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Baucis and Philemon

Story summary

Zeus and Hermes hear a rumour of a valley in Phrygia where the sacred laws of hospitality are no longer observed. When, in disguise, they visit the valley in a terrible storm, a hundred times the gods are refused food and shelter; finally there is only one house left, the humble home of an elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon. They welcome the strangers warmly and generously share their meagre supplies.

When their wine jug keeps replenishing itself the mortals realise their guests are in fact gods. Ashamed by the meagre fare they have provided they decide to kill their prized goose. Before this can happen, the gods reveal themselves and show the old couple how they have punished their fellow citizens. The virtuous couple are rewarded with two wishes. Their requests are simple: firstly, a home to be a temple where they may worship the gods; and secondly, that they may die at the same moment. Their wishes are granted and at the moment of death they are transformed into trees, an oak and a linden, with their branches entwined in an eternal embrace.

Teaching activities

  • Starting points
  • Follow-up
  • Further activities

This story provides an excellent opportunity to explore important aspects of Zeus, because it shows him both as the god of hospitality and as the god of the weather.

Zeus. The king of the gods, known to the Romans as Jupiter or Jove. He was a weather-god, the sender of rain, hail, show and thunderstorms. His weapon was the thunderbolt, the symbol of his invincible power over gods and men. In Homer he is called ‘cloud-gatherer’, ‘thunderer on high’, ‘lord of the lightning', Zeus who ‘delights in the thunder’, the ‘father of gods and men’. He was the protector of law and justice, with other epithets indicating the spheres over which he had jurisdiction: as the defender of the household (Herkeios), oaths (Horkios), hospitality (Xenios), suppliants (Hikesios), and mankind in general (Soter, Saviour).

(Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology p. 790)

Find out from the students what they know about Zeus and discuss with them whether they think he a frightening or an approachable god. Ask the class to imagine that they are in an isolated farmhouse on a wet and windy night, when two strange men coming knocking on their door asking for food and shelter. What would they do?

Initial questions you might ask the class include:

  • What makes the gods decide to come down to earth?
  • Why do the gods choose to disguise themselves?
  • Is the way we respond to people affected by looks and status?
  • How do Baucis and Philemon treat the strangers? Why do they behave in this way? (Would people today act like Baucis and Philemon?)
  • How does Baucis recognise that the strangers they were entertaining were in fact gods?
  • How do they react when they see their neighbours’ punishment?
  • How are Baucis and Philemon rewarded for their goodness? Why do the gods appreciate the hospitality shown by Baucis and Philemon so much?
  • It is said that, ‘actions speak louder than words’. Ask pupils to study the text and identify how the characters are revealed through their actions. Aspects that they might notice are:
    • kindness — inviting strangers into their home
    • generosity — cutting hunk from their long cherished pork
    • thoughtfulness — talking to keep their guests mind off the long delay
    • wisdom and love — in their choice of gifts
    • harmony — the way they work together to prepare the meal without need to discuss/allocate tasks
  • Was the gods’ punishment justified?
  • What do students think about the ending of the story? Was it predictable? Do they consider it a happy ending? How does it reflect the opening?

Other questions to ask:

  • What change or changes take place in this story?
  • Does the use of humour enhance or detract from the story?
  • What is the lesson conveyed by this story?
  • Is the story of Baucis and Philemon similar to other stories?

Writing activity 1. Sequence the events that occur in the story. Write your own story using a similar structure.

Writing activity 2. Write Hermes’ or Zeus’ account of their meeting with Baucis and Philemon.

Prediction exercise. Stop the story just before Baucis and Philemon make their wishes. Students in small groups discuss what they might request, drawing on their knowledge of the two characters and their circumstances, based on what they have heard so far. Once the students have written down their suggestions, continue with the story. What do the wishes made by Baucis and Philemon reveal about the type of people they are? Are there any clues that suggested they would not ask for wealth? Discuss the reasoning for the choices they made. Were they predictable? What request would a more selfish person have chosen? Should we expect to be rewarded for goodness?