Greek and Roman Mythology > Pyramus and Thisbe

Pyramus and Thisbe

Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden,
in all Babylonia, where Semiramis reigned. Their parents
occupied adjoining houses; and neighborhood brought the young
people together, and acquaintance ripened into love. They would
gladly have married, but their parents forbade. One thing,
however, they could not forbid that love should glow with equal
ardor in the bosoms of both. They conversed by signs and
glances, and the fire burned more intensely for being covered up.
In the wall that parted the two houses there was a crack, caused
by some fault in the structure. No one had remarked it before,
but the lovers discovered it. 'What will love not discover? It
afforded a passage to the voice; and tender messages used to pass
backward and forward through the gap. As they stood, Pyramus on
this side, Thisbe on that, their breaths would mingle. "Cruel
wall," they said, "why do you keep two lovers apart? But we will
not be ungrateful. We owe you, we confess, the privilege of
transmitting loving words to willing ears." Such words they
uttered on different sides of the wall; and when night came and
they must say farewell, they pressed their lips upon the wall,
she on her side, he on his, as they could come no nearer.

One morning, when Aurora had put out the stars, and the sun had
melted the frost from the grass, they met at the accustomed spot.
Then, after lamenting their hard fate, they agreed that next
night, when all was still, they would slip away from watchful
eyes, leave their dwellings and walk out into the fields; and to
insure a meeting, repair to a well-known edifice, standing
without the city's bounds, called the tomb of Ninus, and that the
one who came first should await the other at the foot of a
certain tree. It was a white mulberry tree and stood near a cool
spring. All was agreed on, and they waited impatiently for the
sun to go down beneath the waters and night to rise up from them.
Then cautiously Thisbe stole forth, unobserved by the family, her
head covered with a veil, made her way to the monument and sat
down under the tree. As she sat alone in the dim light of the
evening she descried a lioness, her jaws reeking with recent
slaughter, approaching the fountain to slake her thirst. Thisbe
fled at the sight, and sought refuge in the hollow of a rock. As
she fled she dropped her veil. The lioness, after drinking at
the spring, turned to retreat to the woods, and seeing the veil
on the ground, tossed and rent it with her bloody mouth.

Pyramus, having been delayed, now approached the place of
meeting. He saw in the sand the footsteps of the lion, and the
color fled from his cheeks at the sight. Presently he found the
veil all rent and bloody. "Oh, hapless girl," said he, "I have
been the cause of thy death! Thou, more worthy of life than I,
hast fallen the first victim. I will follow. I am the guilty
cause, in tempting thee forth to a place of such peril, and not
being myself on the spot to guard thee. Come forth, ye lions,
from the rocks, and tear this guilty body with your teeth" He
took up the veil, carried it with him to the appointed tree, and
covered it with kisses and with tears. "My blood also shall
stain your texture," said he, and drawing his sword plunged it
into his heart. The blood spurted from the wound, and tinged the
white mulberries of the tree all red; and sinking into the earth
reached the roots, so that the red color mounted through the
trunk to the fruit.

By this time, Thisbe, still trembling with fear, yet wishing not
to disappoint her lover, stepped cautiously forth, looking
anxiously for the youth, eager to tell him the danger she had
escaped. When she came to the spot and saw the changed color of
the mulberries she doubted whether it was the same place. While
she hesitated she saw the form of one struggling in the agonies
of death. She started back, a shudder ran through her frame as a
ripple on the face of the still water when a sudden breeze sweeps
over it. But as soon as she recognized her lover, she screamed
and beat her breast; embracing the lifeless body, pouring tears
into its wounds, and imprinting kisses on the cold lips. "Oh,
Pyramus," she cried, "what has done this? Answer me, Pyramus; it
is your own Thisbe that speaks. Hear me, dearest, and lift that
drooping head!" At the name of Thisbe, Pyramus opened his eyes,
then closed them again. She saw her veil stained with blood and
the scabbard empty of its sword. "Thy own hand has slain thee,
and for my sake," she said. "I too can be brave for once, and my
love is as strong as thine. I will follow thee in death, for I
have been the cause; and death, which alone could part us, shall
not prevent my joining thee. And ye, unhappy parents of us both,
deny us not our united request. As love and death have joined
us, let one tomb contain us. And thou, tree, retain the marks of
slaughter. Let thy berries still serve for memorials of our
blood." So saying, she plunged the sword into her breast. Her
parents acceded to her wish; the gods also ratified it. The two
bodies were buried in one sepulchre, and the tree ever after
brought forth purple berries, as it does to this day.

Moore, in the Sylph's Ball, speaking of Davy's Safety Lamp, is
reminded of the wall that separated Thisbe and her lover:--

"O for that lamp's metallic gauze,
That curtain of protecting wire,
Which Davy delicately draws
Around illicit, dangerous fire!

"The wall he sets 'twixt Flame and Air,
(Like that which barred young Thisbe's bliss),
Through whose small holes this dangerous pair
May see each other, but not kiss."

In Mickle's translation of the Lusiad occurs the following
allusion to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the
metamorphosis of the mulberries. The poet is describing the
Island of Love.

" here each gift Pomona's hand bestows
In cultured garden, free uncultured flows,
The flavor sweeter and the hue more fair
Than e'er was fostered by the hand of care.
The cherry here in shining crimson glows,
And stained with lover's blood, in pendent rows,
The mulberries o'erload the bending boughs."

If any of our young readers can be so hard-hearted as to enjoy a
laugh at the expense of poor Pyramus and Thisbe, they may find an
opportunity by turning to Shakespeare's play of Midsummer Night's
Dream, where it is most amusingly burlesqued.

Here is the description of the play and the characters by the
Prologue.

"Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show;
But wonder on, till truth makes all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know;
This lovely lady Thisby is certain.

This man with lime and roughcast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall, which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall's chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper. At the which let no man wonder.
This man, with lanthorn, dog and bush of thorn,
Presenteth Moonshine; for, if you will know,
By Moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
To meet at Ninus' tomb, there, there to woo.
This grisly beast, which by name Lion hight.
The trusty Thisby, coming first by night,
Did scare away, or rather did affright;
And, as she fled, her mantle she did fall,
Which Lion vile with bloody mouth did stain.

Anon comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,
And finds his trusty Thisby's mantle slain;
Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast;
And, Thisby, tarrying in mulberry shade,
His dagger drew and died."
Midsummer Night's Dream, v.1,128, et seq.



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