The Story of Acis

Long ago in Sicily... Galatea was a sea nymph, a Nereid, who lived by the island inhabited by the Cyclops Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, who was deeply in love with Galatea. However Galatea liked the young shepherd Acis, son of Pan. Galatea and Acis used to mock Polyphemus's songs of love for Galatea. Polyphemus caught them sleeping on a grassy hill, and killed Acis by crushing him under a huge rock. Acis's blood formed a stream beneath the rock. Galatea turned it into a river and named it after him.

The story of Acis and Galatea was told by Ovid in Book III of his Metamorphoses, and it is also the subject of a 1732 opera by Georg Friedrich Händel; here are excerpts from the Libretto, by John Gay:

Acis and Galatea by Jean-Francois de Troy (1679-1752)

Chorus:
Wretched lovers!
Fate has past this sad decree:
No joy shall last. Quit your dream!
Behold the monster Polypheme!
See what ample strides he takes!
The mountain nods, the forest shakes;
The waves run frighten'd to the shores:
Hark, how the thund'ring giant roars!

Acis:
His hideous love provokes my rage:
Weak as I am, I must engage!
Inspir'd with thy victorious charms,
The god of love will lend his arms.

Acis (later):
Help, Galatea! help, ye parent gods!
And take me dying to your deep abodes.

Chorus:
Mourn, all ye muses! weep, all ye swains!
Tune, tune your reeds to doleful strains!
Groans, cries and howlings fill the neighb'ring shore:
Ah, ah, the gentle Acis is no more!

But don't despair. Ovid goes on to tell us:
The stone was cleft, and through the yawning chink
New reeds arose, on the new river's brink.
The rock, from out its hollow womb, disclos'd
A sound like water in its course oppos'd,
When (wond'rous to behold), full in the flood,
Up starts a youth, and navel high he stood.
Horns from his temples rise; and either horn
Thick wreaths of reeds (his native growth) adorn.
Were not his stature taller than before,
His bulk augmented, and his beauty more,
His colour blue; for Acis he might pass:
And Acis chang'd into a stream he was,
But mine no more; he rowls along the plains
With rapid motion, and his name retains.


Frank da Cruz / fdc@columbia.edu / Columbia University Computing History / April 2001