Vertumnus shows himself to Pomona. 7818: Laurent Delvaux 1696-1778: Vertumnus and Pomona. Marble. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
"My nature suits any role:
turn me to which you wish, and I shall fit it well"
(Vertumnus. Propertius, Elegies 4.2).
Vertumnus, either Tuscan or Latian, is mostly remembered for his shape-shifting power and his seduction of Pomona.
Etruscan deity perhaps
Very little is known about Vertumnus or Vortumnus, whom some take for an Etruscan deityperhaps patron of the city of Volsinii (now Orvieto)transferred to Rome after the defeat of the Volsinians by the Romans in historical times (264 BC). But there is no general agreement about this, and one poet affirms that Vertumnus was brought by the Etruscans when they came to aid Rome against the Sabines commanded by Tatius.
Some Roman poets have asserted that Vertumnus
presides over change and that he has the power of
shape-shifting; this, they say, can be read in the
god's name, which is derived from vertere (to turn). However, this account has later been regarded as based in false etymologiesLatin but hardly Etruscanand accordingly it has been dismissed by learned posterity. This "turning" refers to the river Tiber, the course of which the god changed, making marshes and pools recede, but also to the turning year when the first fruits of the season were, apparently, offered to him.
God of the turning year
From this association with change come the many
forms under which Vertumnus makes his appearance: a
girl clad in silks, a man in toga, a reaper, a
hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, a charioteer, and
many others. But above all, he is the god whose
… are filled with the garden's choicest fruit …
And he says:
It is for me that the first grape darkens on the purpling cluster, and the spiky corn-ear swells with milky grain; at my feet you see sweet cherries, at my feet autumn plums and the mulberry blushing in the summertime … (Propertius, Elegies 4.2).
This is why Vertumnus, the god of the turning
year, came to the orchard of Pomona: to woo her who
bring all fruits to completion.
The encounter took place at the time when Proca
was king of Alba Longa, two generations before the
foundation of Rome by Romulus. Pomona was a nymph skilled in garden-culture and the care of fruit-trees. The poet Publius Ovidius Naso says that she cared nothing for woods and rivers, but only for the fields and the fruits of trees. Thus she spent her days repressing the too luxuriant growth, cutting back branches, inserting scions of one tree into another, and watering the roots. And being this her only love, she shut herself
within her orchard to guard herself against the
approaches of men and gods such as the SATYRS or the PANS, or
Silvanus or Priapus.
Vertumnus' many forms
Yet, deft Vertumnus, changing his appearance many times, managed to approach her. Sometimes in the garb of a reaper, bringing her baskets of barley-ears; at other times as a haymaker, just coming from tossing the hay in the meadow; or as a vine-pruner with hook in hand; or else he would come along with a ladder on his shoulder as if about to gather apples. He also came as a soldier with a sword and as a fisherman with a rod; and by means of his many disguises, Vertumnus did succeed in obtaining admission to Pomona's orchardhaving much joy when looking on her beautybut he was unable to curb the nymph's shyness.
Pomona being seduced by the disguised Vertumnus. 7630: Jan van Kassel 1626-1679: Vertumno e Pomona. Museo Correale di Terranova, Sorrento.
The Old Woman
So finally, having put on a wig of grey hair,
bound his temples with a head-cloth, and leaning on
a staff, Vertumnus entered Pomona's garden as an
old woman, and after admiring the fruit said:
But you are
far more beautiful
… kissing her, as the poet says
… as no real old woman ever would have done. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.662).
Then the old creature started to patiently work
on Pomona, so as to persuade her of the blessings
of wedlock, saying that if she wished to be joined
to another she would have more suitors than Helen or Hippodamia 4 or Penelope ever had; for besides a thousand men, many Alban gods would desire her.
But, the old creature added, the wisest for Pomona was to listen to an old woman who loved her more than anyone else, and choose Vertumnus as consort. For he did not wander idly, but dwelt in the neighborhood alone; and he did not fall in love with every girl he met: in fact, the old woman said, Pomona would be his first and last love. The old woman also bade Pomona to consider that Vertumnus was young and charming, that he could assume whatever form he desired, and that he could satisfy whatever wishes Pomona could conceive. She also reassured the nymph that although her tastes were similar to his, and consequently he would cherish Pomona's gifts with joy, yet he neither desired the fruit of her trees, nor the sweet herbs of her garden, but her alone. The old woman gave her guaranty for Vertumnus,
… he is not better known to himself than he is to me. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.679).
Then she exhorted Pomona to pity his ardor and fear the goddessesAphrodite and Nemesiswho detest the hard of heart. To that purpose she told her the story of Iphis 5, who loved Anaxarete but, as he was mocked by her, hanged himself in front of her door, being later discovered by her, whose eyes stiffened before she turned into stone.
Pomona falls in love
Thus pleaded Vertumnus his cause, but in vain: Pomona was unmoved. So he returned to his youthful form, and when
Pomona saw him standing in full radiance, she was
suddenly smitten by the god's beauty and fell in
love with him.