It was indeed palatial. I had not suspected anything this grand in Daphne that was not a temple, but this was a temple after all, one to Mammon, grandiosity, display, in the Roman manner it was the great-look-at-me. A long driveway led up to a Parthenon-like portico, Naxos marble I’d bet. The place was swarming with slaves, those of higher rank elegantly attired as greeters, ushers, and domos major and minor. Hovering about: grooms, stable hands,, gardeners, and what all. They formed into near -military formation as I rode up. More show. This was clearly Eros place,
I was being ushered in through the vast atrium when I heard on the approach drive, behind me the noise of a large chariot. I turned, saw four horses all plume bedecked, saw two Nubian slaves, giant fellows so black their oiled skin looked purple, standing each with a sun blazoned shield on his arm. Behind them sat what could only be Simon Magus himself, red cape bedecked, a plumed helmet gleaming as if silver, his upper torso naked and shining, clearly recently oiled. He sported a Hadrian beard (I never pursued the fashion) and short curly hair of the caesarian kind only barbers with curling tongs can produce. And what hair and beard it was, brilliant yellow! Not the blond color which nature grows on northerners, Slavs, their elsewhere offspring courtesy of intermarriage, or rape dalliance, or an occasional genetic sport from the Caucasus, but sun yellow matching the color of the sun on the shields of the Nubian drivers. The shields were small and light, attached rather ridiculously to the upper arm, showpieces only. They were probably soft tin. That Show and its cousin Fraud were arriving, I had no doubt.
The chariot was its own showpiece, large fore wheels as with battle chariots of the sort used by Syrian, Parthian and other desert armies, indeed used by our legions on terrain such as this, but with small rear wheels as well, thus it was a coach advertising itself as grand. It was gaudy yellow as well, a metallic imitation of gold, some kind of coating unknown to me, but bright enough to shine as the sun’s rays hit it. It had fancy grillwork, a raised front apron on which was worked a bar relief of Apollo pulling the sun. This Simon of notions of grandeur, in his instance defining an extravagant priesthood that even for Empire was in poor taste, for in Rome the priests dress simply, are sober-appearing.
As the chariot pulled to a dust stormy halt, the Nubian drives each reached down, pulled up trumpets, and let go an announcing blast, then two blasts, then three. Birds flew up from the trees, lizards scurried to cover, ground squirrels dashed into their holes. Simon let there be no doubt the dramatic he of him had arrived.
Simon leapt grandly from the chariot, brushed off the two slaves whose job it was to assist descent, stood half naked, tall, but thin in his arms which shows any soldier that the man has neither worked nor fought. His grin, devouring anything in my direction, was wide enough to cover this half of Syria. He looked skyward, as if there his real host might be, then held that pose, listening, then nodding as if his heavenly host, sun or other god as that might be, had answered him back. He bellowed out,
“Hello, hello, hello, Simon Magus here, Simon Magus high priest of Christians, keeper of the secret texts of knowing, attendant to Apollo the sun god, magician extraordinary, and now guest of Eros, merchant prince of Daphne.”
Only after this other trumpet, his voice, did he look me in the eyes, acknowledging in his casualness that other than slaves might be present. I had dressed in the uniform displaying former centurion and present palace rank, all clean. The dress medals, military cloak, the laurel cluster displayed on my shoulder straps, had been provided me by that young Spaniard camp commander. My tunic was military simple, as in fact am I. Simon was a noisy peacock..
“And who are you, official that I see you are, that I am so honored to meet? A guest of Eros is a friend of mine, yes, yes; I swear my oath to you immediately, I, Simon Magus, from whom great things flow, I, Simon, friend of the High God himself am your friend forever. “ He was taller than I by a few inches. I didn’t like that. He did.
He strode toward me, reached out his hand to clasp my lower arm. My own hand, went only slowly out to him with as much disapproval as a conventionally courteous gesture can communicate. I performed then the test soldiers make of a man they suspect of being a dandy. From clasping arms, I moved to grip hard his hand, by no means a Roman custom, but in doing that provincial soldiers make an assessment. Is it reciprocated by good muscles. Is the other’s hand rough, firm, and manly as it should be, or is it smooth, dainty, as in this case, weaker than the show behind it? That was Simon’s hand, a pastry. I am a strong man. I squeezed his hand, I will not say as hard as I could, but enough to crumple him in agony, for as he sought to withdrew, I held on, giving him the cheeriest of smiles all the while, the old “glad to meet you, Simon Magus”—no title acknowledged at all. He was turning pale, his knees were buckling, and I was at last having a good time, man to man so to speak. This phony was giving a different show now, first embarrassment, then agony.
I do know slaves; behind their solemn looks every one of them enjoyed a secret grin. Mine was hardly secret. As Simon began to twist to the ground in pain, I could see he would scream soon, I relaxed my grip, embraced him heartily so, in fact, to be sure he did not fall. “Man to man” said I, “Auxiliary centurion and palace secretary, Balthus here, and glad, priest, to make your acquaintance” Oh how I was smiling, unfair of course, I was redeeming the lost man of the evening before, doing it at this tinted-haired actor’s expense, but it felt good, very good. I seem not to learn, I take pleasure in shaming fools, bullying, one could call it. I am a spiteful bastard, mostly happy. I had almost stopped hating myself for my boorishness, my shame last night.
My dream last night showed me as a mouse sitting underneath S. Cornelius desk. I shouted mouse squeaks at him, the “I am here sort”. He did not hear. The Governor came in to his office, and then the Emperor entered attended by many. Suddenly the mouse me was out from under the desk, sandals and boots were all about me about to crush me. Then I was suddenly not a mouse but a homunculus the size of a mouse. Someone’s boot was coming down on top of me. I shouted. No one heard. I woke up as I was about to be crushed. Upon awakening I was in a sweat. I swore I would become a worthier person. I had S. Cornelius in mind as model. I fell asleep again, to dream I was back to being mouse, this time I was looking in the mirror trying to put on a mask of S.Cornelius face. I kept struggling to make the mask fit. My mouse nose, whiskers, made it all ridiculous. I have no idea what happened then. A dream like that, no forecasts in it, no soul out wandering, just how I felt were I to be honest about it, makes even a stupid North German farm boy think. That was last night. At the moment I was enjoying Simon’s humiliation. So much for my ever becoming an S.Cornelius, a moral man like the great Cato, a good man like his Gracchii ancestors. No dignified man who would ever have stooped to a contest with this Simon. I may have been shown my other and mouse self last night, but Simon is an enduring Narcissus.
Eros appeared, embraced his guest, who had recovered himself from being a theater of one. . Simon spoke loudly, He was facing Eros, had put himself between us, his back to me. “We have met, your visitor and I. The signs all point to our being close friends. The high and secret God whose voice is within me assures me that when the view of Heaven is clear to all like him, they will rush into our fold. All in the Empire, the chosen of Syria and Palestine first will come. Conscious of the despair which is knowing that after death they cease, they will be nothingness, not even consciousness to know they do not exist, they will be as sheep in the wilderness pursued by wolves of despair rushing into my fold where the high God himself guarantees their eternal spirit, their consciousness forever. In this all who were once sheep become shining suns, carrying Apollo’s own light, always illuminated with joy, for they will have escaped evil which on earth is all ugliness and sin, but which understood from the secret texts is the outward aspect of nothingness which is void which is the destiny of all who deny Christ and the secret words Christ entrusted to his prime priest, that Peter who came to Antioch. Peter conveyed the secret texts to my predecessors. I am the one Christ trusts. I am his priest, he himself chose me as successor.”
Simon made a kind of a hop, indeed a double hop, an athletic dancing step in which he turned quickly, dramatically, sweeping his arms wide, raising his outstretched hands above his shoulders, palms outspread, fingers apart. It got the notice intended. Once in place, this staging of himself, he stared at me, not in an hostile way, but fixed nevertheless. He moved his upheld hands beckoning my attention, then he began to clench and unclench is hands, from fingers wide apart and pointing high, to a tight coil. He did this in a slow repetitive motion. “Watch my hands,” he commanded, his voice now low, the words slow, “They do no harm. They are the hands of a friend. Surely you, all sheep of Rome, future sheep of God, dark now in the already shadow of future forest of nothingness, molded now as all man are by the lower God in the form of evil, surely you sense in your very soul the longing to live, to live happily forever. To all sheep fleeing the slavering wolves of nothingness, I give you haven, promise you light, and guarantee the secret path to the pure high God. I will save you. You will have eternal life but you follow me. There, good Roman, hear me and be saved”
I caught myself being transfixed by the low voice, that repetition. It seemed as if he had grown taller, was expanding. There was a spell potent in his voice, honeyed in its modulated depth, deeper as his words came more slowly. He was staring at me now, gripping my eyes with his, nodding his head slightly in a regular way in tempo with a beat he now put in his words, He had ever so slowly lowered his arms, put one arm forward, his voice now a chant. The words were no longer Latin, no longer made sense, but rhymed, had the beat of a slow song. . . Ever so slowly, he was working on it, binding me with a spell. No smiles now, somber as approached me. His deep red cloak, clasped on one shoulder, had the long length of it folded over his right arm; He moved the arm out toward me, slowly ever so slowly. As he moved closer there was no question he was taller, somehow puffed up, as male birds in contest might. The chant, its beat, the movement of the arm with its enclosing, capturing cape, as a hunter might with a net, or in the arena, a netman gladiator would try to net his foe, all summed to a binding spell. This magician would have me for his dinner.
I shook my head, forced my eyes away from his. Not for nothing had I been a soldier facing enemies head on, not for nothing I had learned that the weak die, that some of what we call strength resides in the mind, perhaps the soul as some say. I clenched my teeth, narrowed my eyes, and would give him something to look at and more. I squared myself, drew my short sword, held it straight out and steady, pointed toward his throat. Well, Syrians have their amulets against the evil eye. I have seen them when frightened or suspicious hold them out in front, confronting the danger, be it blue eyes, disturbing signs in the sky, the sound of a fiend in the night, or a staring priest from an unknown cult walking toward them. I trusted my amulet more; my sword. I began walking, ever so deliberately, toward Simon who, trying to be nonchalant, shuffled, and then stumbled backward. I have never met a man who could be nonchalant while I was moving toward him with my sword’s point ever closer tohis throat. Simonwas no exception. He cried out,
“Eros, help me. This insane provincial is going to kill me!” His voice squeaked a bit. So much the better.
I had broken his spell. It was well to keep a watch on Eros too. A good soldier’s eyes sweep his flanks. Eros had been, I am sure, pleased to watch me being bound. Now unbound, I pleased him less. Good, this was my theater. My play’s plot did not call for me to kill Simon Dandy.
“Dominus, “ Eros said out in a shaky, pleading voice, “for the sake of all the gods of Daphne and far heavens, don’t hurt him, please don’t hurt him”
I turned, smiled ominously at Eros, sheathed my sword, said, “I never intended to” I then looked at the magician, no smile at all for him.
I warned Simon, “Try that again and you will be a dead man, understand?
He did indeed understand, but a bit late. He believed himself already dead. Much weakened by that realization, he slumped down on a nearby bench in a faint. As he did so, I saw his footwear. He had somehow, before the spell casting, then the approach, switched it. These new sandals had thickened soles, a much higher heel. No wonder he had looked taller, these made him so. Perhaps during the preparatory hops he’d done it, no question a remarkable sleight of hand.
Pluto, underworld king, taking him or not, I had done more than throw a fright into the magician. For those fainting moments, I had robbed him, sent him journeying, only a sojourn now, but one which, one closing moment would be forever. Soon his loosened spirit would return, but it would be a spirit mindful of me, of Dis (Pluto, thus death) and Charon claiming him at my will. It would be a spirit powering a man more angry than chastened. The spirit of the once living roam unhappily, are, when not immediate ancestors, hostile to the lucky living and are called “lemures” (vrikolakes by the Greeks) Those jealous dead are vengeful, persevering and treacherous. Simon, a weak character in any event, would be animated by his humiliation and his spirit.
Simon was a warped man. He the culminating icon of this Daphne of temples, priestesses and the great oracle herself. This Daphne resort, about which any who saw her, (Paul excepted, as was S. Cornelius) would likely testify that she was beauty amalgamated, compounded and summed in her gardens, fountains, manicured nature sloping upward and away into mountains and wild forest, lovely in her glistening marble and sun struck copper roofed- temples, with all of this echoing with human laughter, the soft mews of lubricating holiday amorousness, and as the sound of the wild rush the underground river emerging, allowing itself to be gently channeled into ponds, reservoirs, and pipes. Here too the spicy sweet fragrance of the daphne itself, a many-flowered bush, and for those still sensitive to it, the now fading perfume of the the holy. With the flight of Apollo, his oracle, the holy had been lost. As with the sack of Carthage, the destruction of the holy in Daphne.
There was left luxury, debauchery, what the hedonist philosophers knew of their sour results. Here intensified in a small and more naturally beautiful space, perhaps more intense than anywhere in Empire, so beyond Sybaris or Capua, was ugliness beyond festering, thus fulminating, including the here quiet violence of knives, of poisons and stranglings. The temple arson, the arrows into Apollodorus were shocking anomalies for these were public, and had generated a moral and righteous response.
Daphne as a profitable policy intended nothing offensive to a tourist’s senses, thus unsightly murders, or a god’s vengeance for sacrilege and rape, were antithetical, bad for business. Ugliness unseed allowed Daphne’s spokesmen to claim herheaven on earth. As for another heaven beyond? I ask, why care? What was here should be entirely satisfying. But these were dissatisfied times for souls, the very idea of them almost newborn with Christians, so even hereabouts a rising thirst, a benevolent and artistic Emperor Hadrian not withstanding. Thirsty souls newborn were appearing across Syria clamoring for the safe and decent, and ethereal. Given dissatisfaction in these new found ambitious souls, the coluntering entertainment offered by Simon cum savior was well advertised as god sent. An iconic Simon’s was providential timing, for here in this Daphne of desire, he would lead to Heavens beyond, these fashioned also out of desire. He was Simon Psychopompous, following Hermes lead, and leading all who wished, or could be persuaded to wish, to that other Heaven, and would do so without any duty to abandon Daphne’s earthly pleasures. Having it both ways is a winner. The path required that a pious, serious metaphysical Gnosticism be warped, transformed to serve Simonian flesh, fantasies and profit.
I anticipate his success in this breeding such deviant “Christians”, for he claimed to be that. A more decent and dutiful Christian credo will suffer from this competition. How much? As with Ulysses’ crew, those unwarned or unbound succomb to appetites for the lotus. Ulysses prevented that, might then perhaps can Christian leaders do so as well?
So, reflecting more seriously than I am known too, I have now been condemned to contemplate, not Simon but my self, no soul I know of thirsting, and no darkness yet behind my eye, I accept that Dis will yet come fetch me, Charon hired by my penny to row, at which moment even I might care deeply about heaven and soul, seeing the advantage of them. But what I would like does not design an afterlife, nor cosmos. I accept that the splash of oars on the Styx will tell me it is dark Hades after all. Given that prospect, my reality, I sympathize with those who believe the lying, luring Simon who offers much more fun than Jesus, and at no cost in losing out on Heaven.
For your far reader’s sake, I minimize my reflections, instructing the scribes to write in smaller script: Simon’s heaven will be a Daphnean blend: magic purveyed, cultivated beauty steeped in wine, greed, Eros’ girls, the dying old gods, living demons, so many fragrances all intense, all set in a paradisiacal garden designed to magnify pleasures. Accomplished, that is an achievement for the magi and the humans who employ them, and in turn, are chained to the magicians’ employment. Simon’s heaven, this Daphne model of it, sums to more than its ingredients. Synergizing itself alchemically, its intensity smeltering it, as are mixed the ingredient metals for making bronze or hardening iron, Daphne as its own perfumed essence is refined and concentrated beyond Italian Sybaris, This place designs its Simons, and there are many such homunculi about, these merchant healers, priests and magicians. Daphne is alchemically self-transformed, and the chemistry of it smells of blood, sour wine, semen gone all fishy-smell. Yes, Simon is a magician, for in this brief, but continuing encounter, he has moved me to the metaphysical, and by now you now I am rarely that, but yes, and the truest arrows of Apollo cannot purify it, Daphne is become evil
In the Roman world, where so many sheep have already been and will be slaughtered, lambs crucified, there are always more sheep to flock to Daphne, to be entertained by Eros, to be led by Simon, and then be outraged by their destinies. There is no fold here nor shepherd to protect them. Is there protection in good sense? Of course, but we know we have it only when we have survived, As for its presence, this great gift of good sense, it too often seems the dread ones ((Dirae, Furies) are in charge of its giving, and stingy in it. I long for its greater and more disciplined presence in myself. Last night I berated myself for being yet a fool. I am sure I still am, but I have made one more step toward caution and clear sight. May those sweet girls, yes, I fear to summon them by true name, so sweet girls you are, you “Eumenides”, allow me your better gift. If there is any god, let alone some high God who loves me—none have reason to- your kindly intervention will be appreciated.
Ah, yes, I bring myself back from contemplation to Simon, Eros too. Enough now of my speculation on spirits, lemurs, simply the success of my theater. For a moment, given how close my sword had closed on him, he thought he was dead, and being an hysterical boy, nearly was. Resuming himself, I was glad to see. took some effort. Were he capable of shame, he would have felt it.
As I eyed him, no kindness on my face, he was slowly up again, very pale. His breath was shallow. His eyes were staring malignancy. He faced me again, all smiles again, he wore them as a costume. He had however , for some moments, vacated his eyes. I have seen that before when I have killed a man and his spirit is departing. The eyes go empty, although sometimes deep behind the emptiness one can see a moving shadow darker than black which, although I believe nothing I do truly believe is Dis himself (Hades, Pluto) come a–fetching. (With Apollonius, Apollo was there) My sword so close had given, Simon a glimpse of his future, and it was not Heaven.
He summoned his voice, silky again and oiled, but by no means as thick a sauce of it as before. He picked up his lines at the place in his script were he had left them, where they had left him.
“You misunderstand me Secretary. I was offering you the friendship of the high God, access to the secret of eternal life, it was a very special kind of initiation which I entrusted to you, allowed you to hear some of the secret words themselves. Their power frightened you. It proves you are open to the power, sensitive, I say ‘gifted’. Escape it and you lose eternal life. Be embraced by it, and be bring to yourself more power than your sword could ever command, for it is the power of life forever, not death and the wolves of nothingness”
Even his vision of near-death had not deterred this pitchman. I said nothing, kept my face stern, striving for as much of an S Cornelius noble look as I could manage. Whatever look I might enact, there would never be any of his character behind it. Even the scars on his face carried elegance in this a warrior patrician. In my mind as I tried on something of that intimidating Cornelian face, I remembered me as the dream mouse last night trying for a more noble, a better face. It had been an instructive dream, amusing at least. No need for a god, or a playwright Oneiros, to send a dream when a man’s own mind can script and cast it.
Simon, at my sword point, had also received instruction. My sword point wavering at his neck turned him from a magician into a faltering mouse, one with vacant eyes. Here was a priest not even for women, for he was emptying of himself. That pleased me greatly
Simon was importuning, another try. I credit the man with perseverance. “Secretary, I guarantee you will yet be blessed by the high God if you allow me to guide you. Consider now your sword, which is yourself, made iron and hard. We all know the work of the sword can be ugly, in some killings some say a sword does evil, as with some crucifixions. Take no credit for that, however many you have wrongly, even indifferently killed, for you are wrought by the evil God who made all earth and people, The Ignatian Christians have it all wrong, their one god is invention, just as their Satan is a silly ass They don’t recognize where the power resides. Evil rules here, only in high Heaven do beauty and joy prevail. There are two powers then, one evil and created material, the other spiritual and in high Heaven. And so, if you use your sword, kill me, you are the plaything, the puppet of the creator god, the evil one who needs no make-believe Satan to act as his foil. You suffice.
The evil God has made you evil, so be it, don’t fight it, be that, enjoy yourself. Humans have made laws, rules, customs to protect themselves, and a good thing too, for nothing else does, no god protects us at all. Yes we secure some safety and pleasures, marry and try to protect our families, but disease, violence are on all sides. Cruel accident, elfishness, lust, murder, all will out. That is how we are created, the depth of its meanness frustrated only by the will of man seeking temporary comfort and peace. The Ignatian Christians pray, sing, dance about, all foolishness, for the creator God whom they adore laughs at them, tempts them, guarantees their failure. As you, Secretary, a sheep as wolf meat, are guaranteed your failure, for all work on earth is failure. Success, measured eternally, is only escape to the spirit, to Heaven.
Only I can save you, not from being evil which I commend to and which you are. I advocate for you all the ease and pleasures of it which cannot be denied. These are delicious. Wallow in them, but with some care. We must be mindful of course of law and custom lest you be crucified or lashed, exiled, for indiscretions, but these are the worldly cautions. The real task, the only task on earth, which is for salvation, is to join your spirit to eternity. Only in Heaven’s eternity is the real life. Consider, the best of it yours, whatever you want to do on earth, do, and know there is no fault in it, for the creator god constructed you that way. There is no, as the Hebrew calls it, ‘sin’. None at all ’Sin’ is creation itself, the natural order. There is only one matter, other than sensible caution in the choice of indulgences, where you have choice. Choose nothingness forever or elect Heaven.
I have the vision, I have the means, and I have the will to guide you. Fulfill your potential spirit self as the future after you have enjoyed all possible pleasure, yes, let us taste it fully as “sin” here, after which, if you choose, a joyful eternity is yours. Contemplate that, Secretary, all pleasures in both worlds! Now know this well, Secretary, no others but Gnostics of my persuasion, not those other fools teaching abstinence, purity, but only my Gnostics following me, know pleasure here and perfection afterwards. How could I be the best friend of whoremaster Eros here if we did not countenance, indeed recommend pleasure, the now of all of us? But Eros has had the secret texts read over him, he will recall them when he makes death’s journey to the high God. His spirit will have eternal life, free of the miseries of the flesh. Control Heaven’s gates as we do, that is my invitation and your opportunity. Do you understand?”
I weighed his pitch. From the Heaven-hungry, rich and self indulgent Roman’s standpoint, it sounded perfect. Not much theology in it put this way, but maybe the promise of couch dancing with Sophia once arrived. The serpent wasn’t in the Garden of Eden, but his mouth. My reply was vulgar and direct. I turned to Eros, “Congratulations on being Heaven-bound. If you get there you’ll try turning angels to tarts, but since the Gnostic Heaven is free of real bodies, you’ll have to invent some new kinds of spiritual exercise.ah well, good luck.. For myself, I am off to my duties in Antioch, I have had enough Daphne, and….”
There was an interruption as the ushers- Eros had three grandly dressed slaves to do that job- announced from the doorway, their three strong voices rehearsed in unison, two seated slaves behind them playing accompanying lyres, singing out,
“Helen, princess legendary of Troy, legendary for beauty, for wisdom beyond legend, favored by the company of immortals” The lyres played more loudly, faster, as much fanfare as strings, and the approving smiles of slaves, can produce. It was with a fine sweep of emerald dress she entered, with a retinue of three maidens close behind her, priestesses still, white in their gowns, each wearing a gold emblazoned sun as brooch holding emerald scarves over their shoulders, falling down to their waists. There had been costume design and choreography for this entrance, and in that one more skill of Helen’s shown.. The dress was diaphanous pale green, showing a figure-fitting tight white under gown beneath. The emerald cloth complemented her white skin, jer ginger blonde hair was done up in a carefully coiffured bun announced there by a jeweled comb, emeralds and diamonds set in silver. This was my first viewing of her as a womean. Impressive!
Helen must once have had wealthy friends, or the dowry of a princess. As for the attending priestesses, their consecrated calling suggested the earlier Pythia but was also fit for the golddess Sophia. What a nice touch of stagecraft. Or, since the fact of it was she was visiting the whoremaster Eros, she might well be presenting herself as another legendary self, the Whore of Tyre. Again a nice touch, priestesss and the famous, at least once-upon-a-time grand whore, the sacred and profane. If Paris Helen I was more likely now to believe the story of her seducing Paris and instigating the flight to Troy. Nol question at to her outstanding beauty, Aphrodite had characterized her to Paris here in Daphne over a thousand years before as “the most beautiful” , so too Homer had proclaimed in singing her memory. I would not disputeeither the goddess or the bard.
She paid no attention to host Eros or to me. This show was for Sunny Boy Simon. His attention, think of a pirate shown an open chest of gold, proved her show was working. Eros began an introduction, but was cut off by Helen who spoke directly to Sunny Boy, oh my how she was giving him “the look” .
“So you are Simon of whom I have already heard too much”
Simon, used to awing women with his good looks, his flamboyant cloak and shoulder-to- shoulder double looped gold cord across his chest, could not find his tongue. His mouth dropped open as a farm boy’s might on first seeing the temples and Forum of Rome (as indeed I am sure mine did). She read his face, knew her total victory, and turned frowning, then disdainful. He might have been s a squished lizard inadvertently stepped on while barefoot. “Relax, my lord high priest. I shall accept your homage” She lowered her head perfunctorily, summoned gestured her toward a far chair, rebuffed three of Eros’slaves running toward her with a much closer one. She sat regally stiff and poised, finally looked at her host, sighed in audible disapproval, saying
“And so you are the town whoremaster, eh?”
Eros’s unhappy eyes had no message for her. His shoulders drooped. His house had been possessed. Her bearing, indicated that any chair she sat on would become her throne. She had not earlier so much as glanced at me. She did now,
“Yes Balthus, I know you are here”. She was my mother talking to me when I was ten years old. She went on, the term is “loftily’, I know what happened last night. I am glad you put on a clean tunic I see you have polished your medals. Good. They look fine. You may address me as, Princess Helen when I give you leave to talk”.
I had had enough of that kind of talk when I was home. It was one reason I did not mind leaving home. My recent Daphne experience with this woman had hardly built up good will. My mother might have made hers a disapproving voice to dampen, I can admit to it now, my often excessive ego. My irritated response was curt,
“Helen is the name which I am told you are called.. As as for titles beyond that I will wait and see what will be proven. In the meantime, Madam, I trust you will regard your duty of courtesy to advise me as to that convenient time for the appointment to which you earlier agreed, the details of which I am determined to carry back with me to Antioch. Discretion is best served if you whisper to your attendant the message she will bring to my ears only.”
I had said that coldly, firmly. A man of some stature who, having been in charge of auxiliary hundreds in battle should not be cowed by this stunning woman’s haughty rudeness. It had become a battle of pride. I had not been brought up trained to courtly courtesies for women, or but for my mother, respect. There wasn’t room for us two guests both to be commanding, nor had there been for three, as I had jusr shown Simon. Simon had been an easy case, Helen, was not. She had made the first attack and had the upper hand. I expected worse, and was ready for it. In battle surprise always is an advantage, so it was when she spoke to me with a musically gentle voice, I knew it to be wiley.
“Ah, Auxiliary Centurion and palace Sub Secretary, Syria hasn’t drained you of all your vigor, nor, I see, your crude impudence. Even so, you saved the Pythia, have eaten several humble pies since, look trim enough, and no doubt are the only real man in this room. And yes, the only honest one either.”
She then offered me a smile, a conspiratorial wink which served to deride the other two as if to allow us two, now contesting, to dismount our high horses. I confess I was disconcerted She was winning this round. She gestured to one young priestess, quite a pretty girl, Syrian with smooth olive skin, whispered in her ear-a rudeness of course in which she now conspired with me- after which the pretty one youngster came a whispering in my ear telling me when would come dine with S. Cornelius. She asked that a palace coach be sent to pick her up in Daphne, two days hence, mid afternoon at Apollo’s temple steps. I nodded, my job done, and would have left without further drama, when Simon, I hand it to him for recovery his wit and the tongue for it, gave a nothing-happened smile, and ignoring Helen’s clever shift in alliance, said,
“Princess, opnce Apollo’s Pythia, surely a legend, possibly an immortal. We”, the sweep of his gesture included Eros, “we are honored by your presence, overwhelmed by your beauty, hushed by your command, awed by your service to the gods, and now, lest this moment be lost, I come to the point. I ask you to attend to your own best interests; I have in mind your income and future. I will be plain. The High God of us Gnostics has commanded me even while you were speaking. He sees in you his earthly counterpart to the High Goddess, his partnered female self, Sophia. He commands me to invite you to be his high priestess here, to be the glory of womanhood, lead the way for women to the equal godhead. You, princess born to nobility, born to lead, have here your chance, perhaps even a duty, to bring true goodness and joy to lives, particularly the lives of women who are so often downtrodden. The Gnostic Christians are split in two. I lead the right and righteous, others falsely claim to know the truths and secret paths to them. Here, ”
Simon beckoned to a slave, gestured to Eros to give the slave a book from a stack of several held in the arms of one of the Nubian chariot drivers who had followed Simon into the room. Simon gestured the slave toward Princess Helen. The silence of his command reminded me of signals one gives to command a dog. Helen took the book, examined it. I could see at it was a finely lettered, handsomely bound scroll. It was easy to guess its Gnostic content, likely much revised by Simon. Helen did not bother to open it. She told the slave to give the book to her nearby priestess. She appraised Simon,
“Well?” she queried,
There was irritation in his voice, but he still wore still the thin costume of his smile. “I shall be holding an assembly for the people of Antioch to introduce them to the right Gnostic way. The High God is also the God of the Sun, Apollo blessed, for the High God rules that Heaven where Apollo pulls the chariot of the sun. The latter is a myth perhaps, given the contradicting science of the Greeks, but it is a beloved myth with much symbolism for the people. You may already know the Christian Gnostic faith is split in two. I lead the wise and righteous, the others are secretive, impractical, given to a distant God who can be reached only by arcane teachings. Worse still, the God within human reach is considered evil. All creation, including ourselves, is taken to be evil, so on earth it is the Devil ruling. Escape is only by death knowing the crytic code to salvation. It is a cruel and unatisfying crede these unworldly Gnostics teach. The sect which I lead, to which God invites you know to co-leadership, is not harsh, accepts the flesh, and while also possessed of the cryptic knowledge that guides the way to Heaven, encourages joy in living
God and I, give you the chance to tell the mob of Antioch the truth, the truth of Sophia, God’s partner, both illuminated by the sun. favored by Apollo. As your near-divine charity, you, Princess, h can bring woman solace, Heaven approachable on earth, realized after death.. You can bring salvation Your gifts will allow you best to tell them there is eternal life not the Hebrew, Pagan curse of nothingness. Christ has given our priesthood the secret words of knowing, “gnosis” itself. Be aware, Princess, others who call themselves “Christians’ are wrong. Their doctrine of sin is cruel, and the Heaven they promise is reached only be debasing atonements. They do not possess the book of knowledge, which I have just given you, this sacred text. Apollo could at most offer you Elysian fields. I am your way to true Heaven, as you can be for others.
Conceive of their gratitude, the shower of offerings. I have seen it, Princess, the many times I have born witness to the Truth. Many are be so excited that they fall to the earth crying out ‘Hallelujahs’, many are soul-transported to ecstatic states. I ask you Princess, be yourself elevated and holy, so the joy Christ brings rings out in your voice. Be elevated to sit on your righteous throne, stand shouting out the word and sacred knowledge that changes lives for eternity. Take the power that is yours, Princess, be Sophia, be Wisdom, shine in the secret knowledge. Share with me the earthly gifts. Naturally all my personal receipts go to public causes, but yours should not.. Keep the income we will inevitably receive. What say you, Princess, will you serve Wisdom, women, the High God and the Good, become my priesting partner for such rapturous work?
Helen looked hard at him, took her time to answer, her voice flat. “Well, Simon Magus, you are an eloquent,’ a piece of work’, some would say. “ Her words were matter of fact, her expression almost grim.
“Alright priest, I will test these Gnostic ways, feel the rays of this sun. I will put myself as Sophia’s service, test whether she is there, for I will make myself ready to receive and speak her, as I might any other worthy god. I will with you at the service,, but be clear about it, at a distance. Be mindful, I say “distance” both on and off that stage I will watch you guide souls to Heaven. I will hear your instruction in your version Christ. I will read your text tonight” . She turned toward a quiet Eros, humble in his own house.
“Thank you for inviting us , Whoremaster , it has been interesting. I feared it might be worse.”
I had been standing at my own distance from her.. She turned toward me, offered an only somewhat patronizing smile, and said, ,
“Balthus, Secretary,. I count on you now as before.”
It was my duty to her as guest of S. Cornelius. “I am at your service, Madam.”
The meeting over, I rode directly to Antioch and the palace.
S. Cornelius had waited for me a goodly while. His patience might be outword. I hoped not. What would I say as my impression of Helen? There was contradiction and uncertainty. This unmet beloved of his might be athe genuine oracle of much wisdom and political savvy, or if Eros’ gossip was true, a famous whore. She might be any “Helen” or the one of Troy, and if that, somehow immortal if only because of her still being a most beautiful Helen of over one thousand years ao. If, as I was fairly sure, she had been the Pythia at Daphne, then she had been wise, immersed in the holy, and honored across the Empire. What a contrast, and demonstration of adaptality to new times, that she would act the theater of Sophia, high priestess and Simon Magus’ partner in what I saw as a mass hoodwinking for the money in it, the gullible woman of Antioch their prey and, given Helen’s looks, and capacities to charm, exploiting its men as well. Or perhaps she really did want to find out if a godly Sophia were there to invest a genuine Helen as her earthly epiphany.
S. Cornelius would have as his dinner guest, a supremely confident, challenging, gorgeous and beguiling, and surely arrogant, question mark of a woman. May there be some god watching over to protect the naïve.
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