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Greek Myths 2 - Heracles                   by: Debbie Cybill

 

Prologue

During the Early Bronze Age, about 4,500 years ago, most of the people around the northeastern end of the Mediterranean - Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and above all Crete - worshipped a mother goddess, or often a triple moon goddess, the three persons of the trinity representing the young new moon, the mature full moon, and the old waning moon. The whole area was inhabited by short swarthy people, who occupied small city-states, often no larger in area than Manhattan Island, a quarter the size of the Isle of Man, and with no more than a few thousand citizens.

About 4,000 years ago a tribe of tall blond people, known to us as the Achaians, invaded Greece from the steppes of Central Asia. This Bronze Age tribe worshipped a father god, whose name has come down to us as Zeus, and a whole olympian galaxy of lesser gods. The next few centuries saw a struggle between these two religions, with the Achaian religion gradually winning out. These religious wars were as vicious as religious wars have always been and still are today.

Under the old religion each city state or island was ruled by a queen/priestess, who was often regarded as an incarnation of the goddess. The lesser priestesses of her cult were regarded as her daughters, whether or not they were actually related. In a few localities the high priestess was actually a transsexual, but that was not the universal state of affairs.

The consort of the queen was known as the king, but in the old religion his part was minor. He was essentially a fertility figure, who was to ensure fertility of the crops, the herds and the women of the state. In some states the king reigned only for a year and then was sacrificed to ensure fertility; the form of sacrifice varied, and in pre-Achaian Athens, for instance, he was thrown off a high cliff. In others he ‘reigned’ only so long as he retained his virility. Each year it was normal for the queen of such a city state to hold a competition to select the new king, though in some times and places this was every three years, instead of on an annual basis. The competition was variously a running race, a boxing match, wrestling or other athletic pursuit. If the former king had not been sacrificed he could participate. In some states the new king killed the old, which may be the origin of the myth of Oedipus, but even when this task did not fall to the new king the old king was always killed to ensure fertility.

The king of the year was pampered during his short reign, slept with the queen and with other royal women, fathering as many offspring as possible, but he was often dressed in women’s clothing, performed women’s tasks, and even sometimes substituted for the queen, acting on her behalf in some religious ceremonies. Some pots from ancient Crete dating from this period depict ceremonies being conducted by a bearded man wearing a bell-shaped skirt and false breasts tied around his chest.

Scholars (at least some scholars) now believe that some of the legends concerning heroes are actually allegorical or distorted accounts of events in this battle of the religions (and of the sexes). One story concerning Heracles (or Hercules, the Latin form) states that when he desecrated the sanctuary of the goddess at Delphi by stealing a bronze tripod she punished him by turning him into a woman for three years, when he served as one of the palace women to Queen Omphale of Lydia, a city state in Asia Minor, wearing the robes that were the mark of a priestess of the mother goddess (much like the ‘dog collar’ marks a minister of the church today). At the end of that time he killed the queen, overturned the government of the city-state and made his escape to continue his career as a hero. Other stories say that his time as the feminized consort of Omphale was atonement for some killing.

This story is an attempt to recreate this period in Heracles’ life while remaining within the framework established by the writings (often contradictory) that have come down to us from ancient Greece. It is told in the first person. Some of the epithets are taken straight from Homer, to whom the sea was always wine-dark, ships always black, and dawn always rosy-fingered.

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HERACLES THE WOMAN

After I returned from the quest of the Golden Fleece with Jason on the black ship Argo, crossing the wine dark sea from Colchis to Achaia in Greece, I felt the need to flex my leg muscles. It was not as if I had not exercised on board the Argo, for I was one of the oarsmen, and we had rowed the ship the whole way home, without ever using the sails. I had learned that my wife had died while I was away on this quest, and I saw no point in returning home.

I shouldered my bow and quiver, tucked my bag of gold dust in my belt (my share of the spoils of Colchis) and set off on foot. The first day was hard. My feet were blistered, my calves ached. I realized how unfit my lower body was. But my arms were as strong as ever. Towards evening I spied a stag, a twelve-pointer, brought by the god from the cool depths of the forest to drink at the river. I strung my bow and shot an arrow. That was all it took, although the stag was 200 paces away; the bronze-tipped arrow hit the stag in the center of the back, severing the spine. I ran up and withdrew my arrow, setting it aside while I cut his throat, for he was still living. I cut out the right thigh bone, wrapped it in fat and burned it as an offering to the god who had sent me this stag. That night I ate well, roasting a haunch of the deer over a fire of olive wood and flavoring it with wild garlic that I found growing along the trail. It was tough, of course, for it was an old stag and I had no time to hang it. Perhaps the next day the other haunch would be more tender.

It was obvious that I could no go on bare-footed. I had not worn any kind of shoe since I took ship on the Argo, and my feet were hard enough for boat-side work, but too soft for running on land. I spent the next day beside that stream and fashioned raw-hide sandals out of the stag’s skin and decided I needed a club as well as my bow. I wrenched an olive tree out of the ground and made my club from its trunk and roots. On the third day I set out again as soon as rosy-fingered dawn mounted her golden throne.

That night I dined on roast pig, a young boar I had found rooting along the edge of the river and had clubbed to death. My legs and feet were slowly becoming harder and the next morning I tried running for a couple of thousand paces. That was all I could manage, but I set a reasonable pace and felt better for it.

Two days later I entered the village, or rather small town, of Nemea. There I was told of a lion that was intimidating the townsfolk. It had killed 18 men and several women and children, I am not sure how many, but after all it was the men who mattered, not the women. I was offered lodging in a flea bag of a place, infested with bed bugs too, but I preferred to sleep in the open covered with my thick woolen cloak, rather than in such a place, despite the threat of the Nemean lion. I poured a libation to Zeus the Thunderer, made up a bed of fern fronds and covered myself with my cloak.

It was not the roar of the lion that awoke me, but rather its weight as it landed on my chest. It was a stupid animal, old, with broken teeth, as are most man-eaters. A lion does not turn man-eater unless it is too old and decrepit to tackle other prey. I stared into its mouth as it paused to roar once again, then raised both hands and grasped its lower jaw in my right hand and its nose in my left. A quick wrench and I had dislocated its jaw. I felt its hind legs scrabbling at my belly in an attempt to disembowel me but my good cloak tangled in its claws. It only took a second wrench to rip its lower jaw right off. The lion tried to back away but I still held it by the muzzle with my left hand. I broke its neck and then seized it by the tail with my other hand, while still holding the muzzle with my left, lifted it high over my heads and dashed it down on the ground.

I offered a prayer of thanks to Athena, the Shield-bearer, for it was the shield of my cloak that had saved me from the claws of the beast.

The people of the town were grateful to me and offered me all kinds of inducements to stay, but I was having none of it. My share of the gold from the Argo was enough wealth to last me for years. But that blasted lion had torn my cloak to shreds, and the one thing I wanted from the Nemean people was a new cloak, but they had none to offer me. Instead I had them tan the skin of the lion and adapted that into a cloak, which I wore with the head of the lion over my own head as a hood and the skin fastened around my loins with a girdle made from its tail.

That is how people think of me today, clad in the pelt of the Nemean lion, with a club over my shoulder. They forget that I was once a renowned bowman, with a bow that no other man could bend.

I walked away from Nemea no poorer for the interlude, but somewhat richer, if only for a few flea-bites. And killing the lion had been good exercise. I was at last regaining my full strength. I walked north through Thessaly, stallion-country, accomplishing a number of tasks that tested this strength, tasks that have since become known as the Labours of Hercules, though at the time most of them seemed minor matters to me. The great grassy plains of Thessaly stretched away into the distance, with grazing herds of horses, too small for riding, except by boys, but fine for drawing a chariot. When would the horse breeders of Thessaly manage to breed a strain big enough for me to ride, I wondered? The plains made for easy walking, but the sun beat down and no trees provided shade. I cast off my cloak and wrapped it around my waist, but still I suffered in the heat. Then I recalled that my old friend Chiron lived in the woody hills to the west of Thessaly.

I turned to the west and walked towards the hills. I could find no stream for water, and finally made a dry camp for the night, sleeping rolled up in my lion skin. Even before rosy-fingered dawn harnessed her colts Blaze and Aurora to her golden chariot the next day I set off, anxious to find water before the day became too hot. By the third hour I could see the hills visibly closer, golden in the morning sun shining from behind me. Then I saw a dark streak on the plain a few miles ahead, and turned towards it. It took me more than an hour to reach the line of trees that marked a small stream, but finally I had water and even some shade. Even though it was only shortly after midday I decided to make my camp here where I had water, and spent the afternoon hunting with my bow, mostly small game, but good tender eating.

As soon as young dawn had raised her rosy-fingered hands the next day I set forth into the hills. The way became gradually steeper, and I realized I was not quite as fit as I had thought. I was panting slightly before I saw any of the inhabitants of this region, and even then the boy hid in dense bush. I began to wonder how I would ever find Chiron’s camp, when I finally met a boy, nearly full grown and not nearly as shy as the first. He led me back to his family camp-site and I regaled all the people there with tales of the adventures of the black ship Argo. These people are all vegetarians, and supper was a dish of nuts, quite delicious, but not very filling, but then I already knew that my friend Chiron was not a meat-eater.

It had been difficult to fit Chiron into Argo, the black ship. He was great at pulling the oar, but his horse’s body could not fit on the benches, so that we had to adapt one of the oar-stations to accommodate him. Centaurs are great bowmen despite their vegetable diet, and the best of them, such as Chiron, can pull a bow almost as strong as mine.

That night I sang of Jason and how he planted dragon teeth and finally sacked Colchis at the eastern end of the Euxine Sea and captured the golden fleece, of how we fought the Amazons and of our battle with the harpies. The evening passed quickly. One of the women came to my bed, but neither of us was able to figure out quite how a human male and a female centaur could manage anything together. I could get my prick in her cunt with no difficulty, but her passage was so large that she could not grip it, even though I am well-endowed for a human being. Neither of us could get any pleasure from that, so we finally settled down and just cuddled one another.

It was late afternoon of the next day that my guide finally led me into Chiron’s camp. There I walked into chaos, with the womenfolk weeping and keening. If you have ever heard centaurs weeping you will know what a deafening sound greeted me.

A gigantic wild boar had taken up residence in a nearby copse and was terrifying the people, rushing out at them was they passed. Its vicious tusks were quite capable of ripping open the belly of a centaur, and that very morning it had killed one of the older women of the clan in just that way. She had been walking peacefully along a trail when the boar rushed out and passed between her four legs, ripping up at her belly. Her death had been long and agonizing as her intestines hung out from the wound, and even Chiron’s healing hands had been unable to ease her suffering.

I was surprised at the funeral feast that night, when the praises of the dead woman had been lauded as if she were a male, but apparently centaurs treat their menfolk and womenfolk alike in this respect as well as in others.

The next day was devoted to the funeral games. Those at least were a purely male affair, as the women prepared the funeral pyre. I could not compete with the centaurs in running races nor in jumping, and centaurs do not compete in either wrestling or boxing, but I was able to win both at throwing the javelin and in archery, though Chiron beat me at the discus throw. We lit the pyre at sundown, each of the winners in the funeral games taking a torch and laying it to the dry cypress wood while the priest chanted the prayers for the dead. Then the menfolk sat around drinking mead and discussing what should be done about this savage wild boar.

I was all for torching the copse where it had its lair, but Chiron cautioned that in this dry season the whole forest could burn. Korites suggested sending in the dogs to drive out the boar to a place where we could spear it. But Chiron vetoed this too, citing an oracle that stated that he and his dogs would die when they tried together to kill a ferocious wild animal. Finally we decided that most of the men would advance through the copse beating drums and making loud noises to try to stampede the boar to where four others would be waiting with spears. The dogs would remain tied up in camp.

We drew lots as to which of us should be the beaters and which the spearmen, and I drew one of the four short straws, making me one of the silent spearmen.

It was not yet dawn when the four of us set out, three centaurs and me, to take our stations across the game trail that we expected the boar would follow. Another thirteen men, all centaurs, moved off in a different direction to make the hullabaloo to drive the boar toward us. Rosy-fingered dawn had just awoken from her sleep when we heard them. A moment later Chiron’s dogs rushed past us, having somehow escaped, rushing to the voice of their master. I was seized with dread, fearing the fulfillment of the prophecy of the oracle and winged a prayer to great Athena, Shield-bearer, to shield Chiron from harm.

The boar broke from the copse. I hurled a javelin at it and hit it in the shoulder. On it came still, dragging my bronze-tipped lance, rushing straight at me. I used my second javelin to stab, but it knocked me flying, gashing my leg and causing me to loose my third javelin at random. Chiron’s dogs rushed from the copse and attacked the boar, but were killed for their pains with quick slashes of its tusks. It took four more javelins from my companions to kill the boar. So, with the death of the hounds, part of the prophecy was fulfilled. I was in agony from the boar’s slash, but more so in my mind wondering about Chiron. Would the rest of the prophecy be fulfilled? Then a great keening arose in the copse, and a great stir. I tried to bind my leg with a piece of linen, but still I could not stand as the keening drew nearer. Then came a sad procession, Chiron staggering along supported by his companions, with my javelin sticking from his side.

Korites carried me back to the camp on his back, for I could not walk, while Chiron made it back on his own four feet. He lingered for three more days, but then he died. I was devastated. I had killed him. But the priest assured me that it was in fulfillment of a prophecy and no blame attached to me.

Nevertheless I felt that I must atone in some way.

The funeral games were great indeed, as befitted the death of such a noble man, and people came from far around, both centaurs and humans. I could not compete, for my heart was too full.

On I roamed, passing Mount Olympus, where the gods dwell, through Macedonia, passing the walled city of Boutros, and then to the shores of the Hellespont, where Leander dwelt.

I was saddened to learn that he had drowned a short time before, swimming across to visit his lady love Hero on the other shore. At one time he did this regularly, but he must have misjudged the current that day. One more death of a friend to add to my litany of woes, but at least I was not the unwitting agent of his death this time. Nevertheless, I lost more of my appetite for living.

I stayed with Leander’s family for a few days, hoping for a boat to cross the Hellespont, but none put in to the harbor. I had little regard for my life at that point in my travels so decided to risk the currents and swim over. What matter if I drowned like Leander? I made a small raft to hold my lion-skin cloak, javelins, club, bow and arrows and pushed it out into the straits, wading until I was out of my depth.

Then I started swimming.

The currents were incredible. I was astonished that Leander had been able to do this regularly, and hardly surprised that he had drowned one night. The Tritons that made the currents pushed me far off course but once I started to fight them I found I had a desire to live after all, and eventually made my way to the Asian shore about five thousand paces downstream from my intended target. I crawled out of the water on my hands and knees and fell exhausted on the sward a few feet beyond the strand line.

Cold woke me about the middle of the night, and I wrapped myself in my lion skin, but shivered until rosy-fingered dawn awoke, when I took my bow and set off to hunt some animal that I could sacrifice to Poseidon, Shaker of earth, to thank him for allowing me to swim across the Hellespont safely.

I found an aurochs, standing a fathom tall at the shoulder, and lanced it with my javelin before stunning it with my club. I then cut its throat with all due ceremony and uttered the ritual prayer of sacrifice.. Its great horns spread wider than my arm-span. I made a sacrificial fire on the spot and burned the right thigh bone, the proper offering to Poseidon. I then roasted the sirloin from the left side and ate that for my supper, flavoured with sea salt, wild garlic, rosemary and sage. I was fortunate enough to find a bees’ nest from which I robbed honeycomb for dessert.

Perhaps life still held something for me after all. On I roved following the coast of Asia Minor in a southerly direction. The lands here were more populous than in Greece and Macedonia, but I saw no Achaians, only the short dark people who follow the old religion.

The first town I came to of any size was Lydia, where the priestess/queen Omphale held court. Omphale means ‘belly button’ and she considered her city state to be the navel of the world. The summer solstice was almost upon us, and to my surprise this was the day when they held the great feast of fertility, instead of holding it at the vernal equinox like everyone else. As at most of these cities that hold to the old religion, the central part of the ceremonies was the competition for the queen’s hand, and here the competition took the form of a wrestling match, a fight to the death.

I no longer cared whether I lived or died since the successive deaths of my wife, Chiron and Leander.

My wife had died while I was away on the Argo and I blamed myself for having left her alone, while Chiron’s death at been at my own hands, though unwitting. In any case, I am a sucker for competitions of this kind and the Fates seemed to have led me here at just this time. I entered a challenge. Perhaps the Fates had decreed this as my atonement for the death of Chiron.

I poured a libation of wine to Zeus, god of thunder, and one to Poseidon the Earth shaker, his brother, though I knew not whether they had any influence here in the navel of the world, center of the worship of the triple goddess. Then I entered the arena.

My opponent was Alcinous, the current king of Lydia, who had killed his predecessor only the previous year in a similar wrestling match. He seemed self-assured, but moved sluggishly as though drugged.

We both stripped naked and oiled our bodies, scraping off the excess oil with strigils. Then he began posturing and boasting, flexing his muscles as if to frighten me, prancing around and posing in front of the ladies of the court. I noticed that the court was entirely female, not a man amongst them, though there were plenty of men in the rest of the audience. I stood watching him, relaxed, barely moving.

This sort of overweening confidence was not my style at all. His pride alone would kill this man for me.

He then began to declaim, boasting about the number of children he had fathered in the single year of his reign that had just passed, and of how many he proposed to sire in the coming year. I waited quietly during this tirade. Suddenly, he rushed at me, head down, attempting to butt me in the chest while aiming a kick at my groin. I simply leaned sideways, not even moving my feet, and evaded his rush. As he went past I put out a foot and tripped him.

I let him do all the attacking. If he was foolish enough to think that he could overawe me, let him do all the work. When I became bored with his constant amateur rushes I just picked him up, gripping his right thigh in my left hand and his left shoulder in my right, lifted him over my head and threw him to the ground, where he broke his neck. This was not real wrestling, and I just let it go on so long because it seemed to be pleasing the crowd. If my opponent had been an Achaian I might have had to work to win the bout, but this way it was just showy manslaughter.

A slave escorted me out of the arena and another one shampooed my hair and oiled my body for me, scraping the excess off with a strigil in the normal way. I was then offered a clean linen robe which I put on, and then a woolen cloak, but I preferred to keep my lion skin cloak. I looked at the robe with some suspicion. I had never seen anything quite like it; it came down only to a little beyond my knees, fastening with a knot on my left shoulder, and passed under my right arm leaving my right shoulder bare.

Something seemed wrong, but I could not quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it was just that it seemed too short, and would reach the ankles of a man of more normal size, or perhaps I had been going around in nothing but a loincloth for so long that I had forgotten what civilized clothing was like.

A slave escorted me through the passages of the palace - or was a it a temple? perhaps both - to the private apartments of Queen Omphale. She received me warmly, "We shall have a glorious bedding tonight, Prince Heracles."

She paused and looked me over, "But what have they done to you? Those stupid slaves have forgotten how to dress a king."

So something was wrong with that robe.

"They have given you a robe that is far too short."

She clapped her hands to summon a slave, who returned after a brief interval with a fresh robe, followed by more slaves with other articles of clothing. They stripped me to my loincloth and wrapped the new robe around me. This robe was almost long enough. Then another slave stepped forward and began fastening a girdle around my waist. I stepped back.

"But that’s a woman’s girdle," I said.

"Of course it is; it’s a Maeonian girdle," said Omphale. "As my consort you are a priestess of the goddess now, and must dress accordingly. The Maeonian girdle is part of the insignia of a priestess."

I looked at the queen and saw that she was wearing a similar robe and girdle, together with a flounced purple petticoat and a turban. I remembered that these were the full panoply of a priestess of the old religion. ::was she going to dress me like this?:: Now I knew what seemed wrong with the robe: it was a woman’s robe.

She gestured to the slave to continue tying the girdle. I do not know why I allowed this to happen, but the steel in her voice made it seem inevitable. ::Did Alcinous, with all his macho posturing, dress like this too?:: Another slave stepped forward with a length of purple linen cloth.

"I think you had better kneel, my lord king," said Omphale. "She cannot reach your head."

I did as she asked, and the slave wound a turban around my head, then another slave stepped forward with a petticoat dyed with Tyrian purple and gestured to me to step into it. As if in a dream I did so, she pulled it up over my robe and tied it at the waist behind. I was now dressed exactly like the queen, who looked me over and pronounced everything satisfactory. She took my hand and led me into the state dining room where we took our places at couches on a dais. Just the two of us were elevated in this way, but some 20 guests reclined on couches around the room, both men and women, or, at least, men and persons who were dressed as women, as I was. I later found out that they were in fact real women, all priestesses, dressed like me, and the ten men were all nobles of the city.

We dined well, with many dishes, mostly too dainty for my taste, but providing a variety of flavors and textures. Each of the priestesses, all of whom were daughters of the queen, either in fact or by courtesy, came up to me after dinner and bowed low. Each of them said the same thing: "You will give me a beautiful baby, my lord."

I looked quizzically at the queen.

"You will be expected to sleep with each one of them in turn. They admire your physique and all of them long to have a baby sired by you. But you will give me a baby first."

::If I was going to sire so many children why did I have to dress as a woman?::

Queen Omphale escorted me to a bedroom with a retinue of slaves who undressed us and rubbed perfumed oils on our bodies, and then left us alone with no less than six torches burning around the room. I moved to put them out, but the queen stopped me.

She was certainly an experienced lover, and I am no slouch either, so our love-making was long, loud and furious. I took her twice in the front and once in the bum before I fell asleep, knowing that we would continue in the morning.

It must have been about the third hour of the morning when I woke. Only two of the torches were still alight, and one of them was smoking. Suddenly I saw the moon over the hills, a moon that was just rising in its last quarter. As I looked around I became curious as to what I could see, so I arose and walked around. It did not take me long to realize that this was no bedroom, but the stage of the sacred theater, where religious mystery plays were performed, an adjunct to the palace/temple. Dimly, in seats of the amphitheater I could see people, apparently dozing, quite a large number of them. "Well,

I’ll be damned. These people were watching us making love earlier."

"Of course they were, Heracles. The people must see their new king coupling with their queen. It ensures fertility for the their herds."

I did not know that I had spoken aloud. ::What strange beliefs these people have. First they dress me as a woman, and a priestess at that, then they expect me to screw every priestess in sight, and watch to see that I can really do it with the queen::

"Come back to bed, my Lord, and make love to me some more."

So I did. Three times more before rosy-fingered dawn raised her arms above the eastern horizon, letting her rays shine upon the wine-dark sea.

Once more I was dressed in a white linen woman’s robe, a purple turban and a Maeonian girdle, but no petticoat, and I took my place among the household women. I found that I was right in thinking that this building was both temple and palace, and the ladies of the household were without exception priestesses of the triple goddess. Most of the slaves were women too, though I later discovered that field slaves were both male and female. Some of the ladies had children, though for the most part the children were in the charge of slaves and were rarely underfoot. Three of the ladies were obviously pregnant, by Alcinous I suppose.

The women of the court - the priestesses - sat around all morning spinning and weaving. I suppose that is why they are called spinsters. I was expected to spin alongside them, though weaving was considered too difficult for me. Even spinning was more difficult than it looked and I found myself all thumbs. More than once I broke a spindle out of clumsiness: my big hands were just not adapted to using the distaff. My mistakes were corrected quite gently by the ‘other’ priestesses, but when I broke a spindle that was a different matter: I was roundly upbraided by the queen, and once I was even reduced to tears.

In the afternoon we took clothing to the river for washing. Here at least I was a great help for I could carry far larger loads than the other women. The evening was devoted to learning the ceremonial chants and rituals of the temple. I was introduced to the house snakes, and given the duty of taking them their evening dishes of milk. I was told that so long as I was a woman I was safe, but I must never observe them when I was a man, especially I must not see them coupling.

The days continued in this kind of round. I dressed as a woman at all times, carried out women’s work, and in the evenings added the purple flounced petticoat over my robe for the formal dinners when we were entertained by traveling bards. The flounces on the petticoat were bulky and formed many rows across the skirt. For the first month I slept with the queen every night, and had vigorous sex with her. I wondered if she was pregnant yet. After the first month I was led each night to the bed of a different priestess. If the vigor of my love-making was any guide, then they were all pregnant after the first month of this.

After two months I was admitted to the ranks of the priestesses as they conducted the ceremonies of worship in the temple. For this we all left off our robes, wearing only the petticoat, the Maeonian girdle and the turban. The women were bare-breasted, but for me they fashioned false breasts out of fine kid-skin stuffed with lamb’s wool, and tied them around me with fine kid-skin thongs. From this time on I took part in all ceremonies dressed like this. At first I was worried about appearing in public in this guise, but I soon grew accustomed to it and thought no more about it.

Then the queen started throwing up - morning sickness they called it - and I was asked to take over her role in leading the ceremonial rites. I dressed as before, including the kidskin breasts, and I had learned enough of the rites and the chants to succeed. All through the months of her pregnancy I substituted for her in all the public rites and even on occasion took her part in the oracular performances, when I went into a trance from the effects of smoke from burning bay leaves.

Before the end of the year every one of the palace women gave birth to a child of mine, and the queen was pregnant for a second time. At times it was difficult to find any women to screw since they were all pregnant, and I had to turn to boys; that was not much fun, but it was better than enforced celibacy.

The work room was now quite different from what it had been, with so many babies around the place.

I decided I hated babies, their constant mewling, the attention they demanded from their mothers and the mothers’ attempts to involve me in this mothering.

Spring was now well advanced and the summer solstice was approaching, when I should have to fight to the death once more against anyone who would challenge me as I had challenged Alcinous. I decided it was time for me to work out in the gymnasium if I wanted to win this bout. I met a great deal of opposition from the palace but I persevered and managed two hours each day, under a sergeant of the royal guard as instructor and drill sergeant. I felt much better for it; this woman’s existence was not good for me, I was getting too soft.

I led the opening ceremonies for the solstice games, substituting for Omphale, who was troubled with morning sickness once more, then, still in my woman’s attire and false breasts, I sat quietly waiting for the challenger for the kingship. The challenge came from an Assyrian with an unpronounceable name; he sported a full square curly beard, like those worn by all Assyrian warriors. I appraised his physique and his demeanor: this bout was not going to be like the one with Alcinous the year before. He did not boast and posture, but stood quietly appraising me in return. Then he made his first mistake, jeering at me for how I was dressed.

We both stripped naked and the heralds led us into the arena. The Assyrian was clearly an experienced warrior and was not going to be led into a premature attack. We circled each other warily. At first the crowd was silent, but then cat-calls and jeers began at the lack of action. I took no notice; my concern was with my opponent, not with the mob, but I think it was this that finally spurred the Assyrian to attack. We grappled: no side-stepping this man and tripping him, no kneeing him in the groin.

This was going to be fair wrestling.

I was glad that I had trained under the drill sergeant these last months. If I had come into this fight as soft as the woman I seemed, I could have been beaten by this man. We were soon on the ground, the dust sticking to our oiled bodies, so that they were no longer slick. It was possible now to get a good grip and not fear that it would slip. I allowed the Assyrian to roll me over onto my back. In regular games this would have spelt defeat for me, as both shoulders touched the ground together, but this was a fight to the death, not a fight on points. The Assyrian was obviously classically trained in sports wrestling and the moment my shoulders touched down he relaxed slightly, perhaps expecting the judge to award him the bout. That was his undoing, and what I had planned for. I put a headlock on him, and, using my shoulders braced against the ground as a pivot, I hooked a leg under him and thrust him violently upwards. His body rotated, cartwheeling over his head which was held fast, thus breaking his neck. In sports wrestling this would have been an impossible throw, for once your shoulders both touch down you have lost.

I received a standing ovation. There is nothing a crowd likes as much as a good fight in the arena culminating in a violent death. A slave oiled me and scraped off the mixed oil and dirt with a strigil made from the rib bone of an ox, then dressed me in clean linens. I made my way to Omphale’s room, and found her as horny as all get out from watching the fight, but she held herself in until nightfall, when we would show the crowds just what we could do on the stage, like the year earlier, even if she was pregnant. When the time came I took her doggie-style. This time the crowd did not keep silent as they had the previous year but roared their approval.

This second year of my kingship - I will not call it a reign, for it was anything but that - passed like the last except in two regards. The first is that I kept myself in shape by working out every day with the drill sergeant, who also succeeded in finding my bow, arrows, javelin and club, so that I could practice with these too. The second is that I began to take part in the sacred plays in the theater, plays that depict the mysteries of the goddess.

At first I only took cameo walk-on roles, leaving the major speaking roles to some of the priestesses. I would pose in the background as a naiad or a nymph, while the action went on in front. These plays were used by the priesthood as a means of instructing the people in the minutiae of their faith as well as providing entertainment for them.

In other respects my life as a woman passed as before, in spinning and laundry, cooking and wine-making. House-cleaning was the task of the slaves, but I had the chore of giving the house snakes their milk every evening. I was becoming more comfortable in my robes, and found myself almost accepting this religion of theirs, this religion of which I was a priestess, indeed more than just any priestess, I was deputy high priestess. But still I owed allegiance to Father Zeus and to the olympian gods, not to the triple goddess who destroyed men.

Once more I impregnated all the other priestesses and every one of them bore me a child. I was taking on almost all of the duties of Omphale since I kept her pregnant all the time, and the poor thing suffered badly from morning sickness. I was beginning to learn to weave now that I had become an accomplished spinster, while in the gymnasium I was working out well. I even ventured beyond the city walls a few times, despite opposition from the queen, to practice archery, for I found the stadium too short; it was barely long enough for a good javelin toss.

Summer solstice approached once more, and once again I led the opening ceremonies in my role as the deputy of the high priestess and queen. My challenger this time was a huge Egyptian, more fat than muscle, and I picked him up with contemptuous ease and battered his head into the wall of the arena, fracturing his skull.

This time the victory celebrations included a religious mystery play performed by the priestesses on the stage, before Omphale and I demonstrated to the assembled crowd how to do it.

The following year, my third as a priestess, followed the same pattern. The only difference was that I began to take more important roles in the plays, even sometimes a speaking role for which I put on a falsetto. I spent more time at weapons practice, and became more convinced than ever that worship of Zeus and the olympian gods was the way of truth, not this trashy feminist religion.

It was soon after the vernal equinox that a small party of four Achaians appeared in Lydia. They were treated hospitably, as were all guests, for guests are the only source of news about events in foreign parts. These were the first Achaians I had seen in over a year. In fact I had sent messages back to Achaia through two of the bards who had visited the court over the year and these men had come in answer to my summons.

They were not surprised to see me dressed as a priestess for they had passed through Samos at the vernal equinox and observed the spring fertility rites of the triple goddess there, somewhat similar to those of Lydia, but held at a different time of the year. And in any case two of them came from Athens, where it was within living memory that my cousin Theseus had destroyed the old religion and installed the worship of Zeus and Athene. Before that time each high king of Athens, under the old religion, had been killed after three years by throwing him off a cliff. During his three-year ‘reign’ he too had been dressed as a priestess.

During a weapons’ practice session in the arena, when we were far from listening ears, we discussed my plans for the forth-coming kingly contest to be held in two months’ time at the summer solstice. That evening they entertained the court with their accounts of happenings in the outer world and the next day they departed loaded with the gifts that a court will give to visitors to thank them for such news.

Four days before midsummer the crowds began to roll in to observe the solstitial rites and the combat for the kingship. Word of my prowess had spread and more people than ever came from outside to see me, among whom I recognized over twenty Achaian warriors. This year my challenger was a Persian who spoke no known language, so that It was hard to discover how he came to be here, or even if he knew what would happen to him if he should chance to win.

It was a good fight. He knew several tricks of wrestling that were new to me, and even managed to use my own strength against me on a few occasions, but I bided my time, wearing down his strength and concentration and finally cracking his neck.

The day closed with a sacred mystery play on the stage with all the parts played by priestesses. I had the non-speaking part of the goddess as huntress, simply posing at the back of the stage with a bow and arrows while the action went on in front of me. I had planned this, and instead of the theatrical prop of a light bow I took my own great bow. It is a crime to keep a bow bent and strung, as I had to do on stage, but the tableau demanded it, with an arow ready notched and the bow lightly drawn. So there I stood at the back of the stage with my body freshly oiled and perfumed, my kid-skin and lambs’ wool breasts, my purple skirt and my turban, poised on one foot with a drawn bow in my hands. Never was the goddess represented by such a burly parody!

I looked around the theater and saw that all the Achaians were in place, said a prayer to Zeus and gently lowered my other foot, standing firmly and braced. As unobtrusively as possible I increased the draw on my bow until it was fully flexed. I sighted my bow and loosed the shaft. Before it found its target I had drawn another arrow from my quiver and notched it. Omphale, that impious priestess of a heretic cult, dropped to the floor with her spine severed by my first shaft.

That was the signal to the Achaians in the audience to draw their swords and lay about them, driving the populace out of the theater while I calmly brought down one after another of the priestesses, my former lovers, with my remaining arrows. Pandemonium reigned; half a dozen people were trampled to death in the panic race for the exits. All the priestesses were dead except for one that I found cowering behind the snake pit and killed with my club. My men and I ransacked the palace/temple, overturned the statues of the triple goddess, invoking the olympian gods as we did so, and looted the place of all the valuables we could find, gold and silver ornaments, bronze weapons and tripods, ivory carvings, fine linen and I know not what else. I even found my lion-skin cloak, and stripped down to my loin-cloth, discarding all the feminine finery I had been wearing.

Then we sent word to the walled city of Boutros in Macedonia, where an important temple stands dedicated to Zeus. While we waited for the priests of Zeus to arrive we prepared a great funeral pyre to burn the dead, for even though they were adherents of the old religion we could not leave their shades to wander unshriven; no funeral games for these heretics though.

A major concern was the horde of children that I had sired. All their mothers were dead, and we needed slaves to care for them and a school where they could learn the true religion. There were no less than 83 of these Heraclides that I had sired on the priestesses. Slaves were easy to find to care for them, but an orphanage and a school were more difficult. Once the priests of Zeus arrived it all became simpler. The temple was re-dedicated to Zeus, and a great statue of the father god erected in the sanctuary. The palace quarters were taken over by the Achaians that I appointed as the new rulers, an oligarchy instead of a monarchy. Slaves built new quarters for the priests who soon brought their families too. And the old communal quarters of the priestesses became the nursery and schoolroom for the Heraclides.

My greatest pleasure came when I walked out of the city to a clear running stream where I could bathe for the first time in three years, cleaning myself in running water instead of rubbing down with perfumed oil and scraping off the dirt. I offered a libation to the nymph of the stream and asked her forgiveness to polluting her waters and plunged again and again into the cleansing stream.

My task was completed. I felt that I had atoned for the death of Chiron by destroying this center of an impious cult and all its priestesses. I had converted the state of Lydia to the true religion of Olympus, and now I could live again, a man once more, no longer the woman I had been for the last three years.

 

 


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