The Age of Fable eBook

Thomas Bulfinch
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 1,207 pages of information about The Age of Fable.

   “Look, Jessica, see how the floor of heaven
    Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold! 
    There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
    But in his motion like an angel sings,
    Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim;
    Such harmony is in immortal souls! 
    But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
    Doth grossly close it in we cannot hear it.”

    —­Merchant of Venice.

The spheres were conceived to be crystalline or glassy fabrics arranged over one another like a nest of bowls reversed.  In the substance of each sphere one or more of the heavenly bodies was supposed to be fixed, so as to move with it.  As the spheres are transparent we look through them and see the heavenly bodies which they contain and carry round with them.  But as these spheres cannot move on one another without friction, a sound is thereby produced which is of exquisite harmony, too fine for mortal ears to recognize.  Milton, in his “Hymn on the Nativity,” thus alludes to the music of the spheres: 

   “Ring out, ye crystal spheres! 
    Once bless our human ears
      (If ye have power to charm our senses so);
    And let your silver chime
    Move in melodious time,
      And let the base of Heaven’s deep organ blow;
    And with your ninefold harmony
    Make up full concert with the angelic symphony.”

Pythagoras is said to have invented the lyre.  Our own poet
Longfellow, in “Verses to a Child,” thus relates the story: 

   “As great Pythagoras of yore,
    Standing beside the blacksmith’s door,
    And hearing the hammers as they smote
    The anvils with a different note,
    Stole from the varying tones that hung
    Vibrant on every iron tongue,
    The secret of the sounding wire,
    And formed the seven-chorded lyre.”

See also the same poet’s “Occupation of Orion”—­

   “The Samian’s great Aeolian lyre.”


Sybaris, a neighboring city to Crotona, was as celebrated for luxury and effeminacy as Crotona for the reverse.  The name has become proverbial.  J. R. Lowell uses it in this sense in his charming little poem “To the Dandelion”: 

   “Not in mid June the golden cuirassed bee
    Feels a more summer-like, warm ravishment
      In the white lily’s breezy tent
    (His conquered Sybaris) than I when first
    From the dark green thy yellow circles burst.”

A war arose between the two cities, and Sybaris was conquered and destroyed.  Milo, the celebrated athlete, led the army of Crotona.  Many stories are told of Milo’s vast strength, such as his carrying a heifer of four years old upon his shoulders and afterwards eating the whole of it in a single day.  The mode of his death is thus related:  As he was passing through a forest he saw the trunk of a tree which had been partially split open by wood-cutters, and attempted to rend it further; but the wood closed upon his hands and held him fast, in which state he was attacked and devoured by wolves.

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The Age of Fable from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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