Seeing how feeble he looked, I approached, hoping to make a profit. “Welcome to the Slaughtered Goat. I am Abissai. Have you been out in the desert long?”
The man lifted his hand to the table, and to my delight, I spied a brilliant ring about his finger. “Not long enough.”
“Whatever do you mean, good sir?”
“Ages ago, I was in possession of great treasure, a treasure like no other. But I lost it . . .” and with that, I thought the man might weep, except for that he had no water left in his body to do so.
Hearing of this great fortune, the man piqued my interest, and so I asked, “Would you care for a drink? Or something to eat? My camel looks better tended than you.”
“No need, kind sir, for I thirst for one thing only. Though my body starves, it is as nothing to me. Rather, I should wilt and die, than continue to suffer the fate that has befallen me.”
“Is it of this treasure you speak?”
“It was all that ever mattered to me.”
“Then you are on a quest . . . to find this treasure, eh?”
“And how long have you looked for it?”
“I do not quite remember, for time slips my mind like the sands in an hourglass. Yet, it has felt, like an eternity. Perhaps . . . twenty years or more.”
“Twenty years . . . Zarathustra be merciful! If you have been traveling for so long, you must have come from a distant land.”
“And your quest has brought you here, to this desert town?”
“Most of my search has been in the desert.”
“But after so much time, do you not think that this treasure you speak of, may be vanquished? Do you still believe that you will ever find it?”
“I do not believe that I will find it. I will find it.”
And from this point forward, I sat speechless, as I listened to my new friend tell his long and marvelous tale.
|The Taygetos, home of Dynotus.|
I was born in the Peloponnese, in the southern half of Hellena, where the mountains meet the sea, and each man may call himself king, a land sprawled across uncounted peninsulas and islands, a country the gods favor most in all the world. My mother, Alcmena, was a mortal woman of the landed classes, but her farm was small and she was mostly poor. Her husband succumbed to illness at a young age, giving her no sons or daughters, and yet she made for a young and beautiful widow, and was favored by the King of the Gods, who visited her in the form of a white stallion, carrying her away as Zeus once stole Europa. Hence, I was born, son of Zor and Alcmena. I was not but one year old when my mother discovered my great strength, and so she named me ‘strong one’ in my native tongue. Dynotus.
When I was but six, I could plow the fields with the strength of an ox. Not long after, mention of my abilities reached the ears of the ruling elite, and my mother was remarried to a wealthy land owner and aristocrat, a poet named Tyrtaeus.
I knew little of my step-father, for I was sent at the age of nine to sleep in the barracks with the other boys. It was the Spartan way, the law passed down by our ancestral king and founder, Lykourgos. We were taught harsh discipline, wrestled and ran, and sparred with the spear and the spathi, and always I exceeded the others, and was made team captain. We slept together on pallet-beds, and rarely were allowed baths or use of ointment. Instead of softening our feet with shoes, Lykourgos decreed that we should harden them by going barefoot, believing that, if this was our practice, we would climb more easily, and go downhill more sure-footedly, and move more swiftly. We ate together in the mess hall, given just enough to survive. If we wanted more, we were encouraged to steal, but were flogged and went hungry if caught. We learned to be self sufficient in all things, and in so doing, became bold and cunning. There could be no sheep among Spartan warriors. As I endured hunger more easily than my comrades, I did not hesitate to portion what little was given to the weakest among us, and in this way I made many friends. At twelve years of age, we were no longer permitted clothing, forced to go naked the whole year round. And yet, some small mercy was shown to us, during the bitterest winter nights, when Demeter most lamented the loss of her daughter, Persephone, and we were offered a single tunic for warmth.
When our troupe grew to maturity, we took our place as hoplite soldiers in full bronze armor, with spear and shield, marching to battle at the sound of the drum and to the rhyme of Tyrtaeus. One day, my fellow comrade lost his hoplon, the round shield which was indispensable to the phalanx, and as valued to a Spartan as his own life. It had been hidden away by a rival, who had lost to him in a wrestling bout. Nothing but cowardice could have so disgraced him, and so I offered my own shield, and suffered the shame of it. As we were far from the city center, I had no means of procuring another such item, and so I joined the lower legions, the peasants who did not own land and could not afford armor, and the slaves of the hoplites, those nicknamed ‘rock-throwers’. And yet, I proved my valor, with rocks and sword alone, slaying far more enemies than my better armed allies, in what came to be known as the Messeinian Wars. We did not question the rightness of our actions. All that mattered to our commanders was proving ourselves fearless, for courage is a Spartan’s most sacred weapon, forged in our hearts from the time we are born, and tempered by skill and by discipline. Our songs were only of courage, and of the shame and dishonor that comes with cowardice. There was no room in our minds for any other thing, no praise for honesty, or for compassion . . . or for love. We destroyed any who opposed us, and the city state came to rule the whole of the Peloponnese, and our King, Demaratus, became wealthy and prosperous.
After the wars, the people we conquered, those of non-Dorian blood whom we called “helots,” became our slaves, and after a time they learned of our cruelty, as did I. Disgusted by the subjugation of another people, I abandoned my station to wander Hellena naked and alone.
By my eighteenth year, I had journeyed the known world, seeing peoples of every culture and color, becoming wise in their ways, learning the secret fighting techniques from the people of the distant East, and also, visiting the Hyperboreans to the North, where I won, as a trophy, my prized and treasured ring. Though it may seem to you a mere trinket, this silver ring has decided the fate of countless lives. With but a thought, it can become any weapon held in hand, a sword, a mace, an ax, a spear.
But always, I returned to my homeland, where I visited my aging mother, and the soldiers with whom I was raised. And yet, it was the land itself that beckoned me, the green slopes cradled between the Taygetos Mountains, rich with olive trees . . . Such beauty is unparalleled in all the world. To think that I shall never look upon her like again, to speak of it and remember . . . pains me.
I decided, at last, to build a permanent home among my people, but feared they might come to worship me. Nor did I wish to incite the wrath of the king, lest he feel his authority threatened, for never have I desired a throne. And so, I built my home high upon the Taygetos Mountains, placing stone upon stone, with my own hands, where I could look down upon the city, with its white homes and stadiums and bustling populace. There, I lived in solitude, above the petty squabbles of mortal men.
One morning, I was greeted by a great white steed, which I knew to be of my father’s sacred stock. He was wild and untamed, a divine gift, and he succumbed to me without a bridle. I named him Thunderfoot. And in my growing loneliness, he was my only company.
Yearning for the camaraderie of my younger days, I went down to the agora, and always among the people went naked, like Apollo and Aphrodite, for I had grown beyond mortal trappings. The peasants considered my visitation a good omen, and I was offered riches to curry favor with the gods. Old women knitted chitoni for me and tanners their finest sandals. Warriors, seeking bravery, made sacrifices of their kills. Artists made likenesses of me in chiseled marble and in brushed gold amphora. Too often, fathers implored that I take their daughters, and unwed women sought me also. And I must admit that as my father and grandfather before me, that I was weak, and unable to resist the pleasures of the flesh. Soon, my appetites rivaled tales of my other exploits. Rumors spoke of the hundreds falling prey to my wiles. There was even talk of strange, half human partners, including nymphs, Amazons, mermaids, centaurs, titans, harpies, sirens, and young men. Of these tales, I can say only that they are, for the most part, myth.
As for King Demaratus, I was greeted with open arms. With my every visit, he was certain to arrange the finest banquet, for us to feast and drink honey wine and eat roasted lamb. The king employed dozens of maid servants, which labored over his every whim. But before the banquet, a sleeping chamber was arranged for me, where I could rest and be bathed, and then during the night, three of his most beautiful servants were sent to my room. The following morning, I would thank him for his kindness, and return to my mountain abode. In this way, the king was made confident that the gods were content, and that if war should break loose, I would come to his aid.
Life for me was like this, until my twenty fourth year. Smoke was rising up from the city, I could see, and King Demaratus knew to signal me by fire. I could not fathom the trouble. It could have been anything, from a horde of demons rising from the Underworld, to an invading legion from a neighboring city state. Never could I have imagined, in my naivety, how I was to be damned that day, how I would come to know perpetual grief.