Personal Odyssey: Pelagia

Note to the reader: I know Pelagia’s grammar is sometimes atrocious; she doesn’t, though. I hope you didn’t mind the convolutions and twisted sentence structure. After all, she was only just learning to write. She was only just learning to think.

City of Thyrea, Hekatombion (first month) by the Athenian calendar

It was the fifth day of the third month in my nineteenth year of life – how well I remember – and in a week I was to be wed. Late, I know. My father was always shrewd, and as the richest king in the Gulf of Argolis, he could afford to wait. It was late, even then … and years after, now, and still a spinster. I do not remember the name of my betrothed. My head is full of other names, other places, other unforgettable dates.

No one expects an old woman to have seen the world. They throw drink and coins at me in the pub for telling the drunks my tales, but no one hears truth on my lips, only pipe dreams.

No one pays for read-aloud, either, and who would believe a woman could read? Once, long ago, I used to nurse a princeling in a great palace in Ithaca. I was fresh from the waves then, strong and sun-bronzed, but I could only find work as a maid. I sang him my songs as he slipped into sleep, only later adapting them for the inns, and this is how I began:

Once, in a night on the wine-dark sea
the full blue moon appeared, to me,
to take on human shape.
And no mere mortal was that moon!
the goddess Artemis’ velvet croon
beckoned me over the waves.

She flew to shore on a stately swan
and whistled a tune to call me one;
our steeds flew tip to tip.
The night was warm, and she and I
spent hours conversing in the sky
and spied a dozen ships.

I grew more comfortable with her
though her omniscience, to be sure
could be discomforting.
She told me tales of queens and kings
of valour and ‘the way of things’
and she began to sing:

I wove the tale of the Fall of Man –
you know not of steel and the Ku Klux Klan
or petrol oil and bombs.
But you know of death and of human greed
you deserve to have, in this life you lead
more than your husband’s sons –

Pelagia, you may still refuse
the task that I have planned for you;
you’ll have to choose between
A quiet life of ignorance,
contented, though, and innocent –
and the life I have foreseen.

Ah, how resplendent the goddess was that night! She came to me in shining robes made from stardust, with her bowstave in her hand, made of seasoned lightning, and a quiver full of death on her back. And how beautifully she sang to me: her voice was as tides rising and falling, dancing to the bidding of the moon. Oh, I grow poetic now, remembering. The goddess gave me that gift, that night, among others, once I had chosen my path – though I am wiser now, and more cynical; I know there was never a doubt in her mind as to which I would take. She had chosen for me at my birth.

This is the chronicle I wrote for myself, reader. There were more books, but only this first has remained in my possession.

On the Docks of Thyrea – Eighth day of Boedromion (third month)

I do not myself believe the thrill of it. Chosen by a goddess, whisked away in the dark of night! I feel like a little girl, caught up in wonder so great as to render me speechless. And yet I have spoken so much these past few days – haggled over wages and prices, shouted orders; more words than I had spoken in a year up til now. Such a voice I have! I sound like the most hardened sailor, my voice frayed by storms and salty air, with a lilting accent. Artemis told me it is from Corinth, that I will not sound out of place where I am going. She told me many things … I know more than I ever knew now, and what I have forgotten in these few days alone could fill a book.

I could even write it (that is, if I could remember). I can set words to paper, and understand! We can solidify language. I can solidify language. It is like pulling a night-picture out of thin air, and making it real. I will never forget this journey – that, Artemis has guaranteed. And perhaps if I can protect these sheets of a plant that she called paper, the world will not forget, either. I do not know why I want that so badly. For me, there is only the here and now; once I’m dead, that’s it. Artemis told me of Gilgamesh, though, and perhaps the same fire burns in my heart.

Listen to me, prattling like a washerwoman. In a few days more we will sail, and we’ll see how much time that leaves me to ponder. But there is time for a bit more, now. I need only supervise. The flash of gold is enough to make the dockhands eagerly jump to their tasks.

The men would never obey a woman, that I know, and yet they obey me. Artemis called what she’s done to me a ‘glamour’ – a spell of some sort, I think. I didn’t really understand, despite my new knowledge. It makes me powerful, though. That’s enough understanding for me.

En Route to Delphi, twelfth day of Boedromion

Some of the crewmen say we must be god-favoured! The winds are unseasonably warm, and they propel us straight to Delphi. I keep what I know to myself.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this journey is. I have been set no quest, as of yet, nor am I sailing for home. I have left my home far behind me over the waves. (What my father and betrothed must be thinking now, I can only guess.) Perhaps I will find my purpose in Delphi, when I consult the oracle.

The darker parts of me whisper that there is no purpose to this, or to anything we mortals do. I am Artemis’ plaything, hers to watch and titter at, like a queen overlooking her maidlings from a window. She knows I will die in the end; when she is bored of me she will cast me away. And yet, to be a toy of one so faultless, so transcendent, is an honour in itself.

My voice, already strange to me because of my goddess’ wizardry, is raw and strong from shouting. My hands ache, but from just a few days’ work they are creased and sandpapery – my time onboard has undone a lifetime of needlework and soft labour. My muscles are ropy, and although there is pain deep within, it hurts with a healthy burn that reminds me of the sun on the beaches of the coast, a fire deep inside the fabric of my bones. Everything is an analogy, these days. I rejoice in life itself. I am a toy, a game, but the emotions I feel now I have never felt before.

I have no more time to idle, and there is nothing more to say, here on the waves with the coast to starboard and the sea to port. Perhaps I will write in Delphi.

Delphi, twenty-seventh day of Boedromion, after Oracle consultation

Such a furor my men are in! I suppose shore leave and plenty of drink will do that to a fellow. After all, we have sailed with the greatest haste, stopping only to reload and resupply. These ships were built for coast-hugging, and so we never stray out of sight. How frustrating it must be to see one’s temptation and never succumb to the wish for firm ground again.

Myself, I feel no such attachment. Earth has come to symbolise duty, imprisonment, nineteen years of obedience. I never thought I’d take so readily to freedom. But given a choice between the sea and the shore, I see what my goddess’ touch has done to me. I dislike Delphi’s bustle, and the women hold no pleasure for me; nor does the wine, of a cheaper kind than can be found at home.

I came to see the oracle, and what I heard did not surprise me. A puppet must dance when he is told to take the stage, the translator told me gravely. Without his strings, he is nothing but a pretty lump of wood.

Then she wailed, a long, keening cry for which her companion had no translation. Puppets break, he told me simply. I am beginning to wonder if I will live to see the end of this journey. But what do I care? Nothing awaits me, at the end of my wanderings, but strict rules and a society with no place for a heroine.

To occupy myself, I have started to learn about the culture of this place. There is a man I met in the agora who sang a great epic in his youth, but he is blind now, and he says he will never write again. Why not? I say, and he only shakes his head. My time is over, he says. I know nothing but war. I cannot write about love, child, except for the love of a king for his country, or a soldier for his brothers in the ranks. War is out of fashion these days.

But you, child. What is it that you know? You have a poet’s soul, and you will find yourself drawn irresistibly to song. No – hush. Do not argue. Give a blind old man credit, at least, for his wisdom.

And so we have dined together and talked for many hours, and when I sail from this place I will carry him in my heart. On my journeys I will treasure the memory of the old man, and his stories – and perhaps the shy, dancing ghost of an idea.

Corinth, fourth day of Pyanepsion (fourth month)

I do not understand why Corinth is held to be so licentious. Of course, all cities and all customs seem immoral to one who has led the life of a songbird in a cage, but the rumours of sacred whores are baseless. (I should know. I looked.) The port has its share of prostitutes as any port does, but they are cheap and shameful, their lives never touched by the dainty fingers of a deity.

This city is a marvel, though. She has grown fat off the trade through the isthmus, and she wears her wealth openly about her balconies and cornices, like an aristocrat’s bride flaunting her jewels. Her citizens’ clothes are bright and gay; not always the latest fashions, I suppose, but perhaps fads are different here than in Thyrea. So close to home, only a few hundred stadia, and yet so far away.

The blind man’s wisdom is a sprout, now, taking root in the virgin soil of my thoughts. I have begun a project about which I must tell no one. I draw my inspiration from this city, from Delphi, from the glittering seas. I know how it is to be meddled with by gods – Artemis has been to see me six, seven times since the commencement of my journey. She tells me I was born to entertain. She means that I am a natural at it, but I hear her words in a different sense. I do not doubt them at all.

Sometimes I wonder why it isn’t Poseidon guiding me through the waves. Surely Artemis, goddess of the hunt, would prefer me to wander through a forest – but no, she tells me, I am the goddess of the moon also. She says nothing more, as if I am supposed to understand. I am sick of the interference of gods.

Athens, twentieth day of Pyanepsion

At last we have reached the great city, capital of civilisation! I thought Corinth and Delphi were wonderful, to be sure, and I have not even spared a page for the other stunning cities I have seen glittering like jewels on the coast. But Athens … the temples here are built by true masters; even the public agorae, in the richer parts of town, are artwork in themselves. The people to whom I have spoken, for the most part, seem opinionated and well-educated. The one exception was drunk (may I add that they have very fine wine here).

I have a feeling we will spend awhile in this city. As I said, the men are glad for shore leave anywhere, and I have fallen in love with this place – even if they do treat their women like pets. (I have slowly come to realise that though I am woman and proud, the world does not see me as such. How else to command a ship and a dozen men?) The climate agrees with me, and the architecture reminds me of home.

Artemis is no tame muse, but she is my inspiration, and although this is her sister’s terrain she visits me often, whiling away the years in the life of a goddess. My pen flows thick with words and phrases; my dreams burst with the next events. This little project is swallowing me alive.

Athens, twentieth day of Pyanepsion, one year later

I have neglected you, little book. Somehow I do not think a sheaf of paper is terribly offended. I am one of the lesser men-about-town now, fairly wealthy, known to your average socialite as Nikandros. Those who know me know I spend my days in a feverish storm of writing, but I have shown no one. I must travel back to Corinth one last time.

I pray that my comrade there will be alive, and that he will do me one small favor: sing my brainchild, the hatchling of my heart and soul, for me. Everyone knows that my voice is hopeless and my metre snarled, but he – he has the voice of a fallen angel, and the timing of Apollo himself. Besides my errand, it is time to get moving. Artemis stirred the sea into my veins when she chose me, and I grow impatient for a life of independence again.

Someday, I know, my glamour will wear off. I will be the old woman I was always meant to grow into, stout from the children I never bore, hands raw from dishes I never scrubbed. But I don’t expect it for fifty years or more. Until then I am Pelagia, princess of Thyrea, chosen of Artemis, consort only to the sea herself. And I am Nikandros, adventurer and unknown poet – I will sail the coasts from Pylos to Olynthus, unafraid of hardship or peril, because I am only afraid of a cage.

But first I have my little errand to run, to my old friend in Corinth. I will sit by his side and read to him a dozen times, a hundred, until his memory holds it all. And after a few months I will take my leave, telling old blind Homer to sing for me the world over.

No one can cage my feisty hero, but more importantly, no one can cage his tales. My immortality at last, now – in the voice of a greying bard.

En route to Corinth, twenty-fifth day of Pyanepsion

Somewhere, my puppetmaster is smiling.

Greek (Athenian) Calendar Dates:
Map of Greece:
Various Misc. Information:
Time and Length Measurements:
Research on Corinth:
Names (Pelagia and Nikandros):

About the title: "wine-dark sea" was one of the many stock phrases used by bards in ancient Greece. With so much to remember, the wandering singers had to stick to strict formulas to help guide them through the sagas. This accounts for much of the repetition in ancient tales such as Odysseus.

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