Part I, Sparta– Prophecy

In addition to acting as Cynisca’s body-slave at the Agoge, there were many festivals over the course of the year in Sparta with which Medousa was also expected to help.

 

There was the Hyacinthia, a three day festival in honor of Hyacinth, a youth who had obtained the love of Apollo, but whom Apollo accidentally killed while teaching to throw the discus. It was observed for three days at the end of spring, starting out in solemnity, but becoming joyful toward the end. It was a celebration of Apollo, and also marked the passing of spring into summer, and the ripening of grain. This was probably Medousa’s favorite festival; for all the inhabitants of the land, whether citizen, Helot, or stranger, could take part. Indeed, all were encouraged to do so; And Medousa loved to revel in the illusion of freedom that it gave her to do so. Even better, Cynisca would always come to watch her dance, as she herself watched Cynisca at other festivals. It was the closest the two could come to playing as equals in public.

She remembered fondly the times when she and Cynisca would work, weaving chitons to offer to Apollo for the festival. And the time when they rehearsed one of Sappho’s songs to sing for the celebrations–

Delicate Adonis is dying, Cytherea; What shall we do?

Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend your tunics…!

 

And Cynisca seemed to love taking pains over Medousa’s appearance for the festival. She would take her Helot and dress her, and have her cosmetics done. Cynisca treated her as if she were a living dress-up doll. Medousa enjoyed the attention from her mistress, though sometimes she felt as if she were just a toy Cynisca loved to play with.

 

There was the Gymnopaedia, a mid-summer festival of martial arts and athletics for the youth of Sparta. They had dances, combat sports, athletic competitions, and even musical performances. Boys and girls alike took part in the rituals and competitions, showing off their strength, speed, grace, and coordination.

 

And at the autumnal equinox was the Karneia, another festival in honor of Apollo. It was held for nine days at the first full moon of the season, and was laden with portent for the good fortunes of Sparta for the coming year. In addition to the musical performances and competitions that were traditionally held, there was a ritual footrace and chase.

The Karneia was not Medousa’s favorite festival, because of a particular incident one year. The day had started off like any other festival day; with Cynisca being spiritedly uncooperative, and Maia trying to get her ready for the ceremonies.

“Come along,” Maia was saying to Medousa. “Help your mistress get ready for the festival. We’ve all got to be at our best this year.”

“What’s so special about this year?” Cynisca asked, as her nurse and handmaid fussed over her.

“The prophet Tiresias will be at the Karneia this year,” Maia replied.

Medousa paused while plaiting Cynisca’s hair.

“Who’s Tiresias?” she asked.

Maia tapped Medousa gently on the head.

“Focus on your work, Chrysanthe,” she cautioned.

“He’s Apollo’s prophet from Thebes,” Cynisca said, feeling important for having knowledge her Helot did not.

Maia nodded. “He’s the son of the Nymph Chariclo,” she told the children. “A favorite of the Goddess Athena.”

“Really?” Medousa exclaimed, looking up.

Maia continued. “They say that he spent seven years as a woman, transformed by Hera, and served as her priestess.”

“He was a woman?” Cynisca asked, unbelieving.

Maia laughed. “Yes. He even married and had children.”

Cynisca jumped up, then, brushing aside Medousa’s hands.

“Come on, Chrysanthe—Your turn, now.”

“Cynisca,” Maia told her. “You shouldn’t be waiting on your own Helot!”

“But I want her to look nice, if she’s going to be seen with me in public.”

Maia sighed and gave up as Cynisca started to dress Medousa’s hair. Medousa herself fidgeted, uncomfortable under Maia’s gaze.

“How did Tiresias become a prophet?” Cynisca asked as she worked.

Maia sat on the edge of the bed, watching the two girls.

“They say he came upon the Goddess Athena when she was bathing in a stream, and the Goddess struck him blind,” Maia said. “But she felt sorry for him because he was the son of her friend Chariclo. So, she taught him the language of birds, and the arts of prophecy. He was also granted a seven fold increase in his natural lifespan by Zeus.”

“Zeus?” Cynisca looked up from her Helot’s hair. “Why did he–?”

“Come, now,” Maia interrupted, standing up. “No more questions. Let’s go, or we’ll be late.”

But Maia might well have wished they had been late after all–

One of the features of the Karneia celebrations was the “grape-cluster runners.”  They were three companies of three unmarried men each, who held their positions in honor of Apollo for a period of four years. Their task was to take part in a ritual hunt. One youth was chosen each year from amongst volunteers, and was adorned with garlands. He was expected to run through the countryside around Sparta while the ritual runners gave chase. If the quarry was caught, he made prayers to Apollo on behalf of Sparta’s welfare in the coming year. If the victim eluded the runners for the duration of the hunt, it was said to bode ill for the City.

That year, Cynisca had decided that she was going to join in the chase to catch the sacrificial “victim.” She was only ten years old, but she was determined to do anything the boys were doing, and she wanted to make sure Sparta would have a good year upcoming. Especially since such an august presence as Tiresias would be presiding over the ceremonies that day.

Although the women in Sparta were trained the same as the men, for the Karneia, only those unmarried males specifically dedicated to Apollo for their four year term were supposed to conduct the hunt. Cynisca got into a lot of trouble when she chased down the ritual victim first. They all tried to carry on as if Cynisca hadn’t interfered, but Cynisca was quite upset, and the Eurypontids had to make a hecatomb to Apollo Karneia as propitiation.

 

Cynisca had been much chastised that day and made to stand by King Archidamus and Queen Eupoleia as the hecatomb was made. Medousa stood behind Cynisca, to attend upon her mistress, and Maia was there as well, along with other household officials and Helots. And of course, Agesilaus, and Archidamus’ eldest son Agis were also there. Together they assisted the priests of Apollo prepare the offerings.

King Archidamus had one hundred of his finest bulls brought, and carts of grain. And he and his family had basins brought so that they might ritually cleanse themselves of defilement. Then they turned to perform the propitiatory sacrifices.

Now, as Maia had told the children, there was that year, with the priests of Apollo, the prophet Tiresias, who was much sought after for his prophecies throughout all Hellas. King Archidamus persuaded him with many gifts to preside over their sacrifice, and to intercede for his daughter and to pray for a prosperous year for Sparta.

 

Tiresias first scattered the barley the king had brought across the ground in front of the shrine of Apollo Karneia. And then Archidamus himself, along with his son Agesilaus and their servants, and the associate priests of Apollo brought forth the bulls, and drew their heads back, and slew them, and skinned them, and cut away the meat from the thighs and wrapped them in fat, folding it over twice, and laying yet more strips of flesh upon that.

Tiresias took a portion of the meat so prepared on a cleft stick, and making prayers to Apollo for forgiveness and prosperity, burnt the portion, while an associate priest poured out wine upon it for the God. And Tiresias raised his voice in supplication, saying

“Hear me, Lord of the Silver Bow!

You, who guide the Chariot of the Sun!

You, who are lord, in strength, over all the world;

If ever you have heard my prayers before,

Turn aside shame and disaster from this City;

May Sparta enjoy wealth and prosperity in the coming year,

And forgive the indiscretions of innocent youth.”

 

And when the priests had finished burning the thigh pieces, and had tasted the meat of the sacrifice, they cut all the remainder into pieces, and spit them, and roasted them, and prepared the feast. Bowls of wine were passed around to all the company, and the entire household of the Eurypontids, and the notables of the city, sat before the priests of Apollo and partook of the feast, eating and drinking until nightfall.

 

As the feast carried on into the night, everyone’s hearts were put at ease for the city’s fate for the year. Now, people could laugh at Cynisca’s mischief with amusement, and laugh at how the antics of one girl could bring the entire polis to a standstill like this.

But not everyone was completely comforted. Queen Eupoleia still feared for her daughter’s fate this year because of her sacrilege. As they feasted there at the shrine, she rose and approached Tiresias.

“Please sir, if you would,” the queen entreated, “Please come and tell me of my daughter’s destiny.”

“With great good will, O queen,” Tiresias smiled. “Please lead me to her.”

They brought Tiresias to Cynisca, who stood, eyes cast down. The blind prophet took her hands in his, and after a moment, smiled broadly.

“Ah, rulers of Sparta! Have no fear for this your daughter;

Four storm-eyed stallions

Will bring golden laurels

To the Little Wolf-Cub of Sparta!

Her fame, and the fame of Sparta

Will echo in the ears of Zeus

Down through the ages.

Tiresias paused, chuckling. “That is not to say that she may not yet be the cause of some embarrassment through playful mischief. But your daughter is destined for glory. She will be remembered by historians for generations.” He tousled Cynisca’s hair with the air of a kindly uncle.

A wave of relief washed over the Eurypontid family, and they relaxed before Apollo’s shrine. But then, Tiresias’ face suddenly clouded over, his features becoming stony. He turned his blind eyes toward Medousa, who stood behind Cynisca, in attendance. Despite his blindness, Tiresias moved to take her hands, surprising everyone.

“No, sir,” Archidamus called to the blind prophet. “That’s just a slave.”

“A slave…?” Tiresias repeated.

“It’s our daughter’s handmaid,” Eupoleia explained. “Nothing more.”

Maia, standing with the children, noticed Tiresias tremble as he held Medousa’s hands. “Please,” she told the prophet. “You’re frightening her.”

Slowly, Tiresias released Medousa’s hands. He turned to the family, and, pointing at Medousa, declared–

“This one belongs to Athena.”

His pronouncement was met with silent incredulity.

“Surely, you’re having fun with us,” Eupoleia said at last. “She’s only a slave–”

Tiresias cut her off, shaking his head. “One day, the Goddess will claim her.”

The Eurypontids were troubled at this. But Agesilaus spoke up to his parents, “We believe him about Cynisca; Why not about Chrysanthe?”

“Don’t be impertinent, boy,” Archidamus snapped at his son.

Agesilaus’ half-brother Agis gave him a shove. “Lame little fool,” he spat at his younger brother.

 

Later on, after the ceremonies were complete, the offerings made, and the Eurypontids left to return to their palace, Maia straggled behind, looking for Tiresias. She found him meditating in the outer courts of Apollo’s temple.

“Tiresias, sir!” she called out. “Tiresias!”

The blind prophet paused and turned toward the sound of Maia’s voice, smiling kindly.

“My apologies,” Maia began as she approached him. “I am the Eurypontid children’s nurse. I want to ask you about Chrysanthe.”

“Ah. You mean Medousa?” he asked.

Maia blinked. “How could you know–?”

“I know,” Tiresias laughed quietly.

Maia continued. “You said the child belonged to Athena…. But you saw something more, didn’t you?”

Tiresias fell silent.

“Please tell me what you saw,” Maia begged.

Tiresias sighed, gathering his thoughts.

“Will- Will the child’s life be cut short…?” Maia asked. “Is she ill-favored…?”

The prophet sighed again, closed his eyes, and spoke;

Serpent-favored daughter of Helots, be glad:

She Whose Shield is Thunder today accepts you.

Wolf-cub’s lover, Eagle and Horse pursue you;

Seek to elude them.

But beware–

Bitterly ridden by Sea Foam, damnation alone shall remain;

Barred from repentance, you’ll roam, feeding on terror and pain.

Maia considered, fearful. “But what does it mean?” she asked

Tiresias shrugged, pondering.

“Just as you’ve heard,” he spoke at last. “More I am not permitted to say. Nor should I need to. But if you would preserve her from tragedy, keep her away from the sea– Do not let the sea approach her.”

And with that, Tiresias turned away to continue his meditations. Maia was left shaken. She hurried to return to the palace, but she kept in her heart the prophecy that was entrusted to her.

 

That night, Medousa tried to compose herself to sleep. The events of the day had been unsettling. She had been uncomfortable witnessing Cynisca’s chastisement, and Tiresias had startled her with his prophecy, even though Medousa should have been deeply flattered. But then, she was a mere slave. A Helot. Why would the Goddess have anything to do with her in plain sight the citizens of Sparta? She lay in bed and tried to pray, whispering to herself:

Of Pallas Athena, guardian of the city, I begin to sing. Dread is she, and with Ares she loves deeds of war, the sack of cities and the shouting and the battle. It is she who saves the people as they go out to war and come back. Hail, Goddess, and give us good fortune with happiness!

“Grant me good fortune and happiness, Lady,” Medousa concluded. “Grant me your wisdom and strength.”

As Medousa turned her face to the wall and settled in, she felt something under her pillow. Puzzled, she sat up and reached beneath the bedclothes. She drew out a small owl, carved of polished bone, hanging from a cord. Medousa cradled it in her hands, scarcely daring to breathe. She slipped the necklace over her head and held the owl in her grasp. From across the room, she saw a tall, handsome woman watching her. Medousa realized suddenly that it was dark in the servants’ quarters, and that she shouldn’t be able to see her. And yet, Medousa saw her as plainly as if in the full light of day.

“You….” Medousa breathed. “It– It’s you, isn’t it…?”

The woman said nothing, but smiled, her large grey eyes luminous in the dark.

“And it was you, before, wasn’t it…? When I was little…?”

Medousa found herself lost in the Goddess’ eyes. She trembled with a combination of love and terror. As she drifted off to sleep, she thought she heard Athena speak to her, “Be at peace, my daughter; I am watching.”

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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