Acoetes: Tale about Bacchus from Ovid and Hyginus

Acoetes(Ἀκοίτης), according to Ovid (Ov. Met. 3.582, &c.) was the son of a poor fisherman in Maeonia, who served as pilot in a ship. After landing at the island of Naxos, some of the sailors brought with them on board a beautiful sleeping boy, whom they had found in the island and whom they wished to take with them; but Acoetes, who recognised the boy to be the god Bacchus, dissuaded them from it, but in vain.

When the ship had reached the open sea, the boy awoke, and desired to be carried back to Naxos. The sailors promised to do so, but did not keep their word. Hereupon the god [Bacchus] showed himself to them in his own majesty: vines began to twine round the vessel, tigers appeared, and the sailors, seized with madness, jumped into the sea and perished. Acoetes alone was saved and conveyed back to Naxos, where he was initiated in the Bacchic mysteries and became a priest of the god.

Hyginus (Hyg. Fab. 134), whose story on the whole agrees with that of Ovid, and all the other writers who mention this adventure of Bacchus, call the crew of the ship Tyrrhenian pirates, and derive the name of the Tyrrhenian sea from them. (Comp. Hom. Hymn. in Bacch ; Apollod. 3.5.3; Seneca, Oed. 449.)

Source Stories about Acoetes

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III 572-691

Acoetes is captured and interrogated

See now, they return, stained with blood, and when their lord queries where Bacchus is, they deny having seen Bacchus, but reply, ‘We have captured this companion of his, a priest of his sacred rites’ and they hand over a man of Tyrrhenian stock, with his hands bound behind his back, a follower of the worship of the god. Pentheus looks at him, with eyes made terrible by anger, and although he can scarcely wait for the moment of punishment, he says ‘O you who are about to die, and, by your death, teach the others a lesson, tell me your name, your parents’ name and your country, and why you follow the customs of this new religion!’

Without fear, he answers ‘My name is Acoetes, and Maeonia is my country, my parents humble ordinary people. My father did not leave me fields for sturdy oxen to work, no flocks of sheep, nor any cattle. I am poor as he himself was, and he used to catch fish in the streams with a rod and line and a hook to snare them. His skill was his wealth, and when he bequeathed it to me, he said ‘Take what I have. Apply yourself to the work as my successor and heir.’ Dying, he left me nothing but water. The only thing I can call my inheritance.

Soon, so that I was not stuck for ever to the same rocks, I learned how to guide boats, steering oar in hand, and to observe Capella and the rainy stars of the Olenian Goat, Taÿgete among the Pleiades, the Hyades, and the Arctic Bears, the houses of the winds, and the havens for ships.

Acoetes’s story – the beautiful boy

Heading for Delos, and being driven by chance onto the coast of the island of Chios, making shore by skilful use of the oars, giving a gentle leap, and landing on the wet sand, there we passed the night. As soon as the dawn began to redden, I ordered the getting in of fresh water, and showed the path that lead to a spring. I myself commanded the view from a high hill to find what wind promised, called my comrades and went back to the boat. ‘See, we are here’ said Opheltes, the foremost of my friends, and led a boy, with the beauty of a virgin girl, along the shore, a prize, or so he thought, that he had found in a deserted field. The boy seemed to stumble, heavy with wine and sleep, and could scarcely follow. I examined his clothing, appearance and rank, and I saw nothing that made me think him mortal. And I felt this and said it to my companions ‘I do not know what god is in that body, but there is a god within! Whoever you are, O favour and assist our efforts, and forgive these men!’ ‘Don’t pray for us’ said Dictys, who was the quickest at climbing to the highest yard and sliding down grasping the rigging. So said Libys, and yellow-haired Melanthus, the forward look-out, and Alcimedon agreed, and Epopeus, who with his voice gave the measure and the pauses for the oarsmen to urge on their purpose. All the others said the same, so blind was their greed for gain.

 ‘I still will not allow this ship to be cursed by a sacred victim to whom violence has been done’ I said. ‘Here I have the greatest authority’. And I prevented them boarding. Then Lycabas the most audacious of them all began to rage at me, he who had been thrown out of Tuscany, and was suffering the punishment of exile from his city for a terrible murder. While I held him off, he punched me in the throat with his strong young fists, and would have thrown me semi-conscious into the sea, if I had not clung on, almost stunned, held back by the rigging. The impious crew cheered on the doer of it. Then, at last, Bacchus (for it was indeed Bacchus) was freed from sleep, as if by the clamour, and the sense returned to his drunken mind. ‘What are you doing? Why this shouting? he said. ‘Tell me, you seamen, how I came here? Where do you intend to take me?’ ‘Have no fear’, said Proreus, ‘and, whatever port you wish to touch at, you will be set down in the country you demand!’ ‘Naxos’ said Liber, ‘set your course for there! That is my home: it will be a friendly land to you!

Acoetes’s ship and crew are transformed

The treacherous men swore, by the sea and all the gods, it would be so, and told me to get the painted vessel under sail. Naxos was to starboard, but as I trimmed the sails on a starboard tack, they, each one, asked me ‘What are you doing, O madman? Acoetes, what craziness has got into you? Take the port tack!’ most of them letting me know what they intended with a nod of the head, the others in a whisper. I was horrified. ‘Someone else can steer’ I said, and distanced myself from the wickedness and deception. There were cries against me from all sides, the whole crew murmured against me. And one of them, Aethalion, cried ‘You seem to think that all our lives depend on you alone! Then he took my place himself, discharged my office, and abandoning Naxos took the opposite course.

 Then the god, playfully, as though he had just realised their deceit, looked at the sea over the curve of the stern, and as though he were weeping said ‘Sailors, these are not the shores you promised me, and this is not the land I chose for myself? What have I done to merit punishment? Where’s the glory in men cheating a boy, or many cheating just one?’ I was already weeping, but the impious crew laughed at my tears, and drove the ship quickly through the water.

 Now I swear by the god himself (since there is no god more certainly present than he is) that what I say to you is the truth, though that truth beggars belief. The ship stands still in the waves, just as if it were held in dry dock. Amazed, the crew keep flogging away at the oars, and unfurling the sails, try to run on with double power. But ivy impedes the oars, creeping upwards, with binding tendrils, and drapes the sails with heavy clusters. The god himself waves a rod twined with vine leaves, his forehead wreathed with bunches of grapes. Around him lie insubstantial phantom lynxes, tigers, and the savage bodies of spotted panthers. The men leap overboard, driven to it either by madness or by fear. And Medon is the first to darken all over his body, and his spine to be bent into an arched curve.

 Lycabas cries out to him ‘What monster are you turning into?’ And in speaking his jaws widen, his nose becomes hooked, and his skin becomes hard and scaly. But Libys hampered when he wishes to turn the oars sees his hands shrink suddenly in size, and now they are not hands, but can only be called fins. Another, eager to grasp at the tangled ropes, no longer has arms, and goes arching backwards limbless into the sea. His newest feature is a scythe-shaped tail, like the curved horns of a fragmentary moon. The dolphins leap everywhere drenched with spray. They emerge once more, only to return again to the depths, playing together as if they were in a troupe, throwing their bodies around wantonly, and blowing out the seawater drawn in through their broad nostrils.

Of a group of twenty (that was how many the ship carried) I alone was left. The god roused me with difficulty, my body shaking with cold and terror, and barely myself, saying ‘Free your heart from fear, and hold off for Naxos! And consigned to that island, I have adopted its religion, and celebrate the Bacchic rites.

Hyginus. Fabulae 134

§ 134  TYRRHENIANS: When the Tyrrhenians, later called Tuscans, were on a piratical expedition, Father Liber, then a youth, came on their ship and asked them to take him to Naxos. When they had taken him on and wished to debauch him because of his beauty, Acoetes, the pilot, restrained them, and suffered at their hands. Liber, seeing that their purpose remained the same, changed the oars to thyrsi, the sails to vine-leaves, the ropes to ivy; then lions and panthers leapt out. When they saw them, in fear they cast themselves into the sea, and even in the sea he changed them to a sort of beast. For whoever leaped overboard was changed into dolphin shape, and from this dolphins are called Tyrrhenians, and the sea Tyrrhenian. They were twelve in number with the following names: Aethalides, Medon, Lycabas, Libys, Opheltes, Melas, Alcimedon, Epopeus, Dictys, Simon, Acoetes. The last was the pilot, whom Liber saved out of kindness.

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