This drawing, by Elias van Nijmegen (c. 1667-1755) of the Netherlands, was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis. As the story goes, the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes (or the Roman equivalents, Jupiter and Mercury) were scouting the Greek countryside for prime real-estate on which a new temple could be built. Zeus and Hermes, wearing disguises, eventually found themselves in the town where Philemon and Baucis lived. Yet, the gods were not impressed with the community, for the majority of the townspeople were supposedly a highly unwelcoming lot. Nevertheless, whereas other households avoided the visiting gods and refused to open their doors to them, the amiable couple of Philemon and Baucis contrastingly invited in the disguised gods and played the role of the host to the best of their ability. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), described the scene:
“Jupiter once came here, disguised as a mortal, and with him
his son, the messenger Mercury, wand and wings set aside.
Looking for shelter and rest, they called at a thousand homesteads;
a thousand doors were bolted against them. One house, however,
did make them welcome, a humble abode with a roof of straw
and marsh reed, one that knew its duty to gods and men.
Here good Philémon and Baucis had happily passed their youth
and here they had reached old age, enduring their poverty lightly
by owning it freely and being content with the little they had.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.626-634).
Despite not having much at their disposal, Philemon and Baucis threw a feast for their guests, bringing whatever was available in or around the house to the table. This hospitality and generosity impressed the gods, and as it would soon turn out, the impression left by the feast would be of great consequence. As the story goes, the gods decided that they would have a temple built at Philemon and Baucis’ town. The kindly old couple could stay, of course, at the divinely-favored construction project. Other townspeople in the region, however, were not given the same invitation.
According to the myth, the gods quickly ushered Philemon and Baucis out of town and led them to a nearby mountain. With them safely stowed on the mountainside, the gods called in a flood to wipe out the town, and of all the houses in the community, only that of Philemon and Baucis survived the inundation.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.