Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by  Mary E. Burt

How a Little Hero Conquered a Large One

There was once a tall lady who wore long dark, trailing robes, so long and so dark that it made the whole world seem like night. The birds went to sleep when they saw her coming, and the stars came out to shine as her long black robe swept over the land. Her name was Leto (Darkness), and she wandered round and round the earth twenty-four hours out of the night, for, as we have said, it was never day-time where she was.

At last she grew tired, and thought she would like to stop awhile, and she sought for a place to rest. She kept on seeking for such a spot until she came to an island, called Delos, and she said if she could find a home there that the place should become glorious. It should be the birth-place of Apollo who would be a great hero. A large white temple should be built in his honor, and wise men should come from every part of the earth to lay rich gifts on his altar.

So the good people of the island made a home for her, and there Apollo was born, and at his birth the whole earth laughed and grew gay with flowers. Before that, Delos had been only a stony island, and of no particular account, but now it was called the bright-land, and it was girt around by a golden wall, and its lakes and rivers all turned into gold and shone like the sun.

There were seven snowy swans that left their home in a golden river and went to circle around his cradle and sing sweet songs to his mother. They were the birds of the Muses, and took him the gift of song, so that he should be a musician.

And that was not all. The island became golden to its foundations, and the olive trees took on golden foliage, and the rivers ran over with gold. The child could not tell a lie, which was another golden circumstance, and he had a golden harp with golden strings.

There came beautiful nymphs who wrapped him in white robes embroidered with gold, that looked just like the white clouds of early morning fringed with gold when the sun is just rising. You may think this is a pretty large story, and you may doubt it, but if you take a sail some day around the island of Delos just as the sun is rising, you will see that it is all quite true.

As soon as the babe could breathe a little, the goddess of Justice fed him with nectar and ambrosia, and then he took his harp with the golden strings and began to play sweet tunes and sing songs, and to lay down the law like any other baby. While yet a child, Apollo wore a belt of gold about his waist, but it turned into a golden sword, and he carried a quiver filled with golden arrows which never missed the mark any more than a sunbeam does when it strikes at a boy's face to give him little golden freckles.

Before Apollo was an hour old he became a famous traveller. Like his mother, he travelled all the time, going round and round the earth twenty-four hours out of the day, for it was never night-time where he was. He saw all the lands on the face of the earth, and after awhile he thought it would be pleasant to settle down and have a home somewhere, at least for one whole day, and he came to a Fountain that was so beautiful that he thought he would make his home near her. But the pretty Fountain did not like his attentions. He was too bright, and she feared that he would send his arrows at her, so she begged him to go on, for fear that they might cease to like each other.

Apollo went on until he came to a mountain where wise people loved to linger. It was called Mont Parnassus; and there he built himself a shrine, and he kindled an undying fire on his altar as large and as red as the setting sun, and he taught the people how to worship him.

He charged them to tell the truth always, and to be kind to all who came with gifts to his temple. There he slew a great serpent called Python, a monster of darkness and pestilence, which kept the people away from his temple. This monster arose from the wet earth, and it was a source of terror to all the people living near the mountain.

Apollo had never before shot such dreadful beasts, but he sent a thousand arrows at him, and the poisonous serpent died of his wounds. To keep the fame of this deed in the minds of men, Apollo commanded that there should be games, in which young men should run races, and the conqueror should have a crown of leaves from the beech tree.

Apollo was so proud of this victory, and said so much about it, that a little fellow with wings whose name was Cupid, grew angry with him. He carried a bow, as well as Apollo, and a quiver full of arrows, and he claimed to be a more skillful sharpshooter than the god of the golden bow. Then Cupid said to Apollo, "Your bow may shoot all things on earth, but my bow shall shoot you, and your glory shall be less than mine." People are very small, you know, when they are more anxious for the glory than for the pleasure that there is in doing something good.

So Cupid flew through the air with beating wings and a beating heart, and stood upon the top of the mountain. And he drew two arrows from his quiver, one to breed hatred,—that arrow was made of lead,—and one to breed love, which was made of gold.

The arrow of lead was blunt, and the golden arrow very sharp. Cupid shot the golden arrow at Apollo, but with the blunt arrow of lead he pierced the heart of a beautiful maiden. At once Apollo loved the girl and she hated him. He tried to catch her but she fled. Apollo called out to her and this is what he said: "O beautiful maiden, stop I pray you. I am not your enemy. You fly from me as a lamb flies from a wolf, or as a deer flies from a lion. It is because I love you that I follow you. I am not a rude, coarse man. I am not a shepherd. I am very rich in gold and cattle, and I have built great cities. I make beautiful music on the harp, and I can see all things present and future, and I prepare medicines. Cupid's arrow has wounded my heart, but I cannot make the medicine to cure that. If you will come with me I will make you my wife."

But the girl fled faster than ever, and at last she hid in a laurel bush close to a river, and the river-god, who was her father, caused the bushes to grow around her so quickly that she seemed to turn into a tree.

If we believe the story, her body was covered with a thin bark, her hair grew into green leaves, her arms into branches, and her feet became the roots to hold her into the ground.

Nothing remained to her but her elegance, but that was quite enough for Apollo, and so he threw his arms around her and kissed her bark and exclaimed, "Since I cannot win you for a wife, you shall be my tree. My golden hair and my harp shall always be adorned by your leaves."

Thus was the great hero conquered by the little one, but to this day poets and singers wear a crown of laurel.

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