on the mountain heights of Lesbos
The girl shivered as she pressed against the wet gray rock. Fires were a redness on the mountaintop and beyond them a jagged streak of lightning made yellow scratches in a black sky. The dark pall of early dusk was everywhere on Mount Olympus, as was proper when the gods walked the earth. Thunder rumbled as if to unseen, gigantic footsteps.
Sappho was terrified. She was too young to set foot on the holy mountain. If she were found here she would pay the penalty of death by living burial, even though her mother, Kleis, was high priestess among the Bacchae. And yet she had to know these mysteries which the women of Lesbos celebrated every spring.
She moved from the cold bulk of the great rock, advancing up the footpath where her mother had gone earlier. All she wore against the chill was a thin tunic reaching to her middle thighs and belted with a white cording. There were mists this high that seeped under the tunic and ran against her flesh, making her shiver.
From up there near the redness a woman screamed. The girl put a hand to her thick black hair, thrusting it back and away from her cheeks. Her dark eyes were wide in fear, veiled by long lashes. As her lips parted they quivered, and under the brown wool of her tunic she could feel a tingling at her little nipples.
Her sandaled feet moved on, as if to a will of their own, past clumps of oleander and flowering shrubs. Soon now, oh, very soon, she would stand in a clearing rimmed by large myrtle trees and stare her fill of these enchanting mysteries that belonged to the women of Lesbos. It was death for a man to see them; everyone knew that, and accepted it as a part of the greater mystery of life. Ah, but—a little girl of only twelve short summers? Would death be her penalty for discovery? Sappho did not know, but she firmed her lips and walked on. Just ahead was a great pine tree. Once she could reach its bole she would be able to peer around it and see what the women did during the Dionysia. Her feet moved slightly faster.
Hera above! She whirled, stood rigid with fright and then with hot anger as she saw a shadow slip from a bay tree and move toward her, resolving itself into the form of Alkaios, her young friend from the street of the blue doors in Mitylene. Sappho bent and her fingers scrabbled along the ground until they closed over a large, jagged rock. She raised it and held it hidden behind her back until Alkaios was right in front of her.
"You little minx. What are you doing here?"
"No more than you—but with better right."
"Better right!" he jeered. "You're too young to join the Bacchae. You have to be a grown woman for that."
"At least I'm a female."
"Come back with me, little goose. I don't want you buried alive for your foolishness."
He put out a hand, closed it on her arm above the elbow. His touch sent a queer flush through her flesh. Of late, Sappho had been plagued by many such flushes; they were a part of growing up, her mother had assured her, though she neither explained them nor told her daughter how best to cope with them. With Alkaios so close, his muscular male body smelling strangely in the heavy air of Mount Olympus, she felt as if her flesh burned to some strange sickness.
She liked Alkaios. A veteran of the war with Athens, he was recovering from wounds at the home of his foster father, not a dozen houses from her own, down there in Mitylene. His hair was tawny yellow in contrast to her own black locks. His eyes were blue—Kleis had told her there was the old Achaean blood in him—and his skin was much whiter than her own. His lips were full, heavy, like fruit into which she wanted to sink her teeth.
"Let me go, Alkaios," she whispered.
His eyes were on fire, it seemed. They ate at her even as his fingers tightened on her arm to draw her closer. She felt weak when he pressed her body against his front, and the flush that surged through her flesh was a pulsating, frightening thing. His hand fell from her elbow to hook her middle and draw her even tighter. Sappho suffered his act, trembling as she felt his hard muscles crushing her softness. Behind his back she bent her arm and raised the hand that held the rock.
His lips were lowering to her mouth when the rock banged into the back of his head. Alkaios grunted and slumped against her. Sappho felt her legs buckle but she stood up to his weight, easing him to the ground.
"I did it for your own protection, you idiot,” she breathed.
She dropped the rock and put her hands under his armpits. He was heavy and limp, and it strained her young muscles to drag him sideways and off the narrow footpath. To her ears it seemed his legs made a series of explosions as they brushed over weeds and small, aromatic thickets. Her heart slammed in its rib-case for if they were discovered it meant the end of both their young lives.
With a sigh of relief, she got him in under the low-hanging branches of a myrtle tree. A moment she stared at him, seeing the blood on the back of his head. She was glad and sorry she had hit so hard, glad because such a blow would keep him senseless for a long time, sorry because it was her hand that had to deliver it. She rather liked Alkaios.
Then she turned and ran. There was no need for caution now. If the Bacchae had not heard her pulling Alkaios to shelter, they would not hear her sandaled feet running lightly on the path. The bole of the big pine tree loomed up. Sappho fell against it, clinging to the rough bark with her fingers.
When her excitement stilled, she risked a glance. There was an open space up above where stone tables—or altars—had been placed long ago by unknown hands. Even in those days the gods had been worshiped here. Sappho had seen the dark red splotches on the gray stones and shuddered with the knowledge that this had once been blood from living people.
The pine tree did not make such a good viewing place, after all. There were women up above, moving between the altars—it seemed they were dancing—but though she could clearly hear the stirring clash of cymbals and the blowing of reed pipes and the strumming of lyres, she wanted to see even better.
She moved on, away from the pine and toward a small altar at the edge of the great clearing. She sank down into its shadow as her teeth gripped her lower lip.
Oh, she could see now—
The women were throwing themselves about, their hide garments—Sappho was amazed at them, for no one on Lesbos wore such things-flapping wildly to their movements. The women were naked under these furred kaunakes and Sappho caught glimpses of pallid loins and quivering white buttocks as the hides lifted and fell.
To one side, several women stood pouring wine from plump skins into stone cups. As the dancers came closer they reached out and caught those goblets, lifting them to their lips and draining them. Perhaps the wine held crushed herbs of some sort for wine itself was not strong enough to create such madness. Here a matron yanked at her kaunake, tugging it from her shoulders so that it fell away from her breasts to her middle. Beside her a younger woman followed her example.
Sappho shivered with delicious sweetness. Never before had she seen the bared breasts of a grown woman, not even those of her mother. Her tongue-tip ran over her dry lips.
The women were all exposed to their navels now. They held their hands high and apart as they stared up at the black sky where the yellow lightnings ran, and their bellies began to rotate slowly and then more swiftly. Widespread legs gave them the leverage to thrust their hips this way and that, so the hide garments began to slide downward.
Sappho put her hands over her lips.
The women were crying out as they exposed themselves to the votive fires burning in the stone circles on the edge of the holy place, as though a fever ate in their flesh which could be calmed only by the wind blowing freely at their flesh. Wildly they swung their haunches, mewling in ecstasy.
"The man," one of them shouted. "Bring the man!" Someone shushed her and the dancing went on, with the stone cups of wine being filled and emptied in a flurry of excitement. Sappho tried to look everywhere but she would have needed the hundred eyes of Argus to see each individual woman and follow her maddened gyrations.
Or even to glance behind her. For in the moment of her deepest concentration, a hand seized her thick hair and bent back her head so that Sappho, moaning in terror, found herself staring into the wide eyes of Bitinna, the wife of the armor-maker and a good friend of her mother. Those eyes were rimmed with kohl so that they stood forth in the painted face like bosses on a shield.
"Sappho,” she breathed, and laughed a little, softly and under her breath. "The prettiest little girl in all Mitylene, come to stare her fill of the Dionysia."
Bitinna was a pretty woman, a little younger than her mother, Kleis, and she was still slender as a girl except for her heavy breasts. She was as naked as the dancing women but from her hand dangled a large woolen diplax, a form of cloak. She was drunk, to judge by her breath, and drugged also, if the wildness of her manner was any standard. Her arm dropped to hook Sappho by her waist and tug her against her nakedness. Her large mouth, heavy and red with salve, smiled down at her.
"By rights, I ought to denounce you. But then you'd be buried alive and you're much too pretty for that sort of end." Sappho felt the woman drop a palm to her thigh and stroke it slowly and she quivered with an onrush of the excitement she had felt when Alkaios pressed her against him. The palm was soft and smooth and where it touched, fire leaped.
"No, I think I'll keep you hidden here with me. They won't miss me now. The herbal wine has done its work much too well for any of them to bother about Bitinna. You and I will watch, little one—together in these shadows and—yes, without this tunic.”
Her fingers were unfastening the rope girdle at her middle, tugging it loose and then bringing the tunic off her shoulders and down her back. Sappho felt naked breasts press into her on either side of her spine and move very slowly back and forth. Bitinna was panting harshly and after a moment, Sappho felt her own breath quicken.
"You're a woman, little one—and you have the right to learn about the womanly mysteries of the Dionysia. I shall tell you of them as we watch. Long, long ago there was a god in Egypt called Osiris, fashioned out of corn and hung with seeds, who was buried in mother earth in a symbolical mating to bring forth good crops.
"The Egyptians had memories of the years when the Nile failed to overflow and inundate its banks where the farmers planted their corn, and those had been years of famine in the land. To guard against such calamities, Osiris was born in the minds of men and given back to the ground to enrich it for next season."
"Just as a man plants his seed in a woman to cause strong children to be born," whispered Bitinna in her ear as she folded Sappho in her arms. "Each year Osiris is born with the first seedlings and each year he dies with the harvest. Yet he is always resurrected the following spring. The Egyptians consider Osiris to be the god of the Nile whose waters nourish their plants. So they put him in a little boat that he might travel down this great river and see that it does the work for which it had been created."
"At such times the people on the banks give their bodies to the sun—where Osiris lives—standing naked and bathing in its rays. Naturally," and here Bitinna smiled and moved her palms up the sides of the girl to stroke the little nubbins of her breasts, “naturally, the people help the god in his journey by making love to one another, fertilizing the women just as Osiris fertilizes the soil.”
"Being also the god of the vineyard, Osiris was worshiped with wine, for to drink the sacred liquor of the god was to imbibe his potent qualities. When men drank, they sang and thought of women and so the ancient holy burial became in the course of centuries a great festival time when orgies of drinking and mating between the men and women of the land was an accepted custom. In this way, the people could achieve communion with their god.”
"And then Osiris left the land of Egypt and traveled into other lands, to become Baal in Phoenicia and El in Babylon. He came also into Greece, to Tiryns and Mycenae, to Athens and Sparta and Corinth. Even also into the islands of Samos and Lesbos and Rhodes. He is worshiped everywhere in our lands as Dionysos.”
The dancers were moving toward the largest of the stone altars, clustering together excitedly, caressing one another under the influence of the herbal wine. Sappho felt their excitement as a tangible force, and waited with them for—she knew not what, except that it would be proper and fitting.
"As time passed, the women of these lands took to themselves certain mysteries in which they worshiped the god in their own manner, unseen by male eyes. They made sacrifice to Dionysos after their own fashion. Of course they joined in the general Dionysia as well, for it is the women who bring forth the children and so are especially dedicated to the god." A woman cried out softly, pointing. Sappho turned her head to follow that rigid finger and saw a man being brought from the shadows by a number of women tugging at his arms. He was a young man, handsome and in the first full flush of manhood. He, too, had been fed the sacred herbs, for he was the living phallos, the human representation of the god."
He came easily under the influence of the drug and made no attempt to free himself as female hands tumbled him onto the stone table and held him flat on his back. Now Sappho saw her mother, the high priestess, mount above the youth and sink onto him. The watching women began to chant the phallicae, the holy songs dedicated to Dionysos in his creative role.
Sappho came close to fainting. The palms that searched her nakedness were twins to the tongue that whispered of the mysteries in her ear, to the breath that fanned her throat. This was the young god—Osiris, El, Baal, Dionysos—and the high priestess was the earth and soil and all womankind hungry for the seed. The youth was nameless—an Athenian war prisoner, some said—but this night he was immortal.
An immortality of sorts was in her own body, she thought, for there was a wildness of the senses wholly unnatural to her normal self. The fires glowed redder, the bodies limned by those flames were whiter and far lovelier than usual, the youth on the altar far stronger.
Behind her, Bitinna was the living Isis, beloved of Osiris—Demeter to Dionysus—Astrate to Baal—and her lips were sliding over Sappho with practiced skill. She had wrapped her diplax about them to help hide them from wandering eyes but now the cloak was sliding to the ground and they were as one with the women gathered about the altar.
Ah, now Kleis was falling from the youth and another woman was taking her place and then another and another until Sappho lost all understanding of Time but moved against Bitinna in an eternal pleasure which joined with the mating on the altar in an endless symbolism. She was crying out softly and putting her hands on the woman, caressing her as she herself was being caressed, and her lips would follow and—
The youth screamed horribly.
Sappho and Bitinna stared, damp cheek pressed to damp cheek as they beheld the stone knife of the high priestess red with blood and what she held aloft in her other hand, the fourteenth part of the dismembered god which had been swallowed, according to legend, by a Nile fish.
Sappho moaned. The women were flinging themselves on the dying youth, screaming in frenzy as they tore him apart with their tiny stone cutting knives. As once a bull had been treated, so they treated the young Athenian. And when they were done with him they hurled themselves upon one another in a desire that had been built to the melting point by the rites in which they had taken part.
Bodies moved gently or with convulsive fury in the red firelight. Voices screamed in ecstasy. This was the bacchanal, the final part of the mystery, and it would end only with dawn and a satiation of the senses. . . .
Sappho had ascended Mount Olympus as a girl. She walked down it in the early morning mists a woman in mind and spirit, with a body that quivered in utter exhaustion.
For many months after her initiation into the rites of the Dionysia, Sappho kept to herself. Alone she would bake the little cakes and simmer the meat stew which served as the main meal for her family. Her nimble fingers worked the bobbin and the shuttle as she wove wool into cloaks for her mother, her three brothers and herself. Her feet went unaccompanied as she carried a Samian amphora to the town fountain to fill it with sparkling cool water that was very sweet to drink. And always she frowned.
Her thoughts were chaotic, running about in her head like field mice when the grasses are fired to clear the land for farming. She had loved to wander in the hills and the woods behind Mitylene before Bitinna had put her hands and her lips on her body. Now for a little while she had no desire to run with the fallow deer on their heights or sit dreaming at the drifting clouds.
Her very self had changed, as wool changes color when plunged into that purple Tyrian dye which is a product of the murex shellfish. She did not know whether she liked this difference in her body, but she accepted it as a part of growing up.
Some nights she could not sleep but lay staring at the white ceiling above her rope-bed, quivering to strange impulses. Her thighs would tremble and she would press them together and feel her tiny nipples lifting upward as though in a blind search for sensation. Then Sappho would moan and move her head back and forth on the hard pillow.
Her dreams became bittersweet fragments of those moments with Bitinna and on occasion she would wake, covered with a fine sweat. As a result of the dreams she took to observing the women of the city more closely as she walked back and forth from the town fountain or when she went to buy a bit of meat and barley bread. Understanding came to her slowly but with infinite certainty as her eyes drifted over a pair of trembling buttocks when a woman walked ahead of her along the paving-stones or when her gaze was magnetized by a tunic opening to reveal a swollen white breast as a housewife bent to fill her jar.
Nature, which she loved so fiercely, was not just wild animals and sunlight drifting through the branches of the myrtle trees, nor was it a mountain stream alone, nor the wild flowers bending to the breeze. It was womanhood also, the soft sweet curves of haunch and bosom, the loveliness of shapely legs and the tremor of thigh-flesh to the stride.
All the young men were off to the war—Alkaios himself had recovered from his wounds and would be returning soon—and so she had few male targets for her recently unveiled eyes. Only the girls and the women of Mitylene were here to fill her stares.
And these were not enough for Sappho. She quested for she knew not what, some answer like the tones of the god Apollo speaking through his priestess at sacred Delphi, or it might be only an inner calmness against the turbulence Bitinna had released in her. She became a huntress as Artemis might have, but her search was not only for the physical foods of her world but for its inner solaces. Somewhere and in some time, her world would show its understanding and reveal the secret for which she quested. If it took her a lifetime she must find it, cup it in her hands and hold it to her heart. It would be curse and blessing, war and peace, balm for the psychic wounds and the very knife that made them.
Somewhere in her world—that was the island Lesbos . . . . .
Lesbos sits in the blue Aegean Sea close to the mainland of Asia Minor where Mysia stretches between the plains of Troad and the Aeolian, headlands. On a clear day one can see north to those sands of ancient Troy and the charred towers burned by the Mycenaeans under Agamemnon and Menelaus four hundred years before. Southward lies Smyrna and to the east is Sardis of the land of Lydia. Miletus is still more to the south, where the Carian shore looks out at the islands of Cos and Rhodes.
This was a fair realm of sunlight and fragrant flowers and trees rustling their leaves in the sea winds, a land young Sappho found as mystical as the prophecies of the Delphic oracle, as enchanting to her senses as the songs of Kallinos of Ephesus. The wind off the sea waves came to her laden with whispers of the distant pyramids of Egypt and of the Sphinx sitting eternally, brooding at the sands. It told her of the perfumes of Punt and the fleet horses of Sheba, of Babylon which was a mighty city sending out its conquering armies across half its world. The breeze carried the wails of the men and women of Jerusalem going into captivity, and at the same time the whispers of a young king named Cyrus in Persia and the drunken laughter from the people of Sybaris where even the peasants ate off golden platters.
Under blue skies she would wander out of Mitylene and its confining walls, away from the wharves where the ships lay docked, into the great bowl of land that was Lesbos in the sea. On her back in the high grasses, her eyes would assess the clouds and the blue bulks of the distant mountains. A strange restlessness would come to her that was not to be soothed any longer by the flowers and the wild animals nuzzling at her with their noses.
So many places, so many things, and all beyond her reach. When she was younger—and sometimes even now when she could slip away from the house in the street of the blue doors—she would walk along the wharves staring at the penteconters riding their anchor chains on the lift and ebb of the sea. Visions would dance in her head of the lands where these ships had scraped their keels.
Tyre, certainly, where the purple dye was made, and Sidon in Phoenicia, and Philistine Gaza, and below them the delta of Egypt to make contact with the reed boats, made from bundles of papyrus sheaves, which sailed the Nile to bring back nard for incense and the sheer linens that rivaled those of Cos. The ships would skirt the northern coast of Africa to drop anchor in Carthage and in Cyrene. They would move on up a great peninsula to a tiny city called Rome which was ruled these days by King Tarquin.
From Rome the more daring seamen went west to that narrow strait where Herakles had placed his massive pillars. A city had been built there, on the rim of the world, and was called Gades. Its women were noted for their lascivious dances, its men for the excellence of the wool they raised in the hills behind their homes.
Ah, and beyond those pillars? Only the endless ocean and a vast bed of weeds that hid sea monsters which devoured all who passed above their domain. Long ago, legend said, an island kingdom had existed where those reeds swirled in the ocean currents. Atlantis was lost now—lost and almost forgotten.
Sappho closed her eyes to the sky and its clouds and listened to the tiny voice in her mind that whispered to her on occasion, forming words—lovely, wonderful words—and putting the words to rhyme so that her senses danced in the pleasure of their sound when her lips uttered them aloud. When she could remember them, she wrote them down on thin leaves of Egyptian papyrus so she would have them always.
In the months that followed the rites of Dionysos, Sappho went often to the hills beyond Mitylene, obeying the need for solitude deep inside her. Bitinna had taught her the lesson of love between two women, and her mind demanded time in which to digest its meaning, as her stomach required time to adjust to one meal before the next.
It was as if a veil had been lifted from her eyes so that she saw with new meaning, new clarity, the relationships between the peoples of her world. Female love was a gentle thing that could turn savage in its deepest throes. There was a humor in the blood which required solace, apparently, as a festering wound demands the healing medicine. And a woman as well as a man could bring it to her.
Her mind spoke words to her in these moments of reflection and she would whisper aloud what her mind told her to say. After a while she grew aware that she made music just as Thoas with his lyre made music when he played for the family on the occasions of his visit to the house with the blue door. She was not yet aware that what she made was poetry.