This colorful and slightly abstract painting, by the American artist Carroll Beckwith (c. 1852-1917), was inspired by a sculpture from Simon Mazière (c. 1649-1722). The statue and painting both reference a sad myth from ancient Greece about an unfortunate naiad nymph named Syrinx. As was all too common for the frequently victimized nymphs in Greek mythology, Syrinx was pursued by male deities who refused to take “No” for an answer. In Syrinx’s case, her relentless and overly-persistent pursuer was the insatiable satyr-god, Pan. In their final encounter, wild Pan decided he was done with talk and courtship, instead opting to chase down Syrinx by force. Fortunately, this particular nymph was an admirer of the hunter-goddess Artemis, and she had trained herself to mimic some of her idol’s athleticism. Pan was not disheartened by the chase. He pursued her, slowly gaining ground and eventually cornering her at a riverbank. It was at that time, when the lusty satyr was closing in, that Syrinx called on her power as a naiad (and on the assistance of other nearby water nymphs) in order to undergo a transformation that would spare her from the clutches of Pan. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), described Syrinx’s appearance, her escape, and her final transformation:
“In the cold Arcadian mountains,
among the Nonácrian wood-nymphs, there lived a remarkable naiad
(Syrinx her sisters called her), whom all admired for her beauty.
More than once she’d eluded pursuit by lascivious satyrs
and all the various gods who dwell in the shadowy forests
and fertile fields. She modelled herself on the goddess Diana [Artemis]
in daily life and by staying chaste.
the nymph rejected the god’s advances
and fled through the fields, until she arrived at the river Ladon
peacefully flowing between its sandy banks. Since the waters
were barring her way, she called on the nymphs of the stream to transform her.
So just at the moment when Pan believed that his Syrinx was caught,
instead of a fair nymph’s body, he found himself clutching some marsh reeds.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 1.689-706).
Syrinx’s metamorphosis is captured in Carroll Beckwith’s painting, depicting the naiad nymph in the middle of her transformation into a patch of reeds. Unfortunately for Syrinx, her magic spell did not stop Pan from abusing her. As the story goes, it is none other than Syrinx’s own newly-grown reeds that Pan harvested to make his famous reed pipe. Therefore, Pan kept with him a portion of the nymph that got away, fondling it often with his fingers and his lips.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.