Friday, October 31, 2014

On Circe's Island

On an Island in the Deep Blue Sea

You called her dwelling a cottage,
Elsewhere a man said wanderers
Found it in a glen: a fine house,
Built skillfully of polished stones. Up on a
Promontory, like those from which heroines
Of ancient times leaped into Ocean, before
They were worshiped as deities,
Their sanctification the
Best recourse against persecution,
Scandal, disgrace; dancing dervishes in the night sky:
Exploding, stellar; bright; like
Constellations and their whitest stars,
Known to us merely by storied names:
The name Gemma, brilliant star of the Corona
The name Lyra, Apollo’s lyre,
Once the precious joy of Orpheus; for these
Leaping heroines had a velocity approaching that of bright
Maia in Taurus,
Maia of the Pléiades, Seven Sisters eternally fleeing
From the hunter, Orion, whom they outpaced in Heaven.

But back on Earth Orion’s follower, Jason of Awesome Nous (mind) caught a fleet-footed maiden from the neighboring village, running from a group of soldiers; and he brought her before his uncle, a judge. For Jason of Awesome Nous, looking carefully now upon the girl’s fresh beauty, meeting for a second her intelligent eyes, wanted to marry her right away; but his uncle demanded of the child whether or not she had been used by any of the soldiers who terrorized the land.

And gazing down at the ground, the child murmured softly that she had not been so used, and she answered one further question put by the judge, repeating quietly that she had not been used by any man ever, at any time, and she blushed and wept at having to answer such questions.

Again Jason looked closely at her and felt his pulse quicken at her beauty and her youthful charm. The youth begged his uncle to marry them at once. Soon her mother and her female relatives, sent for by the judge, would arrive––and they would arrive shrieking and screaming, Hermione knew. However, the child carried on weeping, for she was thinking of the girls who were sent away from the villages, cast out through no fault of their own, simply because a foreigner had carried them off for a few hours, then released them at the gates of the town.

And Hermione knew that those girls lived in caves: wild they were, like young boys, and they hunted and fished for their own food with the weapons they had made: spears and fishing poles and bows and arrows; they kept goats and sheep that had strayed from the villagers’ flocks, and soon they had their own flocks; they gathered eggs from the nests of the birds nearby; and small olive trees they had planted by the doors of their caves; they grew crops on the land they had claimed; and they wore fine tunics made of lambs’ wool, colored in dyes of their own making; and they stitched robes from variegated animal skins, robes thick, and more beautiful, and warmer, it was said, than any the villagers had ever worn.

Once or twice, to tell true, when she had seen in the far distance a pack of wild girls running free––she, Hermione Leuco, had longed to run with the pack, to visit their caves perhaps, and see their treasures, for it was rumored that they had curtains in the entryway of each cave, and that these curtains were made of strings hanging to the ground, and on these strings were glimmering jewels, perhaps stolen from the villagers (though no one claimed to be missing anything), perhaps discovered deep in the recesses of the cave. Hermione loved her parents dearly, and wished to remain with them always, though she dreamed sometimes of joining the wild girls; but now, as she stood before this judge who made her cry soft tears, and the handsome boy beside her comforted her and held her hand and spoke to her softly, and she heard him speak of marriage, she knew that such a thing was not possible.

Hermione knew that she was not brave enough to marry this boy and place herself in his care. She was not brave enough to marry any boy, even a boy like her cousin, whom she knew and loved so well. For boys soon turned to men, and men frightened her.

Now a scene of madness ensued, a scene of frenzy almost, for at the same time that Hermione’s mother and her aunt and cousins arrived running and calling out to her, bringing a shawl to wrap her in, and cool water from  the well, Jason’s brother arrived dragging a marauding foreign soldier by his hair, and flung him before  the judge so that the soldier sprawled helplessly on the ground. Now the women came before the judge and they were not shy. They shouted loudly at Jason’s uncle, the judge, demanding that he release Hermione to their care.

“Why must our daughters be driven from the village?” they wanted to know.

“Soon there will be no brides left for the village boys,” one matron observed.

“You are turning our daughters into wild animals!” shouted another.

And another said:

“Worse than wild animals!” For it was one of Hermione’s cousins.
“They have built their own homes, their own network of sleeping quarters and meeting houses and lodges. They live entirely without men––like Amazons. They live without their parents and their grandparents. Yet they have succeeded in making everything they need. They have lethal weapons, and when the foreign soldiers come, they are better able to defend themselves than we are! We need them to come home, but how can we ever tempt them to come back to the village?”    

The judge angrily demanded of the women that they calm themselves, and he insisted that they not speak out of turn. Hermione’s mother came forward then and spoke reasonably, in measured tones, claiming that Hermione was most closely supervised, and that no evil man, no foreigner, had ever had the chance to turn her mind. Might she not have been taken against her will, as she crossed the fields at dusk, carrying a pail of fresh goat’s milk? But this was not possible, the women maintained, for she never crossed the fields alone, day or night, but went to milk the goats with the other children, girls and boys from the village. 

Now the judge and the women began to shout anew, and more loudly than all of them, the captive soldier, lying on the ground, his hands still bound behind his back, shouted that no other man could have this girl, because he, a foreign soldier, had used her; and according to the laws of hospitality, he must be allowed to marry the girl then and there, rather than that her parents be forced the very next day, at dawn, to make her a small kit of food and other necessities, and giving her this kit and a tight bundle of clothing, just so: they must push her from the door of the house, sending her away with tears and lamentations, telling her she must never come back. So spoke the foreign soldier as he looked hungrily at the pretty girl standing very near to him. And the judge demanded of Hermione if any word of what the foreigner had said could possibly be true––but when the assembled people looked eagerly to Hermione to hear her answer, there was no Hermione! There was no one, indeed, who might answer this or any other question, for the poor child had fainted dead away. And the womenfolk gathered around her, and carried her to one of the houses nearby; and they were welcomed inside the house. Soon they came running back to the judge, swearing oath upon oath that the girl was virgo intacta.

Now Jason of Awesome Nous stepped forward, and demanded the right to settle the matter clearly and once and for all: he would engage the captive solder in single combat, man to man. The judge, his uncle, did not want to allow such a contest to take place, for Jason was but a youth of sixteen, while the soldier on his knees before the judge was larger and looked rougher: a man of perhaps twenty-seven years. At the same time, the judge, Jason’s uncle, recognized that it was Jason’s right to demand a trial by combat, for he had come of age. Nevertheless he tried to dissuade his nephew, for if Jason lost, both his life and the life of the girl, Hermione, would be forfeit. But Jason, all fire and high spirits, all passion and undying love, stood firm, calling out to the soldier to choose his weapon. And the soldier chose the most brutal type of contest imaginable, one which, considering his bulk, his relative mass in comparison to the wiry strength of Jason, everyone expected the soldier to win: he chose hand to hand combat with no weapons on either side.

And there in the center of the village, there in the square, Jason threw off his cloak and his shirt and his tunic; likewise the soldier, stranger to all the people thereabouts, stripped down to a few pieces of clothing; and the men began to grapple, now pummeling one another, now wrestling, now attempting to flip one another from a standing position onto the ground. Jason was smaller, but he was of Awesome Nous (mind), after all,

And inside the home where Hermione had been taken to recover her spirits, when the girl was informed that that youth was now her champion, she sat up and laughed with delight, sure that Jason would prevail. But outside in the town square, in the heat of the sun, the fight went on and on, for in fact the men were evenly matched. On and on the two men lasted: bloodied now and bruised, the both of them, and still with no weakening or giving in of either man in prospect. On and on they grappled, from noon to dusk.

Now it could be seen that Jason, younger, unused as he was to fighting,  slighter of build, and shorter than the foreigner, was beginning to tire, and the foreigner smiled to himself as he saw victory in sight; now the soldier grabbed hold of Jason, and with his sharp, almost unbearably bony knuckles, he jammed his fists up against Jason’s head and pressed hard against the young man’s temples, as though to crush his skull; but Jason took him by the wrists and tore away his arms, and the next thing you knew, Jason had hurled him down upon the ground. And on the ground the two men rolled on the earth.

It seemed indeed, as though the soldier could go on rolling back and forth forever, forever pummeling his partner’s back and pressing him down into the dust. And now he began to fight against the rules. Grabbing at Jason’s ear, he pulled on the young man’s earring, tearing off the earlobe. More than once he managed to wind Jason by using knees and feet to strike at his genitals. More than once he punched him in the kidneys. And now he tried to gouge Jason’s eyes.

Concerned to help Jason in any way she could, Hermione had come outside and was standing near the two who were fighting for her. Or were they simply fighting? They seemed to have forgotten her in their death struggle. Horribly, the foreigner was gouging one of Jason's eyes, and blood ran from the youth's eye and nose. Suddenly Jason leaped on his assailant, and clamping his teeth to the soldier's throat, he tore it out: in a rush of blood and flesh, the soldier was gone. 

Nor did Hermione faint dead away. Having watched Jason with such interest as he fought for her with his life, Hermione ran to him with cool water and gave him to drink and washed the blood and dirt from his face. And caring for him so, she saw that she had nothing to fear from Jason; and the girl child and the youth comforted one another as the body of the foreign soldier was taken away for burial.

It is said that Hermione agreed to marry Jason as soon as she came of age, but she made one condition: that the girls who had been exiled be welcomed home again. And most of the girls rejoiced and put down their weapons, but a few wished to stay and live wild with their home in the caves. And the villagers erected a shrine to the Goddess, Protectress of girls and young women; and the girls who stayed living in the caves became the keepers of the shrine.
But let me pick up the thread of our main story,
Before I thought to tell you of Jason and Hermione;
Where were we? Oh yes: up!

Up on a
Promontory, like the ones from which
Cult heroines leaped into Ocean,
Becoming immortal, worshipped as
Goddesses: their sanctification the
Best recourse against persecution,
Scandal, disgrace: exploding, stellar; bright
Constellations and their whitest stars, known to us merely
By storied names:
Names like Gemma, most brilliant star of the
Northern Crown; names like
Lyra, Apollo’s lyre. Names like Maia in Taurus, 
Maia of the Pleiades, Seven Sisters 
Eternally fleeing from the hunter Orion;
The persecuted heroines had their shrines,
Memorials to beauty’s sacrifice.
Yes, put a woman on a pedestal,
She’s bound to fall; glorified by the god’s
Love, whether yielding to it or
Taken against her will, the result, the
Child, is always her charge: so Ino, White
Goddess, jumped, sister to Semele, burnt by 

But scanning the bay, perched on such
Heights, your hero manned his lookout:
That place up high in the foothills, up
Above where a stag with towering
Antlers streaked past his ship, lithe,
Not quick enough to escape the hero’s
Spear that ended his life. Your hero bore
The stag's warm body to the encampment of men,
And giving them meat, he also gave them news
Of what he had seen: smoke rising from
Trees, sure sign of human habitation; but when his
Men found him the fine stone house,
What was there that was human?  Outside
There were wild animals: mountain lions,
Wolves that licked their hands and whimpered,
Wagged their tails and fawned on them like dogs.
Inside a woman, or rather a female, was singing:

They stood in the doorway of the goddess of the lovely hair
and heard Circe singing inside with beautiful voice
as she plied her great immortal loom, such work
as goddesses do, fine and graceful and glorious.

Dread goddess gifted with speech, she heard them summon her.

She straightway opened the radiant doors and came out
And called to them. All together they followed her unwittingly.

Beware of strangers, of women who live alone. They may seem
Helpless, but they have their potions you know. Remember the
Ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace? Remember the fate of those
Gentlemen callers? Beware then sticky sweet little old
Ladies, fussing over you, serving Elderberry wine. Beware also 
Goddesses who dwell in stone houses on remote outposts, on
Islands that seem to float calmly on the deep blue of the
Sea. Beware the remote outlander, far from cities and towns,
Singing with a clear, melodic voice, weaving glorious cloth, awesome:
Reminding you of beauty, of industry. A man could take a creature like that
For the real thing: for civilization, for country or home.

Dread goddess gifted with speech, she bade them come and eat:

Hadn’t those intrepid sailors, out reconnoitering for
Your hero, that little advance party––hadn’t they heard such
Warnings? Veterans all, of War and The Battle Against the Sea, perhaps too 
Fraught for stories, they wandered into Circe’s trap. Enchantress, She set to
Mixing her potions, giving them––poison? No! Something far worse:

She led them in and sat them on couches and chairs,
and mixed them cheese and barley and pale honey
with Prammian wine; but with the grain she combined
devastating drugs, to make them completely forget their native land.

Dread goddess gifted with speech, she enchanted them.

But that was not all. Circe had a wand you see––perhaps she simply
Used the shuttle for her loom––a wand not especially imposing,
But powerful enough to turn men into beasts.

So there they were, swine, and pitiful, for the minds in them were still human,
And full of human thoughts. They wept bitter tears; and it was for your hero
To rescue them: his own men, after all. Told of their plight by one who had
Stayed behind, the man of many wiles set forth. And while Circe
Fed her pets, her swine, fed them sparsely with animal feed, your hero,
Odysseus, strode through the hills to save his men.

And while Circe rejoiced and boasted to her father of what she had done:
Turning men into swine, her father, Helios, the Sun-god, beamed and
Smiled, but he spoke these words of warning: 

“Daughter, goddess of the beautiful voice and of enchantment, who
Lives on an island, safe and alone, apart from the turmoil of men, aloof
From wars and from the love that bedevils mankind, watch your heart.

For in my travels across the sky I see and hear many things, and only today I heard of a man, a mortal: a human full of uncanny craft:
He is wending his way towards your grand house of stone, on a mission
To save his men. A man, he may yet be your equal, so do you beware,
For if you invite him to go to bed, remember that he is Odysseus, dear
To many gods, and especially beloved of Athena. And it would not be
The first time he has bedded a goddess. So do not use your potions unwisely.”

And Circe laughed up at her father the Sun, saying, “Thanks for the
Intel, Pops, but your daughter is in no danger from mortal men. Perhaps
I will enchant him like the others. That men-into-swine thing is only an old Parlor trick, after all. And if he is not so easily fooled, it may be that I will help him and care for him, as I, a goddess immortal, have helped other men who have come upon my remote island over the course of the centuries; 

but when it is time for him to continue on his journey, I will help him on his way,
For I have heard the tales of long-suffering Odysseus, of the man of many wiles,
And they say say that his longing is for his home and for kith and kin.”

And while Circe rejoiced and boasted to her father of what she had done:
Turning his men into swine, Odysseus, striding through the hills, met his cousin:

Hermes, the Messenger god, full of trickery, unpredictability, and craft.
And Hermes (who was also a dealer in exotic drugs) gave his cousin an antidote for Circe’s witchery:

Here, when you go to Circe’s house take this
good drug: it will ward off from your head the evil day.
Circe will make you a potion and put drugs in the grain;
but even so she will not be able to enchant you –– the good drug
I will give you will not allow it, and I will tell you everything:
when Circe strikes you with her wand,
then you should draw your sharp sword from your side
and leap at Circe as if keen to kill.
She will be afraid and invite you to go to bed;
Then you should not refuse the goddess’ bed,
so she will release your companions and take care of you
But bid her swear a great oath of the gods,
not to devise any wicked harm against you.

And Odysseus did as his cousin Hermes bade him,
And when Circe’s wand struck him, he pulled his sword from its
Sheath, and made as if to pierce her through.
Circe quickly clasped him around the knees,
In a posture of supplication she asked him outright:
“What man are you? And who are your parents?”
And Odysseus told her his name and the names of his forbears,
And made her swear to take care of every man present, 
To turn the swine back into men, and to harm no one.
And when he had made her swear all of this,
He withdrew his sword and Circe said to him:
“Now let us mount my elegant bed,
For lying together we will learn to trust one another.”
And Odysseus mounted Circe’s glorious bed, and he
Stayed with her for one year: a dread goddess
Who nurtured and cared for him body and soul; and
Because he drew his sword on her as if to pierce her through,
Circe cared for his men also; she nurtured every man he cherished.

And Odysseus told Circe many tales from his travels;
He told her the tale of the bag of winds,
The story of the Cyclops, and other travelers’ tales, and
The tale of the Laistrogonians, and many tales more.
And Circe applauded all of his tales.

And Circe told Odysseus and his men the sad tale of Skedosos' daughters, Who died horribly and were worshipped like the Immortals; but
Odysseus did not care for this tale, for it was too like the stories of war, real stories, lacking magic, stories that he had heard day and night for the past twenty years.

And the time passed quickly, and Odysseus received from the goddess
Loving care an much-needed rest. But in his heart was always the
Nostalgia, the longing for home. 

So when it came time for Odysseus to leave her, much as Circe
Dreaded separation from her lover, she let him go without
Protest; she prepared him for departure and provisioned his
Ships and sped him on his way, concealing tears.
For though tamed by Odysseus and made to behave
Very like a mortal woman, gentle and predictable, she was ever
Immortal Circe, daughter of Helios, the Sun-god, a
Dread goddess gifted with speech. And on the eve of departure,
Circe told Odysseus one
Last story, and he told her one story more.

And here is the story that Odysseus did not like:

The Lakedaimonians came upon the girls walking alone in the hills, late in the day: two beautiful sisters with hair braided intricately, and flowers woven into their braids. They wore modest tunics but those tunics would soon be torn and rent. The Lakedaimonians approached the girls in a friendly way, smiling: an older soldier in his forties: pale and calm beneath his helmet, and a young man with sun-darkened visage, who looked upon the maidens now as a friend, now hungrily and sick at heart.  Calling themselves Spartans, the men engaged the girls in talk about the whereabouts of the nearest dwellings. But when the oldest sister made as though to depart, the men as if by agreement grabbed the girls by their shoulders and pushed them down onto the ground. Sisters they were, and the soldiers beheld their white bodies and pleading brown eyes as they pulled out their engorged genitals, long as wands. Struggling together, the Lakedaimonians’ desire grew stronger and they easily overcame the maidens, now limp with fear. Beyond themselves with compelling pleasure, wild with the frenzy of the breaking of taboo, the Lakedaimonians thought nothing of their gentle mothers and sisters; they completely forgot their tender wives. Inhuman, animal, driven, they competed the act and strangled the maidens in one fell swoop, as though sex and killing were a single deed. The virgins felt neither pleasure nor pain; nor did the girls think of their fathers or their brothers, nor did they think of their male relatives, protective and kind: men who bore no resemblance to these wild beasts. But as though sitting high up and apart from the scene, watching from a safe perch in the branches of an honorable and sturdy old tree, they saw themselves being devoured by two mountain lions; and sobbing and comforting one another, they cried out to Artemis, Protectress of wild animals, of hunters, and of women laboring in childbirth, praying that some part of their bodies might remain for forensic investigation, that a piece of each of them might be preserved, so that their parents would know what had happened. And walking arm in arm, their spirits comforting one another, the girls came to a well where their bodies had been dumped. Perhaps the mountain lions had regurgitated them? In any case, they would be discovered and would be given a proper burial. As for the Lakedaimonians, having destroyed beauty, they became distraught.  Approaching the shrine of the goddess, they remembered their humanity; they prostrated themselves and begged forgiveness. But the goddess sent two of her guardians––ravening beasts: large black bears they were, sent to destroy the Lakedaimonians and every trace of their existence. Thus did the daughters of Skedasos become the center of a cult: Greek heroines, they were soon to be worshipped by the women and by the men of Boiotia. But not before Skedasos flung himself on their tomb, a sacrifice. Not before the villagers wept and cried out at their funeral, and tore their hair and called out to the gods for vengeance. Just so, the maidens joined the immortals as reverend females worthy of worship.

So spoke Circe as she proffered a glass of Nepenthe, extracted   from a powerful brew like the one mixed by Helen of Troy, Nepenthe, that
Soothing drug that makes humans forget their cares, but also their
Duty, their Mission, their Aims. For looking dispassionately at Odysseus she considered how she might detain him, till as if reading her mind, her
sly companion reminded her of her promise to speed him on his way.

And Circe gave the order that the ships be readied for departure,
And she commanded a huge feast for Odysseus and his men ,
That they be well fed and rested before they took once more to the 
Seas. And all feasted and quaffed good wine and went early to bed,
Ready to depart at dawn the next day.

Then did Odysseus mount Circe's glorious bed for the last time:
Circe, dread goddess, whom some thought a witch; but Circe,
Concerned for the safety of her dear companion, told Odysseus a 
Tale, and sang him sweet songs in her lovely voice, strumming
Her lyre. And only when he slept deeply, his mind already gone from
Her: dreaming of the journey home, and plotting and scheming his
Return, sly even in his dreams: only then did Circe let the tears fall,
Unbeknownst to her friend and dear companion; for mortal though
He was, she had met her match. And Circe wept at the departure of
Odysseus, and gave him a blessing while he slept. Then she
Dreamed, her immortal mind racing atop the waves of Ocean;
Her beautiful singing voice traveling about the globe;
So slept Circe, dread goddess gifted with speech.

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