Fiction


Two Goddesses and a Child: An imagined incident on ancient Crete


Two Goddesses and a Child, ca. 1500 B.C.
(See Author’s Comment below.)

 

So pleased was Sedrani with the ivory sculpture that she had second thoughts about parting with it. It was one of the best works the artists of Palaikastro had produced. The goddesses of agriculture—a mother and daughter—crouch, each with an arm on the other’s shoulder. At their knees is a young boy. Supported against his mother’s thigh and steadied gently by her hand at his back, he tries his uncertain legs. The women obviously adore him, while their affection for each other is evident in their embrace.

  

Yes, she was pleased. Her eyes feasted on the power of the women’s bodies, the way the long skirt of the daughter followed the contour of her young thigh, the erectness of the young woman’s breasts, the gentle thickness of the older woman’s limbs. Most appealing was the fleeting nature of the sculpture, as if the three had been caught in a moment. The younger woman seemed about to stand.    The sculptor had distinguished himself with this work and would be singled out for praise and encouragement.

Sedrani had commissioned the sculpture as a gift for a Laconian warrior king. She felt obligated to send it, along with gifts from others on the island, in gratitude for his providing escorts for Kriti’s trading ships bound for the Levant. Otherwise, she would have substituted something else and kept the piece.

The time was gone when the ships of the Motherland could sail to distant ports without fear of thievery, perhaps even shocking violence. These men from the Peloponnese were little better than those they fended off. Some of the island’s tradesmen warned that they would someday overpower the homeland, but they were effective, necessary—and greedy for the rewards promised.

She had slept easier knowing of their purchased loyalty when her daughter Anina had traveled two years past to lands where Isis reigns in the south. Still, the more one hears of these barbarous men, who know no divine restraint—lurking and prowling throughout the seas—the more one longs for the time now past when visitors were few. Steep mountainsides along most of the seashore provided a natural defense. A small army was all that was needed to keep the barbarians from landing.

The Sea Goddess had ensured peace ever since Zeus—disguised as a white bull—had stolen the Phoenician king’s daughter Europa, carried her back to his home on Kriti, and sired the first king, Minos. Alas, things were changing, and armed ships had occasionally attempted landings on the south coast. The island’s trading ships—alone on the churning sea—were particularly vulnerable. 

She waved the maids away when they began to wrap the sculpture for crating. She would keep it another few days. Then it would go with the messengers north across the sea to Laconia, where she was sure it would be well received. In those lands, sons were prized above everything. The people there would see the sculpture as representing the adoration of a future king, rather than the expression of a mother’s love and the promise of youth that it was meant to be.

The warrior people coveted artwork from the Motherland, thinking themselves cultivated by mere possession of beautiful things. She doubted any real ability on their part to appreciate them. The few gifts that had reached the island in return were crude and unskilled depictions of hunting and war, which would be scorned here by even the mountain people. Yet the queens who had received them felt obliged to give them a place of honor. She hoped that the Laconian king would not feel obligated to reciprocate her gift.

  She climbed the stone courtyard steps to her chambers, using the wall—with its lovely mural of leaping dolphins—for support. Her heart fluttered from the effort. She would lie down to rest now until the heat of the day subsided.  Soon her maids would come to bathe her for the festivities this evening. The thought of their chatter was unsettling. They will be excited about the night’s performances and unable to contain themselves, though they know she values her peace. One had to contrive for solitude nowadays. Her responsibilities on the Domestic Council seemed to weary her as they never had before.

She had begun to look forward to turning over her position to her chosen daughter, though it wasn’t expected for her to do so for another few years. Her young flower deserved to enjoy her lovers and some children for a time before taking on the cares of the Council.

******

 

The spring evening was lovely, and she was able to put her worries from her mind. A zephyr arose from the sea, stirring the perfume of the flowers on the hillside. In the last of the light, the acrobats and wrestlers performed admirably, giving her confidence that they would do well at the island games in the autumn. The taut, bronzed muscles of the young men and women in their scant clothing made her proud. Their smiling faces as they bowed to the people showed their own pleasure in their skill. 

As the moon rose, the torches and incense burners were lit by the priestesses, their chants asking the deities for protection. Next, the musicians entered from all sides of the plaza, their strings and drums filling the night air and lightening Sedrani’s heart. The singers joined them, then the dancers—ruddy young men and pale, powdered young women—joyously moving in the flickering light, their sandals slapping the patterned tiles, their plaited hair flying from their backs.

Her grandson broke free from his nurse to run to his mother as she danced. Her eldest daughter was one of the most skilled dancers on the north coast and had invented new steps, imitated throughout the region. Letanika swept the boy up and twirled him to the music. He laughed with glee. 

Sedrani caught sight of Lyssa, her third daughter, who had sat down after joining the dance only once. She had no spirit, that one. The seed of her father was to blame. He had not turned out well—a folly in her late years. Of her three daughters, only her second daughter Anina had the abilities needed for the deliberations of the Council. She resembled her father, a lovely, slender man—an accomplished silversmith. Even now, when her interest in lovers had waned, Sedrani often asked him to visit her that they might enjoy each other’s company.

It seemed that Anina had been born for the Council. She had an innate wisdom and an ability to hear the voices of the goddesses threading and weaving through the chanting of the priestesses. She had been welcomed in the temples of Apollo and Artemis—protectors of our island—many times in her young life. She had partaken of the sacred rituals of the laurel leaf and sacrifices to the many goddesses, and had witnessed the healing ceremonies of the snake goddess.

Everyone saw that Anina was destined to lead in religious and domestic matters. Even now, she was speaking with several of the ladies about some business, no doubt.  But she was smiling and laughing and would do her share of dancing to show that her heart was good and that she was not a serious woman before it befitted her age.

Only Sedrani’s son, her youngest child, gave her worry. Though his father was not overly large, Therdon towered above the rest of the family but had not excelled in acrobatics or wrestling. Nor did he have a calling for the arts or trading. He yearned to become a guardian warrior and begged her to allow him to train to become a commander. She had consulted with his father, and they agreed the boy was destined to be a guardian. It broke her heart to see that they would have to let him have his way. She was glad he was still young. She could keep him safe with her a few years yet.

She had savored the dinner of wine, fish, and fresh fruits, and was delighted with the performances, but found herself tiring. The dancing and music would go on through the night, and she wished to rest for her journey to the Council sessions in two days. Letanika handed her the walking stick Anina had brought for her from the land of the pharaohs. It was ivory, inlaid with silver spirals. Though she loved it, she was always leaving it somewhere, only remembering when she faltered on the steep steps to her chambers. Seeing her mother’s fatigue, Letanika insisted on helping her to bed so that  her maids could remain at the festivities.

Apart from the few ladies sitting near her who stood to kiss her as she rose to leave, her departure went almost unnoticed. Her dislike of formality was well known. She often spoke out at the Council against some of the high-flown ways of the queens of Malia. She warned that they will soon be as arrogant as the wanaxes of the Peloponnese if they are not brought to their senses.

******

 

The Council dispensed with most of its business efficiently, despite the usual posturing by a certain few. Only one matter became troublesome, with arguments flaring up. The issue had been brought by a noble woman of Gournia, who, five years before, had foolishly allowed her youngest and best loved daughter to become the wife of a wanax—a warrior king—in Mycenae. He had won her heart on a trading voyage, and she had thought she would not be pleased with her life if she could not be with him in his land. Her departure had been something of a scandal, since only a handful of women had ever left to live outside the Motherland, and those who did met unhappy consequences. The woman’s father had come to the Council to ask them to overturn the mother’s decision, arguing that his daughter was not in her right senses to wish to leave the island.

Further, he had heard alarming stories about the way men of Mycenae conducted themselves in their own lands. He had wept as he presented his case, and the entire Council—with only a few exceptions— had shed tears in sympathy. But the mother’s decision—made after many visits to the priestesses and sacrifices at the altars—was binding. The Council could do nothing.

Now the father’s fears had been realized. His daughter had sent her mother a message which pleaded with her not to ignore her requests for help, though her mother had officially received only good news about her daughter’s splendid “marriage” to the wanax and the subsequent births of two fine sons. It was suspected that some messages had been intercepted. The daughter now regretted her marriage, because of the strange ways of the land in which she found herself, her husband’s long absences, and her desperate longing for home. 

Both of the woman’s parents were now pleading for the Council’s intervention. 

Under the rule of her husband, the daughter could not freely return to the Motherland. Further, he had told her that if he did allow her to leave, he would never let her take “his sons.” The words fell on the incredulous ears of the Council. These barbarians were an outrage. How dare he say such things to the woman and place such restrictions upon her life? Though many on the Council had tried to impress upon the girl’s mother when the marriage was first discussed that trouble could come of it, they only suspected, and none of them truly knew, the barbarity of the customs of the warrior kings.

The Council was in an uproar for several minutes as members made shocked exclamations and expressions of sympathy to the grieving parents. Sedrani sat in silence, and Anina—who accompanied her mother as an aide and to help her around the palace—saw her mother’s distress and took her hand to calm her.

When order was restored, Council members ventured their opinions. Many said that the King of Pylos—who was visiting in the Motherland—should be asked to intercede. And some said the deities should be consulted again. Others said that the wanax would never give up his sons without a battle—the wanax being the supreme warrior of his palace, after all—and that they had no wish to be the cause of a rift with the Mycenaeans.  And some said with heavy hearts that the daughter would have to choose between her sons and her desire to return home. 

Queen Lardoni from the east—always thinking of riches—held out her hand to admire her many rings as she said that the parents should offer to buy back the girl and her sons, though she knew the parents did not possess sufficient wealth to sway even a much lesser man than the wanax. 

When the Council turned to Sedrani for her views, she was unable to speak. She looked at her beloved daughter Anina and felt such fear that a daughter of the Motherland could find herself in this type of dilemma that her mind would not function. 

Anina looked at her mother expectantly and began to offer her encouragement. Sedrani quieted her daughter to better hear the whisperings of the goddesses. As the voices subsided, she stood and put her hands out in front of her, signaling that she wished to say something of the utmost gravity. All eyes were upon her. With confidence that her decision was correct, she began to speak, her voice much stronger than she believed possible.   

“The trials which have faced us these past several years have weighed on my heart, and I fear I am no longer able to withstand the rigors of full Domestic Council membership. My strength is failing me, and, though I am not an old woman, I find it necessary to yield my primary council position to my daughter. I will now step down to the role of advisor. My daughter Anina will give an answer to the question before us.”

Murmers of surprise spread through the hall, though some had anticipated Sedrani’s imminent resignation. Some raised their eyebrows and whispered to those seated beside them, but most spoke up, saying, “As you wish, Sedrani.” 

Anina seated her mother with the advisors, who made way for her, and returned to her mother’s place. The gold disks of her skirt tinkled as she walked. She could feel everyone’s eyes following her. She declined a recess to confer before presenting her views on the matter. Her brief speech was given with polite modesty, accepting her mother’s seat before presenting her opinion. When she began to speak, her voice trembled slightly.

“Since the boys are but infants at their mother’s knee,” she said, “and are years from their inevitable training in warrior’s skills, I offer my opinion that we should suggest through the King of Pylos that the wanax allow his sons to travel with his wife”—the word came strangely to her tongue—“back to the Motherland in order that they be educated here until they are of age to learn fighting skills. Our learning means much to the men of the Peloponnese, and the wanax cannot but see the advantage of this plan. When the boys are old enough, they should return to Mycenae. Though this will be hard for their mother, she must realize that her decision to go with this man has a price—that his ways are to be respected in his own land.”

The Council received Anina’s idea with enthusiasm and agreed to request an audience before the King of Pylos to persuade him to speak to the wanax.

Sedrani lowered her eyes to keep from showing her pride in Anina. She knew that soon her daughter would be a leader in the Council. But after the meeting, as, leaning on her daughter’s arm, she walked to the dining hall, she told Anina only that she had done well. Then she said she had a lovely sculpture to send to Mycenae to help convince the wanax that his sons would be well cared for. She would send the King of Laconia some other gift.

Sedrani sighed as she entered the banquet hall. She knew she would be criticized by some—though with concealed barbs—for the suddenness of her decision and for yielding to such a young daughter, despite Anina’s reputation for spiritual strength among the priestesses. She braced herself as she saw the haughty Queen Lardoni—in her flowing robes and jangling jewelry—rushing across the room toward her like a ship under sail.

Anina caught her mother’s eye, and they stifled welling laughter. Sedrani prepared a neutral smile and patted her daughter’s arm. 
 

Author's Comment

The photo at the beginning of this story is of an ancient ivory figurine found in the ruins of a shrine in the Greek Palace of Mycenae, though it is thought to be the work of a Minoan (Cretan) artist around 1500 B.C. The sculpture inspired me to write a story about how it might have reached Greece and what life might have been like on ancient Crete (Kriti).
 
The two women and the child in the two-foot-high sculpture are wearing Cretan dress. Little is known of the culture of ancient Crete except through its beautiful, naturalistic art and architecture, which had a profound influence on ancient Greece.
 
According to the writings of Plato and Thucydides—and archaeological evidence—women played a prominent role in the Minoan civilization. The island of Crete was overtaken by the warrior culture of the Mycenaeans around 1400 B.C.; before that time, Crete’s civilization had flourished for at least 1500 years.

 

 

   
Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, and directly from UNO Press.

Bio

Margaret Swanson writes memoirs, fiction, and poetry. She is publishing a historical novel about Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the South Atlantic. Holding degrees in English Literature (Colby College) and Community Planning (University of Rhode Island), she was a planner on Cape Cod and in Florida, and is now retired in Winter Haven, FL.

10 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The story drew me in so quickly and I was disappointed that it ended so soon. I look forward to reading more of your work.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the stories. I’ll send you another. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s niceto get feedback.

    1. Steve, thanks for reading the story and taking the time to comment. I like writing short stories. They can’t ramble on.

  2. Well written and interesting story. Highlighting a culture where women were honored for their skills in leadership was a nice approach to the story. You wanted to learn more but unfortunately the story came to a close. Is there more? Hope so and hope Persimmon Tree publishes it.

  3. This piece showcases Margaret’s writing skills and captivating storytelling. It’s an informative and engaging piece. I look forward to reading more of her work.

  4. Wonderfully written. Reading this took me to a far off land and sparked my imagination. Strong independent women are so often disregarded. This story echoes with modern society. Beautifully written. I’d love to read more of Margaret’s stories. Quite inspiring.

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