Pyramus and Thisbe a Legendary Love Story
The oldest love story in the world
The Story of Pyramus and Thisbe is the oldest love story in the world. It's a story we still tell - and it's a tragedy.
It's a familiar tale to all of us although we may not instantly recognise the names of the ancient lovers. You know it very well, it's the story of young lovers whose union is thwarted by their opposing parents and whose lives end in double suicide based on a misunderstanding.
Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear,
Slain, cruel friends, by parting have join'd here.
Pyramus and Thisbe through the Ages - This story is 4,000 years old
The story was recorded by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses written sometime in the 1st century. Ovid heard the story from the Greeks, who heard the story (it is said) from Tunisian traders who heard it from Persian travellers.
The 14th century saw a revival in its popularity with Petrarch recording the story in 1340, Boccaccio in 1342 and, in 1386, Chaucer wrote The Legend of Thisbe.
So Shakespeare used the sorrowful story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Midsummer Night's Dream and enriched the plot in Romeo and Juliet, but he borrowed the story from Ovid, who borrowed it from the Greeks, who borrowed it from the Middle East.
It was the basis for West Side Story.
Although it's a long, long way from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the West Side of New York, a mere 4000 years means nothing to young love. Or to a good story.
Pyramus and Thisbe, the Plot
Legend tells us that Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden, in all Babylonia, where Semiramis reigned.
The two lived in adjoining houses and contrived somehow to strike up an acquaintance by conversing through a crack in the shared wall. Friendship flourished and blossomed into love as the young couple shared their hopes and dreams with nightly whisperings through the faulty mortar. Their parents were enemies but this meant nothing to Pyramus and Thisbe and their sweet conversations through the crack in the wall began to grow desperate.
They longed for the opportunity to exchange but a simple kiss and one morning they were no longer able to suppress their desires.
A Tryst is Arranged
The tragedy begins to unfold
A meeting point and a time was established. This was to be near a tomb in the public gardens where the lovers would embrace under a mulberry with snowy fruits.
Both waited eagerly for the last rays of sunlight so that they could finally see each other face to face. Never had their young hearts beaten with such fervour.
Thisbe reached the trysting place and, entwining her veil around the mulberry, she sat by the small pool and dreamed of Pyramus.
All at once a lioness appeared, thirsty from a hunt, her jaws bloody from a fresh kill. Thisbe prudently ran off, and left the lioness to rip the veil and tear it with her teeth, smearing blood on the delicate fabric, all this before slaking her thirst in the water.
Pyramus arrives at the Trysting Place
When Pyramus made his way from the city to meet his love he found the veil and the footprints of the beast. With wails of grief he called for the young woman he believed to be carried off by the lion.
Unable to bear the prospect of life without his love, Pyramus plunged his own sword into his breast.
His blood ran amongst the grasses and the roots of the mulberry staining the white fruit into a deep red hue.
After allowing the lioness time to drink at the pool, Thisbe returned to this tree only to find her lover gone forever from this world, his lifeless hands still gripping her torn and bloody veil.
She wailed and lamented louder than had the young man before her, and then she took his sword into her own hands.
With a last cry she plunged the weapon into her belly and fell to the ground beside him.
When you see a Mulberry Tree
Remember Pyramus and Thisbe
Stricken by this useless tragedy, the gods themselves sobbed. To show their sorrow, they turned the tall mulberry tree into the symbol of the love between the two doomed young people.
Every year, when the fruit of the mulberry is ripe, it turns a deep red to commemorate the devotion of the two lovers.
Remember them when you next see a mulberry tree. Stop for a moment, and send a silent blessing to all young lovers.
Do you know of Pyramus and Thisbe?
Have you heard of this story before?
The Age of Fable : Thomas Bulfinch - The Classic of Classical Mythology
The classic book on Greek and Roman mythology - and where I first met Pyramus and Thisbe.
The work of Thomas Bulfinch, in his own words, is ...
".. not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation"..
- The story from Thomas Bulfinch
Read one of Bulfinch's retellings online.
© 2009 Susanna Duffy