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By Erica Jong
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Erica Jong
All rights reserved.
Legends of Aphrodite
Brightness. With luck we'll shelter in The harbor, solid ground For our storm-tossed ships.
The Lesbos of my childhood was an enchanted land. Between Eresus and Mytilene, there were gentle hills with shrines to Aphrodite surrounded by orchards. Not stony and bare like so many other islands, Lesbos was green and mossy; shimmery with silver olive leaves, round with golden grapes. Its arms embraced two deep bays that seemed like lakes but mysteriously opened out into the sea through narrow birth canals. Lesbos was a female island humming in the masculine tumult of the sea.
It was said that our singers were so great because in ages past the severed head of Orpheus had washed up on our shores, still singing. It's as good an explanation as any. The fact that Orpheus could sing after the maenads tore him limb from limb tells you something about the power of song. The singer can be dead and go on singing. Even his lyre went on reverberating after his fingers were scattered among the hills and had turned to dust.
The island was also known as a meeting place between east and west. We were just a ferry ride from the coast of Lydia. Travelers would marvel at the greenness of the hills, the sweetness of the grapes, the excellence of the wine, the fineness of the barley bread, the beauty and the freedom of the women. We were known for treating our women far better than women were treated in Athens or Sparta. But that was hardly well enough!
We were also famed for our festivals in honor of Aphrodite. The Adonia, our midsummer festival, brought all the female singers together to vie in making songs to commemorate the death of Aphrodite's young beloved, Adonis.
The first time my mother took me, I was perhaps ten or eleven. I stood in awe, transported by the festivities, gazing at the women on the roofs of their houses planting seeds that withered in the hot sun. I imagined Aphrodite, whose bare feet make the grass and flowers grow, bent weeping over her beautiful boy, trying to bring him back to life. She cries to her maidens:
Beautiful Adonis is dying.
How can we save him?
But even as she asks, she knows the answer. A gash in his thigh lets life leak out of him. The boar's tusk has opened his leg as if it were a womb and the ground is clotted crimson with his blood. Everywhere the sticky drops fall, fierce red anemones spring up—even out of season.
Tear your garments, maidens, and weep for Adonis! I wanted to sing out. But I was afraid. All those swaying choruses of girls in white seemed to exude music I would never know. Later I realized that I had first felt the thunderbolt of poetry at that festival and I reclaimed those very words and wove them into a song. At every Adonia in the wide world, maidens in white now sing my song to Adonis. Weep for Adonis, weep! Oh, I am also weeping as I tell this, but am I weeping for Adonis or for myself?
I loved Aphrodite from the first and steeped myself in her legends. My mother told me that in ancient times her rituals were bloody and cruel, but I only half believed it.
"Foam-footed, born of the waves—this is all a later whitewash of the so-called goddess of love," my mother said. "She was, in olden days, a bloodthirsty goddess, neck ringed with skulls of infants, holding aloft severed phalli still dripping with blood." My fierce mother always delighted in telling such gory details—the more frightening, the better. "She came from much farther east than Cythera," my mother continued, "and her triumph was a triumph of death. Without death, there is no life. The ancients believed this even more passionately than we do. They plowed the furrows with pigs' hearts and placentas to make the corn grow again. They rutted in the seeded trenches with beautiful boys who were later sacrificed to the goddess."
"Why did they sacrifice these boys?" I asked, horrified, thinking of my brothers.
"Because the goddess required it, Sappho. Gods and goddesses demand blind allegiance. At one time even Aphrodite required human sacrifice. She sacrificed her consort of a year just as the gods sacrificed Adonis. Blood flowed into the trenches and the corn grew high. Our soil is rich because of all that blood."
"Would my brothers have been sacrificed if we lived in those times?"
"Best not to ask such questions. Today we are more civilized. Later singers made Aphrodite seem almost blameless. They said she was born when Cronus pitched the testicles of his father, Uranus, into the sea. Thus her legend: that she was born of foam. Never forget that the foam is semen of the gods—a potent brew!"
But I would never forget my mother's words. Beautiful golden Aphrodite had been born out of semen and delighted in the blood of sacrifice. If my mother said so, it must be true.
You cannot understand my life unless you understand my special bond with Aphrodite. She was my goddess, the one who tutored and set traps for me, the one who placed temptation in my path. I knew her first when I was changing from a girl into a woman.
I am lying in an orchard. Bees are buzzing through the apple blossoms and I am looking up at the sunlight sifting through the leaves and daydreaming about becoming the greatest singer the world has ever known. The times are treacherous. We have been through a decade of war with the Athenians and peace is slowly returning to the vineyards and the shipping routes of Lesbos. The young people hardly know what the adults are warring about. And some of the adults themselves hardly know. People are concerned with what always concerns them: love, hunger, money, power. Song is last. Except for the singer.
The island of Lesbos is ruled by Pittacus, sage and benevolent tyrant. Or so he has come down through history. I found him neither so benevolent nor so sage. The aristocrats were feuding, as usual, over their rights as landowners and cupbearers. But I'll come to politics later. I am young—too young to be a wife, but not too young to think of being a wife—and I am lying in the orchard, dreaming of my destiny. Above me are the gods, making bets:
APHRODITE: A woman singer can be as great as any man—I'll prove it through my devotee Sappho—lying dreaming in the orchard there.
ZEUS: Perhaps she can be great, but I bet she will throw it all away for the love of an unworthy man.
APHRODITE: Impossible. You grant her all the gifts of song and I'll prove you wrong. No man could humble her.
ZEUS: Any man could.
APHRODITE: You could, maybe, but I mean a mortal man—even an irresistible mortal man.
ZEUS: Then make him irresistible. You have the power. And I will give her all the gifts. Then we'll see who's right. Pass the nectar.
To win the bet, Aphrodite went down to earth disguised as an old crone. She walked among the people. Many men scorned her, and women too. She was amused by how stupid mortals were. Could they only recognize the gods when they sat on rainbow-colored thrones and wore purple? It seemed so. Aphrodite searched all of Lesbos for a likely man. Finally she found a handsome young ferryman called Phaon, who plied the waters between Lesbos and the mainland of Lydia. He treated her with courtesy, as though she were beautiful, and refused to let her pay for the ride. He was so solicitous that for a moment she forgot she had turned herself into a crone. Smitten by his beauty and deference, she decided to bestow the gift of eternal youth upon him.
At the end of the ferry crossing, she presented him with an oval alabaster box containing magic salve.
"If you smear this on your lips, your chest, your penis, women will find you irresistible— and you will never grow old," the goddess said.
"Thank you," the ferryman said, suspecting her true identity despite her rags. She flashed her dazzling smile and disappeared.
So I was given gifts of immortal song. And Phaon was given gifts of eternal youth and heartbreaking beauty. And all the while, the gods were laughing.
I divide my childhood into before the war and after. The war caused us to flee Mytilene and move across the island to Eresus, my mother's birthplace. My grandparents were the only stability I knew. I think of my grandmother with her smell of lavender and honey. I remember my grandfather, fierce in battle but with a special tenderness for me—the only granddaughter.
My father, Scamandronymus, was a distant myth, always coming and going surrounded by men with bronze-tipped spears. When the war claimed him, his death and homecoming as cold ashes in a jar forced me to grow up far too quickly. A father who never grows old remains a legend to his daughter. For me he was forever young and handsome, more god to me than father. Whenever I thought of him, I flew back in time and became six years old again. I could see him picking me up in the air and whirling me around. "Little whirlwind," he would call me. Little whirlwind I became.
I knew he loved me better than my brothers. They were his legacy, but I was his delight. Some nights when I was little, I would wander the house in the dark middle of the night, hoping that my footsteps would wake him. (Like most warriors, he was a very light sleeper.) Then, when he woke and came to find me, I would throw my arms around his neck and ask him to carry me into the courtyard. There, beside the gurgling fountain, we had our deliriously private conversations.
What did we talk about? I cannot remember much—except that once I asked him if he loved me better than my mother. Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurygius were younger than I, and boys. I knew he loved me more.
"I love you differently," he said. "I love her with the fire of Aphrodite. But you I love with the nourishing love of Demeter, the intoxicating sweetness of Dionysus, and the warmth of the fires of Hestia. The love for a daughter is serene; for her mother it can be a torment."
This gave me pause. "And do you love me better than my brothers?"
"Never will I tell," he said, laughing. But his eyes said yes.
During the years when the grapes were ruined, the barley fields blasted, we lived among slaves and grandparents in my family's villa in the countryside. We were always in fear that the brutal Athenians would come to slaughter all the men and enslave the women and children. I knew from my earliest days that I could go from free to slave in one turn of fortune's wheel. We were told that Athenians tipped their spears with sickness from rotting corpses, that they had no qualms about killing children—even pregnant women. We were told that nothing held them back from slaughter. They lacked our Aeolian sense of the beauty of life. They would stoop to anything for conquest. Or so our elders said. We had no reason to doubt this. Even children feel the uncertainty of war. They may not understand what adults understand, but they feel the insecurity in their very bones.
I remember my brothers Larichus, Charaxus, and even the sickly littlest one Eurygius playing at being soldiers in the pine groves above the sea. I remember how they thrashed each other on the head with wooden swords as if they were Homer's heroes. Little boys love war as much as little girls fear it. I was the oldest and the ringleader. I used to bring them to a cave where we could hide if the Athenians came to enslave us.
I was both intrigued and frightened by the idea of marauding Athenians. Fear and desire warred in me. In the cave we ate bread and cheese, making the crumbs last. I adored my younger brothers and knew I was charged with the responsibility of protecting them. I had no idea how difficult that would become as we grew older.
Larichus was tall and fair, and vain of his beauty. He longed to be Pittacus' cupbearer, which indeed he would become. Charaxus was short and stocky and always a devil. He devoured every morsel before any of us could eat. He was greedy for bread, for wine— and eventually for women. His greed for women would become his downfall. It almost became mine. And Eurygius? Just saying his name makes tears spring to my eyes.
I always knew that I was cleverer than my brothers. My father knew it too.
"If the time ever comes that your brothers need you, Sappho, promise me that you will put all your cleverness at their disposal."
"I promise," I told him. "Whatever they need they shall have from me." How did he know to tell me this? Had he read the future? Later, when he was dead, I thought so. My father had astonishing powers.
I know now that parents often tell the stronger child to take care of the weaker ones. Does that enforce the weakness of the weak? Sometimes I think so.
The boys played at war before they knew of women. Women would come soon enough— though not ever for my baby brother Eurygius. He died before he grew to manhood, breaking my mother's heart, even before my father's death broke it again.
So the war informed our lives—perhaps my mother's most of all. For she lost her love and her youngest child.
"We are told the war is being fought over the Athenians' trading rights on the mainland," my mother used to say. "But I see other motives. In Athens women are little more than slaves, and in Sparta they are only breeding stock. These barbarians are drawn to Lesbos by the beauty and freedom of our lives, but they will try to destroy precisely what they admire and make us more like them. They are in love with chaos and with night. We must fight them with every breath in our bodies."
My mother's hatred of the Athenians later became her excuse for grasping power through men. She wanted to use her beauty before it failed her. I understand the panic of aging women now—though I disdained my mother for it then. Men had always loved her. She was said to look like the round-breasted, jet-haired goddess of the ancient Cretans. With my father gone and four young children to protect, she seized upon the tyrant Pittacus as her life raft and he obliged by floating her. Oh, how contemptuous I was of her wiles! I didn't realize she was saving her own life and mine.
It was true that women in Lesbos had far more freedom than women in Athens. We could go out walking with our slaves, meet each other at the market and at festivals. We were not completely housebound as women were in Athens. And our slaves were often companions and friends to us.
In fact, it was my slave Praxinoa who alerted me to my mother's intention to journey to Mytilene for Pittacus's victory feast—a great symposium such as no one had seen since before the war.
"Then we'll follow her!" I said.
"Sappho, you will get in trouble and so will I."
"I refuse to be left in Eresus, where I know every house and every olive tree," I said. "I long for adventure and if you love me, Prax, you'll go with me!"
"You know I love you. But I fear the punishment. It will fall more upon me than on you."
"I'll protect you," I said.
Praxinoa had been given to me when I was only five and she could refuse me nothing. We were more than slave and mistress. We were friends. And sometimes we were even more than friends. We bathed together, slept together, sheltered from the thunder in each other's arms.
"Your mother will kill you—and me."
"She'll never know, Prax, we'll be so secretive. We'll shadow her to Mytilene. She'll never even guess we're there, I promise you."
Praxinoa looked doubtful. I insisted she go with me—flaunting all the rules by which I had been raised. Even in Lesbos, two girls, free and slave, seldom left the family compound without men and without an entourage.
So we set out from Eresus together on the road to Mytilene. We traveled far enough behind my mother's procession to be invisible to her. Sometimes we even lost sight of the last stragglers in her entourage. We walked and walked in the morning shade, in the noontime sun, in the slanting late sun of the afternoon. It was twilight of the second day before we came anywhere near the villa of Pittacus, and we were exhausted. My mother traveled in a golden litter carried by slaves, but Praxinoa and I had to lean on each other. And sleep on the hillside with the goats.
We were bedraggled and dusty when we arrived. Nor had we bargained on the guards who barred the flower-strewn path to the tyrant's villa.
"Who goes there?" demanded the first guard, a tall Nubian with the face of an Adonis. Five other men, huge, with muscles and terrifying bronze-tipped spears, stood behind him. They glowered and looked down at us.
"I am Sappho, daughter of Cleis and Scamandronymus. We come from Eresus," I said bravely.
"We have no orders to admit you," the first guard said, blocking our way. We were hustled to the side of the road and seized roughly by two of the other guards.
"Sappho—I think we should be going home," Praxinoa whispered, shaking.
Excerpted from Sappho's Leap by Erica Jong. Copyright © 2003 Erica Jong. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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