This is my response to this lovely but strange Pre-Raphaelite painting. Bear with me; it’s a long one.
Long ago and far away, a rich young man bought a ship to go on an adventure. He hired a captain who hired a helmsman who spread the word and got together a crew of oarsmen. The rich young man invited his friends with stories of the sights they would see, the fights they would fight, the prizes they would win. On the other side of the sea, he told them, was a sorceress who turned men into pigs, a golden fleece guarded by a dragon, there was a labyrinth inside a mountain where a bull-headed man devoured young men and women, there was a serpent-haired monster whose gaze turned to stone, there were monstrous raptors with the faces of women. There were wild women who sang and danced and tore men apart with their bare hands, there were beautiful young women strapped to rocks in the sea for monsters to devour, there were ugly old women with only one eye between them. There were lots of women, in fact, to be killed or to be carried off as prizes.
The young men’s betrothed begged them not to risk their lives on such a reckless and unnecessary quest. They had no need of riches, they could fight battles with their neighbours if they wished, and they each had a young woman willing to marry them. Why risk their lives so foolishly? But the young men were adamant. They would have a whale of a time and their names and their exploits would go down in history. The girls sighed and waved them off, and prepared to mope along the shoreline for years and never marry at all.
The young men found all the adventure they could handle, rescuing girls from the jaws of sea monsters, from labyrinths, and from being handed over as tribute to monsters and tyrants. The girls thanked them and asked to be allowed to go home, but the young men just laughed and stowed them away in the ship’s hold as booty. The young men found all the battles they could wish for, killing blind old women, sick women cast out by townsfolk to die, deformed and miserable women. Before they turned for home, they vowed they would track down the mad young women who ripped apart the handsomest young men of the region. They would avenge the murders with the usual rape and enslavement. They followed the wild singing and dancing along the seashore until they came to a cave.
“Within, you will find your greatest adventure,” the leader of the wild women shouted as she leapt the rocks above the cave. You will find a monstrous woman whose death will bring you the gratitude of all the kings of the region, and they will pay you tribute of gold and slaves every year for as long as you live.”
The rich young man who was the leader looked at his friends and declared, “I will go into the cave and kill this woman, and then we will take her head to the nearest palace and claim our reward.”
His friends sat down on the shore and waited. They heard the sound of cursing as he blundered about in the dark, and the swish as his sword sliced through the air before him. It was not long before they heard his victorious cry and the sound of him slipping and sliding his way back to the daylight.
“I have it! The monster’s head,” he shouted and held up the head with its writhing coils of serpents for his friends to see. Naturally, they were all turned to stone. The young man was struck with horror and did not see the birds with women’s faces that swooped from the rocks above and snatched the head from his grasp. He reached after them in anger, and the birds hovered, turning the serpent-framed face to gaze down at him with dead eyes. In an instant, he was just another pebble among the pebbles of his friends. The sailors who had seen the tragedy from the ship immediately shipped oars and made their way home.
When the news of the terrible fate that had befallen their sons reached them, their fathers sent for the young women, their sons’ betrothed.
“By your fault our sons have been turned to stone. If you had been more beautiful, more accomplished, more placid and docile they would never have gone looking for their pleasure abroad. You will scour the sea shore until you find our sons and bring them back to us.”
So, at every new tide, the girls searched among the pebbles left by the waves for a sign that one of them was her betrothed. They searched, though the young girls became mature women, then bent and stooped with age, but they never found a single stone that was any brighter and more intelligent than the rest.