Bk VII:759-795 The transformation of Cephalus’s dog Laelaps
“Oedipus, son of Laïus, had solved with his genius the riddles whose meaning was previously not understood, and the Sphinx, dark prophetess, had hurtled headlong from the cliff, her enigmatic words forgotten. Immediately Aonian Thebes was plagued again (since righteous Themis does not leave such things unpunished!) and many country people feared that the Teumessian vixen would destroy their flocks and themselves. The young men of the neighbourhood came, and we beat over the wide fields. That swift creature leapt lightly over the nets, and cleared the tops of the traps we had set. Then we slipped our hounds from the tether, but she escaped their pursuit, and, travelling no slower than a bird flies, mocked the pack. With one great shout the hunters called on me to loose Laelaps, “Hurricane” (the name of my wife’s gift). He had long been struggling to free himself from his leash, and straining his neck against the restraint. He had scarcely been released properly before we lost sight of him.
‘The hot dust showed the print of his paws, but he had vanished from sight. No javelin was quicker than him, no lead shot from a whirled sling, no light arrow shot from a Cretan bow. There was an intervening hill whose summit overlooked the surrounding fields. I climbed it, and watched the spectacle of this strange race, where the quarry seemed to be caught, and then to escape its fate. Nor does the cunning animal run in a straight course in the open, but it eludes the pursuing muzzle and swings back in a circle, so its enemy cannot charge. The hound presses hard, and matches its pace, seems to grip it, and does not grip it, and worries at the air with its empty snapping.
‘I turned to my spear for help. While I was balancing it in my right hand, while I was trying to fit my fingers into the throwing strap, I turned my eyes away. When I turned them back to the same place, I saw (a marvel) two shapes of marble in the middle of the plain. One you would think to be fleeing, the other pursuing. Assuredly, if a god was with them, that god must have willed that both should be unconquered in the race,’ He got so far in his story, and was silent. ‘What crime has the spear committed?’ said Phocus. And Cephalus recounted its crime.”
I had “mis-remembered” this story. I believed the dog belonged to Oedipus. That not only did Oedipus solve the riddle of the sphinx, but that he also got rid of the wild beast that interestingly sprung out of nowhere when the sphinx disappeared. In my memory there is no sign of a spear. Only – and crucially – a ‘moment of inattention’, which is what allows the gods to intervene.
This story has more ramifications than the oak trees I can see from my window as I write. I like to explore some of them from time to time.
I am chagrined at the recent news of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica being discontinued on paper. I bought the paper version just before it was first available on CD. Such a major change within a medium slice of one lifetime.