A Roman woman of patrician dress and bearing stood in the doorway, accompanied by two soldiers draped in civilian clothes. Although she dressed in Greek style, her hair was of the latest Roman fashion. Miri looked up from her books. She knew instantly who her visitor was. Lady Agrippina, granddaughter of Augustus Caesar. There had been rumours she and her husband Germanicus had landed in Alexandria surreptitiously. However, secrets were only secrets in Alexandria along the Canopus. Every back alley was abuzz with news of their arrival for Romans were forbidden to land in Egypt without written authority of the Emperor Tiberius, and those who were granted imperial authority always made a grand show of disembarking on the East Dock of the Great Harbour by the Royal Palace. Agrippina motioned for her bodyguards to stay where they were and advanced into the office.
Miri stood up at her desk, unable to step out from behind it to greet Agrippina who extended her hand across the desktop.
“Are you Miriam the Seer?” the woman asked, “Princess of Magadha?”
“I am what I am,” replied Miri. “What can I do to be of service, my lady?”
“The matter I have come to seek your aid is of the utmost importance to the future of the Empire.”
Miri smiled. “What could I, a simple business woman, do which would save the Empire?”
“This matter requires the utmost discretion, and I am seeking a Seer who can keep her silence. I have visited several in the last several days, but none struck me as of the most reliable nature, and I could not place my trust in any. Since my arrival, I have found Alexandrians as a whole are chatterboxes and gossips. I was recommended to you by a certain German soldier-”
The woman left her sentence dangling in the air, and waited for Miri to finish by supplying the name. The soldier was a retired German auxiliary who had adopted the Greek name Theocrates, married Apollonia, a local woman who ran a brewery, and then retired in Alexandria. As a man he felt it his duty to take over the brewery, but because his knowledge of beer was limited to the tasting, he thought to consult the stars as to the most propitious of moments to add the yeast to the barley. It was a simple horoscope to cast, and for a reasonable sum, Miri granted his humour. His wife Apollonia Albina was a good friend of Miri’s and often suggested to Miri which date she thought would be advantageous reckoned by the demands of the market and the thirst of her patrons. It was uncanny as to how often the dates coincided.
“How do you know this man?” Miri asked Agrippina.
“He- he served on several campaigns with my husband in the Imperial Army. He is a dear and trusted friend, and he recommended your powers as a magician highly.”
“I am flattered by his confidence, my lady,” replied Miri. “But I have had enough of gamesmanship. I am sure that your friend has told you of my service to him; therefore I shall not have to recite a litany of my prowess. You do not strike me as a woman who would take stock in the agency of a witch or magician; therefore I assume you require assistance for someone else. That someone else would be your husband, for I understand he has a weakness for omens and portents, and you wish to bolster his resolve in some way. To improve his decisiveness; to embolden him, to make him the leader he is destined to become!”
Lady Agrippina sat down immediately. Luckily there was a chair behind her.
Her face paled. “You know who I am?”
“Of course, Lady Agrippina,” replied Miri, “I know you must be desperate for you would not risk the displeasure of the Emperor by coming here for frivolous reasons. Perhaps you had better explain your position.”
Agrippina took a deep breath.
“Germanicus was appointed Proconsul Imperium by the Emperor Tiberius to contain the Parthian influence in Armenia. Defense of the Empire was in the hands of the rulers of Commagene and Cappadocia. Although he had the complete control of all the armies and authority over all the governors of the East, we were able to come to terms with the Parthians without resorting to the force of arms, and by converting the kingdoms of Commagene and Cappadocia to Roman provinces.
All was well until Tiberius replaced Creticus Silanus as commander of the Syrian army with Gnaeus Calpurnias Piso. When Germanicus called for reinforcements along the eastern provinces, Piso refused to supply them, citing domestic priorities. We believe Tiberius may have feared the rising of Germanicus’ profile in the Senate over his success with Parthia, but I sense the hand of my grandmother Julia in this!” Agrippina spit out the name of her grandmother with particular virulence. “For no sooner had Piso arrived with his bitch Plancina, than our physician Philopater died mysteriously! Without his horoscopes, Germanicus wavered and lost his confidence.”
“And you wish to bring it back.” replied Miri. “Do you advise your husband on affairs of state?”
“Of course!” replied Agrippina, “Germanicus is a noble and valiant man, but he has no sense for strategies. He will charge forward at the lion before him, and never sense the rest of the pride coming from the back or the sides. I am the eyes in the back of his head!”
“Then why can you not advise him on your own?”
Agrippina smiled. “The Emperor’s children have a particular aversion to following the will of a woman, for the Empress Julia has set the standard by which they see the female psyche. She is controlling and manipulative, devious and underhanded, and at her table, her glass is filled with beneficence or malfeasance, and a simple man will never be able to taste the difference. Germanicus would be naked without me beside him. When he crosses a river, it is I who hold the bridge! Yet, because of Julia, though he loves me dearly, he cannot bring himself to place his fate in my hands.”
“So you hire Seers to advise him?”
“You talked to Apollonia,” said Miri.
“You read my mind,” said Agrippina contentedly. She had found her seer.
“What exactly is it you wish me to do?” asked Miri.
Agrippina reached into her bag. She pulled out a small clay tablet inscribed in Latin and passed it over to Miri.
“Do you recognize this?” she asked
“It is a curse tablet,” replied Miri. She looked up. “This is directed toward Germanicus.”
“Is it effective?” asked Miri.
“He has not suffered from it. I removed it from his bed before he retired. I have found several. I believe they are being planted by someone in our household who has been co-opted by Piso’s wife, Plancina, but I cannot for the life of me tell who it is! Our household slaves have been with us for many years, and I trust them all implicitly. We employ three freedmen as personal assistants, yet they too have been loyal for many years and I see no reason to suspect them either. It is a mystery as to how they are placed in his bedroom.”
Agrippina lowered her voice. “Even I have come to believe they may be projected by magic, and have begun to fear for our safety. I do not wish to come to this conclusion for it shakes my faith in the gods. If Germanicus dies, then all hope is lost for the Empire. There is no one who has the Spirit of Rome in his heart as he does.”
“The Spirit of Rome?” asked Miri ironically. She had fallen beneath the sword of Rome and could not imagine it had a Spirit worth defending.
“Rome is a Republic!” whispered Agrippina. Her eyes faltered. “Or at least it was! Germanicus has the confidence of the people. He must live long enough to ascend the Imperial Throne. From there, he can restore the Republic!”
“Democracy?” asked Miri.
“Of course!” answered Agrippina.
“Would the Senate allow such a thing? The mercantilists have taken over your Senate, and votes are for sale. A Senator need only bestow grants upon this faction and that, make a speech in honour of this and that cause and capital makes a mockery of democracy!”
“It is so under the thumb of the Emperor, but we can change that! We can end the graft! We can end the corruption! But it can never happen unless Germanicus survives the death of his father Tiberius! I am asking you for your protection!”
Miri sighed. “I can create an amulet sufficient to ward of the negative effects of the curses on the tablets, but as for poison, which I see as your biggest problem, that is a different matter. There are some poisons for which antidotes can be effective, I have purgatives which can cleanse the stomach, but must be used immediately. There are, however many poisons for which there is no remedy.”
“I need you to accompany us!” interrupted Agrippina. “You must be with us every minute of the day, for there are situations for which we cannot anticipate!”
“I have a business here!” said Miri indignantly. “I cannot be expected to leave my affairs without notice!”
“I will pay you for your time!” replied Agrippina. She snapped her fingers twice and motioned to the two men standing attentively in the atrium beyond the doorway. They picked up and carried in a heavy wooden chest bound in iron. They dropped the chest on the desk before Miri.
“Open it!” commanded Agrippina.
Miri glanced at Agrippina then slipped the clasp from the chest and threw back the lid.
“A talent of gold aurae!” stated Agrippina, “As a down payment!”
“A generous sum for simply casting horoscopes,” said Miri, her hands running over the gleaming hoard. Gold dust rubbed off on her fingertips. They were freshly minted.
“The manner of your casting will determine the future of the Empire!” replied Agrippina. “I should expect a similar arrangement with which you have entertained our mutual friend.” Agrippina smiled. “She said you were worth your weight in gold!”
“Suppose the stars are not propitious to your cause,” suggested Miri.
“That is why you are being paid so handsomely. There is enough there to pay the stars to point to the right path. If the fee which Germanicus offers is niggardly, which I doubt, then I shall see you are paid what you are worth.”
“I have heard Tiberius also does not even relieve himself without consulting the stars.”
“Do not be deceived by rumours, my dear,” answered Agrippina, “Should the stars say shit, even they would not dare speak without the consent of the Empress Livia. Germanicus has many of the traits of Tiberius, but the voice which whispers in the ears of one is Evil Incarnate.”
“And the other?” asked Miri coyly.
“The other?” Agrippina smiled wanly. “The other will sweep the decadence and corruption from the streets of Rome, and restore her to the worship of the old gods!”
Miri picked up one of the coins. On one side, the head of Germanicus; on the obverse, the coronation by Germanicus of Artaxias, of the House of Polomon of Pontus to the throne of Armenia.
“How does Tiberius feel about these coins?” Miri asked slowly.
“He has not seen them!” replied Agrippina flatly.
“I would not be so sure,” said Miri thoughtfully. “These coins would not be valuable tender on an open market.”
“Then melt them down if you wish!” said Agrippina contemptuously. She turned to leave, then paused to speak to Miri, her manner subdued and earnest.
“We are dining tonight at the tenth hour. If you decide to accept my commission, you need not return the coins. However, your amulets will be of great use to me, whether you choose to set sail with us or not!” Agrippina extended her hand.
Miri grasped it, and in that brief moment both women knew Miri would accept.
“There is no need to tell Germanicus of our discussion!” Agrippina whispered to her.
Miri stood for several minutes, her head reeling from the implications of her talk with Agrippina. She was about to become an advisor to the future Emperor of Rome! Her business would operate without her, but she also knew that without her personal supervision, the links between the captains of the Nile and the Red Sea would eventually break down. Without her to oversee the business dealings and trading in Alexandria, her rivals in the city would soon eat up her share of the corn trade. But as advisor to the Emperor, could she not widen the market in Rome itself; maintain her agents in Alexandria and Egypt? But how would she manage to keep her interests here going long enough for her to establish contacts in the Roman marketplace? She wondered which books of magic she should take with her. How would she manage without the library? Would the libraries of Rome be as varied? As a woman, how would she gain entrance?
Immediately she sat down at her desk and wrote a letter to Drusilla. The young woman had experience now from one end of the Erythrian Sea to the other and had even written her own Periplus as a guide to trade in the Ocean between Kemet and Hindustan. She explained the situation to Drusilla and urged her to pass the trade route completely to Sylvanius and to travel immediately to Alexandria and take over the operations in Alexandria. She sealed the parchment and placed the epistle upon her desk.
Her mind abuzz with unfolding futures, she noticed Theophilos standing silently in the foyer to the atrium.
“Theophilos!” she cried in surprise.
He was not pleased.
“Are you going?” he asked directly.
“You heard our conversation?” Miri asked.
“Of course!” he snapped.
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Well?” he asked impatiently.
“Yes.” said Miri, her jaw clenched tightly. She felt uncomfortable discussing her departure with Theophilos. Seeing the hurt in his eyes caused an ache in her heart.
“I see.” His manner was of a small boy whose mother was going out without him. She did not like to see him so. It was unbecoming of a man.
She moved toward him, but Theophilos held his hands up to ward her off.
“No!” he said quickly, “Don’t touch me! I don’t want to hear anything about it! If you are going to go, be done about it! I have always known one day you would leave, and I made up my mind from the day I first saw you standing by my boat in Koptos I would serve you and no other! I shall return to the river!”
Miri sighed. “That seems a little drastic! I had thought you might remain here in Alexandria and take care of my affairs until I send for Drusilla!”
Theophilos snorted. “Carry on as if nothing happened? Carry on as if the woman I loved had not left me for a share of the Emperor’s Treasury? I followed you as best I could, for your heart holds my happiness. If my love means as little to you as a few coins of gold, then I cannot go on as though nothing has happened!”
“Theophilos, don’t simplify this! My destiny is my destiny! Would that I stay with you be my path, then, indeed, the path I follow would not have so many twists and turns. I am not abandoning you! I need someone to run my affairs! I am sure my tenure will not last long!”
“Not last long!” snorted Theophilos, “Do you think for a moment if you steer Germanicus to the Imperial Throne, you will no longer be needed? The Lady Agrippina will need your aid even more once Germanicus reaches the throne! His enemies will double each day he is in the Imperial See. He will be attacked from each side by jackals wrapped in sheep’s skin, worn down day by day, until he is too weak to fight! Then, enfeebled and crushed by the cares of the Empire, the pack will set upon him and devour him completely. And you! You, Miriam, will be flayed alive and your corpse dragged through the streets and cast down the steps into the Tiber before his body cools!”
“I can take care of myself!” cried Miri fiercely. “No one will flay me as long as I have a heart beating within my breast!”
Theophilos shook his head sadly.
“Miri, you are getting into water above your head!”
“Then I shall learn how to swim!” shouted Miri, a hot flash of anger springing up from her bowels. “It is my destiny!”
Her words seemed somehow out of place and a little overly dramatic, but Miri knew now she could not be persuaded to remain in Alexandria. She walked over to the food table and poured herself a glass of wine from the clay bottle.
She held out the letter to Drusilla.
“You will deliver this to Koptos for Drusilla!” said Miri.
Theophilos snatched the small scroll angrily from her hand and left the room without speaking. Miri drank the wine in her glass, and poured a second draught.
Bathed, anointed and dressed in her finest Indian silks and linens, Miri descended from her sedan at the steps of the reception hall. Her jewellery jangled like tiny cistra as she moved, and the tinkling of bells caused heads to turn her way, and her beauty pulled the same heads after her as she passed, and the lingering scent of far eastern perfumes ensured that none would forget her passing. The porch was flanked and barred by uniformed soldiers, German Auxiliaries. She gave her name to the captain of the guard, who consulted a small waxed tablet, then motioned for her to proceed.
She was ushered into a small cubicle where two stone-faced women brusquely felt about her body. One produced a small ornamental dagger which Miri carried ostensibly for protection, but practically for peeling fruit and breaking seals on storage jars.
“It’s for eating,” explained Miri.
The woman grunted, and placed the dagger on a wooden tray. The other removed Miri’s headdress.
“Wait!” cried Miri.
“We must remove these items to ensure nothing is hidden within them!” said the woman.
“Am I to enter the Palace naked?” demanded Miri as the second woman unclasped her necklace.
“No, you may dress after we have examined your garments.” She then removed Miri’s bag and emptied the contents onto the wooden tray. She sifted through the vials and tablets of perfumes and makeup, and lifted a small green jade frog dangling from a delicately worked gold chain.
“What is this?” demanded the woman sternly.
“It is a charm for my host” replied Miri.
The woman eyed the amulet suspiciously, turning over in her hand. “And what are these inscriptions here?”
“It’s all right, Brunhildah!”
Miri and the attendants turned.
Agrippina entered the room. “None of this is necessary!” she said waving her hand imperiously at the two attendants. “Miriam is here under my invitation and I vouch for her integrity!”
“As you wish, my Lady,” answered Brunhildah, but her manner told she did not agree with her mistress’s assessment. Miri gathered her belongings, but Agrippina slid the dagger from Miri’s grasp and returned it to the tray.
“We have cutlery at the tables,” she said sweetly, “You may retrieve it when you retire.”
Brunhildah carried off the tray with the dagger with a contented smile upon her face. At least her mistress had not lost her mind and guard entirely. She resolved to keep an eye on the Oriental stranger throughout the banquet, for she still did not like the look of the vials nor the amulet, and regarded them as a very real threat to her owners’ safety.
Agrippina slipped her arm inside Miri’s and led her to her own apartment. “I thought you might like to freshen up after the inspection,” she said. The bedroom was everything Miri could have expected from the wife of the heir to the Imperial Throne: an understated opulence, lines of furnishings elegant yet simple; Spartan, yet glowing from the fastidious workings of master craftsmen.
Agrippina led Miri to a chair and seated her, handing her a small mirror, then began grooming Miri for her entrance into the main banquet hall.
“You are a beautiful woman,” she commented as she arranged Miri’s luxuriant locks.
“Thank you,” said Miri, a little apprehensive at her compliment.
“You will wield great influence in Rome, but I must warn you,” said Agrippina, “Keep your knees together if you wish to retain the respect of the men of the Empire. Once they bed you, they will treat you as if you are lower than chattel. You must learn the art of holding out a promise without actually fulfilling it. If they smell you in heat, they will follow you like puppies, tripping over each other in their eagerness to bed you.”
“Then they seem to be like men everywhere,” replied Miri.
“But they are not puppies!” spat out Agrippina, “they are as mean and as spiteful as the sorriest mongrels prowling the streets living from the offal and effluence of the sewers! They will rip you to shreds for the slightest wrong movement! And for you it will be doubly dangerous for your beauty will increase their desire to possess you, and as an alien from a foreign land, the restraint of civilized behaviour towards you will be dropped should you allow one of them to corner you.”
Miri watched her patroness in the uppermost quadrant of the mirror. Agrippina returned her attention and smiled. “Have I frightened you off?”
Miri pulled at a stray lock, but did not answer.
“I shall make arrangements for you to become a Roman citizen as soon as I can send my dispatches back to Rome. Citizenship gives you more rights than you would retain as a foreigner. You do not have any religious peculiarities which would prevent you from becoming Roman?”
“Not that I am aware of,” replied Miri.
“I think we can be great friends!” declared Agrippina, “But I must warn you, and I shall only do so once!” Her tone lowered and her face set grimly. “Do not under any circumstances, ever, ever, sleep with my husband!”
Miri was taken aback by Agrippina’s vehemence, and she thought to protest, but the smoldering in Agrippina’s eyes would brook no challenge, and she thought better of it.
Agrippina brightened suddenly. “Well! You look ravishing! I must say your Eastern dress enhances your presence! You seem every inch a woman of mystery! A true Gypsy! I shall introduce you casually to the others one by one, and during the course of the dinner I will mention you are a prophetess! You will be called upon to display your talents in this profession no doubt. Consider this as an audition. I must however, point out it is of the greatest importance that Germanicus be put at ease, but he must return to Antioch quickly for Piso and Plancina will stir up trouble for Germanicus and I if we stay away too long. Ostensibly and officially, I have told Rome we are visiting Herod Antipas and his brother Phillip in Jerusaleum.”
The name of Yerushalayim sent a sharp stabbing jolt through Miri. It had been so long since she had heard the name, and even though the name sounded alien from the Latin tongue, it created heartache in Miri’s breast. She remembered so long ago, her childhood, and she suddenly yearned for it again. She quickly pushed her thoughts from her head and stood up quickly.
“Shall we go?” she asked.
The banquet hall was full of the Alexandrian elite. Here, more than most places, the privileged were men of trade and commerce, composed of both patrician and plebian. In Alexandria they mingled with familiar jocularity, for gold was the great leveller. It placed fallen princes below monied pauper, high birth alongside street urchin, and those raised on a silver spoon with those raised by the lash. Alexandria was the city of the self-made man and the self-made woman. Miri recognized several faces, who turned in awe, surprised respect and smoldering jealousy as they noted Agrippina’s hand inside Miri’s arm. The two women made their way through the crowd into the Roman party.
There, in the midst of rapt attentive men dressed in Roman togas, stood Germanicus. He was everything Miri had expected him to be, yet more. It was as if Germanicus stood within a circle of light. He was tall, handsome and bronzed to an almost golden sheen.
He looked up and their eyes locked for a fraction of a heartbeat. Or had her heart stopped altogether? So much poured between them, Miri thought she would burst. She was drawn to him automatically, and she had the overwhelming desire to be taken up in his powerful golden arms and lifted to a couch in heaven.
Germanicus’ eyes swept to Agrippina, and the three of them knew the thoughts of each other, then the contact was broken. There was incredible danger here in the room, and Miri remembered Theophilos’s warning as well as Agrippina’s, and she felt flushed. She very seldom lost her composure, and now suddenly, in this room, she felt like a maiden again, gangly and unsure. Failure here could mean total and unequivocal ruin. She stood on the edge of the Abyss once more. The yawning chasm below her was dark and inviting, a deep velvet coolness of unknowing. She would have to pass through great agony to become a part of the great yawning nothingness.
“Miriam!” the sharp tongue of Agrippina brought Miri back from the edge, and she blinked. Germanicus was making his way over to his wife.
“Agrippina!” he beamed. He was an angel. A God.
Miri shook her head to rid it of Germanicus’ animal charm. Just in time for he hugged Agrippina and planted an official kiss on her painted cheeks.
Agrippina stood on tiptoes to receive it, and brought Germanicus and Miri together, holding each delicately yet purposefully by the elbow. “This is Miriam, Princess of Magadha.You remember I told you of the horoscope she cast for me this afternoon! Miriam, this is Germanicus!”
“You must cast a future for me,” suggested Germanicus. He took her hand and kissed it. A shiver of delight ran goosebumps along her arm and down through her body to her toes.
“I would be pleased to serve you, My Lord,” replied Miri politely, her voice catching slightly. Her face burned brightly for the words seemed to carry deeper meaning, and she was glad she had applied makeup.
Agrippina’s eyes narrowed for an instant as she noted the unspoken reactions between Miri and her husband, but Germanicus seemed unaware of the effect he was having on his guest.
Agrippina excused herself and left Germanicus and Miri alone.
“You are an Egyptian?” asked Germanicus
“Canaanite,” answered Miri, “You Romans would call me Phoenician.”
Germanicus raised his eyebrows. “Our peoples were sworn enemies not so long ago.”
“And so were you and the Germans, yet you bear their name as yours proudly,” replied Miri. “Actually, I am more Palestinian, I suppose.”
“You are from Palestine?”
“Have you made the acquaintance of Herod Agrippa? He is a great friend of Rome and to the Claudian family.”
“I am afraid not, but he is not unknown in these parts,” replied Miri.
“I hope one day you could meet him. He is a great fellow!”
“Perhaps, the Good Mother willing, I shall,” returned Miri.
Another guest interrupted. “Germanicus, I want you to meet...”
Miri slid away from Germanicus quickly. She felt as though she were melting from the heat glowing between her thighs! No wonder Agrippina had warned her not to sleep with him. It was all she could think of as she had traded niceties with him. All she had wanted was to rip the toga from his body and pull him down upon her. How on earth could she act as a spiritual advisor if she could not concentrate anything but his lips or his chest, his-”
“You did very well,” a voice whispered in her ear. Miri fanned herself with her hand as Agrippina slipped her hand into Miri’s arm once more and guided her to the edge of the banquet hall. They sat on a couch beside the musicians who played a gay piece that suited the atmosphere of the party.
“He has a remarkable effect on women!” commented Agrippina as she watched Germanicus across the room. She laughed. “He doesn’t even know he has it!” She sipped at a goblet of wine and snatched another from a passing slave and handed the goblet to Miri. “Look at him! Even the men around him cannot help but admire him!”
“I can see why he is so adored!” said Miri. “It is very hard not to like him!”
“Yet there are those who manage! He is such a good man! I wish he had been a farmer or a carpenter! I would have still been his wife! I would have married him anyway! But our lives would have been simple and sweet. He working in his shop or the fields, me in the house sewing and weaving-”
“And cooking and scrubbing and washing your own bed sheets in muddy spring water, rooting for vegetables, cutting the heads off chickens, caring for a hundred children-” finished Miri.
Agrippina laughed. “Am I too romantic, Miriam?”
Miri patted Agrippina’s hand “Of course not!”
Agrippina’s face darkened. “I am very afraid for him, Miriam. He is too sweet. I really do wish neither he nor I were members of the Imperial family. There are dark forces gathering about us and Germanicus is our only hope! Should we fail in controlling the Empire, all will be lost! I sense a quickening around us! Greed and avarice, pride and gluttony, lust and jealousy rise like corrupting daemons from the bowels of the Earth. If Tiberius and Livia have their way, Rome will be lost to the seven deadly sins! The world will be lost! I must attend to my guests!”
Agrippina swirled away from Miri, and Miri sensed that the swirling of her robes was Agrippina’s method of perambulation. As she watched the future empress flow into the crowd, she had a deep sense of foreboding, but her attention was immediately diverted.
Miri’s heart almost jumped from her throat at being addressed with her old name. She turned quickly.
There leaning on a beautifully adorned walking stick, was Apusim. Miri hugged her old friend. Apusim had shrunk it seemed, and was more frail and quite older then Miri remembered, and winced at their embrace.
“I’m sorry, Apusim!” cried Miri, “You are in pain?”
“It is nothing, Sati!” declared Apusim, “I have been chewed by crocodiles and stuck with spears and swords, but it is old age that brittles my bones! I drink a mixture of gold and Sengaparilay, a root from the Tswana people with a draft of wine. It seems to help. What brings you to this great event? I heard only at the last minute that you were among the guests!”
“No party would be complete without my presence!” said Miri lightly.
“Ahh!” replied Apusim, “You have always had the gift of the seer!”
Miri smiled, “I meant my beauty!”
“Of course! It could not be your humility!” Apusim brought Miri in closer, and whispered, “Listen, I have some news that may be of some use to you!” Apusim looked about. “It seems Germanicus has opened up one of the Imperial grain houses to alleviate the drought in Memphis! Though the cause is noble enough, once Tiberius learns of it, he will not be pleased. The grain was earmarked for Rome! One of our guests is a spy for the Emperor!”
“A spy?” asked Miri, “Who?”
“You see the man dressed with the Roman toga, and the green clasp?”
Miri saw the man immediately, for he was thin and if ever a man was fit for a role as a rat, he was the man.
“Aulus Avilius Flaccus!” whispered Apusim, “He bought his commission, and is an agent for Sejanus. He was sent here to determine who is friend and who is foe, and so blinded by his mission, he cannot truly properly perceive one over the other. He has already sent a dispatch to Sejanus, and because Agrippina snubbed him in Rome, he bears anintense hatred towards her. No matter what she does, he will think ill of it!”
A slightly looped patroness walked by and Miri busied herself in the mirror beside them, adjusting her headdress. “How do I look?”
“As beautiful as ever!” Apusim took Miri by the arm, “Walk with me, Sati!”
Together, they wandered out into the garden.
“I spoke with the Mother Superior at the Temple of Isis of the Harbour,” Apsuim said slowly, “It seems that news of your confession has spread despite the admonitions of the order that confession remain confidential!”
“Keep walking!” said Apusim gently, “Unfortunately, one of the Mothers of the Order is the aunt of the boy you killed!”
“Oh Dear Mother!” whispered Miri.
“His family will soon know that you are here!” said Apusim. She smiled. “I have something for you!”
She reached into her purse and produced a beautiful gold necklace. Set with agate was the seal of Aminatare The links were made of shell framed by gold. “The Kandake thought you should have this. It seems you left it behind when you boarded the river boat in Napata!”
Apusim unlocked the clasp and slipped the necklace about Miri’s neck.
“If all else fails, you have a place in Meroway!”
The bell sounded to call the guests to the triclinium, and Miri and Apusim followed as the crowd moved to take their places. A young girl appeared at Miri’s side. Another beside Apusim. The slave attached to Miri bowed her head.
”I am Clytemnestra, and I will be serving you tonight. This way please!”
Apusim patted Miri’s hand. “We’ll talk later!”
Clytemnestra led Miri to a place at the head of the triclinium removed from Germanicus and Agrippina, but she noted, several heads above some very important people from the city, including the spy Flaccus. He caught her eye, and, though neither spoke, they both knew they were noting the other as in opposite camps. His eyes burned with a strange jealous rage, and he almost seemed to vibrate with the tension of containing it. She averted her eyes and vowed to stay out of his path. She knew the man and woman above her from the corn trade; the young man below her was pleasant. A poet of little talent but great humour who entertained those near him with his wit and charm. Most of the space between his head though, Miri decided must be taken up by air, and most of his comments directed toward her were crude and definitely related to his burying various parts of his anatomy inside hers. The news of her confession becoming public domain had shaken her, and her awareness of a spy within the party had thrown her out of balance, and she had great difficulty keeping up a conversation.
The food was excellent. Roast duck, pheasant. Fish of every description. Octopus. Roast pig. Roast beef. Bread of every size and shape. Cakes. Sesame squares with honey. Clytemnestra attended Miri, eating the first bite of each dish to ensure it was not poisoned, then proffering the spoon to Miri. Miri preferred not to burrow into each dish in the manner of her neighbour, who gobbled each plate down as if it were his last, but picked just a taste here and there. Even then, it was more than Miri could eat. She quite soon was full but picked politely at each dish that was passed around without taking more than the merest bite. Her attention was quite taken up with the arrival of new dishes. Even Clytemnestra seemed to be chewing her primal spoonful slower and slower.
Miri was so preoccupied with Apusim’s news, she was not aware she was being spoken of, until Germanicus called her across the room.
“Miriam of Magadha, you must give a reading! Tell us of our future!”
The diners’ attention turned towards her and several eyes that knew her seemed uncomfortable, and shrank back a little, hoping the Seer in her would not let her attention fall upon them. Some knew of her uncanny ability to read a person’s face in the blink of an eyelid. For a moment Miri was struck by the similarity between the bleary-eyed crowd, their mouths chewing awkwardly on the last morsels of food, and a herd of curious cattle eying her balefully from a kraal.
“Perhaps you could tell Germanicus of his future,” prompted Agrippina casually as if it had occurred to her on a whim. Her manner was so spontaneous, Miri marvelled at her acting ability. The others in the room clapped and urged her to tell of Germanicus’s fortune. The guests now craned their necks like vultures, for telling the fortune of a rising heir to the Roman Empire was a delicate business, and any seer would be walking a virtual tightrope almost certainly guaranteeing calamity- for the Seer. What could please one party would be bound to displease another.
Miri moved from her place to a kneeling position before Germanicus, and held out her hand for his. His touch sent a silent shiver through her, but this time she masked her feelings. She studied his palm and was dismayed at his brief lifeline. She pushed the impression of the palm aside and closed her eyes, and opened her pores, She could feel the blood coursing through his hands, and she followed the flow to his heart. Within him, she sensed a repressed agitation, repressed anger and frustration, but she pushed aside these impressions also, and closed her eyes. Before her was a great light, but she could see it was flowing away, a silent stream draining the spirit from Germanicus.
Unless it could be stopped, he would soon die.
She opened her eyes.
“Your life is in great danger!” she said.
His beautiful eyes locked with hers and they both acknowledged the truth in her words.
“You must return to Rome as soon as possible! There the people will support you and you will be safer from intrigue and treachery. Even now, within this room, are men who would bear you ill will!” She looked up for a moment, and her eyes fell almost prophetically upon Flaccus. For a fraction of a breath, their eyes locked, and they became instant enemies. Agrippina, saw the connection, and here eyes stabbed at Miri then Flaccus, whom she knew and detested, and back to Miri for confirmation. For a moment Germanicus was distracted, though he did not see the exchange, but his presence drew her immediately back to his fortune. “There are agents abroad who intend to dispose of you away from the eyes of Rome. There you must seek advice from the Sibyl by Cumae in Campania.”
Germanicus was now in shock. He had not expected such definitive advice, and her words had thrown him off balance. The entire room was silent. No one moved nor even dared to breath. All paused, for now they were all under suspicion of intrigue and betrayal. They looked at one another, wondering what the Seer might reveal. Guilt marked many of the faces in the audience, not the least was Flaccus. Agrippina cast a warning glance at Miri to lighten the mood, and quickly scanned her guests, mentally marking those who could not meet her gaze.
“Well!” declared Germanicus, downing his goblet of wine. “Have you nothing else to say?”
Miri presented the green jade frog goddess Hekat.
“This is an emblem of the Goddess Hekat, and you must wear the pendant at all times. As long as you have it about your person, you will come to no harm. It will provide the protection of Egypt from the evil eye, as well as any spell cast against you.”
Miri kissed the green frog, and passed it to the prince of Rome. He accepted it graciously, and with a smile looped the attached gold chain about his neck, slipping the amulet beneath his tunic. As the frog slipped between his well-developed pectorals, Miri shivered.
“Well, drink up, friends,” he called out amiably, “It seems I have a ship to catch!” A ripple of nervous laughter rippled through the room, and he held his goblet up in a toast.
His words were echoed enthusiastically by his guests, and somehow, Miri’s dire warning had turned into a blessing for his embarking for the capital city of the Empire. Agrippina smiled approvingly at Miri, and the mood had swung around and the party began again.
“My Lord Germanicus!” called a voice above the din. All eyes turned to a wealthy dealer of antiquities, Cygnatus Pius, “I beg your indulgence, my Lord, but I have arranged for the presentation by several of our best Greek players, a rewrite of the Bacchae by Euripides by one of our most talented playwrights for you entertainment!”
Germanicus looked quizzically for a moment at Agrippina and she nodded. Germanicus smiled at Cygnatus.
“I would be honoured, Cygnatus, I have hear much of Alexandria’s poets, and welcome the opportunity to observe such a well-known Greek tragedy. Is it to be held here?”
“In the courtyard, Your Eminence,” replied Cygnatus, extending his arm toward the atrium.
“Then let the play begin!” shouted Germanicus, and the crowd flowed from the banquet hall into the atrium. Gasps went up as the guests entered the atrium, for it was large and spacious, and at the far end, a marvellous magical stage was set.
“The palace of Pentheus in Thebes,” whispered Cygnatus for the benefit of his imperial guests. “To the left, stage sinister, stands the memorial to Semele. Above burns a low flame. Around it blackened and broken masonry. The stone staircase leads up and away behind the monument, to distant Mount Cithaeron. There at the right, stage dexter, is the road from the East. Centre, the bronze doors to the palace of Pentheus.”
Two women entered the stage.
“Ino and Autinoway, sisters of Semele,” explained Cygnatus. The names of the two were known to his audience for all had studied the Greek Myths and were quite familiar with Greek culture. The women danced, flowing from the palace doors like zephyrs heralding a gathering storm. Whirling, swirling and breathless, another woman, Agavay, laughed as she spied her sisters in the thrall of Dionysus, and then joined her sisters in their wild dance.
The three paused for breath, and their conversation flowed from them, one after each, as if from the same pair of lips.
“When shall we three meet again?” asked Agavay.
Ino: “In thunder, lightning or in rain?”
Autinoway: “When the hurly-burly’s done!”
Agavay: “When the battle’s lost and won!”
Ino: “Together ere set and rise our sun!”
Autinoway: “And where the place?”
Agavay: “’Twould be holy Mount Cithaeron!”
Ino: “Then, come Autinoway, let us fly!”
Autinoway: “Mother Nature doth call us all, anon!”
Dancing and prancing, they exited stage sinister, up the stone steps leading to Cithaeron. And as they left but before they quit the stage, Dionysus entered from stage dexter along the road to the East. Miri could not help but marvel how the actor suited the part. On his head a crown of ivy, fawnskin draped over his shoulders, he sported long flowing hair and a youthful, almost feminine beauty, yet he exuded an irresistible masculine charm. He traveled using his thrysus, the sacred staff of his cult, in hand as a walking stick topped by a large pine cone and entwined with grape leaves.
Dionysus called after the three sisters, “Fair be foul and foul be fair! Fly now, my beauties, through enchanted fog and mountain air!”
He seemed to suddenly notice the audience, and addressed the theatregoers in a grand and hospitable manner.
“Greetings! It is I, Dionysus, son of the immortal Zeus. Here, my mother, Semele, daughter of Cadmus, struck dead by the fire of his sacred thunderbolt, delivered me posthumously from her womb. Now, veiling my sacred form in this mortal guise, I have returned to Thebes ‘tween her two rivers, Dirce and Ismenus.”
He gestured to the memorial. “Here, near the palace of Pentheus, stands my mother’s memorial.” He pointed at the Greek inscription upon the memorial stone. “Here, it reads of her death by lightning. And here, her house stood-”
His arms encompassed the ruins behind the memorial.
“Still smoldering with the living flame of Zeus’s fire! O such cruel Fates! The Moirae cannot o’ercome the venal vengeance Hera hath wreaked upon my poor dam!
My grandfather, Cadmus, does well to keep this ground sacred in my mother’s name.”
Dionysus knelt on the ground before his mother’s memorial and removed sprigs of ivy from his satchel. He began to plant them in the ground.
“’Tis a sad warning to all mortals who consort with the gods,” he said, “and consider themselves their equal. I have decked it round with sprays of young vine leaves as a reminder to all that, as surely as the dawn brings enlightenment to midsummer’s night dark warming, Life still follows Death. But, what’s done is done and what will be, will be.”
He stood to admire his handiwork
Dionysus looked about contentedly, his arms outstretched to contain all within the horizon in his embrace.
“From birth, I have travelled the world! From the golden wheat fields of Lydia and Phrygia, my footsteps have fallen upon the sun-baked Persian plain; the walled cities of Bactria opened their gates to me, the wild son of Zeus! Even the harsh country of the Medes succumbed to my charms. Wealthy Arabia, and the whole of the Asian coast where swarms of Greeks and Orientals mingle in untold fabulous cities, all these now honour my sacred name!
Aye, ere I reached Thebes, this, the first city of Hellas, I have already, in all those Eastern provinces danced this dance! There, as here, I set forth rituals to reveal my godhead to mortal sensibilities. Yet, here in my birthplace, n’er a single soul has raised the Bacchic cry. So now I come to clothe all who respond to my call or reject it, in fawnskin habits, and place in their hands my Thrysus! My phallus, my sceptre! My ivy wrapped wand!
How is it my kinsfolk here know me not? Even my aunts, my mother’s own sisters: Agavay, Ino and Autinoway- they who should have been the last to deny my immortality- have said that I, Dionysus, was not Zeus’s son! They have said, and oft repeated, that Semele, being with child from a mortal man, in order to preserve her father’s serenity ascribed to the mighty Zeus, her loss of virginity! And this, they loudly claimed, was the sin for which Zeus had indignantly, and quite rightly, done her in!
So you have seen, for this, I drove those same sisters mad, turned them frantic all out of doors and sent them spinning wildly out of control! Their home is now the mountain tor, their wits flown to who knows where!
They who denied me have now become the very essence of my mysteries! To the last woman, the population sinister of Thebes has fled raving from their hearth and home, and now, one and all sit side-by-side Cadmus’s daughters enthralled beneath the whispering silver pines upon the rocky slopes of sacred Cithaeron!
And still the men of Thebes joke openly about the gods! In the marketplace, they take the name of Zeus in vain and denounce Pallas Athene upon the steps of her own temple! The rites of Artemis, Demeter and Persephone have degenerated to poorly paid parody! And can you believe, my very existence, no less, is denied!
Thebes, albeit pushed against the grain, must learn this lesson: My Bacchic worship, a matter as yet beyond their knowledge and experience, shall be the axis about which their souls shall revolve! By manifesting myself before the human race as the divine son she bore of the immortal Zeus, I shall vindicate my mother Semele!
Even now, growing old and weary, Cadmus has relinquished his throne with all its regal honours and rites but one, to Pentheus, son of his eldest daughter, Agavay. This Pentheus, this stripling, now sets himself above the gods! He defies me! Excludes me from all libations, and never once names me in his prayers!
Therefore, I must demonstrate to my royal cousin, and verily, all of Thebes, that I am indeed a god! Once I have set the seasons in their place and restored order to the house of Thebes, then, in this form, I shall pass on to another town and manifest myself there anon.”
Dionysus stepped forward. “But, Listen:” he said conspiratorially to the audience, “If Thebes should in anger and by force, attempt to bring the Bacchants home from the mountain, I myself will join the army of women possessed and lead them into battle against my oppressors!”
At that moment sounded the distant sounds of drum, flute and cistrum. Dionysus put his hand to his ear.
“But hark! From Tolemus, the bastion and heart of Lydia, the exotic beat of the Phrygian drums of the Great Mother Rhea, the chiming of the cistra of Isis and the hypnotic Phrygian flutes of Pan!
Here comes my band of worshippers!”
Seven women, the chorus, entered stage dexter, along with other women, dancing along the road from the East to the accompaniment of their instruments. It was a wild whirling dervish of a dance and Miri’s heart leapt for joy at the sight and sound of it. The celebration was infectious and several of the more unrestrained members of the audience began to clap in time to the driving music. At stage sinister, musicians: drummers, flutists, and a lyre player settled into the stage. They were powdered gray as to blend into the scenery. As they continued their musical accompaniment, together, they seemed to become part of a magically animated sculpture.
Dionysus spoke above the din.
“See, these women of the East empty the court of Pentheus, as they fill the marketplace of Thebes with their music. So the city of Cadmus comes to standstill, while I, Lord of the Dance, move on to the meadows of Mount Cithaeron to dance my sacred dance with the women of Thebes!”
Acknowledging the dancers, Dionysus exited stage sinister up the steps leading behind the memorial. The Chorus took its place stage dexter, one at a time, randomly, beside the monument of Semele, and faced the audience. From their dress, Miri recognized their dress as priestesses of the Roman equivalent of Dionysus, Bacchus. The dance and music continued as they spoke one by one, the drums muted, but the flutes and cistra wove in and out of the words.
“From the distant lands of Asia,” began the first who reminded Miri of Agrippina, yet less controlled; she seemed to be the leader, the high priestess.
“From Tmolus, the sacred mound, comes the exotic god of Bacchanalia with we disciples gathered round! Labour of joy and weariness sweet, our songs to Bacchus now resound! Who would stand in our path? Or bar the street? Keep sacred silence! Lips make not a sound! Make way! Make way! For our hymn so sweet, wherein Harmony, Peace and Truth all be found!”
The woman stepped to the back and another, more rotund, stepped to the fore.
“Blessed is the happy man or wife,” she announced, beaming with a rosy-cheeked smile to the audience. “Who know the mysteries by gods ordained, and sanctify their private life through sacrifice and proper mien. Joined soul with soul in sacred unity, they observe the mystic rites, and lead lives of kindness, Bacchic piety, and shake aloft the fennel wand on sacred summer nights. They honour the Great Mother Cybele as sacred, and leave to others, on those days, their business, to wrap crowns of ivy sprigs about their head, and worship her resurrected son, the great Dionysus!”
A third took her place, this woman more animated, more athletic.
“Onward, Sisters! Run! Dance! Delirious possessed! Dionysus comes to those who lose themselves the best! From Phrygian hills with mysteries therein to the broad streets of Hellas, to those without sin! Hail the God, the Son of God! Hail Dionysus! O Holy Spirit of Revel and Rapture! Hail to Dionysus!”
“Once, the womb that held him was torn asunder,” called a fourth, slipping from the group of the Chorus and replacing her nubile sister. This woman was well-built, wide-hipped, a natural mother. “While the pains of child birth bound his mother fast, by a bolt thrown from Zeus, the God of Thunder, she cast him forth as she breathed her last. And Zeus, son of Cronos, ensconced him in a secret womb- they say within his thigh- where pins of gold sealed him from jealous Hera’s sight. Then the Fates decreed him ripe for birth at the golden harvest moon, and the mighty Zeus bore the bull-horned god under a clouded night. In secret, the pain of delivery, he bore without a sound; Zeus wrapped the infant’s head with wreaths of writhing snakes. And so the Maenads snare wild serpents and carry them around, and nurse them, twined about their hair, a brace of living snakes.”
The natural mother of the Chorus stepped back, and a woman, in her silver years, began.
“O Thebes, old nurse that cradled sweet Semele,” she called, “be ivy garlanded and burst into flower with wreaths of lush bright berried byrony to fill flesh and soul with mystic power. Bring sprays of fir, branches green of oaks, mistletoe gathered by full moon light. Fringe your dappled fawnskin cloaks with wooly tufts and flowers, and locks of purest white. There’s a brute wildness charged in the fennel wands, so revere them well and soon the whole world will dance, joined by the fauna of fens and birds of silvery ponds. There, Dionysus, the Lord of Joy, will appear and prance. Then the god with ecstatic sacred shout, echoed in the mountain’s soaring heights will lead his merry companions out to begin again the Bacchic rites. For this, riotous bands of Theban women are leaving, stung with the maddening trance, their homes, their hearths, their spinning, their weaving, to join Dionysus and his sacred dance!”
The old woman of the chorus retired and an owlish, well spoken woman of intellectual propensity came forward, her voice though weaker than the others, still carried a strong emotional tug through the room, and became more vibrant and passionate as her speech progressed.
“O holy cavern midst Cretan glade which only the Curetes knew where Zeus was hid from Cronos’s sight, the triple crested Corybantes drew the round drumskin taught and tight. Then first sounded the primal drum! It’s wild beat made rapturous rhythm beneath flashing, smashing, hand and thumb, burst forth the wildest pounding schism. Into holy psalms of old, the drumbeat did rise and fall against the breathing sweetness of melodic Phrygian flute! Their cacophony awoke the divine Rhea, Mother of the All, she arose content, by music, her rites made resolute. The drums filled her Bacchic airs with completeness; the foundation of her sacred tune, and set her feet to dancing and her hands to lift her dress. Then bore forth the Mother of All, the crazed Satyrs of the moon, who, in their dancing festival when each second year comes round, fell madly, gladly, tumbling down, seized by the timbrel’s tune. Their voices rise in ecstasy within the merry sound, where in wild abandon, play the leading part in his holy fest. So, open your hearts and minds and soul to Lord Dionysus. And there welcomed, may he enter you and all is possessed, of the Mysteries and Delights and Ecstasy, of the wild god Dionysus!
The seventh member of the chorus, a wide shouldered, mannish, strong woman with steel gray eyes, took her place.
“O what delight the mountains be! Where celebrant, wrapped in skin of fawn, flings himself to ground in surrendered ecstasy, while the swift footed company of Artemis streams on and on and on. They lust for his blood, to tear his limbs, this sacrificial lamb, who rapturously devours the raw flesh of slaughtered goat, spurred on to Phrygian or Lydian mountained lands by happy cries from a thousand ecstatic throats. The Earth flows with sweet milk and wine, and the nectar of the bees; the air is thick with Syrian Myrrh and Pine, the balsam of the trees. The celebrant runs entranced, the fennel wand in hand, whirling the torch that blazes red with shouts to the scattered band, he sets their feet to dancing, and amidst the frenzy of his song, he shouts to them like thunder, prancing, ‘Come run and dance! Come now! Come along!’ The wild wind shakes free his hair of gold, and he cries for the beauty and grace of Mount Tmolus, ‘Sing, you daughters, to the rhythm of thunder’s drumroll! Sing to heaven! All Hail the God of Joy! All Hail Dionysus! Shout like Phrygians, sing out the tunes you know!’ The sacred golden flute fills the valleys with holy air, with notes as clear and crisp and clean as flakes of mountain snow. O, beat the drums in time with the pulse of the feet, and flock to the mountains for the Bacchic rites, and, like a foal with its mother in pastured retreat, run and leap for joy, you daughters of Bacchanalian nights!”
Miraculously avoiding the dancers whirling frenetically about him, a blind man, a prophet, made his way unaided to the palace doors, tapping the ground with his staff. He knocked on the palace doors with the knob of the walking stick. The audience was delighted by his traversing of the stage, and called out to him to watch out for the dancers.
He was a crowd favourite. “The seer Teresias!” whispered Cygnatus to Miri. “They love him here all the more for they say he was Egyptian by birth!”
On stage, Teresias called out loudly. “Hi there! Who is keeping this gate? Wake up, wake up, you sleepyhead! Get up! Get up! Get out of bed! Live, love, laugh and be happy! Call Cadmus out, Agenor’s son who came hence from Sidon to build the walls of Thebes! Go tell him Teresias is looking for him and he’ll know why I’ve come! Though the curse of Time has slowed me down, and he is slower still, we agreed to equip ourselves with Bacchic wands and fawnskin coats and wreaths of ivy shoots!”
The doors opened, and another old man stepped onto the stage, Cadmus, in his hand the thrysus of Dionysus, the ivy entwined fennel rod, capped by a large pinecone. Across his shoulder is slung a swollen wineskin.
“Teresias! Dear friend!” he cried in delight, “I heard your voice, although I was indoors searching my larder for supplies! As soon as I heard it, I thought: There is the wise voice of a very wise man, though extremely loud!”
He held up the wineskin in one hand and the thrysus aloft in the other and the seer Teresias reached out and touched the wine skin and Thrysus, and smiled approvingly.
“I have all the god prescribes,” said Cadmus, “He is, after all, my daughter’s son. You and I, above all others must do all we can to exalt and honour him. Shall I call my men around front? Shall we go to the mountain by coach? By elevated sedan chair?”
“No, No!” replied Teresias, “That would not show the god proper respect. On our own legs is the only way for us to go!”
“Then,” replied Cadmus happily, “I’ll walk with you up the mountainside, as old as we both are!”
“The god himself will guide us there, said Teresias, “And fill our hearts with joy. Thus fortified, we shall never tire!”
Cadmus looked about at the other celebrants. “Are we the only Thebans who dance to his tune?”
“We see things clearly,” replied his old friend, “It is the others who are blind.”
Cadmus clapped Teresias on his back. “Then so, where shall we dance, old friend? Shall we take our stand with the others, tossing our gray heads like wild stallions? What shall we do, Teresias? We’re both old as the trees and wise as owls, but in this you shall lead me for you’re the expert in the ways of the gods!”
He began to stomp about, beating his thrysus on the ground in time to the accompanying music, inviting the Spirit of Dionysus to enter his soul.
“Ah!” he cried out, “I could drum on the ground all night! And all day too, I fancy, without being tired! What joy it is to forget one’s age and feel the years slip away!”
“I feel exactly the same, old friend!” replied Teresias, “My aged bones no longer creak! I’ll join you in the ancient dance! I cannot stop my feet!”
“Stop wasting time on speech, old friend!” admonished Cadmus good naturedly, “Step hither! Take my hand!”
Teresias moved toward Cadmus, holding out his hand, “Here then, hold tight!” Cadmus grasped Teresias by both hands.
“Away we go!” cried Teresias. They danced slowly compared to the other dancers, they circled, hands aloft, dexter to dexter, first dexterwise.
“I don’t despise religion!” Cadmus said to his friend as they danced, “I’m a mortal man!”
Hands joining dexter to sinister, they came together, once for each direction, a double round of such timed to match as Teresias spoke each couplet.
“We have no use for theological subtleties, you and I; the beliefs we have inherited are as old as time, and cannot be o’erthrown by argument, nor inventive ingenuity, for Passion overruled by Reason puts the cart before the ox. They will say I lack the dignity of my years to wear this ivy wreath. To set off for the dance. Not so! Not so, dear friend! For the god draws no line between the young and old to tell us which should dance, and which should not.”
They circled, hands aloft. Sinister to sinister, sinsiterwise.
“He desires equal worship from all, or their time to be set aside, to honour his claim to glory for which no one should be exempt.” The cycle of the dance now repeated itself: hands aloft dexter to dexter, dexterwise.
“Teresias,” said Cadmus, “At last I shall be your prophet!”
“How so?” queried the seer.
“Since you are blind,” replied Cadmus, “I can see what you cannot. Pentheus, to whom I have resigned my rule in Thebes, approaches. He hurries here to the palace as I speak, his humour in great agitation. What could vex him so, do you think? What news does he bear with such alacrity?”
Very concerned with some perplexing issue, Pentheus entered stage dexter. He did not immediately notice Teresias and Cadmus who danced apart stage sinister, their slow ballet in contrast to the whirling of the younger celebrants. The movements of the two men became more exaggerated as they were carried away by the Spirit of the Dance. Pentheus walked to the foreground and addressed the audience.
“I have been away from Thebes, not long. Yet, reports of an astounding scandal have just been brought to me! Our women it seems have left their homes on some pretence of Bacchic worship, and are now gadding about on the wooded mountain slopes, dancing in honour of this upstart god, Dionysus-
Whoever he may be!
Amidst these groups of worshippers, they tell me- I don’t know what you’ve heard- stand bowls full of wine and seductive spice that lead our women to go creeping off this way and that, to lonely places in wooded dells and give wantonly of themselves to lecherous men.
They are Maenad priestesses, if you please!
By Zeus! Methinks Aphrodite supplants Bacchus in this ritual! Well, those I’ve caught, my guards are keeping safe! We’ve bound them hand and foot, and lodged them at State expense. Those still at large in the mountain, I shall flush them out and hunt them down! Even my own mother Agavay! And her sisters, Ino and Autinoway! My aunts, for heaven’s sake! They prance about like storks or loons, and place my veneration at stake! Once I have them fast in iron fetters, and confiscate the food and wine, I’ll put an end to this outrageous curse! They tell me too, the cause of this lunar malady:
Some oriental conjurer has come to Thebes from Lydia, or Phrygia, or some such place-
A magician with golden hair flowing in ringlets, his face flushed with wine, his eyes lit with the charm of Aphrodite, who entices young girls with his Bacchic mysteries. They say he spends days and nights consorting lasciviously with them in unheard of perverted rites! Once I get that charlatan within my walls, I’ll slash his head from his shoulders!
Ha! That will stop the drumming of his thrysus!
Tossing his long hair about like a woman!
He’s the one, this foreigner, who says Dionysus is a god! Who says he was sown in up in Zeus’s thigh. The truth about Dionysus is that he’s dead!
My cousin, a not yet a man, and hardly a god, was burnt to a crisp by a lightning strike; fried by the wrath of Zeus along with his mother because she said Zeus laid with her, to cover her own infidelity! Whoever he may be, his arrogance is an outrage!
By Zeus! Has the man not earned a rope about his neck?”
Pentheus turned to leave, but much to his chagrin, he spies Cadmus and Teresias joined in the dance with the Asian women.
“Why look!” he said sarcastically, “Another miracle! Here’s Teresias the prophet wrapped in a fawnskin! Prancing about like a goat on a stick! And my mother’s father! A Bacchant with a fennel wand! Well, there’s a sight for laughter, if it did not make me sick!”
He approached Cadmus and Teresias.
“Sirs! I am ashamed to see,” he barked at them, “Two men of your age, with so little sense of decency! Come! Cadmus! You’re my grandfather, for Zeus’s sake! Throw down that ivy wreath! Away with your fennel stick!”
He drew his sword and advanced upon the dancers, pointing his sword stage dexter.
“Be off with you, you scatterbrains!” he shouted angrily, “Away from the palace steps! Return to your hearth and homes before I have you whipped!
The dancers fled stage sinister up the stone steps.
“O! Zeus damn and blast them,” cried Pentheus, “They have flown away! To join the others, no doubt!”
Pentheus turned and pointed an accusing finger at Teresias.
“You!” he shouted, “You persuaded him to this, Teresias! You introduce this new fawning god to advance the business of your augury; to collect added fees for examining even more sacrifices than are already thrown away to the gods. So famished immortals will buzz like flies about your altars!
Listen, for I swear by Zeus, your gray hairs are your protection for now, otherwise, for promoting such pernicious practices, you’d be sitting in chains, alongside the crazy females I’ve already caught! As for these women, I’ll tell you this- by Zeus! Wherever the sweet sparkle of wine adorns their feasts, I shall put a stop to their intemperate cavorting! No good will come of such Bacchic ceremonies as long as I am King!”
The high priestess of the Chorus interrupted him.
“Have you no reverence for your elders, sir? No sense of propriety? You mock the man who sowed the dragon seed with your petulant impiety!”
“While I am Lord of Thebes,” retorted Pentheus, “And mark me well, by Zeus, no women of mine will debase the name of Hellas, and drag my name into the mud of pornographic lust!”
“When a good speaker has a sound case to present,” admonished Teresias, “Then eloquence is no great feat. Your fluent tongue, young sir, promises wisdom, but in the content of your speech, falls flat. The headstrong man who plays to the brawn of his arm and the volume of his voice spells folly to us all, and presents a peril to the state!”
“Should we then, take leave of our senses,” asked Pentheus angrily, “And throw away decorum? Forego our work and live like beasts with no responsibilities? Your god and his ways are folly, old man, an abomination to any man of reason!”
“This god you despise-” replied Teresias, “No words of mine can express the ascendancy he will one day achieve in Greece. There are two powers, young man, which reign supreme in human affairs. The first is Demeter, Goddess of Earth- give her whichever name you please- who supplies us with solid food, the bread we eat.
Then, Semele’s son, Dionysus! The blessing he procured is no less than hers for he gave to humanity the counterpoint to bread: the clear juice of the purple grape!
The first feeds our mortal coil. But as we know, we cannot live on bread alone. When mortals drink their fill of wine, the sufferings of our unhappy race are banished for a time; the day’s troubles are put to sleep in a sparkling glass of wine.
All work and no play is a sorry lot for woman, man or child. It is through the grace of Dionysus, we are all reborn each day to face our lives anew!”
“The ravings of a drunken sot!” declared Pentheus, “There is no salvation in the daemon wine! Its poison has worked its curse upon your feebled mind!”
“Pentheus! Relax your grip upon your soul!” advised Cadmus. “There is no better cure for suffering than the blessings of Dionysus. He gives of himself, this god; his spirit is thus poured out in offering to the gods. The libation, the sacrifice is his; so through him and him alone comes forgiveness to humankind.”
“He is not a god, for Zeus’s sake!” shouted Pentheus in exasperation. “He died in childbirth with Semele! I saw it with these eyes! And across the River Styx with her he sailed, not through heaven’s gate! Who could believe a male gives birth, man or god or beast, let alone grow a child within the thigh of the mighty Zeus!”
“So you scorn this legend, that he was sown up in Zeus’s thigh?” asked Teresias. “ You are right to scoff, I will admit. But nonetheless- I will explain the truth to you. When Zeus snatched Dionysus from the lightning’s flame, he took the child alive wrapped in a cloud up to Mount Olympus’s heights to live there as a god of gods. But Hera, Zeus’s wife, resolved to cast the infant out. They say Zeus prevailed upon her, as a god’s will is still divine, to spare the child in exchange for a pledge of honour. He swore a pledge of fidelity, not an easy thing for him. To seal his word, he took a fragment of the ether that surrounds the Earth, then fashioned it like a child, and presented it to Hera as a pledge to soothe her jealousy.
His wiliness again preserved his domestic harmony. Within the woven ether, a magic spell hid Dionysus from her sight. To Hera the god is invisible. That is why he can steal from hearth and home any woman, maid or mother! And thus was Dionysus saved from the wrath of Hera.
And because the words, ‘Homeros’ for ‘Pledge’ and ‘Meros’ meaning ‘Thigh’, are so alike, people confused the two, and their meanings entwined. And the pledge Zeus gave to Hera became transformed as time went on, and we mortals ignorantly sewed Dionysus tight inside mighty Zeus’s thigh.”
“And this god is a prophet, too,” added Cadmus enthusiastically, “When he fills irresistibly the celebrant in Bacchic ecstasy, he gives to those so possessed the prophetic element.”
“Great Zeus!” declared Pentheus “Your brains have been addled, Grandsire, by the wine from your pouch! The only seeing done by a drunkard is the morning after the night before!
I’ll tell you of my experience with prophets: you can expect nothing from them but silliness and lies! They peer into the shapes of sacrifices and heed the cries of wandering birds!
There’s no Truth in any of it, and there never was! Shall human beings bow to the will of birds? I think not! The very notion is absurd! Shall fate be ordained by a putrid mass of intestines piled upon the sacral floor?
By Zeus, you must think me mad to believe such a thing!
Prophecy was invented to entrap us with the promise of success, and none but the Seer ever gained wealth without labour. The best oracle is caution and common sense!
This-“ Pentheus drew his sword from its scabbard, “-is the only Truth! The bite of Bronze and strength of Will!”
“Indeed!” answered Cadmus, “Your faith in your own arms is sadly misplaced, for in Ares’s domain as well, Dionysus shares. For I have seen an army, weaponed and armour clad, arrayed for battle, their feet set firm, flee in wild panic ere a spear was raised, before the onslaught of the wild foray of unarmed followers of the god!”
Pentheus sheathed his sword in disgust.
“Aye,” added Teresias, “and the day will come when on the very crags of Delphi, you shall see him leaping amidst the blaze of torches over the twin peaked ridge, waving aloft his brandished Bacchic staff while all Hellas dances with him, laughing!”
Teresias waved his own staff in Pentheus’s direction.
“Lord Pentheus, pay heed to my words,” he warned, “If you rely on force of arms to achieve your ends, you will find, it is not might which truly governs human affairs! Do not mistake for wisdom, that opinion which may arise beneath the threat of harm!”
“Welcome this god to Thebes, my son!” advised Cadmus, his voice softened with concern, “Offer libations to him of wine! Come celebrate his rites with us! Wrap his garland about your crown! Neither Dionysus nor you can compel women to be chaste; all matters of self-control reside within themselves, and are not ours to lay waste.
You should consider this, My Lord: In that Bacchic ritual, and elsewhere, a woman will be safe from corruption if within her own mind she commits no sin! Think of this too:
When crowds stand at the city gates and Thebes extols the name of Pentheus, you, yourself, rejoice. So too, I think, the god is glad to hear his name called out in praise, and bless the lips that call him and bestow upon them honour.”
“Such pretty words flutter from your lips,” sneered Pentheus, “Yet spoken with clouded reason. I shall never bow before such a god, and I am honour bound, by Zeus, to prevent such profligate treason!”
Teresias sighed. “Well, at least, Cadmus, your grandsire and I, whom you choose to mock, will wear the ivy wreath, and join the dancing in the hills despite your protestation! A pair of bobbing gray heads! Scoff at us as you will, but we, at least, know full well that this is our sacred duty!”
“And no words of yours” said Cadmus, “will lure me into fighting against gods. Pentheus, my dear boy, some cruel insanity-jealousy perhaps- has warped your mind. To Mount Cithaeron I shall go to pay my respects to the god!”
“How can you go against my command?” Pentheus admonished his grandfather, “My power comes from Apollo, Cadmus, the champion of Zeus!”
The high priestess of the Chorus stepped forward, and addressed the old man. “What you have said, Cadmus, we are bound, shows no disrespect to Apollo nor Zeus. We find your judgment fine and sound, in honouring Lord Dionysus!”
Cadmus continued his plea before the king. “My dear grandson, hear me out. Teresias has given you sage advice. Don’t stray beyond pious tradition, but live with us as one. Your wits have taken flight to the winds, and you wrap yourself with reason, to cover up your fear.”
“What nonsense you speak, Grandsire,” replied Pentheus, “I know within my heart the god you worship, plays you false!”
Cadmus sighed wearily, “Even if, as you say, Dionysus is not a god, let him at least have your acknowledgement. Lie royally for the sake of your Aunt Semele; allow her the honour of having borne a god, and credit come to us and to all our family.”
“Do you think I shall honour a common whore,” replied Pentheus indignantly, “who blames weakness upon an honoured god?”
Cadmus shook his thrysus at his grandson. “Remember, too, Actaeon’s miserable fate. From pride and arrogance born, torn and devoured by the very hounds which he himself had bred and trained. He filled the mountain glens with the boast his hunting skill was greater than Artemis. Don’t share his fate, my lad! Join us in worshipping this god!”
Cadmus removed the ivy wreath from his own head and held it out and aloft, and advanced toward Pentheus.
“Come, let me crown your obstinate head with a sacred wreath of ivy!”
Pentheus warded him off in horror. “Keep your hands off me, you crazy old bat! Go to your Bacchic rites! Don’t wipe your mad folly on me! By Zeus, you have all been struck mad!”
Teresias now wagged his thrysus at Pentheus. “Foolhardy man!” he cried out, “You know nothing of what you have said. Before you were unbalanced by power; now it is you who has been driven quite mad!”
He beckoned to his friend.
“Come, Cadmus, Let me take your arm! Let us go and pray for this man, brutish as he is, and for our fair city, and beg the god his forgiveness. Come now! Take your ivy staff, and let's go! Try to support me.”
The argument with Pentheus had wearied them, and the spring had gone from their step. Supporting each other, Cadmus and Teresias made their way stage sinister and up the stone stairway.
“We will help each other, old friend,” said Cadmus kindly, “It would be scandalous indeed for sprightly old men to fall before we do the deed! We must go and pay our due service to Dionysus, the Son of God.”
“Pity, Cadmus, it strikes me now,” commented Teresias as the exited, “The name Pentheus means sorrow. God grant he may not bring sorrow down upon your house or your family. Do not take my words as prophecy, I beg. I judge his acts alone. Such foolish words as his bespeak a fool.”
Pentheus shouted after them.
“I shall punish this man Teresias! Your physician of drugged lunacy!”
He turned and addressed the guards and to emphasize his authority drew his sword.
“Go, you men, you, you and you!” He pointed at his guards as he selected them for duty with a thrust of his sword, and the guards nervously avoided the tip as he waved it about. The movement brought a ripple of laughter from the audience.
“To the seat of his augury!” commanded Pentheus, “Smash it with crowbars! Topple the walls! Throw all of his possessions into the street, and stamp them into the gutter! Turn his den of iniquity to wild confusion; turn the whole place upside down! Throw his arcane fripperies to the hurricane winds! This sacrilege will sting him far more than anything else, I think!”
The three guards selected exited rapidly to carry out their monarch’s wishes, and the four left huddled together like a bewildered flock of sheep.
“The rest of you!” again Pentheus waved his sword dangerously at their heads. “Go! Comb the country wastes! Track down that effeminate foreigner who plagues our women with this new disease, and fouls the whole land with licentious lechery. When you have him, bind him well, and bring him here to me!
As the remaining four guards marched up the stairs to Cithaeron, Pentheus mused to himself aloud.
“I’ll deal with him, this oriental charlatan! He’ll be stoned to death! Or hanged aloft from the branches of the old oak tree! He’ll wish he’d never brought this Bacchic rite to Thebes!”
He whirled with a swirl of his robes and disappeared through the central gates of the palace.
The high priestess of the Chorus called out to the skies, “O Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven, hear me now! Your Holiness whose golden wings embrace the Earth, do you hear this blasphemy here espoused? That Pentheus dares-did you hear?- despite our pleas, to revile the god of Mirth! The son of Semele, who, when the gay crowned feast is set, is named among gods, the chief, King Pentheus’s guard has been sent to get and shackle like some common thief!”
The portly, wifely woman stepped to the fore.
“Though the blessed gods dwell in distant skies, they closely watch our mortal ways. We, who know so much yet aren’t so wise, still know Pride, not Mortality, hastens the end of days. They who in pride pretend beyond their ability will lose what lies close at hand. I count it as madness, blind insanity, and know no cure to mend an evil mind.”
The guards who Pentheus sent to arrest Dionysus entered with their quarry in their charge. Pentheus enters from the palace stage centre.
The first guard bowed in deference to his ruler. “Lord Pentheus,” he said, “We’ve brought the prey you sent us out to catch; we ran him to ground, and here he is! But, sire, we found the beast gentle, and made no attempt to run away. Just held his hands out thus- to be tied! Nor turned he pale at our approach, but kept his florid colour, smiled, and told us to tie him up and bring him in. He gave us no trouble, sire, no trouble at all.
Waited for us as meek as a lamb, if you please. Naturally I felt a bit embarrassed, for my mates and me were spoiling for a wrestling match at least!
‘You’ll excuse me, Sir,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to arrest you. It’s not on my account. It’s the King’s command!’
That’s all right!’ he said, ‘I can see you’re duty bound!’
The damnedest thing, by Zeus, I have never seen the like!
Another thing, Sire, these women you rounded up, and put in fetters in the gaol? Those Bacchants -well- they’re all gone!”
“Gone?” asked Pentheus incredulously, “ But how is this?”
“We saw them on Mount Cithaeron,” explained a second guard, “Prancing about with the others! Turned loose into the glens. Having quite a time! Frisking about, shouting praise to Bromius- their God!”
“Gone?” asked Pentheus again, unable to comprehend his impotency, “But how is this?”
The guards looked helplessly at each other, wondering to whom the task of explaining the bad news to the king would fall. The third guard, larger than his fellows, stepped forward. “The fetters simply opened, and fairly fell from their feet. The bolts shot back untouched by mortal hand!”
Encouraged that the large man had not borne the fury of his monarch, the first guard spoke up, not to be outdone. “The doors flew wide of their own accord!” he said eagerly, “Master, this man here has come here with a pocketful of miracles!”
“A bag of tricks more like!” replied Pentheus disdainfully, “He’s a conjurer, nothing more!”
The first guard spoke up.
“No disrespect to you my Lord,” he said, “but we all think-well, what happens next is your concern!” His comrades nodded in assent. They seemed to be relieved they had disowned their own actions against the stranger, and put the blame where it clearly, in their minds, rested- at Pentheus’ feet.
Pentheus ignored them.
“Untie his hands,” he commanded, “but stand on guard! Make sure he is securely set in our spear tipped trap!
The guards reluctantly lowered their spears and the points hemmed Dionysus in from both sides and behind. Then they carefully untied him. It was obvious from the way they gingerly went about this, taking care not to bring discomfort to Dionysus, they were convinced of his godness.
Satisfied, Pentheus stood, hands on hips.
“He’s not so nimble footed as to escape me now!” He stepped up to Dionysus and walked around him, his face mocking the subdued god.
“Well, friend,” he said in mock friendliness, “Your shape is not unhandsome for the pursuit of women, which is the purpose of your presence here no doubt. You are no wrestler- I can tell from these long curls cascading most seductively across your cheek. Your skin, too, shows whiteness carefully preserved; you keep away from Apollo's rays. Walk in the shade, methinks. So! First tell me who you are! What of your rank and birth?”
“Your question’s easily answered,” replied Dionysus, “It is no secret. Perhaps you have heard of Tmolus, the sacred mount bedecked with anemone?”
“The range which curves about Sardis?” answered Pentheus, “I know it!”
“That is my home! I am Lydian, by birth!”
“How is it you bring your heathen rituals to Hellas?” asked Pentheus, in the tone of a prosecutor preparing a trap for a witness.
“Dionysus, son of Zeus, himself, instructed me,” replied Dionysus.
“Is there a Lydian Zeus, then, who begets new gods?” asked the bemused Pentheus.
“I speak of Zeus who bedded Semele her in Thebes.”
Pentheus quickened in his questioning.
“So you say! Did he possess you in some drug-induced dream? Or perhaps in some material form?”
“Face to face, he gave these mysteries to me.”
“Indeed! And what form do these Mysteries take?”
“To the uninitiated, they cannot be revealed.”
“I remind you sir,” warned Pentheus, “Here I am the Law! By Zeus! You would do well to answer me, and not play hop and skip with the questions you are put!”
His manner softened.
“Tell me, those who worship, what advantage from these Mysteries are gained?”
“Though it is well worth knowing,” replied Dionysus, “It is not for you to learn!”
“You bait your answers well. Do you hope this will gain my eagerness to discern what these Mysteries be?”
“My rituals abhor the presence of an impious man.”
“So you say!” replied Pentheus, “You say you saw him face to face. In what form did he appear? A rock? A tree? Or perhaps like me? A king in purple robes?”
“He was as he chose to be.” replied Dionysus calmly, “I had no say in that!”
“Ye gods!” cried Pentheus, “Still you side step my question with the turn of an empty phrase!”
“If you say so! But it is well known, prudent speech finds the foolish ear asleep!”
Pentheus had a hard time containing his anger. “By Zeus, show some respect for your betters! Why came you to Thebes to spread you lies? Where else have you spread your deceit?”
Ignoring the king’s insults veiled in the questions which he put to him, Dionysus answered as calmly as ever. “Every land to the East dances to these Mysteries.”
“No doubt! No doubt!” interjected Pentheus impatiently, “For their morals are lower than ours!”
“Yet in this they are superior. That their customs differ from yours should not be construed as inferior, nor dismissed out of hand.”
“Do you perform your Mysteries by day or by night?”
“By night, as Apollo fades in the west until Lucifer sheds his holy light upon the mountain glades. It is known by one and all that Darkness promotes religious awe.”
“And for women, darkness is deceptive and impure,” commented Pentheus with distaste, “All the better to fool their feeble minds with the nonsense you promote, and lead them by conjurer’s device to soil their virgin thighs.”
“So you say,” replied Dionysus, “but impurity is pursued by many in broad daylight. What I do is holy and pure.”
“Such infamy!” declared Pentheus indignantly, “You will be punished for your foul and slippery tongue!”
“And you for your blindness and impiety to the god I serve!” retorted Dionysus, his anger, yet under control, but rising.
“How bold you are! A practiced pleader! We shall see how haughty you reply to the torturer’s rack and tools!”
“What dread pain will you inflict?” taunted Dionysus, “Come do your worst!”
“I’ll- I’ll start with cutting off your delicate long hair!”
“My hair is sacred! I have pledged to preserve it for the god!”
“And- And next- I’ll take that thrysus!” Pentheus snatched the thrysus from Dionysus's hand. Dionysus reacted with mock surprise.
“Careful of it’s power, then!” he cautioned Pentheus as if talking to a child, “It is the symbol of the god!” He placed his hands upon his hips. “Is that your worst?”
“I’ll throw you into prison!” threatened Pentheus, clearly at a loss. “And keep you there!” he added.
“The god himself,” replied Dionysus calmly, “whenever I desire, will free me, no matter what bonds you devise!”
“Indeed? Where is he now then?” asked Pentheus derisively. He began a parody of a search. “Here? Behind the pillar? Or perhaps beneath this rock?”
Dionysus ignored the kings miming antics. “He stands always beside me.” he said with dignity, “You are an unbeliever and can see nothing of what I see.”
Pentheus waved his hands in the air on one sides of Dionysus. “Not here!” Then the other. “Not here!” He grabbed Dionysus by the arm. “Perhaps he’s up your sleeve?”
His mood changed swiftly and he called to the guards, “Grab him! He mocks me! And he mocks the holy city of Thebes!”
“Don’t bind me!” Dionysus warned the guards menacingly, and they hesitated. “Though you are dutybound, once was enough! And I may not forgive a second round!”
“You think you are sane and I am mad!” Dionysus said to his captor. “What a fool you have become!”
He turned to the guards.
“It is him you should bind not me!”
The guards were persuaded by his speech and stayed still.
“Whose word is more?” Dionysus challenged them, “That of a king? Or a God?”
“My word overrules yours!” challenged Pentheus.
He turned to the guards.
“Do not be fooled by his trickery! Bind him fast or by Zeus, I shall see you rotting in gaol alongside this upstart vagabond!”
Persuaded by threat of incarceration, the Guards bound Dionysus.
Defiantly, Dionysus challenged the king.
“You have no understanding, and don’t know what you are saying nor what you are doing. I shall pray to the god for his forgiveness, and suffer gladly for his sake, the folly of such fools!”
“Take him away!” shouted Pentheus, annoyed by the lack of fear his threats have caused his prisoner. “Shut him in the caves behind my stables for now! And light no lamps within! He can stay staring into his blessed darkness!”
As the guards push their charge forward, Pentheus called after Dionysus.
“You can dance in there fettered and bound! And as for these women you’ve brought for your accomplices, I’ll send them to the slave market to be sold! No, better still! I’ll keep them in my own household, to work my looms day and night. That will stop their finger drumming on their infernal tambourines!”
The guards halted as Dionysus turned to face the king.
“Nothing can touch me that is not ordained, and so I go, bent like the reed before your Will. But I warn you! Dionysus, who you say is dead, will descend in swift pursuit to avenge this sacrilege! You place him in prison when you lay your hands on me!”
The guards took Dionysus to the stables. Now they had chosen a course of action, they were rougher in their treatment of Dionysus. Pentheus stood satisfied, with his hands on his hips.
“What’s done is done! I shall string him up and make him pay for the damage he has done!”
He turned his attention to the Phrygian women, the Chorus.
“And as for you, you heathen whores! You can warrant: I’ll be back!”
He turned with a flourish of his purple robes through the palace doors.
The older woman of the chorus stepped to the fore.
“Dirce, sweet and holy maid, Acheloüs’s Theban daughter, the child of Zeus was once welcome made in lands of your holy water. Now, divine Dirce, when with ivy my head is crowned, and my feet dance merrily in Bacchic revelry, you reject him, shaming your holy ground. No longer revered is this fruit of the sacred tree. O Thebans, repent your sins and free Dionysus bound, or his name with dread shall ever haunt your memory!”
She relinquished the stage to the owlish woman, whose intensity of quiet passion burned convincingly within her.
“It does not pay to slight the gods, for on their good Graces we all depend, and those who fight the odds, will come to a very, very, sticky end. Remember, people of Thebes, when from worship you refrain, the pain of Demeter for Persephone. You too shall feel the Great Mother’s pain, and share in the pain of your King’s agony!”
The seventh member, the strong woman stepped forward. She had the air of Pallas Athene.
“Recall the time when the Great Mother Demeter ran maniacally, frantically hither an yon, o’er mountain top, through forest green glade, cross swirling river, o’er deep voiced swell of sighing salt sea waves on she flew, on and on! Her terrible anguished cry shook the Earth, and set the pines aquiver!”
The high priestess took her place.
“The Great Mother’s clashing cymbals sang out! The Phrygian lions lashed to her chariot’s yokes, on the wings of revenge, the goddess rode out, avenging scythes flashed and whirled from her spokes! None stood before her as she searched for her child, stolen from her dancing ring to become the Hades’ bride! Like whirlwinds beside her, the goddesses wild, her sisters from heaven swept down by her side:
Armed with invincible arrows and her sacred bow!
With flashing eyes, spear of bronze and Gorgon shield
But Zeus stood against them and fought blow against blow One against three, yet none to the other would yield. The spirit of Ares set son against brother, and man against spouse, and warriors of Zeus tore down the walls of the Great Mother’s house.
The Furies three fought such a noble fight for the return of their dearest Persephone, but irresistible force against invincible might, tired even the gods of belligerency.”
The chubby woman continued the story.
“Now, when weary and bewildered and tired of slaughter, the Great Mother retreated defeated over mountain heights, and despaired of ever finding her dear stolen daughter. And the people below stopped performing her rites. On the dazzling snow-bound mountain peak, she drank up the swollen torrents that race down mountain gorge, and the dew and the rain were swallowed in the sink of the Salty Sea.
And cattle starved for no pasture grew on the parched brown plain. The Earth, sapless, bore no fruit; the seed lay barren for want of the rain. The unborn child died and shrivelled in its mother’s womb. No lusty bud nor curling tendril burst from the barren vine. On every city fell the deathly silence of the grave robbed tomb. No pious thanksgiving in the temples, in the field no one did toil, for in the broken heart of the grieving Mother, nothing there would grow.
No priest nor prophet approached altar to light holy oil. The shining springs gave us no water, the goddess forbade their currents to flow, in desperation of her grief for her child lost forever in the dark Great Below.”
The athletic supple-limbed woman, a true daughter of Artemis, took up the tale.
“So when the Phrygian Mother, in her sorrow, had from mortals and gods withdrawn daily bread, her curses for all removed hope for the morrow and filled the whole earth with deep despair and dread.
Mighty Zeus, the King, commanded the Graces, ‘Go to the goddess of the Earth to appease. Be sweet and kind and with sympathetic smiles on your faces; charm her grief struck heart with your sweet melodies, and bid the Muses add their skill to your game!’
Dancing and singing, the sweet sisters did fly. To the first of the immortals, the beautiful Aphrodite came, bronze cymbals on her fingers, she held up on high, clashed softly, their voice subterranean flame. Then to leathern tambours beating a funeral tome, matched the mood of the Mother then lifted her higher, where the flute added to song its sonorous tone, and her humour improved to the lilt of the lyre, came dancing, came prancing, Dionysus, that Prince of Joy and Master of Mirth, leading before him, with a promise from Zeus, Persephone, returned from the Earth!”
The natural mother of the Chorus replaced her virginal sister.
“But in childish innocence, the maid had sinned, breaking her fast in the dark bowels of Earth, having eaten of Hades her blood had been thinned, so only blood sacrifice can bring about her rebirth.
Each year at the Harvest and every Spring, give thanks to the gods and the bounty they bring. We observe all the rites and to Bacchus we pray, for if the Mother of all Birth sees her law slighted, her anger will arise and for our sins we all pay, so it is for us, her son, Dionysus, keeps her delighted.”
The silver haired sister of the Chorus began.
“Beware the fearful power filling the bright dappled folds,” she warned, “of the fawnskin cloak wrapped around shoulder and arm. There her power and wrath in check he withholds, and the Bacchic celebrations protect us from harm. In the young ivy shoot wreathed round fennel wand, godhead itself is seen by those who believe. In each mountain meadow and solitary pond, where mysteries are revealed and ecstasy achieved. Bright flashing hand holds tambourine high in the wind, whirling and twirling, alive with Bacchus’s power, releases those who against him have sinned. In rapt vigil they dance madly through the midnight hour. But for those who against him have brought forth their suit, she pardons none who taste unbidden, the forbidden fruit!”
Suddenly the voice of Dionysus rang out.
“Yo! Yo! Do you not know my voice? Worshippers of Bacchus! Yo! Yo!”
“Who is that? Where is he?” called out the gray eyed woman. ”The shout of Dionysus calling us! How can it be? O Lord! O Lord! Dionysus!”
“Yo! Yo!” came the voice again, “Hear me again! It is I, the son of Semele. It is I, the son of Zeus! The Son of Virgin Birth!
The Living Son of God!”
“Yo! Yo!” cried out the high priestess, “Our Lord has risen from far below! O Come, O Lord! Come join your faithful company! Yo! We cannot wait for you to us show! Come to those who in you truly believe!”
“O dreadful earthquake!” commanded the voice, “Shake the floor of the world!”
The women of the Chorus screamed.
“Pentheus’s palace is tumbling down!” cried out the priestess, “It’s crumbling right to dust!”
A huge rumble filled the atrium, and the audience looked about for its source in consternation, and their shouts and screams mixed with the cries of the women of the chorus.
“Dionysus stands within the palace crowned!” cried the rotund woman.
“Sisters, Bromius comes back to us!” called out the daughter of Artemis.
“The roof and pillars plummet to the ground!” shouted the natural mother.
“Bow down before Lord Dionysus!” called out the old woman in fear.
“He shouts to us from within the ground!” screamed the terrified owl woman.
Standing, fearless and triumphant, the gray eyed Athena was the only mortal, cast or audience, who showed no trepidation at the fearful noise of stone rumbling against stone.
“Hail the Victory of Lord Dionysus!” she shouted, and pointed to the Semele’s monument.
The voice of Dionysus echoed through the courtyard.
“Fan to a blaze the flame the lightning once lit! Kindle the conflagration of Pentheus’s palace! The flame on Semele’s tomb grows and brightens!
The crowd gasped as the flame on the tomb leapt higher, growing brighter and more numerous, then the flames turning green and blue.
“Look! Look, Look! Do you see? cried out the high priestess, “Leaping higher that our god’s beck and call has coaxed? The sacred flame on the tomb of Semele, that lived when she died of Zeus’s bright lightning stroke!
Over the rumbling, Miri could hear the noise of crashing masonry. One of the great columns of the palace of Pentheus came crashing to the floor, raising dust from the ground, and scattering the guests near the stage. The rest of the crowd roared in approval at the spectacle, as their comrades leaped away from the debacle.
Awe and panic gripped all within the atrium, and the play now took hold of the hearts of the audience. They were no longer passive observers of the action, but a part of it. The level of excitement rose.
“Bow down, trembling Maenads,” cried the high priestess, ”Watch the palace door! Prostrate yourselves on the ground!” and some of the more susceptible theatre patrons joined the chorus in prostrating before the god.
“Your god is wrecking the palace, roof to floor!” she cried out, “We who were lost but now are found, cry in obeisance to Dionysus! He hears our cry! Answer my prayer! Come to us now, O Son of Zeus! We know you’re there!
The doors to the palace swing open wide with a tremendous echoing boom of bronze against the wooden doorposts and Dionysus appeared, golden light falling upon him from above.
He stepped out calmly, and addressed not only the chorus, for his gaze swept the dishevelled audience as well.
“Women of Asia, why do you cower thus? Prostrate and terrified is not my style! Surely you could hear your Lord Dionysus? Shattering Pentheus’s palace into rubbled pile?”
He reached out to his followers, raising them one by one.
“Come! Lift yourselves up! Be not so grim! Take good courage from the Lord of Dance, and stop this trembling of limb!”
He stood in the centre of the stage and lifted his arms in benediction.
“Give your soul once more to Bacchic trance!”
At that moment several slaves wound their way into the audience filling their cups with wine. Miri lifted her goblet as Clytemnestra appeared at her side. The girl knelt beside Miri where she lay. The rest of the audience seemed relieved to receive the refreshments for their throats were quite dry from the plaster dust which filled the open room.
“O what Joy to hear your Bacchic call ring out!” called out the portly woman thankfully, “We were all alone when the palace caved in. You have come in answer to our fearful shout, and we rejoice at seeing your face again!”
“Why were you then comfortless and despondent, when I was escorted by the guards into the jail?” Dionysus asked her, “Do you not know the god could return me from the grave at will, and easily loose the fetters and bonds by mortal bound. At any time after the King himself had sentenced me to be cast into Pentheus’s dark, dank prison cell?”
“Who could help it Adonai?” asked the natural mother. “What protector had I to see, once deprived of you was I? Dionysus, I do not deserve such a god as thee! Now tell us how you escaped the sling of this wicked man who would be King?”
“I alone, at once unaided, effortlessly freed myself” declared Dionysus.
“How could that be? Though ’tis what we hoped, “asked the natural mother, “Did not Pentheus bind your arms with knotted rope?”
Dionysus sat upon a boulder and the Chorus in rapt attention settled about him.
“Indeed! But there the god made a mockery of him: upon our walking into the stable from the open courtyard, Dionysus - as it seemed to me- I merely guess-placed a charm over the King’s eyes, but not his guards. They stood about all the while afraid, of both unseen God and deluded King.
For as he was binding me, his hands neither held nor touched me, the man, save in his deluded mind, for near the mangers where he meant to tie me up, it was as a bull that he took as me.
A noose he tied around the bull’s knees and hooves, panting with rage. Dripping with sweat. Biting his lips!
And I- my mortal coil untwined and safe from harm, sat quietly by and watched.
He strung the beast aloft, dangling from the rafter beam. Then did the deluded man snap up his murderous sword, and Pentheus, Lord and King, flew at it in foaming rage, stabbing at the hapless beast, flaying its hide with raging stroke, slit its throat to spill its blood on the ground, thinking all the while, he was killing me. With a spear of bronze he split the belly of the beast, spilling its entrails onto the floor. Entangled his aching legs, the liver, stomach all slopped in a pile, till into the belly he reached arm deep and clutched the creature’s heart. He tore it out with triumphant cry; held it to his mouth-
And bit into the bleeding heart!
For all who saw, even me, myself, I was dead- I died!
But Dionysus, my shattered remains gathered up, and threw them into the Great Mother Rhea’s Cauldron of Life! There in her womb, all the bits and pieces boiled and dissolved in the great bowl of blood!
It was then Dionysus shook the building, made the flame on his mother’s tomb flare up. Still charmed, when Pentheus saw this, he supposed the whole place was burning. He rushed this way and that, calling out to the guards to bring water from the well. Every slave in the place he engaged upon this futile task!
Yet a further humiliation Bacchus yet contrived for him; the ground rose and heaved and destroyed the stable utterly!
What Pentheus saw-
My prison lying there in a heap of rubble, the sight now grieves his heart. He’s dazed and helpless with exhaustion.
He has lost his sword. He, a man, who dared take arms against a god, now stands alone defeated.”
Dionysus stood and stepped out of the circle of the Chorus, who seemed frozen while he came forward and into the audience. He stood surrounded by the theatregoers, as he had only a moment before been wrapped about by the circle of the Chorus.
“Nurtured and restored to health, within the Great Mother’s Cauldron,” he continued, “I descended into Hades’ realm, for god or no god, I had passed over the waters between his world and mine. There, he greeted me in a most cordial fashion, for all of his peers avoid his House with dread, preferring the heights of Olympus to the depths of my uncle’s land of the dead.
Fair Persephone was there enthroned, and wept at the tale of my agony at the hands of Pentheus, King of Thebes, and asked if she could serve to lessen my woe.
To see my mother, dear Semele, was my greatest wish, and my wish she granted, with the wave of her hand.
I cannot tell you the joy of reunion, for no words would suffice to delve into such deep delight, such ecstatic rejoicing! So grateful was I, I presented to my hosts the fruit of the Vine, and while we were drinking, I slipped to my mother, the blood of mine I had spilled, and she drank of me her fill.
The wine, the blood of Dionysus, causes the weary cares of men to quit each heart, to travel to lands which never were; the poor grow rich, and the rich become the soul of generosity:
All conquering is the Shaft of the Vine!
So when I asked to take leave of Tartarus in the company of my sweet mother Semele, Hades granted my request, without hesitation. We ascended, arm in arm, my mother and I, to the heights of Olympus, where I left her, in the company and care of the gods, in the House of my Father
For the mother of a god, immaculate, is the sweet Semele.”
The audience was obviously moved by the filial devotion of the god for his mother. Many within the audience were adherents to the faith of the cult of Dionysus, and the resurrection of the Mother by her son was central to their Mysteries. Indeed, even for those who were not themselves Bacchae, the revelation had a great effect, for it seemed the god had come amongst them to share his innermost experience.
Dionysus returned to his circle of women, and addressed them again, “From the bowels of the Earth, from Hades’ door, I have arisen, and with faith in the power of the god, I quietly walked out of the palace to join you, giving Pentheus not a thought, as you should neither.
But Hark, I hear his heavy tread inside the palace! Soon, I think, he’ll be out here with us in the hyposteum.”
He looked out at the audience.
“After what has happened now what will he have to say, do you think? Has he swallowed his pride and before me repent? Or with closed mind and hardened heart, play the vengeful tyrant’s part? If he should rage, his act will not ruffle me, for I shall play the wise man’s part and practice a smooth-tempered self-control!
Forbearance first, I think.
Before I take my just revenge!”
Pentheus, his rage spent, wandered onstage in bewilderment, followed by his awestruck guards.
“This is outrageous!” he said more to himself, than the men who followed behind him. “He has escaped- this foreigner! Only just now I had him locked fast and in chains! And chopped him to bits!”
Suddenly, he spied Dionysus and gave an excited shout.
“He’s there! Well, what’s going on now? How did you get out? How dare you show your face here at my very door?”
“Stay where you are!” cautioned Dionysus, “You are angry. It is yourself you must control, not I!”
“You were tied up inside there!” said Pentheus excitedly, “Left for dead! How did you escape?”
“I said-,” replied Dionysus, “did you not hear? -that I should be set free!”
“By whom? You’re always finding something new to say.”
“By him who plants for mortals the rich clustered vine.”
“The god who frees his worshippers from every care.” said Pentheus, his sarcasm coming back.
“Your insult to Dionysus is a compliment,” said Dionysus magnanimously.
“Go round the walls and tell them to close every gate!” Pentheus ordered his guards.
They stay put, gazing at Dionysus in wonder.
“And why?” taunted Dionysus, “Do you think the gods cannot pass over walls?”
“Oh, you know everything- save what you ought to know,” retorted Pentheus, much like a child.
“The things most needful to be known: those things I know. But first, listen to what this man has to report,” Dionysus extended his arm stage sinister, “He comes from the mountain. He has some news for you! I will stay here. I promise not to run away.”
Suddenly a herdsman entered, supporting and helping two badly wounded guards, both of whom are tattered and bloody and badly injured.
“Pentheus. King of Thebes!” called out the herdsman, “I come from Mount Cithaeron, whose slopes are never free from dazzling drifts of snow!”
The guards fell to the ground and Pentheus rushed over to them with great concern. He knelt at their side; then looked up at the sky.
“By Zeus! Now what comes next?” he asked the gods. He turned to the herdsman. “How did these men suffer such grievous wounds? Speak, herdsman! What urgent message do you bring?”
The herdsman, a little out of breath still, paused, then blurted out, “I have seen the holy Bacchae, my Lord, who, like a flight of well-thrown spears went streaming bare-limbed, frantic, from your city gates.
I come with the express intention of telling you, my Lord, and the city of Thebes, of their strange and terrible doings, by God! I have seen things beyond all wonder!
But first I would learn whether I may speak freely of what is going on up there or if I should trim my words before I speak, for fear of your impetuosity, my Lord! Your anger is well known, your potent royality.”
Pentheus dismissed the herdsman’s concerns with a wave of his hand. “From me you need fear nothing, my good man! Say all you have to say, but quickly! My anger would not grow hot against the innocent, if that you be, but the more dreadful your story of these Bacchic rites, the heavier punishment I will inflict upon this man-
Who enticed our women to his evil ways!”
The herdsman was not entirely convinced and glanced apprehensively at Dionysus, then gulped.
“As you command, my liege!
At dawn today, when the first of the sunrays warmed the Earth, my herd of cows was climbing slowly up towards the pastures, and I was, as I always do, counting them as they passed by:
One, the brown, with star on her forehead led them all, Hera, I calls her;
Two, her sister, Aphrodite, a dappled heifer with a heart of gold;
Three, a comely cow-”
“Enough!” interrupted Pentheus impatiently, “I have no desire for an inventory of kine! Tell me what you saw of the Bacchae!’
“Ah well,” said the herdsman, licking his lips nervously, “Your promise of amnesty still holds then?”
“By Zeus I swear I shall not harm the wispiest hair of your doltish head!” cried Pentheus in annoyance at the delay of the news, “Though I might yet pull out mine! What news have you of the fair women of Thebes?”
“Well, as I said, your highness,” the herdsman spoke slowly, carefully choosing his words, still trying to avoid the wrath of his ruler. “My herd of cattle was slowly climbing up towards the high pastures, and there, I saw three companies of women.
The leader of one was the Lady Autinoway. Your mother Agavay was at the head of the second, Ino the third, and they all lay relaxed and quietly sleeping.
‘That’s strange,’ I says to Hera- the cow- ‘It’s not often you sees the likes of this!’
Some rested on beds of branches of pine, some, their heads on pillows of oak leaves, they lay just as they had laid themselves down, but modestly, not as you told these poor men: drunk with wine or hypnotic drug, rutting like rabbits in wild passionate lust!
When your Mother Agavay heard my horned cattle bellowing, she stood bolt upright among the Bacchae and called to them to stir themselves from sleep, and they shook the dust of the sandman from their weary eyes and leapt to their feet.
What a marvel, sir, it was to behold!
For their modest comeliness, so many women, both young and old! Maids still unmarried and crones widowed long ago, and the likes of everything in between.
I blush to think of my thoughts, but such pulchritude cannot help but bewitch a poor man such as I. Their hair fell free over their fair shoulders, and they quickly tied up fastenings of fawnskins they had loosened the night before
Then an amazing thing: Round the dappled fur, curled snakes that licked at the ladies’ cheeks. Some would have in their arms a young gazelle! And a wild wolf cub I saw! Given sweet white milk from a young mother whose breasts were full. The cub nursed at her breast with as little fear as the young child newly born she had left behind at home. They all wore wreaths of ivy-leaves, oak, or flowery byrony.
One struck her thrysus upon a rock. And from the rock, a bubbling stream of clear spring water burst forth! Another dug her wand into the Earth, and the god - I assume it was he- sent up a white stream of milk flowing from which they all could drink.
Those who desired wine, needed only scratch the soil with their fingertips, and the god sent up a fountain of sparkling rosé, while from the thrysus of each, as they wished, a sweet ooze of honey dripped! Which they licked hungrily from the wand!”
“O this is nonsense!” declared Pentheus, “You are obviously lying!”
“Oh no!” protested the herdsman, “ If you had been there and seen all of this, you would have fallen upon your face, as did I, and offered your prayers to this god whom you now condemn! Such an idyllic tryst is a sacred thing, not to be disturbed!”
He paused for a moment, then continued his story.
“It was at that moment as I fell before the throng. Your guards arrived, armed to the teeth, with herdsman then, and shepherds from the high meadows, who had gathered to exchange rival reports of these strange companies they had seen wand’ring about.
And one of these, who had knocked about the town impious and rough, to impress us all and the guards, so I think, had a ready tongue and called on us all:
‘On the holy mountain slopes,’ said he, ‘Shall we hunt down these women and tie them up? Capture Lady Agavay. And lay her bound before the King?’ What do you say, lads? There’s some reward from his majesty, I’ll be bound!’
His suggestion to all seemed to be sound. Even to me, who had seen what I’d seen. The very thought of royal pecuniary was enough to quench my awe and raise the blood in my arms. So we hid ourselves in the leafy bushes and lay in wait for an opportune time to pounce upon the unsuspecting daughters of Thebes.
When the set time came, when the women brandished their branches, and waved their wands this way and that, their souls rising to the Lord of the Dance, when they called in unison to the son of Zeus!
‘Iaachus! Bacchus! Bromius! Dear god! Dionysus!’
And with them the whole mountain rose up in praise, and all the creatures therein joined in the mystic rite. When the rituals commenced, and the dance the wilder ran, we seized our chance and leapt from cover!
Agavay herself, passed close by my cachement, and I at once leapt out from hiding, bent on seizing her- gently- but firm! I would not hope to injure the sainted mother of my gracious King!
But she, from the corner of her eye, spied me, and to the others sounded the alarm,
‘O my swift footed hounds,’ she cried. ‘These men are hunting us!’
And she fair eluded my attempts to lay my hands upon her!
‘Come, daughters of Demeter!’ she called to the Maenads, ‘Each one of you arm herself with the holy thrysus, and beat off this barbarous raid!’”
“And what of the fight?” Pentheus asked eagerly, “How is it you were overcome?”
The herdsman shook his head.
“These women were possessed by a strength more than any man I know! So we fled, those few of us who could, but the others were seized by these women possessed, torn limb from limb, their body parts scattered!
You’d see some ribs, a foot on its own, tossed high and low, rags of flesh hung from the trees so wild was the fray. The women attacked the men with their bare hands, as if the Furies themselves had descended upon our party!
I saw them take one of your guards, a full muscled roaring lion of a man, and bring him to his knees in a blink of an eye! They seized him by the legs and the arms and pulled, stretching him wide, and as he called to us with hideous gut-wrenching screams, his body gave up the ghost and came apart at the seams!
And where my cattle were cropping, a bull enraged by the terrible din, pawed at the earth then charged on the women, and I thought for a moment, they should all come to a terrible end. But like gazelles on the wind, they leapt aside! Some vaulted right onto and over the wild bull’s back.
My brave Ulysses-
One moment he felt proud rage in his horns, and in the next, they threw him bodily to the ground, the hands of girls, in their thousands, it seemed, stripped the flesh from his brave young bones! Faster than you could wink your royalness’s eye!
Skimming as birds over the surface of the ground, they scoured the plain along by the River Asopus’s banks, over the rich crops like an enemy force; they fell on Hysiae and Erythrae, two villages on the low slopes of Mount Cithaeron, and there the elite of your Guard made a valorous stand!
That’s all that I saw for I had fled from the field and hidden myself beneath a low lying rock!”
One of the injured guards spoke up.
“Sire, if not for the intervention of this noble man, who called to us from hiding when all was lost, we two, would this moment, be haggling with Charon over the price of the ferry ’cross the River Styx!”
“What?” asked Pentheus unbelievingly, “Did you too, men of war, cower like sheep before women?
“We stood as we could but they were too many!” said the first quickly.
“And we were too few!” finished the other.
In fear for their lives, like twins of one mind, with no pauses interrupting their dialogue, a litany of excuses poured from the lips of the wounded soldiers.
“They swallowed us up as they ransacked the town!”
“They snatched babies from houses!”
“And the plunder they carried!’
“Stayed upon their shoulders without strap!”
“Nothing fell to the ground!”
“No weight was too heavy!”
“They carried fire on their heads!”
“And yet their hair was not burnt!”
There was a pause as the two guards looked at each other, realizing their story was straying beyond the bounds of credulity
The first guard recovered, and began the narrative again.
“The villagers enraged at being plundered,” he explained, “armed themselves with spear and sword!”
“Even stones and sticks to resist!” added his compatriot eagerly.
“Then, my Lord,” continuing the narrative with a warning glance to his partner to keep silence, “an amazing sight was to be see! The spears the men were throwing drew no blood, but the women, hurling a thrysus like a spear dealt wounds of a most horrible nature. In short, the women turned our men to flight!
There was the power of the gods in that, Sire!”
“Aye, indeed,” added the herdsman, “And after the debacle the women went back to whence they started, to those fountains the god had caused to flow, and washed the blood from their hands. Snakes licked clean all the stain upon their skin till their bodies shone, as if the bloody battle had ne’er been engaged!”
“So, master,” suggested the first guard, “whoever this divinity may be, we beseech you, receive him in our land. His powers are manifold and would best be appeased. But chiefly, we should celebrate for he gave humanity the vine to cure their sorrows, and without wine, neither love nor any other pleasure would be left to us.”
“Though we shrink from speaking freely before you, King Pentheus,” interjected the silver haired old woman of the Chorus, “We will say to you, there is no god greater than Dionysus.”
“Ah!” said Pentheus angrily, “This Bacchic arrogance advances upon us like a spreading fire, disgracing us before all Hellas!
We, the kin of Heracles, who on this very mountain slew the Lion of Cithaeron, are we to now bow down to a profligate god from the Orient? Is not the Mighty Zeus the god of gods? If we remain faithful to the God of Thunder and Lightning, what can we fear from the God of winebibbers?
We must act quickly!”
“Go quickly to the Electran Gate!” he commanded the herdsman, “Tell all my men who carry shields- heavy or light- my Cavalry, mounted upon swift Trojan steed, all archers with ready bows and accurate eye, to meet me there in readiness for an onslaught upon these maniacs!
This is beyond all bearing if we must let women defy us so!”
“You refuse, Pentheus, to give heed to what I say, or change your ways to live and let live. Yet still, despite your wrongs to me, I feel I must warn you: stay here quietly and leave Nature alone to run her course, and no harm shall come of it.
Do not take arms against a god, forsake your will to his; Dionysus will not tolerate any attempts to drive his worshippers from his holy hills.”
“I’ll not have you instruct me, foreigner!” replied Pentheus haughtily, “ You have escaped your chains for the nonce, so, be content! Or must I punish you again?”
“If I were you, I would not kick so, like a mule against the goad! Can you, a mortal, really measure your strength against a god? I ask you, For the sake of your men, For the sake of Thebes-
Control your rage from arrogant pride, and sacrifice to him!”
“I’ll sacrifice, by Zeus!” declared Pentheus, “The blood of women massacred! Wholesale- as they deserve- among Cithaeron’s glens!”
Dionysus shook his head sadly.
“Pentheus, Pentheus, your army cannot prevail; your men will be put to flight. What a disgrace to be borne by your brave bronze shields, to be routed by the blunted end of a woman’s wand!”
“How can I deal with this impossible foreigner?” Pentheus asked aloud, “ In prison or out, is there nothing to make him hold his tongue?”
“My friend, I am sure a happy settlement could be found,” said Dionysus patiently, “There is no need to spill the blood of innocents. The women mean you no disrespect by worshipping as they please. Allow them this ritual, and you will be allowed to remain King!”
“Allowed to be- ” Pentheus was flabbergasted. “What new knavery is this? Am I to become a slave to my own slave women? Who are you to allow me my throne?”
“It is not by my grace that you remain enthroned,” replied Dionysus, “but your own!”
He placed an arm about Pentheus’s shoulder. “Listen, if you consent to my requests, I will, by using no weapons, bring those women here!”
“Hear that, for Zeus’s sake?” Pentheus cried out, “The prisoner wishes to dicker! You’re playing me some devious trick, no doubt!”
“What trickery could there be?” asked Dionysus, “I am ready to save you a great deal of effort by my skill and my word alone!”
“You've planned this neatly with them,” said Pentheus suspiciously, “So your sordid rituals will still go on!”
“Indeed I have planned this,” replied Dionysus, “not with them, but in my oneness with the god! I would that you should see the rituals. That I can arrange!
Would you not wish too see what it is these women do?”
“That is more than enough from you!” replied Pentheus quickly, freeing himself from the influence and embrace of Dionysus. “You tempt me with sensual scenes of feminine lust! I shall not be so easily seduced into your scheme!”
He called out to his guard. “Bring out my armour!”
With an equally authoritative shout, Dionysus called for the guard to wait. The guard stopped in his tracks, and Dionysus took Pentheus aside.
“Do you not want to see those women?” he whispered to the king. “How they sit and lie together up in those hills? Is your heart made of such stone, the thought moves you not at all? I can arrange it so no one else will know.”
“For that many would give a weighty sum,” whispered back Pentheus fiercely, “But not I! I am made of sterner stuff!”
“I have looked deep into your soul, Pentheus,” said Dionysus his voice warm and intimate, “You have, do you not, somewhere in here-“ Dionysus touched Pentheus’s breast, “-a great desire to see what no mortal man can see?”
“It would cause me great distress to see them drunk with wine,” said Pentheus, his resolve weakening.
“Yet, I’ll warrant you are very much like the feral cat,” suggested Dionysus, “You would gladly witness this distressing sight, just to satisfy your curiosity.”
Pentheus Looked about furtively, then, content no one else could hear, answered in a conspiratorial tone.
“If I could sit unnoticed under the pines, from such a vantage point I could determine the validity of these tales my men have told.”
“True! True!” urged Dionysus, “I tell you what! With your own eyes will you see the wonders that no man is allowed to see! But you must approach with caution under cloak of guile, anonymously. They’ll track you down, even if you go there secretly.”
“By Zeus, there is truth in your words!” said Pentheus, “I shall go there openly. But surely, they will recognize me! I am their king!”
“Then you must wear a disguise. Appear as one of them.” said Dionysus.
“Yes, of course! But how?”
Dionysus feigned deep thought. “Hmmmmm! Let’s see- first, you must dress yourself in a fine linen gown.”
“A linen gown?” cried out Pentheus indignantly. He realized the others could have overheard his voice, and he continued in a whisper. “By Zeus! Must I then change my sex? What an outrage for a king to go about as a woman!”
“Nonsense!” replied Dionysus, “Odysseus himself was not above such trickery! If you are seen there as a man, they shall surely kill you!”
“Again you are right!” agreed Pentheus. “How you think of everything! I am anxious to see these abominations! How can we carry your suggestion out?”
“I’ll come indoors with you myself and help you dress.”
“Dress me? In women’s clothes? But I would be ashamed!” protested Pentheus.
“Do you want to watch the Maenads?” argued Dionysus, “Are you less eager now to see the rites for the sake of the manner of your clothes?”
Pentheus was still doubtful. “What kind of a dress would you put on me?”
A ripple of laughter passed through the audience, mostly from the men.
“First, I’ll adorn your head with locks of flowing hair,” explained Dionysus, “ And this beard, this beard has just got to go!”
“My beard? I cannot lose my beard! A veil perhaps would cover my manliness! And after that? What style of costume shall I wear?”
“A full length robe, and over your head, a hood!”
“Good! Good! Besides these, what else?” Pentheus seemed to accept the suggestions of the god eagerly.
“A dappled fawnskin about you- a thrysus in your hand!”
Sudden doubt entered the king’s mind.
“I am not sure I could bear to dress myself in women’s clothes.”
“I tell you what!” said Dionysus, “Your breath must have the smell of wine. For without it, they will know you are not a true celebrant!”
Pentheus backed off from the god. “No, I had better not, I would wish my senses clear.”
“Just a sip!” said Dionysus, “Enough to colour your lips! Here!”
Dionysus dipped his fingers into a chalice and with his forefinger sensuously traced the purple liquid over Pentheus’s lips. Pentheus licked his lips. The taste was pleasant and he was visibly pleased.
“Well, perhaps just a sip.” he said innocently. The audience laughed.
He took the chalice from Dionysus and took a small sip. He assessed the wine’s effects, and as nothing untoward happened, he took another, and then gulped down the contents of the vessel.
“Ah! A fine drink!” he declared happily, “I had no idea wine could taste so fine!”
“It is my own special blend,” said Dionysus slyly, with a wink to the audience. “Are you ready now?”
“I am not sure of your scheme;” replied Pentheus, “So, first I might go and spy on them; then make up my mind which course of action to take: whether to follow your will or mine.”
“That way is far better,” said Dionysus encouragingly, “Than to immediately invite their wrath by the uncounselled use of force.”
“How shall I slip through town without being seen?” asked Pentheus, unsure of himself.
“We shall go by empty streets,” said Dionysus grandly, “I shall show you the way. I shall sprinkle you with fairy dust, and render you invisible to mortal eyes!”
“Excellent!” declared Pentheus, “Under all accounts, the Maenads must not mock me. Better anything than that! I am still not convinced of your argument, but your course does have its own merits! Now, I’ll go in, and think best how to act”
Dionysus patted Pentheus reassuredly on the back. ”You do so. My preparations are already made.”
“I’ll go in and ponder the weight of your words and mine!” said Pentheus, as he turned to enter the palace. “And either I’ll set forth at the head of my armed men, or else I’ll follow your advice, and we shall set off alone!”
As Pentheus walked through into the palace, Dionysus turned to his followers.
“Women, see how easily this fish swims into the net. In short course the wine I gave him will work its magic, and first fill his mind with wild hallucinations open to the true nature of the world. I am sure while sane, he’ll not consent to put on women’s clothes. Once free of the curb of reason, though, he will put them on.
All of Thebes shall see him as he walks in female garb through all the streets. The fairy dust I shall sprinkle over his head will fool only his own eyes. I shall humble him from the arrogance he showed when first he threatened me.
Now I will go, to array Pentheus in the feathers of the peacock, which most suit his nature, and soon he shall know this: Dionysus, Son of Zeus, fully manifest, is God, most terrible- although most gentle- to all humankind!
Anon, he will visit the Bacchae, and his actions determine his Fate. There if his better nature takes hold, then he shall sacrifice to the god, and live out his days in harmony. But should his base need for control of his fellows succeed, then shall we sacrifice without his consent, and a most horrible death shall end his reign!”
Taking his followers hands, Dionysus took his leave of them.
“Dionysus!” he called out, “For you are not too far distant-
All is in your hands!”
With a final wave, the god entered the palace to seek out Pentheus. The owlish, quietly passionate woman stepped forward.
“This darkling god whose gifts are brought to hand: joy and union of the soul in his dancing, joy in the music of the flutes of his merry band, joy in the timbrel’s beat that sets us all to prancing, joy when sparkling wine flows to every banquet guest, joy of the heart to soothe the sore regret and sorrow, joy banishes every grief and brings true rest, when the reveller rests and forgets tomorrow, enfolded, enraptured, and buried deep, in the cool shade of dark green ivy-shoots on wine’s soft pillow of feathery sleep, wrapped in the arms of the vine’s earthen roots.”
Athene took her place.
“O to set foot on Aphrodite’s island; on Cyprus, haunted by the Loves and the Graces, who enchant our brief lives with such sweetness, and set the mind free and where the true heart races. Or to that strange land whose fertile river carves a hundred channels to enrich rainless sand; where the grace of Apollo sets the Soul aquiver, and the Earth places corn in each outstretched hand. Or where the sacred meadows of Olympus slant down, to the city of Perea where the Muses dwell, and the cattle are so many they wander through town, and wine, not water, is drawn up from each well!
O Take me away from Thebes, this impious place! Take me, O Bromius, my laughter and worship inspire, to where holy spell and ecstasy are not so debased, where the gentle band of Graces have their home, and Desire.”
Athene stepped back and the high priestess replaced her.
“Dionysus, son of Zeus delights in banquets and feasts, in singing and dancing, and good food and drink. He is Giver of Life, and his dear love is Peace, saviour of young men’s lives; a rare goddess, I think! In wine, his gift to us which charms all grief away, rich and poor alike may take their part, and forget the pain and toil of their day, and may for the nonce follow the whims of their heart.”
The round Hestia came forward, and stood before her sisters. “His enemy, the man who has no care to pass his years in happiness and health, nor spend his days in tranquility, nor his nights in bliss; the man who seeks only to increase his own power and wealth, whose pride claims mortals are allowed more than this!”
Artemis, the athletic member of the Chorus, stepped forward.
“So I reject such vices and the foolish preening of Self” she declared, “And follow the life which wins a poor mortal’s voice, and live for the day, not filling the treasury shelf; and live by Love, this credo, this practice, my only sane choice.”
The natural mother stood forward in her place.
“The life of wise content is blessed with quiet, and keeps its House secure, its occupants sane, but the brash unbridled tongue run riot. This lawless folly of fools-
Ends only in pain!”
Dionysus appeared in the doorway. He strode out onto the hyposteum, but halted as he realized Pentheus has not followed him. He stepped back into the entrance and called out to the king.
“Come, perverse man, greedy for the sights no man should see, eager for deeds that none should perform!
Come out before the palace, and show yourself to me, wearing the garb of a frenzied Bacchic woman, and prepared to spy on your very own mother and the whole of her Bacchic company!”
Pentheus crept out from shadows, dressed in women’s clothes, a Bacchic devotee. He is embarrassed, and the audience laughed as they spied him. He jumped at the sound of their laughter, and retreated a step back into the palace. This delighted the crowd and they laughed again, and a cry went out for Pentheus to appear. It took some coaxing for Dionysus to bring the king into the open, for each time a member of the audience laughed, he started and retreated, though finally the will of the god won him over. The King seemed dazed and entirely subservient to Dionysus.
“Amazing!” declared Dionysus, “You are the very image of one of Cadmus’s daughters!”
Out in the open, Pentheus was entranced by the new insight the drugged wine had given him.
“Why now!” he said in wonder, “I seem to see two suns; a double Thebes! Our city’s wall once pierced by seven gates now seems fourteen!
Dionysus took Pentheus by the hand and led him forward.
“You are a bull I see leading me forward now;” said Pentheus in amazement, “A pair of horns grows from your head! Were you a beast before now? You have become a bull-have you not?’
“You see now as you should see,” said Dionysus kindly, “The god did not then favour you then, but he is with us now. We have made our peace with him, I hope!”
Suddenly aware of his garb, Pentheus held his hands out. In the thrall of the wine’s spell and his dress, he became more effeminate. “How do I look? Tell me, is not the way I stand like the way Ino stands? Or like my mother Agavay?”
“Looking at you, I think I see them both,” replied Dionysus, reaching up to Pentheus’s face. “Wait, now-here is a curl which slipped out of place, not as I tucked it carefully under your snood.”
“Indoors, as I was tossing my head back and forth like a Bacchic dancer, I dislodged it from its place.” explained Pentheus.
A laugh from the audience caused Pentheus to stare into the audience suspiciously. His awareness of the laughter was a direct result of the wine’s magic. He had entered the realm of the gods and now, although not fully aware he was being watched, a vague suspicion that there were beings watching him had entered his conscience.
“Come then, I am the one who should look after you,” said Dionysus reaching for the misplaced curl. “I’ll fix it in its place again. There-
Lift your head!”
“You dress me please,” said Pentheus meekly, a patient puppet of the god, “I have put myself in your hands now!”
Dionysus fussed over him as a mother over her daughter. “Your girdle has come loose; and now your dress does not hang as it should-
Even pleats down to the ankle.”
“That’s true, I think,” replied Pentheus, his hip swinging outward, and peering down at an exposed leg. “At least by the right leg, on this side-
But here, on the other, the gown hangs well down to the heel, don’t you think?”
“You’ll surely count me chief among your friends,” replied Dionysus, admiring his handiwork, as he spoke, “When you witness the Maenad’s unexpected modesty.”
“Ought I to hold my thrysus in the right hand- so?” asked Pentheus, “Or in the left, to look more like a Bacchanal?”
“In the right hand” replied Dionysus, “And raise it at the same time as your right foot.
I am glad you changed your mind.”
“Could I lift up on my shoulders the whole weight of Mount Cithaeron, and all the women dancing there?” The drugs in the wine were taking full hold of the king’s mind.
“You could, if you so wished. The mind you had before was sickly. Now your mind is just as it should be.”
“Shall we take crowbars?” asked Pentheus, his thoughts still on moving mountains, “Or shall I put my shoulders under the rocks, and heave the mountain up with my two hands?”
“O come now!” admonished Dionysus, “Don’t destroy the dwelling of the nymphs, and the quiet places where Pan sits to play his pipes!”
“You are right!” said Pentheus, “We ought not use force to overcome these women. I will hide myself among the pines!” His prattling was childlike and innocent, as if he were only five years old.
“Hide- yes, you’ll hide,” said Dionysus darkly, “And find the proper hiding place, for one who comes by stealth to spy on Bacchic rites.”
“Why yes! I think they are all now in their hidden nests, like little birds- all clasped close in a sweet prison of Love!”
“What you are going to watch for is this very thing! Perhaps you will catch them” Dionysus humoured the king.
“If you are not caught yourself!” he said as an aside.
“But first,” said Dionysus, “With fairy dust, I must sprinkle your shoulders and arms, so that others will see you not!”
Dionysus emptied a small packet of sparkling dust over Pentheus. There isz far more dust than the packet would seem to hold and Pentheus coughed as the talc entered his mouth and throat.
“Enough! Enough!” he cried, “Am I now invisible?”
Dionysus feigned blindness and waved about his arms about Pentheus taking care to avoid the King. “Indeed, I can hear your voice, but for the life of me, I cannot determine where you may be!”
A brilliant pantomine followed where Pentheus called out “I’m here! I’m here!” and placed himself before Dionysus only to have the god skillfully avoid finding him.
Satisfied he was truly invisible, Pentheus stood happily in the garb of a bacchant. He did not even seem to care whether he would be seen or not. “Now,” he said proudly, “take me through the central streets of Thebes; for I am the one man among them that dares do this thing!”
“One man alone,” replied Dionysus, “You agonize for Thebes; therefore it is your destiny which awaits you now. Come with me, I will bring you safely to the place. Another will bring you back!”
“Who? My mother- yes?”
“A sight for all to witness!”
“To this end I go!”
“You will return borne high.”
“In royal magnificence!”
“In your own mother’s arms.”
“You insist that I be spoiled.”
“A kind of spoiling.”
“Yet I win what I deserve!”
“You win what you deserve!”
Dionysus put his arm around Pentheus’s shoulders.
“Pentheus, you are a man to make other men fear- fearful shall be your end- and end that shall lift up your fame to the heights of heaven.
Agavay, and you, her sisters, daughters of Cadmus, stretch out your hands! See, I am bringing this young man to his greatest agon. A battle where Bromius and I shall be the Victors! What more shall happen, the events will show!”
Arm in arm as best friends, Pentheus and Dionysus marched from the stage up the stone steps to Cithaeron.
The old woman stepped forward from the Chorus to speak.
“O, Hounds of Madness, fly to Cithaeron; hear our pleading! There the daughters of Cadmus dance in ecstasy! Madden them against him like a frenzied herd stampeding, against this madman in women’s clothing where he has gone to see the perversions and lust of the Maenad’s rapture! His eyes are blinded by his need to deny the anima within, and he shall suffer as those he seeks to control and capture! The moment he arrives shall now his very mother see him, craning his neck around from rounded rock or sharp crag to see.
Will she, or someone else sound the alarm and call out one to the others?
‘A man approaches the mountain where no man should be!’
Will he join their eternal dance with the one true Mother?
She beat her tambourine on the downstroke of the word ‘Come’, and the whole Chorus, with growing excitement, joined her chant and shouted in unison. Tambourine and flute joined to the rhythm of their words. To the rhythm of their chants, they sang out the chorus as they danced.
“Come! Come, Dionysus! Come!
Come, and appear to us now!
Come! Like the bull a-raging!
Join with me, your sacred cow!
Come! Like a scorpion a-racing!
Sting the Bacchae with your poison tail!
Come! Like a lion a-roaring!
Eat your fill and drink from this pail!
Come! Like Aquarius whoring!
Spread your wings and over us sail!
Come, Dionysus, come!”
As they danced, the rhythm of the song and dance matched the rhythm of the music. As they danced, Miri slowly became aware of their role as support for the god Dionysus, and at that moment, she saw these women, not as the followers of the god, but the very elements that moved him. Somehow, she was aware of their true nature.
The first, the high priestess, as she had come to see her was indeed the high priestess, but not of Dionysus but of Demeter, the mortal connection between the people of the Earth and the inhabitants of Heaven. The second, the marvelously round apple-cheeked woman, was the cook, the housekeeper, the domestic Hestia, goddess of the Hearth. The third, the athletic, virginal woman was Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. The element who ensured the arrow met its mark, the arms which carried the well-flung fowlers’ net. The fourth, the natural mother was Hera, the solid wifely goddess to whom all women centred their families. The fifth element, the crone, the seer, the old nurse who cradled the child, Grandmother Rhea. The sixth, the intellectual, the wise owl with the passion of the feminine mind, Athena, dressed in the Roman style as Minerva, carrying a scroll beneath her arm. And the seventh, the masculinized Pallas Athene. The supporter of the male impetus.
Seven powerful women.
Reduced to supporting a debauched and wine-soaked god. The epiphany saddened her. How had women been reduced to this place in the events of Life? The times when the family, society and the whole world revolved about the hearth tended by the mother of all men was passing.
Her thoughts were jarred as a distraught man, a messenger, raced onto the stage just as the dance wound down and the women, exhausted, all sat panting upon the rocks. One by one, randomly, the women of the Chorus rose as he cried out.
“O house that once shone gloriously throughout Hellas, home of the great Sidonian King Cadmus, who planted in this soil the dragon’s earthborn harvest! O, how now I weep for you! Though I am his slave, I weep for my master’s fate!”
“Have you from the mountain that rises above Thebes?” asked the owlish woman of the Chorus, “How is it you return thus from the Bacchic rite? Why is it you are filled with grief and not ecstasies? What news have you, this sacred night?”
“I cannot bear to say, yet I must,” replied the messenger, “Pentheus is dead!”
“Bromius, Lord!” cried out Pallas Athene, “My prayers so swiftly are paid heed! Your divine power is revealed to me once more! How could we have doubted you in this hour of need? The threshold is opened which was once a closed door!”
“What woman art thou to say this?” asked the messenger aghast, “Why do you exult when such a cruel fate has overtaken the king?”
“I am no more Greek than art thou, yet now we’re both freed” replied Athene, “I sing my joy in a foreign tongue, yet you sing a Greek funeral song! This tyrant was my oppressor who denied me my creed. I shall not now cower in fear of torture and prison for long!”
“Do you think Thebes is left with no one who can take command?” sneered the messenger, “Another will take up the throne, and then where will you be?”
“Dionysus commands me alone; not Thebes, nor any other-” she replied, “Dionysus! It is the god who chooses the King who must lie with Ceres, the Great Mother, and thus must prosperity bring!”
“Allowance must be made for you;” he replied, “Yet, to rejoice at the accomplishment of such foul horror, such as I have seen is not right!”
“Tell us everything, then,” urged the high priestess, “for I see you must! This tyrant king bent on cruelty. How did he die? Did he grovel low in the dust, this man to whom you owe fealty?”
“Cruel women, when you hear my tale,” cried the messenger, “You shall weep! When we had left behind the fields and fiefs of Thebes, and crossed the River Asopus, we climbed toward the uplands of Cithaeron, Pentheus and I- I went as his attendant- and this foreigner, he, who was our guide to the spectacle we supposed we would see.
Well, at first, we sat down in a grassy glade. As idyllic a place as I ever hope to see, though I cringe at the thought of it now! We kept our footsteps as light as fairies, and whispered mouth touching ear so as to see without being seen.
There we found ourselves in a valley full of wild mountains streams, with cliffs on either side,
And anon, there! Under the cool shade of the whispering pines, the Maenads were sitting, their hands busy at happy tasks: some twined fresh crowns of ivy leaves for a stripped thrysus wound; others, gay as fillies feeling their oats and loosed from painted yokes, were singing sacred Bacchic songs, each happily answering the other.
But the ill-fated Pentheus, my master, saw none of this it seems, for he said: ‘My friend, from where we stand, my eyes cannot make out these so-called worshippers, only shepherdesses at their daily tasks.’ I tried to protest, but to no avail, for he silenced me with a wave of his arm:
‘Peradventure I climbed that towering pine on yonder cliff, I would have a clear and better view of their shameful practices!’
Whereupon, he left me in our hiding spot, and climbed the cliff to the tree. The stranger followed him, and then-
Then, I saw the foreigner accomplish the impossible!
He took hold of the pine tree’s soaring topmost branch, and dragged it down, down, down to the dark earth. It was bent in a circle, as a bow is bent, as a wheel is curved, drawn with a wheelwright’s compass and the rim bent to its rounded shape, that foreigner took that great mountain pine in his two hands, and drew it as easy as Odyseus draws his bow-
A thing no mortal man could do!
Then seating Pentheus on a high branch, he began to let the tree spring upright slipping it through his hands steadily, taking care the king should not be flung off.
The pine tree straightened, its proud crown once more reaching to heaven, bearing my master seated astride it, aloft, so that he was, to the Maenads, more visible to them than they to him. Then as the great pine reached to its zenith, and my master appeared as an eagle upon his high perch, a great voice- Dionysus, I suppose- the foreigner was nowhere to be seen- a great voice pealed forth like thunder:
‘Women of Thebes! Here is the man who sought to imprison you, and made a mockery of me and my holy rites. How shall this blasphemy be punished?’
And in the very moment the voice spoke, a flame of dreadful fire stretched between the Earth and the high heavens. The air fell still. In my wooded glade, every leaf ceased its shivering, no beast lowed or bleated, nor a single bird twittered nor chirped; the whole Earth held its breath!
The women, not having caught distinctly what the voice had uttered, stood up and gazed around, then came a second word of command.
‘Women of Thebes! Here is the man who sought to imprison you and your sister Persephone, and made a mockery of me and my holy rites. How shall this blasphemy be punished?’
The women now focussed their attention on my lord, clinging to the pine.
“Death!’ they cried in unison, ‘Death to the blasphemer! Death to the tyrant! Death to the unbeliever! Death to the King!’
As soon as the daughters of Cadmus, Agavay, Ino, and Autinoway, recognized the clear bidding of Bacchus, with the speed of the peregrine they darted forward, and all the Bacchae after them. Through the torrent-filled valley, over the rocks, possessed by the very breath of Bacchus, they went leaping on, undaunted by rock or river, toward my master crouched on high in the swaying pine.
They scrambled up the cliff that towered opposite, and violently flung at him sharp rocks and stone. They hurled branches of pine like javelins; even the holy thrysus flew toward him like a spear. Yet, though all around him, the air was filled with their missiles, every aim fell short; the tree’s height foiled all their eagerness; while the wretched Pentheus, helpless in his pitiful trap, clung desperately to the pine and to his life!
Then, with a force like lightning, they tore down branches of a nearby oak! And with these tried to pry up the pine tree’s roots.
When all their efforts met with little success, Agavay cried out, ‘Come Maenads, stand in a circle round the tree, and take hold of it! We must catch this climbing beast, or he’ll disclose the secret of Dionysus’s dance!’
And so they came, terrible to see, hags, maids and matrons possessed of Vengeance; a thousand hands gripped the pine and tore it apart, branch-by-branch! They dug away the ground to which its roots tenaciously clung! The brave tree resisted their onslaught for aeons, but, finally, from his high perch, plunging, crashing, Pentheus fell to Earth as Icarus plunged into the Sea; his madness gone and the scales fallen from his eyes, with one incessant scream he cried, knowing his end was near!
And- I still cannot believe the terrible events I have witnessed- his mother first, as priestess, led the rite of death, and fell upon him.
Pentheus tore away his headband from his hair, and ripped the feminine disguise from his frame that his wretched mother might recognize him!
‘Mother, dearest dam, it is I,’ he called out, ‘Your own son Pentheus! I whom you bore to Echion. Mother, I beg of you, have mercy! I have sinned, but still I am your son! Do not take my life!’
But Agavay foamed at the mouth, her eyes rolled wildly in their sockets. Clearly, she was not in her right mind, but possessed by Bacchus, and she paid no heed to her son, not seeing him as human, nor recognizing him as her own flesh and blood!
She grasped his left arm between wrist and elbow, set her foot against his ribs, and tore his arm off at the shoulder! It was no great strength of her own that did it, I’m sure, but the strength of the god filled her, and made it so easy!
At the other side, his Aunt Ino was at the king, ripping away his flesh with her fingers. And now, Autinoway joined the carnage, and the whole maniacal horde.
A single and continuous shriek arose- Pentheus screaming as long as there was life left in him! And the women howled in triumph!
One of them carried off an arm. Another a foot, the boot still laced to it! The ribs were stripped, clawed clean! Like vultures, they picked at his body, and the women’s hands, thick and red with blood, tossed and bandied about, like a plaything, Pentheus’s flesh!
Now, his body lies- no easy task to find- scattered under hard rocks, hanging from branches, drying upon the long grass of alpine meadows!
And his poor head!
His mother carried it aloft, fixed on her thrysus-point. She and her sisters danced in joy amongst the Meanads, shouting to Bacchus, calling him her fellow hunter, her partner in the kill, comrade in Victory!
But I tell you this, when she recovers her senses, all Bacchus will give her is bitter tears for her reward.
A strange turn, some madness made them see my master as an animal: to Ino, he appeared as a bull; to Autinoway, he appeared as a dragon, and to his mother, his form was of a lion!
But I have had enough of this madness! I must go! I must find some place far away from this horror before Agavay and her coven return to their homes. I shall serve no master ever again! A sound and humble heart that reverences the gods shall be my noblest possession, and the same virtue is wisest too, I think, for those who practice it.”
With his final words of parting, the messenger exited stage dexter, along the road away from Thebes and away from Mount Cithaeron.
Suddenly animated, the high priestess called out to her sisters.
“Sweet Persephone has been released from her tomb in Hades. Through the blood of the king, shall she gain her life for the summer months before the sacrifice expires. Green will return to the valleys and grain shall spawn and flourish! The vines will sprout from the pieces of his flesh, and Life returns from the Underworld once more! Let us dance a dance to Bacchus! Bang fennel reed! Shout and sing for the fall of Penthouse's head, fallen heir of the dragon’s seed, who hid his beard in a woman’s gown, is now dead! With the holy sign ivy twining the fennel reed, when bull led man to the slaughter ring. Frenzied daughters of Cadmus, what renown your victory does bring- such a song as groans must stifle us, your tears must drown you all in their flood!
Emblem of conquest, brave and fine, a mother’s hand defiled with her own son’s blood, dripping red, caresses the severed head of this murdered child of thane!”
Hestia stepped forward, pointing toward Mount Cithaeron. “But look! See-there running towards the palace grounds! Agavay, mother of Pentheus, her eyes rolling wildly, she runs ahead of the rest of the pack baying as hounds! Come welcome her, high priestess of Dionysus’s holy company!”
Agavay appeared stage sinister, frenzied and panting, carrying aloft a bundle of bloodied cloth, followed closely by Ino and Autinoway. All three are flushed with excitement.
“Women of Asia!” called Agavay in greeting, “Worshippers of Bacchus!”
She tried to show them the bundle but they shrank in horror from it. She pushed it toward them. Some members of the audience strained to see the contents of the bundle, but it could be seen only from the rear of the stage where the Chorus stood.
“I am bringing home from the mountains, a vine freshly cut, for the gods have blessed her hunting. Artemis herself could not have done better!”
“Oh!” declared the natural mother, Hera, “We see what you have done, though you do not! And although in grave fellowship welcome you we, to join your fest, we must demure; we cannot! But how came you by such a gruesome trophy?”
“I caught him without a trap!” gushed Agavay, “Almost fully grown, a lion cub, so young and wild! Look, you may see him:”
She again showed them her bundle “There!” she said triumphantly.
“Oh! Again, our hearts grow faint,” declared the crone Rhea. “Our minds again come undone. But tell us, fair Agavay without restraint, where was this dreadful deed done?”
“On Cithaeron! The wild and empty mountain!”
“Who shot him?" asked the intellectual.
“Shot?” replied Agavay derisively, “Nay no arrow nor spear transfixed this beast, but its life was ripped away by my bare hand!
Aye, I was first, as is only right! But the others also had a hand in it. All the women are singing ‘Honour to the great Agavay!’”
“And then? Who next?” she asked
“What? Cadmus Rex?”
“Yes, his daughters too, Ino and Autinoway. But- after me, after me- they laid their hands to the kill!”
“Today was a splendid hunt!” chirped in Ino, “Come now join the feast!”
“What? You ask us to this horrid feast?” asked Athena in horror.
Ino tenderly stroked the head as Agavay held it. “This calf is young! The new grown hair grows curling up to his delicate crest!”
“Indeed,” replied the high priestess, “his long hair makes him look like some wild creature, the lion of Agavay more than the Bull of Ino; yet, cannot you see the real face, the feature of the son of Agavay, your nephew, Ino?”
Ino staggered back in horror as the trance of Bacchus fell away from her.
Autinoway, still under the spell of Dionysus and unaware of the horror in her sister’s eyes cried excitedly, “Our god is a skilled hunter! And he poised us all, his hunting women, and hurled them at his quarry, the dragon who fought back with alarming fury!
“True,” humoured Hestia, “but every god is a hunter, not of creatures, but of men! Why is it you see a dragon gone asunder, and not Pentheus, of the race of dragon men!
The scales fell from Autinoway’s eyes and Autinoway stared in horror at the head of Pentheus in her sister's hands. She and Ino held each other for comfort and support, but Agavay was still under the Bacchic spell.
“Do you praise me?” Agavay asked her sisters.
“Sister, please-” protested Autinoway.
“Yes, we praise you,” said the intellectual.
“So will the sons of Cadmus-”
“And Pentheus too, Agavay?” asked the natural mother.
“Yes, he will praise his mother above all others, for the lion cub I have killed.”
“Oh, fearful!” cried out Ino.
“Aye, fearful, dear sister!” declared Agavay, still triumphant.
“Can you be happy?” asked Autinoway.
“Enraptured!” replied Agavay happily, “Sister, I am great in the eyes of the world! Great are the deeds we have performed, and the quarry we have hunted on Cithaeron! Like Heracles, we have killed bare-handed the lion of Cithaeron!”
“Then show it, poor Agavay, if you please;” commanded the old woman. “ Show this triumphant spoil you’ve brought hence; show it all to the citizens of Thebes; show it all who wait to perform their penitence!”
“Come all you Thebans,” called Agavay, “Sheltered meekly within these towered walls, come see the beast we, the daughters of Cadmus, have caught and killed! Caught not with nets unfurled or thonged javelins a-hurled, but with our own bare arms, hands and fingers! After this, should huntsmen glory in their exploits, who would buy their needless tools from the armourers?
We, with our hands, hunted down and killed this beast, then tore it limb from limb!
Where is old Cadmus? Where is my father? He must share in this glory! Let old Cadmus come!
Where is Pentheus? Where is my son? Let him climb a strong ladder, and nail up on the cornice of the palace wall, this lion’s head I have hunted and brought down!”
A moaning filled the air and Cadmus trudged dejectedly onto the stage. Behind him, enter the guards bearing the body of Pentheus on a bier.
“Come, men,” called Cadmus, “bring the sad burden that was once Pentheus! Come, set him down at his own door step.”
The guards set the bier before the palace.
“ My mind cleared, by weary, endless searching, I found his body parts scattered far and wide about Cithaeron’s glens, hidden in her thick woods. I gathered them and brought them thither. I had already returned with old Teresias from the Bacchic dance, and was almost at the walls of Thebes, when news was brought to me of my daughters’ terrible deed.
I turned straight back! And now bring my grandson, whom the Maenads sacrificed, to his home. Before I left, I saw Autinoway, who bore Action and Arises, And Ino with her, there among the trees, still rapt in their unhappy frenzy, follow Agavay and come dancing on their way home to Thebes-
And there they are, my three harpies!
A sorry sight, the bunch of them!”
Spying her father, Agavay called out to him.
“Father! Now you may boast as loud as you will that you have sired the noblest daughters of this age! I speak of all three, not Semele, but myself especially! I have left weaving at the loom for greater things-
Hunting wild beasts with my bare hands!
See this prize, here in my arms: I won it, and it shall be hung on your palace wall! There, father, take it in your hands. Be proud of my hunting; call your friends to a feast!
Let them bless you and envy you for the splendour of my deed!”
She advanced to Cadmus, bearing her bloody treasure.
“O Misery unmeasured!” he cried out in anguish, “Sight Intolerable! O bloody deed enacted by most pitiable hands!
What noble prize is this you lay at the gods’ feet? Calling me and the whole city to a banquet? Your wretchedness demands the bitterest tears, but mine next to yours.
Dionysus has justly dealt, but pursued justice to far! Born of my blood, spurned of my hearth, he has destroyed my house and scattered my home!”
“What an ill-tempered creature this old man is!” declared Agavay to the others. “How full of scowls! I wish my son were as great a hunter as his mother, hunting beasts with the young men of Thebes; but he chooses only to fight with gods and hunt them down! Father, you must correct him! Will not someone go and call him here to see me, and to share in my great happiness?”
“Alas, my daughter!” said Cadmus, shaking his head, “ If you come to understand what you have done, how terrible your pain will be! I would that you remain as you are now, though you could not be happy, at least you would not feel this excruciating wretchedness!”
“Why should I not be happy?” his daughter asked, “What cause do I have for wretchedness?”
“Come here,” he beckoned to her, and she came to his side. “First turn your eyes this way,” he pointed up at the sky. “Look up at the heavens.”
Agavay stared up.
“I am looking! What should I look at?”
“Does it appear the same to you, or has it changed?”
“It is clearer than before,” she answered, “More luminous!”
“There is a disturbance in your mind which causes it,” explained Cadmus.
“I don’t know what you are talking about!” said Agavay, then paused. “But now you mention it, I do feel different-my mind is somehow clearer than it was before!”
“Could you listen to me and give a clear reply?” he asked her.
Agavay seemed confused. “Yes, father, but I have forgotten what we said just now.”
“When you married, whose house did you go to?”
“You gave me to Echion, of the dragon sown race, they said.”
“And Echion had a son borne to him.” he prompted, “ Who was he?”
“Pentheus, of course, you think I could not know my own son? Shall I forget his father lay with me? Shall I forget the birth of my own child?”
“You know him, then?”
“Then whose head are you holding in your arms?”
“It is the lion I hunted with Ino and Autinoway,” replied Agavay, “and the other women of Thebes.”
“Then look straight at it!” commanded Cadmus sternly.
“Come! It is no great task!” Cadmus asked.
Reluctantly, Agavay looked down at her bundle, and as she looked, mental clarity returned, and she screamed and dropped the head at her feet.
“Holy Mother!” she cried out in unbelieving horror, “What is it? What foul irony have the gods played now?”
Cadmus retrieved the head and held it up to Agavay.
“Look at it!” he shouted.
Agavay held her hands up in front of her so she would not see the severed head of her child.
“O gods! What horror!” she cried out.
“Does this seem still a lion’s head?” demanded Cadmus cruelly.
“No!” cried out Agavay, “But how was my darling so foully murdered?”
“O cruel hour that brings the bitter truth!” cried Cadmus.
“Please, you must tell me-” she pleaded pitifully, “My heart is bursting! Who killed him?
“It was you Agavay,” replied Cadmus angrily, “You and your sisters!”
“But how could we do such a thing?” she wailed, “ How could we three kill my dear baby boy?”
“You were possessed!
You and all of Thebes were held in the thrall of a Bacchic trance. Pentheus went to Cithaeron to stop you, and end the Bacchic rites”
“My child! He-” she cried, then she turned angrily, “Dionysus has destroyed us!”
“You insulted Dionysus when you refused to call him a god, and with malice, labelled his mother a whore!” her father declared.
Overcome with grief, Agavay bent her head low. “Now he has wreaked his revenge!”
She looked at her father.
“What terrible justice is this? Father, I must know- where is the body of my beloved son?”
“I have gathered his parts,” said Cadmus, “It was I who brought it hither after a painful search.”
“And are his limbs decently composed?”
“Not yet. You must place his head on the bier where it belongs. He held out the head out to his horrified daughter.
“I cannot!” she whispered fiercely.
“You must!” he commanded.
“How could I touch his body with these guilty hands?” she asked, staring down at her hands.
Cadmus put a hand on her shoulder.
“Your guilt, my daughter, was no greater than his.”
Agavay took the head gingerly from her father, and placed it tenderly on the bier.
“What part did Pentheus have, then, in this insanity?” she asked plaintively.
“He sinned like you,” said her father with authority, “and refused to reverence a god. Therefore the god has joined us all in ruin: you- your sisters- Pentheus-
He has destroyed my house and me. I have no son, and now, my unhappy child, I see this son of yours dead by a shameful hideous death.”
Wrapped in remorse, Cadmus knelt beside the remains of Pentheus and stroked the blood-stained shroud on the bier.
“Dear grandson, you were the new hope of our house, its bond of strength. Thebes feared you; no one dared insult your old grandfather when you were near. You would have not stood idly by to see me so abused. But now I shall live exiled!
I, Cadmus the Great, who planted here, and reaped the glorious harvest of the Theban race.
O dearest Grandson!
Yes, Even in death you shall be held most dear- you will never again touch my grizzled beard, nor call me tenderly Grandfather, nor put your arm around me and ask:
‘Who has wronged or insulted you? Who is unkind? Or vexes, or disturbs you? Tell me, Grandfather, for I will punish him!’
Never again! For me, all that remains is pain! For you, the pity of death; for your mother tears and heartbreak; for the whole family, torment beyond belief! If any man derides the unseen world and scoffs at the gods, let him ponder the death of Pentheus, that he may believe in the gods”
“Father, you see how one disastrous day has shattered my whole life!” she cried in disgust. “You are a fool! No god who wreaks so much evil can truly be called a god! Only the folly and pride of men and women, the ambition of those who have an unnatural need to control the lives of others, who would be best off left alone!
It is our own greed and weakness that leads us to such an end. Call it the will of a god; call it what you will, but I cannot believe such an unhappy fate is the work of one who has the power to set things straight!”
“Have you again taken leave of your senses?” Cadmus asked with disbelief. “After all you have seen, you will deny the god in the same manner as your son, who lies before you? Daughter, you and I and our whole house lie crushed under the angry heel of this powerful god-
And now you deny him?”
“Your house lies scattered because you would not follow the ways of old!” replied Agavay vehemently, “This new god is not a god, but a messenger of the Great Mother!
When you denied the rites of the Maenads to annual sacrifice of the king, and sought to establish a dynasty, the natural rhythm of the Earth was rocked, and from it sprang Dionysus, for the feminine aspect denied became male, so that in your eyes it could accord respect.
Your actions eliminated the election of the king by the people who consent to his rule, and now I am fated to bury my son! Murdered at my own hands by perverted rites!
You claim innocence and cry out for pity, yet you have caused this catastrophe more than any other!
My only wish is to compose my son’s body for burial, and lament for him; and then to die!”
“I shall go where the loath’d Cithaeron may not see my face,” replied Cadmus bitterly, “Nor I Cithaeron. I have had my fill of mountain ecstasy!
Now, who will take my holy ivy wreath, my thrysus rod, all that reminds me of how I served this god?
He threw his ivy wreath headdress and the thrysus down on the ground. Not a soul stirred as the rod clattered on the stone floor and rolled to centre stage where Agavay knelt over her son. Her back was to the audience, and silently, sadly, defeated, she covered her hair with her bloody shawl, then bowed her head low.
For a long ponderous, agonizing moment, the world stood still, until the owlish Minerva stepped to the fore.
“There, for a brief moment, stands empty the Theban throne,” she said, her hand gesturing toward the open palace gates.
“Yet, its seat will not grow cold ere another sits in Pentheus’ place; a warrior, proud and confident, the force of his arms alone will make his will the will of the gods, the will of his race, seemingly unaware by declaring the immortality of his own, he has sealed his fate, and already a death mask covers his face.”
“Although those who live by the sword, shall without a doubt, die by the sword,” added Pallas Athene, “he will, nonetheless, take the throne, sceptre in hand, blind to the forces which place him there, using his word, denying the will of the people of this land, denying them freedom to worship as they yearn, denying them freedom to determine their own fate.”
“When, we ask,” called out the entire Chorus, “will these tyrants learn, that the will of the gods is the will of the people and the will of the state?”
The tableau froze, motionless, and the flame of the memorial flickered out, and the stage became dark.
Miri was deeply moved by the play, and she, like all the others, lay silently in the dark. No one moved. As the slaves carried torches into the atrium, and relit the lamps, all eyes turned, albeit surreptitiously, to gauge the reaction of Germanicus and Agrippina.
After an excruciating silence, Germanicus began to clap firmly and loudly. At this, others joined in, relieved the die had been thrown by the imperial party. As the applause grew louder, Germanicus stood, still clapping, and one by one, the rest of the audience rose. Calls of ‘Bravo!” echoed in the room, and the mood became elevated. The cast entered and bowed before the audience, their faces evidently relieved and showing elation and gratitude.
When faced with an Imperial Audience, not even the purveyors of make-believe were guaranteed of exiting with their bodies and lives intact.