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The Golden Fleece, Page 2

Robert Graves

  Ancaeus explained that the mainland, to the north of Crete, which had once been known as Pelasgia, was now named Greece after its new overlords. It was inhabited by a remarkably mixed population. The most ancient people were the earthborn Pelasgians, said to have sprung from the scattered teeth of the Serpent Ophion when the Triple Goddess had torn him into shreds. To these were added, first, Cretan settlers from Cnosssos; next, Henetian settlers from Asia Minor, mixed with Aethiopians from Egypt, whose rich King Pelops gave his name to the southern part of the land, the Peloponnese, and who built cities with enormous stone walls, and white marble tombs in the bee-hive shape of African huts; lastly, the Greeks, a barbarous pastoral people from the north, beyond the river Danube, who came down by way of Thessaly, in three successive invasions, and eventually possessed themselves of all the strong Pelopian cities. These Greeks ruled the other peoples in an insolent and arbitrary manner. ‘And alas, Holy One,’ said Ancaeus, ‘our overlords worship the Father God as their sovereign Deity and secretly despise the Triple Goddess.’

  The Nymph wondered whether she had misheard his words. She asked: ‘Who may the Father God be? How can any tribe worship a Father? What are fathers but the occasional instruments that a woman uses for her pleasure and for the sake of becoming a mother?’ She began to laugh contemptuously and cried: ‘By the Benefactor, I swear that this is the most absurd story that ever I heard. Fathers, indeed! I suppose that these Greek fathers suckle the children and sow the barley and caprify the fig-trees and make the laws and, in short, undertake all the other responsible tasks proper to women?’ She tapped impatiently with her foot on a stone and the hot blood darkened her face.

  When the Goat men observed this, each silently took a pebble from his wallet and laid it in the leathern pocket of his sling. But Ancaeus answered mildly and gently, casting down his eyes again. He remarked that there were many strange customs in this world, and many tribes who seemed to others to be insane. ‘I should like to show you the Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast, Holy One,’ he said, ‘with their wooden castles and their enormously fat tattooed boys, fed on chestnut cakes. They live next to the Amazons, who are as queer as they… As for the Greeks, they argue as follows: since women are dependent on men for their maternity – for the wind alone will not quicken their wombs as it quickens those of Iberian mares – men are consequently more important than they.’

  ‘But that is an insane argument,’ cried the Nymph. ‘You might as well pretend that this splinter of pine-wood is of more importance than myself, because I employ it to pick my teeth. The woman, not the man, is always the principal: she is the agent, he the tool always. She gives the orders, he obeys. Is it not the woman who chooses the man, and overcomes him by the sweetness of her perfumed presence and orders him to lie down in the furrow on his back, and there riding upon him, as upon a wild horse tamed to her will, takes her pleasure of him and, when she has done, leaves him lying like a dead man? Is it not the woman who rules in the cave, and if any of her lovers displeases her by his surly or lazy behaviour, gives him the three times repeated warning to take up all his gear and begone to his fraternity lodge?’

  ‘With the Greeks,’ said Ancaeus in a low, hurried voice, ‘the custom is exactly the contrary. Each man chooses the woman whom he wishes to make the mother of his child (as he calls it) and overcomes her by the strength of his desire, and orders her to lie upon her back wherever it may suit him best, and then, mounting, takes his pleasure of her. In the house he is the master, and if the woman vexes him by her nagging or lewd behaviour he beats her with his hand, and if that does not make her alter her ways he packs her back to her father’s house with all the gear that she has brought and gives her children to a slave woman to rear for him. But, Holy One, do not be angry, I charge you by the Goddess! I am a Pelasgian; I detest the Greeks and their ways, and am dutifully obeying your instructions by answering these questions.’

  The Nymph contented herself by saying that the Greeks must be the most impious and disgusting people in the world, worse than African apes – if Ancaeus were not indeed mocking her. She questioned him again about the sowing of barley and the caprification of figs: how did the men of the Greeks manage to obtain bread or figs without the intervention of the Goddess?

  He answered: ‘Holy One, when the Greeks first arrived in Pelasgia they were a pastoral people, living only on roast meat, cheese, milk, honey, and wild salads. They therefore knew nothing of the ritual of planting barley or of the cultivation of any fruits whatever.’

  She asked, interrupting him: ‘These insane Greeks, then (I suppose), came down from the North without their own women, as sometimes the drones, who are the idle fathers among the bees, make a sortie from the hive and form a colony apart from their Queen and eat filth instead of honey?’

  ‘No,’ said Ancaeus, ‘they brought their own women with them; but these women were accustomed to what will seem to you a topsy-turvy and indecent way of life. They tended the cattle, and were bought and sold by the men as though they were themselves cattle.’

  ‘I refuse to believe that men could ever buy and sell women,’ cried the Nymph. ‘You have evidently been misinformed on this point. But did the filthy Greeks continue long in this way of life, once they were settled in Pelasgia?’

  Ancaeus answered: ‘The first two tribes of invaders, the Ionians and the Aeolians, who were armed with bronze weapons, soon yielded to the might of the Goddess when she consented to adopt their male gods as her sons. They relinquished many of their barbarous ways. And when they were presently persuaded to eat the bread baked by the Pelasgians, and when they found that it had an agreeable taste and holy qualities, one of them, named Triptolemus, asked leave of the Goddess to plant barley himself, for he was confident that men could do so almost as successfully as women. He said that he wished, if possible, to spare the women needless labour and anxiety; and the Goddess indulgently consented.’

  The Nymph laughed until the sides of the mountain re-echoed with the noise, and the Goat men laughed sympathetically from their rock, rolling about in merriment, though they had not the least idea why she laughed. She said to Ancaeus: ‘A fine crop indeed this Triptolemus must have reaped – all poppy and henbane and thistle!’

  Ancaeus was wise enough not to contradict her. He began to tell her about the third tribe of Greeks, the iron-weaponed Achaeans, and of their insolent bearing towards the Goddess and how they instituted the Divine Family of Olympus; but he observed that she was not listening, and desisted. She asked with a sneer: ‘Come now, Ancaeus, tell me, how are clans reckoned among the Greeks? You surely will not tell me that there are male clans instead of female, with the generations reckoned through the fathers rather than the mothers?’

  Ancaeus nodded his head slowly, as though forced into admitting an absurdity by the shrewdness of the Nymph’s cross-examination. ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘since the coming of the iron-weaponed Achaeans, which happened many years ago, male clans have supplanted female clans in most parts of Greece. The Ionians and Aeolians had already introduced great innovations; the arrival of the Achaeans turned everything upside-down. The Ionians and the Aeolians had by then learned to reckon descent from the mother; but to the Achaeans paternity was, and is, the only consideration in tracing genealogy, and they have lately converted most of the Aeolians and some of the Ionians to their view.’

  The Nymph cried: ‘No, no, that is manifestly absurd. Though it is plain and indisputable, for example, that little Korë is my daughter forasmuch as the midwife drew her out of my body, how can it be known certainly who was her father? For the impregnation does not necessarily come from the first man whom I enjoy at our sacred orgies. It may come from the first or it may come from the ninth.’

  ‘That uncertainty the Greeks attempt to dispel,’ said Ancaeus, ‘by each man choosing what he calls a wife – a woman who is forbidden to company with any but himself. Then, if she conceives, his own paternity is not to be disputed.’

  The Nymph looked earnestly
into Ancaeus’s face and said: ‘You have an answer for everything. But do you expect me to believe that women can be so ruled and watched and guarded as to be prevented from enjoying any man whom they please? Suppose that a young woman became wife to an old, ugly, or blemished man like yourself: How could she ever consent to company with him?’

  Ancaeus, meeting her gaze, answered: ‘The Greeks profess that they can so control their wives. But, I grant you, it often happens that they cannot, and that a woman secretly mates with a man to whom she is not wife. Then her husband is jealous and tries to kill both the wife and her lover, and if both the men are kings, their peoples are drawn into war and great bloodshed ensues.’

  ‘That I can well imagine,’ said the Nymph. ‘They should not tell lies in the first place, nor afterwards undertake more than they can perform, and so give themselves occasion for jealousy. I have often noticed that men are absurdly jealous: indeed, next to their dishonesty and talkativeness, it appears to be their chief characteristic. But tell me, what happened to the Cretans?’

  ‘They were overthrown by Theseus the Greek, who was helped to victory by one Daedalus, a famous craftsman and inventor,’ said Ancaeus.

  ‘What did he invent?’ asked the Nymph.

  ‘Among other things,’ Ancaeus replied, ‘he constructed brazen bulls that bellowed artificially when a fire was lighted beneath their bellies; also, lifelike wooden statues of the Goddess, the jointed limbs of which could be moved in any direction, so that it seemed a miracle – and what was more, the eyes could be made to open and shut by the pulling of a concealed cord.’

  ‘Is this Daedalus still living?’ asked the Nymph. ‘I should like to make his acquaintance.’

  ‘Alas, no,’ replied Ancaeus. ‘All these events happened long before my time.

  She pressed him: ‘Yet can you tell me how the joints of the statues were constructed, so that the limbs could be moved in any direction whatsoever?’

  ‘Doubtless they rolled in ball-sockets,’ he said, doubling his right fist and rolling it in the clasp of the fingers of his left hand, so that she readily understood his meaning. ‘For Daedalus invented the ball-socket. At all events, it was by means of a Daedalian invention that the navy of the Cretans was destroyed, so that they no longer visit your island, but only the Greeks and a few chance Pelasgians and Thracians and Phrygians.’

  ‘I heard from my mother’s mother,’ said the Nymph, ‘that though the Cretans worshipped the Goddess almost as reverently as ourselves, they differed from us in many religious particulars. For example, the Chief Priestess did not choose a Sun Champion for one year only. The man she chose reigned sometimes for nine years or more, refusing to resign his office, on the ground that experience brings sagacity. He was called the Priest of Minos, or the Bull King. For the Bull fraternity had become supreme on the island: the Stag men and Horse men and Ram men and such-like never dared to contend for the war-kingship, and the Chief Priestess companied only with Bull men. Here my mother and I distribute our favours evenly among all the fraternities. It is not wise to let any one fraternity secure the supremacy, nor to let a king reign beyond two or three years at the utmost: men have a great capacity for insolence if they are not kept in their proper place, and fancy themselves to be almost the equals of women. By insolence they destroy themselves and cause vexation to the women into the bargain. I do not doubt but that the same happened in Crete.’

  Still conversing, she secretly signed to the Goat men that they should take Ancaeus and lead him away from her sight, and then hunt him to death with their slings. For she decided that a man who could relate such disturbing and indecent stories must not be allowed to remain alive on the island, even for a short time longer, now that he had told her what she wished to know about the principle of jointing the wooden statues. She feared what mischief he might do by unsettling the minds of the men. Besides, he was a bent, bald, ugly old fellow, an exile, and a Dolphin man, who would bring no luck to the grove.

  The Goat men prostrated themselves in reverence before the Orange Nymph and then, rising up, obeyed her command with joy. The chase was not a long one.

  Chapter One

  The Parching of the Barley

  When the first body of invading Greeks, the Ionian tribe, moving down from the upper reaches of the Danube through Istria and lllyria, passed at last into Thessaly, all the natives, such as Satyrs, Lapiths, Aethics, Phlegyans and Centaurs, withdrew into their mountain fastnesses. The invaders, who were very numerous, brought their own gods with them and all the sacred instruments of worship. The Centaurs, the aboriginal inhabitants of Mount Pelion, watched them move slowly with their flocks and herds into the plain of Pagasae, far below to the west, where they remained for a few days; but then, lured by reports of yet richer pasturage to the southward, the Ionians resumed their journey towards the fortress of Phthia and passed out of sight. At Iolcos, near the foot of Pelion, stood an ancient college of Fish nymphs whose Chief Priestess legislated in sacred matters for the whole of Phthiotis. They did not run off at the approach of the Ionians but made Gorgon grimaces at them, sticking out their tongues and hissing; the Ionians prudently passed on into Boeotia.

  The Ionians found a hospitable race living in Pelasgia, as Greece was then called: of native Pelasgians mixed with Henetian and Cretan and Egyptian settlers, all of whom worshipped the Triple Moon Goddess under one name or another. Envoys, sent out from Mycenae, Argos, Tiryns, and the other cities to the venerable shrine of the Goddess at Olympia, were instructed by her to make the Ionians welcome, but on the strict condition that they respected the religious customs prevailing in her dominions. The Ionians were impressed by the civility and firm bearing of the envoys and by the colossal walls of the cities from which they had been sent out. Loth to return to Thessaly, yet despairing of conquest, they prudently allowed their gods to make submission to the Goddess and to become her sons by adoption. The first Ionian chieftain to urge this submission was named Minyas, whom the Goddess thereafter favoured beyond all others; his father, Chryses, had founded the settlement of Aeaea, on the island of that name opposite to Pola, at the head of the Adriatic Sea. When Minyas died, the Goddess awarded him the title of hero and instructed fifty nymphs to tend his great white shrine at the Boeotian city of Orchomenos, beside Lake Copaïs, and to legislate in sacred matters for the whole countryside. These nymphs did not marry but took lovers on days of festival, in the Pelasgian style. Cecrops the Egyptian had already brought the institution of marriage into Attica, and the Goddess had condoned the innovation only so long as it should be practised without disrespect to herself or injury to her Pelasgian people; the Ionians practised marriage too, but finding that the most honourable of the natives considered the custom indecent, most of them discontinued it from shame.

  Presently followed another Greek invasion, this time by the Aeolian tribe, who were more vigorous than the Ionians, and came by way of Thrace. They passed Iolcos by, as the Ionians had done, but seized the Boeotian city of Orchomenos, which they found unguarded at a time of festival. Their chieftains won the right to be considered the military guardians of the land by persuading the nymphs of the shrine of Minyas to accept them as husbands; and thereafter called themselves Minyans. They became the aristocracy of that part of eastern Greece, but were unable to press into Attica or the Peloponnese because the strong city of Cadmean Thebes barred their passage. Aeolus, their great ancestor, was also awarded the title of hero, and from the Thracian cave, or cleft in the earth, in which his bones were buried would graciously send out snake-tailed winds at the request of his visitants. This power over the winds was delegated to him by the Triple Goddess.

  When Theseus, King of Ionian Athens, had secretly built a fleet and sacked Cnossos in Crete, the Minyans also took to the sea. They fitted out a hundred ships or more, which they drew up near Aulis on the protected beaches of the Euboean Gulf. Theseus, rather than engage them in a naval war, made a treaty with them by which the two states peaceably shared the carrying trade tha
t had been wrested from the Cretans and took joint action against pirates. The Athenians traded with the south and the east – with the cities of Egypt, Africa, Phoenicia and Asia Minor, and with Phrygian Troy, the prime market of the far east; the Minyans traded with Thessaly and Thrace in the north, and with Sicily, Corfu, Italy, and Gaul in the west. For convenience of their western trade the Minyans stationed a part of their fleet at Sandy Pylos, a possession of theirs on the western side of the Peloponnese, and by this means avoided the difficult circuit of Cape Malea. The winds supplied by Aeolus, which the nymphs who tended his shrine had the art of confining in pigs’ bladders, were of great service to the masters of the Minyan ships.

  The Minyans grew rich, and were not at first disturbed in the enjoyment of their kingdom, chiefly because they did as much as possible to please the Goddess. Their Sky God, Dios, whom they worshipped on Mount Laphystios in the form of a ram, they publicly acknowledged to be the son of the Mother Goddess. She therefore renamed him Zagreus, or Zeus, after the child whom, it was said, she used to bear every year, as a proof of her fertility, in the Dictean Cave of Crete, but who was yearly sacrificed for the good of the land. This sacrifice was now discontinued and Zeus enjoyed the privileges of adult godhead. Though in some matters he was granted precedence of the Nymph Goddess and the Maiden Goddess, her daughters, the Mother Goddess remained the sovereign Deity.

  The next event in the history of the Minyans, as it concerns this Argonautic story, was that they extended their kingdom to the Pagasaean Gulf and as far northward as Larisa in Thessaly. A haughty Minyan King named Athamas invited Ino, the Chief Priestess of the college at Iolcos, to celebrate a marriage with him, and her nymphs a simultaneous marriage with his chieftains. Ino could not well refuse to marry Athamas, a tall, fine, yellow-haired man, because he brought great gifts for her and the other women, and because the Minyans were more numerous and better armed than her own people of Phthiotis. Yet if she consented to the marriage this would be an infringement of the rights of the Centaurs of Pelion: the Centaurs of the Horse fraternity had always been the chosen lovers of the Fish nymphs of Iolcos, just as the Centaur College of Wryneck nymphs who tended the shrine of the hero Ixion took lovers only from the Leopard fraternity of the Magnesians. Ino consulted the Goddess, asking whether she and her nymphs should destroy their husbands on the bridal night, as the Danaids of Argos had done long before in similar circumstances, or whether they should destroy themselves by leaping into the sea, as the Pallantids of Athens had done. Or what other orders had the Goddess to give? The Goddess answered in a dream: ‘Pour unmixed wine to the Horse men and leave the rest to my contrivance.’