The Story of Baucis and Philemon: Life and Death

Philemon and Baucis are characters introduced by a Roman poet named Publius Ovidius Naso (also known as Ovid) in his mythological narrative entitled The Metamorphoses.  These two characters are a poor but noble couple who once lived on a high hill of Greece. Their story began when they accepted, into their lowly house, two lost strangers who were ignored by all in their neighborhood.

Philemon and Baucis offering food to the gods – Jupiter and Mercury.

Even with poor status, Philemon and Baucis provided their guests with what they have – food, wine, and a place to rest. Bringing into the light, the two strangers exposed themselves that they were, in fact, Jupiter (synonymous with the Greek god Zeus) and Mercury (Hermes) disguised as mortals. The gods punished the neighborhood for its cruelty and all, except the couple and their house, vanished into the swamp. The couple’s cottage was then turned into a temple. The old wooden poles of the cottage became pillars, the roof turned to gold, and marble pavement appeared covering the ground.

For one last time, the gods demanded a wish from Baucis and Philemon. The couple just prayed that they would come to the passing of their lives at the same time. The gods left but guaranteed that the couple’s wish would one day become true.  Years passed away and when the couple grew old and weak, their bodies were replaced by two different neighboring trees – an oak and a linden. Their branches looked as if they were embracing each other at the time the trees reach the sky.

Baucis and Philemon as Oak and Linden trees.

The story of Baucis and Philemon appears strange because of story’s mysterious plots defying the laws of nature. Even so, few moral philosophies regarding life could be deduced from the story. Above all is the notion that good things come to those who are kind and good-hearted. Another is the virtue of piety as manifested by the couple’s faithful relation towards the divine beings. An additional theme, yet still a philosophy composing the story, is romance which is apparent by the formidable love between the couple.

To some extent, the transformation of the couple into trees illustrates a truth about life that is each life has an end and that our physical beings persist to become part of nature again. This is a piece of the unbreakable cycle of matters on Earth which is simply a cycle of creation and destruction. New materials needed to give rise to an organism come from old materials previously composing organisms that lived in the past. Life and death is a continuous process. Death seems terrible but it is nature’s way to keep the constant flow of energy and matter in our world. This bestows the opportunity for one being to become another being but of course with an entirely different consciousness. |


Ovid’s Metamorphoses. English translation by Anthony s. Kline.

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