This illustration, by the English artist Walter Crane (c. 1845-1915), is titled “The Strangers Entertained.” A series of notes scribbled in the margin of the object lists the artwork’s genre as mythology, and a parenthesized sentence briefly sums up the piece as a scene depicting “Jupiter in disguise & Mercury at the house of Philemon and Baucis.” Although short and concise, these scrawled notes fortunately allowed Walter Crane’s illustration be cataloged with a higher degree of accompanying subject information than is usually found in many museum galleries and online archives, but more information can be provided.
Walter Crane’s illustration depicts a tale from ancient mythology in which the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury—or rather their Greek equivalents, Zeus and Hermes—paid a momentous visit to the humble home of the elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis. Prior to arriving at the home of the hospitable old pair, Zeus and Hermes (disguised as mortals) had toured the surrounding area and discovered that, besides Philemon and Baucis, the whole town was a rude and unwelcoming lot. Whereas other households turned the gods away or refused to open their doors, saintly Philemon and Baucis invited in the disguised gods and played the role of host to the best of their ability. Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, 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 feast would be of great consequence to the lives of Philemon and Baucis. The two gods had been in the region to scout out a spot for a new temple, and Philemon and Baucis’ hometown was, to put it mildly, in the way of the divine plan. Mid-feast, the deities revealed their godhood to Philemon and Baucis. The gods then quickly ushered the two awed mortals out of town and led them to a mountain. With Philemon and Baucis safely stowed on a mountaintop, the gods called in a flood to wipe out the town—of all the houses in the community, only that of Philemon and Baucis survived the inundation. As the story goes, the site of the hospitable couple’s home was transformed into the temple that the gods wanted, and Philemon and Baucis spent the rest of their lives there, serving as priests.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.