Benjamin West (c. 1738-1820), an artist who was born in Britain’s North American colonies but lived in England before and after the American Revolution, made this painting about the ancient Greek myth of Cephalus and Procris. Like many other artists who painted mythological scenes, Benjamin West seems to have followed the account of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE). The poet’s account actually combined the tales of two different Cephaluses. Ovid’s first ingredient in his tragic concoction was the myth of Hermes’ son, Cephalus, who became the lover of the goddess, Dawn (Eos or Aurora). This tale was blended with a separate myth about a different Cephalus (fathered by King Deionus of Phocis), who married the Athenian princess, Procris. Ovid wove the two narratives together by rewriting the story to have Procris’ husband be abducted by Dawn. Cephalus eventually broke free from Dawn and returned to his wife, but not before he had allowed himself to be unfaithful. Projecting his own weakness onto his wife, Cephalus feared that his beloved Procris might have also lapsed into infidelity during his absence. The mutual suspicions that resulted from Cephalus’ divine dalliance led to husband and wife taking a break from one another, with Procris momentarily running off to join the huntresses of the goddess Artemis (or Diana). Yet, Cephalus eventually won back Procris’ trust and she returned to resume married life.
As a reconciliation gift, Procris gave her husband presents of hunting gear, including a fine javelin. These gifts, however, would bring about tragedy. Putting his presents to good use, Cephalus started spending more and more time out hunting. He spent so much time out in the wilds that Procris soon began to question if her husband might be chasing something other than wild game during his absences. As had happened with Cephalus before, Procris let her fears get the better of her, and she ultimately decided to stealthily spy on her husband during one of his hunting trips. Ovid, narrating through the viewpoint of Cephalus, described the sad story of what happened that day:
“Another disturbance, this time the rustle of fallen leaves.
A beast on the prowl, I decided, and sent my javelin flying.
Procris was there under cover and, clutching her wounded breast,
cried out in pain. When I recognized the voice of my faithful
wife, my own wife, I rushed like a madman towards the sound.
I found her dying, her clothes all stained and spattered with blood”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7.840-845)
Such is the scene that Benjamin West re-created in his painting. It shows Cephalus kneeling over his mortally wounded wife. On the ground near Procris’ knees, the bloodied point of the javelin that dealt the killing blow can be seen, pointing at a trickle of blood rolling down Procris’ chest.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.