Apollo’s Oracle and a Pig

I,  CORNELIUS, followed the old man down the narrow down sloping corridor, were I a child I would have called it “spooky’ , until we came to another door, white painted,  embossed with carvings of a bow, a lyre,  a laurel tree,  the sun, and a healing hand extended.  The healing, purifying Apollo was even before Asclepius’ time, so here, I wondered, might  this not be a bit of subterranean Asclepion-like healing place itself?  My mind wanders when I am uneasy,  so it proved so here.  I was wrong.

The priest opened the door. He was close now to me, he smelled of sandalwood and saffron.  We entered into a high vaulted chamber, delicately carved Parian marble columns made the circular room temple-like itself.  Above, the sun again was  concentrated by those mirroring, focusing baffles which were so elaborately constructed that it was not open sky above at all.  That meant rain would not come in but was channeled elsewhere to the roof also by artful baffles.   The god saw that his guests were dry.  There was also a hearth. His guests in winter would be warm. 

There was a lovely pool, deep,  blue painted on the bottom,   three carved nymphs spouting mellow waters into it,  a drain somewhere kept the water level,  and there a marble bench, cushions of well spun wool,  yellow and blue threads, sun and sky I supposed, pillows on which the god’s guests were to sit.  A series of copper pipes in the wall must be the speaking tubes.  There was a ledge beside the bench which seemed to have a hinged flap.  I presumed there one placed one’s question to the god,  and would learn by return note whether to wait for the answer or to be summoned to return for it another day.

I sat in silence but for the soft fountain.  The old priest had left. Bright, intimate, the fountains almost musical, but eerie nevertheless.  I am not an impatient man. No strategic commander dare be.  As with life, Pythia would reveal the next steps.  She was in no hurry. Minutes passed.  A warrior learns to sleep when he can.  I leaned against the rose marble behind the bench, between the columns, and was about to drift off,  when voices,  not one but several, yet all the same but for tone,  came into the room.   Perplexing; a high man’s voice, a low woman’s voice, a mid range indeterminate voice,  a female alto,  the sounds,  none harsh,  puzzling and impressive to the ears as words mixed themselves quietly, filling  and moving round and round to flow about the chamber.  Echo chasing echo.  Multi-voiced Apollo perhaps, but once settling into the ears,  it was the husky, melodic voice of a woman that dominated.  

“Your question, Quaestor, Praetor, Senior Centurion Commanding,   Sempronius Scipio, sometimes Gracchus as it should be,  Cornelius, and yes,  Mulus,  your question to Apollo? ”

The auditory show had been intended to impress, if not to unnerve. Well, it had worked. I was  confused, and annoyed at the theater of it. I don’t like being a toy for priests. It was a trick Hermes might play. I expect more dignity with Apollo.  Pythia, the priest, knew very well this was all courtesy on my part, this visit. They knew well and good I had prepared no question.

I was grumpy.  “I have no question, priestess of Apollo”

“You have no answers either, S. Cornelius”

That riposte got to me.  One point to Apollo.  I said nothing

“You have no answers, S. Cornelius Mulus”   I admit I was losing this game of one up, “surprise on you”.   “Mulus” is my private nickname.  Unlike most Romans who are known by nickname publicly, I never use mine, but for closest friends,  so far these only found during  war. How did Pythia learn it?  What could I say?  I kept silent, a good half-way to hide humiliation and the natural defense of irrational anger. 

“Apollo is patient but for his duties pulling the sun across the sky.  Even so, S Cornelius Mulus,  you will not want to keep your official party waiting until the sun completes its daily course, dropping into the pastures of the eastern sea where the horses can feed and rest

“Priestess,  my only question is why you brought me here?”

“At every step you brought yourself here.  Rome to battle,  from war to Syria,  from the palace today, dutiful, to Daphne, and  once here to me.   Yet you really feel these are not your own steps,  is that not so?”

It was an amazing statement, shocking.   I reflected on it. It had shaken me. It was true, an insight had not granted myself over the years.  A bit of fear, a bit of depression were scaling my inner walls..  I kept my face hard, my usual look come good or bad, but I was troubled. My casual reply did reveal a much deeper attitude. I felt my heart race a bit, my hands were too cold, I was sweating. Quite unpleasant, this anxiety Even so, I held myself to my duty of honesty. She had been right.

“Yes, These all are my steps,  Priestess,  no others.  I am responsible”

“As always, S. Cornelius, as always”

Right again. She was handy with those penetrating nuances reflected by my own words. Offense is the often the better defense, I would try it again., “Apollo is asking the questions, today, Priestess,  is that not unusual?”

“Apollo does as he likes. Challenge the god with impudence and suffer the consequences. No man escapes his wrath,  which more than most men you should keep in mind.    If you had the wit to realize it, you would understand the answers are in the questions   Your questions will unfold as you dare release them,  S. Cornelius, and in them if you look clearly at your footprints and where they are leading  your answers,  Mulus.  Know where you have been and even if only just ahead where you are to go,  then your steps will be truly your own”

“That is your prophecy, Priestess?”    

“For today, yes, on another day,  perhaps more. But now there is one more thing for you, Quaestor, today as Praetor, Tribune you could have been, Tribune you may yet well be,  Apollo thinks highly enough of you to advise you of events concerning his temple here. He asks that you guide your immediate steps by this knowledge, for his sake, not for yours, but only fully willing.”

The mixed voices through the tubes ceased multi-tonality.  It was only a woman’s voice now, that husky, melodic one, it had the fragrance not of the penetrating laurel but of and the heather, lavender once I smelled in Britain and in Gaul.  A voice with fragrance?   I was,  no use fooling myself, overwhelmed by surprise, and hating myself for it,  I must be in charge and I never fully am. My inadequacies bellowed at me.   I must concentrate,  reply,

“I am at the service of the god, his priestess, thereby Rome.  What would you have me know?”

“You met Apollodorus today,  patron of this temple.  He is unclean, vile, he soils the temple,  has soiled its young priestesses,  would soil more of our young women.  You saw he was a loathsome man.   Apollo is the cleansing god, the purifying one,  but his powers\are limited in Daphne.  It is too far from his home in Delphi.  He and his temple need you.  I will put it as expectation, not prophecy,  serve him and earn his thanks”

Another surprise,  in this one, I realized there had been temple  calculation. I had been summoned to Pythia for some work. I was going to be asked to do something practical.. How Roman that was after all.   I replied carefully,  committing and not committing.  “How may I serve Apollo and his servants? .  How may the Governor do so?  All the palace resources are at your disposal. “  I paused,  felt on more comfortable ground.  Uses and acts,  that was a world I understood. This priestess,  or someone through her, wanted to use me in the, the matter of the disgusting, now I learn lecherous and sanctuary-violating Apollodorus.  To soil Apollo’s priestesses indeed, heinous, god unforgivable .  Apollo  was rightly outraged and so rightly his priestess   No man did that and lived.   I have never been known for diplomacy,  subtlety,  nor did I want to be, certainly not now the oracle and I were embarked.

“There is Government jurisdiction here, do you want me to bring charges before the magistrates on the priestess’ behalf.  You know if I do  they must appear,  even if privately,  in court”

“The temple would be shamed.  One priestess now particularly threatened dare not ever appear. You can imagine her same, and a priestess defiled can no longer serve. Apollo can take his own vengeance fast enough, the pig Apollodorus would be dead in a matter of minutes.   But there is a delicate thing, the beast  must not die in the temple, for that would violate, corrupt, defile  it utterly.  It must be Apollo’s own vengeance, out of his world, not man’s..  We cannot use the law unless the chief priest documents, testifies to the charges,  He fears to do that,  lest Apollo be seen weak and corrupted, an , not incidentally,  the support for the temple,  Apollo’s servants which the beast provides, cease, for it seems  conditional on his lust being satisfied,  be interrupted.  No temple in Daphne these days is well endowed.  That is the practical side of it.

“And yourself, Pythia?”  She had challenged me,  now I must challenge her

“I would kill the pig in a minute,  enjoy it,  savor his squealing,  tear him myself as if a Bacchante, do that for myself as well as on behalf of the god. But I have taken vows, they hold while this Pythia is here and now. I must not be other than Pythia, that earlier Castelia for instance,  but my daphne spring was sealed by Hadrian so no other emperor might have the vision of his ascendancy forecast here. Pythia, at all his oracles, is Apollo’s voice. Whether also his bow,  is not for mortals to know. I am not to be seen or known by ordinary mortals. Prophecy’s robes must not be stained,.  The pig is threatening others.  The women are afraid. We are heinously violated.  One priestess has died during a defiling  rape not avenged. The god demands vengeance. His temples must be pure, his godhead respected. Apollodorus would make this temple his private brothel, the priestesses perverted, savaged, defiled and destroyed.  The chief priest is the father of one of the priestesses.  You heard her on the lyre.  Imagine his situation.  Imagine Apollo’s chief priest here terrified. All nature cries out against these crimes”

This was the most ugly business I had encountered since coming to work in the palace.   “Priestess, I will see to Apollodorus arrest immediately.  Write out charges, if the chief priest won’t follow through, then you must.   Call it prophecy for Apollodorus doom, but write  nothing ambiguous, set down the facts.  Don’t worry, I will arrest him first, your paperwork follows. As for the money, the Governor’s treasury will see to the temple until other patrons can be found.  Will that do for the moment?”

She replied quickly, obviously relieved. “I prophesy Apollo will reward you with thanks.  Given the course of your life, S. Cornelius, should your footsteps become entirely your own, you are beyond the god’s protection or province.  The priests here will nevertheless pray for you and the Governor”.  I understood, given the delicacy of the matter, how clever Pythia had been to set up this meeting, ever so privately under the cover of oracular business.  Apollo had a worldly-wise priestess indeed.  I asked directly’


“What about you, Priestess, has the pig harmed you?

In Pythia’s voice I heard the tremble of emotion, felt the fire of it.  She replied, 

“ Apollo’s oracle’s anger rises quickly.   Had he tried what I know he still wants and intends, if it gets that far, my vows would be insufficient to keep unclean blood from being shed here?   That pig will awaken the town with his squeals, for my knife cuts keep and, in his case, twisting as it goes. His fat goes to the dogs, and a over-fed lot they would be.   But as for killing, I am ordained Apollo’s bow’s arm and arrow, for upon occasion, an oracle acts as well as speaks for the god. . I assure you he wisely even if these days when he is weakened.  Apollo has honestly spoken to you earlier, Quaestor and Praetor, as your day and duty designates. It was he who prepares us, a matter which I must not reveal but to say his herbs and fragrance facilitate understandings that are born deep between his Pythia and himself, the god. In an oracle, two worlds meet, both boundaries permeable.,

“ You hear me now, S. Cornelius, speaking  as the oracle in a personal way which no visitor to this Apollo has ever heard before.  But we, the god and I approach you as a chosen mortal, although you are not yet aware of that portion of your destiny. Your character mightily disposes you to an end immortally charted. You are allowed to know that.  I am aghast at what has happened to Apollo here. Keep your silence, Quaestor, for that is indeed an admission.  The old gods are weaker than they were, Rome affirms them but for its own purposes.  New gods arrive, one most ancient Other is in reformation, their prophets compete, make claims of celestial and earthly powers joined. This Pythia is no such prophet. She brings forecasts for events, for lives. Whether it is unlucky or not, some are wise enough to know that their character rules the happier margins of destiny. If they can learn that, they control their own steps to the extent than any mortal can. 

One must recognize that in these inventive times the Fates rule ever less, the Olympians not at all, whereas man has man learned enough over the ages to elaborate an unnatural world. Heraclites, son of Bloson of Ephesus taught, upon recognizing our personhoods as responsibility ,the person must become the honest self-examiner,  and, if resolved to it, improve that character.  As with atoms which move about whose smaller parts may reorganize and reconstitute their selves, so with us. It is not enough we build new settings with brick and symbols, but that we understand f we must wisely organize and direct ourselves,  as with our civilizations. When Apollo himself spoke to you earlier about acknowledging and being responsible for your own steps, he was teaching you through me, as all of us can be taught by Heraclites and all others with great understanding.  Heraclites understood that to be alive is constant change and is constant tension. Tension is sloth’s enemy. It is the drawn bow, always held at the ready, which is the quickest to launch the arrow. Apollo taught me to accept tension, always be in readiness, yield to]change.  If the route we take to our end is self-chosen, however it may end, it is not tragedy nor doom.  We have, insofar as we choose well and freely, including the freedom to be dutiful, we escape the tragic, however sad the outcome may be. Our duty is to look  ahead. If what we see is defeat, if it is not a fault of character which is compelling us, but duty and excellence commanding that course,  we shall not have failed.

The god remains beautiful, but he knows particular beauty fades.  It is a momentous thing, but the god may prophesy his own fate through me. It is not one he chooses, but he chooses the courage to hear it.  To many things we must yield, gods as well as mortals. It is of these I foretell, thus speaking  for the Fates more than the willful gods. In such matters there is always a balance, the will versus the inevitable. As for those passive, Pythia will not speak to them. They throw away their gift of life.. You, S. Cornelius,  will have larger  understandings one day,  but you already appreciate vulnerabilities, as both the god and I display before you now. Yet you have will and growing wisdom. Wisdom reaches beyond itself for strength.   Pythia in her happiest moments speaks of these.  Here we are in a kind of confessional, private, you, the god and I.  

For those sensitive, there will always be three together when a man and a woman join, the god is there with and inside them   I know, you have yet to learn that, but you shall.  This moment now here with Apollo, you and I, is one of change. You will act, S. Cornelius according to your duty, as you always have, but now you choose to do so, not like before..  In doing that you are reconstructing. Wisdom informs its potentials. Read Heraclites, Quaestor, read the wise ones, , regard Apollo’s bow, mark Pythia, his archer. Everyone’s ready arrow when well released is reconstituting the world.

As for Apollodorus, he is an obscenity who taints this temple. The god must be able to offer protection to his priestesses.  You know that a ruler who offers no protection commands any loyalty, shortly enjoys no kingdom.  That is true in both worlds.  Within each world the forces unto it act.  You are, for the moment, a force only in this world, S. Cornelius, although asked to serve the other.  Apollodorus is coming now, his usual time of menace and enacted filth.  Were I to use my knife it would defile us all, but Apollodorus is close to forcing that.  It is that risk I must prevent, his approach and my response, genuinely for the sake of Apollo, this temple, thus this fortuitous opportunity to ask your intercession, S. Cornelius”

I was much taken with her voice and its perfume, but a woman who might handle a knife like an Amazon, be Apollo’s bow, astonished me.  I began to picture this priestess.  I assumed that unlike the Amazon women who cut off their left breasts the better to throw the javelin, this Pythia was full breasted. An archer’s bow requires no such mutilation. My thought leaped sideways to Livia Drusilla  who had been near flat breasted with bony hips and a sharp voice to match. She mutilated others with her tongue

What an oracular session this had been!  I was excited as rarely before.  I decided to release my arrow now, the tension was powerful, I had been at the ready for more years than I would admit, and I had been advised to undertake reconstructions. I could not, however, foresee its future, but for an intuition as to shared intimacies. I was bold, I tempted Apollo’s fury. 

“Do you have any prophesy for us, Pythia, us, this temporary Praetor and the priestess, this swordsman and an archer? I was flush with embarrassment.  I set my face in its hardest mask.

The oracle laughed gently.  Apollo  would have done well to rush down from Olympus to chaperone that laughter.  She had a lovely voice,  “I prophecy that we will meet, that you will not know whom you meet, that you will have a complete misunderstanding, that your momentary judgment will be no brighter than Paris’, although no Hera will punish you on account of it. My prophecy is a woman talking, not Apollo.  If follows simple sense to know that nature, not the gods, will allow her children repair, in your case S. Cornelius, to construct what might be other meetings on your own paths. And yes this is prophecy, yours will be paths also of the god’s choosing.   

The room became dark.  Something had closed off the mirrored sunlight.  A lonely torch flickered from a niche in the wall.  The door opened.  The old priest came in. In silence we walked to the temple.   Balthus was there listening to the lyres.  No player looked up as we neared. We went out.  I told Balthus to send a messenger for the honor guard.  They came, I wrote a set of orders, handed it to the sergeant, I saw Apollodorus’ large liter coming up a stone paved path toward the temple we were leaving, but by another town-ward route to where our official chariots and their drivers were waiting. The troopers went off quick marching toward the liter, which was closing the gap to the temple.  The carrying slaves were being beaten from inside the liter like rowers in a galley urged to speed.   

I supposed that Apollodorus, essentially paying for the place, visited it anytime, bringing his bulk, disease, slave whipping bad temper, and lechery. Today’s events also brought his change.   The old priest was on the steps, saw the liter coming. His face was tight with emotion. I felt a sympathy I could not express.  I have never been able to do that.  We exchanged looks. I nodded my head in gruff acknowledgement, nothing more. Whether he understood more, whether he and the oracle has been consulting, I need not know.  The old priest hurried into the temple.   On the ride back to Antioch, we had ridden our own horses down,  Balthus no horse-keeping Equis, had been lent one of mine,  Balthus asked, 

Quaestor,  Sir,  is the prophecy a secret?”

“Yes,  Balthus,  it is”

“Forgive me , Sir, was it as bad as you feared,?”

“No,  Balthus,  it was nothing like I expected, nothing at all”

Shortly after I returned to the palace, there came in one of the honor guards who had been left in Daphne came He was dust-covered, hurrying. His was a horse troop. I was not surprised by his speed. He saluted, told me, 

“Apollodorus was arrested, Sir, it took eight of ten of us pulling to get him out of his liter. He’s able to move himself if he wants, but being arrested is hardly what he wanted.  We got him up, standing, ready to dump this bawling lard ass into his cart.  He was squealing like a pig, a big porker at that, he was, all of Daphne could hear him.  There was a crowd around of course, pressing close, but not interfering. A few hundred at least with more and more coming.  A crowd always likes the entertainment of an arrest. Town councilors arrived. We showed them your arrest order, “defiling Apollo’s temple,” you had written.  “I don’t know what happened Sir, nor how, but Apollodorus who was standing, cursing us, suddenly squealed loud enough to shake a column from temple. We saw the arrow in his back half way through him and then “woosh”, past our ears from out of no where,  another burrowing arrow in his back.  his back, one all the way through the rib cage to his heart, the other entering lower about kidney level. Apollodorus was squirting blood like a fountain.  There he was squealing, flailing arms, that  geyser of blood.  Well skewered he was, Sir, the enormous heap of him sputtering, squishing, spreading to the ground, Sir,  and then he was dead. What do you want us to do.”?

I pondered Apollo and his vengeance.  There must be no trial to feed the gossips, give pointless opportunity for local lawyer rhetors to hear their own voices.   No raped young priestesses would testify to be further and forever shamed.  I would see to the Treasury allocations to support the temple  immediately.  It would take a giant pit for the dumping of Apollodorus. I ordered it dug outside Daphne, no use wasting the time of horses to pull it far.  There would be no funeral, for Apollodorus had defiled the Apollo, his priestesses, and the sacred precincts. The old  priest had seen it,  sworn it.  A priestess would write anonymously about seeing her sister ravished.  I would have that written testimony on the morrow. I would see to the magistrate’s receiving it, request the magistrate’s formal opinion confirming the guilt, denying honorable burial, nor monuments to the man.

For procedure’s  sake I told the trooper, “Here, on this parchment with this pen, sketch exactly, where Apollodorus was and how facing when hit, where the liter and cart were, you troopers, the crowd, the temple, and reasoning from their shafts and angle, where might the arrows have come from.  And yes, since you were near the temple, show where it stands and the distance.”

The trooper protested, “I tell you Sir, the angle was from the sky, downward, Sir, those arrows were directly from the sky. Apollo’s anger, Sir, fearsome anger,  Sir, no question about it”  

I was curt, “Sketch it, trooper, as you were ordered!”   When he had done, a good geometrical hand he had, I studied it.  The direction of flight was from Apollo’s temple. There was a flight parabola such that arrows did come from skyward, and given distance the lowest possible level of launch would have been roof-high, the height of the frieze. I recalled the frieze, with their sculpture of the god in his various forms. At the peak of the roof Apollo was shown, my memory was clear, as the archer.  The temple had a partly copper-sheathed gable roof, perhaps a 15 degree angle of elevation to it so that if the frieze, itself vertical with no great flat base, had not provided the god purchase enough to draw his bow, the roof did . I was flat enough,  large enough, for a squad of Apollo’s archers to stand there. 

 “Shall I begin the investigation, Sir?  Balthus was ready to take over officially, all right and proper, if I ordered him to do so. Outside of battle I am a cautious thinker.  Balthus and the troops are used to that.  I wanted the procedures to be entirely my responsibility.   I phrased m words carefully to Balthus and the trooper.  

I testify that Apollo’s oracle foretold we would learn that Apollodorus defiled the temple, raped priestesses, blackmailed the high priest with the threat of withholding funds if word went out Apollodorus would have been crucified for his crimes by us,  for he was no Roman citizen,  law is clear, and his attacks were personal.  As my dossier clerks here have told us, as the brothel owners has stated, Apollodorus he is already guilty of the unreported  death of a prostitute in one of Eros brothels.  Eros, whom I contacted upon my return by that same mounted trooper states that he has girls witnesses. These facts are established.”

Apollo’s oracle also told me, “I had not intended to repeat it, for the privilege of privacy is allowed those who wish it  respecting the oracle’s words,  but Pythia in our session had said, elliptically, ‘ the Governor’s Praetor and palace will be warmed by the sun himself, Apollo, to erase all stains from the wet of a rain of blood which, risen in a storm stirred perhaps by Athena herself, fell red all around, fell that rain from the blood of a defiling pig slain by Apollo’s arrows,’   Apollo said exactly that to me when I sat with his oracle.  You of the guard have told us it transpired as foretold, the Apollodorus pig was slain in front of troops and town witness.  Apollo’s arrows shot from the sky  penetrated the pig. No mortal was seen or accused”’  I paused, stared at the trooper,  “That will be the gist of your report, will it not?”

“Yes, Sir, he affirmed

“Have your ranking trooper write it up,” I ordered. “Get it to me in the morning with copies for the Governor, the guard commander, the magistrates. “  A swift salute and the trooper was on his way. “Good men, these troopers; they observe, act, and report.  That’s their duty and they do it.”  I turned to Balthus,

There will no further official investigation, Balthus, we have been witness to the wrath of Apollo.    You may remember Homer sang of that fury in the opening of the Iliad.  Prepare our  report to the Governor, Balthus, to the officials at Daphne, to the chief priest of Apollo’s temple.   It is a wondrous thing we have all been part of today. This will go down in the annals of Daphne as wonder and warning.  But take care the crimes are described in bold,  Balthus, Apollodorus was a rich man in Daphne and a town leader. Voices, I suspect all hypocritical, will cry out for him. Given the size of his fortune there will be many claiming to be his heirs.

We stayed late in the palace offices. It was dark now, I had extra torches lit and messengers standing buy, for I wanted to be sure all reports were written, the scribes copies verified and sent on, the messengers to the priests in Daphne dispatched there to return with the head priests’ formal complaints.  I authorized the treasury to put Apollo’s temple on the stipend list for immediate disbursement, that support to continue until further. There must be no doubt that Rome stands fast for its gods..  As precaution I sent a detachment of guards back to Daphne to watch over the temple.  “Full dress kit” I ordered, “let the locals see our presence and respect it”  Force must be seen, for it was prudent to presume that Apollodorus had family, cronies, goons, all of whom might make trouble.  I rather hoped he had left no will.  Let his beastly kind tear each other apart over the spoils. If sufficient mess the Governor could order a portion of the fortune allocated to Apollo’s temple, after all, the pig had been its patron.   A commander foresees as best he can.  Getting the troopers back to Antioch came first.  I wanted to be sure that Pythia, insofar as she was about the temple precincts, stayed safe. It was not anyone would suspect her, hardly, but the raped priestess-or several for I was not sure- might be blamed, as women so unfairly often are, for tempting or acquiescing, and then not being conscious enough of their shame so that they told what had happened.  Any priestess there might be in danger from peasant minds, loyal to Apollodorus,  whose thinking was a warped and backward as this.  Would Pythia be safe in that remote rebuilt temple Hadrian had given her?  I had no idea, but I would see to finding where it was for her protection

I had had no idea that she could be so good with a bow.  An Artemis/ Diana to be sure. Should I presume that Apollo himself guided the arrows of this pig kill?   I would, also presumably, soon be testing the others of her short-term prophecies.  As for the longer term, I was hardly ever one to expect anything of the Greek gods. Yet I was more optimistic than before, particularly because she had not forecast doom, but then doom and tragedy might matters of characterizing endings . What was real was that she had said we would meet again. That was something in our human hands. She, the woman of her, wanted to meet again..  No wonder I was excited. 

Balthus came in, sat down at my invitation. I pulled a flask of wine out from a cabinet.  I poured; he toasted the oracle, as I did happily  “Who  killed the pig, Boss?”

“Apollo, Balthus., Apollo.  You north Germans have yet to appreciate the Olympians. They are a dramatic lot.  For playwrights they provide excellent excuses.

He challenged me, “You believe in them, that nonsense, that it was Olympian wrath displayed out there?”


The challenge, inferior to superior would ordinarily be impertinent, but I welcomed the frankness and implicit humour, we were moving toward an honest friendship. I had had few enough friends, none hereabouts. I shrugged, sipped my wine.  I had rarely been so at ease, so sure what I had done about the pig kill had been the right, not simply the Roman way, but today also my own.

 “I believe some things, Balthus, as to others,  I am still learning”

He gave me a mixed look, the fish eye, puzzled, but trying to be sympathetic. He said, “I saw the crime scene sketch, Boss” 

 “Of course you did”

“Remember, I was first an archer in the legion auxiliaries”

“Yes, so you were.  Excellent reports in your file”

“Not quite down directly from the sky, Boss, the angles sketch put the arrows able to have been shot from the temple roof”

“Right. Apollo’s temple. At the peak of the roof Apollo stands in the frieze with his bow drawn.”

Balthus poured another drink.  “Could Apollo have had a friend up there? One who is a dead-on shot?”

“I’m sure Apollo has many friends, Balthus, first class archers guaranteed among them.  He’s their patron after all.”

He mulled it over, kept his thoughts to himself.  He sipped the wine, poured another cup for us both. He was a good fellow, this Balthus, Balteus, Balt. He asked, “And the oracle, she was that impressive?”  I replied sincerely,

“Balthus, I have never heard anything more impressive. 

“That good then, really that good?”

I nodded, emptied the cup, let him pour me more, as if he were host here in my own office—I kept no slaves about for personal service here- nodded again, “Yes, Balthus, Apollo’s oracle, our Pythia here at Daphne is truly remarkable.”  

It was good Balthus knew the art of quiet.  I liked him.  We would be friends. I was pleased at the day, yes, at myself and thoughts of the real Pythia, a woman unseen but hardly unimagined I conjured images in which she was beautiful as well as wise. I was quite taken with her, the voice, the words, the consequences,  and my blood-rushing hopes.  

Balthus sipped his wine, as did I.  He is a sensitive fellow, for all his odd mix of the crude, the sensible and the astonishingly self taught classical.  Finally he spoke, 

“Women’s uteri wander, so the Greeks say. When that happens a woman can have all kinds of symptoms or, for that matter, ideas. A man has no uterus, although he may pay for the use of many, nor do his payments stop with the use of it, no, not by any means.  What accounts for a woman’s stranger ideas, call them  ‘vapors’ is some flux, which Heraclitus says is the fundamental state of the universe, but I say most often seen- and often painfully experienced by a man- in women. To come upon a  vaporous manis unusual. . He may be inventing something, or an artist about to sculpt, and it can happen that when a man is bewitched by a woman she projects inside him the inside wandering symptoms as well..  If bewitched then, well, a healer in my German village said it was the male parts, confused, that wandered right up to his heartto addle his brain. It can happen that the brain down to the parts too, as you, Boss, have heard it said.  Now we know from the Greek scientists that the brain is everything when it comes to thoughts, but I make one exception, when it comes to nonsense dreamt about women.  That has wandered from the somewhere else to which I was making reference,”

I interrupted, “Balthus what are you going on about? You make no sense” and indeed he did not.

Yes, Sir, exactly, I speak of ‘no sense’, nonsense as the word rightly has it. It comes from the male parts wandering from where they were intended to be, let us say ‘on duty’ to the brain where they can only confuse.   In a word Sir, your look tells me you are wandering, vaporous, and I strongly suspect Pythia has shared some of her oracular vapors with you. A man doesn’t need Apollo to account for it,  a woman can bewitch a vulnerable man quite by herself. “

He was right, of course, and knew who was on mind.  I lied only a little when I said, “I was just thinking of the skill of the archer who loosed those arrows plumping that sacrilegious pig, Apollodorus, like a cook’s knife sticks into a plump roasted duck letting the hot juices spurt” As a warrior one has to admire skill, we both know that.”

He put extended right hand out over his eyes, as if looking far away, raised his head a bit, nodded as if he’d sighted something out there well beyond the office window.  “Oh yes, I have a clear vision of it now, some woman in full  battle dress. From here I can’t see whether it’s the Pythia, or maybe Athena, or Diana/Artemis, or for that matter, my fat grandmother. Or maybe, if I have the vision wrong,  Apollodorus climbed up there, shot two shafts into the sky, ran back to his liter, and so shot himself our of remorse for being such a bad fellow. Why not? As you are about to tell me, Sir, there are deep mysteries.  But allow me, Boss, not this time.  We both know a professional archer stood on that roof to loose those shafts. We both know you were with the Pythia.  We both know what you have done about it since.  Now for a few facts, Sir, and I know you like facts best of all.

Footing on that roof is solid enough, and access is simple; there’s a rear service stairway behind a door inside the temple going up to it. I admire  any archer, let alone a priestess, who could kill a pig at a distance, the arrows going only inches from soldiers nearby. I’d be damn sure not to offend her, , hardly.  Still, Sir,  those vapors the Delphic Pythia is said to breathe from the cleft in the rock on which her temple stands, vapors containing her prophecies, that kind of vapor may or may not be in Daphne too, in the air of the sanctuary.  If it takes some burning herb, bark or stone to bring on the words, I’d guess they’d be used at Daphne too. Consider it, Sir, that kind of thing may affect the customers, well, petitioners, there as well.  Vapors, Sir, vapors, keep in mind Herodotus on the Scythians, Sir, or Alexander and the shamans’ vision-carrying juniper fires in the Hindu Kush.  As to smoke telling us anything but that there’s fire, Sir, or but clouding our eyes and enough of it, a person dies, well that I’m uneasy about.

In a word, Sir, please do not be offended, but the truth is that no sensible man relies on all the ideas that his wandering male parts carry up to his brain, Sir. I know, my parts have wandered off many times, but always to find themselves very sensibly doing their duty.  Still and all, having quite impudently given you, Sir, my respected superior, this farm boy’s analysis, I must admit she was one hell of a shot. Apollo’s wisdom, something she said to you that set you a wandering and a dreaming, Sir, and the righteous pig sticking of it, a moral woman, Sir, extracting Apollo’s vengeance and seeing to righting the wrongs done priestesses.  I grant you, Sir, she is something to be vaporous about, although I would set my parts in a specific direction,  Sir, not toward the brain. They know their direction, Sir.  He grinned as he said it, “That’s my make of it, Boss, and my advice, man to man”

He left the office to walk back to his office in the palace. I heard him whistling some tune.  I ordered guards for my walk home.  It had been a good day.


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