|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 30, 1930
Date of Death:September 25, 1999
Place of Birth:Albany, New York
Place of Death:Berkeley, California
Education:B.A., Hardin-Simmons College, 1964; additional study at University of California, Berkeley, 1965-1967
Read an Excerpt
“Before the birth of Paris, Hecuba, Queen of Troy, dreamed that she had given birth to a firebrand who would burn down the walls of Troy.”
All day the rain had been coming down; now heavy, now tapering off to showers, but never entirely stopping. The women carried their spinning indoors to the hearth, and the children huddled under the overhanging roofs of the courtyard, venturing out for a few minutes between showers to splash through the brick-lined puddles and track the mud inside to the hearthside. By evening, the oldest of the women by the hearth thought she might go mad with the shrieking and splashing, the charging of the little armies, the bashing of wooden swords on wooden shields, the splintering sounds and quarreling over the broken toys, the shifting of loyalties from leader to leader, the yells of the “killed” and “wounded” when they were put out of the game.
Too much rain was still coming down the chimney for proper cooking at the hearth; as the winter day darkened, fires were lighted in braziers. As the baking meat and bread began to smell good, one after another the children came and hunched down like hungry puppies, sniffing loudly and still quarreling in undertones. Shortly before dinner, a guest arrived at the door: a minstrel, a wanderer whose lyre strapped to his shoulder guaranteed him welcome and lodging everywhere. When he had been given food and a bath and dry clothing, the minstrel came and seated himself in the place accorded the most welcome guests, close to the fire. He began to tune his instrument, leaning his ear close to the tortoiseshell pegs and testing the sound with his finger. Then, without asking leave—even in these days a bard did as he chose—he strummed a single loud chord and declaimed:
I will sing of battles and of the great men who fought them;
Of the men who lingered ten years before the giant-builded walls of Troy;
And of the Gods who pulled down those walls at last, of Apollo Sun Lord and Poseidon the mighty Earth Shaker.
I will sing the tale of the anger of powerful Akhilles,
Born of a Goddess, so mighty no weapon could slay him;
Even the story of his overweening pride, and that battle
Where he and great Hector fought for three days on the plains before high-walled Troy;
Of proud Hector and gallant Akhilles, of Kentaurs and Amazons, Gods and heroes,
Odysseus and Aeneas, all those who fought and were slain on the plains before Troy——
“No!” the old woman exclaimed sharply, letting her spindle drop and springing up. “I won’t have it! I’ll not hear that nonsense sung in my hall!”
The minstrel let his hand fall on the strings with a jangling dissonance; his look was one of dismay and surprise, but his tone was polite.
“I tell you I won’t have those stupid lies sung here at my hearth!” she said vehemently.
The children made disappointed sounds; she gestured them imperiously to silence. “Minstrel, you are welcome to your meal and to a seat by my fire; but I won’t have you filling the children’s ears with that lying nonsense. It wasn’t like that at all.”
“Indeed?” the harper inquired, still politely. “How do you know this, madam? I sing the tale as I learned it from my master, as it is sung everywhere from Crete to Colchis—”
“It may be sung that way, from here to the very end of the world,” the old woman said, “but it didn’t happen that way at all.”
“How do you know that?” asked the minstrel.
“Because I was there, and I saw it all,” replied the old woman.
The children murmured and cried out.
“You never told us that, Grandmother. Did you know Akhilles, and Hector, and Priam, and all the heroes?”
“Heroes!” she said scornfully. “Yes, I knew them; Hector was my brother.”
The minstrel bent forward and looked sharply at her.
“Now I know you,” he said at last.
She nodded and bent her white head forward.
“Then perhaps, Lady, you should tell the story; I who serve the God of Truth would not sing lies for all men to hear.”
The old woman was silent for a long time. At last she said, “No; I cannot live it all again.” The children whined with disappointment. “Have you no other tale to sing?”
“Many,” said the harper, “but I wish not to tell a story you mock as a lie. Will you not tell the truth, that I may sing it elsewhere?”
She shook her head firmly.
“The truth is not so good a story.”
“Can you not at least tell me where my story goes astray, that I may amend it?”
She sighed. “There was a time when I would have tried,” she said, “but no man wishes to believe the truth. For your story speaks of heroes and Kings, not Queens; and of Gods, not Goddesses.”
“Not so,” said the harper, “for much of the story speaks of the beautiful Helen, who was stolen away by Paris; and of Leda, the mother of Helen and her sister Klytemnestra, who was seduced by great Zeus, who took the form of her husband the King—”
“I knew you could not understand,” the old woman said, “for, to begin, at first in this land there were no Kings, but only Queens, the daughters of the Goddesses, and they took consorts where they would. And then the worshipers of the Sky Gods, the horse-folk, the users of iron, came down into our country; and when the Queens took them as consorts, they called themselves Kings and demanded the right to rule. And so the Gods and the Goddesses were in strife; and a time came when they brought their quarrels to Troy—” Abruptly she broke off.
“Enough,” she said. “The world has changed; already I can tell you think me an old woman whose wits wander. This has been my destiny always: to speak truth and never to be believed. So it has been, so it will ever be. Sing what you will; but mock not my own truth on my own hearth. There are tales enough. Tell us about Medea, Lady of Colchis, and the golden fleece which Jason stole from her shrine—if he did. I daresay there is some other truth to that tale too, but I neither know it, nor care what the truth may be; I have not set foot in Colchis for many long years.” She picked up her spindle and quietly began to spin.
The harper bowed his head.
“Be it so, Lady Kassandra,” he said. “We all thought you dead in Troy, or in Mykenae soon after.”
“Then that should prove to you that at least in some particulars the tale speaks not the truth,” she said, but in an undertone.
Still my fate: always to speak the truth, and only to be thought mad. Even now, the Sun Lord has not forgiven me. . . .
AT THIS TIME of year, the light lingered late; but the last glow of sunset had faded now in the west, and mist had begun to drift in from the sea.
Leda, Lady of Sparta, rose from her bed, where her consort, Tyndareus, lingered still. As usual after their coupling, he had fallen into a heavy sleep; he did not notice when she left the bed and, throwing a light garment about her shoulders, went out into the courtyard of the women’s quarters.
Women’s quarters, the Queen thought angrily, when it is my own castle; one would think that I, not he, was the interloper here; that he, not I, held land-right in Sparta. Earth Mother knows not so much as his name.
She had been willing enough when he came and sought her hand, even though he was one of the invaders from the north, worshiper of thunder and oak and of the Sky Gods, a coarse, hairy man who bore the hated black iron on spear and armor. And yet now his kind were everywhere, and they demanded marriage by their new laws, as if their Gods had flung down from Her celestial throne the Goddess who owned land and harvest and people. The woman wedded by one of these bearers of iron was expected to join in the worship of their Gods and to give her body only to that man.
One day, Leda thought, the Goddess would punish these men for keeping women from paying due homage to the forces of Life. These men said the Goddesses were subservient to the Gods, which seemed to Leda a horrible blasphemy and a mad reversal of the natural order of things. Men had no divine power; they neither bred nor bore; yet somehow they felt they had some natural right in the fruit of their women’s bodies, as if coupling with a woman gave them some power of ownership, as if children did not naturally belong to the woman whose body had sheltered and nourished them.
Yet Tyndareus was her husband and she loved him; and because she loved him she was even willing to indulge his madness and jealousy, and risk angering Earth Mother by lying only with him.
And yet she wished that she could make him understand that it was wrong for her to be shut up in the women’s quarters—that as a priestess she must be out and around the fields to be sure that the Goddess was given Her due of service; that she owed the gift of fertility to all men, not to her consort alone; that the Goddess could not restrict Her gifts to any one man, even if he called himself a King.
A distant muttering of thunder reverberated from far below, as if it had risen from the sea, or as if the Great Serpent who now and again caused the earth to shake might be stirring in Her depths.
A riffle of wind stirred the light garment about Leda’s shoulders, and her hair flew wildly like a solitary bird in flight. Faint lightning suddenly flared all the courtyard alight, and silhouetted against the squared light of the doorframe she saw her husband coming in search of her. Leda shrank inwardly; would he berate her for leaving the women’s quarters, even at this hour of the night?
But he did not speak; he only moved toward her, and something in his step, the deliberate way he moved, told the woman that despite the well-known form and the features now clearly visible in the moonlight, this was not her husband. How this could be she did not know, but around his shoulders a flicker of errant lightning seemed to play, and as he walked his foot struck the flagstones with the faintest sound of faraway thunder. He seemed to have grown taller, his head thrown back against the levin-light which crackled in his hair. Leda knew, with a shudder that bristled down the small hairs on her body, that one of the stranger Gods was now abroad within the semblance of her husband, riding him as he would mount and ride one of his own horses. The lightning-flare told her it was Olympian Zeus, controller of thunders, Lord of Lightning.
This was nothing new to her; she knew the feel of the Goddess filling and overflowing her body when she blessed the harvests or when she lay in the fields drawing down the Divine power of growth to the grain. She remembered how she seemed to stand aside from her familiar self, and it was the Goddess who moved through the rites, dominating everyone else with the power within Her.
Tyndareus, she knew, must now be watching from within, as Zeus, the master of his body, moved toward his wife. She knew, because Tyndareus had once told her, that of all his Gods it was for the Thunder Lord that he felt most devotion.
She shrank away; perhaps He would not notice her and she could remain unseen until the God departed from her husband. The head that now was the God’s head moved, that flicker of lightning following the loose flying movement of his hair. She knew He had seen her; but it was not Tyndareus’ voice that spoke, but a voice deeper, softer, a profound bass rumble filled with the distant thunders.
“Leda,” said Zeus Thunderer, “come here to me.”
He put out His hand to take hers, and obediently, mastering the sudden inner dread—if this God bore the lightnings, would His touch strike her with the thunder-stroke? —she laid her hand in His. His flesh felt cold, and her hand shivered a little at the touch. Looking up at Him, she perceived on His face the shadow of a smile wholly unlike Tyndareus’ stern and unbending look, as if the God were laughing—no, not at her, but with her. He drew her in under His arm, casting the edge of His mantle over her, so that she could feel His body’s warmth. He did not speak again, but drew her along inside the room she had quitted only a few moments ago.
Then He pulled her close to Him, inside the mantle, so that she could feel His manhood rising against her body.
Do the laws against lying with any other man ban a God in my husband’s very shape and form? she wondered wildly. Somewhere inside, the real Tyndareus must be looking out at her: jealously, or pleased that his woman found favor with his God? She had no way to know; from the strength with which He held her she knew it would be impossible to protest.
At first she had felt His alien flesh as chill; now it seemed pleasantly warm, as if fevered.
He lifted her and laid her down; a single swift touch and somehow she was already open, throbbing and eager. Then He was over and within her, and the lightning played around His form and face, its echo deep in the pounding rhythms of His touch. For a moment it seemed that this was not a man, that in fact it was nothing human at all, but that she was alone on a great windswept height, encircled by beating wings, or a great lapping ring of fire, or as if some beast swept round her and ravished her with confusion and ecstasy—beating wings, thunder, as a hot and demanding mouth took possession of hers.
Then suddenly it was over, as if it had been a very long time ago, a fading memory or a dream, and she was lying alone on the bed, feeling very small, chilled and abandoned and alone as the God towered over her—it seemed, to the sky. He bent and kissed her with great tenderness. She closed her eyes, and when she woke, Tyndareus was fast asleep at her side and she was not sure she had ever left her bed. It was Tyndareus; when she put out her hand to be sure, his flesh was warm—or cool—and there was not the faintest crackle of lightning in the hair that lay on the pillow beside her.
Had she only dreamed it, then? As the thought crossed her mind, she heard from far outside the house the ripple of thunder; wherever He had gone, the God had not wholly left her. And now she knew that however long she might live with Tyndareus as his wife, she would never again look on her husband’s face without searching in it for some sign of the God who had visited her in his form.
What People are Saying About This
One of her best...Marion Zimmer Bradley has brought classical Greece to life.
"Bradley animates...the conflicts between a culture that reveres the strength of women and one that makes them mere consorts of powerful men." -Publishers Weekly
"[Bradley] makes a strong statement about the desirability of women having control of their destinies and about the cruelties men inflict upon them." -Library Journal