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James Baldwin

The Black Steeds of Aidoneus

T HEY lived for the most of the time in a land of dread, deep down in the earth, where the light of the sun could not reach them; and that, it may be, is what made them so dark. Men said that they were as black as coal, as ink, as tar, as the ace of spades. But they were so strong and swift and proud, and their eyes were so bright, and their coats were so sleek, that no one could see them and not wish to have them for his own. And yet so sharp of tooth, so light of heel, so full of fire were they, that it would have been worth your life to touch them. King Aidoneus kept them in stalls of gold that he had built for them near the banks of the stream which is called the Styx, and there he fed them and cared for them with his own hands.

Since in all his realms there was no light of the sun, nor smiles of friends, nor joy of life,—naught but tears and the shades of night,—Aidoneus liked at times to come up to the world of love and hope to see what kind of cheer he might find there. And so now and then men caught sight of him in a cloud-like car drawn by his four coal-black steeds, which flew through the air with the speed of the wind, or pranced and reared on the edge of some steep cliff, or leaped down from the top of some far-off height. And the tales which they told of his deeds were such as fill the heart with fear; for they said that his breath was cold as the blast of the north wind, or else hot as the fire that leaps from Mount Etna's mouth; and cloud and storm, and hail and snow, and dire pain and dread—all these he brought to the earth in the wake of his swift car and night-black team.

Now one day in the late fall, when the frost had not yet touched the leaves, and the fields were still bright with bloom, he thought that he would ride out and see some of the fair things that had been born of the earth and the sun. He rode up by way of Mount Etna, and out through the smoke and clouds that poured from its top, and looked down toward the green fields of Enna, not far from its base. Then, with a sharp word to his team, he drove in great haste down the steep slopes, and paused not till he reached the plain.

Some girls who lived near the foot of Mount Etna had gone out to spend the day in the fields, and with them was a fair young maid named Persephone, the child of Dame Demeter. The sun was warm, the sky was fair, the grass was soft. The girls, free as the wild birds of the wood, ran here and there, and dreamed of no harm. At length Persephone, tired of play, sat down on a stone to rest; but the others went on, and were soon out of sight. Then all at once she heard a strange sound as of huge wheels and the tramp of hoofs, and ere she had time to run home to the safe arms of Dame Demeter, a black car drawn by four coal-black steeds was at her side. In the car stood a tall, sad-faced man, who wore a crown of gold on his head. Persephone screamed and stood still—it was all that she could do. Then she was caught up in the strong arms of Aidoneus, who, swinging his long whip in the air, cried out to his steeds:

"On, Eton, thou who art swift as birds on the wing! On, Nonios, thou whom no flash of light can outspeed! On, Abatos; no storm is so fleet as thou, no thought can run so fast! On, Abastor; race thou with the stars that shoot through the sky! Speed ye all! Speed ye all! "

And the wild steeds, urged thus by lash and speech, flew through the air, as it were, and climbed up, up, up the steep slopes of Etna, and paused not till they stood on the edge of the great black cup and the flue whence smoke and blue flames came up from the dim depths of Aidoneus's realm. Poor Persephone shrieked, and tried to leap out of the car; but the stern old King soothed her fears with kind words, and told her that so long as she would stay with him she should be safe from harm. Then a sheet of flame shot up and shut out the light of day, and the steeds, the car, the King, and the maid went down, down, down, and were seen no more.

When the news was brought to good Dame Demeter that her child was lost, she did not faint nor cry out in her great grief and fear, for she was too brave and wise for that. But she went out at once in search of the maid, and vowed that she would find her or come back no more. With a black veil wound round her head, and with a torch in her hand, she crossed the seas, and went from land to land, and asked all that dwelt on the earth if they had seen her child. For a whole year she searched in vain. Then she thought that she would go to Helios, him who drives the sun-car through the skies, and ask him.

"Great Helios," she said, "I know that your eye takes in all the world, and that the deeds of both gods and men are known to you. Tell me, I pray you, have you seen my lost child Persephone?"

Kind Helios was glad that she had come to him. Yes, he had seen Persephone. As chance would have it, he had seen Aidoneus when he rushed out from Etna; he had seen him lift the child from the ground and place her in his black car; he had seen the last wild leap down Mount Etna's throat.

"She is with Aidoneus," said he; "and he has made her the queen of his dark realms. But he would not have seized her as he did had he not had leave of Zeus, the king of gods and men."

Then Dame Demeter gave way to her grief and rage; and she sent word to Zeus that no fruits nor grain should grow in all the world so long as Aidoneus kept Persephone in his halls. For it was Dame Demeter, men said, who gave life to the trees and plants, and made them bloom and bear fruit. Zeus and the gods that were with him knew that the dame would be as good as her word, and the thought filled them with fear. If there should be no food for men, save flesh and fish, they would soon be as wild as they were in the old, old time, and would care naught for the gods.

"It is hard to have to give up to her whims," said great Zeus; "but the best that we can do is to fetch Persephone back to her."

And so he bade Hermes, him who had the winged feet, to go down to the halls of Aidoneus and bring the lost maid back.

Aidoneus was glad to see Hermes, but he frowned when he learned why he had come.

"Do you not know the law?" he asked.

"What law?"

"There is a law which none of the gods—no, not yourself, nor even Zeus—can break. I will read it to you." And he took a black book from the shelf on the wall, and, when he had found the place, read these words:

"That one, be it god or man, maid or child, who tastes food while in the realms of Aidoneus, shall not go out therefrom so long as the world stands."

Then Hermes asked Persephone if food had passed her lips since the day that Aidoneus had brought her to his halls. And the maid told him that she had been too sad to think of food; yet once, as she stood on the bank of the Styx, she had plucked some bright red fruit that grew there.

"Did you taste it?"

"Yes, I took just one small bite, and then threw it far from me."

Aidoneus clapped his hands with glee.

"What kind of bright red fruit grows on the banks of the Styx?" asked Hermes.

"Pomegranates," said the King.

"But what is a pomegranate?" asked Hermes. "It is a poor kind of food. At the best, not more than one third of it is fit to eat. The rest is skin and seeds."

And so he took Persephone back to Dame Demeter, and said that for eight months of each year she should live on the glad green earth; but that for four months Aidoneus might claim her as his queen. Hence it is that so long as the grains of corn lie dead in the ground, Persephone stays in the drear realms of Aidoneus. But when the stalks begin to grow and the buds of the fruit trees to burst, then the sad-faced King comes in his dark cloud-car, drawn by his four night-black steeds, to bring Persephone back to Dame Demeter's door. And there the fair maid lives all through the spring and the warm months of the year, till at last the chill days of the late fall bring snow and ice and hoar frost. Then comes Aidoneus on the wings of the storm-cloud, with Eton, swift as birds, and Nonios, quick as light, and Abatos, fleet as thought, and Abastor, who outspeeds the stars. And they bear the maid up Etna's slopes, and are lost to sight in the smoke and blue flames.

And now each year, when the leaves fall and the days grow cold, dark clouds are sure to come. They hide the sky and chill the air and drive joy from the fields and woods. You may see them as they sweep along, blown by wild gusts of wind, with snow and hail and driving sleet in their train.


Bas-relief from an arch in Rome.

Do you know what these clouds are? Look and you will see.

They are, in truth, the four black steeds of Aidoneus, and the dark car, and the sad-faced King; and they bear Persephone to the shades deep down in the earth. But in four months there-from the sun will call; the seeds in the ground will sprout and grow; the buds will swell and burst; the dark clouds will come with the winds, as of yore, but this time they will bring life in their train. The fair Queen will come home in the car that is drawn by the four black steeds of Aidoneus.