|Greek and Roman Mythology > Ibycus
necessary to remember, first, that the theatres of the ancients
were immense buildings providing seats for from ten to thirty
thousand spectators, and as they were used only on festal
occasions, and admission was free to all, they were usually
filled. They were without roofs and open to the sky, and the
performances were in the daytime. Secondly, the appalling
representation of the Furies is not exaggerated in the story. It
is recorded that AEschylus, the tragic poet, having on one
occasion represented the Furies in a chorus of fifty performers,
the terror of the spectators was such that many fainted and were
thrown into convulsions, and the magistrates forbade a like
representation for the future.
Ibycus, the pious poet, was on his way to the chariot races and
musical competitions held at the Isthmus of Corinth, which
attracted all of Grecian lineage. Apollo had bestowed on him the
gift of song, the honeyed lips of the poet, and he pursued his
way with lightsome step, full of the god. Already the towers of
Corinth crowning the height appeared in view, and he had entered
with pious awe the sacred grove of Neptune. No living object was
in sight, only a flock of cranes flew overhead, taking the same
course as himself in their migration to a southern clime. "Good
luck to you, ye friendly squadrons," he exclaimed, "my companions
from across the sea. I take your company for a good omen. We
come from far, and fly in search of hospitality. May both of us
meet that kind reception which shields the stranger guest from
He paced briskly on, and soon was in the middle of the wood.
There suddenly, at a narrow pass, two robbers stepped forth and
barred his way. He must yield or fight. But his hand,
accustomed to the lyre and not to the strife of arms, sank
powerless. He called for help on men and gods, but his cry
reached no defender's ear. "Then here must I die," said he, "in
a strange land, unlamented, cut off by the hand of outlaws, and
see none to avenge my cause." Sore wounded he sank to the earth,
when hoarse screamed the cranes overhead. "Take up my cause, ye
cranes," he said, "since no voice but yours answers to my cry."
So saying, he closed his eyes in death.
The body, despoiled and mangled, was found, and though disfigured
with wounds, was recognized by the friend in Corinth who had
expected him as a guest. "Is it thus I find you restored to me?"
he exclaimed; "I who hoped to entwine your temples with the
wreath of triumph in the strife of song!"
The guests assembled at the festival heard the tidings with
dismay. All Greece felt the wound, every heart owned its loss.
They crowded round the tribunal of the magistrates, and demanded
vengeance on the murderers and expiation with their blood.
But what trace or mark shall point out the perpetrator from
amidst the vast multitude attracted by the splendor of the feat?
Did he fall by the hands of robbers, or did some private enemy
slay him? The all-discerning sun alone can tell, for no other
eye beheld it. Yet not improbably the murderer even now walks in
the midst of the throng, and enjoys the fruits of his crime,
while vengeance seeks for him in vain. Perhaps in their own
temple's enclosure he defies the gods, mingling freely in this
throng of men that now presses into the ampitheatre.
For now crowded together, row on row, the multitude fill the
seats till it seems as if the very fabric would give way. The
murmur of voices sounds like the roar of the sea, while the
circles widening in their ascent rise, tier on tier, as if they
would reach the sky.
And now the vast assemblage listens to the awful voice of the
chorus personating the Furies, which in solemn guise advances
with measured step, and moves around the circuit of the theatre.
Can they be mortal women who compose that awful group, and can
that vast concourse of silent forms be living beings!
The choristers, clad in black, bore in their fleshless hands
torches blazing with a pitchy flame. Their cheeks were
bloodless, and in place of hair, writing and swelling serpents
curled around their brows. Forming a circle, these awful beings
sang their hymn, rending the hearts of the guilty, and enchaining
all their faculties. It rose and swelled, overpowering the sound
of the instruments, stealing the judgment, palsying the heart,
curdling the blood.
"Happy the man who keeps his heart pure from guilt and crime!
Him we avengers touch not; he treads the path of life secure from
us. But woe! Woe! To him who has done the deed of secret
murder. We, the fearful family of Night, fasten ourselves upon
his whole being. Thinks he by flight to escape us? We fly still
faster in pursuit, twine our snakes around his feet and bring him
to the ground. Unwearied we pursue; no pity checks our course;
still on and on to the end of life, we give him no peace nor
rest." Thus the Eumenides sang, and moved in solemn cadence,
while stillness like the stillness of death sat over the whole
assembly as if in the presence of superhuman beings; and then in
solemn march completing the circuit of the theatre, they passed
out at the back of the stage.
Every heart fluttered between illusion and reality, and every
breast panted with undefined terror, quailing before the awful
power that watches secret crimes and winds unseen the skein of
destiny. At that moment a cry burst forth from one of the
uppermost benches "Look! Look! Comrade, yonder are the cranes
of Ibycus!" And suddenly there appeared sailing across the sky a
dark object which a moment's inspection showed to be a flock of
cranes flying directly over the theatre. "Of Ibycus! did he
say?" The beloved name revived the sorrow in every breast. As
wave follows wave over the face of the sea, so ran from mouth to
mouth the words, "Of Ibycus! Him whom we all lament, with some
murderer's hand laid low! What have the cranes to do with him?"
And louder grew the swell of voices, while like a lightning's
flash the thought sped through every heart, "Observe the power of
the Eumenides! The pious poet shall be avenged! The murderer
has informed against himself. Seize the man who uttered that cry
and the other to whom he spoke!"
The culprit would gladly have recalled his words, but it was too
late. The faces of the murderers pale with terror betrayed their
guilt. The people took them before the judge, they confessed
their crime and suffered the punishment they deserved.