Part I, Sparta– Agoge

Eventually, a year and a half later, the days of Cynisca’s Agoge came. Medousa was then officially assigned to her as her personal slave. When Medousa was told that she would be attending Cynisca during her official schooling, she was excited. She loved the idea of being out from under the drudgery of her regular housework. She loved the thought of being able to see more children her own age. And she loved the idea of being able to run and play with Cynisca without being punished for it. And as Medousa’s own duties changed as she began acting as Cynisca’s personal slave, it was just as pleasant as she’d dreamt.

 

The Agoge was the period of training that all Greek youths had to undergo. In Sparta, their schooling comprised not only martial arts and athletics, but also music, dance, reading and writing, and a certain amount of mathematics and philosophy.

When a boy or girl reached the age of seven, they began their formal period of training and education. For the boys, it meant being sent off to live in barracks with their peers, to learn to live as a military unit while accomplishing their Agoge. And while the girls were not sent away, their education was no less serious or rigorous. The children of nobles and other well-to-do citizens would often bring their own Helots and personal slaves with them, to attend upon them during their schooling. Those Helots who attended with their masters or mistresses were able to benefit from the same education and training as their owners. Any Helot who actually completed the Agoge could even become full citizens of Sparta.

While it was not at all unusual that Cynisca was allowed to take Medousa with her for her time of training, it was unusual that Agesilaus was sent off to the barracks for his period of Agoge. Normally, sons of the royal houses were exempt from this requirement, and were educated at home. But in this case, King Archidamus was determined that his own children by Eupoleia would receive no special privileges. They would undergo their Agoge like any other son or daughter of Sparta. He reserved the privilege of home schooling for his first born son, Agis.

 

Long before the formal period of their training began, Maia had in fact been their first teacher. She would set aside an hour or two in the nursery to play with her charges, and would usually include games with letters and numbers. She would inscribe small tiles with letters, and play counting games, or letter identification games. Sometimes she would show them how to make words out of the letters.

Cynisca liked those games well enough that on her clandestine play-sessions with Medousa, she would bring a handful tiles with her, along with their stuffed puppies.

Eventually, Maia had started including Medousa officially in her games; After all, what good would an illiterate Helot be to the young mistress?

 

The early days of their formal training concentrated at first on literacy and numeracy. It was boring, tedious work sometimes, but they had a kindly teacher who tried to make their studies as painless as possible. As they progressed over the years, they were introduced to poetry, and history and even philosophy. And of course, being Spartan, they studied the arts of war. There were many other girls in the class, perhaps twelve or fifteen. And Cynisca, of course, already knew most of them, having been playmates with them for some years. They were all aristocrats of one or the other of Sparta’s two royal families, and a few other nobles. Some, like Helen, Clytemnestra, and Khalkiope, Medousa recognized. Many, she did not. Some had their own Helots with them, and some came alone. Medousa was nervous, but still glad to be out of the house and away from the supervision of old Megaera. Still, the senior household slaves and Helots made sure that Medousa remembered her place when at home.

Despite the fact that Medousa was now able to mingle with other young girls her age, she sometimes felt just as lost and as lonely as ever. At times like that, Medousa would remember the strange lady with the grey eyes that had visited her in the weavers’ room. She wasn’t sure why, but when she thought of that woman, she didn’t feel quite as small and vulnerable.

 

An itinerant philosopher, Thales of Miletus, was engaged to teach the children mathematics and science. He also introduced them to the writings of Parmenides of Elea.

Another focus of their early training was music and dance. Their teacher was Thaletas of Crete. He taught the girls how to sing, and he taught them the lyre, the kithar, and the aolus and the syrinx. Medousa turned out to have some talent at singing, though Cynisca did not. The children were also taught the Pyrrhike, dances that mimicked the martial skills of armed and unarmed combat that they would very soon be learning. Thaletas also taught them extensively from the poems and lyric prose of Sappho and Alcaeus of Lesbos, teaching the girls how to compose poems and lyrics of their own.

Their head trainer in athletics and combat was none other than Chionis of Sparta. He was renowned for his records in the long jump and the triple jump at the Olympic Games. He also had won three consecutive titles in the Diaulos and the Sprint. In addition to his athletic achievements, he was a skilled fighter, and he would be teaching the girls running, wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, and the use of various weapons.

Chionis also insisted on teaching his pupils how to swim, a skill he had learned on his travels abroad. Sparta, being set in a fertile valley amid rolling hills, was a long way from the sea; and Spartans traditionally had little use for any of the traditional skills a mariner ought to have. Nevertheless, Chionis had it in mind that his students should all be able swimmers. He would take them to rivers and small lakes and teach them there.

“You never want an enemy to press you back against the water if you can’t swim,” he would say.

 

Cynisca excelled at athletics and combat, and was a phenomenally gifted equestrian. She loved these pursuits so, that she was often teased, the other girls calling her “Amazon.” But Cynisca never minded. She loved the drills and exercises Chionis put them through. And as for Medousa, she also came to love the Agoge. Although she had at first felt frightened and alone, over time Medousa began to feel like just another one of the girls as they trained on the fields. The teachers never seemed to treat her any differently than the other, freeborn, pupils. And Cynisca very rarely behaved as her owner when they were at their studies, although she allowed no one but herself to boss Medousa around. And even Cynisca’s friend Helen eventually came to view Medousa as one of their little circle.

And as time passed, it became apparent to all that Medousa was one of the best athletes of the women of Sparta, rivaling even her mistress. As she blossomed physically, she grew quite tall and strong. In her early teens, she already stood taller than most men. And she found that her long, muscular limbs gave her a distinct advantage in many of their games. Her mistress Cynisca wasn’t exactly jealous; But she did seemed spurred to competition with her Helot.

One morning, early, Medousa found herself being shaken awake.

“Chrysanthe!” came the fierce whisper. “Chrysanthe, get up!”

Medousa was afraid, groggy, and on edge all at once. She quickly went through a mental checklist of her duties. Had she failed some task? Had she neglected something? She rubbed her eyes, looking around; all was still dark. Then, as her vision cleared, she saw that it was Cynisca standing over her, shaking her gently.

“Come on, sleepy-head!”

“Mistress…?” Medousa began. “What’s wrong? What have I–?”

“Nothing,” Cynisca answered her, holding up a training tunic for her Helot. “Hurry up–get dressed and come with me.”

“Where are we going, Mistress?” Medousa asked as she sat up and pulled on her clothes.

“To train, of course,” Cynisca told her.

 

It quickly became a custom for Cynisca to come rouse her in the small hours. She used to drag her out to put in an extra hour or two of physical training before the daily Agoge began. Cynisca would also keep them up long past their usual bed time as well.

Sometimes they would practice hand to hand combat in the narrow corridors, trying to be as quiet as possible as they did so, not wanting to disturb anyone else in the house. Their attention to precision forced by those conditions served them well on the field later.

Sometimes, they would go out to the yard, where Cynisca would insist Medousa coach her in the athletic portions of their training. In return, she tried to help Medousa improve her combat and riding skills. Sometimes, they would work on conditioning, tossing heavy stones to each other, working on calisthenics, lifting weights, or driving posts.

And sometimes, they would return to Cynisca’s room to wrestle or box. The combat skills they developed by practicing in close quarters earned them many new scrapes and bruises. But the results were worth it.

 

The girls would meet in the courtyard of either the Agiads’ or Eurypontids’ palace for their lessons in reading, rhetoric, music, and philosophy. They would work on wooden tablets, covered in wax. They used styluses to copy out the texts that their teacher wanted them to memorize. Thaletas would make them copy out the poems he gave them several times over, and make them read aloud as they did so. He would walk up and down, helping his pupils now and then as they struggled.

Eventually, when Thaletas felt that the children had mastered a text, he taught them to recite. He would show them the formal hand gestures they were required to use to illustrate their stories, and sometimes some of the pupils would play their instruments for one or two of the others to sing by.

Cynisca and Khalkiope found it dreadfully boring.

One morning, the girls sat in the courtyard of the Agiads’ palace. Thaletas was teaching lyrical poetry that day, to complement the day’s music lesson. His pupils hunched over their tablets, copying out the texts of one of Sappho’s songs.

“Notice the meter, here, children,” their teacher lectured. “This type of rhythm was specifically created by Sappho. It’s a catalectic dactylic dimeter, and is monoschematic, and the proper chironomia here are….”

As Thaletas droned on, Khalkiope nudged Helen, whispering. “The boys shot a centaur yesterday,” she said.

“No!” Helen said, surprised. “There haven’t been centaurs around here in years!” Helen spoke a little louder than she’d realized.

“Helen,” Thaletas called. “Perhaps you would like to recite this portion of our lesson today?”

Helen shot a dirty look at Khalkiope as she and Cynisca laughed silently at her. She rose, and, glancing down at her tablet, began to recite, “Um…‘reject…’ ‘Quickly…’ –And you, Dika, put lovely garlands around your locks, binding together stems of anise with your soft hands….”

Cynisca and Medousa leaned toward Khalkiope.

“How did it happen?” Cynisca asked in a whisper.

“When the boys were out training,” Khalkiope answered. “They saw it on the edge of the woods and shot it.”

“Isn’t that bad luck?” Medousa interrupted.

“Yes,” Cynisca told her. “For the centaur.”

Thaletas stopped Helen.

“Ladies,” he said, looking at Khalkiope, Cynisca, and Medousa. “Perhaps you’d care to join Helen? Sing the next verse, please.”

The three rose to join Helen amid general sniggering. The four sang together–

The Blessed Graces look rather on what is adorned with flowers and turn away from the un-garlanded….”

 

On the martial days of their Agoge, they trained in a variety of military and athletic skills under Chionis’ direction. He trained the girls in his charge just the same as if he were preparing a group of boys for the battlefield.

Sometimes, they would practice with sword and shield. The girls were paired up as they stood in the field. Chionis set them, each facing their partner in attack position. Each girl had a small combat shield, and a wooden practice xiphos.

After walking up and down the ranks, checking posture and reviewing technique, he signaled them to begin.

They began lunging at each other in smooth, shuffling stomps. As the attacker lunged forward, the defender shifted slightly to the side, turning to face and thrust at the attacker’s exposed flank. Chionis made sure that his pupils struck without exposing themselves, keeping their shields in position even as they attacked or countered.

They worked steadily, back and forth, back and forth, at each pass, changing roles from attacker to defender, and back again.

Other times, they would run footraces across the hills. Cynisca always strove to be faster than anyone else, and would run as hard as she could. She excelled at sprinting, but it took her a long time to learn how to pace herself for distance running. Her friend Helen used to trail behind her, waiting until she’d spent herself running too hard, and then easily lope past her, teasing her.

Medousa herself could never catch up when Cynisca decided to sprint, but she did learn to take a long relaxed stride that she could keep up for hours.

Sometimes Chionis worked on their conditioning by making them punch trees. They wrapped their hands in thick leather bands, to protect their knuckles. He chose saplings for them that had a certain amount of flexibility and give. He would constantly check to make sure the girls were properly aligned, fists tight, elbows close in, knuckles forward and forearms taut. Then he made sure they punched with strength.

“Drive from your hips,” he’d yell at them. “Keep your waist loose, and make sure you keep your elbows close to your bodies!”

He would let only a few at a time work so he could keep a watchful eye on all of them.

“Remember–It’s like sawing a felled tree,” Chionis encouraged them. “Straight in and back, fast.” He walked up and down, letting each girl strike about five times with each hand before moving on to the next pupil.

He would sometimes pair them up and have them thrash each other’s shins and forearms with staves of green wood, to toughen up their bones and striking surfaces. He always made sure that he paired girls together who had no special liking for one another; He wanted to be sure that his pupils would receive the full benefit of the exercise, and kindness here simply wouldn’t do.

 

Medousa also learned of the Gods under her teachers. She learned of Zeus of the Councils and his brothers, Poseidon, the Earth Shaker of Wide Strength, and Hades the Implacable. She learned of Ares, the Sacker of Cities, and Hephaestus, the lame Forge-God. She learned of Apollo, God of the Silver Bow, and his sister Artemis, of the Golden Distaff. And she learned of fair-haired Demeter, ox-eyed Hera, and Hermes, the Conductor of Men. But the one Medousa came to admire and love the most, was grey-eyed Athena, Daughter of Zeus, She whose Shield is Thunder.

As Medousa advanced in her studies of philosophy and theology, she developed a deep affinity for Athena. The Goddess was Medousa’s ideal: Skilled in the arts of combat, skilled at household crafts, tireless, and possessed of deep wisdom. She set the pattern for everything a Spartan woman should be. Medousa privately devoted herself to the Goddess, and when things were difficult for her, drew comfort from her devotions, imagining that Athena herself was looking after her, in her own mother’s place.

 

As a part of her own studies, Cynisca insisted that Medousa spend time with the doctors and trainers at the gymnasia each week. Because she so loved to practice riding and combat, Cynisca reasoned that she would eventually have need of someone who could tend and heal her inevitable collection of injuries. And she wanted Medousa to be that person.

Medousa was an apt pupil, and though Cynisca occasionally allowed her to work on Helen or on one of her other close friends, in general, she jealously guarded Medousa as her own personal resource. Once she was reasonably well accomplished, Cynisca would regularly insist on a soothing round of stretching and massage after athletic- or combat-intensive days.

Medousa’s hours became long, indeed. After her daily period of Agoge with Cynisca, she would not only visit the doctors at the gymnasium, but would also on occasion attend patients with some of the army surgeons when she could. Eventually, Medousa was regularly called upon by Chionis to see to all manner of minor injuries and dislocations during the day as need arose.

For all that, Medousa’s household duties were not lessened. But as she was acting and studying at Cynisca’s direction, she was allowed significant leeway. No one laid upon her any extra, arduous duties without Cynisca’s permission.

 

“And so,” Thales concluded, “We can see, according to Parmenides, that there is That Which Is, and That Which Is Not; but understand that even That Which Is Not, still Is.”

The girls looked up from their wax coated tablets and scratched their heads. They looked around at each other to see if anyone had understood Thales’ meaning. Helen tentatively raised her hand.

“But teacher,” she began, “How can something be both What Is Not and What Is?”

Thales smiled a tired smile. “What Parmenides means,” he answered, “Is that there is a difference between the Truth of a thing, and our Perception of it–”

“But that’s still two different things,” Cynisca interrupted.

“Ah, but you see, your perception of a thing is a real perception, even if it isn’t the thing perceived.”

General sighs of frustrations filled the courtyard of the Eurypontids’ garden. Thales tried again. He directed their attention to a fig tree, in whose shade some of the girls sat. “Look there,” he instructed. “What do you see?”

“A tree,” the girls replied.

“Indeed. Now, there is this tree, as it is, truly… And then there is your concept of the tree. Your own perceptions, which will differ from person to person.”

“But teacher, what I asked was–”

“Your perception of the tree is also real– As a perception. Not as the tree itself. That is what Parmenides means.”

Several of Thales’ pupils began to smile as they finally caught his meaning.

 

As time continued to pass, the girls began to approach womanhood, and as they grew in beauty and stature, they began, as many do at that age, to notice the opposite sex. The girls’ training in the open fields and on the hillsides around Sparta would sometimes attract the attentions of the boys, who would likewise be out with their comrades, training.

Usually, each side would simply acknowledge the other, perhaps after casting a few friendly taunts back and forth as they worked. But sometimes, the mutual interest was such that the teachers and trainers would decide it best to guide and mitigate their young charges’ urges. And so they would pause in their training to set up a kind of picnic, allowing the boys and girls to meet under supervision. Sometimes, they would even compete at track and field, or the Pyrrhike.

During these days, two young women stood out; Medousa and Helen. As they grew toward adulthood, they developed into nymph-like beauties, and attracted attention from boys and girls alike. Medousa and Helen received quite a lot of notice, not only at those picnics, but throughout the days. Helen reveled in it, flattered at the attention, but Medousa was ambivalent about it. While Helen was at least treated with great deference and respect by the males around her, Medousa received no such courtesies. Being a mere slave, she didn’t need to be treated with the same kind of respect with which the daughters of the nobility were treated. The males seemed to expect that Medousa should be at their beck and call whenever they so might desire.

Cynisca herself never seemed to encourage the boys, though she never turned away from them, either. But she always made sure to stay near to Medousa, she and Helen protecting her from the enthusiastic attentions of the boys. Medousa was grateful that her mistress was so proprietary over her, sending off Medousa’s suitors when they became disrespectful or abusive.

 

At home, things were more difficult. Medousa had already begun attracting the attention of the males around the palace, even before the impromptu picnics in the Spartan hill country. She was resigning herself to being ogled and groped, though she hated it. She was a mere Helot; what could she do? Only her young mistress Cynisca treated her as something more than just a slave. To the rest, Medousa was nothing but chattel. Indeed, were it not for Cynisca, Medousa might have been assigned entirely other duties in the palace.

Medousa often wondered how she would handle herself when the men became overly aggressive in their attentions. She had read once that Athena fought off Hephaestus when, overcome with lust, he attempted to take the Goddess against her will. Medousa hoped that she would be as strong as Athena.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a faceless drone in a corporate call center, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in my dead grandparents’ house, alone, with an impressive collection of martial arts weapons, where I practice and train daily. I am not currently on any medications.
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