Winner of the 1997
Kythira Prize awarded by the Historical Novel Society
It was spring, Plowistos ‘the month of sailing again’, when we saw the black ship heading into the bay. Even from our look-out position on the headland we could see that this was no freshly caulked vessel on her first voyage of the year. The hull was scarred and scraped from many rocky encounters, the paint on the figurehead at the prow dulled and flaking. The crew slumped over their oars, like men in the last stages of exhaustion, as the keel ground gently onto the shelving sand of the beach.
I had been expecting them, of course. The omens had foretold their arrival. The spring sacrifice had been made and already the bones of the victims were whitening on the rocks below the cliff on the far side of the island, picked clean by the gulls. The Goddess required a new consort, but nothing in the omens had warned me that these men came, not to honour, but to supplant Her.
We watched the men drag their battered craft up the beach, well clear of the surf and off-load a few meagre provisions. Their captain, meanwhile, stood on guard, watching the forest that fringed the beach, his spear ready in his right hand. Clearly, these men were no strangers to the danger that lurks in unknown places. He was a sturdy man, not particularly tall but with a wrestler’s shoulders and an athlete’s gait. From my position high up on the cliff I could not see his face clearly but the setting sun struck glints of reddish gold from his hair. I looked at the two handmaids who accompanied me.
The two girls nodded and one of them said, ‘Good workers, but not easy to subdue.’
I said, ‘Have a watch kept on them tonight. They won’t go far from their ship. Bring me word in the morning what they are doing.’
Next morning, as I stepped from my ritual bath, the girl, Chloris, presented herself.
‘They are coming,’ she reported, ‘But only half of them, and the captain is not among them.’
‘No matter,’ I replied. ‘Once his men are in my power he will come to seek them out. Now, bring me the sacred cauldron. I must prepare a special posset to welcome these weary travellers.’
The sun was high by the time the men reached the clearing in which the palace stood. From an upper window I watched them as they paused, sweating in the midday heat, taking in the scene before them. I reached out with my thoughts to picture it through their eyes: – the white walls of dressed limestone blocks, so perfectly fitting that the cracks between them were scarcely visible; the huge gates of polished wood which led into the inner courtyard; and beyond the building the fields vivid with the green of new crops, and the pens of cattle and swine. What they could not see was the fenced compound behind the palace, empty now and waiting. Nor could they see any sign of the workers who had ploughed and planted those crops and tended the animals.
I led the girls down to the great central hall and there we began to sing and dance the spell which would weave a net to trap our unwary guests. Within minutes I heard them knocking at the gates.
They were a ragged crew, their leather kilts worn and shiny from friction with the thwarts, their cloaks frayed and threadbare: but their bodies were lean and hard from rowing, the muscles in their legs and biceps standing out like the corded rigging of their ship. Chloris had been right. They would make good workers.
It was not hard to assume the charming manners of the courteous hostess. I had had plenty of practice, and so had my women. Each girl chose her man and led him to one of the magnificent carved chairs around the sides of the room, then placed a low table of polished wood at his side and set upon it a selection of delicacies. Meanwhile I ladled the contents of the cauldron into goblets.
‘Warm wine, my friends, to ease the pain of weary muscles! Drink deep! There is plenty more.’
They took me at my word, draining the goblets and falling upon the sweetmeats like men who have tasted nothing but the harshest fare for many weeks. The smiling girls refilled the cups and pressed them to drink again. As they caroused, we watched and waited.
It was not long before the potion began to take effect. Their eyes began to glaze, their speech to slur and then one of them cried out in horror, pointing across the floor to some monster of his imagining. There were a few moments of confusion while those who had drunk less or had stronger heads called out to their comrades, demanding to know what ailed them, but before long all had succumbed. At a signal from me the girls produced their whips and, laying them across unresisting backs, herded the men towards the door and out into the fenced compound at the rear. We set a guard over them and left them to sober up.
By nightfall they had recovered their senses. Some sat with their heads on their arms, given over to despair. Others were prowling the compound looking for weak points in the stockade: but the sight of our huntresses, as lean and strongly muscled as themselves and each armed with a spear, a bow and a quiver full of sharp tipped arrows, was sufficient to deter them from probing too far. Chloris and the other girls brought out baskets of coarse black bread and handfuls of nuts, which they threw into the compound. One of the men, with more spirit than the others, shouted,
‘Do you take us for pigs, that you throw us acorns to eat?’
‘You ate like swine this morning,’ Chloris returned. ‘Now you will be treated like swine.’
The sun had not been up many hours the next morning before our watchers brought news. The captain of the ship was coming, and he was alone. Once again I set the cauldron over the flames and turned to my store of magical herbs.
He came straight to the gates of the palace and smote on them with the haft of his spear. I opened them myself and for the first time we looked upon each other face to face. He was older than I had thought from a distance, the lines at the corners of his eyes deeply etched from squinting into the sun and the red gold of his hair and beard flecked with grey. Above his kilt his torso was burnt to the colour and texture of leather and seamed with the scars of old wounds. But his eyes were a vivid blue and as keen as a boy’s as they met my own. This was no callow youth, out to seek his first adventure, like so many who had strayed onto my shores. This was a warrior in his prime, and a worthy consort for the Goddess.
He greeted me courteously, his voice deep and rough-edged from shouting against the sea.
‘Lady, my name is Odysseus, son of Laertes, King of Ithaca. My men and I are voyaging homewards after many battles and adventures and we put in to your island in search of food and water. Some of them came this way and have not returned. I have come in search of them.’
I bowed my head and said softly, ‘You are welcome, my lord Odysseus. I was told in a dream by the Goddess whom I serve to expect your arrival. Pray come in and take some refreshment.’
He replied, ‘Lady, I too honour the Great Mother, as must all her creatures. I am glad to find myself in the presence of Her priestess.’
I took his hand, pitching my voice at its most seductive tone. I had arrayed myself in my finest tunic, woven so gossamer thin that it clung to the outline of my body, and covered it with a cloak of deepest crimson, dyed from one of my secret recipes. On my head I wore a golden diadem set with delicate stars of fine gold leaf and my long, dark hair had been dressed with perfumed oil. This man had been at sea for many months. How could he not be moved by such a vision?
‘My lord, lay aside your spear and your sword and be at your ease. You have no need for them here.’
For answer he unslung the great bronze sword in its silver-ornamented sheath which hung from his shoulder and removed his heavy cloak, but instead of handing them to me he set them carefully against the side of his chair, within easy reach. I made no comment, but signalled to my women to serve him with the food we had prepared, while I filled a golden goblet from the cauldron in the centre of the room.
‘This is a posset prepared to my own special recipe,’ I told him. ‘It has the property of easing all pain and bringing back youthful vigour to the weariest muscles.’
‘Then you could have found no one more in need of it than I am,’ he replied, but his eyes did not smile. ‘But first, let me crave a cup of clear water. My thirst is such that if I do not slake it I fear that I shall drink too much wine and disgrace myself.’
I nodded to one of the waiting women, who brought him a goblet of water fresh from the well. He drained it and set the cup aside, then took up the one I had given him.
‘I drink to your health, lady.’
He raised the cup to his lips and tasted the wine but I saw when he set it down that he taken only a sip. I seated myself opposite him and set myself to lull his suspicions by questioning him about his adventures. No man who had come to the island could tell such tales as this one – or tell them so eloquently. Listening to him, I almost forgot my object and let his cup remain untasted. Almost, but not quite. Whenever the opportunity arose I raised my own goblet and drunk to his lucky escape from the perils that beset him, and he, as good manners required, drank in return. From time to time I refilled his cup and at length I saw his eyelids begin to droop. Finally, the cup slid from his hand and clattered to the ground.
I rose and signalled to my women and they moved forward, their long whips at the ready. I walked over to Odysseus and took a handful of his hair. As if my touch had banished the effects of the drug he sprang upright and in the next instant I felt the cold edge of his sword against my throat. His eyes glittered like ice as they stared into mine.
‘No, lady! This time you have met your match. I serve Zeus the Thunderer, to whom even the Great Mother bends the knee. Now, tell your women to release my men from wherever you have hidden them and bring them here, or by His name, I will slit your throat.’
I stared up into his face. Now he had me by the hair and was dragging my head back, exposing my throat to his blade. I was aware of my women standing aghast at a little distance and my mind was racing. How had he resisted the powerful magic of the drugged potion? Did he have some antidote of greater potency, and if so who had given it to him? Was it possible that he spoke the truth and that he was the messenger of a greater God?
It was only later that Chloris showed me how the trick had been worked. On the floor, concealed by the folds of his cloak, was the goblet that had contained the water. It was now almost full of wine. Somehow, during our long conversation, he had managed to distract my attention so that I had not seen him emptying the drugged potion into it. But, at that moment, all I could think of was that I had met a magic more powerful than my own.
Slowly, so as not to provoke him, I slid to my knees in front of him.
‘Noble Odysseus, beloved of Zeus, forgive me. I am only the humble handmaiden of the Goddess and it is my duty to find a new consort for Her, so that the earth may be fertile and the animals may bring forth young. Since you are Her Chosen One and I am Her representative on earth, let us now go to Her sacred bower and there perform the springtime ritual.’
His hand relaxed a little but his sword was still at my throat.
‘And what of my men, lady? Do you expect me to bed you, while they languish in your prison? They may already be dead, for all I know.’
‘No,’ I exclaimed, ‘I swear to you, they are alive and unharmed. But they must serve the Great Mother, as we all must.’
‘Serve her how?’ he demanded.
I eased myself back from him a little. ‘For one year they must plough and sow and tend the creatures in her Holy precinct. It has always been thus among us.’
He frowned. ‘Have you no menfolk of your own to do this work?’
I hesitated. ‘It is forbidden for any man to stay for longer than a year on the island.’
‘Then you and your women – none of you have husbands?’
‘No. We are dedicated to the goddess.’
‘And children? Where do your young people come from?’
‘The Great Mother blesses us, as She blesses the creatures of the field – as long as there are men here to perform her rites.’
‘For one year only?’ he repeated and I nodded. He considered for a moment. ‘Give me back my men, and I will honour the Goddess with you as her rites demand.’
‘But if I release your men, how do I know you will not turn upon me and my women, ravish us or murder us, and then return to your ship?’ I responded.
He nodded. ‘It is a fair question. Let us swear to each other in the name of the Gods we both serve. If you release my men, I promise you that we will do you no harm. We will remain here to do the Lady’s bidding for one year, since that is clearly why she has brought us here. You, in your turn, must swear that you will treat us with dignity, as free men who serve willingly, and not as slaves.’
‘And you will lie with me in the sacred bower?’ My heart was beating fast, but no longer with fear.
‘I will lie with you,’ he promised. ‘Do you swear but the Great Mother of Earth, the threefold Goddess of birth and ripeness and death, that you will deal honestly with me? And remember, her vengeance on those who break an oath in Her name is terrible.’
‘I swear,’ I answered. ‘Do you swear the like by me?’
‘By the name of Almighty Zeus, I swear it,’ he replied.
He released me then and I sent the women to free his men from the compound. When they came into the hall he explained to them the oath he had taken on their behalf and how he had bound them all to work for the Goddess for one year. It was not hard to see that for many of them this was a severe blow, coming on top of all their other trials, but none could gainsay Her will.
As for my lord Odysseus, my handmaidens led him to a ritual bath and when they had cleansed the salt sweat from his body and anointed him with sweet smelling oils they brought him to me in the sacred bower and there we honoured the Great Earth Mother in the way she has decreed. I had performed the rite many times before, with many others, but it had never seemed so complete, or brought me so much pleasure.
So began the year of destiny. The Argive men worked well among our fields and flocks and the land prospered, but they sacrificed to Zeus the Father, not to the Goddess. They took mates from among the women of my household, but it was they who chose, instead of waiting to be chosen. Not that the women raised any objections, for these men won their hearts as well as their bodies. As for my lord Odysseus and I, we rejoiced in each other’s company. Never before had I known a man who could not only please me in bed, more than any other before him, but whose presence during the day filled me with delight.
One thing only marred my joy, and that was the thought that the months were passing and all too soon it would be the time of the spring sacrifice. One day, when the first green shoots were pushing their way through the soil in sheltered corners, Chloris came to me with tears in her eyes. I would never have believed it possible for a girl to change so much as she had done in a year. She had taken as her mate Polites, the man who had defied her in the compound, and all her contempt had softened into love. Finding me alone, she dropped on her knees and spoke imploringly.
‘Lady, the spring is almost here but I cannot bear the thought that my beloved Polites must suffer the same cruel fate as all those others. Does the Goddess demand the sacrifice of every man who has served her? Could not one or two be spared?’
‘Are you asking me to spare Polites, when the rest must suffer?’ I asked her severely. ‘Are there not a dozen others who might make the same plea, if I were to listen to you?’
‘But you, yourself, lady,’ she pleaded, ‘can you contemplate the death of my lord Odysseus?’
She had voiced the very thoughts that burned in my brain, but I could not let her see my anguish. ‘The goddess must be served, Chloris,’ I said ‘If the rites are not performed She may turn her face from us and then the crops will fail and the animals will be barren. The earth must be fertilised with blood. So it has been since the beginning of time, and so it must always be.’
‘But must it?’ the girl cried. ‘Polites says that Zeus does not require such sacrifice.’
‘You have told him of our rites?’ I demanded. ‘That is sacrilege!’
‘No, of course not!’ She had paled at my anger. ‘But we have spoken of his country and its gods.’
‘It is not for you to question the ways of the goddess!’ I told her fiercely. ‘Go, before I grow angry with you. You will do as you are told and can expect no special treatment.’
Nevertheless, she had sown a seed in my mind which began to put down roots.
A few days later Odysseus came to me, his face pale and grave.
‘Circe, I have heard something from one of my men which turns my heart cold. I must know from you if it is true. When the year is up, shall we be permitted to return to our ship and sail for home?’
I looked at him and he must have seen the answer in my eyes.
‘What happens?’ he asked, very quietly.
I rose from my chair and turned away from him. It was impossible to speak the words face to face.
‘When the day of sacrifice comes, you and your men will be taken to the top of the cliff where Her sanctuary stands. You have never been there because it is forbidden to men. If you had, you would have seen below the cliff the wave-washed bones of former sacrifices.’
‘You would throw us from the cliff?’ he exclaimed, in tones of disbelief. ‘How could you and your band of women find the strength to perform such a feat?’
‘We shall not need to,’ I answered. ‘When the Goddess descends and takes possession of your men the terror of it will drive them over the cliff edge.’
He stared at me, the blood draining from his face. ‘And me? Shall I also be possessed?’
I shook my head. ‘The fate of the Lady’s consort is different. His throat is slit upon the altar in the sanctuary and his blood is drunk by the handmaidens of the Goddess.’
‘By whom is his throat slit,’ he demanded hoarsely.
I turned away and shook my head without speaking, but he knew the answer.
‘And what is to stop me taking my men this very day and putting out to sea?’ He was shouting at me now.
I looked him in the eyes. ‘You and your men have been our honoured guests, as I promised. But your weapons are locked in one of my storerooms, and my huntresses are well practised with both spears and bow and arrows, as you well know.’
‘And would they turn on us? Would you set them to kill us?’
I stared at him, my eyes brimming with tears. ‘You know I must. The Goddess must be served.’
He turned without another word and strode out of the room. I flung myself upon my couch and wept as I had never wept in my life.
Later that night he came to me. I sat up, surprised, as I had thought all kindness was at an end between us.
‘Circe, listen,’ he said. ‘I have been walking in the forest, trying to ascertain the will of the Gods and Zeus sent me a messenger in the shape of a young man.’
‘A young man?’ I queried. ‘There are no men on the island, apart from your own.’
‘Which just goes to prove that he was a messenger from Almighty Zeus,’ my lord went on. ‘He saw that I was troubled and asked why. When I told him he said, ‘Go to the lady Circe and tell her that the old order has changed. Your Goddess is still greatly to be honoured, but even She must bow to the will of Zeus and it is not His will that these men should die. Tell her she must find another sacrifice.’
I gazed into his face. ‘How can I be sure that this is indeed the word of God and not a trick on your part to save your life?’
His eyes held mine. ‘You must search your heart, Circe, and pray to your Lady for enlightenment. Have you not told me that this year everything has been different? Zeus gave me the power to overcome your magic on that first day. Do you think He intends to let you kill me?’
I reached out and seized his hand. ‘Oh, my dearest, do you not know how heavy my heart is at the thought? I would rather we both leapt from the cliff together.’
He laid my hand against his cheek and murmured, ‘I know it, dear heart. But why should the Mother of all wish us to suffer? Sleep now, and perhaps She will speak to you in a dream and tell you what you must do.’
His words were prophetic, for that night the Goddess spoke to me through the lips of the infant son born to me that winter.
‘The Mother of all is weary of the taste of human blood,’ he said in my dream. ‘You must spare my father and his men, and fertilise the land instead with the blood of animals. And from now on male and female shall live together in harmony on Her island. This is Her will and must be obeyed.’
I woke the next day more light hearted than I had been for many months and when Odysseus came to me I told him of my dream.
‘So,’ he said, smiling tenderly at me, ‘Her will is clear. Now it only remains for us to devise some new form of sacrifice.’
‘We must be careful, though,’ I told him. ‘You and I are satisfied that She has indeed spoken, but others may be harder to convince. There are those among my followers who already murmur against me and say that I have become infatuated with you. If they believe that I am profaning the rites in order to preserve you they will turn on us both.’
‘Then we must convince them that the sacrifice has been carried out according to tradition,’ he murmured. ‘Come, let us put our heads together and devise a plan.’
The morning of the sacrifice began with the ritual libations and the drinking continued all day. Without the wine, I knew, the women would not have been able to bring themselves to do what must be done, and the men too, must be lulled into a false sense of security.
At dusk we sent the men to wait in the sanctuary at the edge of the cliff while the women prepared themselves. In due course I made my way there in procession with my handmaidens and began to perform the necessary invocation. The men shifted uneasily. I knew that while they waited Odysseus had told them our plan, but I could not blame them for being nervous.
As the full moon rose out of the sea a sound came from the dense forest around us, a shrill ululation like the cry of wolves. I had heard it many times before, but it still chilled my blood. Small wonder that a murmur of terror rose from the group of men. Out of the forest came figures, half human, half animal, their faces smeared with blood, rushing forward towards the men, who faced them with their backs to the sheer drop. As the gap closed between them the men shrank back, ever nearer to the edge.
At that moment a second cry arose, and a great trampling of hooves. Dark shapes hurtled through the undergrowth and the air was filled with deep, snoring grunts. Chloris and her companions had done their work well. The herd of swine, maddened by the pricking of spears and the sting of stones, stampeded out of the forest and swept like a black river towards the edge of the cliff. The huntresses had just time to scramble aside before the leading animals plunged past them and hurled themselves into the void.
For a few moments all was confusion as the rest of the herd followed the leaders. Then a terrible silence fell. The cliff edge was empty, bare of either men or beasts. The huntresses, balked of their prey, stood panting and gazing around them as if waking from a dream. It was my cue to speak. I stepped up onto the dais where the altar was set.
‘Listen to me! The Great Mother whom we honour has sent us a sign and I will interpret it to you. She spoke to me in a dream and told me She is weary of the stench of human blood. She herself has sent these creatures to take the place of those we would have sacrificed. From now on no more men are to die on her altar.’
There was a hush, then someone called out, ‘But the blood of the King must be shed! Without that the land will be barren.’
‘No!’ I replied. ‘The Lady desires not the blood of men. We shall sacrifice a ram and a ewe instead and sprinkle their blood on the land.’
Another voice spoke, less strident than the first. ‘But the men are gone. The beasts have swept them onto the rocks below.’
‘Not so,’ I said. ‘She who rules the dead as well as the living has taken them to herself for a while but, as the new grass returns in the spring, so She who is the Mother of all things will return them to us when it pleases Her. Let us now make our sacrifice. The Goddess has spoken. We must do Her will.’
And so it was. Only I knew of the cave hidden just below the cliff edge, which Odysseus had found and which sheltered him and his men until the sacrifice was over. Only I knew that their ship had been secretly moved the night before and moored in a sheltered cove close by. For two days we mourned. For two long nights I lay awake wondering if my lord would keep his word. Then, on the third day, a messenger came to me in great excitement. The black ship had been sighted heading into the bay. Odysseus and his crew had crossed the waters of Acheron and returned unscathed.
It is many years now since my lord returned to his home on rocky Ithaca but his Gods still hold the land. We live differently now. Since men are no longer sacrificed we have become a regular port of call for the vessels which trade in these seas. Some of the sailors choose to settle here, and our sons no longer have to leave us when they reach manhood. The men till the ground, but they are the hunters now as well and we women sit at home with our looms. The Goddess is still honoured here, but as one among many, not as the sole arbiter of life and death. Did I betray Her, or have I served Her will? She gave me a few short years of joy – but was that reward or punishment?