Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Phosphorus and Hesperus

Phosphorus and Hesperus, oil on canvas, Evelyn de Morgan, 1882

This beautiful painting by Evelyn de Morgan depicts the greek gods Phosphorus and Hesperus. Phosphorus(gr. Eosphoros, l. Lucifer) and Hesperus(gr. Hesperos, l. Vesper) are brothers, sons of the rosy fingered goddess of dawn, Eos (latin: Aurora).

Phosphorus is the planet Venus when it appears as the morning star. Hesperus is the planet Venus when it appears as the evening star. The early greeks believed these to be two distinct astronomical bodies and assigned two distinct dieties to the planet as it appeared respectively in the morning and evening. The later greeks adopted the Babylonian view that the morning and evening star were a single wandering star and associated it with the goddess Aphrodite(l. Venus).

Like the goddess Venus and the stars themselves, Phosphorus and Hesperus are eternally young and beautiful. Only their mother Eos(Dawn) and her sister and brother, Selene(the moon) and Helios(the Sun), shine more brightly in the heavens.

It is Phosphorus, the bringer of light, who wakes his mother Eos from her sleep in the depths of the sea each morning and ushers in the dawn. It is Hesperus who ushers in the evening at dusk. Hesperus brings all good things home at the end of the day. He is the god of the hearth and domestic happiness. One might curse Phosphorus when getting up in the morning to go to work and bless Hesperus in the evening when returning to the comfort of home.

Eos, oil on canvas, Evelyn de Morgan, 1895

 Evening, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother. - Sappho

Above is a literal translation of a fragment of Sappho's poetry referring to Hesperus, translated by Henry Thornton Wharton in his book Sappho: Memoirs, text, selected renderings and a literal translation(1895). Below I've selected several translations of the same fragment from the book for comparison.

Hesperus brings all things back
Which the daylight made us lack,
Brings the sheep and goats to rest,
Brings the baby to the breast.

Edwin Arnold, 1869

Hesper, thou bringest back again
All that the gaudy daybeams part
The sheep the goat back to their pen,
The child home to the mother's heart.

Frederick Tennyson, 1890

Evening, all things thou bringest
Which dawn spread apart from each other;
The lamb and the kid thou bringest,
Thou bringest the boy to his mother.

J.A Symonds, 1883

Here Sappho's fragment is imitated by Byron in the third canto of Don Juan.

O Hesperus, thou bringest all good things-
Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer;
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
Whate'er our household gods protect of dear,
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest,
Thou bring'st the child too to its mother's breast

I have always been a night person myself.

Hesper, whom the poet called the Bringer home of all good things.

Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, Frederick Tennyson, 1886

Dawn (Aurora Triumphans), oil on canvas, Evelyn de Morgan, 1886

Finding a literary reference to Phosphorus was rather more difficult. Finally I stumbled across this passage from Virgil's Eclogues in which the arcadian shepherd Damon greets the day leaning against an olive tree playing his flute and singing a song bemoaning the coming of dawn for today is the day of his beloved Nysa's wedding to his rival Mopsus. In the last stanza Damon vows to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea.

In this translation, Phosphorus is called Lucifer, Eos is called Eota and Hesperus is simply called the evening star.

Damon's song:  

Rise, Lucifer, and, heralding the light,
Bring in the genial day, while I make moan
Fooled by vain passion for a faithless bride,
For Nysa, and with this my dying breath
Call on the gods, though little it bestead-
The gods who heard her vows and heeded not.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Ever hath Maenalus his murmuring groves
And whispering pines, and ever hears the songs
Of love-lorn shepherds, and of Pan, who first
Brooked not the tuneful reed should idle lie.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Nysa to Mopsus given! what may not then
We lovers look for? soon shall we see mate
Griffins with mares, and in the coming age
Shy deer and hounds together come to drink.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Now, Mopsus, cut new torches, for they bring
Your bride along; now, bridegroom, scatter nuts:
Forsaking Oeta mounts the evening star!

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
O worthy of thy mate, while all men else
Thou scornest, and with loathing dost behold
My shepherd's pipe, my goats, my shaggy brow,
And untrimmed beard, nor deem'st that any god
For mortal doings hath regard or care.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Once with your mother, in our orchard-garth,
A little maid I saw you- I your guide-
Plucking the dewy apples. My twelfth year
I scarce had entered, and could barely reach
the brittle boughs. I looked, and I was lost;
A sudden frenzy swept my wits away.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Now know I what Love is: 'mid savage rocks
Tmaros or Rhodope brought forth the boy,
Or Garamantes in earth's utmost bounds-
No kin of ours, nor of our blood begot.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Fierce Love it was once steeled a mother's heart
With her own offspring's blood her hands to imbrue:
Mother, thou too wert cruel; say wert thou
More cruel, mother, or more ruthless he?
Ruthless the boy, thou, mother, cruel too.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Now let the wolf turn tail and fly the sheep,
Tough oaks bear golden apples, alder-trees
Bloom with narcissus-flower, the tamarisk
Sweat with rich amber, and the screech-owl vie
In singing with the swan: let Tityrus
Be Orpheus, Orpheus in the forest-glade,
Arion 'mid his dolphins on the deep.

Begin, my flute, with me Maenalian lays.
Yea, be the whole earth to mid-ocean turned!
Farewell, ye woodlands I from the tall peak
Of yon aerial rock will headlong plunge
Into the billows: this my latest gift,
From dying lips bequeathed thee, see thou keep.
Cease now, my flute, now cease Maenalian lays.

Virgil, Eclogue VIII, translator unknown

In legend Sappho is said to have committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea as well. Though it is unknown how Sappho really died.

The Field of the Slain, oil on canvas, Evelyn de Morgan, 1916

The paintings of Evelyn Pickering de Morgan (1855 - 1919) show the influence of Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and especially John Rodham Spencer Stanhope, who was her uncle. Like other Pre-Raphaelite painters, she often took her subjects from literature and mythology. Yet her paintings are often discussed in comparison with Symbolist painters because of her use of allegorical symbolism to express metaphysical ideas and comment on social issues. Her later paintings, like the one above, often had an anti-war theme.

Evelyn de Morgan portayed women as beautiful, robust and athletic. Her women are strong heroic figures embodying the power of creative optimism, in stark contrast to Edward Burne-Jones wilting goddesses who all suffer from a fatal melancholia. The women in their paintings are thus as different as Hesperus and Phosphorus, that is to say, as night and day.

- David


Sappho: Memoirs, text, selected renderings and a literal translation by H.T. Wharton, 1895.

The Eclogues, Virgil, 37 b.c.e.

The De Morgan Foundation website.