Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang


"Is it because the wild-wood passion still lingers in our hearts, because still in our minds the voice of Syrinx lingers in melancholy music, the music of regret and longing, that for most of us there is so potent a spell in running waters?"

—Fiona Macleod.

As the evening shadows lengthen, and the night wind softly steals through the trees, touching with restless fingers the still waters of the little lochans that would fain have rest, there can be heard a long, long whisper, like a sigh. There is no softer, sadder note to be heard in all Pan's great orchestra, nor can one marvel that it should be so, for the whisper comes from the reeds who gently sway their heads while the wind passes over them as they grow by lonely lake or river.

This is the story of Syrinx, the reed, as Ovid has told it to us.

In Arcadia there dwelt a nymph whose name was Syrinx. So fair she was that for her dear sake fauns and satyrs forgot to gambol, and sat in the green woods in thoughtful stillness, that they might see her as she passed. But for none of them had Syrinx a word of kindness. She had no wish for love.

"But as for Love, truly I know him not,

I have passionately turned my lips therefrom,

And from that fate the careless gods allot."

—Lady Margaret Sackville.

To one only of the gods did she give her loyal allegiance. She worshipped Diana, and with her followed the chase. As she lightly sped through the forest she might have been Diana herself, and there were those who said they would not know nymph from goddess, but that the goddess carried a silver bow, while that of Syrinx was made of horn. Fearless, and without a care or sorrow, Syrinx passed her happy days. Not for all the gold of Midas would she have changed places with those love-lorn nymphs who sighed their hearts out for love of a god or of a man. Heartwhole, fancy free, gay and happy and lithe and strong, as a young boy whose joy it is to run and to excel in the chase, was Syrinx, whose white arms against the greenwood trees dazzled the eyes of the watching fauns when she drew back her bow to speed an arrow at the stag she had hunted since early dawn. Each morning that she awoke was the morning of a day of joy; each night that she lay down to rest, it was to sleep as a child who smiles in his sleep at the remembrance of a perfect day.

But to Syrinx, who knew no fear, Fear came at last. She was returning one evening from the shadowy hills, untired by the chase that had lasted for many an hour, when, face to face, she met with one whom hitherto she had only seen from afar. Of him the other nymphs spoke often. Who was so great as Pan?—Pan, who ruled the woods. None could stand against Pan. Those who defied him must ever come under his power in the end. He was Fear; he was Youth; he was Joy; he was Love; he was Beast; he was Power; he was Man; he was God. He was Life itself. So did they talk, and Syrinx listened with a smile. Not Pan himself could bring Fear to her.

Yet when he met her in the silent loneliness of a great forest and stood in her path and gazed on her with eyes of joyous amazement that one so fair should be in his kingdom without his having had knowledge of it, Syrinx felt something come to her heart that never before had assailed it.

Pan's head was crowned with sharp pine-leaves. His face was young and beautiful, and yet older than the mountains and the seas. Sadness and joy were in his eyes at the same time, and at the same moment there looked out from them unutterable tenderness and merciless cruelty. For only a little space of time did he stand and hold her eyes with his own, and then in low caressing voice he spoke, and his words were like the song of a bird to his mate, like the call of the earth to the sun in spring, like the lap of the waves when they tell the rocks of their eternal longing. Of love he spoke, of love that demanded love, and of the nymph's most perfect beauty. Yet as he spoke, the unknown thing came and smote with icy hands the heart of Syrinx.

"Ah! I have Fear! I have Fear!" she cried, and more cruel grew the cruelty in the eyes of Pan, but his words were still the words of passionate tenderness. Like a bird that trembles, helpless, before the serpent that would slay it, so did Syrinx the huntress stand, and her face in the shade of the forest was like a white lily in the night. But when the god would have drawn her close to him and kissed her red lips, Fear leapt to Terror, and Terror winged her feet. Never in the chase with Diana had she run as now she ran. But like a rushing storm did Pan pursue her, and when he laughed she knew that what the nymphs had said was true—he was Power—he was Fear—he was Beast—he was Life itself. The darkness of the forest swiftly grew more dark. The climbing trails of ivy and the fragrant creeping plants caught her flying feet and made her stumble. Branches and twigs grew alive and snatched at her and baulked her as she passed. Trees blocked her path. All Nature had grown cruel, and everywhere there seemed to her to be a murmur of mocking laughter, laughter from the creatures of Pan, echoing the merciless merriment of their lord and master. Nearer he came, ever nearer. Almost she could feel his breath on her neck; but even as he stretched out his arms to seize the nymph whose breath came with sobs like that of a young doe spent by the chase, they reached the brink of the river Ladon. And to her "watery sisters" the nymphs of the river, Syrinx breathed a desperate prayer for pity and for help, then stumbled forward, a quarry run to the death.

With an exultant shout, Pan grasped her as she fell. And lo, in his arms he held no exquisite body with fiercely beating heart, but a clump of slender reeds. Baffled he stood for a little space, and, as he stood, the savagery of the beast faded from his eyes that were fathomless as dark mountain tarns where the sun-rays seldom come, and there came into them a man's unutterable woe. At the reeds by the river he gazed, and sighed a great sigh, the sigh that comes from the heart of a god who thinks of the pain of the world. Like a gentle zephyr the sigh breathed through the reeds, and from the reeds there came a sound as of the sobbing sorrow of the world's desire. Then Pan drew his sharp knife, and with it he cut seven of the reeds that grew by the murmuring river.

"Thus shalt thou still be mine, my Syrinx," he said.

Deftly he bound them together, cut them into unequal lengths, and fashioned for himself an instrument, that to this day is called the Syrinx, or Pan's Pipes.

So did the god make music.

And all that night he sat by the swift-flowing river, and the music from his pipe of reeds was so sweet and yet so passing sad, that it seemed as though the very heart of the earth itself were telling of its sadness. Thus Syrinx still lives—still dies:

"A note of music by its own breath slain,

Blown tenderly from the frail heart of a reed,"

and as the evening light comes down on silent places and the trembling shadows fall on the water, we can hear her mournful whisper through the swaying reeds, brown and silvery-golden, that grow by lonely lochan and lake and river.