The sky-god Zeus (Jupiter) often took the form of a human being to visit Earth in order to learn more about the conduct of the people. Once in the company of his son Hermes (Mercury), they arrived to Phrygia dressed as normal peasants to test the hospitality (xeniaXenia is the ancient Greek concept of hospitality or Hospitium in latin. It signifies the importance of generosity and courtesy between hosts and their guests as well as to strangers. Xenia could be expressed by providing food, shelter, protection, favours but also through physical gifts.), chastity and virtues of the people. They went from one house to another, asking for kindness and hospitality, but to no avail the doors wouldn’t open and they were rejected by all the homes they visited. There was no compassion for the beseeching and no reverence towards the gods.



However there was an exception, one house, the home of Philemon and Baucis, an older couple who lived in a meagre and paltry cottage but who worshipped the gods with deep piety. They had no servants nor any riches, they lived a simple life and cared for one another and most of all they were happy together. When the gods entered their home both were kindly welcomed by Philemon. Though they lived in a simple cottage the old couple did their best to satisfy and care for the visiting strangers, as they prepared a simple meal consisting of olives, eggs and milk accompanied with wine mixed with water in a cup.

Moments pass and the old couple start noticing, to their astonishment, that the cup which they drank from replenished itself, the more they emptied their drinks the more it filled by itself. This magical act made them realize that their guests were divine gods. So immediately they raised their hands up to the air in reverence and apologized for the scanty provisions. In an anxious and eager attempt to please them, the old couple reached out for the only geese they owned in order to kill and prepare it for them. But the geese instead took refuge in the presence of the strangers, which made them forbid their hosts of harming the scared animal.

Rembrandt

Philemon and Baucis by Rembrandt

As things settled, the gods announced their business and purpose in their town. They first claimed that they were indeed gods and then they proceeded by saying that they intend to punish the entire region for their offences, unkindness and impiety. Only Philemon and Baucis would be spared from the oncoming disaster.

So they ordered them to follow as they began walking with their walking sticks up a steep hill and higher yet to the peak of mountain. When they arrived at the top they turned around only to see their entire town being engulfed by a great flood, until the entire region was but a big lake. To their amazement only their small cottage remained unscathed, but now it was much more than that, as it had been transformed to a magnificent temple with majestic pillars, splendid doors and a glorious golden roof. After this Zeus addressed them cordially and granted them to make a wish of their own heart’s desire. While Philemon consulted briefly with his wife, they then expressed their request:

We ask to be priests and watch over your temples, and since we have spent harmonious years, let the same hour take us two, nor may I ever see my wife’s tomb(s), neither may I be buried by her.[1]

Philemon and Baucis as Priest and Priestess by Janus Genelli

Philemon and Baucis as a Priest and Priestess by Janus Genelli

Their wish was granted, and as a priest and priestess, even in their old age they watched over the temple years to come. As the years had gone by, Philemon suddenly saw his wife was being covered in green leaves, while Baucis in turn, saw Philemon being shrouded in leaves. Both understood what was happening and that their time had come. They spoke tender and loving words to each other until at last their mouths had been covered by foliage. Philemon had turned into a oak tree and Baucis into a small-leaved lime tree.

Philemon and Baucis Turning into Trees by Janus Genelli (1801)

Philemon and Baucis Turning into Trees by Janus Genelli (1801)

The trees stood for centuries upon the hills of Phrygia, beside each other, an old oak tree and an old lime tree, with magnificent branches were adorned with lovely wreaths. Close to the trees, there was an expansive lake, where once there lived people on its inhabited land.

Related Quotes

Fulfillment follows prayer: they were the guardians of the temple,
as long as life was given; weakened by years and old-age
when by chance they were standing before the sacred steps and
discussing the place’s downfall, Baucis [saw] that Philemon was in leaf,
old Philemon saw that Baucis was in leaf.
And now while the top grew over twin countenances
while it is permitted, they returned mutual words and said ‘farewell,
o companion’ at once, likewise bark covered concealed mouths:
Bithynian inhabitants hitherto show
the neighboring trunks from twin bodies there.
These things not untrustworthy old men recounted to me
(nor was it, why would they wish to deceive); for my part, I saw
garlands hanging above branches, and placing fresh ones said:
‘Let cares of gods be gods, and who have worshipped be worshipped.’

Ovid in the Metamorphoses

Morals in the Myth

  1. Though Philemon and Baucis had little, they still kept their integrity, dignity and most important of all, their happiness. You don’t need much to be happy, just live a good life.
  2. Kindness and hospitality goes a long way in life. Though one shouldn’t show kindness just to receive something in return, you never know when your lifestyle of being a good person is going to be rewarded. Philemon and Baucis were hospitable and pious for its own sake, they had no clue that their guests were gods. Live like that!
  3. What goes around comes around. The peoples of Phrygia were only concerned with their own well-being and livelihood, in the end everything was taken and ultimately submerged beneath the vengeance of Zeus.

References

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