PELOPS

TANTALUS had done the gods great wrong; his son Pelops honored them devoutly. After his father had been thrust into Hades, a war with his neighbor, the king of Troy, drove Pelops from his own country of Lydia, and he journeyed to Greece. The chin of the youth was only just touched with the first dark down, but his heart had already chosen a wife. It was Hippodamia, the daughter of king Oenomaus of Elis, and she was a prize not easily won. For an oracle had foretold that the king would die when his daughter married, and so he did all he could to keep her suitors at a distance. Throughout the land he issued a proclamation that he who would wed his daughter must first defeat her father in a chariot race. If, however, the king were victorious, the contestant was to forfeit his life. The race was to begin at Pisa and end at Poseidon’s altar on the isthmus of Corinth, and the start Oenomaus arranged as follows: he would first sacrifice a ram to Zeus, taking his time about it, while the suitor set off in his four-horse chariot. Only when the rites of offering were duly fulfilled would he begin the race and pursue the other, spear in hand, in the chariot guided by Myrtilus, his charioteer. If he caught up with him, he should have the right to pierce him to the heart.

When the many youths who wooed Hippodamia for her beauty heard these conditions, they were of good courage, for they regarded the king as a feeble old man who knew very well that he could not race with the young, and gave them so great a start in order to explain his probable defeat by this act of generosity. One after another came to Elis and asked the king for his daughter. He received each in a most friendly manner, gave him a splendid four-horse chariot, and went to sacrifice a ram to Zeus without the slightest show of haste. Only then did he mount his light chariot, drawn by his two mares Phylla and Harpinna, who ran swifter than the north wind. And every time the charioteer caught up with the suitor long before the goal was reached, and the cruel king pierced him with his spear. In this fashion he had already slain more than twelve youths.

On the way to his beloved, Pelops had landed on the peninsula which was one day to bear his name. He soon heard all that was happening in Elis. At nightfall he went to the shore and called upon his patron god, Poseidon, swinger of the mighty trident, and the waves parted and he surged up through the sea, “O Poseidon,” cried Pelops, “if the gifts of Aphrodite are welcome to you, turn the sharp spear of Oenomaus from me. Send me to Elis in the swiftest chariot, and lead me to victory. Already he has destroyed thirteen wooers, and he is still putting off marriage for his daughter. Great danger calls for a brave spirit. I am determined to try my luck. I must die someday, so why sit in gloom, awaiting inglorious old age, and share in no brilliant conquests? I want to undertake this race. Give me the success I pray for!”

And Pelops did not plead in vain. For again the waves surged and parted, and a chariot of shimmering gold with four winged horses swift as arrows rose from the depths. On this Pelops sped to Elis, guiding the sea-god’s horses at will and outrunning the wind. When Oenomaus saw him coming he quailed, for he recognized Poseidon’s chariot at a glance. But he did not refuse to race with the stranger on the usual conditions. After Pelops’ horses had rested from their journey along the isthmus, he started them off on the race track. He was close to the goal when the king, who had sacrificed the ram according to his custom, suddenly caught up with him, brandishing his spear to deal the bold suitor the fatal blow. But Poseidon, the protector of Pelops, loosened the wheels of the king’s chariot while it was going at full speed, so that it crashed to earth. Oenomaus fell and was killed instantly. At that very moment, Pelops reached the goal. When he looked back, he saw the king’s palace in flames. A flash of lightning had set it afire and destroyed it until only a single pillar was left standing. But Pelops sped toward the burning house in his winged chariot and fetched his bride out of the ruins.

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