Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Hylas by Waterhouse

I often steal plots from Greek myths. After all, their authors are long-dead and can't sue me. For my ninth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes, I used the Voyage of Jason and his Argonauts as the structure for my Roman detectives' search for a criminal mastermind.

In the myth, Jason is on a quest for the Golden Fleece and he has assembled many heroes on board his ship the Argo. For example Hercules and his special friend Hylas, a beautiful youth.

In The Colossus of Rhodes, I get Flavia and her friends match the crew of their boat, the Delphina, with the crew of the mythical Argo. Here is the list Flavia and her friends compose:

Lupus the ship-owner is like Jason, the Brave Hero on a Quest
Flavia Gemina is like Atalanta, the speedy Heroine
Jonathan would like to be Peleus, a Hero and father of Achilles
Nubia has agreed to be Hercules, because both wear lionskins
Captain Geminus (a twin) is Castor, Pollux's mortal Brother
Aristo (a talented musician) is Orpheus, whose Lyre tamed Beasts
Bato (former junior magistrate) is Mopsus, a Wise Soothsayer
Flaccus (aristocratic snob) is Acastus, arrogant son of King Pelias
Zetes (Flaccus's slave-boy) is Zetes, the Hero who could fly
Silvanus (handsome youth) is Hylas, young Squire of Hercules
Atticus (old and Greek) can be Argus, who built the Argo
Punicus (Phoenician helmsman) is Tiphys, Helmsman on the Argo

(pp 24-25)

In my book, Flavia makes Silvanus, a handsome Ostian youth, correspond to Hylas. This could be bad news for Silvanus. The original story of Hylas goes like this:

Jason and his crew have anchored somewhere on the coast of Bithynia to take on water. Hercules and his boyfriend Hylas go off to fetch water but Juno, Hercules's great enemy, sees a chance to torment him. She makes sure that Hercules and Hylas are separated. She then tells a beautiful huntress nymph called Dryope that there is a handsome boy in the woods who would make a perfect husband. His name is Hylas.

The poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus (played by Ben Lloyd-Hughes above) tells the story like this:

Dryope the huntress nymph flushes a swift deer out of the trackless woods and tricks Hylas into pursuing it, away from Hercules. The stag leads him far away to a place where a bright fountain gushes forth. With a single bound the deer leaps over the pool and is gone. Disappointed, the handsome youth finally stops his pursuit. As sweat bathes his limbs and his chest rises and falls, he greedily sinks beside the pleasant stream. The dappled light that shifts and plays upon the lake shows the gleam of his beautiful body. He does not notice the nymph's shadow or the perfumed scent of her hair or the splash of water as she rises up to embrace him. He cries out to Hercules for help as she throws her smooth arms around his neck, but in vain. Hercules is far away and cannot hear him, and the lovely nymph she draws him down into the water, her strength helped by his falling weight.

In the painting by Waterhouse (below) the painter makes the scene much more watery and adds six more nymphs, bringing their total number to a mystical seven. We see Hylas with his water jug, entranced by their beauty. If you go to the Waterhouse exhibit at the Royal Academy, be sure to invest an extra £3 in the audio guide. The guide tells us that the nymphs eyes are black with desire and that the exchange of looks between Hylas and the head nymph Dryope is almost mesmeric. She is hypnotising him, bewitching him, seducing him. She wants to draw him out of the world, into a life of watery pleasure. He is captivated by her beauty and he is unconsciously leaning forward. At any moment he will plunge into the water.

According to some accounts, Hylas falls in and drowns. According to others he stays with the nymphs to love them and be loved. But in every case, Hercules and the Argonauts never see him again.

In my book, the young Ostian crewmember named Silvanus goes for water on an island and never comes back. Was he also taken by nymphs? Or did something more sinister occur?

Maybe it's a coincidence, but Waterhouse loved water. It appears in at least half the paintings in the exhibition. He also liked to use symbols. For example, long hair. To Waterhouse, long hair was a symbol of feminine seductiveness. Check out his painting of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. She is wrapping her luscious locks around the neck of a handsome, hapless knight. His armour will not protect him against her perfumed tresses.

Notice, too, that the handsome young model Waterhouse uses is the same one who posed for two other archetypes of Greek male beauty: Narcissus and Adonis. I think his is also the head of Orpheus, a painting not in this particular exhibition.

Back to Hylas and the Nymphs. See how that one nymph to the right of Dryope is seductively fluffing her hair? And the nymph between Hylas and Dryope holds something in her hands. Pearls. You don't notice them until you're standing right in front of the painting. She seems to be offering the pearls to Hylas. Or is it something more sinister? Waterhouse knew (and the commentary tells us) that pearls were thought to be the tears of drowned men.

Run, Hylas! Run!

N.B. J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It has now finished.


  1. Interesting how essential shared culture is to fully appreciate the painting. Someone who didn't know the old myths, or from a different culture, might see this work quite differently.

  2. The nymphs do look rather deadly when you take the time to ponder the painting, don't they? Beautiful but distinctly sinister. Thanks!

  3. Anonymous11:07 AM

    Sinister? Wet Virgins, Sinister? Nah - sexy young things with LOVE (NUDGE-NUDGE) on their minds?

    Now Mona Lisa - Sinister indeed.

  4. Anonymous7:23 AM

    The guy with the nymphs is lucky, not doomed.