A FICKLE MISTRESS
‘In the name of Zeus, why has the muse forsaken me?’
The cries of the poet rang through the house, prompting his wife to abandon her loom and hurry to the kitchen for a calming infusion. When Menodora had steeped the herbs to her liking, she sent her to deliver the potion.
The housemaid knocked at the door of her master’s room and waited.
‘Go in, girl,’ hissed her mistress, from the safety of the kitchen.
She opened the door to the sight of the poet, sitting on a stool, with his great head in his hands. After a few seconds he opened one eye, still red from weeping.
She placed the cup on the table in front of him. ‘Master, I bring you a soothing . . . .’
Before she could finish, Aeschylus swept the cup to the floor with a roar.
‘Out, you wretch, leave me in peace. My head needs stimulating, not dulling!’
Menodora had become used to this behaviour of late and turned on her heel, leaving the shattered cup marinading in a puddle of tea on the floor.
She and her mistress, who’d been eavesdropping, walked back to the kitchen where Eirene spoke to her in hushed tones, even though they were out of earshot of the great man.
‘This can’t go on. Fetch Sicinnus. Tell him we’re going to the temple and to bring a young goat. And I’ll need some honey cakes for the priestess.’
The Akropolis was the best part of a league away, but Sicinnus was young and strong and when the goat grew tired, he carried it on his shoulders. On arrival at the temple of Athena, they waited at the entrance until an attendant came to collect the votive offerings of animal figurines, left on the steps by the morning’s worshippers. Only those who wished to contact the oracle brought a living animal.
Recognising Eirene, the attendant beckoned her to follow him to an inner room.
‘I’ve been expecting you,’ said the priestess, kissing her cheek. ‘I sensed there was turmoil in your house.’
The poet’s wife brushed away her tears as she presented her gifts of honey cakes and olives, which the priestess placed on a marble tray.
‘Now tell me exactly why you have come,’ she said, returning to her couch and signalling Eirene to be seated.
‘Priestess Aspasia, I come because my husband is at his wits’ end. The festival of Dionysia is little more than six months away and he has composed nothing: no word, no music, no choreography. His lyre lies untouched. At night, when I hear him pacing the house and groaning, I fear for the soundness of his mind.’
The priestess closed her eyes for a moment. When she spoke, her tone was solemn.
‘He is possessed of a sacred madness: the madness that descends when the muse departs.’
Eirene wrung her hands.
‘I heard him tell the scribe that a great ox stands upon his tongue. But if he doesn’t produce four plays for the contest, his reputation will be in tatters.’
‘That would be a tragedy indeed,’ said Aspasia, rising from her couch and reaching up to a shelf containing knives of different sizes. She chose one and wrapped it in a piece of linen. ‘Follow me.’
She led Eirene to a courtyard where Sicinnus and the attendant were waiting. Tired from its journey, the goat barely objected when Sicinnus placed it on a stone altar. The priestess immediately plunged her fingers into a jar of water and sprinkled the drops between its eyes so the animal would nod its head in response – a necessary sign that it didn’t object to being sacrificed. In a flash, the priestess slit the creature’s throat, the attendant catching its blood in a jar.
When the sacrifice had breathed its last, the priestess sliced opened its belly and examined the entrails, muttering incantations all the while. What she saw must have satisfied her because she then gave permission to Sicinnus to light a fire and cook the carcass – the bones and offal to be offered to Athena, the remainder to feed the temple workers that evening.
Once the fire had been set, the attendant brought a three-legged stool and a small bunch of laurel leaves which the priestess sniffed from time to time. A few minutes elapsed as she entered a trance state. When she finally spoke, her voice was lower and more sombre than before.
‘Supplicant, you are allowed one question. Speak.’
Eirene was familiar enough with oracular tradition to know that it was vital not to waste this opportunity by beating about the bush.
‘I humbly ask the goddess Athena to tell me how my husband, Aeschylus the tragedian, can evoke the sacred muse who has deserted him.’
Aspasia breathed deeply of the laurel leaves.
‘The muse you speak of is Calliope, she who inspires poets, musicians and artists. Yet she is known to be a fickle mistress. Many commune with her and suffer endless torment when she abandons them. She may be tempted back if your husband takes certain steps to attract her to his side. But heed me, there is no guarantee she will ever return.’
The priestess then ordered the attendant to bring her papyrus, pen and ink and began to write. When she’d finished, she handed it to Eirene and told her to give it to her husband.
On their return home, Eirene instructed Menodora to bring water to her room for the footbath. Once the servant had done this, Eirene told her to inform her husband that she wished to see him. Menodora looked horrified at this request, no doubt expecting a further flood of abuse, so her mistress added, ‘Tell him I have an urgent message concerning the festival of Dionysia.’
Within moments, Eirene heard the creak of a heavy tread on the outside wooden stairs, accompanied by ill-tempered protests.
‘Is there no end to your nonsense, woman? Am I not tormented enough with messages every day from the Archon Eponymos threatening to replace me with that upstart Euripides?’
Aeschylus stopped in his tracks when he saw she was soaking her feet.
‘What’s this? Are you ill?’
The concern on his face told her that his grief at losing his “mistress” hadn’t completely extinguished his love for her.
‘No, my love. Just a little fatigued. I went today to consult the oracle.’
She patted the couch and he sat beside her, allowing her to stroke his brow. As she kissed a grey curl she whispered, ‘on your behalf’.
He grunted. ‘The temple will be eating well tonight at my expense. And what did the great oracle communicate to your friend Aspasia? She desires more sacrificial beasts, no doubt.’
Eirene reached into the pocket of her robe and produced the papyrus.
‘This is what you have to do.’
He read it and tossed it aside.
‘Stuff and nonsense. Why should I pick up a pen myself when I employ a scribe? As for working with my men on the farm, how will tilling the fields with a bunch of dullards clear my head? And if this oracle thinks that bathing in lavender-scented water will let me “drink again at the fountain of Helicon”, both you and she must have lost your senses.’
Eirene grasped her husband’s hand to prevent him rushing from the room.
‘And what about the final instruction? To lie with a woman and indulge in a night of pleasure.’
‘I’m sorry I haven’t been much of a husband to you of late, Eirene. Did you confide in Aspasia? I sincerely hope you didn’t. These rumours can spread like wildfire.’
‘That my husband hasn’t lain with me for many months? No, of course not, my lord. That is between man and wife and will remain so.’
She cradled him in her arms.
‘I’ll tell the foreman to expect you tomorrow. I’ll say one of the comic characters in your next satyr play is an agricultural slave and you want to do some research.’
The following evening, after Aeschylus had bathed in the lavender-scented water that Eirene had prepared, they met for dinner. She had instructed Menodora to roast a hare, and her husband, his complexion glowing from a day in the fresh air, ate a hearty meal.
He spoke at length about a man who’d been working beside him, a Persian slave who’d been taken as a prisoner of war at the Battle of Marathon.
‘What he told me about military tactics was fascinating. I want to make a record of it while it’s fresh in my mind. I’ll summon my scribe first thing tomorrow.’
Eirene signalled Menodora to remove their plates and addressed her husband in a soft voice.
‘I’ve left papyrus and ink on your desk, my lord. No time like the present.’
Aeschylus rose from his couch and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.
‘If it pleases you, my dove.’
As he was leaving the room, she called after him.
‘Don’t work too long into the night, will you? I’ll be waiting.’
Next morning, Menodora had to delay breakfast because the master and mistress of the house did not emerge from their room until some time after their usual hour of rising.
This was not all that changed. Aeschylus now spent more daylight hours outside on his farm. His evenings were a torrent of productivity, resulting in a pile of scrolls which he gave to his scribe to copy more legibly. Six months later, to his great joy, the chorus and actors were ready to perform the requisite three tragedies plus a satyr play at the Theatre of Dionysus, at the foot of the Akropolis.
On the day after the festival had ended, Eirene set off for the Temple of Athena, with Sicinnus in tow, who carried her offerings of flowers and incense for the goddess. After placing these on the temple steps, she approached an attendant and asked to see the priestess.
The attendant excused himself and swiftly returned to escort her to the priestess’s private quarters where she was poring over some documents which needed her seal.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, Priestess Aspasia, but I want you to have these,’ said Eirene, placing a small silk bag on her desk. ‘With my deepest thanks.’
Aspasia beamed as she drew from the bag a pair of exquisite gold and amethyst earrings.
‘Thank you, they’re beautiful. I hear Aeschylus won first prize at the Dionysia. So he followed all three instructions, did he?’
Eirene nodded, a subtle smile playing on her lips.
‘Yes, now he spends time outside in nature; he doesn’t depend so much on his scribe; and he takes frequent fragrant baths.’
‘There’s something you’re not telling me,’ said Aspasia, her antennae invisibly aroused.
Eirene’s cheeks turned a delicate shade of pink.
‘I took the liberty of adding a fourth. Let’s just say that . . .’ She gave a discreet cough. ‘. . . Between ourselves, since then I’ve been very satisfied in a way I wasn’t before.’
Aspasia laughed and poured two cups of nectar.
‘In that case, let us drink to Calliope’s return. She has served both you and your husband extremely well.’
‘To Calliope,’ said Eirene, fondly. ‘May my husband’s mistress always be with him.’