Of Palaces and Crosses, Eros, and Hecate, Our Crossroads Witch

Across the Orontes Bridge, the emperor Trajan, age 64, was ill.   The Governor and his closest aides lived in the palace, as might,  the most senior officials. In the palace were the many administrative offices, dining rooms, storage rooms, guest chambers, and official rooms for ambassadorial and other conferences.  In the basement with high windows just above the ground, were torture chambers.  The windows allowed screams to be heard, and with a pass from some official friend, or a bribe to petty ones, one could watch the tortures.  Passes were much in demand, none honored if the emperor was in residence, for emperors were too often assassinated.   

Torture or gladiatorial games –fights to the death- or martyrs fed to wild beasts, were great pleasure of Romans and those well Romanized. (The Greeks were not)   The Christian history of it would have it that all martyrs smiled, heaven in their eyes as the hungry beasts approached. Hardly.  The audience, from mob to aristocracy, were aroused by the foreplay of fear, they roared, cheered, swore insults at these religious fools.  Some being martyred were composed. Few or none were the after-reported heavenly smiles, but yes, there was bravery or faith to the point of merciful, hysterical blindness. Even then, forgive them their humanity,  the breath of the beast upon them, the brave and the blinded might also scream.  Some,  close in the stands, readers of lips. insisted at last moments one or another trembling martyr would say, “Abba, Father, why have you forsaken me”    Be assured, the jaws of the onward lions did not forsake them.  A particularly horrible shriek by a young girl,  better if comely and as being torn, exposed, sexuallyarousing. Glimpses of her intimate wounded nakedness could drive a crowd to frenzy. “Bread and the coliseum” ordered the Romans by way of pacifying policy. For yes, sex was politically diverting, tranquilizing. The Emperor Trajan was more compassionate, but too wise to deny the crowd, or indeed the upper class among them, their satisfying sights and penetrating sounds of the arenas, Rome foremost, but in Antioch as well had its arena. Martyrs were few there. Games were more common. It was the Greek influence. Wild beasts might enjoy an occasional minor martyr, but that depended on the appetite an emperor had for Christians and in what province the martyr was tried.  Under Trajan now there were so few indeed that Antioch was nigh starved of such treats.  

Crucifixions, common enough and varied enough in presentation as the Roman soldiers played at them, upside down for example, or face to the cross with the genitals nailed from behind, these sports drew a crowd for the hoisting and shrieks.  But watching a man dies slowly, too little air in his lungs to cry out, or sometimes a slowly strangling cord around his neck (a blessing, he would suffocate sooner) was boring.  On a side street near the palace, the Street of the Crosses, might be one or a hundred so draped.  No soldiers enjoyed the chore of pulling out the crosses of those too long dead, for the smell was gamey.  It was not a neighborhood were any but the poorest, or those anosmatic, lived.   Dogs, however, abounded, the flesh of the dead was for many, food. Some flesh was of unwanted newborns thrown in the alleys. The alley dogs of Antioch were, of course,  cowards, but brave enough to attack a very  small abandoned orphan. Given the prevalence of such scavengers, it was easier for the soldiers to leave street corpses to the mongrels, for it saved the labor of carrying them to the waiting pits which slaves would have dug nearby. 

Greeks, whether descended Ionians or Cappadocians or Athenians here, would have none of these entertainments.  Their entertaining appetite was for talk, bragging about what Greece once had been, now only a fantasy of superiority over Rome. An educated Roman acknowledged their once superior culture, although despising them now.    That what once for Athens under Pericles was not now was obvious, for there were Greeks slaves among the perhaps one third of the about half million population legally enslaved.   They were, more than others, likely to be tutors, for something of the Greek legacy was yet theirs.   Others who had been slaves, upon aging in good service as their owners, were freed.  A freedman’s appetites for slaves to hold was no different than his owners had been.  

A slave could be used, and before Trajan’s humane edict,  killed in any way. Whether by way of  labor need or ostentation some men required more slaves than others.  Frequent bidders at the slave market came to understand a bit about one another.  One fellow had accumulated 15, 000 slaves for work on his latifundia.  Another with an appetite for whipping, bought replacements for those he killed almost every week.  Young Roman aristocrats, seeking to expand their experience and not yet attractive-to their haughty and independent female better-blooded peers- for Roman women of the higher class were early independent, haughty, headstrong and never prey- would buy a feast of slave girls, trying out ages, colors, sizes, shapes, and some, following the example of Trajan’s nephew Hadrian, or the common habits of the Eastern Mediterranean, would buy only boys, or boys and girls.  Once discarded, unless very damaged goods, they could be resold..

One fellow, Eros, no doubt self named and accurate, for Eros in Greek means sex and only such love as may, momentary or extended, come with that, claimed to be Greek but was obvious to all, a mixed breed. He ran bordellos in Antioch, in Daphne, for sailors at Seleucis, and nearby cities such as Chalcis even Herapolis, 100 miles away.  It was said he was a reliable wholesaler who tested, retail, his women locally, first for himself and then measuring customer satisfaction, by local trials.   Only a few women are really good in bed, and more are unreliable in service.  When whores, they drink too much, make secret deals with customers or steal from them, become slovenly or recalcitrant, complaint about being beaten or knife cuts on their breasts. Some eat too much garlic, strong onions and profess surprise that the onion-abstaining customer takes offense.

There are personnel problems that can’t be solved by Eros’ beating the whore.  One was that a clever few of these women, at particular cost to the reputation, thus custom of any whoremaster- Eros had a reputation and income to protect- learned witchcraft, one of the more popular industries of Syria. Once accomplished, they cast quite unpleasant spells; making customers impotent or diseased, even killing them on the couch with no violence shown.  Eros, with an eye for any profit, was not stupid.  Rather than kill such a woman, or sell these damaged goods to some small town tavern keepers, he appreciated how well her talents could be used elsewhere.  He sold them to wizards and seers.  Such a woman inspired understandable fear and respect and could be expected quickly to buy her freedom. A few opened whorehouses of their own.  

A more typical problem was a woman who fomented fighting among the girls. Uproar in a house was troublesome, and a girl whose face, breasts, bore tooth marks, scratches, was hard to peddle come the night, or worse, day, since not all clients were nocturnal.  One more problem; a few, too well bred and vain, proved Eros’ misjudgment in their purchase at the market.  When such a girl killed herself, he castigated himself, not her.  

Antioch was an exciting city, particularly when an emperor visited.  Now, across the river from the wool -black women, their Tyche, was the palace where Trajan was, as noted, ill.  Rumour had it, he was very ill indeed.   Hadrian his nephew, appointed Governor of Syria as the Parthian campaign had begun, was of course in the palace with him, as were generals, aides de camp, and now doctors.    The four returned legions and their officers were in their permanent camps just east of the palace.  It was the safest near-frontier camp in Empire, the men of the legions, auxiliaries included, were professional solders that served all their active lives.  The camp was without restraints.  Antioch was full of returning soldier; feasts were set in the palace for high officers, subdued and respectful because of Trajan’s illness. 

The Parthian campaign had been a success, the capital Csestiphon captured.   It has been a failure; the Parthians had been beaten but were not turned to vassals, as was the Roman wont. The lands of Parthia were too vast and hostile for a sensible commander to seek permanently to occupy.  Nevertheless Armenia was better secured, Mesopotamia and Assyria had been Roman. But Parthia did not become Rome’s as the Medes and Bactrians had earlier become Alexander’s. No man in camp called it a retreat. No man in camp reminded any other that where Alexander the Great had succeeded, marching to India, Kushan, places not yet with names. Alexander, unlike later Trajan, had had not been worried about being over extended.  On the other hand, Alexander’s empire was never an entity after its he was, rumour had it, by a woman killed.  Upon his death and its partition, one part was Syria; one king was Antiochus, founder of Antioch. Unhurt by any partitioning, Rome was but herself and solid. If Trajan returned west, so be it.  By such wisdom Rome had not overstretched.  And this reach to Parthia, conquest of Csestiphon, all would agree had been as it was intended, Trajan’s glory, great glory indeed.  

Trajan came to such securing agreements as he could, there was no active banditry or rebellion, he left Parthia, with a short- seated king, in fact left to its ancient culture, for it had been Sumer, had once been Babylon.  He left it to be tended by its great rivers, its fertile lands, to be harassed by its hot sands. The boundary he marked there was the farthest eastern reach of Empire.  All of Rome celebrated The Silk Road remained secure; it paid everyone along the way to keep it open. The Parthians as tax collectors and caravan operators were more welcome than as previously, brigands. The Road was long beyond imagining, but one need not imagine that it was open, active, carrying riches and travelers.  Who could say? One day perhaps an adventuresome trading Sere would come from farthest Cathay. He might bring with him the secret of silk.

The army was returned.  No legions had been lost, casualties were no worse than other campaigns.   There were war stories to tell, dead comrades to remember-but not too mourn for that was not the Roman way.  No, the serious talk of the camp, led by centurions and tribunals, was of the illness of Trajan, for he had suffered a severe stroke, paralyzing and dropsical, with little doubt as to outcome.  For the legions then, for legion’s arms had come to be a compelling electorate, the question was which candidate for emperor to support, for these years emperors were chosen by legions, and the Syrian legions and those close by in Palestine were numerous and if united against or persuasive of other legions elsewhere would enjoy the rewards those who made emperors received.   In the city at first there was gossip over whether the army legions would choose Hadrian as the next Emperor.  In the great camp, after a few days agreeable talk, there was neither gossip nor betting.  Hadrian, himself when younger a warrior and comrade admired, but for his homosexuality which came to be overlooked, was, his legions’ man. 

The oracle of Apollo, divining in Apollo’s marble Corinthian columned, gold finished, copper roof with blue trimming tile, his great temple at Daphne, the oracle there had told the nephew Hadrian he would be, as Trajan designed, chosen.  An oracle profound in understandings,  Apollo’s communicated vision become her prophesy.  Out of such decisive wisdom, rulers were made, for absent the sanction of divinity, armies in other places might vote for another as emperor. In Rome when the stakes were the highest, nothing was sure. When legions disagreed with one another, when several candidates acclaimed, Rome was at war with itself.  Not a happy prospect. The oracle made this emperor and peace.

Apollo of course did know the future; his oracle read her Apollo well, facilitated as at Delphi, by breathing in his inspiring essences from clefts in the floor of her sanctuary.   And so blessed with vision, the oracle, a priestess, composed her replies.  Daphne was famous for Apollo’s visions, for the god knew!  It was the fault of the petitioner if he cold not to read the secret hidden in the reply to his inquiry.  But there was no ambiguity in the prophecy to Hadrian.  He would be proclaimed!   His was a clear-sighted priestess indeed, trusted by Apollo with regnant truths. 

Only the deeply suspicious- any doubter was rare because Apollo’s oracle was widely regarded with awe- might wonder if such a priestess might be particularly politically astute, learning early of Trajan’s illness then, cleverly anticipating Hadrian’s eager question, paying spies in the major legion camps across the Empire to rush to her in Daphne their intelligence on where the legion votes were leaning.  Such a skeptic, as politician or fellow priest, would admire and trust the oracle of Apollo at Daphne even more than a simpler believer.  In any event, the priestess there, whatever her name, for oracles served anonymously was something of a force in Empire. And in lives.  It speaks well for their sacred oath that almost alone in all the Empire for such integrity. They neither curried nor exploited opportunity.  Daphne’s own priestess was both inaccessible and incorruptible, the one perhaps aiding the other.  

Hadrian was immensely pleased upon learning the oracle’s words,  and, following them, learning from the Tribunes of the legions their support for his elevation to emperor.  His staff and the legions supporting him were pleased as well, for if “their emperor” then, if they did not plot his death or fail in accomplishing that, then their own promotion, greater power and displays, further opportunity among some who chose that route for ever greater corruption, was marvelously magnified.  Trajan was much admired, a gentleman of an emperor, more modest and reasonable than any before him.   He would be mourned, but since it seemed he was to die, and naturally, that itself no historical probability, the legions with him here and now were in a very good mood.  They were his legions. They would prosper by bonus and emblems.  Daphne, the wine and souvenir shops selling weaving, silk, jewels from India, Eros in the man himself and all his other selves running their bordellos were having a good season, this time of an in fact wise, and happily peaceful; imperial transition.  

I, Tyche, can assure you that the women seated around the pool, care for none of that, whereas  I, Tyche, have yet to sing to them. Nothing great or rich, no song of mine, was their affair.  One woman, whose freedman husband had been a palace slave, and who upon much petitioning had taken his place cleaning latrines, carrying garbage, poisoning rats, would, as soon as this rest was over, cross the Orontes Bridge, be passed by guards into the palace by a rear and basement door, and begin her drudgery.  She would hear enough of sick emperors before the day was out, or gossip about the handsome nephew, what did she care?  Her daughter was dying, she could not afford the healing herbs, nor any wise woman let alone physician to treat her, so, by all means, let the emperor die too.   Her daughter and an emperor were hardly equal in the but for the fact of dying. Afterward?  Some said Hades was dark and cold for all,  but some stories said those high fared better even there. The woman was glad Trajan was to die, something grimly to smile about. Let him worry about the pinnacles of Hades.  

Hecate, the witch goddess of crossroads, smiled with her. It was a  sympathetic delicious grin.   Hecate had cast more spells of death than were slain by ravaging armies, even a plague. Hecate’s underground shrine was an unusual admission by high god Romans of chthonic, deep earth, womb-mother sourcing powers. These were dark as first menstrual days blood, dark as Hades. Dark powers. Pluto reigned here. Hecate’s shrine was built underground, although some say it needed no building for Hecate formed it herself when earth began.  Its entrance was near the crossing of roads where the four in black sat. No marble columns marked it, just a simple stone subway entrance, where its priestess, also women in black, but more wizened crones daily smeared soot on the stones, where those priestesses kept the small eternal fire burning here. The smoke from Hecate’s altar, a pocked and bumpy lump of black stone in the middle of the fire, filtered up a natural fissure to exit already spread in dissipation, some uphill yards away.   The fire provided soot for the entrance stones.  The crones’ hands were always black with it, these silent crones, but for whispers among themselves, and, when an initiate was there,  approving cackles.  All of this that they did and were, for theirs was by oath and awe-setting fear. 

Anyone who knew the old gods in this ancient early-peopled valley, no doubt here before Babylon, before Ur of the Chaldees was, but since Orontes fertile valley was ready when farming was born, its autochthones already knowing some grains, also already knew Hecate. Those folk who had actually seen her at the crossroads died then and there.  That is why, even before Antiochus built the new city, since there was trade, migrations, important crossroads here then, her shrine stayed deep below, so she that she would stay content near her crossroads yet hidden in her darkness.  Attended there by her priestesses, there she might be placated, given soot not blood for her thirst. Sated, she was less likely to venture out in dreadful person to chuckle over doomed travelers taking wrong turns at the crossroads. 

Think about crossroads. Four choices, and for many travelers at least three choices less lucky, perhaps one leading to doom.  Momentous decisions at crossroads, always.  A throw of the dice even if foreordained.  How the die fell, how auguries were read, that is our fate. It was at the crossroads where Oedipus unknowingly slew his Laius, King of Thebes, his father.  Oedipus went on unknowingly to marry his mother Jocasta, his curse bringing plague on Thebes, and with that knowledge, the tearing out of his own eyes thence to wander.   Hecate’s friends are the Erinyes, the Furies, her partners.  These modern days of Antioch the Furies still are about, welcoming a transformed Hebrew minor god, that  newcomer Satan, he who would also bear many names and forms.  

An old Greek born in Antioch who has made all his choices of roads comes daily to attend her. The thirteen steep steps back up are hard to climb, but he does so to avoid further woe by attending her. He has made so many mistakes at his crossroads, but now that he descends to her daily, his life is better. He whispers to her.  The listening crones nod for they know it is true, his flattery,  that Hecate, not Minerva, not Jupiter, is Rome’s true patron and, as such, unappreciated. 

The old man, along with the crones, is one of the few initiates in the cult of Hecate.  The old man delights in retelling the story that it was really Hecate who guided Aeneas to Rome’s founding, grinned while she whispered in the ear of early Alban king Amulius to destroy the rightful heir, Numitor, who was descended from Aemeas. It was she who advised Amulius to throw Numitor’s daughter Sylvia’s children, Romulus and Remus into the Tiber to drown, she who whispered to Amulius then to kill Sylvia, which, of course, as an ambitious Roman he did.   The initiates are told how Hecate, changing her mind, carried the drowning children to the Tiber’s shores where the she-wolf nursed them, and on which shore was the site of Rome. Romulus became its first local king. The initiates of Hecate are a special lot, for were it not for their Hecate of the crossroads, and an remarkable change of mind, there would be no Rome.

All of the story is a fit beginning and if it is possible for a witch named Hecate to be of good cheer, well the old man swears she was at its telling.  The crones do also attest. and pleased at her presence, cackle on. Not all who visit Hecate run with blood, but mortals, not attuned as is the old man, find their own curdling.  Christians particularly, since they are driven by old ways and fear, when here below are ashamed and doubly fearful. They hope the new God will not see them underground for he, like Jupiter, is a sky God and, no matter the talk of his new beginning, the old folks know he, now He, is a new god.  Gods of light and darkness do exist; look around you and the seasons for proof.  The old folks know old gods and a new One are not always enemies, each has his realm, including polymorphous awe in the hearts of those who will not give up old ways. The fact is, as almost all in Syria know , few or none have entirely abandoned old ways in favor of a new god who, however demanding. Room for all is the rule; only a fool sleights the facts of habit and fear. 

The women in black have heard of Hecate, know enough never ever to glance sideways at a crossroad, to keep eyes downcast, and walk your fated path. Choice is a fool’s illusion. These women would no more descend to Hecate’s soot-grimed cave than look directly at a blue eyed Roman, or go out when pregnant when the moon is full for it is certain she will strike you down.  Selene the moon is a jealous woman because her own fullness is cursed, for she will never bear a child of that fullness. One understands that she hates fruitful women. After childbirth never venture out for the deadly forty days, else the moon will kill you both.  While menstruating never let your blood be stolen by a moon-minding witch, for it is a certain curse, when put to use it makes men impotent, and kills crops in the fields.  

Women know these chthonic things, and in that are close to Hecate,  for they and she are earth beings , fertile, and deadly are their fearful powers.  No Roman admits to such superstition, but you will see an husband hurrying with his cloak raised against his face.  Why? His wife his having trouble in her pregnancy, doctors are no help. He is venturing  furtively to lay a coin on Hecate’s rough altar.  In the countryside he will find the shrine to Selene and pray to her as well. His coin and food are offerings in return for the life of one’s wife and hoped-for child.  Yet the worst of earth’s curses serve not only to prevent life, but in denying the once-live  spirit burial.  The curses, “May the earth never close over you”   “May you be denied rest, with  your spirit condemned to wander”, these are dreadful indeed.

Already,  Christians, especially those from this East where mother goddesses, Cybele for one, or Selene,  have long been understood, are not unmindful of the all-mother’s powers.  They will bring their Cybele to Christianity.  In a niche in their adobe hut her little statue becomes Mary of the stories, no less a mother and a goddess.  The folk place her on Selene’s crescent moon, the crescent its unjealous season, waiting on her with prayer, promise and coin.   Old ways and new ways, there is rarely a full departure. As with food and water,  or emperors, one is cautious of the new. It is an old earth.  It has its old ways. Never reckon life by  ignoring them.


At this moment, their eyes averted from the small stone building, which gave access to Hecate’s crevice, no Hecate on their mind after the old Greek had gone down her stairs, the four in black were content.  Even happy,  the sun rising, a few minutes still before work, , content to listen to the fluted music Calliope played as the Daphne’s silver foam flowed generously through the fountain pipes.  They watched it splash in the large pond.

They were already thinking about when hunger would worst return   There would be no food during the day, and for them at night it would be, at best for this was a good season, wheat gruel with perhaps cabbage, Meat? Few so lucky although their nostrils hallucinated its cooking fragrance.   For the hungry, food, what it once tasted like, might again, is obsession.    In Rome the food dole is sure, in Syria the bread now out of her basket is sailing to Rome to leave empty stomachs for the clamoring poor behind.  The Romans feared their mobs, even their own legions. In Syria the mobs were never arrayed, always unruly, incapable of concerted action, wild yes and murdering, but each other.  And they were easy for legions here, should they be called to respond to an angry mobs. to kill.  “Hunger no more” might a solicitous legionnaire say, thrusting a yowling, now sword-fed agitator through.


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