love, she shan't have health. She's ashamed to give her name. If you want to know my desire, let us proceed without names, never, until you acquiesce, think of me as 'Byblis.'
You may have noticed the signs of my ailing heart: my pale face, my hollow eyes, so often filled with tears. The sighs I sighed, unprovoked, the constant embraces, and all those kisses that you might have noticed weren’t quite sisterly. Still, gods as witnesses, I fought it… but my mind was tormented by passion. Cupid’s brutal weapon has defeated me, Caunus—it’s caused more hardship than you’d think a girl could bear. Love has triumphed. Now, abject, I must confess, and I come to you with a meek prayer for help. Only you can save me, Caunus. Only you can destroy me. Choose. Choose which one you'll do.
It’s not an enemy imploring you, Caunus: it’s the person closest to you. She wants to be bound to you by a closer chain. Old men will condemn us. Let them hold the scales, if they can tell virtue from sin! You and I are young and reckless—passionate Venus governs us. We don’t know yet what’s allowed, so to us everything’s allowed… Let’s follow the example of the great gods. We don’t have a cruel father to stop us. Our reputations don’t concern us. We have nothing to fear. Even if we did, we’re siblings, and can already talk in private; we embrace and kiss in public as often as we like. Because we’re family, it’ll be easy to hide the spicy things we’ve not yet tried …
Have pity, Caunus. I swear I wouldn’t come to you if violent love hadn’t forced my hand. Darling brother, don’t let it be written on my tomb that I died because of you!
These final words crowded the margins. Before Byblis could change her mind, she sealed the tablets with her signet, moistened with tears (she found her tongue too dry). She called her favorite of the household slaves and coaxed the man (who already trembled with apprehension) with these blandishments: “As my most esteemed and faithful servant, I charge you to deliver these to my—” She paused a long while before saying, “—brother.”
When she handed them over the tablets clattered to the floor. A clear omen! She ignored it and sent the slave and tablets on their way.
The terrified slave waited for the right moment to approach his master. When Caunus had read only half of the letter, he flung the tablets to the ground. He could scarcely keep his hand from the slave’s throat. He shouted, “Pimp! Get out of my sight! I’d kill you now if your death wouldn’t sully my good name.”
The servant flew back to his mistress and recounted Caunus’ savage words. Byblis paled. Ice ran through her veins. Her body was seized with chills. But little by little her mind returned to her, and with it—her passion. She spoke to herself in a feeble voice:
“Byblis, you fool—you deserve what you get. Why so hasty to tell Caunus everything in your heart? Why did you commit to wax words that should only be spoken? A subtler approach might have been better: perhaps more ambiguous language. Before a dangerous journey, you only release a bit of sail to the wind. But in my haste, my full-spread sails caught a tempest, and I ran aground and capsized. Now the whole sea engulfs me, and my sail can’t return me home.
“The omen was unmistakable. When the tablets fell, they felled my hopes. I should have chosen a better time. Or another endeavor altogether—but preferably a better time. I was out of my mind with love and I didn’t read the clear signs the gods gave me. I should have confessed in person. Face to face he’d have seen my tears. He’d have seen a lover’s face, which can say more than a tablet ever could. If he still rejected me, I’d have thrown my arms around his unwilling neck, and made like I was dying. Prostrate, arms encircling his legs, I’d have begged for life. Even if those tactics failed one by one, taken together they’d have won him over.
“It’s probably the slave’s fault. He chose the wrong moment, when Caunus was preoccupied. These grave mistakes were the problem. Caunus wasn’t raised by a tigress! His heart isn’t steely adamant: a lioness didn’t suckle him! I must try again. He can still be won. While I live, I mustn’t tire. It’s too late to change course. I shouldn’t have started this, but having started I’ve no choice but to see it through. He’ll never forget I did it. Even if we never speak of it, I can’t return to innocence. If I stop now my love will seem fickle and treacherous. Worse, he’ll think mere lust drove me, instead of the goddess who most inflames and inspires our hearts. I can’t undo the wrong I did myself when I wrote this down. Now I must press forward. Only hope remains when nothing's left to fear.”
This is how Byblis endeavored to soothe her anguished heart. Though she regretted having tried to seduce Caunus, the act of seducing still aroused her, and she came to him again and again, knowing each time he would cruelly repel her. She lost all moderation, and made her desperation known to all and sundry. Caunus, fearful it would never end, fled to far-off Caria. There he founded a new city, Caunos.
After that, Byblis lost her mind entirely. She tore her dress down the front of her breast in grief and beat her arms furiously like a mourning widow. She wandered the streets, publicly mad, announcing her illicit desires to anyone who’d listen. Finally she fled after her brother, leaving her city behind, along with her despised household gods.
O Women of Bubasos, you saw Byblis howling through the fields like she was one of your own Bacchante, urged by Semele’s thyrsus to join one of your orgies. Leaving Bubasos, Byblis wandered through Caria, encountered the heavily-armed Leleges, and reached Lycia. She passed the Lycian Cragus, Limyre and the waves of the Xanthes River. She passed the ridge of Mount Chimaera, home of the fire-breather with a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail.
When at last you left the forest, Byblis, your pursuit had made you weak, and you collapsed. Your hair lay tangled on the hard ground, your cheek pressing the fallen leaves. Lelegeian nymphs tried to raise you with tender arms. They used their art to cure your lethal love, but you resisted their medicine. You lay silent, watering the meadow with tears, clutching the new green grass in your fingers.
The Naiads placed a spring below Byblis. What else could they do? The poor girl, consumed by tears, became a fountain. They say she’ll never run dry. She trickles forever, like resin drips from cut pine—like gummy bitumen oozes from oily soil—like ice melts in the sun when the west wind blows. Go look for it. It’s still there, flowing beneath a dark holm oak. Its name is Byblis.
Original Latin Text
Byblis in exemplo est, ut ament concessa puellae,
Byblis Apollinei correpta cupidine fratris;
non soror ut fratrem, nec qua debebat, amabat.
illa quidem primo nullos intellegit ignes,
nec peccare putat, quod saepius oscula iungat,
quod sua fraterno circumdet bracchia collo;
mendacique diu pietatis fallitur umbra.
paulatim declinat amor, visuraque fratrem
culta venit, nimiumque cupit formosa videri
et siqua est illic formosior, invidet illi.
sed nondum manifesta sibi est, nullumque sub illo
igne facit votum, verumtamen aestuat intus.
iam dominum appellat, iam nomina sanguinis odit,
Byblida iam mavult, quam se vocet ille sororem.
Spes tamen obscenas animo demittere non est
ausa suo vigilans; placida resoluta quiete
saepe videt quod amat: visa est quoque iungere fratri
corpus et erubuit, quamvis sopita iacebat.
somnus abit; silet illa diu repetitque quietis
ipsa suae speciem dubiaque ita mente profatur:
'me miseram! tacitae quid vult sibi noctis imago?
quam nolim rata sit! cur haec ego somnia vidi?
ille quidem est oculis quamvis formosus iniquis
et placet, et possim, si non sit frater, amare,
et me dignus erat. verum nocet esse sororem.
dummodo tale nihil vigilans committere temptem,
saepe licet simili redeat sub imagine somnus!
testis abest somno, nec abest imitata voluptas.
pro Venus et tenera volucer cum matre Cupido,
gaudia quanta tuli! quam me manifesta libido
contigit! ut iacui totis resoluta medullis!
ut meminisse iuvat! quamvis brevis illa voluptas
noxque fuit praeceps et coeptis invida nostris.
'O ego, si liceat mutato nomine iungi,
quam bene, Caune, tuo poteram nurus esse parenti!
quam bene, Caune, meo poteras gener esse parenti!
omnia, di facerent, essent communia nobis,
praeter avos: tu me vellem generosior esses!
nescioquam facies igitur, pulcherrime, matrem;
at mihi, quae male sum, quos tu, sortita parentes,
nil nisi frater eris. quod obest, id habebimus unum.
quid mihi significant ergo mea visa? quod autem
somnia pondus habent? an habent et somnia pondus?
di melius! di nempe suas habuere sorores.
sic Saturnus Opem iunctam sibi sanguine duxit,
Oceanus Tethyn, Iunonem rector Olympi.
sunt superis sua iura! quid ad caelestia ritus
exigere humanos diversaque foedera tempto?
aut nostro vetitus de corde fugabitur ardor,
aut hoc si nequeo, peream, precor, ante toroque
mortua componar, positaeque det oscula frater.
et tamen arbitrium quaerit res ista duorum!
finge placere mihi: scelus esse videbitur illi.
'At non Aeolidae thalamos timuere sororum!
unde sed hos novi? cur haec exempla paravi?
quo feror? obscenae procul hinc discedite flammae
nec, nisi qua fas est germanae, frater ametur!
si tamen ipse mei captus prior esset amore,
forsitan illius possem indulgere furori.
ergo ego, quae fueram non reiectura petentem,
ipsa petam! poterisne loqui? poterisne fateri?
coget amor, potero! vel, si pudor ora tenebit,
littera celatos arcana fatebitur ignes.'
Hoc placet, haec dubiam vicit sententia mentem.
in latus erigitur cubitoque innixa sinistro
'viderit: insanos' inquit 'fateamur amores!
ei mihi, quo labor? quem mens mea concipit ignem?'
et meditata manu componit verba trementi.
dextra tenet ferrum, vacuam tenet altera ceram.
incipit et dubitat, scribit damnatque tabellas,
et notat et delet, mutat culpatque probatque
inque vicem sumptas ponit positasque resumit.
quid velit ignorat; quicquid factura videtur,
displicet. in vultu est audacia mixta pudori.
scripta 'soror' fuerat; visum est delere sororem
verbaque correctis incidere talia ceris:
'quam, nisi tu dederis, non est habitura salutem,
hanc tibi mittit amans: pudet, a, pudet edere nomen,
et si quid cupiam quaeris, sine nomine vellem
posset agi mea causa meo, nec cognita Byblis
ante forem, quam spes votorum certa fuisset.
'Esse quidem laesi poterat tibi pectoris index
et color et macies et vultus et umida saepe
lumina nec causa suspiria mota patenti
et crebri amplexus, et quae, si forte notasti,
oscula sentiri non esse sororia possent.
ipsa tamen, quamvis animo grave vulnus habebam,
quamvis intus erat furor igneus, omnia feci
(sunt mihi di testes), ut tandem sanior essem,
pugnavique diu violenta Cupidinis arma
effugere infelix, et plus, quam ferre puellam
posse putes, ego dura tuli. superata fateri
cogor, opemque tuam timidis exposcere votis.
tu servare potes, tu perdere solus amantem:
elige, utrum facias. non hoc inimica precatur,
sed quae, cum tibi sit iunctissima, iunctior esse
expetit et vinclo tecum propiore ligari.
iura senes norint, et quid liceatque nefasque
fasque sit, inquirant, legumque examina servent.
conveniens Venus est annis temeraria nostris.
quid liceat, nescimus adhuc, et cuncta licere
credimus, et sequimur magnorum exempla deorum.
nec nos aut durus pater aut reverentia famae
aut timor impediet: tantum sit causa timendi,
dulcia fraterno sub nomina furta tegemus.
est mihi libertas tecum secreta loquendi,
et damus amplexus, et iungimus oscula coram.
quantum est, quod desit? miserere fatentis amorem,
et non fassurae, nisi cogeret ultimus ardor,
neve merere meo subscribi causa sepulchro.'
Talia nequiquam perarantem plena reliquit
cera manum, summusque in margine versus adhaesit.
protinus inpressa signat sua crimina gemma,
quam tinxit lacrimis (linguam defecerat umor):
deque suis unum famulis pudibunda vocavit,
et pavidum blandita 'fer has, fidissime, nostro'
dixit, et adiecit longo post tempore 'fratri.'
cum daret, elapsae manibus cecidere tabellae.
omine turbata est, misit tamen. apta minister
tempora nactus adit traditque latentia verba.
attonitus subita iuvenis Maeandrius ira
proicit acceptas lecta sibi parte tabellas,
vixque manus retinens trepidantis ab ore ministri,
'dum licet, o vetitae scelerate libidinis auctor,
effuge!' ait 'qui, si nostrum tua fata pudorem
non traherent secum, poenas mihi morte dedisses.'
ille fugit pavidus, dominaeque ferocia Cauni
dicta refert. palles audita, Bybli, repulsa,
et pavet obsessum glaciali frigore corpus.
mens tamen ut rediit, pariter rediere furores,
linguaque vix tales icto dedit aere voces:
'et merito! quid enim temeraria vulneris huius
indicium feci? quid, quae celanda fuerunt,
tam cito commisi properatis verba tabellis?
ante erat ambiguis animi sententia dictis
praetemptanda mihi. ne non sequeretur euntem,
parte aliqua veli, qualis foret aura, notare
debueram, tutoque mari decurrere, quae nunc
non exploratis inplevi lintea ventis.
auferor in scopulos igitur, subversaque toto
obruor oceano, neque habent mea vela recursus.
'Quid quod et ominibus certis prohibebar amori
indulgere meo, tum cum mihi ferre iubenti
excidit et fecit spes nostras cera caducas?
nonne vel illa dies fuerat, vel tota voluntas,
sed potius mutanda dies? deus ipse monebat
signaque certa dabat, si non male sana fuissem.
et tamen ipsa loqui, nec me committere cerae
debueram, praesensque meos aperire furores.
vidisset lacrimas, vultum vidisset amantis;
plura loqui poteram, quam quae cepere tabellae.
invito potui circumdare bracchia collo,
et, si reicerer, potui moritura videri
amplectique pedes, adfusaque poscere vitam.
omnia fecissem, quorum si singula duram
flectere non poterant, potuissent omnia, mentem.
forsitan et missi sit quaedam culpa ministri:
non adiit apte, nec legit idonea, credo,
tempora, nec petiit horamque animumque vacantem.
'Haec nocuere mihi. neque enim est de tigride natus
nec rigidas silices solidumve in pectore ferrum
aut adamanta gerit, nec lac bibit ille leaenae.
vincetur! repetendus erit, nec taedia coepti
ulla mei capiam, dum spiritus iste manebit.
nam primum, si facta mihi revocare liceret,
non coepisse fuit: coepta expugnare secundum est.
quippe nec ille potest, ut iam mea vota relinquam,
non tamen ausorum semper memor esse meorum.
et, quia desierim, leviter voluisse videbor,
aut etiam temptasse illum insidiisque petisse,
vel certe non hoc, qui plurimus urget et urit
pectora nostra, deo, sed victa libidine credar;
denique iam nequeo nil commisisse nefandum.
et scripsi et petii: reserata est nostra voluntas;
ut nihil adiciam, non possum innoxia dici.
quod superest, multum est in vota, in crimina parvum.'
dixit, et (incertae tanta est discordia mentis),
cum pigeat temptasse, libet temptare. modumque
exit et infelix committit saepe repelli.
mox ubi finis abest, patriam fugit ille nefasque,
inque peregrina ponit nova moenia terra.
Tum vero maestam tota Miletida mente
defecisse ferunt, tum vero a pectore vestem
diripuit planxitque suos furibunda lacertos;
iamque palam est demens, inconcessaeque fatetur
spem veneris, siquidem patriam invisosque penates
deserit, et profugi sequitur vestigia fratris.
utque tuo motae, proles Semeleia, thyrso
Ismariae celebrant repetita triennia bacchae,
Byblida non aliter latos ululasse per agros
Bubasides videre nurus. quibus illa relictis
Caras et armiferos Lelegas Lyciamque pererrat.
iam Cragon et Limyren Xanthique reliquerat undas,
quoque Chimaera iugo mediis in partibus ignem,
pectus et ora leae, caudam serpentis habebat.
deficiunt silvae, cum tu lassata sequendo
concidis, et dura positis tellure capillis,
Bybli, iaces, frondesque tuo premis ore caducas.
saepe illam nymphae teneris Lelegeides ulnis
tollere conantur, saepe, ut medeatur amori,
praecipiunt, surdaeque adhibent solacia menti.
muta iacet, viridesque suis tenet unguibus herbas
Byblis, et umectat lacrimarum gramina rivo.
naidas his venam, quae numquam arescere posset,
subposuisse ferunt. quid enim dare maius habebant?
protinus, ut secto piceae de cortice guttae,
utve tenax gravida manat tellure bitumen;
utve sub adventu spirantis lene favoni
sole remollescit quae frigore constitit unda;
sic lacrimis consumpta suis Phoebeia Byblis
vertitur in fontem, qui nunc quoque vallibus illis
nomen habet dominae, nigraque sub ilice manat.