A/N: the numbers are footnotes, they show up at the end. Please ignore them if they make no sense.
I had posted an older version of this story but I have COMPLETELY changed it, hopefully for the better.
This tale is about the true origins behind the Hades and Persephone myth. The main character is the human girl whose identity gets confused with that of Kore, the goddess. By the time her story reached Homer, she and Kore were considered the same.
Constructive criticism always welcome.
"By Uranus' severed testicles!" someone cried. "Wake up, you're going to let my hearth die out."
I stirred in my half slumber. Would I never get any rest? As an eight year old girl who had entered the palace service just three moons ago, I was still squashed below the foot of the priestly hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, I had been assigned the daunting task of watching over a divine bonfire that was indoors and thus completely shielded from the elements.
"Incompetent humans," the speaker huffed.
As if to illustrate her point, I nodded off as the woman poked at the fire and shuffled about. I knew I was neglecting my duty, but the lull of Hypnos was strong. My back was sore and hot from leaning against one of the four pillars that surrounded the hearth. My behind was aching from sitting on the hard, plaster floor. Regardless, my lids felt so heavy, I was not accustomed to staying up all night.
"Chastity, Piety, Servility," I muttered drowsily. We priestesses were required to chant the Three Core Values each morning and fulfill them in every moment of our lives. I found the latter to be rather difficult, I had no idea what any of those words meant. Neither did any of the other girls who shared my status as a lowly dakoroi. As junior assistants to the klawiphoroi, or Key Bearers, we were only a few rungs above the slaves. "Chastity, Piety…"
"What silly drivel!" snapped the voice.
At the sound of such heresy, I gave a start and forced myself to crack my eyes open. When I took in the lady who was bent over the fire, I sincerely wished I had not, out of all nights, lost the straw draw tonight. I gingerly rose to my numb feet.
The intruder was eerily lovely, with golden locks curling gently around her smooth, oval face. Her large, blue eyes sparkled with mischief, or perhaps it was just a trick of the flickering firelight.
How could she have possibly gotten past the guards? She was more than conspicuous, her gleaming white robe stood out in stark contrast against the blues, reds, oranges, pinks, yellows, browns, and blacks that dominated every stretch of the walls, floor, and ceiling. Her attire flowed down to her (sandaled!) feet, went up to her chin, and covered her arms completely.
Every other person I had ever seen in and around the palace wore some variation of either a tiny kilt or a knee length, sleeveless tunic. The people of Mycenae were fond of loud hues, their clothes usually sported contrasting bands of color at the neckline (if applicable) and hem.
My hometown of Eleusis was full of humble farmers that could never afford such extravagant dyes, much less the extra fabric that went into the pleats, flares, and flounces that were so popular at court.
Of all the colors the Mycenaeans never touched, there was nothing like purple. Purple, the color of kings and gods. Out of humility and perhaps frugality, King Eurystheus himself, may-Zeus-favor-his-reign, generally saved this shade for times that required great pomp and circumstance, or so I had been told.1 And yet, this woman in white wore a thick rope of purple around her slender waist.
I waited for lightening to strike her down, but none came. Perhaps the gods expected me to give her fair warning before they resorted to violence.
"Barbarian!" I blustered lamely. "Dare you touch the fire of Hestia? And to wear purple?"
"Dare I?" she tittered. "Dare you speak to me in such a manner? I am Hestia."
Now that I was more awake, I noticed that she pronounced her words in a somewhat sophisticated, somehow foreign, but very elegant way. It took me aback and I could only stare in open mouthed shock when she swept over to the throne and plopped into it. To exacerbate her deadly offense, she picked up a jar of libation wine and tipped the entire thing down her throat! She smacked her rosy lips and released a belch that momentarily lifted my hair from my shoulders.
"Dionysus' wine always gives me a headache," she complained. "I think I prefer my drinks weaker."
"Oh…" I managed. What else to say? This person, whoever she was, was committing great sacrilege under my watch. There was a possibility that she was insane and unpredictable. I began to creep towards the axial doors, the only way in and out of the throne room. "How did you get in here?" Keep her distracted, I told myself.
"Well." She made a sardonic display of pondering. "It wasn't that hard really. I landed on that terrace in the south end, walked down those big stairs, and wound up in here."
"Did you fly?" I scoffed, forgetting caution. The Southern Terrace was two flights up from here and loomed high above ground level.
"Of course not," she laughed. "My horses did."
I smiled weakly before I dashed out and through the anteroom, where I almost collided into one of the double columns of the portico. All the guards were snoring peacefully!
"Intruder! Heretic! Barbarian!" I cried, but to no avail.
I ran into the courtyard where the stars twinkled above me and the moonlight streamed in to cast spooky shadows with the colonnades that flanked me on one and a half sides. I stood in the middle of the space and whipped my head back and forth between the only two ways to access the megaron, the (usually) well guarded unit that consisted of the throne room, its anteroom, and the portico.
The first mode of entry was a lone corridor that connected to the palatial maze of doorways, courtyards, and narrow halls in which many sentinels prowled, eager to demonstrate their battle skills. The other was the staircase of which the woman had spoken. The terrace upstairs opened into the royal suites, which would have even more guards.
Impossible. Mycenae was built to defend against an army. It could not have been infiltrated by a crazy woman in a funny tunic. This was simply a dream, a joke, or a test, most likely the first. The older dakoroi had warned me that if I fell asleep for too long, the warriors in the frescoes would come to life, jump out of the walls, and poke me with their spears.
I decided that I had best return to my post and try to wake up. I did so but the apparition would not go away. Instead, it had the gall to criticize the allotment of duties.
"Why do they always have a little girl watching my hearth at night?" she demanded. "Why do they not assign someone more experienced?"
"All the older girls are busy delivering fruit to the guardhouse," I replied defensively.
"Fruit at this hour… Surely not lemon halves?"2
How did she know? "To boost morale for the soldiers." I nodded warily.
She roared with laughter, but I did not understand what was so amusing. Instead, I silently berated myself for having revealed this information. We were sworn to secrecy on the pain of never being allowed to accompany the older girls when we were "ready." I tried to change the subject.
"You sit in the wanax's, may Zeus favor his reign, throne and drink the wine meant for Hera's blessing. In the name of Zeus, cease this sacrilege," I quavered in a poor attempt to sound commanding.
"What?" she said incredulously. "It's not my fault you humans hardly have any furniture around here. You expect me to sit on the floor and drink water? Ever wonder why some of the gods have overlapping duties? Because no one wants to be the god of non-alcoholic refreshments."3
Dream or no, this woman was very difficult. She was making it hard for me to prove my worthiness, if only to myself.
I narrowed my eyes. "You claim to be Hestia. One of the girls prayed to you tonight. What did she ask for?"
A guilty expression crossed the imposter's face. "You can't possibly expect me to listen to all the prayers. Some things are just beyond my control. I'm a goddess of the hearth! How am I supposed to clear pimples? If you want a cozy fire or a flashy fireworks show, then I can help. If you want to attract a kind husband, I can't do anything for you. All I can say is, don't marry any man, just have your fun and run off before he knows what hit him."
"I should hit men?"
"In a matter of speaking, yes," she chuckled. She looked me over. "I'd wait a few centuries though. How old are you, fifty?"
"I keep forgetting that you humans have the life span of a fly."
I decided that the gods must have struck this woman with madness, probably for the crime of brutalizing innocent males. This matter was clearly beyond my control. "I will shout for the guards." Again.
"They're sleeping, in case you haven't noticed." With that, she made to leave. I scrambled to follow but she raised a hand. "You stay and watch the hearth." And so, my feet somehow obeyed although my mind had no desire to do so.
I spent the rest of the night eventless and gradually drifted off to sleep once more. I dreamt that one of the bulls from the frescoes was chasing me around the throne room. Hence I was relieved to wake up in the morning to the usual chatter in the megaron.
I rushed over to the wine jars, stood on my tiptoes, and peered inside of each. One of them was empty, although they were filled each night. I backed away and bowed when the Key Bearer to All the Goddesses and the Key Bearer to Hestia walked in.4 A group of slaves and dakoroi followed at their heels.5 My eyes lit up when I saw my best friend Eupheme among the former. She smiled and gave a little wave as everyone began to prepare the room for the day's activities.
The Key Bearer to All the Goddesses (often referred to as the KBAG in palace lingo) patted my cheek, which was severely bumpy from having leaned against one of the stucco columns all night. "Fell asleep, did you," she clucked. "The gods will be very angry."
"But they were not, Holiest Mother," I said eagerly. "At least, Hestia was not. She came to me in the night-."
The head klawiphoroi started to laugh, which prompted the slaves and dakoroi to do the same. However, Eupheme and the Key Bearer to Hestia (KBH) looked slightly anxious.
"Silly girl," the KBAG scorned. "The gods only appear before great men and beautiful maidens. Know now that you are neither. Do not tell lies or the gods shall be very angry."
I swelled with indignation. "I would not dare lie! She wore a belt of purple, I could not wake the guards, my feet couldn't move…" Eupheme frantically gestured at me to hold my tongue but I rambled on. "And the jar of wine, she drank it all, it was full last night, you checked it yourself, Holiest Mother-."
"You drank the libation wine?" the KBAG cried. "The gods shall be absolutely furious!" She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. "I must think of a suitable punishment to appease the gods."
The Key Bearer to Hestia spoke up in her hushed, reverent tone. "Phassa could not have possible drank all that wine. She is very lucid, and the jar is bigger than she. As you said yourself, the gods only appear before heroes and noble beauties. She should not be punished for mistaking a dream for reality. She is just a little girl who has not been in the palace for long."
The KBH was short, but drew herself up to her full height. Her soft voice required everyone to lean in to hear her, almost as if they were bowing at her. She held her head high as if her very presence made everything holy. Thus, I could see that her words were having an effect on her superior.
"Perhaps I was rash," the KBAG conceded. "Nonetheless, she fell asleep while she should have been guarding the hearth. For this offense she must be purified or the wrath of the gods shall taint us all."
"Very wise, Holiest Mother," the KBH bowed and dismissed me.
I trudged away to the baths room, which was situated next to the toilet room for some unsanitary reason. When I had first come to the palace, I had been convinced that the toilet room was a place where servants such as I had to perform grueling work. It turned out that my assessment had not been entirely incorrect.
I shuddered at the rows of sunken basins that were lined up against the wall. I hated baths. Mother and my oldest sister would often have to hunt me down and throw me into the pond, fully clothed and screaming. Although the lice in my hair made me itch, I had named most of them and did not like to let them drown.
Even the novelty of splashing around in a magic pool that filled itself with water did not appeal to me. Instead, I perfunctorily swished my hands in a bowl of water and tried to sneak out. To my great misfortune, or perhaps the will of the gods, I was accosted by a group of slaves who had apparently been sent to check on me.
"Making more trouble!" cried their leader. "You must be purified or you will bring curses upon us all."
They stripped me down and plopped me into one of the basins that were clearly marked for purification with a distinct blue and red pattern. I glared as one woman pried a round stone tablet from the wall, making water trickle forth from the hole. I hunkered miserably and crossed my arms.
The slaves chattered and laughed as they washed me with rough cloths and holy oils.
"Aren't you a chubby little thing!" One of them tickled me under the chin. "No wonder your father couldn't afford to keep you."
I refrained from the desire to bite her finger and settled for sulking instead. I figured I was already in enough trouble.
Soon, the Key Bearer to Hestia herself came. She hovered over the bath and demanded to know absolutely everything that had happened last night, how the woman looked, what she wore, and every other little detail that only a Mycenaean would have bothered to want to know.
As if to cleanse me of my sins, she picked up a cloth and began to scrub me a little too hard. "It was all your imagination. Your descriptions don't match at all," she insisted. She kept her eyes fastened on my shoulder, which was rapidly becoming pink from her exertions.
"How would you know, Holy Mother? I thought no mortal has ever seen Hestia," I said curiously.
She blinked, then opened and shut her mouth. She took a moment to answer. "There are men far greater than you who know these things anyway."
"But that wine jar was full at the beginning of the night. I think one of the klawiphoroi was testing me by getting one of the slaves to dress up."
"None of us would ever commit the sacrilege of letting a slave wear purple."
I sighed with disappointment. I could think of no more explanations.
She leaned down so we were face to face. "I know that you want to believe that you were honored by a divine presence. But it simply does not happen. Dreams can seem very real, especially at your age."
"Do the gods ever walk among us anymore?"
"Of course they do."
"Perhaps some day, if I am very good, I shall meet one."
"Only if you are very, very good. Gods have no reason to appear before little savages."
"Yes, Holy Mother," I said meekly.
"You ask too many questions," she sighed.
"And there is no question you cannot answer," I said with genuine admiration.
She almost smiled.
I had no reason to doubt her wisdom for she was holy and ancient, perhaps thrice my age.
When the ladies finally let me out of that terrible bath, I scurried off before they could brush my hair.
1 One mustn't feel that it is presumptuous of the wanax to require that everyone say "may zeus favor his reign" after mentioning him. In the faraway land of Calormen, any mention of their king, the Tisroc, is always followed by the phrase "may he live forever." Both the wanax and the Tisroc employ wistful thinking.
2 Technically, two thirds of the lemon would suffice, as much as a lemon can suffice for such purposes.
3 On the mornings that follow bacchanals of unusually heavy alcohol consumption, Dionysus occasionally swears to become the god of grape juice and abstinence. Fortunately, he always recovers from these brief bursts of alcohol-induced madness.
4 The title of "Key Bearer to All the Goddesses" would be more accurate if it were changed to "Key Bearer to All the Goddesses that are Important Enough to Have a High Priestess (and a set of six dakoroi) Assigned to Them."
5 Although, according to the main character's personal experience, there was not that much of a difference between being a dakoroi and a common slave.