How Helius lost his chariot to Apollo and Mount Etna was created.
|In those days women labouring on the path between life and death called for Hecate to succour them. And, if she heard them, she came. Bright-cheeked Hecate was a nymph of lonely places, daughter no doubt of some god or other, whom no one had bothered to recognise as his own. She cherished the wilderness for there was no one else for her to cherish, and because it had cherished her first. But she was lonely and curious, as all the gods are curious, about the little lives of men. And so, when a woman raised her voice in the agony of childbirth, Hecate would straighten in the fields where she gathered flowers, or look up as she waded though a green-glinting river, and hurry eagerly to see what new player was making his entrance onto her windswept stage.
One day the call came as the sun was dawdling in the sky and Hecate wandered in the mountains, hoping to hear the wind wail like a voice through the rocks. A woman, her time come as she pounded cloths in the river, threw back her sweating head and like a heifer, bellowed out "Help me, Hecate!"
Hecate came running, her legs flashing down the mountainside, her veil slipping from her brow. The white of her skin was so brilliant, for the sun had never touched it, that it caught the eyes of the fiery horses of star-eyed Helius as they paced the reaches of the sky. They reared in alarm and Helius, who drove the sun in those days, called out to them and cracked his whip. He looked down through the layered depths of air below him and saw bright-cheeked Hecate running like a doe between the olive trees. And straight away he wanted her.
Helius whipped the horses then and set the chariot spiralling out of the sky, tracing circles of fire in the air. Hecate, running with the light of curiosity in her eye down the mountainside, noticed suddenly how her shadow swept round her, now behind, now before. Afraid, she looked up. Too late, too late, Hecate saw the rolling eyes and adamantine hooves that struck sparks from nothing, and star-eyed Helius bearing down on her. She ran but the chariot swooped, while the sky above darkened to unnatural night.
He caught her then and held her, while the fiery horses cropped the scorched grass and the poppies that withered in the heat.
Sated with love at last, Helius leapt back into the chariot and with a crack of his whip drove the horses steeply into the sky. All the world rejoiced as the sun, dragging day behind it, returned to its orbit and banished the weird noon-time night. All except a woman who panted in pain and fear alone on a river-bank, and bright-cheeked Hecate weeping in a meadow to which autumn had come in the space of a moment.
Helius' boasts of his latest love affair died on his lips that night on Mount Olympus. A new fire was burning within him and would not let his tongue taste ambrosia nor his ears hear the music of the spheres. All he could see in the brilliant halls of the gods was bright-cheeked Hecate running before him. He still wanted her.
Day after day that summer eerie nights flitted across the sky as Helius hunted Hecate down. If she waded into a river to hide from him, his horses dried the waters up; if she sheltered in a forest, their manes set fires racing through the branches, if she tried to shelter underground they breathed smoke into the caves so she had to run weeping into Helius' waiting arms. She always ran and he always caught her.
At last the hunt became too easy. Bright-cheeked Hecate's slim form was round with child. She stumbled rather than ran through the wilderness. Helius swung his chariot away from the ground as he saw her.
"Foster your child, Hecate, and grow slim again. I will watch for your quick step on the mountain when the time comes."
As the star-eyed god climbed into the sky, the first pangs gripped Hecate and she sank to her knees in the meadow. "Help me!" she called, as every woman calls in labour. But there was no one to hear her. She laboured for hours alone in the wilderness and, as Helius' horses reached their pasture in the Blessed Isles of the West, the lonely nymph was delivered of a babe, a son. He was blue and cold as eventide.
The moon rose and Hecate turned her face away for the moon was Helius' sister. Through her tears she saw a light moving dimly through the night past her where she lay. A litter was being carried through the field. White lights swung from the drapery and Hecate saw that the bearers were satyrs, their legs bobbing strangely through the gloaming. Within lay Hades' wife, the daughter of Demeter, returning from her summer sojourn with her mother to Tartarus and the black god's cold embrace. The goddess's sobs floated on the air.
"Lady Persephone!" cried bright-cheeked Hecate. She crawled to her feet with her dead babe tight in her arms and limped to where the procession traced its path to the Underworld. The bearers did not pause but the Queen of the Underworld lifted a white hand to the drapes and Hecate saw eyes as bright as starlight in the shadows within. Rosy-lipped Persephone smiled through her tears.
"Wait a while," she called to her bearers but they paid no heed. They walked on, for the word of the black god was death while Persephone's was only pain. "Wait!" the goddess cried again and leaned out of the litter to speak to Hecate.
"My child is dead," wept Hecate.
"What would you have me do?" said Persephone through the swaying drapes. The tears were bright in her eyes.
"Take him with you to Elysium, I beg you."
"Every soul must make that journey by himself," said the goddess.
"I have not the fare for the boatman," said Hecate in despair. "He is the son of a god – please, my lady, take him with you." She ran a little way beside the litter then dropped back as the weariness of her travails took her.
"What god?" asked rosy-lipped Persephone.
"Helius. He hunted me daily in the wilderness and left me at last with this child."
"The sun!" breathed the goddess. "You love him?"
The bright eyes of the goddess whelmed again with tears. "He raped you," she said, "and set unnatural night over the Earth. I see it now. All summer there were frosts at mid-day. The flowers I gathered wilted in my hands, my nymphs shivered in their robes and ice formed on the pools where I would bathe. My summers of freedom are so fleeting..." The goddess sighed deeply. "And this summer was cold and uncanny as midwinter. His crime against me is small compared to what he has done to you – but he has wronged us both. Bearers," she cried. "Foul spirits of my husband's law, I order you to halt." They ignored her but she half rose in the litter, her white hands gripping the frame and her voice raised in anger. "You may hasten on with all speed and my blessing upon you – but first slow, that I may take this nymph into my litter."
The satyrs knelt and the Queen of the Underworld reached out and took the tiny child from Hecate's weary hands. At her touch the infant stirred, not with life but with the quickening of the spirit; its shade woke and blinked. Hecate climbed swiftly in and tried to take the child back but the spirit drained from it and only a corpse remained in her arms.
"He is mine now," said Persephone sadly. "But I promise he will thrive in the courts of my husband. He will run through the orchards of Elysium and grow strong there, loved and tended by all my maidens." Hecate returned him to the goddess's lap and marvelled as the tiny babe balled its fists and opened its eyes. "And you, nymph, what will you do?"
Hecate looked out at the moonlit land. "The world is a cold and lonely place," she said. "And love is empty. I have no love left for life."
The moonlight faded as the litter started its descent into the Underworld. Darkness pressed coldly in and the babe in Persephone's arms kicked and mewled. "I want nothing now but vengeance," Hecate said.
"Good," said the goddess. "I will give you what I have never had myself, a chance to repay pain for pain, loss for loss, what evils the gods do wreak upon us. They snatch our happiness from us as spiteful cats snatch birds while they sing. If you are truly tired of the life Helius has given you, I can help. But you must be brave. The path I can show you is cold and perilous and death lies at the end of it.
"Look – " She drew back the drapes and fingers of cold penetrated the litter like ice spreading over the surface of a lake. Hecate saw the utter black of the river Styx, the edge of this world and the border of the next. And here – and here – along the bank, then pressing in around the litter with a wail and a gibber, suddenly, came the ghosts. They were faceless, voiceless but for their wordless cry.
"They could not afford to pay Charon to row them across to the Fields of Asphodel and the Three Judges," said Persephone grimly. "From such a fate I can save your son, and I will. They drink the blood of the living. Poor souls, a drop of blood makes them believe they are men again, not shades of nothing."
Hecate stared in horror at the shifting, formless masses before her.
"You can use them," said Persephone. The litter halted and the satyrs, bending their backwards legs, slid the frame onto the broad base of Charon's ferry. Hecate kissed her child's forehead and scrambled to the shore. "Lead them with blood, as a hunter leads a wolf to his trap," cried Persephone as the barge slipped into the black waters. Her voice seemed distant already. "Let them drink his blood, take his life as he has taken yours!"
And Hecate stood alone on the frozen bank of the River of Death and felt the ghosts run hungry fingers over her white and lovely arms.
Hecate climbed then through the dark places of the earth and the ghosts followed her, hungering for the blood she let fall drop by drop. She came at last to a door to the upper air where a cave looked out over a valley full of morning mist and the sound of a river. It was a lonely place, where nymphs disported themselves far from the sight of men. Hecate knew it, had loved it in the days before Helius noticed her and the sight of it brought a blush of memory to her cheek.
But rosy-fingered Eos was unlocking the stable door in Helius' palace, she knew, as she waited in the cave with the ghosts cowering behind her.
He came, as he must come, pacing the paths of the sky with his fiery horses and his golden chariot, star-eyed Helius who drives the sun from far in the east to the Islands of the Blessed in the far west. But he dawdled in the sky and looked listlessly down at the land green and silver beneath him for his love for Hecate was upon him again and he hungered for her as fire hungers for wood or the sea hungers for the shore.
Noon came and the fiery horses stamped high over the mountain. Then Hecate left her cave and ran, her legs flashing down the mountainside, her veil blowing over her cheeks. She caught the eyes of the fiery horses of star-eyed Helius as they paced the reaches of the sky. They reared in alarm and Helius called out to them and cracked his whip. He looked down through the layered depths of air below him and saw Hecate running like a doe between the olive trees. And he wanted her.
He whipped the horses and set the chariot spiralling out of the sky. Hecate noticed suddenly how her shadow swept round her, now behind, now before, leaping over the rocks. She did not look up; she ran. Too late, too late, Helius drove the horses after her as she darted back to the mouth of the cave. The adamantine hooves struck sparks from the rock wall as she disappeared within and the horses blew smoke and fire after her. Helius leapt from the chariot and ran into the cave.
Far away on Mount Olympus Apollo noticed the sky darken to unnatural night. "Saddle my horse!" he cried. He whipped his steed through the eerie night until a blaze of light burning on the mountaintop caught his eye. The fiery horses of Helius were grazing there, cropping the stonecrop and harebells that withered in the heat. With a cry of triumph Apollo leapt into the car and seized the reins. "Mine!" he cried. The horses bellowed with rage but in a moment they were climbing steeply to the curved path between the stars. And from that day on it was Apollo and not Helius who drove the sun from east to west across the Heavens.
Hecate ran far through the dark tunnels of the Underworld with Helius pacing behind her, the light of his brow flashing brilliantly before him. "I'll catch you, Hecate," he called to her. "I will always catch you."
Hecate halted, deep in the earth and the ghosts huddled round her, sucking at the wounds on her arms. She shivered, thinking of her child far off in Elysium and the bitter-sweet days of her youth alone in the wilderness. "I cannot run any more from you," she said. "I am here."
He found her, his lights catching her robe and the veil that covered her cheeks. The ghosts scattered. The god gripped her arms and tore the veil from her face and saw – a white-haired crone with hollow cheeks and eyes so deep-sunken they were like two dry wells. All Hecate's youth and beauty had been drained away by the life-hungry ghosts. The god pulled back but now she gripped him. She held him tight with claw-like fists. Helius cried out. He thrashed in Hecate's grip but the passage was narrow and his heaving shoulders broke the rock around them so that it rained down, crushing them together in the dark. The ghosts pressed in, sucking and tearing at them both.
But Helius was strong. In his body burnt the fires of the sun and as the rocks and the dead tore at him his blood boiled and fevered and finally burst from him in one obliterating eruption. His heat melted the heart of the mountain that trapped him. As he died with Hecate in his arms, liquid stone and ichor thrust through the mountain and into the upper air. It scorched the sky, where Apollo paced in his new-won chariot, with smoke and threw ash over the valleys and rivers of far-distant Hellas that lonely Hecate once loved.
And that is how the volcano Mount Etna came into being.