The Serpent Of Pindus

The following tale is related by Aelian in his treatise On Animals (X.48).  In very ancient times the region of Emathia in northern Greece had a king name named Lycaon.  This king’s son was named Macedon; and it is from this name that the word for the country called Macedonia has come about.

One of Macedon’s sons was a vigorous and admirable youth named Pindus.  He stood out from his brothers and peers for his superlative qualities of body and mind.  Naturally this situation provoked a great deal of jealousy and resentment against him; and Pindus soon came to realize it would be better for him to leave his father’s court.  So he decided to take up residence in the Emathian countryside. 

Among his other attributes, Pindus was a hunter of great skill.  One time, when he was absorbed in the hunt, he found himself chasing deer across the rocky landscape.  The young does eventually entered a steep ravine, and disappeared among the tangle of rocks and vegetation.  Pindus dismounted from his horse and set out on foot after the does.  As he began to enter the ravine, he heard an unmistakably authoritarian voice which said, “Do not lay hands on these deer.”  The young man was startled; he looked around, but could find no source for the strange command.  Concluding that it must have emanated from some divine source, he quickly left the ravine.        

The event haunted him, and he returned to the ravine the next day.  He thought he might be able to deduce the source of the voice.  He looked around, but there was no sign of anyone or anything that might have issued the mysterious command.  But suddenly he noticed an immense snake crawling across the ravine.  It was so large, Aelian assures us, that the serpent’s “neck and head together exceeded in size that of a full-grown man.”  Pindus was terrified at the sight of the monster, but he could not take his eyes off the serpent as it wound its way towards him.  He did not flee.  Keeping his wits and his cool, the lad offered the monster the animal prey he had caught earlier that day.  He gave the game—which amounted to a few birds—to the serpent as a kind of tribute to guarantee his safety.

The snake seemed to be placated by this offering.  Pindus departed intact.  From that point, he would make a habit of giving the monster the first fruits of his daily hunts.  He would descend into the raving, and bring the serpent whatever first bird or beast he had managed to capture that day.  At the same time, Pindus’s personal fortunes began to swell with the beneficences of success.  His successes in venery multiplied; he became the very best hunter in the land.  And as he matured, he grew into an even more impressive figure than he had been before.  Physically, he became tall, strong, and able to withstand physical rigors that few others were able to tolerate. His fame spread far and wide. 

Pindus became sought after by women who had heard of his fearless reputation; both maidens and widows were eager to become acquainted with him.  Men admired him and tried to emulate him—the only exception being his three brothers, who still nursed a pathological jealousy of him.  Eventually, his brothers found out where he lived, and contrived a scheme to do away with him.  One day, when Pindus was out hunting, the three brothers saw him and prepared an ambush.  When all was ready, they fell upon him with drawn swords and slew Pindus without mercy.  As he lay dying, Pindus let out a roar of anguish and rage.  His agonized voice was heard by the monstrous serpent in the ravine.  It slithered its enormous body across the rocky landscape until it found the dying Pindus and his three murderers.  The snake, with amazing speed, swept up the three killers in its coils and crushed them to death. 

The serpent kept vigil beside Pindus’s body until his relatives arrived on the scene.  They cried out in sorrow at the sight of the dead young man; but they were terrified of approaching his body, for fear of arousing the wrath of the monstrous snake that guarded him.  Soon the serpent realized that his presence was keeping the family away; and so it departed, and made its way back to its lair in the ravine.  Pindus’s family attended to his burial and erected a tomb to house his remains.  The river near the scene of his murder was named the Pindus River.

So it happens that an unlikely friend can act as one’s avenger.  This tale recalls, in some ways, a quote from Homer’s Odyssey that appears in another part of Aelian’s treatise (IV.45):

So good a thing is it that a son be left behind a man at his death, since that son took vengeance on his father’s slayer. 

[Odyssey III.196]

And there is another lesson here as well.  While the machinations of the wicked, and the devices of the corrupt, may seem for a time to bring success, the results of their deeds will always find them in the end.  There is no escape from the consequences of moral corruption.   




Read more about this theme and related ones in the new translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends: