Closing on Pythia
I took the priestess’ warning to heart. My German cousins to the east had made their forest roads deadly too, at the cost of many legion lives. I knew the art of snares attached to bent saplings, of camouflaged pits with spikes to impale those falling in, I had heard of other lures and death traps. It was no place for my horse, this route to Pythia’s home. Nor indeed was the path itself. Its course was clear, but there were no signs of use. That was warning enough. I snaked a parallel route through the trees. In doing so I saw no sign of other’s having been there before me until perhaps 1000 feet into the tangled forest when, footprints suddenly appeared. Somewhere hereabouts was an entrance to the temple access tunnel. A rock wall of mountain loomed to my right, some boulder there might hide a doorway. I had no time to look for it. I kept with the faint footsteps; well away from what I was reasonably sure was the trap-laid obvious trail on the my left and more level side. It was the sort of access that pleased a fort designer, narrow, initially hemmed about by thick woods and an ever steeper rock side, so that a few men, or for that matter, a competent woman bowman, could keep a troop at bay.
I moved cautiously, but there were only few trees to shelter behind as I moved parallel to the well laid out path, for the topography was becoming a ledge, that cliff on the far side of me a space of no more than fifteen feet between the path and now on my right, a wall of granite rising at almost right angles. On the left the woods gave way to steeper mountain side and then a cliff. The engineering had been done recently for the fresh tool cuts showed on the raw cliff side. From this spot, one looked westward toward the Mediterranean, over forested mountains. The steep-sided valley of the Orontes was sometimes visible as it flowed to Seleucia and the Mediterranean. To the left of that valley was Mt. Casius, to the right about halfway from here to Our Sea was Samon, the “miraculous mountain” I’ had asked some time ago, what is so miraculous about it? I get bits and pieces of stories, none the same. There must be some real history to it, but there are some places so beautiful and mysterious which lend themselves to the idea of the magical. As an instance, up ahead of me now, over a deep green, flowering meadow, behind a hillock, stood a temple in miniature. Its Corinthian columns were of freshly- wrought marble, glistening, quite likely the stone ferried here from Paros in the Cycledes Islands not far off the Roman Asia coast. Emperor Hadrian spared no expense when building for, honoring the already legendary Pythia of Apollo at Daphne who had foreseen his rise.
Birds were singing, the breezes blew, and there was nothing ominous to suggest Daphne thugs were about. I did, however, alert and draw my sword, crouch behind a tree, for heard behind me coming up the path from Daphne were footsteps, quiet and womanlike to be sure. It was a girl in peasant dress, carrying w a basket of vegetables. Whatever I did would startle her, but at least I could sheathe my sword and smile as I arose, careful to stand to the side, not appear to block her path. I startled her rather badly. She clutched her market basket with one hand, put her other arm straight out toward me, palm facing me extended, the evil eye curse itself.
“It is forbidden you be here’ Her voice was a firm one for a frightened girl
She saw my uniform. “I am a Roman officer, sent by the chief priest of Apollo to see to the safety of Pythia. I presume you know of the temple arson?
Some of the tension in her face disappeared. She was a pretty girl when fear was not making a hag of her,
“Yes, of course. I went to town for our groceries and saw the smoke rising, kept out of sight as I went close to the temple, saw the soldiers, the crowds, the rear part of the roof sagging. I asked one woman and learned it was arson. I learned also our chief priest, Apollonius, was dead. I knew him well. May Apollo kill his murderer as he did that stinking beast, Apollodorus. Still, I had to go to the market, but as you see hurry back. I was near the temple when I heard the roof crash in. But now, as for you, you know the private sanctuary of Pythia is forbidden anyone not in the service of the god. Please go back”
I used my most gentle tone of voice. “My name is Balthus, I serve the Governor, as you can see from my uniform and insignia, but now I also serve Apollo. His priest, Apollonius, - sent me to see to the Pythia safe. I must do that, for you understand that given what happened to the temple, she may be in danger. Right now do you know where she is, that she is safe?”
“She was safe when I left her at dawn. That was after the temple was set fire, according to the timing the woman told me, but no one came here. There was no one but you ahead of me on the trail that I could see; I don’t hear anyone behind me. But no, since I haven’t seen her since I went to the village, I can’t say for sure.” She became frightened again, ‘I have to go see right away. Don’t interfere
“I’ll come with you. That will make you safe too”
She could see that wasn’t a bad idea. “You may not see the Pythia, you know that. No one not sworn to the service of the temple and the god may ever see her.”
“If I swear to them now, will that do?
Her temper flared at my flippancy, “There’s nothing sacred about you, Roman!”
I had to grant her that, but it had been worth a try. “Alright, let’s argue after you find your Pythia safe, so let’s hurry on with it”. We both ran. When we reached the temple doors, good firm hardwood with heavy ironwork in place, they were closed. So far so good. The servant girl I was with, a priestess of sorts I assumed, gave a special knock, some sort of signaling sound, a bit of a knock again, obviously a code.
“You leave now,” she said to me, and then loudly so that anyone inside could hear, “Roman, these are sacred precincts. Don’t stand here at the door. Go back, turn your back. Now, scoot!”
I admire a little fire in a girl. She should understand, however it was not my job to upset things, go rushing in to lay eyes on Pythia. We would work out both safeguarding and diplomatic.
She was inside for a few minutes, came back, obviously relieved. The oracle is well. Apollo protects her”
“So does Rome” I retorted, deciding a commanding tone now was best. “Tell the Pythia that she is not safe here. That Apollonius sent me to care for her, since the temple is closed until it the rear roof and columns can be rebuilt. I’m sure the Emperor Hadrian will see to that. In the meantime we’ve got to hurry before more thugs show up. When we get to Daphne I’ll send soldiers to guard this sanctuary of Hadrian’s thanks, but you tell Pythia and I am sent by S. Cornelius, Quaestor whom she knew as acting Praetor, and that she is under Rome’s, not Apollo’s protection now. A god who can’t keep his own temple intact, who can’t keep his high priest, Apollonius from dying of burns and shocks, that’s an Apollo who’s gone home to Olympus on vacation. “ I fixed my commander’s eyes on her, “You see that, girl, don’t you?”
She nodded. This one was not stupid. “But you cannot set your eyes on Pythia, I told you that, no matter what!”
“We’ll do this. Tell her the Quaestor and Apollonius both agreed” (the girl was too flustered to see that such collusion had been unlikely. I took a chance on Pythia’s status, S. Cornelius’ account of the meeting, to presume she was no one’s underling, I avoided saying “ordered”) that I am not to see Pythia, no one is. But since she is no longer the oracle in residence, she is to leave the spirit of Pythia here in Pythia’s private quarters. That spirit is to send to me a woman, no Apollo-possessed spirit in her at all, for she has the power from Apollo to see to it that her imbued spirit in the flesh is transformed into the entirely mortal, just as you and me, well, more me, since you as a priestess contain the immortal”.
There was, in fact, precedence in Greece for belief in such things, indeed all of the Greek eastern Mediterranean f where Greeks had settled, beginning with Ionians. Their lore was dominant. The Olympians were constantly appearing as mortals, the males particularly to rape women, but the goddesses were not shy about bedding mortal men either. Any Greek knew that a god might anytime be about in flesh disguised. That was a compelling reason for extending hospitality to strangers. Gods visiting was expected, think of the idea of a muse as spirit, music for example, appearing within, “in-spiriting” exactly. or Oneiros bringing us dreams. Immortals were always mixing with or in humans. Pythia was on the borderline, when oracular then possessed by, but not being the god. The Christians, as I poorly understood it, had expanded the idea of it, no Idea, so that the high god not only took the form of a mortal, he stayed on there, making a kind of mortal-immortal twin inside one body, with great argument among the sects as to the what and if of that mixed spiritual-mortal anatomy. This girl then, this serving priestess, would know it about transformations, the removable spirit of one thing or another, intuitively from the time her grandmother first told her a story, or she saw it happen with her own eyes. Well, here again, now that I had set the stage, she would see mysterious transformations, this one entirely useful. If Aristotle had been present this moment he would have spit on my face for the supernatural of it, but, a practical man himself, would have understood necessity, its causes..
I went on talking to the girl, “Tell hat woman who leaves her Pythia behind she is to dress in some simple peasant smock,, cover her head with a shawl, be sure the shoes are ordinary, fine sandals are a give-away for class. Pack as many kits as she wants, no priestess robes at all, but leave any heavy luggage behind. You, , girl, and I will carry what she must bring with her now. Later today, I’ll send you back here with soldiers for a permanent guard. A detachment can carry heavy luggage back to Daphne. You’ll keep watch over the sanctuary, arrange while we’re in Daphne for other priestesses to stay here with you, until someday the temple is ready for a new Pythia to make her home here”
“A new Pythia?” The girl had caught that one; I had thought it through, thanks to that look on the Mule’s face,
“Apollo’s is gone for a time, right? Pythia is left in her sanctuary in spirit, but the woman she was, no priestess now, for it is the oracle who is priestess, is leaving with us, right? There’s blood on the temple now, Apollodorus the false patron whom the god killed, and Apollonius whom enemies of the god and Rome, died of the sadness of the arson. You know as well as I that the temple must be rededicated, re-sanctified, the blood and sex violations removed. Pious high priests are bound to say (they will have their own candidates for a fancy job like this one) that the former Pythia must be honored greatly, but cannot readily be purified, perhaps given Apollodorus deserving death, never so. (I took a leap, hoping a smart priestess might know whom had archery skill ) Is this not so?”
I’d spoken fast enough, one of those convincing deep tones centurions take when pontificating-which is the art of the pompous lie- whereas the girl, no cunning nor theology to her, could see my good sense to me. Truth was, that if Pythia could be persuaded by the Mule, her erstwhile lover, that one career was over and another due, this was for it, as well as for short term rescue.
I waited an hour. It had been a long day. Dusk would come soon. S. Cornelius would have all the reports but the one he wanted most, that Pythia was safe. If I had moved his game board pieces ahead in the process, so much the better. As for my precautions on the path coming here, I had been, as cowards and wise men are prone to, anticipating danger where there had been none.. The corollary for fools is that they do not see trouble where it is. I must keep the precautions in mind. She reassured me the path was obviously without snares or pitfalls, it was in use. I was a poor trail reader. Tradition, superstition, its propaganda, kept the folk away from this bonny place. Good.
I sat on the grass, admired the plantings around what I would now ask officially to be called, the easier to keep the vandals and tourists away, guards or no, ‘Hadrian’s Sanctuary”.. Something personally owned by the Emperor, of course everything in Empire technically can be his, off-limit. The plantings were lovely, Hadrian himself would admire what he’d ordered built. There were’ laurels of course, cypress certainly, but the daphne plant as such abounded, as did, jasmine, bougainvillea, mock orange, trumpet vine, many more I didn’t know. For me a garden is a place to look at while drinking wine. Let the gardening slaves know the names and when to water. What was evident, around Pythia there was a full palette of beauty decorating her place. I hoped for the Mule’s sake she had some herself. Slaves, no matter the forbidden precinct stuff, must after the garden. I suspected they were kept apart, out on the mountain, beyond the residence.
The oracle was not my garden, who could tell if she might ever be the Mule’s for him to plow and plant? One happy session with an oracle, however personal both petitioner and Pythia might have seemed, makes neither an assessment nor a romance. For myself, with experience in many gardens, doing much plowing, but none with oracles, I doubted that a man’s un-prophesized wishes came readily true. Nor, once he saw her, might he feel the same. In the meantime, I wondered what our Pythia was really like?
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