Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

In the Woods

Among the Greeks every trade or business was believed to be under the care of some god or goddess. The god of shepherds was called Pan. He lived in caves and forests, and was fond of dancing with the satyrs and Dryads. He invented the shepherd's pipe of reeds, with which he made sweet music.

Satyrs were creatures who lived in the woods. They were neither man nor beast, but looked like both. Their heads and bodies were human, but were covered with short hair. They had feet like those of goats, and on their heads grew two short horns.

Dryads, or Hamadryads, were the beings who lived in the trees. Each had a tree which was her home and of which she was the life. She could come out and dance and play for a while, but if she stayed away for too long her tree withered and perished. When a tree was cut down or died, its Dryad died with it. This belief made the people careful not to hurt trees without good cause.

Groves, or clumps of trees, were often sacred to the gods. There was one very large oak dedicated to Demeter. It measured nearly twenty-five feet around the trunk, and it was higher than any of the trees among which it stood.

The man who owned the grove wished to build a boat. He said to his servants, "That oak is just what I need; get axes and cut it down."

One of them answered, "Master, we do not like to do that. It is sacred to the goddess, and she will not be pleased."

"Goddess!" he cried, "what is the goddess to me? Do I not own the tree? Is it not my right to cut it down? Say no more, but strike."

They did not move. He took an ax and angrily struck the tree. The thick trunk shivered and seemed to groan. Blood flowed from the cut made by the ax. Those who stood by were frightened, and one of them took hold of his master's arm and begged him not to strike again.

[Illustration] from Stories of the Ancient Greeks by Charles D. Shaw


"See, master," he said, "see the blood! You heard that dreadful groan. You are killing the Dryad as well as the oak."

"Slave," shouted the master, "do you dare to touch me? Though it were the goddess herself I would cut it down. But you shall be rewarded for your piety. Take that, good man!"

He struck the servant a heavy blow with the ax.

Then the tree spoke. A solemn voice said, "I have long lived in this tree as its guardian spirit. Demeter knows me and loves me. I die, and your hands kill me. Wicked enemy of the gods, you shall be punished. Remember my dying words!"

The man forced his slaves to cut down the tree. In its fall it broke down many of its neighbors, and the beauty of the grove was gone forever.

The Dryads who lived there went in a sad procession to Demeter.

"Mother!" they said, "behold our mourning garments and pity our tears. A wicked man has killed our sister and destroyed your holy grove. O mother, punish him as he deserves!"

The goddess nodded her head. She thought of a dreadful punishment for the cruel and wicked man. She would give him into the power of Famine.

She called an Oread, or mountain spirit.

"You must carry a message for me," she said. "Far away in the icy land of Scythia is a place where there are no trees and no crops. Cold and Fear and Famine live there. It has been ordered that Famine and I can never come together, but tell her from me that she must go to that wicked tree killer and enter into him and make him entirely her own. Take my chariot and go quickly!"

The Oread mounted the chariot, and after a long drive came to the field of Famine. It had no grain, or grass, or trees, —only rocks. Famine was digging with her nails in the ground. Her face was pale, her lips were white, her eyes were sunken, the flesh was drawn tight over her bones. Even the Oread could not go very near her.

So she called out what Demeter had told her to say, and drove away as fast as possible, for the very sigh of Famine had made her hungry.

Famine went by night to the room of the tree killer. He was asleep. She folded him in her wings and breathed her spirit into him, then flew away.

He woke up in the middle of the night, very hungry. His family gave him food, but could never give him enough. He ate all the time, yet always grew more hungry.

He sold his property piece by piece and bought food. At last everything was gone, and he was as hungry as ever.

Then he took his daughter to the slave market by the sea and sold her. She prayed to Poseidon. "O kind god of the sea!" she said, "do not let a poor, innocent girl be sold into slavery. Save me from this dreadful fate!"

The sea-god answered her prayer. In a moment she [unreadable in copy] no longer a girl, but a fisherman busy with his net. The man who had bought her was surprised not to see his new slave.

"Fisherman," he said, "have you seen a poorly dressed girl who had her hair down over her shoulders, and who was crying? It is only an instant since she stood where you are and now she seems to be gone."

The girl was delighted that he did not know her. She answered, "Good stranger, you see that I am very busy with my net. But I tell you truly that for the last half hour I have seen nobody on this spot except myself."

The owner went off, thinking that his slave had run away. Then Poseidon changed her back to her own self. Her father sold her again many times, but the god always changed her before she could be taken away. Sometimes the buyer saw a horse, or a bird, or a cow or a deer, but never the girl. Still her father could not get enough food. He began to eat himself, and that was the last of him. So the tree killer, Erysichthon, was punished.

A young man named Rhœcus, walking in a forest, saw an oak tree ready to fall to the earth. The wind had loosened its hold on the ground. He put a prop against the tree to keep it upright, and carefully trampled soil around the roots. Suddenly a beautiful creature stood before him. "I am the Dryad of this tree," she said. "You have saved my life. What shall I give to you?"

The young man answered, "Give me your love!"

The Dryad said, "I would do that gladly, but you would soon forget me."

"No," he cried. "That is impossible."

"Very well," she replied. "Come to me here in the wood an hour before sunset. I will send a bee to let you know when it is time."

The young man went away proud and happy. To while away the time he began to play dice with some gay companions. The afternoon passed quickly. A bee flew in at the window and buzzed about his ears. He brushed it away. It came back again and again. He struck at it in anger. The bee darted out of the window. The young man looking after it saw the sunset light just fading from the mountain peak. Too late, he remembered. He hurried to the forest, but all was dark and still. He had lost the Dryad and her love.