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


The Piper Who Pipes on Seven Reeds

I remember a little boy who used to make a great many whistles. He did not live in a city where he could go to a store and buy all the whistles he wanted, as most children can; but that was not any matter, for he learned a great many things in making his own whistles, that other children who buy whistles will never know. This little boy's name was Ned, and he lived in a country town where there were not many other boys, and he had to amuse himself.

Ned lived on a hill, and there was quite a large pond just down back of the hill, with many willow trees growing all about. Ned used to go down to the pond to play, and he often cut off a willow branch and made whistles from it. This is how he did it. He took the branch while it was fresh and green, cut it up into short sticks and put them into the pond so that they would not dry up. Then he took one of the sticks and knocked it gently on all sides until the bark was loose and he could slip it off. He cut a little hole through the bark into the wood and slipped the bark off, and cut a groove in the wood. Then he slipped the bark on again without breaking it, and there was a beautiful whistle, as fine as any boy would want.

Sometimes Ned picked pumpkin vines and made whistles of them also, queer whistles that sounded like deep hollow voices; and he found hollow reeds growing in the pond, from which he made musical whistles, and he made fiddles from corn-stalks.

These things country boys can do because they live where things grow, and it makes me think of a story about some one who was said to be a god of music, the music that comes from reeds and grasses and pine trees and all those things that grow out of doors.

For my part, I am not sure there ever was any such creature. It might have been a good, smart boy like Ned, who wore clothes made of the skins of goats and made whistles out of willows and vines and all sorts of wild things, just a shepherd lad tending his sheep in lonely places by river sides and lake sides, singing and whistling and dancing to keep up his spirits. But people called him god Pan, and they said that he was half goat and half man, that he had the head and arms of a man, but that the lower half of his body was that of a goat. He wore the horns of a goat on his head, and he carried a shepherd's staff and invented musical instruments. When evening came, and the gentle winds made music among the vines and trees, people said, "God Pan is piping out among the reeds."

And when the beautiful spring came with its pink buds they said, "God Pan is dancing in the forests like the frisky goat on the mountain," and when the babbling streams ran along, their music mingling with the melodies of the breezes among the leaves, the people said, "God Pan and his companions, the frisky satyrs, are scaring the water-nymphs, the goddesses who live in the murmuring streams."


It happened that there was a beautiful land where the mountains rose into the white clouds, the valleys were garlanded with green, and dancing rivulets ran singing along among bushes covered with white syringa blossoms. Here the wild stag bounded over the hillside, and nymphs bathed in the brooks, the air blew more softly and sweetly in the summer, and people were happy and worshipped god Pan.

Here the beautiful Hamadryads wandered, the spirits who lived in trees and bushes, living while they lived, and dying when they died.

Among the Hamadryads, who haunted the syringa bushes on the banks of one of the pretty streams, lived a water-nymph whose name was Syrinx, and I think the name of the syringa blossom would have been forgotten long ago if it had not been so much like hers.

Syrinx, or Syringa I will call her, was often frightened by the companions of god Pan, the goat-men who danced around on the hills, frisking about on their goat-legs, and piping merry tunes on their reed-whistles. They were naughty fellows, those goat-men, as naughty as some big boys are nowadays, who love to chase little girls and frighten them, and laugh to see them run. Nevertheless Syringa dressed herself up like a huntress, and took a golden bow and went about over the hills hunting the deer and the rabbit, and when the people saw her they cried, "There is Diana, the hunter goddess who lives in the country of the quails."


One day when she was out roaming about the woods and hills, god Pan saw her. He was coming home from one of his revels, frisking along like a goat, his head all covered with sharp pine leaves. And when he saw Syringa, he thought he would like to have her dance at his revels, and frisk about over the hills with him and be his play-fellow. So he ran after her, calling to her; but she was frightened when she saw the goat-like creature, and she fled from him over the hills and through the bushes where there were no paths, until she came to a gentle stream whose banks were covered with reeds and syringa bushes.

The stream was too broad for her to cross over, so she prayed to the water-nymphs to change her into some other form that Pan might not catch her.

The nymphs heard her prayer, and turned her into a syringa bush covered with blossoms whiter than milk.

When god Pan caught her, he found his arms full of great branches of the syringa bush, with its white flowers glowing like a beautiful face. And, as he stood there mourning over his loss, he heard a murmuring noise, a sweet, sad, low tone like one complaining, coming from the branches of the syringa; for the syringa, like the willow, has a hollow tube which is musical.

God Pan was charmed with the sweet voice, and he said, "Syringa, thou hast escaped me, but thy whispers are sweeter than thyself. Thy soul doth come to me through this hollow branch. This way of conversing with thee shall ever remain to me. Oh, the delight of speaking to thee through music."


Then he took seven branches and bound them together, and made them into a musical instrument of seven pipes. And he often sat on the banks of the gentle stream, among the syringa blossoms playing on the pipe of seven reeds. And when the people heard the music off by the river, they said, "God Pan is piping down among the rushes. He is holding conversation with the beautiful Syringa."

I love to think of god Pan piping by the river, and I love to think of Ned piping down by the pond, and I believe that any one who might see a beautiful stream dancing down the mountain, hiding itself among syringa bushes, with frisky goats scampering along its banks, would feel like telling this story, whether he believed it or not.

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