Part I, Sparta– Plans

Several days later, as they sat over an early supper, the three friends talked over what they should do.

“Okay,” Helen said. “Who should we talk to first?”

“Well. There’s the board of governors of the temple. There’s the high priestess herself. The treasurer…the captain of the cultic guards… Um….” Cynisca paused to think. Medousa looked doubtful.

“We’ll probably need gifts, too,” Helen thought out loud.

Cynisca sighed. “I don’t think either of us controls enough wealth to be able to purchase very many expensive gifts.”

“Supposing we go and introduce Medousa to the priestess ourselves,” Helen suggested. “In our mothers’ names?”

“That sounds a little better,” Medousa said. “With the adoption documents, I should be taken for a Eurypontid, yes?”

Cynisca nodded. “That makes sense. We should still bring a gift for the high priestess. We’ll say we want to find out how our Medousa can join the priesthood there.”

Helen agreed. “We should talk to our own mothers before we set out; they’ll be able to tell us what we need to do, and what gifts we’ll need to bring.”

“Maybe we can convince them to make the introductions for us…?” Cynisca suggested.

“I’m worried,” Medousa said, huddling close to Cynisca. “Your mother may not be willing to inconvenience herself for me.”

Cynisca kissed her. “Don’t you worry about it,” she said. “Let us worry about it.”

Medousa smiled and hugged her. “I should probably prepare a gift for the high priestess ahead of time, anyway. Just in case.” She paused. “What sort of present should I bring?”

“It’s Athena’s priestess,” Helen noted. “A fine peplos. The best you can weave, or buy.”

“What about a sacrifice?” Cynisca proposed.

“Yes,” Helen nodded. “Can we get a bullock or two?”

“I think so,” Cynisca answered.

“We should also mention Tiresias’ prophecy,” Helen considered. “That should impress them.”

“When shall we accomplish all this?” Medousa asked, looking from Cynisca to Helen.

“Let’s talk to our parents tonight,” Cynisca decided. “You start working on that peplos, Medousa. Take the finest material you can find, on my permission.”

“If it goes well,” Helen said, “We can try for next market day.”

 

Finding out who to talk to was easier said than done, however. And the girls’ parents were not as helpful as they had hoped they would be.

When Helen asked her mother about gaining an audience with the high priestess of Athena Khalkioikos, her mother expressed surprise.

“No one just visits the high priestess,” Leda told her daughter. “You should talk with someone on the board of governors. Or the treasurer. Why do you want to see the priestess, anyway?”

Cynisca received a similar reply from her own mother, Eupoleia.

“The high priestess? Well, she is a Eurypontid, obviously; they don’t select priests and priestesses from low-born families…”

“You mean she’s a relative?”

“Of course. What did you think? Your great-aunt Thalestris, as a matter of fact.”

Cynisca’s eyes went wide. “Really? Could I meet her?”

“What for? Have you some matter for the Goddess? Since when are you religious?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to her about Medousa entering the cult–”

“Medousa? You mean your former Helot? Chrysanthe?” Eupoleia shook her head. “Oh, Cynisca. Go. Run along. I’ve already indulged your brother’s whims regarding her.”

“But what of Tiresias’ prophecy?” Cynisca reminded her mother.

Eupoleia was surprised, but brushed it off. “I won’t put myself out for someone so low-born,” she told her daughter. “And neither should you.”

“But, mother…!”

“No. Now leave me. I’ll see you again over supper.”

 

The next day, the three met over lunch during a break in their training.

“Well, my mother wasn’t able to help. She told us to call upon the board of governors.”

Cynisca sighed. “My mother says that the high priestess is actually related to us. But she wouldn’t help us get to see her.”

Medousa cast her eyes down, sadly. “Now what?”

Cynisca squared her shoulders. “You keep weaving,” she told her. “Helen and I will start chasing down the governors.” She gave Medousa’s arm a squeeze as Helen nodded. “We’re not giving up yet.”

 

Over the next couple of weeks, Helen and Cynisca went from one official to the next, during whatever free time their Agoge allowed them. The precinct governors sent them to the temple superintendents. The superintendents sent them to the treasurers. The treasurers sent them to the sacrificial officers. The officers sent them to the temple guardians. And the temple guardians sent them back again to the precinct governors. And in between, they spoke to practically all the cultic administrators in Sparta.

Frustrated, but never daunted, Helen and Cynisca continued assailing the temple district’s administrative officials until at long last, just to stop the girls pestering them, they arranged an audience for them with the High Priestess Thalestris.

 

The three girls were ushered in to a reception hall at the high priestess’ residence. They stood, huddled together, uncomfortable, waiting. Helen and Cynisca had made an offering of two white bullocks, and a small donation of gold to secure the interview. Medousa held a finely woven peplos to offer the priestess as a gift.

Presently, the priestess entered. The girls made reverence toward her.

“How good to see you,” she said silkily as she sat down, smiling at them. “Please. Come closer.”

Helen, Cynisca, and Medousa stepped forward. Medousa could feel her heart beating in her throat.

“Thank you for seeing us, Lady,” Cynisca greeted her.

“We hope we are not troubling you,” Helen added.

“Certainly not,” she replied, looking each of them over carefully. “You are Eupoleia’s daughter, are you not? And you are Leda’s.”

The girls smiled, nodding.

“Please convey my respects to your families,” she said. Then her eyes lit on Medousa. Her breathing caught for a moment, so beautiful was the girl.

“And who is this?”

Cynisca spoke up. “This is Medousa, lady. We’ve come to present her for service to Athena Polioukhos in the Goddess’ house.” She nudged Medousa, who stepped forward and presented the peplos to Thalestris.

“Medousa was marked as Athena’s by Tiresias, that year he was with us for the Karneia,” Helen said. “Surely you must remember?”

Thalestris smiled indulgently at Medousa. “Such devotion is commendable,” she began. “How old are you, my dear?”

“Not yet seventeen, Lady.”

“Most of the virgins entering service begin a bit younger,” the priestess said as she took the garment from Medousa’s hands and inspected it.

Medousa and her friends tried to look hopeful.

“Have you spoken with the board of governors of the temple? Or the treasurers?”

“No, Lady,” Helen replied. “We wanted to present our friend to you for consideration–”

“Well, I’m afraid I haven’t that much to say regarding who may serve the Goddess. You three should really be speaking with the board of regents. They would make that determination.” She carefully folded the peplos and laid it on the small table beside her.

“Begging your pardon, Lady,” Medousa asked, “But would it be possible to at least train here for the Goddess’ service?”

Thalestris demurred. “Well, I don’t know that I could say. There are already four here in service in the Virgins’ Chambers. And I have already two associates to assist with the rituals and sacrifices….”

The girls looked crestfallen. The high priestess looked gently upon them.

“I am sorry,” she said, doing her best to sound sympathetic. “Perhaps you could study for the priesthood elsewhere, and then return to us for service? Later– When we might have room?”

“But,” Cynisca protested, “Where shall we go?”

The priestess paused to consider. “I don’t wish to send you away disappointed,” she told them. “Especially after all the trouble you’ve been to.” She glanced down at Medousa’s gift as she thought. She fell silent as Medousa, Cynisca, and Helen began to fidget.

“I have an idea,” she spoke at last. “Allow me to write to a colleague of mine in Athena’s City. I could recommend you to service there.”

“Athens…?” Helen said, dubiously. “That’s a long way from here.”

Thalestris raised an eyebrow. “But there, you will be able to train and serve the Goddess. That is your desire, is it not?”

“Of course,” Cynisca replied hastily. “It’s just that–”

“Very good,” the high priestess said, rising. “I shall write to Lysimache. Please convey my blessings to your families. Briseis will see you out.”

 

“Athens,” Helen snorted. “That’s where Medousa should train.”

Cynisca sniffed at the suggestion. “Athena’s City– As if Sparta weren’t good enough.”

“Yes, but it is the Goddess’ city,” Medousa said, trying to put a hope in her voice that she did not feel. “And Athens is the foremost place of learning in all of Attica.”

“Yes,” Cynisca said, “According to the Athenians.”

“Look, they have one of the greatest temples to Athena in the world. Or so I’ve heard.”

“I suppose it would also be an opportunity to gather intelligence on them,” Cynisca considered.

“And learning and travel will certainly broaden our minds, I suppose,” Helen mused.

Still, the girls were doubtful. To the Spartans, the Athenians had odd, cosmopolitan ways. Crafty, untrustworthy city-folk who lived cramped together within the confines of walls. And they were hardly good warrior stock. Though there weren’t any hostilities between the two peoples, neither were there any feelings of Xenia. The three worked hard to convince themselves.

 

Thalestris penned an eloquent letter to the Eurypontids regarding Medousa, asking that she be allowed to travel to Athens to visit the Temple of Athena there. To this, neither Eupoleia nor Archidamus objected; but they saw no reason for Cynisca to go also.

As it so happened, however, Helen’s parents, Leda and Tyndareus, had a small trade mission in mind. And after talks with Cynisca’s parents, persuaded them to join.

It would be good for the children to get a taste of some responsibility.

Maia, Cynisca’s nurse, would go with them. Chionis was engaged as their chaperon and teacher for the trip, and they would be accompanied by several Helots and household members who would conduct the trade talks. They would be taking iron, and fine pottery for sale.

And Medousa had a letter of introduction from Thalestris, High Priestess of Athena in Sparta to Lysimache, High Priestess of Athena in Athens.

The girls were excited.

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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