“And that’s the last time I’ll have to sleep on those scratchy laurel leaves,” she said, doffing her nightwear.
Whenever Rhene and Clepsydra helped Sterope dress, they marveled anew at the strength and solidity of the old woman. Here she was, after ten years of icy plunges in the Castalian Fountain, ten years of inhaling and ingesting an overabundance of priestly drugs, ten years of deep trance states that wracked her body to the limit—and she looked more like forty than sixty.
“What shall I wear today?” she mused playfully. “How about that short white frock, the one with the purple veil? Just right for a brisk morning like this.”
Clepsydra already held the ceremonial dress ready for her, plain and flimsy, ending just above the knee. Rhene held the veil. When Sterope had them on, the three women made their way past the sleeping figures of the other temple helpers, out into the moonlit night.
The men, wrapped in layer upon layer of wool, waited outside the door. There stood the high priest Nikandros, his two chief priests Aktor and Typhon, and the five members of the Delphic senate appointed to oversee the ceremonial lustration of the Pythia. Some shifted from foot to foot, others blew on their hands.
They escorted her, as custom dictated, to the outlet of the Phaedriadic Gorge, where the sacred spring Castalia emerges from the rocks. All about grew the laurel trees planted long ago by Apollo himself. At the frozen edges of the spring’s lively pool, the mossy rocks were dusted white with frost. Spring water gushed forth brittle and cold.
The men watched as Sterope removed her clothing and stepped naked into the biting cold water. Nikandros and his chief priests chanted their prayers to Apollo in uninspired unison, to which the senators grunted their deep-pitched oh-so-solemn responses.
Their eyes moved upon Sterope’s firm body.
In the midst of this slow chill solemnity, Sterope shot a private look at Rhene and Clepsydra, a fiery look that said, roughly, “Goddamn these cocksucking assholes my flesh is screaming from the cold I wish I could trade places with that pious bastard Nikandros and watch his motherfucking balls shrivel into peas and his dick break off like an icicle why don’t they speed the fuck up I’d like to slaughter the whole lot of them I’d like to sweep their stinking carcasses right off the side of this sacred mountain with one hot ramping blast of our Great Mother’s angry breath!”
The sheer bulk and roll of Iros, Corinth’s emissary to Delphi, would have caught their eye in any event, but he recognized his prince at once and floated majestically toward them from his post outside the Pythian Sanctuary. The crowd of suppliants parted as for a vast ship. He was upon them in no time, bowing hugely before the prince and pretending not to notice his ill-clad companion.
“Prince Oedipus,” Iros boomed, “what an unexpected pleasure. But where’s your entourage? Shame on you, dear boy, for not giving your proxenos advance warning. No one told me to expect royalty today. A few merchants perhaps, one or two pious farmers, a temple prostitute on holiday. But our worthy prince? I am woefully unprepared to serve you as befits your state.”
“I am here on personal business, Iros, not on matters of state. I need three things of you.”
“You have but to name—”
“First, you will guide us through the consultation step by step so that we do everything properly, as Apollo requires. Second, as prince of Corinth, I claim the right of promanteia, my right to go ahead of the suppliants I outrank. Third, Pleusidippus and I want to consult the oracle together.”
“Oh but that’s simply not—”
“You will see to it, Iros,” Oedipus broke in, “unless you’d like to give up your position here and go back to brewing bathscent in the stills at Corinth.”
The huge man groveled and protested by turns. But in the end he entrusted to his young son, who stood by, the task of settling sufficiently large bribes on the appropriate Delphic authorities.
Oedipus entrusted his goat to the boy and went with Iros and Pleusidippus toward the Castalian Fountain in the foothills above. When they reached their destination, Iros bellied and buttocked their way past the other suppliants. He helped the prince and his friend say the correct prayers. Then he guided them through the process of purifying themselves by washing their hair in the sacred waters.
The rising sun played over the fluted surface of the pool. Oedipus felt cleansed, blessed, full of joy and promise. Clearly, he thought, he was back in Apollo’s good graces after the shameful events of the night before.
What a blessing it was to have two such devoted helpers, Sterope thought, as Rhene and Clepsydra supported her on her barefooted, numbfooted walk from the Castalian Fountain to the Pythian Sanctuary, the others following behind. Never again would she have to take the icy plunge into the sacred waters. She repeated a silent prayer of gratitude to the Great Mother for that.
The procession reached the high terrace situated a few hundred feet above the temple. There stood a small hut which housed the source of the hot spring Cassotis. From there the spring waters plunged underground, bubbling and steaming beneath the inner shrine of the temple. It was from the vapors of Cassotis that the priestess drew her inspiration.
Sterope stepped away from Rhene and Clepsydra and entered the hut, followed by Nikandros and his chief priests. She hated this place, so close and dank and dark. Breathing was difficult.
Things might have been different if she’d been able to visit Cassotis alone, without the priests along and without being forced to chew laurel leaves. How glorious it must have been, she thought, in the days before Apollo.
Then Aktor and Typhon urged her forward. She fell to her knees before the steaming sulphur-stenched waters. With practiced fervor she spoke her prayer to Apollo. When she finished, Nikandros dipped the bronze ladle into the rocky pool and brought it to Sterope’s lips.
Always too hot, the water nonetheless tasted pure, earthy, incorruptible. She swallowed the requisite three mouthfuls and watched as the two chief priests also drank of the waters. Typhon would translate her words for the first part of the morning, Aktor for the rest; a sip of the waters was supposed to make their mediation between the sacred and the profane easier.
Then Aktor brought out the small chest of laurel leaves Nikandros had placed there the night before. He passed the leaves, one by one, to Typhon, who dipped them in the sacred waters and handed them to Nikandros.
Sterope braced herself for the bitter taste. She’d been given nothing to eat since three days before, and she found herself salivating for the wretched stuff. The first leaf crackled in her mouth as she bore down on it. Dumb and pervasive, it blanketed her tongue. She coaxed its dead flavor down her throat and spat out the dregs.
Again and again the high priest’s liver-spotted hand placed a laurel leaf on her tongue. At one point she thought she heard him say, “Come on, that’s a good girl, just a few more.”
When she no longer cared how many he was feeding her and her head ballooned up so big it was all she could do to balance it between her shoulders, they led her out of the building into the cold morning air. Down marched the procession toward the bronze-plated Temple of Apollo, Sterope floating on ahead in the arms of Rhene and Clepsydra. Soon she would pass for the last time through the west entrance, the entrance reserved for priests and priestesses alone, under the inscription “These be thy watchwords: careful, careless, carefree.”
She was feeling just fine.
For weeks Delphi had busied herself welcoming the annual influx of visitors. Her inns strained at the seams; common hostels and private homes alike threw open their doors to suppliants, many of whom, dark-skinned and strangely dressed, had traveled from distant lands far beyond the Peloponnese. Other visitors, less well-to-do or in pursuit of sacrificial game, pitched their tents in the surrounding countryside.
Oedipus stood in line outside the main entrance to the temple, amid throngs of other suppliants. He had come from Castalia, made his way through the sanctuary, and now waited with his friends for the consultation to begin.
The early morning sun brightened the temple’s east facade. From atop its high walls, rows of pigeons peered into the inner court, waiting to swoop down and drink the wine that would be spilled on the ground if one of the suppliants misspoke.
Before the entrance, two temple helpers, hefty girls in flowing white robes, stoked the fires of the Great Altar. Oedipus looked up at the stone inscription.
“Know thyself,” it said.
The two words filled him with dread. He felt they were warning him to turn back, to seek no further. But surely that was wrong. Ahead lay truth, and truth must free him from his torment. With Apollo’s aid, he would find out who he was.
Pleusidippus stood behind him talking to Iros’ son, whose skillful dealing had bought their way to the head of the line. The only suppliants in front of them were two high-ranking Delphians looking extremely pleased with themselves.
Behind the prince’s party stood other important men, each accompanied by his city’s proxenos. Farther back, their place in line having been decided by lot the day before, milled the remaining suppliants with their Delphic sponsors in tow. Many had brought sacrificial animals, goats mostly, some lambs, a few pigs.
Two younger members of the priesthood emerged from the temple and stood at either side of the entrance with baskets full of honeycakes. Iros explained that each suppliant had to sacrifice one of these honeycakes inside on the Altar of Hestia immediately before consulting the oracle. The cost of the cake was one drachma for a private inquiry, ten for a state inquiry.
“But what of the goat?” the prince asked. He looked at the animal, whose ears drooped and whose dark eyes peered up at him large and sad.
“Gravy,” said Iros, resting his huge hand lightly on the goat’s head and smiling.
The murmur of conversation died down. The gates swung wide and out stepped the Pythia in her short white dress and purple veil, flanked by her two chief priests. From behind her veil, the old woman’s words rose to the heavens, a prayer to all the gods, a prayer to Father Zeus, a prayer long and ardent to the great god Apollo. Then she lowered her arms and fell silent.
Now the high priest Nikandros appeared, wearing a long embroidered robe, deep blue, his rolled kid belt covered with leaf gold, his sandals adorned with gems. In his hands he held a small bowl of water.
Behind him came a temple helper, her hair dark and flowing, holding a goat kid to her ample bosom, its legs long and gangly, its fleece pure white. When she set the kid down before the Great Altar, it looked up at her uncertainly and bleated.
Nikandros passed his hand three times over its head, sprinkling it liberally with the icy water.
“Iros,” whispered Pleusidippus, “What’s going on?”
“If the beast trembles, it’s a favorable omen. It means the Pythia too will tremble with ecstasy when she delivers herself of Apollo’s words.”
“And if it doesn’t tremble?”
“We all go home and try again next month.”
“Oh,” said Pleusidippus and fell silent.
Back inside the temple walls, behind closed gates, the chief priests led Sterope across the open court to the Altar of Hestia for her fumigation. The altar, its fires fed with pinewood, stood midway between the main entrance and the adyton, the tiny enclosure in which the priestess was to sit.
Sterope saw with vivid clarity the goat kid falling under the knife and was glad that dreadful sight was at last behind her. How she wished Rhene and Clepsydra were with her, but they were busy preparing her inner shrine. Just outside the adyton, three bronze snakes twisted about the squat golden tripod where the Eternal Fire burned, first lit long ago by Apollo himself.
She stood now as near to the Altar of Hestia as the searing flames would allow. Aktor and Typhon hovered close behind her.
Nikandros, droning chants to Apollo, threw laurel leaves and barley meal on the fire. Smoke billowed up around her. Again and again she inhaled the fumes, not so much that her lungs erupted with coughing but just enough to make her head pound and her vision swim with giddiness.
Then the priest tossed handfuls of incense and henbane and laudanum on the fire. The aroma rose pungent and stupefying around her, lighting up every breath she drew, unshackling her senses, driving her into the dream.
There in front of her floated her long-dead mother, wringing her hands. “Hasn’t she had enough?”
Her father’s face, dull, unfeeling, blotted out the sky. “It’s the old girl’s last time,” the dad mouth said. “Let’s give her a sendoff she won’t forget.”
Sterope began to reel. Blinking away the sting, the chief priests, themselves slightly intoxicated, pressed her head into the fumes. Then, at a sign from Nikandros, they seized her by the arms and led her past the Eternal Fire into the adyton.
Past the suppliants’ benches they dragged her. Then Clepsydra held the curtain aside and they made their way down the five stone steps into the inner shrine. With Rhene’s and Clepsydra’s help, the chief priests removed her clothing and lifted her into a sitting position on the tripod. She straddled the chasm, steam rising sulphuric past her naked body.
In one hand, they placed a laurel branch, in the other a thin woven rope tied around the omphalos, the squat stone beehive of a navel which connected her to the chthonic forces beneath the earth. On her head they placed a wreath of laurel.
As Aktor ascended the steps, Typhon peered into Sterope’s eyes. Her pupils were dilating and constricting wildly. It made Typhon feel feverish.
“Hang on, priestess,” he said softly. “One more to go and you’re free.”
“Yes, mama,” came the reply. She watched her smile explode through her cheekbones and scatter her mother’s worrylines onto the laurel-strewn ground. She blinked, mama disappeared, and she was alone at last with Apollo.
Following in the wide wake of Iros, Oedipus and Pleusidippus passed through the gates of the temple, the sacrificial goat in tow. The high priest, imperious in his robes, beckoned them toward the altar.
Iros had cautioned the two suppliants to think pure thoughts and to speak no ill-omened words. So they said as little as possible, drinking in instead the sights and sounds about them.
The first Delphian was apparently already inside with the oracle. They saw the second Delphian follow his proxenos to the entrance of the adyton and wait there. He clutched to his chest the lead tablet he’d scrawled his question on.
As they reached the altar, a high-pitched voice pierced the air, powerful, mocking. Its words held no meaning for them, but its tone rang out full of anger and scorn.
A few moments later, a pasty-faced Delphian came out of the adyton, eyes downcast, and walked out the south entrance beneath its inscription: “Nothing in excess.”
Pleusidippus touched the prince’s arm and nodded toward the altar. There Iros’ practiced hand drew the knife across the animal’s throat, drained its blood, and carved it into seven pieces for the sacrifice. On their behalf Nikandros spoke prayers to Apollo, begging the god’s favor. Then the high priest consigned their honeycakes to the fire and nodded toward the adyton.
But Iros held up his hand, called his son to his side, and snatched the two choicest cuts of goatmeat out of the fire. The boy tucked them under his arms and ran off through the south entrance.
Oedipus stood stunned, feeling his anger rise. “What is the meaning of this?”
“All according to form, my prince,” said Iros, smiling. “The proxenos gets the pick of the sacrifice. It’s the best part of the job.”
“Iros speaks truth, prince of Corinth,” said the high priest. “Go you now, you and your companion, and ask what you will of the oracle.”
Oedipus was about to protest, but Iros reminded him again to speak no ill-omened words. Oedipus clamped down on his anger and moved away from the altar.
Then the voice of the Pythia pierced the silence once more, berating with strange sounds the second Delphian. When she fell silent, they heard faintly the hexameters of the chief priest who translated her ravings. Then the suppliant emerged redfaced, took his proxenos by the arm, and rushed him out the south entrance.
Iros spoke. “Go in now, take seats, keep silence, and do as the chief priest instructs. I’ll wait here for you.”
And in walked Oedipus and Pleusidippus to the torch-lit adyton.
Sterope’s hallucinogenic stupor began pleasantly enough. Lovely Apollo, swart and solid, stripped away her clothes, spread her out on his huge bed, and brought his sinewed body down upon her in reverse. As he tongued her petal-pink labia and breathed sweet godbreath upon her clitoris, his rocksolid cock gave itself to her lips. Good clean oral-genital fun. No more, no less.
They shared the pleasure of deflating two self-important Delphians, he whispering words of derision through her loins, she shouting them out gleefully past his erection.
But then the world grew cold and dark and full of fear. Things turned abruptly rough. Apollo’s gentle tongue was gone, and she fell victim to the sharp clutch and tug of his teeth. He tore at her aroused cuntflesh like a dog worrying an old piece of cloth. She wanted to cry out, but her mouth was crammed full of godcock, which swelled and grew and pushed its way deeper into her throat, forcing her jaws apart so that the corners of her mouth bled.
She peered around his balls and saw him resting his right ear momentarily in the curls of her pubic hair and grinning back over her belly at her. To Sterope’s horror, it was Apollo no longer, but Dionysus, thick-jowled, paunchy, in dire need of a bath, his eyes filled with some unholy hunger. Without warning he reared up like a great ramping beast, opened wide his huge mouth, and buried his sharp teeth deep into her. When they came together a good inch below the surface of her skin, the god who knew no bounds tore his bloody prize free. The pain shot through her body and blew the top of her head off. Down came the dread mouth once more, but now his lips closed around the blood-gush of her no-cunt and he breathed the vile words into her again and again, and he kept breathing the vile words into her until she swelled up with them and could contain them no longer.
“Oedipus of Corinth, Pleusidippus of Corinth, be seated,” said Typhon, indicating the benches just inside the entrance. The two friends sat. They exchanged a wordless glance and peered about.
There was little to see.
The ill-lit room was small, perhaps nine feet by sixteen, but the white curtain draped between them and the inner shrine where the priestess sat made the room appear even smaller. Oedipus took in the two chief priests, the young one who had told them to be seated and who seemed to be in charge of their consultation, and the sterner one who stood now to one side talking softly to a couple of temple helpers.
And those temple helpers were Rhene and Clepsydra.
The prince’s heart went cold within him. He rose in horror, unable to take his eyes off them. The beginnings of a deep moan floated out from behind the curtain. Its eerie sound caught the attention of the stern priest, who took a hesitant step toward the curtain.
“Oedipus, what are you doing? Sit down!” whispered Pleusidippus, but then he followed the prince’s gaze and froze to his seat.
The Pythia’s moan turned slowly into a series of shrieks and then into a prolonged scream. Before anyone could go to her, the old woman, naked but for her wreath of laurel, burst forth from behind the curtain, a look of anguish fixed on her face and a cry of torment issuing from her lips.
She made straight for the two young suppliants.
She cupped her burning hands around the backs of their necks and drew them together. Her face hung haggard before them in the air. They could smell the vegetation on her breath. She looked from one to the other, madness and disbelief beaming from her eyes.
And then the babble came pouring out of her, an incomprehensible jumble of sounds repeated again and again through her hysteria, first to one, then to the other.
Then she wept aloud and pulled at her hair and blundered about the adyton. Her laurel wreath went flying as she whipped her head around and ran for the entrance.
Before anyone could think to stop her, she was out in the open courtyard. She pushed past Iros, who fell over on his side like a pregnant sow.
Nikandros saw what was coming next but he was too late to stop it. Sterope, hair standing on end, blundered into the three twisted snakes and upset the Eternal Fire. The pinewood logs scattered; the fire hissed and went out.
Beneath their feet the earth trembled.
Down fell the overwrought Sterope and death took the old woman’s pain away.
Inside, Typhon stood stock-still, the blood drained from his face. Oedipus noticed him and leaped for him. He sank his fingers into the chief priest’s neck and pulled him close.
“Forget the poetry, priest. Just tell me what she said.” Feelings of shame and dread and anger fed strength into his arms.
“You saw her. The poor woman was raving. It was her madness that spoke, not Apollo.”
The prince’s sure skilled hands found the pulse in Typhon’s throat. “If you want to go on living,” he said calmly, “you will tell me what she said.”
Typhon gasped out, “She said that you would . . . have sex with . . . with your mother and that . . . the other part was too garbled. Something about your father killing you, or you killing your father, it wasn’t clear which.”
Oedipus released him. The prince’s hands fell dumb and useless to his sides.
Pleusidippus spoke up. “Mom will fuck you and dad will kill you. That’s what she must have said. That’s the way it always goes.”
Before the prince could respond, Iros lumbered into the adyton. “The high priest is out in front of the temple calling the entire consultation off. If you two don’t get out of here, they’ll tear you apart.”
Oedipus followed them in a daze. Looking back, he saw Clepsydra, horror burning in her eyes.
Beside her stood Rhene, whose face was filled with anguish for him. Such was the memory of her he took with him. And that was the last he saw of her for many years, until, about the time Antigone was born, his longing for her had grown so great that he sent for her and installed her as his mistress in Thebes.
In the open courtyard, they heard beyond the gates the growing anger of the suppliants.
Iros led them to the north entrance, not often used. It would buy them some time.
The prince looked up at its inscription: “Let prisoners serve their term.” Not as catchy as the others, he thought, but then he ran out of time to think. For Iros was leading them behind the Temple of Apollo over paths used only by the priesthood, leading them from the Pythian Sanctuary to obscure trails that snaked back up the western slopes of Parnassus toward their encampments.
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