Pyramos and Thisbe
The house of Dionysus. Late 2nd century CE. Paphos, Archaeological Park

Pyramos and Thisbe.

The house of Dionysus. Late 2nd century CE.

Paphos, Archaeological Park.

The first panel on the left represents the story of Pyramos and Thisbe, immortalized by Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book IV) and made more familiar to modern readers by Shakespeare’s use of it in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The story in its general lines is also very similar to another of Shakespeare’s plays, “Romeo and Juliet”. In the words of Ovid, “Pyramus was the most handsome of young men and Thisbe the fairest beauty of the East”. They lived in Babylonia and were neighbours. They loved each other tenderly but, as they came from hostile families, they had to keep their love secret. They used, in fact, to communicate through a crack in the wall that separated their houses. One day, “when Aurora had put out night’s starry fires and the sun’s rays had dried the frosty grass, they came to their usual meeting place”. After lamenting their sad lot they resolved to meet at night, outside the city gates. They agreed to meet under a mulberry tree that grew by a spring next to Ninus’ tomb.

Thisbe, her face hidden under a veil, arrived at the spot first and sat waiting for her lover under the mulberry tree which was laden with white fruit. Suddenly, a lioness fresh from the kill, her jaws dripping with blood, came to quench her thirst at the spring. Thisbe, frightened, rushed into a nearby cave but in her flight dropped her veil which the lioness took and ripped apart with her bloody jaws.

On approaching the meeting place, Pyramos noticed the animal’s footprints and his worst fears were confirmed when he saw the blood-stained veil. Thinking Thisbe dead and unable to contain his unhappiness, Pyramos drew his sword and thrust it into his side. Then, with one last effort, he pulled it out of the wound. His blood spouted forth and sprinkled the fruit on the tree turning it to a dark purple colour.

Meanwhile, Thisbe, recovering from her fright, came out of her hiding place and was confronted with Pyramos’ body. In her horror and despair she took his sword and threw herself on it. Before dying she begged that their bodies be buried in a single tomb, and that the tree under which the tragedy was unfolded would bear fruit of a dark and mournful hue in memory of their hapless love. In fact, as Ovid assures us, the ashes of the two lovers rest together in a single urn and ever since then the berries of the mulberry tree always turn a dark purple colour when ripe.

What we actually see in the mosaic is the moment when Thisbe, panic stricken, is rushing to hide from the wild beast — a leopard, not Ovid’s lioness. Opposite her we find not Thisbe’s lover but the figure of a river-god with the name Pyramos written above it. He is represented in the typical attitude of a river deity: half reclining against an upturned jug out of which water issues profusely. His head is crowned with weeds while in his left hand he holds a reed. In his extended right arm he holds a cornucopia (horn of plenty), the symbol of the river’s beneficial effect on agriculture. As we have said earlier on, we are here witnessing a mistake on the part of the mosaicist who, instead of representing Thisbe’s lover, represented another Pyramos, a river in Cilicia in Asia Minor (mentioned by Strabo, XII. 2. 4).

© 1998 Photo, text: W. A. Daszewski, D. Michaelidis. “Guide to the Paphos Mosaics”. Bank of Cyprus cultural foundation, 1998. P. 37—40.
Keywords: μωσαϊκό mosaic mosaics mosaica mosaici mosaik mosaïque greek greca greco greche griechische griechisches grecque grecquesё reclining reclinabile reclinabili reclinata liegend inclinable ανακλινόμενα floor pavement mosaico pavimentale bodenmosaik de sol pyramos pyramus thisbe cave leopard river god divinity jar cornucopia horn of plenty crown reed