Hunts abound in great works of Roman literature. In his epic masterpiece, Metamorphoses, Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE,) retold myths and legends of transformations: a hunter turned into a stag, to be brought down by his own hounds; nymphs transformed into trees or birds to escape unwelcome suitors; or a god taking the form of another creature to deceive his wife.
One of Ovid’s heroes was Cephalus, who went hunting shortly after his marriage to beautiful Procris. Smitten by the handsome hunter, Aurora, the goddess of dawn, swooped down on her golden wings and carried him away to her rosy domain. When she tired of his pleas to return to his beloved wife she sent him home but not without hinting that Procris may not be true to her marriage vows. Suspicious Cephalus let Aurora change his looks so Procris would not recognize him. He wooed her with lavish gifts till, after a long time, she relented. Outraged, Cephalus, revealed his true identity and accused her of infidelity!
Deeply hurt and humiliated, Procris fled to the forest to join the goddess Diana’s band of female hunters. Cephalus tracked her down and begged her forgiveness. Love triumphed and Procris returned. She gave her husband two gifts she had received from Diana: Laelaps, the fastest hunting dog who always caught his prey, and a spear or javelin that would never miss its mark.
Both gifts made Cephalus the best hunter in town. When the Titan, Themis, unleashed a marauding beast into the countryside, Cephalus, was called on to help deal with it. The beast eluded the nets and traps the hunters set up; a pack of a hundred hounds fared no better. Finally Cephalus released his eager hound. Laelaps sped out of sight in seconds. From the top of a hill, Cephalus spotted the dog snapping at the heels of the beast but never quite catching it. Round and round they went in an endless chase. Cephalus turned to pick up his javelin, taking his eyes off the spectacle as he fitted in fingers into the thongs and balanced his weapon. Turning back, to this astonishment, he saw the chase had ended – a god had transformed the dog and beast into marble statues frozen in the act of fleeing and pursuit.
The javelin’s story is a sad one. Cephalus would rise at dawn to hunt without servants, dogs or nets, just his trusty javelin. At the end of a successful morning, he would rest calling for a refreshing breeze, or zephyr, to cool him down. Unfortunately, a notorious gossip overheard him reciting a sensuous verse to summon the breeze, and assumed that he was calling a lover, a nymph called Zephyr. The gossip hurried to inform Procris of her husband’s supposed infidelity. Distraught, Procris followed Cephalus on his next hunt. As before he lay down and called for Zephyr to come soothe his weariness. Startled by a rustle from a nearby bush, he turned and threw the javelin that never misses at what he assumed was a wild beast but struck his darling wife, tragically ending their blissful marriage.