“The Transformation of Battus to a Touch Stone” – Ovid

by richibi


      Mercury and Battus(1610)


             Adam Elsheimer





            Sore wept the centaur, and to Phoebus pray’d;


Phoebus, the Latin name for Apollo,

the Greek name for the same god of 

the Sun among several other things


Phoebus / Apollo was the centaur

Chiron‘s father


            But how could Phoebus give the centaur aid?
            Degraded of his pow’r by angry Jove,
            In Elis then a herd of beeves he drove;


Jove / Jupiter / Zeus, god of gods

had [d]egraded Phoebus of his

pow’r by overruling him in having

him return, however unwillingly,

to his position as Charioteer of

the Sun after having just killed

his son, Phaeton


Elis, a region still of Greece


beeves, plural of beef, however

presently obsolete, but compare

leaf, leaves, or loaf, loaves, wife,

wives, shelf, shelves for similar


            And wielded in his hand a staff of oak,
            And o’er his shoulders threw the shepherd’s cloak;
            On sev’n compacted reeds he us’d to play,
            And on his rural pipe to waste the day.


Phoebus / Apollo was god, as well,

of Music


            As once attentive to his pipe he play’d,
            The crafty Hermes from the God convey’d
            A drove, that sep’rate from their fellows stray’d.


the grammar is here incorrect, he

in the first verse should agree with

the subject of the principal clause,

[t]he crafty Hermes, of the second,

but it refers, rather, to Phoebus /

Apollo, who’d been attentive to the

same rural pipe he’d been playing,

wast[ing] the day, in the earlier



Hermes, the messenger god, was

leading, convey[ing], away from

its fellows, indeed stealing, some

of the God Phoebus / Apollo‘s

beeves, his cattle


drove, a large group, singular of



            The theft an old insidious peasant view’d
            (They call’d him Battus in the neighbourhood),
            Hir’d by a vealthy Pylian prince to feed
            His fav’rite mares, and watch the gen’rous breed.


Pylian, of Pylos, a town still in



vealthy, wealthy, surely a typo,

however unusual in so respected

an edition


Battus, an old insidious peasant,

had seen, view’d, Hermes, god

as well of Thieves, incidentally,

steal Phoebus / Apollo‘s beeves


            The thievish God suspected him, and took
            The hind aside, and thus in whispers spoke:


suspected, Hermes, [t]he thievish

God, supposed that Battus had

seen him stealing the cattle

            “Discover not the theft, whoe’er thou be,
            And take that milk-white heifer for thy fee.”


Discover not, don’t tell


the milk-white heifer, [t]he hind

            “Go, stranger,” cries the clown, “securely on,
            That stone shall sooner tell,” and show’d a stone.


the clown, Battus, assures Hermes

that [t]hat stone, an inanimate, and

therefore mute, thing, is more likely

to tell about the theft than he, Battus,

would be

            The God withdrew, but strait return’d again,
            In speech and habit like a country swain;


The God this time is Hermes, who

has returned disguised as a country

swain, a bumpkin


            And cries out, “Neighbour, hast thou seen a stray
            Of bullocks and of heifers pass this way?
            In the recov’ry of my cattle join,
            A bullock and a heifer shall be thine.”


help me find my cattle, Hermes asks

of Battusand I’ll reward you with 

[a] bullock and a heifer

            The peasant quick replies, “You’ll find ’em there
            In yon dark vale”; and in the vale they were.


Battus has gone back on his word to

the first stranger who’d accosted him,

and reveals the whereabouts of the

stolen herd to the second

            The double bribe had his false heart beguil’d:


double bribe, the first, the milk-white

heifer, the second, a bullock and

[another] heifer

            The God, successful in the tryal, smil’d;


tryal, trial, it’s interesting to see

here the root of the word trial

            “And dost thou thus betray my self to me?
            Me to my self dost thou betray?” says he:


Battus has in either instance

unwittingly betrayed both Hermes,

the original stranger, then Hermes

again, the country swain

            Then to a Touch stone turns the faithless spy;
            And in his name records his infamy.


Touch stone, or touchstone, a stone

used for testing the purity of precious

metals, a criterion, a basis


in his name, Battusrecords his infamy,

though unclear, this verse suggests to

me that the name Battus will always be

associated with being a faithless spy,

a betrayer



R ! chard


psst: Mercury, or Mercurius, is the

          Latin equivalent of Hermes,

          see above