The arrival of Pilatus sent ripples through the entire province.
His actions seemed to have aroused not only every zealot in Israel and Judah, but everyone who could trace their misfortune back to the Empire, which in actual fact, left no one unmoved in the whole of Palestine.
That year was dry and the rains did not come, and the fields dried out, and the crops struggled vainly against the hot glare of Shemmesh. The water in the Kinneret shrank away from the seared hills and the mud bottom dried and crackled. Many of the farmers, and more of the farmer’s wives returned to Ba’al Hadad, and Rabat Anat, the goddess and god of rain of their grandparents, for Galilee had only been forcibly converted to the temple cult of Yahweh three generations before. Unknown worshippers set up altars on the abandoned High Places for the old El, and images of the Asherah were suddenly to be found hidden in secret places. Pharisees and prophets railed against the apostasy and denounced the idolaters in the streets. The temple sent its agents abroad to pull down the stones set up in Galilee.
A group of Jewish Galilean pilgrims accidentally crossed the path of a procession of Samaritan True Believers approaching Mount Gerizim and were stoned to death. Agents from the Temple in Yerushalayim raided the town two days later and confiscated the Samaritan sacerdotal regalia and untensils. A fight broke out, and several combatants from both sides were killed.
It seemed that everywhere, Yahweh, El, Astarte, Aphrodite, Ba’al, demons or any manifestation of the Divine, named or unnamed, had taken an extended holiday, and the desperation of the people who needed the crops after the Sabbatical Year grew.
The dire straits of the populace were irrelevant to the demands of the teams of tax collectors Antipas sent out. As the tetrarch he was expected to supply the products of his land for the Empire. He had to ensure that the Legions could be paid and fed, and his position depended on his ability to make sure that the revenues of the Empire in his realm outweighed the expense of policing it. To extract the payment from his subjects, he hired his goon squads in Caesarea and armed them with cudgels. The men would have been at home on the nighttime docks of Ostia, though obviously they all spoke Aramaic, and unlettered as they were, very little Greek. They had no understanding of the word “No”, and could not be persuaded to leave with any less than they were charged with collecting. That they also lined their pockets only served to make the collection more egregious. The tax was ostensibly for the Emperor, but every person who handled the taxes from the time it was exacted until the proceeds reached the warehouses of Rome, took a share.
At the bottom were the common people of Galilee. Galileans were a seething mass of independent and stubborn inhabitants, and the forced conversion and confiscation of their lands by the friends of the Herodians and Templars in the previous generation added fuel to the resentment, fed by times of hardship, bubbled up through the cracks in the Palestinian soil. Their resistance to the religion of the oppressors, be it of Greek, Roman or Judean in origin, at times turned to one god or another, as sacrifices went unanswered, was met by violence.
Every crime suddenly became a political act. Highway robbery masqueraded as a patriotic act against the oppressors. Robbery at knifepoint in dark alleyways became retaliation against collaborators. Murder, whatever the reason, was defended as a mandate from God against idolators and blasphemers. A dead Roman, a dead Sadducee, a dead Greek, all were revenge killings for the Eighteen Martyrs of the Siloam Tower. Not to be outdone, Pilatus razed the houses of the relatives of every criminal crucified and consfiscated the property of the executed. Murder of one of the aristocracy traced to a miscreant from a small impoverished village would be repaid by a hundred crosses set up and hung with bodies outside the town walls. Tensions rose throughout the land.
Ostensibly, the Romans were in Syria and Palestine at the request of their client state, but once encamped, the territory they occupied became their own. The imposition of the Greek values imposed by the Romans whose culture borrowed heavily from the Greek, though for the most part pagan, carried a strong sense of the supremacy of the human will. As with the Greeks, the Romans tended to change the name of the local gods and goddesses to the equivalent named goddess in their own pantheon. There was no compromise with the Hebrew God. There was only one god, and he could not be named, for Rome had no name to give to the Yahweh. Despite the deification of the Emperor, the idea of one god that could attend to every aspect of life was incomprehensible. Even for Jews and Israelites, the concept of a single omnipotent being was hard to swallow, and for those of little faith, angels began to flitter about the land, bestowing blessings and administering punishments, wherever they were needed, and for all intents and purposes, the angels replaced the ancient gods and goddesses. So for the farmers and artisans and most of the populations, the angels were invoked and offered gifts in order to intercede with Yahweh on behalf of the supplicants. Only a select few had the faith in the one and only God to provide for their wants. All about them, though, all they saw was idolatry and blasphemy, and there was a terrible sense that all they believed in was imperiled.
And so, when the festivals were held, and the legions were brought to full force in Yerushalayim and riots and clashes with the embattled faithful were common. Miri avoided Yerushalayim when the festivals were held, just to preserve her own safety. Though Sister Miriam at first attended the festivals at the Temple Mount from a sense of duty, the violence and confrontations drove her away from Yerushalayim during the festivals, and at those times, she returned to Miri’s estate.
Eventually the violence subsided and reached an equilibrium, but not after a thousand crosses had been filled along the byways of Galilee. It was against the law to cut down the bodies, but the requirements of Jewish Law forced many to steal their own from the waysides and secret their remains in family tombs. Many were left to hang until the bones fell to the ground. Such was the predation of the new governor, only the crows and vultures fattened under his rule. By that time, her family had established a tradition of coming to her estate for Passover. There, they sacrificed their own Paschal lamb, as did most Galileans.
Susanna grew taller and her inner wisdom increased. All about Tarichae, Kefar Nahum and Chorazin, and beyond came to consult her. Although Miri tried to keep her from being overwhelmed by demands, Susanna turned no one down. She sat beneath the tree at the end of the lane, and received the gifts from strangers and answered their questions as best she could. Many came to be healed, and for those who asked, she laid her hands upon them. She was a natural healer, and Miri loved to watch the girl as she placed her hands upon the afflicted.
“Do you believe in demons?” asked Susanna, looking up from a young boy in a litter. Her hands slipped from his chest.
“Of course,” replied Miri.
“Then why do they appear differently to each of us?”
“We all have different weaknesses,” said Miri.
“Then they are appear in a manner in which they’re expected,” said Susanna. She dipped a linen cloth in a bowl of fresh spring water and wiped the boy’s brow.
“Do you think they walk among us?”
Susanna smiled. “I asked you, Miri. You should answer.”
“They are within us, so they walk among us, I suppose,” said Miri finally.
“Is that what you believe?” asked Susanna, “Or is that what you have concluded? Do you think a demon is the same as an angel?”
“In intent, I suppose, they are different.”
“But not in their methods?”
The boy moaned, and his eyes fluttered and opened. Susanna bent down and kissed him on the forehead, and he smiled sleepily.
“Are you an angel?” he asked dreamily. Susanna smiled and patted his hand.
“We are all angels,” whispered Susanna. The lad’s mother suddenly hugged Susanna. “Thank you,” she said gratefully, “Thank you!”
“What was wrong with him?” asked Miri as the mother carried her son away.
“He was lost,” said Susanna, “But now is found.”
Almost everyone Miri knew, seemed to be existing in a state of suspension between two worlds, and the common experience of those times of great flux led most people to believe that the End of Times was Imminent, and, as each day passed without the appearance of the Messiah, the more desperate people became and the more Imminent the Last Days seemed. Time passed, but not in a leisurely rolling of The Great Wheel, but as though all around her were treading softly, dreading with each footfall that a misstep would open a yawning chasm in the ground and the entire world tumble, screaming and twisting, into the Abyss.
To make matters worse, Miri received another despairing letter from Agrippina, delivered by a retired Legionary Captain named Drusus traveling to Dura Europa in Parthia. Her letter was even more despondent than the last. She was held under house arrest on orders from Tiberius through Sejanus, and her sister Julila had died of starvation while in exile on Tremarus. Her friend Sabinus had been arrested and executed for treason. Her friends who hadn’t shunned her fell to Tiberius. And her old nemesis Flaccus who had carried the secret murder pact from Tiberius to Alexandria had testified against her. He had perjured himself and exaggerated his testimony in order to atone for the botched assassination attempts of members of Germanicus’ household in Alexandria. “My Little Boots has enthralled Tiberius,” Agrippina wrote of her son Gaius, “and though I know the Emperor is holding him in Capri just so that I will hold my tongue, I truly believe he actually loves Caligula. Gaius is intelligent enough to pander to his uncle, and though the boy can do nothing to relieve my plight, I ask that you keep the death warrant from Tiberius to Flaccus secreted until Caligula gains enough power to avenge the death of his father upon that bastard Aulus Avilius Flaccus!” Miri realized Agrippina was writing to Miri because she no longer had someone with whom she could converse.
“I am believe both Pontius Pilatus and Avilius Flaccus are both close confidants of Sejanus and share his hatred for the East and in particular Jews. Flaccus spoke of you to me, and asked of your whereabouts, and I denied any knowledge of your patriation. There is a rumour that Flaccus is to be nominated prefect of Aegyptus. Woe betide anyone living between Damascus and Thebes if that is the case! Avoid Pilatus at any cost, for if he connects you with Flaccus, he will turn you over to him!” Miri’s stomach knotted for a moment, but she could not imagine that Pilatus would connect her with the woman Flaccus knew in Alexandria. The only identifying feature that would create the connection was the silver crescent birthmark on her forehead. She was thankful that at least this letter had slipped past the agents of Sejanus and Antipas. Antipas would have been delighted to know of her crossing with Flaccus, and that Flaccus and Pilatus were table mates at Sejanus’ household. Agrippina’s letter ended with “Think well of me!”
The messenger, Lucius Lavinius, arrived coincidentally at the same time as a visit from Abdulla Obodas, the Nabatean. Despite being an ardent Roman, Lucius was a charming rogue and adventurer of fifty years, a devotee of the god Mithras, the rank of Corax, or Raven, within the cult. After serving thirty years with his legion, his wife dead, and sons scattered through the Empire, he had chosen to embark on a pilgrimage to find the true cave of Mithras.
“I have heard Perseus is Mithras,” commented Miri, “and his birthplace is at Tarsus.” who had read a manuscript on Mithras written by a Cilician Greek at the Alexandrian Museum.
“Ah yes,” Abdulla smiled and swallowed a great draught of Miri’s wine. “The Romans have a penchant for believing the world revolves around Rome! Why else would they call their sea, the Medi Terranean? Some do say that the cult of Mithras began in Tarsus, for that is where Romans first encountered The Light of The World, and so the origin was attributed to the Cilician pirates in Tarsus. As he wore the Phrygian cap of Perseus, they connected the two!”
“But does not the constellation of Perseus oversee that of Taurus?” asked Miri.
Lucius started. “What do you know of the stars of Mithras? How could a woman know of it?”
Miri smiled. “We are capable of reading!”
His face relaxed, but he was still taken aback, for the secretive members of his cult specifically and adamantly were all and only male. Even more, every Mithraeum was built below ground, and under another building that had nothing to do with Mithras. It was a warrior cult and there was no room in the mysteries for women.
“Where are you searching for the birthplace of Mithras?” asked Obidas.
“I had though in Persia,” replied Lucius.
“I have seen his birthplace,” said Abdullah quietly. “In the town of Kangavar, there is a great temple to his mother Anahita. After swimming in the waters the waters of Lake Hamun in the province of Sisto, she there was inseminated unknowingly by the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan . Anahita, though actually a virgin conceived the Mithra. And, they say, she retired to a cave, where she gave birth to the God Mithra, and the only witnesses were the shepherds from the nearby hills.”
“You have seen that cave?” asked Lucius excitedly.
Abdulla shrugged. “No, of course not! But when you get there, everyone will tell you they know of it! I have seen two of those places. One near the lake and another north of The Temple of Anahita at Kangavar. But believe me, Persia has a thousand and one caves.”
“It seems I am on a fool’s errand,” said Lucius.
“Well, perhaps it’s better to be a fool on an errand, than a wise man buried beneath the weight of his own words.” replied Abdulla, “Besides, perhaps the stars are guiding you to your goal. You must look for a cave with water, for both Anahita and Mithras command the fresh waters. I could escort you as far as Rekkem, and from there, I have a cousin, a follower of the Ahura-Mazda who should be returning to Parthia to celebrate the birthday of the Ahura’s son, the Saviour Mithra.”
“What day do they celebrate him?” he asked, his mind already intrigued that his god was worshipped in far off lands.
“The winter solstice,” replied Abdulla, “And you will be interested to know that the people of Sistan sacrifice a cow at dawn by opening a wound on her neck.”
“Oh my God!” said Lucius, “Yes! Yes, he must be the same, for we celebrate his birth on the twenty-fifth of December on the new calendar!”
“Not exactly the solstice,” replied Miri.
“But he is laid in the ground for three days” said Lucius excitedly, “and returns from heaven through Ouranos from the womb of The cave of Anahita and-” His mouth snapped suddenly shut.
“For a member of a secret rite, words spill easily from your lips!” teased Miri. Miri extended her hand. “I have seen the handshake!”
Lucius did not reach for hers, for he was now leery of his hostess.
“Who told you all this?” he asked suspiciously.
“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you!” said Miri.
Lucius, a true warrior, instantly, instinctively and reflexively reached for the hilt of his gladius, but his sword was wrapped in his kit.
Miri laughed. “I’m just kidding!” she said, “Relax!”
“Agrippina told me you were a seer,” said Lucius, a little miffed he had been brought on the defensive.
Miri smiled, but didn’t answer.
“Enough secrets!” declared Lucius. “I was wondering if you would know where I should look for the original stone from which the God of Light had emerged.”
“Is there no evidence in your own cult?” asked Miri, “Surely the Elect should know!”
Lucius frowned. “Most say Tarsus in Cilicia, but I am not convinced. I traveled there and the Mithraeum from what they say, was rebuilt recently. I do not have the patience to move up through the ranks, so I have remained a Miles, but sometimes I feel as though I am a Corvus. It seems as though I am picking over the corpse of the Saviour, but not reaching the bones. I need to know if Mithras is a true god!”
“How will you know God when you find him?” asked Obidas.
“I thought I would find an answer to my prayers in Tarsus. They have a grand school there, and it seemed the entire population reads deeply. But I fear that the men in Tarsus polish their rhetoric and logic so much that their brains outshine their hearts.”
“What makes you think that?” asked Miri, pouring another round of her wine.
“Well,” Lucius swallowed half a glass of the wine. “Mmmm. Very good!” He lifted his glass again. “It just seems too neat. Too structured to be a real and natural god. I am probably sinning against the Enlightened One, but take a look at this!”
He produced a large silver medallion. “You see the Zodiac? There are Twelve Houses.” He pointed to the center of the plate. “Here Perseus stabs Taurus in the heart and the wound, that is the Spica constellation, the Ears of Wheat. Scorpio attacks the bull’s testicles, Sirius, the Dog Star, laps from the wound. And Cautes, at the spring equinox, and Cautotopes the autumnal on either side.”
“And this snake?” asked Miri.
“That is Ouranous, the snake of the Cosmic Egg, that swallows itself.”
“Ah!” said Miri, trying to envision a snake eternally consuming itself. She topped up Lucius’ goblet, and he quaffed the aromatic infusion appreciatively, and took a deep breath.
“They say that before he ascended to Heaven through the Living Fire, Mithras shared a last meal, breaking bread and sharing a chalice of wine with his twelve most devout disciples. Twelve! One for each sign of the zodiac! Then the twelve were charged to spread his cult. Of course there are seven levels of initiation! One for each planet. Each planet rules one of the Seven Gates to Heaven. I myself, was only at the acolyte level of Milés, having passed through the Third Gate. The first, The Gate of The Raven is associated with Mercury, and emblems of office were a herald’s wand and a cup. The chalice that held the blood of the sacrifice. The next, Nymphus. The Bridegroom is associated with Venus, and the Nymphus carries a lighted lamp and a veil, as a veiled bride would carry the flame of Hestia to her new household. Then one becomes Milés, a Soldier of Mithras, associated of course with Mars. I stayed at that level of initiation myself, simply because I have so long been a soldier, that the emblems of the kit bag and a quiver of arrows carry a great meaning to an old war horse like me. Most of my camp mates remained content in that level, for we were the Soldiers of Mithras, and that suited us very well. Those with a quicker mind rose to be an initiate of Leo. A Lion is ruled by Jupiter, and carries an emblem of a thunderbolt, fire shovel and sistrum.
Finally a few attain the level of Perses ruled by the Moon. A Perses carries the sacred curved weapon with which Perseus slew the Gorgon, a sickle, and spikes of cereal crops. Eventually, one becomes Heliodromus, Courier of the Sun. Heliodromus wears a radiant crown, a torch and a globe. And finally, after years of study, some become known as Pater, that is Father of the Congregation, and this man is associated with Saturn and wears the red Phrygian cap and cape, a staff, a curved cutting knife we call a patera.
So you see, the planets, of which there are seven, rule seven gates through which the devotee passes. Always you see the seven pass into the twelve. This is the rule of the stars. There, you see in his cape, Mithras has seven lights, one for each planet and each level of mastery of the mysteries! Always seven!”
“Seven gates?” Asked Miri, thinking of Nergal guarding the realm of Erishkigal. “Do you think they’re real?”
“Probably not,” replied Lucius as he shook his head. “You know, I felt no different after each passing ritual. I saw no gate. I just moved up the bench. It just seems so contrived that the god should have twelve disciples! It’s as if they invented them just to match the Zodiac!”
“Do you not believe in the stars?” asked Abdulla, “Don’t you think that the Soul passes through the Milky Way, and there resides an eternal star that houses it?”
“I have heard that, of course,” replied Lucius, “And for that reason the celestial movements affect us all, but the thing that bothers me is this. Who decides we need a new god? How can a God come into being, simply because a man in Tarsus sees that The Age of Taurus is now the Age of Pisces?”
“I can see only that which the gods allow us to see,” replied Miri, “Perhaps he was revealed only at a time when the gods believed he should be revealed. Until the sunrise at the Equinox passes from Taurus to Pisces, how would we know that such a thing is possible? ”
“I am losing my faith,” said Lucius forlornly, “The more I learn, the more I see that the gods are made in the image of man, rather than man made in the image of God. This eastern god has been transformed from his birthplace into something a Roman could understand. Who knows what influence the sign of the fish will have on our age? I need to see the true place where my god was borne by the Mother of God. So now I must travel East to Persia.”
“You may have to go further than Persia,” said Miri, “I have seen signs of Mithra in Hindustan!”
“In India?” Lucius was now interested and impressed, “You have been to India? The journey is long and fraught with tribulations. Did you follow the steps of our Alexander?”
The mention of Alexander caught Miri offguard, but within a heartbeat, she knew Lucius was speaking of Alexander of Macedonia.
“By ship!” she said, shaking her head, “But I have seen signs of Mitra in India. He is honoured in many places there as God of Heavenly Light. His eye is the sun, an ally of Indra, their King of Heaven. Hindus call Mitras along with Varuna.”
“The gods are combined there. So, the Hindu god of moral law and true speech is called ‘Mitra-Varuna.’ They say together they uphold order in the world. They travel in a shining chariot and living in a golden mansion with a thousand pillars and a thousands doors.”
“You see!” declared Lucius, “Even though we all worship the same God, we all see him as a different God! How can that be? How easily we dismiss the differences and discount the similarities!”
“Have you ever seen an elephant?” asked Miri.
“Many times in battle!” answered Lucius, “They are magnificent creatures!”
“Well, once three blind men encountered such a beast, and neither having seen one, they used their hands to explore the animal. One grasped the leg and declared an elephant, a tree. The man who fondled the trunk, declared it to be a snake, and the man who grasped the tail thought an elephant was a rope! None could see the whole elephant, and knew only that part which they experienced. So, an elephant to those who have the eyes to see is an elephant, but those who have no eyes see only what is at hand!”
Lucius smiled. “Then my eyes are not opened!”
“Until we rejoin the Great Mother Allat, can any of us see?” asked Obidas and downed his wine. The question ended their discussion at the same moment Sister Miriam appeared, dusty and exhausted from her journey from Yerushalayim.
Miri stood up and greeted her niece. She introduced Sister Miriam to her guests.
“Have you eaten?” asked Miri, “I will get you something!”
“Perhaps some bread and cheese,” said Sister Miriam. Her eye glanced down at the wine crater and the cups and a disapproving frown crossed her face. All had caught the look, and Miri said, “My niece doesn’t drink wine!”
Abdulla smiled. “Would that I had such resolve! I have many times foresworn the demon of drink!”
“Amen to that!” chimed in Lucius, “Though he be a progenitor, more than one has called Bacchus a demon!” He raised his glass to Sister Miriam, “I salute you!”
Though she didn’t approve of drunkenness, she accepted his salute gracefully, and Yoyapa, having heard Sister Miriam’s voice appeared in the doorway to help her with her baggage.
“Yotapa, some food for Sister Miriam!” Miri commanded. Her speech was a little slurred and her command rang hollow in her ears, making her feel she had overstepped her authority.
“I can get my own!” said Sister Miriam irritatedly.
“It’s no problem!” offered Yotapa, for she was glad to have company her own age, even if Sister Miriam was her polar opposite. They both returned with two platters piled with bread, cheese and a terracotta carafe of water. Miri, still feeling guilty about her imposition upon Yotapa prevailed upon her to stay, and eat. Though in deference to Sister Miriam, Yotapa drank water, Lucius prevailed upon her to drink some wine, which she did, mixed with a little salt water and honey.
“So, you came alone from Jerusalem?” Lucius asked Sister Miriam.
“No,” she said with a faint smile, “I came with two men of Kefar Nahum, Yakov and Yohan.”
“Sons of Zebedee?” asked Miri in surprise, “They are the noisiest of men!”
“All the better to frighten off the bandits!” said Sister Miriam, “Yes, they are very loud. Even more so now that their father is getting married!”
“Zebedee is getting married?” asked Miriam, “To whom?”
“They say a woman from Nazareth,” said Sister Miriam, “We are invited to the wedding!”
“So soon!” declared Miri, “When did the old fisherman have time to find a bride?”
Sister Miriam shrugged.
“They are to be married with the new moon! Apparently, she is a relation of one Yakov who washes away sins down on the Jordan!”
“No!” said Miri, “Not Yahja?”
Sister Miriam smiled and tilted her head. “He is her nephew!”
“Will wonders never cease?” asked Miri. “Well here’s to the newlyweds!”
All lifted their glasses to the health of Zebedee and his new bride.