Gateway to the Classics: The Wonder-Book of Horses by James Baldwin
The Wonder-Book of Horses by  James Baldwin

The Ship of the Plains

H E was the first real flesh-and-blood horse of which we have any account. Some men say that he was the first animal of the kind that ever lived, but this is doubtful. Snowy white, without spot or blemish, from the tips of his ears to the tips of his amber hoofs, how he must have astonished the simple-minded folk of Cecropia when he leaped into their midst right out of the earth at their feet! If you should ever go to Athens and climb to the top of that wonderful hill called the Acropolis, look around you. You may see the very spot where it all happened. But to the story.

Did I say that the people who lived there at that time were simple-minded? Rather childlike they were in some ways, and not so worldly-wise as they might have been had they lived several thousand years later; but they were neither simpletons nor altogether savages. They were the foremost people in Greece. It was all owing to their king, wise old Cecrops, that they had risen to a station superior to that of the half-wild tribes around them. He had shown them how to sow barley and wheat and to plant vineyards; and he had taught them to depend upon these and their flocks and herds for food, rather than upon the wild beasts of the chase. He had persuaded them to lay aside many of their old cruel customs, had set them in families with each its own home, and had instructed them in the worship of the gods. On the top of the Acropolis they had built a little city, and surrounded it with walls as a protection against attacks from their warlike neighbors; and from this point as a center they had, little by little, extended their influence to the sea on one side and to the mountains on the other. But, strange to say, they had not yet given a name to their city, nor had they decided which one of the gods should be its protector. They had been so busy, learning and doing, that they had had no time to think about such matters.

On a certain day in autumn, after the grain had been harvested and the grapes had been gathered and made into wine, two strangers suddenly appeared in the market-place. Nobody knew whence they came, nor how they had climbed the steep pathways and entered within the walls unseen by the guards. The man, dark haired, huge-limbed and strong, bore as his only weapon a trident, or three-pronged harpoon, made of bronze. The woman was tall and stately, with large, round eyes and long hair that fell in ringlets about her shoulders, and she wore a gleaming helmet upon her head, and carried a bright, round shield upon her arm.

"What is the name of this city?" asked the man, speaking to the wondering people in the market-place.

"It has no name," answered one of the wisest among them; "but we sometimes call it Cecropia, or the city of Cecrops, the king who founded it and is its ruler. The country round about us is called Attica, because it is bounded on three sides by the sea."

"But where is your temple?" asked the woman. "And which of the gods is your city's patron and guardian?"

"Truly, we have but lately learned that there are any gods," was the answer; "and we render homage unto them all. If we knew which one of them would bless our people with the richest gifts, that one should be our patron and guardian, and to that one we would rear a temple. But how shall we know?"

"Do but lead us into the presence of the king," said the strange man, "and the matter shall be decided at once."

It happened that at that very moment King Cecrops was seated in his chair of state at the gate of the market-place, where he was wont every morning to listen to the petitions of his people and to dispense justice to rich and poor alike. When the two strangers were led into his presence he was so struck by their majestic appearance that he arose and received them standing, and in tones of humility and respect bade them make known their names and their errand.

"My name," said the woman, "is Athena, and it is I who give men wisdom and skill, and teach them the arts of peace and instruct them in all manner of handicraft. Make me the patron and guardian of this beautiful new city that you have builded, and its fame and that of the people who dwell therein shall be remembered to the end of time."

"Not so!" cried her companion. "I am Poseidon, the strong, the ruler of the sea, the shaker of the earth, and I claim this city for my own. Would you be rich and powerful, with fleet ships upon the sea and great armies upon the land? Would you make yourselves feared by all the nations of the earth? Then accept me as your patron, and build me a temple here upon your Acropolis!"

"Which shall it be, my people?" asked King Cecrops of the multitude that had gathered around. "Which shall we choose for our city's heritage, "Wisdom or Strength?"

"Wisdom!" cried some. "Strength!" cried others. And there was great confusion. Finally, an old man with white hair and very long white beard made himself heard.

"It seems to me, O King," he said, "that we should choose that one for our patron and guardian who can give us the most substantial blessings. We are a new people, and as yet we know so little of either Wisdom or Strength that we are not qualified to judge which is best. But let Athena and Poseidon each give us something, now and here, as a sample of the blessings which they promise us, and do you, O King, with your twelve councilors, decide which has offered the better gift; and then we will choose that one to be the patron and guardian of our city, and to that one we will build a temple here on our Acropolis."

"It is well!" cried the king.

"It is well!" cried Athena and Poseidon.

"It is well!" echoed the people.

"And do you agree?" asked the king, addressing the rival claimants.

"We agree," said they both. "We submit to the trial at once; and do you and your councilors decide which of our gifts is the more acceptable."

Then Poseidon strode haughtily forward and smote the bare rock with his trident. So heavy was his stroke that the entire hill trembled beneath it, and a deep, narrow cleft was opened in the solid limestone. Then out of the fissure there leaped a snow-white horse with flashing eyes and arching neck and impatient feet. It was the most wonderful creature that the people had ever seen, and they were terribly frightened by his sudden appearance.

"Behold the horse!" said Poseidon. "Behold the noblest of all beasts, man's best friend, the emblem of power and strength and of your own glorious future with me as your patron and protector."

Then Athena touched the ground with her shield, and forthwith there sprang out two tiny green leaves; and to these two other leaves were added, and then others and others, until a slender twig appeared. Then the twig grew into a spreading tree, with clusters of flowers and rich, oil-producing fruit; and birds built their nests among the branches, and children gamboled in the shade beneath.

"Behold the olive tree!" said Athena. "It is my gift to you, and the emblem of the blessings that I will confer upon your city."

The king and his councilors sat for a long time in silence, looking now upon the beautiful but terrible animal, and now upon the tree with its fruit and flowers and inviting shade. The horse was by far the most attractive object that they had ever seen, and the longer they looked upon him the more their wonder grew.

"What will we do with him now that we have him?" asked one.

"Will he feed the hungry?" asked another.

"Truly, he will be but an expensive luxury to us," said a third, "and not nearly so great a blessing to our people as the olive tree."

And so they rendered their decision. Poseidon's gift, they said, was a noble one, a wonderful one; but Athena's was preferable because it promised the most substantial blessings to all the people.

"Athena shall be our patron and protector!" cried they.

"And the name of our city shall be Athens, and we are henceforth Athenians!" cried all the people. And they forthwith began to clear the ground for the erection of that world-renowned temple, the ruins of which still crown the summit of the Acropolis. And Athena took up her abode with them.

As for Poseidon, he strode out of the gates in great rage, and the hill shook again under his heavy footsteps as he descended to the plain. He loosed all the winds and sent them hurtling against the walls of Athens, and for twelve days there were storms on sea and land the fiercest that men had ever seen. But what had those to fear who had chosen Wisdom for their protector and friend?

The wonderful steed which Poseidon had brought out of the rock was a greater terror than the storm, and the good people were glad to open the city gate and allow him to depart. Having descended into the fields, he tossed his head proudly, kicked his heels high into the air, and set off at great speed toward distant Thessaly and the vast pasture lands of the North. The men of Athens watched him in his flight across the plain. Swift as the whirlwind, with his long mane floating gracefully over his back, he looked not unlike some white-sailed vessel scudding before the wind across the ruffled surface of the sea. The people had been at a loss to find a name for the strange creature, but they caught eagerly at the suggestion that now offered itself.


"Swift as the whirlwind."

"See!" cried one, "is he not a ship, a skiff with sails?"

"He is the Ship of the Plains!" said another.

"Yes, we will call him Skyphios, or the Ship of the Plains!" cried they all.

And men afterward said that it was from Skyphios that the wild horses of the Scythian desert—nay, of all the world—are descended.

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