Retold from Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII
Long ago, when the realms of Gods and humankind were not so separated by the veil, Jupiter and Mercury had quite a debate regarding the selfish and sometimes unkind nature developing among the people, for it seemed they were forgetting the very basis of all relationships: hospitality. Xenia, hospitality, was arguably the most important of virtues, a perfect reflection of the theoxenia, the hospitality that exists between the folk and the Gods. Mercury was insistent that the people were growing increasingly self-centered, caring little for the wants and needs of others, but Jupiter held a ray of optimism, for he had seen great kindness in their hearts during his adventures among them. Mercury proposed that the two should visit the people and see for themselves the state of their hearts.
Disguised as simple peasant-folk, Jupiter and Mercury descended to Earth and began seeking refuge among the people of Phrygia. The first house visited was ornately decorated with columns and surrounded by a luxurious landscape of exotic plants and lavish gardens. Before they reached the front door, they were intercepted and returned to the street—and not quite as gently as they would have liked! The second house was equally as elaborate, though smaller and seemingly more inviting. However, the Gods were met with similar treatment and shown not an ounce of kindness.
On they walked through the village, with door after door slamming in their faces, their bellies left empty and their bodies taking on a chill. Finally, the two came upon the house of Baucis and Philemon. It was a rustic cottage, simple but cozy. When Jupiter and Mercury knocked on their door, Baucis and Philemon took pity on their state and immediately brought them in from the weather, offering them what food and wine they could spare. They shared pleasant conversation over their meals, and before long, Baucis noticed that although she had filled their glasses several times, the pitcher remained full, and the wine was sweeter and richer than ever before.
Philemon, noticing that his wife had frozen in place staring at the wine pitcher, inquired if she was feeling well. In a hurried whisper, she replied, “The Gods have come among us!” Philemon and Baucis raised their hands in supplication and apologized for their simple home and fair. Philemon immediately thought of slaughtering their goose to make a proper meal for the Gods, but when he went to catch it, it ran into Jupiter’s lap for safety and set the God to laughing.
“Philemon,” Jupiter replied. “There is no need to slaughter this fine goose. Your hospitality has been plentiful. It is not how much you give with your hands that is most important. It is what you give with your heart.” Jupiter sighed. “I wish I could say as much for the others we have met along our way. I am going to destroy this city and all the people who turned their backs on us. In reward for your generosity, I give you these instructions that you may be spared. You must climb the mountain with me as far as an arrow can shoot in one pull and not turn back until we reach the top.”
The four set off up the mountain in silence. Baucis and Philemon were disturbed by the sudden claps of thunder and rushing water behind them, but they never turned from their path. A single tear fell down Baucis’ cheek as she fought to suppress the sense of loss that overwhelmed her, though she, too, had felt the sting of the selfish nature of her neighbors. Once they reached the summit and were permitted to turn round, they saw a sight both disastrous and magnificent to behold. The town had been destroyed by a great flood, but where their humble cottage once sat there was now an ornate temple.
“Baucis, Philemon, because you still hold sacred the virtue of hospitality, I will grant you one wish,” said Jupiter.
“Thank you for your great kindness,” replied Philemon. “My desire is only that my Baucis and I be permitted to stay together forever. When the time comes for one of us to leave this place, I wish the other will make the journey, as well, that we may enter the afterlife hand-in-hand.” Jupiter saw the sparkle in Baucis’ eyes as she gazed at her husband, basking in his love for her and knew her wish to be the same.
“Very well!” Jupiter exclaimed with a clap of his hands. “I hereby appoint you as the Guardians of this temple for all of your days. When your time has come to pass on from this world, you shall pass as one.” And with that they were gone.
The couple spent the remainder of their days keeping the temple in proper shape, providing shelter, food and companionship for all those who entered their space. They worked hard, but their stores were never low and their hearts were never fuller. When their time in the mortal realm had reached an end, they walked out into the deserted boggy terrain where they were transformed into an intertwining pair of trees, one Oak and one Linden, to remain in one another’s arms for all time.