It is a nightly ritual in my house that I read a story to my two youngest girls and then a story to my four boys. We all look forward to this very much. So between 7:00 to 8:00 pm, it’s story time. The girls love the fairy tales or things like the Beezus and Ramona series. The boys like the classic adventure and fantasy stories.
When we don’t have the usual time for the story we are reading, I will read a short story of some kind, like classic mythology. Recently, we had a short story evening and I read a myth called “Baucis and Philemon.” I’m sure many of you know this myth about this elderly couple named Baucis and Philemon who are visited by the Gods Jupiter and Mercury, who were trying to discover if the rumors of the cruel treatment of strangers were true.
The love of this couple is very striking and I would like to share with you segments of this very brief story, and then expound on it a bit. It’s actually quite a tear-jerker.
Jupiter and Mercury disguised themselves as weary travelers and knocked on many doors of this village, only to be turned away and treated rudely by all except for the elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon. They reached the “very humble cottage” of the elderly couple, which was very small and ordinary, with “precious little property within the posts of its fence.” The couple is described as follows:
“They were very, very poor, but also very contented and happy. Their cottage was separate from the village, just as they were, for in spite of their poverty, they never turned any stranger from their door nor failed to offer anyone in need what little they had for themselves. They had married young and they had grown old together in that very cottage. Throughout their lives they retained their steadfast love and admiration for each other, such that neither was a master or a servant in their home – they were equally masters and servants together.”
Jupiter and Mercury are taken in by the couple and are provided with a modest meal of olives, a few grapes, bread and milk with sweet honey. As the milk pitcher was always full despite all the drinking, the couple realizes these are not ordinary strangers, “but they were too polite to question them about the miracles.” The strangers are offered the bed of the couple, while they slept on the hard floor.
The next day, the gods reveal their identity. Startled, the couple drop to their knees in fear before them. Jupiter commands them to rise and comforts them for what they have done. He shows them what he has done to the rest of the village in punishment. They were the only people left in the village. In place of their humble cottage, Jupiter builds a temple of gold with beautiful gardens. He then asks the couple to tell him what they most desire so he can grant it to them.
Here is where it gets even more beautiful and astonishing:
“But we have our love for each other, and we’re already perfectly happy, so what more could we want?” says Philemon (the husband). Jupiter insisted; and after the couple discussed it further, they said: “Though we are happy, yet we are old and must expect someday to be parted from each other. Is it too much to ask, gracious lord, that we be allowed to be guardians of your beautiful temple, and when it comes our time to leave this world for the Land of Shades, that we may die in the same hour, still full of love as we have ever been, and depart this life together?”
Jupiter quickly replied, “It shall be just as you ask. You shall dwell together for many more happy years and your hearts shall always remain young and full of love; and when death shall come at last – as come it must – you shall depart together to the Land of Shades.”
Oh my goodness, how beautiful is that? But if you can believe it, there is more:
“So Baucis and Philemon grew very, very old, serving Jupiter all the while by welcoming every weary wayfarer and by feeding every poor beggar who came past that way. And so full of love were they for each other that in the eyes of Philemon, Baucis was still as beautiful as she was in her youth, and in the eyes of Baucis, Philemon was still as handsome as when he had fist wooed her so many years ago.”
Wooed! Who uses that word anymore? But they should. And how romantic that these very old people have a love so deep that they still look upon each other with youthful attraction, not out of courtesy nor necessity, but genuinely. But there is still more. Are you ready for this?:
“And then, at last, sitting side by side at the temple door at sunset, they passed from this mortal world at the same time, and Mercury, the messenger of the gods, conducted their gentle spirits to the Land of Shades. In their place, on either side of the temple door, rose an oak tree and a linden, their branches intertwined as though they were whispering loving secrets to each other. The people of the area still point out the place where the trees stand, side by side, forever intertwined, and they call them Baucis and Philemon.”
As romantic as all get out, no? Yes! What poetry! And what an image. Their branches intertwined as though whispering loving secrets to each other. My word, that is so beautiful. And what a testimonial of love, that it can be compared as two trees so intertwined that they are inseparable forever.
This myth speaks for itself as to what true love really is, and how beautiful marriage can be, where both are masters and servants of each other for the sake of the other. Where they live a content life of togetherness regardless of possessions, entertainment, or events; where mutual love and admiration is central; where a quiet and peaceful coexistence has value and meaning, like tea leaves slowly and quietly steeping with hot water to create something that is so unique that it has its own name.
I don’t know the details of how Philemon wooed Baucis, nor how they came to know such devotion to each other and importance to have each other’s company, nor what it was about the other that could have been so attractive. But one thing seems evidently clear; their love was founded on mutual respect, self-giving, love of life, and charity toward others. They lived outside of themselves, and they both found someone who wanted to give of themselves to one person for the other’s sake.
May we all find such a love that when both are old and gray, there is genuine youthful beauty still observed by the eye and within the heart.