Part I, Sparta– Athena’s City

The journey itself was long, but uneventful. Chionis fit in at least an hour or two of training daily, and one of the Helots of Helen’s family taught the girls about trade and commerce and how to bargain.

Athens was, as they had expected, not a pleasant place to be. People lived and worked crowded together in narrow streets that overflowed with public buildings, private houses, shop stalls, and shrines. The city was closely surrounded by walls, making the Spartans feel claustrophobic. The smells and noise of ‘big city’ life was wearying to them. And the Athenians themselves? They treated the Spartans as if they were country bumpkins, uncultured, uneducated, and uncouth; though apart from their cosmopolitan condescension, they weren’t actively unpleasant to them.

After settling in at lodgings near the Agora, the first thing the Spartans did was to plot out their strategy. Maia began keeping house in their rooms, and several of the other Helots rented space in the Agora to sell their wares.

Chionis went to the gymnasium to inspect their facilities, but was rebuffed when he made mention of his pupils. The Athenians were aghast at the idea of women training like men. He did, however, succeed in finding a young philosopher, recently arrived from Samos, who was said to be willing to teach women as well as men in his school. Chionis decided his teachings were sound, and well presented, and so he engaged him for a few hours a day with the girls for their time in Athens.

Medousa, Cynisca, and Helen had a difficult time getting to see the high priestess Lysimache.  Each day, before the market hours, they tried to go to see the board of governors who administered the affairs of the temples on the Acropolis. But they had not counted on the officers being offended at having to speak with women. The officers were neither impressed with their lineages, nor by Thalestris’ letters of introduction, nor yet by claims of a prophecy made some years ago. In fact, on their second or third attempt, they were quickly ushered out by the cultic guards, and told in no uncertain terms not to return.

It was Helen who, falling in with the gossip around the Agora as they worked their market stalls, discovered the dwelling of the high priestess. She took Maia and a male Helot to conduct her past the guardians of the Acropolis, and called on the high priestess at her home, as a daughter of the Agiads. Helen arranged an informal audience with Lysimache at her house, to introduce Medousa as a daughter of the Eurypontids. Lysimache had in fact already received a letter from Thalestris telling her to expect the three girls, and she invited them to dine with her that week.

 

“Ladies! Welcome to Athens!”

Lysimache greeted them warmly as they were brought in to her chambers. She was an old woman, in her sixties, yet still pleasant to look upon. She had a serenely handsome face, and a warm manner. “Welcome back, Helen,” she smiled. “And you must be Medousa and Cynisca,” she continued. “Thalestris wrote that she would be sending you along to see me. She wrote that she was sending letters of recommendation for one of you to enter the Goddess’ service.”

The girls were unsure quite what to make of this welcome, for their last audience with a priestess of Athena was cool and formal.

“Come,” Lysimache was saying. “Join me for lunch in the garden, and we’ll talk.”

Servants accompanied them into the central courtyard of the high priestess’ house. Couches and tables were already set, and the three were seated as Lysimache signaled for wine to be brought.

“I have always envied you ladies of Sparta your freedom,” Lysimache began. “Athens must seem strange to you, all of our women locked away in their houses….” She laughed gently.

“It’s much different than what we are accustomed to,” Helen said diplomatically.

“And the men stare at us when we go out,” Cynisca said.

“Beauty’s curse,” the high priestess commented drily as she gazed at Helen and Medousa.

They laughed together. Presently, Lysimache called for bread and fruit. As the servants busied themselves with their service, the high priestess addressed the girls again.

“So–Which one of you is here to devote herself to Athena?”

“Me, mistress,” Medousa responded. She handed the letter Thalestris had written for her to Lysimache. “And thank you for seeing us.”

The priestess looked up, pleased. “A courteous tongue, and good–if somewhat unrefined–manners; you’ll go far with such mien.” She took a moment, reading the letter of introduction and sipping her wine.

Eventually, she looked up and sighed, smiling.

“So? No positions vacant in Sparta?”

The girls smiled with her, but said nothing. Lysimache sighed again. “I see,” she said, not unkindly.

“Yet this is so important to you that you’ve come all the way from Sparta to pursue your purpose. You are three very determined young ladies.”

She paused, looking closely at Medousa. “Why do you wish to enter the Goddess’ service?”

“I admire the Goddess, Lady,” Medousa answered. “She embodies the Spartan ideal for women–Learned, wise, skilled in battle, skilled in household crafts….”

But something in her demeanor, and in the answer she gave, seemed suspicious to the high priestess. Medousa’s speech seemed just a little too practiced. Lysimache smiled at Medousa, almost winking at her.

“That was very good; now tell me the real reason you are here. Truthfully.”

The girls were taken aback. Medousa and Cynisca quickly looked to each other in a way that made the high priestess raise an eyebrow. Cynisca seemed about to speak, but Medousa replied first.

“That I might be able to stay with Cynisca.”

Lysimache looked narrowly upon them, her brows knit together. Helen spoke, breaking the brief, uncomfortable silence.

“Our Medousa was a Helot all her life in Cynisca’s service. But even though she’s a free citizen now, no one of our station would take her in marriage because they remember her as a slave. And when we are married off, what will she do? If she can serve the Goddess, she will have standing in the City. She will be able to stay amongst her friends without shame or dishonor.”

“None of this diminishes my devotion to Athena in the least,” Medousa interrupted. “I did not lie; the Goddess has always been my….” She trailed off as the high priestess continued to gaze at them, thinking.

Cynisca reached out to take Medousa’s hand. “There is more,” she told Lysimache. “Our Medousa was marked as Athena’s long ago.” She told Lysimache about Tiresias’ pronouncement.

The high priestess raised her eyebrows in surprise. She tilted her head, a thoughtful expression on her face. She idly called for more wine.

“So,” she said at last. “You would come here, to study, to enter Athena’s cult, to become a priestess, and then you would return to serve in Sparta.”

Again, silence. Lysimache leaned back as one of her servants refilled her cup. She took a long thoughtful swallow. The girls held their breath. She turned to look at them.

“An aspirant priestess must be of an aristocratic family, and be possessed of some wealth….”

“My brother adopted her into our family,” Cynisca spoke, almost keeping the desperate edge out of her voice.

“H’mmm,” Lysimache considered. “That’s something….”

The girls began to relax.

“You see, my dears, there are four ways to become a priestess. You can either inherit the position, it can fall to you by allotment, you can be elected or appointed by the relevant committee of citizens, or–” she smiled widely–“You can purchase the post.”

There was an audible sound as Helen, Cynisca, and Medousa relaxed. Lysimache would help them, after all.

“I don’t suppose any of you have money of your own yet…?”

The girls sheepishly shook their heads.

“A pity,” Lysimache said. “It is expensive to bribe the board of governors, but it is the surest and fastest way to secure a position.” She laughed. “Well, you’re strangers in Athens, so it’s unlikely anyone would appoint you, or elect you. And you can’t inherit a post….”

“But what can we do, then?” Helen blurted out, worry darkening her voice.

Lysimache laughed again and sat up. “We shall have to do this the old-fashioned way,” she told them.

“We ask the Goddess herself.”

The high priestess looked over at Medousa.

“You’ve been honest with me; that’s to your credit. And I’m sure an educated warrior-woman like you, Spartan, would be looked upon kindly by Athena.” Lysimache paused. “You say Tiresias himself said that Athena had marked you; but that does not necessarily mean you are to be a priestess.” She shrugged. “And while your motives might not be entirely selfless, well–Who takes up any task of service without expecting some sort of compensation?”  She leaned forward, smiling again.

“You will do your devotions to the Goddess daily,” Lysimache directed Medousa. “Meanwhile, I myself will intercede for you.  At the first moon after the market days–I believe ten or twelve days hence–you will come to me here, and we will go together to Athena’s Temple. We will make an offering and cast lots to see if the Goddess will accept you. If she does, then you will begin your training with me.”

The three girls smiled with delight.

“After a year, I will send you back to Thalestris with my blessings. I think I will be able to persuade her to find you a post if you do well here and please our Lady.”

The high priestess smiled again at them, and after finishing their meal, she sent them on their way.

 

As the girls were conducted away down to the lower parts of the city by their Helot, Maia lingered behind. “You three go on ahead,” she told them. “I have a matter for the high priestess.”

Cynisca was concerned. “Maia? Is something wrong…?”

“Nothing at all, my honey,” the old nurse replied. “Go on; I’ll see you soon.”

Returning to Lysimache’s house, she begged audience with the priestess. The servants brought her in and took her to Lysimache in the receiving hall. The high priestess greeted her kindly.

“You were with Medousa and her friends, were you not? What can I do for you?”

“Mistress,” Maia said. “I have something for you. It concerns Medousa and her future.”

Lysimache was suddenly curious. “What is it?” She asked.

“The girls told you about the pronouncement Tiresias made over Medousa…”

“Yes. A prophecy like that, from such a one as Tiresias–Most impressive.”

“There was more,” Maia said. “Cynisca’s family didn’t want to hear it at the time, but I went to Tiresias myself to hear the full prophecy.”

Lysimache leaned forward with interest. “More? What did he say?”

Wordlessly, Maia took a small, carefully kept piece of papyrus from her robes and handed it to the high priestess. Lysimache studied it carefully.

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.

 

“I do not understand it,” Maia confessed. “But, I think that you should have this.”

Lysimache looked up at Maia, her brows darkened with wonder.

“Do any of the young ladies know of this prophecy?” She asked.

Maia shook her head. “I was never sure if I should tell them. But I held on to it. I never told anyone about it, but…I think you should know.”

“And you don’t know what this means?”

“No, Mistress. But perhaps Athena will grant you the understanding that eludes me.”

Maia paused. “But it frightens me…. When Athena accepts our Medousa–”

If,” Lysimache gently corrected.

When,” Maia insisted. “When she is accepted…” She drifted off, suddenly pensive. The high priestess waited patiently for her to gather her thoughts.

“Please look after my girls while they are in Athens,” the old nurse implored at last.

 

Helen was deeply relieved, and Medousa and Cynisca were ecstatic. They returned to their lodgings, and continued with the business they had been originally sent to conduct. But Cynisca and Helen sent Medousa to make her devotions daily as long as they were in Athens.

 

Medousa went to the old olive tree in the gardens of the temple district. It was said that this was the very tree Athena herself caused to spring up as a gift to the city. This would be a good place for her to pray, she thought. She would be close to the Goddess here.

She made it a routine for the next week, early each morning, to come here to do her devotions as her candidacy was being considered by Lysimache–and, she hoped, by the Goddess herself.

One morning when she arrived, she saw an old man sitting by, apparently contemplating the tree. Though old, he still had vigor in his limbs. He was broad of shoulder and deep of chest, and his dark, curling locks were shot through with grey. His face was lined and weathered, and his eyes were a tired slate green. He had his belongings tied up in a small fisherman’s net at the end of a trident. He had the look of one who had traveled long, and smelt vaguely of the sea.

The old man looked up as she approached, slightly startled.

“Good mornin’, missy,” he said cheerfully. “Come to make your morning prayers, have you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Haven’t seen you around these parts before,” he said, eying her. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Medousa, of Sparta, sir.”

“Sparta? That’s a long way off. Landlocked, too. What’re you doing here in Athens?”

“I’m here to become a priestess of Athena. My friends and I are still in our time of Agoge.”

The old man grunted acknowledgment. “My name’s Erectheus. I’m just an old sailor. Do a bit of fishing now and again. Nice to see the young’uns taking an interest in the Gods.”

He rose, letting his eyes linger on Medousa a bit longer than she was comfortable with.  He flashed her a vaguely lecherous smile, then left the garden.

Medousa looked after him as he left, and shivered. Then, she collected herself and began her prayers.

 

On the twelfth day after they had visited the residence of the high priestess, Medousa, Cynisca, and Helen went up to the Parthenon as Lysimache had instructed. The girls had brought finely woven gowns that they had purchased in the market as gifts, and they brought offerings for Athena of their own substance.

The sanctuary virgins welcomed them, and brought Medousa before the High Priestess, who brought her before the sacred image of Athena. She spared a smile for Medousa and quickly commented “The portents are good, Medousa.” And then they began the ceremonies.

After the cerements were observed, and the sacrifices made, the high priestess then began to petition the Goddess on Medousa’s behalf. By the end of the afternoon, it was clear to all in the sanctuary that Athena Parthenos had indeed accepted the stunningly godlike beauty as an aspirant, and indeed, even expressed partiality for her. Medousa and Cynisca were elated.

Later, as they were being led out of the Parthenon, Medousa’s fiery golden tresses caught the sunlight. Cynisca thought her Medousa had never looked more beautiful. Lysimache paused with them on the porch and spoke to them.

“This will take some delicate maneuvering,” she told them. “The Goddess has accepted you. Now, I must go to the board of regents. You three return to Sparta. I will make prayers for you and press the governing council. This time next month, I will send for you–At the request of the Goddess Herself.” She smiled broadly at them.

“Be ready to travel.”

 

But, the weeks of waiting became months. First two, then three. The girls’ former excitement turned to anxiety. Medousa and Cynisca tried to keep their fears at bay by training all the more vigorously at combat, riding, and athletics. But Helen used the time to find an excuse that would allow her and Cynisca to accompany Medousa when the letter of the high priestess of Athena Parthenos would arrive.

Helen’s idea was to set up a trade delegation in Athens for the year of Medousa’s training. She had noticed when they were last there, that the Athenians prized the fine iron and bronze they had had for sale. A small Spartan shop in the Agora, selling their metal, would be a good excuse. It would also provide another stream of revenue for Sparta. Not only did Helen’s family approve of the idea, but so did Cynisca’s.

Helen also spoke to Chionis, prevailing upon him to return with them to Athens as their guardian, and to continue their training there. Chionis was agreeable to the arrangement, as the Agiads offered him a generous salary as an inducement. He and Helen even drew up a list of provisions and equipment they would take with them.

Arranging all the details of such a long sojourn, managing things as if she were the matron of her own house, was Helen’s way of dealing with her own anxiety. And it was good that she had the skill and energy, and the foresight to do so; For Medousa and Cynisca were spending almost all of their time either making supplications to Athena, or physically training themselves into exhaustion.

 

When Lysimache’s letter finally arrived, it made quite an impression on the high priestess of Athena Polioukhos and of Athena Khalkioikos. Thalestris herself paid a visit to Eupoleia and Archidamus to discuss the arrangement. They were more than a little surprised, for the request that Medousa come to Athens came from the Goddess herself. –As related by high priestess Lysimache, of course. With such endorsements, there was little trouble convincing the king and queen to allow Cynisca to accompany Medousa to Athens for the year. Especially as a part of the long-planned trade delegation they were sending with the Agiads.

Medousa celebrated that night with Helen, Cynisca, and Agesilaus, who had come for a visit.  He was almost as enthusiastic as his sister for Medousa’s good fortune.

“I shall ask mother and father to put off my wedding until you return, Medousa,” he told her. “You can officiate at my marriage!”

Cynisca clapped, laughing. “Yes! Yes! And then, when my time comes, you can do mine!”

They spent the evening drinking and talking until Agesilaus had to return to his barracks. The girls would need to get an early start that next day. That next morning, Helen, Cynisca, Medousa, Chionis, and some twenty Helots of both the Eurypontids and the Agiads, left for Athens.

 

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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