Gateway to the Classics: In Story-land by Elizabeth Harrison
In Story-land by  Elizabeth Harrison

The Story of a Wonderful Sea-God

I am going to tell you to-day one of the strangest stories that has ever been told to little children. It is such a wonderful story that even grown people read it again and again.

Three thousand years ago Greek mothers used to tell it to their children as they sat together on the seashore. It is about a famous king, named Menelaus, who after a long and cruel war was over, started in his good ship for his much loved home in Sparta. Thinking only of himself in his impatience to get home, he forgot to give worship to the gods, to thank them for his deliverance and to ask them to guide him safely to his journey's end. We shall soon see what trouble his thoughtlessness brought upon him, and not him alone, but all his followers.

In those days there were no great ocean steamers such as we have now, therefore Menelaus and his men had to cross the dark, mysterious sea in small boats which they rowed with oars. Sometimes when the wind was favorable they would hoist a sail and thus be helped along on their journey. As it was impossible for them to go forward when the strong, though invisible, wind was not blowing in a favorable direction, you can easily imagine their dismay when, having stopped one evening in a sheltered bay on the coast of a small island, they awoke next morning to find the wind blowing steadily in the opposite direction from the one in which they wished to sail. They waited all day hoping that the strong breeze would die down, or change its direction. The next day and the next passed and still the wind blew steadily away from their beloved homes. Although it was  invisible it had more strength than all of them, and they could make no headway against it. Had they not watched it lift huge waves high in the air and dash them against the sharp rocks? Had they not seen it twist and turn the strong branches of great trees, and sometimes bend and even break  their mighty trunks? And yet they knew at other times how gentle it could be. Had they not listened to its soft, low song as it rustled over the tall grass? How glad they always were when it rattled and stirred their white sails, filling their hearts with promises of help on the way? They could not always understand what it was saying, but they felt sure that it came from the ever-living gods and always brought some message of love, or command to them.

So, as day after day it blew a fierce, wild gale over their heads, and on beyond, hurrying clouds across the sky, dashing the waves against the shore, whirling the dust into their faces and hurriedly uttering hoarse whispering sounds as it passed them, they knew that it was warning them against daring to continue their homeward journey.

Twenty days had come and gone, and still the wind kept up its fierce, loud tone of command as it rushed from the far away west, shook the waters of the vast ocean, swept over the small, rocky island and sped on toward the east. The courage of the poor sailors was almost exhausted. Their provisions were giving out. They had to catch fish to satisfy each day's hunger. Menelaus, their chief, was wandering alone upon the seashore. He was very unhappy, for he feared much that all this trouble had come upon his comrades because he had not obeyed the law of the gods before he left Egypt. So he was much distressed in mind as he walked along the sandy beach.

The sun was sinking to rest, the evening shadows were settling down between the rocky hills, the darkness of night was approaching, when suddenly there stood before him a beautiful being, of so dazzling an appearance that he knew she could not be a woman, she must be an immortal. Her saffron robes gleamed with light as do the sunset clouds. Her face was as radiant as are the last rays of the departing sun. It was the beautiful goddess, Idothea. Her face suddenly became stern as she looked at King Menelaus and asked him why he tarried idly upon the small, rocky island. He replied that he did not willingly remain, but that he must surely have sinned against the gods, as they had sent a strong, fierce wind to hinder his homeward voyage. Then he earnestly begged her to tell him what to do. The stern look left her face as she heard him confess that he had done wrong. She came nearer to him, and her glittering robes changed from saffron to pink, and blue, and even gray, and the lights played above, around and about her in the most wonderful fashion, changing each moment as she spoke.

She told him that she was the daughter of Proteus, the Ancient of the Deep, who, living for thousands and thousands of years in the bottom of the great ocean, had gone wherever the restless waves of the sea had gone, and had learned the secrets of both land and water. He knew the song of the winds and could interpret every message which they brought from the gods, therefore he, and he alone, could tell Menelaus what it was that the strong, fierce wind had been crying out to him and his companions for the past twenty days.

Now comes the strange part of our story. This sea-god, Proteus, was a most remarkable being. He had the power to change himself into whatever form he chose, as you will soon see. The only way to get any secret from him was to catch him when he was asleep, and then to hold on  to him, no matter what shape he might choose to take, until at last he returned to his original form of the old man of the sea.

Idothea told Menelaus that this strange father of hers would rise out of the sea at about noon the next day, and would walk over to a large cavern not far distant, where his sea-calves took their daily sleep, and that when he had counted them to see if they were all there, he would lie down in the midst of them and go to sleep also. This, said she, would be the time for Menelaus and three of his trusted sailors to spring upon him and seize him firmly, and she added that they must hold on to him, no matter what happened, until he changed back into his own form, that of an old man; then they could ask him any questions they wished and he would be compelled to answer them.

Having given Menelaus these instructions, the beautiful goddess suddenly plunged into the ocean and the green waves closed over her.

With bowed head and mind filled with anxious thought Menelaus returned to his men. They gathered round their boats on the seashore and ate their scanty evening meal. Silently and solemnly the night settled down upon the landscape and made the trees look like dark, shadowy forms, and the outlines of the hills grew dim, and the ocean was covered by the hush of the darkness, and silence reigned over all.

The sailors threw themselves down upon the sand and were soon fast asleep. Menelaus lay beside them, but I fear much that he did not sleep. His mind was troubled. What would the next day bring forth? He was to meet the strange and terrible Ancient of the Deep, and was to struggle fiercely with him. Would he be able to cope with the monster? Would he have the courage to hold on to him? What awful and unknown shapes might not the creature take? These and a hundred other questions kept rising in his mind and banished all sleep from his eyes. One by one the stars came out in the deep, black sky above his head. Had not the gods kept them in their places for unnumbered ages? Could not these same gods protect and strengthen him when they knew that in his heart he was striving to learn what was their will? The night slowly wore away, and when the faint purplish light softened the eastern sky, he arose and going apart from his sleeping comrades, he knelt down and prayed earnestly to the ever-living gods. Then returning to his men, he awoke the three whom he could trust the most, and taking them with him he sought the spot where the goddess Idothea had promised to meet him. She, radiant as the dawn, was already there awaiting him.

As they approached she plunged into the sea and was lost to sight. In a few moments, however, she re-appeared bringing with her the newly flayed skins of four sea-calves. Then quickly digging four oblong holes in the wet sand she commanded Menelaus and his three companions to lie down in there. This they did, and she skillfully spread over each of them, one of the skins which she had brought from the bottom of the ocean. After they were so closely covered that even the shrewd Proteus would mistake them for sea-calves, the radiant goddess seated herself on a rock not far distant, to await his coming.

The horrible smell which came from the skins of the newly-slain sea-calves was so sickening that Menelaus and his three comrades could not stand it, and were about to give up the attempt to capture the sea-god, when the shining goddess came to the rescue. Bringing from, they knew not whence, some fragrant ambrosia, the food of the immortals, she placed it beneath their nostrils and its sweet perfume made them forget the loathsome coverings with which they were concealed. Its refreshing odor soon restored their strength and thus they were able to remain hidden until the noon hour.

Then the sea-calves floundering much rose from the depths of the ocean and began crawling along the sand. They came in throngs and laid themselves down in rows upon the sandy shore beside the brave but anxious heroes. Soon the sunlit waves parted from right to left and slowly and solemnly Proteus, the Ancient of the Deep, appeared. His hair and beard and garments were covered with white foam. He walked over to where his sea-calves lay basking in the sun and counted them. This was a trying time for Menelaus. His heart beat loud and fast, so great was his fear that he and his companions might be discovered. But the goddess had done her work too well for that. Proteus did not notice any difference between them and the beasts which lay about them. Having finished his task, he stretched his body upon the sand beside his flock, ready for his afternoon nap.

Now was the critical moment! Menelaus and his men throwing off the skins of the dead sea-calves sprang forward with loud shouts, and before the old sea-god knew it, they had fast hold of his arms and legs.

Proteus having the power to change his body into whatever shape he pleased, suddenly transformed himself into a roaring lion, so fierce and strong that it seemed as if he might crush anything that came in his way. Still Menelaus and his stout-hearted men held on. Then, in an instant the lion became a fiery panther whose glaring eyes struck terror into their hearts, but still they held on. In a moment more a large snake was twisting and writhing in their hands, hissing and darting his forked tongue out as if he would gladly poison all of them, still they held on. Shape after shape the monster assumed, but still they held on. Now it was a clear, harmless stream of water flowing gently through their hands. Again it was a flame of fire darting here and there threatening to scorch their faces and even to burn out their eyes; still they held on. Then it became a beautiful tree, tall and stately, with broad spreading branches and shining green leaves, still they held on.

At last, finding that his enchantments were of no avail he changed back into his real form and turning to Menelaus he said, "What wouldst thou have?" Menelaus begged him to tell why he and his faithful sailors were kept from crossing the dark waters of the sea to their distant homes. Then Proteus, the Ancient of the Deep, who knew all secrets of both gods and men, told him that he must go back to Egypt where he had sinned, and do all that he could to atone for that sin before he might hope to reach his beloved home.

Menelaus now understood what the wind had been trying to tell him. Each hoarse whisper as the gale rushed by, meant "Return to Egypt! Return to Egypt!" In fact, all these twenty days it had been blowing in that direction, as if to assure the mariners that it would fill their sails and help them to return to Egypt if they would only launch their boats and turn the prows eastward.

This they did the very next day, and soon were back on Egypt's shore. Due worship was paid to the gods, and then right merrily the wind whistled and sang about their ears as it filled their white sails and helped them to speed across the blue water, and in a few days they had reached their beloved home-land.

But never to the end of their lives did they forget the terrible struggle with the Mighty Proteus, Ancient of the Deep, where by holding on  they had won the silent battle. And oftentimes they told the story to their children and grandchildren, just as I am telling it to you, to-day.

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