The Mask Of Apollo by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

A tradition rises within me of quiet, unarmored years, ages before the demigods and heroes toiled at the making of Greece, long ages before the building of the temples and sparkling palaces of her day of glory. The land was pastoral, and over all the woods hung a stillness as of dawn and of unawakened beauty deep breathing in rest. Here and there little villages sent up their smoke and a dreamy people moved about. They grew up, toiled a little at their fields, followed their sheep and goats, wedded, and gray age overtook them, but they never ceased to be children. They worshipped the gods in little wooden temples, with ancient rites forgotten in later years.

Near one of these shrines lived a priest–an old man–who was held in reverence by all for his simple and kindly nature. To him, sitting one summer evening before his hut, came a stranger whom he invited to share his meal. The stranger seated himself and began to tell the priest many wonderful things–stories of the magic of the sun and of the bright beings who move at the gateways of the day. The old man grew drowsy in the warm sunlight and fell asleep. Then the stranger, who was Apollo, arose, and in the guise of the priest entered the little temple, and the people came in unto him one after the other.

First came Agathon, the husbandman, who said: “Father, as I bend over the fields or fasten up the vines I sometimes remember that you said the gods can be worshipped by doing these things as by sacrifice. How is it, father, that the pouring of cold water over roots or training up the vines can nourish Zeus? How can the sacrifice appear before his throne when it is not carried up in the fire and vapor?”

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To him Apollo, in the guise of the old man, replied: “Agathon, the father omnipotent does not live only in the aether. He runs invisibly within the sun and stars, and as they whirl round and round they break out into streams and woods and flowers, and the clouds are shaken away from them as the leaves from off the roses. Great, strange, and bright, he busies himself within, and at the end of time his light shall shine, through, and men shall see it moving in a world of flame. Think then, as you bend over your fields, of what you nourish and what rises up within them. Know that every flower as it droops in the quiet of the woodland feels within and far away the approach of an unutterable life and is glad. They reflect that life as the little pools the light of the stars. Agathon, Agathon, Zeus is no greater in the aether than he is in the leaf of grass, and the hymns of men are no sweeter to him than a little water poured over one of his flowers.”

Agathon, the husbandman, went away, and he bent tenderly in dreams over his fruit and his vines, and he loved them more than before, and he grew wise as he watched them and was happy working for the gods.

Then spake Damon, the shepherd Father, “while the flocks are browsing dreams rise up within me. They make the heart sick with longing. The forests vanish, and I hear no more the lambs’ bleat or the rustling of the fleeces. Voices from a thousand depths call me; they whisper, they beseech me. Shadows more lovely than earth’s children utter music, not for me though I faint while I listen. Father, why do I hear the things others hear not–voices calling to unknown hunters of wide fields, or to herdsmen, shepherds of the starry flocks?”

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Apollo answered the shepherd: “Damon, a song stole from the silence while the gods were not yet, and a thousand ages passed ere they came, called forth by the music; and a thousand ages they listened, and then joined in the song. Then began the worlds to glimmer shadowy about them, and bright beings to bow before them. These, their children, began in their turn to sing the song that calls forth and awakens life. He is master of all things who has learned their music. Damon, heed not the shadows, but the voices. The voices have a message to thee from beyond the gods. Learn their song and sing it over again to the people until their hearts, too, grow sick with longing, and they can hear the song within themselves. Oh, my son, I see far off how the nations shall join in it as in a chorus, and, hearing it, the rushing planets shall cease from their speed and be steadfast. Men shall hold starry sway.”

The face of the god shone through the face of the old man, and it was so full of secretness that, filled with awe, Damon, the herdsman, passed from the presence, and a strange fire was kindled in his heart. The songs that he sang thereafter caused childhood and peace to pass from the dwellers in the woods.

Then the two lovers, Dion and Nemra, came in and stood before Apollo, and Dion spake: “Father, you who are so wise can tell us what love is, so that we shall never miss it. Old Tithonus nods his gray head at us as we pass. He says only with the changeless gods has love endurance, and for men the loving time is short, and its sweetness is soon over.”

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Neaera added: “But it is not true, father, for his drowsy eyes light when he remembers the old days, when he was happy and proud in love as we are.”

Apollo answered: “My children, I will tell you the legend how love came into the world, and how it may endure. On high Olympus the gods held council at the making of man, and each had brought a gift, and each gave to man something of their own nature. Aphrodite, the loveliest and sweetest, paused, and was about to add a new grace to his person; but Eros cried: ‘Let them not be so lovely without; let them be lovelier within. Put your own soul in, O mother.’ The mighty mother smiled, and so it was. And now, whenever love is like hers, which asks not return, but shines on all because it must, within that love Aphrodite dwells, and it becomes immortal by her presence.”

Then Dion and Neaera went out, and as they walked home through the forest, purple and vaporous in the evening light, they drew closer together. Dion, looking into the eyes of Neaera, saw there a new gleam, violet, magical, shining–there was the presence of Aphrodite; there was her shrine.

After came in unto Apollo the two grand-children of old Tithonus, and they cried: “See the flowers we have brought you! We gathered them for you in the valley where they grow best!” Apollo said: “What wisdom shall we give to children that they may remember? Our most beautiful for them!” And as he stood and looked at them the mask of age and secretness vanished. He appeared radiant in light. They laughed in joy at his beauty. Bending down he kissed each upon the forehead, then faded away into the light which is his home.

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As the sun sank down amid the blue hills, the old priest awoke with a sigh, and cried out: “Oh, that we could talk wisely as we do in our dreams!”

1893

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