Phoebus and the Crow

Ovid, Metamorphoses Book II, vv. 531-62

The gods of the sea granted her prayer, and Saturnia, mounting her swift chariot, was borne back through the yielding air by her gaily decked peacocks, peacocks but lately decked with the slain Argus' eyes, at the same time that thy plumage, talking raven, though white before, had been suddenly changed to black. For he had once been a bird of silvery-white plumage, so that he rivalled the spotless doves, nor yielded to the geese which one day were to save the Capitol with their watchful cries, nor to the river-loving swan. But his tongue was his undoing. Through his tongue's fault the talking bird, which once was white, was now the opposite of white

In all Thessaly there was no fairer maid than Coronis of Larissa. She surely found favour in thy eyes, O Delphic god, so long as she was chaste -- or undetected. But the bird of Phoebus discovered her unchastity, and was posting with all speed, hardhearted tell-tale, to his master to disclose the sin he had spied out. The gossiping crow followed him on flapping wings and asked the news. But when he heard the real object of the trip he said: "Tis no profitable journey you are taking, my friend. Scorn not the forewarning of my tongue. See what I used to be and what I am now, and then ask the reason for it. You will find that good faith was my undoing. Once upon a time a child was born, named Erichthonius, a child without a mother. Him Pallas hid in a box woven of Actaean osiers, and gave this to the three daughters of double-shaped Cecrops, with the strict command not to look upon her secret. Hidden in the light leaves that grew thick over an elm, I set myself to watch what they would do. Two of the girls, Pandrosos and Herse, watched the box in good faith, but the third, Aglauros, called her sisters cowards, and with her hand undid the fastenings. And within they saw a baby-boy and a snake stretched out beside him. I went and betrayed them to the goddess, and for my pains I was turned out of my place as Minerva's attendant and put after the bird of night! My punishment ought to be a warning to all birds not to invite trouble by talking too much. But perhaps (do you say?) she did not seek me out of her own accord, when I asked no such thing? Well, you may ask Pallas herself. Though she be angry with me now, she will not deny that, for all her anger. It is a well-known story. I once was a king's daughter, child of the famous Coroneus in the land of Phocis, and -- nay, scorn me not -- rich suitors sought me in marriage. But my beauty proved my bane. For once, while I paced, as is my wont, along the shore with slow steps over the sand's top, the god of the ocean saw me and grew hot. And when his prayers and coaxing words proved but waste of time, he offered force and pursued. I ran from him, leaving the hard-packed beach, and was quickly worn out, but all to no purpose, in the soft sand beyond. Then I cried out for help to gods and men, but my cries reached no mortal ear. But the virgin goddess heard a virgin's prayer and came to my aid. I was stretching my arms to heaven, when my arms began to darken with light feathers. I strove to cast my mantle from my shoulders, but it was feathers, too, which had already struck their roots deep into my skin. I tried to beat my bare breasts with my hands, but I found I had now neither breasts nor hands. I would run; and now the sand did not retard my feet as before, but I skimmed lightly along the top of the ground, and soon I floated on the air, soaring high; and so I was given to Minerva to be her blameless comrade. But of what use was that to me, if, after all, Nyctimene who was changed into a bird because of her vile sins has been put in my place? Or have you not heard the tale all Lesbos knows too well, how Nyctimene outraged the sanctity of her father's bed? And, bird though she now is, still, conscious of her guilt, she flees the sight of men and light of day, and tries to hide her shame in darkness, outcast by all from the whole radiant sky."

In reply to all this the raven said: "On your own head, I pray, be the evil that warning portends; I scorn the idle presage," continued on his way to his master, and then told him that he had seen Coronis lying beside the youth of Thessaly. When that charge was heard the laurel glided from the lover's head; together countenance and colour changed, and the quill dropped from the hand of the god. And as his heart became hot with swelling anger he seized his accustomed arms, strung his bent bow from the horns, and transfixed with unerring shaft the bosom which had been so often pressed to his own. The smitten maid groaned in agony, and, as the arrow was drawn out, her white limbs were drenched with her red blood. "Twas right, O Phoebus," she said "that I should suffer thus from you, but first I should have borne my child. But now two of us shall die in one." And while she spoke her life ebbed out with her streaming blood, and soon her body, its life all spent, lay cold in death.

The lover, alas! too late repents his cruel act; he hates himself because he listened to the tale and was so quick to break out in wrath. He hates the bird by which he has been compelled to know the offence that brought his grief; bow and hand he hates, and with that hand the hasty arrows too. He fondles the fallen girl, and too late tries to bring help and to conquer fate; but his healing arts are exercised in vain. When his efforts were of no avail and he saw the pyre made ready with the funeral fires which were to consume her limbs, then indeed -- for the cheeks of the heavenly gods may not be wet with tears -- from his deep heart he uttered piteous groans; such groans as the young cow utters when before her eyes the hammer high poised from beside the right ear crashes with its resounding blow through the hollow temples of her suckling calf. The god pours fragrant incense on her unconscious breast, gives her the last embrace, and performs all the fit offices unfitly for the dead. But that his own son should perish in the same funeral fires he cannot brook. He snatched the unborn child from his mother's womb and from the devouring flames, and bore him for safe keeping to the cave of two-formed Chiron. But the raven, which had hoped only for reward from his truthtelling, he forbad to take their place among white birds.

From Ovid's Metamorphoses, with an English Trans. by Frank Justus Miller. Leob. Cambridge, 1916, Vol I. pp.97-105. 

For a more lively eighteenth-century verse translation click here.