There was an error in this gadget

Sunday, January 06, 2008

PROGRESS REPORT 24: A LITTLE BIT OF DIVERSION

DIONYSOS


I've been spending most of my time since the holidays at home, indoors out of the rain and cold, slowly reorganizing myself, clearing out the old and making way for the new year. And I have been spending time writing, as well as prepping for my winter classes which will begin in two weeks. After all the holiday fun it's been good to just stay in by the fire and contemplate my next moves. Same goes for Shadow of the Lion. I just finished writing a whole chapter of violence and revenge so I needed to slow down the pace somewhat before the next chapter which will be one of the violent anti-climaxes to the novel. I have been puzzling over these next chapter segments, wondering if they would actually end on the cutting-room floor once the novel is completed, but decided to go ahead with them anyway. Both the segment I'll include here and the one following it I had written long ago and now I'm sorting through these bits and pieces to see if they fit in the tapestry or need to be scrapped. However, after a discussion with my good friend Susan yesterday I realized that yes, they could be strengthened to forward the plot, so perhaps they aren't excess baggage after all!

Then, last night I went to see a remarkable production of Euripides' "Hecuba"
and I was totally inspired. Hecuba's monologues, as well as the monologues of the lead chorus character, and the dramatic way the play was presented were the big injection of inspiration I needed to really build up this last part of my novel. Because in many ways, Hecuba was similar to Olympias in that she wanted revenge for the death of her children, just like Olympias wanted revenge for the death of her son. And the destruction of Troy was in some respects parallel to the violent ending of Alexander's dynasty. So I got a lot out of watching the play, and feel much more inspired now, clearer in my mind on where I need to go next. It's the strength of the women in the story now, not the men as it was in the beginning. Just as in the story of Troy, it was the strength of the women that was so remarkable, faced with disaster, destruction of their city, the deaths of their husbands and children, enslaved by their invaders. And throughout Shadow I have made references to the story of Troy. (Olympias' bloodline came from that of Andromache and Achilles' son Neoptolemus.)

Just as I needed a bit of diversion from my writing (which has helped me forward the plot), so my characters needed a small diversion from the dilemma that they have been plunged into.

In this scene, Olympias has invited Roxana to attend the Dionysian Mysteries. This is the first time she's really shown an acceptance of Alexander's Soghdian widow by including her in these secret rites.

The autumn harvest was ready for reaping, the olives ripened and hung dark on the boughs, the grapes picked and trodden. It was time to honor Dionysus when the women answered the shrill Bacchant’s cry and ran wild through the forest . Olympias was a priestess of the cult, and held Dionysus in as much esteem as she did her god-gifted son.

“It is time you were initiated into the mysteries,” she told Roxana.

Except for her visit to Samothraki, Roxana had never participated in any of the rituals associated with the Greek pantheon of gods but had held fast to her own beliefs, worshiping Ahura Mazdah, the Wise Lord and the ancient gods of her Soghdian tribal people. She felt somewhat puzzled that Alexander’s mother insisted that she become part of the annual orgia of rituals and sacrifices honoring the god of wine and pleasure.

Just before sunset, a few women dressed, like herself, in the red robes of initiates waited with their unlit torches near the palace gate. The tall dark of the pinewood loomed beyond. In the shadows she caught a glint from the eyes of a small animal. From behind her she heard a sistrum tremble giving off soft jangles.

Olympias arrived, dressed in a gown of saffron gauze pinned at the shoulder with clusters of golden grapes. She wore an ivy wreath of hammered gold on her head and carried a thyrsos twined with a little jeweled serpent. One of her servants carried Wadjet, coiled in his reed basket. She never attended a rite without her sacred snake. Other women followed her, maenads dressed in fawn skins and dappled robes carrying wreaths of ivy and reed thyrsos with pine-cone tops. Olympias took Roxana in her arms and embraced her, then told her and the other women to wait while she and the maenads entered the grove alone, skirting the oleanders and tamarisks until they disappeared into the darkness of the forest.

The priest of Dionysos and his acolyte came to lead the others into the sacred grove. Roxana trod carefully on the stony path, following the priest and other initiates until they came to a little glade in the midst of the forest. A goat with gilded horns and a wreath of vine leave hanging round its neck, was tethered in the shadows, its face like a wicked mask, its topaz eyes glinting.

In the clearing the women formed a circle A torch bearer came round lighting their torches from her flame. When all were lit, the women stuck them into the ring of sconces that had been speared into the ground. In the center of the circle of flame was a garlanded altar and a small trestle table set up with wine cups and a mixing bowl. On a plinth, standing above the altar, an idol of Dionysos looked down on them with a beckoning smile. He was life-sized and youthful with the trim muscular body of a dancer. The sheen of the polished marble made his bronze skin seem real. He wore ornate gem-studded boots and a leopard skin, draped over one shoulder. In his right hand he held a thyrsos and in his left, a gilt wine cup raised in a gesture of greeting.

Roxana recalled when Alexander once had dressed himself as Dionysos for one of the feast days at Babylon. Had he not come to her in her mountain home in the East and enchanted her, just as the god Dionysos had come from Hellas? Now she comprehended, understood Olympias’ passionate zeal, why she gave herself so freely to the god. Were not Alexander and Dionysos one?

The women stood in a ring, hands joined, and sang the invocation. Roxana watched in quiet fascination as the goat was brought up for the sacrifice. It did not balk, nor make a single sound except one plaintive bleating wail as the knife sliced its throat. She winced and looked away as the blood was caught in a shallow dish and mixed with the wine, an offering for the god. After the sacrifice, the priest and his acolyte poured the wine and passed the cups around the circle.

Roxana’s hands trembled as she took the cup. She looked across at Olympias. The fine wreath of gold in the old queen’s hair sparked and trembled in the torchlight. She appeared to be already in a trance, her eyes half-closed, moaning softly as she swayed to the soft sounds of the sistra and flute. When the
priest handed her a wine cup she lifted it to her lips and sipped it, then glanced over the rim at Roxana, her brows drawn into a frown. Following Olympias’ silent command, Roxana drank the strong, unmixed wine quickly, catching her breath at it’s sharp acrid flavor, tinged with the sweetness of the goat’s blood.
As priestess of the cult, Olympias began to sing the sacred hymn, the dithyrambos telling of Dionysos, son of the mortal Semele, fathered by Zeus. The song told of his birth, how he had been hidden in Naxos with the nymphs who saved him from the jealous wrath of Hera, how old Silenos had taught him wisdom and how he had found power in the purple juice of the grape. The song had many verses, telling adventurous tales of the wild young god who roamed through the country and across the Hellespont far, far away to the East. The maenads raised the chorus and after each verse, the cymbals clashed and the sistra rattled.

The tempo of the music increased, the women’s finger-drums throbbed, and the sistra rattled in time to the beat. A double flute wailed the mystical tune, and the women began to sway, arms linked behind waists, their feet beating the ground. Roxana closed her eyes and let herself move to the rhythm. The music had a twirling lilt and was as intoxicating as the wine. The maenad’s movements became more suggestive, bodies arching, bending, feet beating the ground. Roxana, hypnotized into a kind of frenzied madness, began to dance with the maenads and the other initiates, her mind carried far away to the mountains in India where the god had found refuge and wild creatures like lions and tigers came meekly to him.

Invoking the god, the maenads snatched at the blood-drenched chunks of the goat that the priest had butchered on the altar, devouring raw the pieces of kidney, tongue, and legs of the sacrificed animal, an orgiastic feast in honor of the god.

As they lept and danced, their faces smeared with wine lees and blood, they cried aloud and tore at their clothing, calling on the god, crying “Euoi, Bakcheia! Euoi! Euoi!”
treading over the place of sacrifice until their feet and pelts were stained red with blood and wine. The whirling torches, the skirling of the music, carried them to heights of ecstasy, as they surrendered themselves unconditionally to the god.

When finally the orgy ended, Roxana fell exhausted to the ground and lay face down on the sweet-scented pine needles, panting, her head swirling from the dance and the wine and the pulsating beat of the music.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and tried to raise herself up but everything still spun and her stomach heaved. Olympias bent over her and gently helped her to her feet. She seemed oddly calm. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright, almost glowing, and in the torchlight she seemed to shimmer as if she was aflame.

“My dear, you have met the god,” she said. “Now you are one of us. You have been initiated into the Mysteries. It is a secret rite, so you must never speak of it to anyone else. ”

The flames had burned low in the sconces and the music had ended. Arm in arm, the women were slipping away together into the pinewood. Was that men’s voices she heard calling out in the inky depths of the forest?

Olympias picked up the basket with her snake, and beckoned to Roxana to follow her.
“Come now. You must get some rest. Ordinarily, we would go with them,” she said, with an enigmatic smile, “But this time, we won’t. We have many things to discuss, you and I, about your son’s future.”

As the walked back down the path and entered the palace grounds, the first light of dawn streaked the eastern sky with rose. Roxana could not help but feel a stir of destiny, a change in her fortune. By including her in the Dionysian mysteries, Olympias had accepted her, making it clear that now she was indeed part of the Macedonian royal household.


Vase painting of a woman dressing
for the Dionysian Mysteries
Posted by Picasa

3 comments:

Eileen Kernaghan said...

Fascinating blog,Wynn! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Wynn Bexton said...

Welcome to my blog, Eileen. If you look back through the 'progress reports' you'll see more snippets of the novel...and see what a long, epic saga it's been. Now, almost over!

Adrian Swift said...

Wow, lovely! You have a way with prose! I definitely want to read the complete novel once it's published. I'm a big fan of Alexander's. Does he know he still has groupies?