I learned that I was different when I was a very small girl: when the golden curls, which barely reached my shoulders at the time, began to turn the color of burnished vermeil. Your grandmother Leda, whom you never knew, told me that I was a child of Zeus. Since I thought my father’s name was Tyndareus, her words upset me. Seeing my pink cheeks marred by tears of confusion, my mother handed me a mirror of polished bronze and asked me to study my reflection. “Do you look like me?” she asked.
I nodded, noting in my own skin the exquisite fairness of her complexion, and her hair the same shade as mine that tumbled like flowing honey past the hollow of her back.
“And do you resemble my husband Tyndareus?” she said to me.
I looked in the mirror and then looked again. For several minutes I remember expecting the mirror to show me my father’s face, but Tyndareus was olive complected where I was not, his nose like the beak of a falcon where my own was straight and fine-boned, and his cheekbones were hollow and slack where, even then, beneath a child’s rosy plumpness, mine were high and prominent.
“It’s time for me to tell you everything,” my mother said, and without another word, she clasped my hand and led me along the corridor of the gynaeceum, the women’s quarters of the palace that overlooked a pretty courtyard inlaid with colored tile. I remember running my little finger along the polychrome frescoes that were painted on the courtyard walls, tracing the crests of the cerulean waves that depicted tales of Spartan sea voyages to Cyprus, Ithaca, and Crete, places whose names I’d heard, but which were no more than exotic sounds to me at the time. Even rendered in artists’ colors, the Great Sea held an allure that I could not then explain. As a child, my favorite part of the painted waves was the spray that tipped each one; I was certain it was real enough to evaporate like soap bubbles on my fingertip. My mother told me that Aphrodite, our goddess of love and beauty, was born of the seafoam. She was the most beautiful goddess in the world, Leda said, and one of the oldest—as old as Zeus, although men had forgotten that, preferring to honor the newer, warrior goddesses— sexless Athena and Artemis the chaste. I had seen only five summers then, but on that day, my mother told me that I was old enough to learn the story of Aphrodite’s extraordinary conception.
“Long ago,” my mother began, “there was a tremendous battle in the heavens. Zeus’s father, Kronos, who was the son of earth and sky, quarreled with his own father, Uranus; with a sharpened flint, Kronos destroyed his father’s fertile manhood, severing it from Uranus’s body and flinging it into the sea below. As it plunged into the hungry waves, the winedark water boiled up into a white froth—seafoam—from which emerged the goddess Cypris, who we call Aphrodite; she was accompanied by Eros—Lust,and Himeros—Desire.”
“I don’t understand,” I said to her, focusing I suppose on the grotesque act of dismemberment and wondering how someone so beautiful could end up being born through such a disgusting exploit. “Love and Beauty, Lust and Desire are almost as old as the world,” my mother answered. They were part of an old religion, she said, long before Zeus became king of the gods. “Come, I’ll show you.”
Her decision seemed a sudden one. My mother had always considered me too young to initiate into the mysteries of the old ways, when men and women alike saw wisdom in plants, divinity in trees and streams. That was before they devised gods in their own image and assigned each one a separate sphere of influence, diminishing the power of the earth goddess with the invention of each new deity.
I’m remembering now that she wouldn’t let go of my hand, even when I whined that her nails were digging into the soft pink flesh of my palms. “I’m sorry,” she said, and gripped me tighter. She was walking too fast for me, and I had to take two steps to every one of hers to keep up with her. I was practically skipping. Past the palace gate, we descended the terraced hills to the valley below, then traversed the entire length of the grassy plain that lay just beyond a small structure of sundried brick and hardened clay, a dun-colored farmhouse situated at the farthest edge of the city.
I’d wanted to slow our pace so I could pick a sprig or two of wild columbine to wear in my hair. “Are we in a hurry?” I asked my mother. She stopped for a moment and turned to me, still gripping my hand. She studied my face as though she wanted to weave my image into one of her tapestries to hang forever behind her deep green eyes.
“No, I suppose we’re not,” she said, and slowed our trot to a more leisurely walk. At the far end of the plain was a grove of trees.
“Where are we going?” I asked her.
“The altar,” she said.
“But we already passed the altar,” I insisted, turning and pointing back toward the palace. We sacrificed animals there on holidays and festivals, to bless a birth or honor a death, or to ask the gods for better weather. I always covered my eyes when Tyndareus or the priests slit the beasts’ throats. Their blood, smelling of metal, issuing from the still-pulsing veins, would flow in a crimson stream onto the stones of the pergamos where we gathered to witness the ritual. It always made my stomach rise up to meet my throat. I never got used to it. Even today, I need to look away and hold my breath to avoid the sight and stench of hot entrails freshly spilt.
I’m remembering now that during the sacrifices, our mother made my older sister Clytemnestra hold my hand so I wouldn’t run away and disgrace the family. And Clytemnestra would snicker beneath her veil and laugh at me for my folly, for my squeamishness. “Spartan women don’t cringe at the sight of a little blood,” she said. After that, when I shielded my eyes from the sacrifices, I turned them on Clytemnestra’s face instead. As the life of a goat or lamb or calf was ended with a single sweep of the knife, my sister’s expression grew oddly serene, although her eyes would shine like those of a woman in love. Clytemnestra liked blood. Clytemnestra . . . who always wore red from the time she was only ten summers old. . . .
“A different altar,” my mother said. “Here, in the grove.” I never knew there was any other. She led me from the sunlit plain into the cool blue-greenness between the poplars. I whined that my legs were tired and that I couldn’t see anything except trees and asked if we could go home; but she begged a few more minutes of my patience, bringing me deeper into the grove until we came upon the ruins of a temple, at the center of which was a stone as high as I was tall. “This is the altar I spoke of,” my mother said. “And there,” she added, pointing at one of the taller trees, “was where we worshipped the Goddess. Her mask hung like an effigy from that tree. There, see? The one where the mother bird is building her nest. Birds are sacred to the Goddess.”
I must have looked at her in utter confusion because we didn’t worship just one unnamed goddess. In fact, there were so many gods that I couldn’t remember all of their names. We offered tributes to Demeter at sowing time to ensure a bountiful harvest, and we brought her its gifts at reaping time to thank her. We poured libations to Dionysus at the advent of the grape harvest, made sacrifices to Zeus and Poseidon and Athena for victory in battle and safe passage on the high seas, to Artemis for a bountiful hunt, and even to Aphrodite to grant us success in affairs of the heart, but I’d not heard of “the Goddess.”
“She is the center of the old religion,” my mother explained impatiently, having fully expected her five-year-old daughter to comprehend this complicated theology. “I told you that Aphrodite was old, but the Goddess is even older. She has many names; in nearby Mycenae, for example, she is called Potnia—but she is the same being, the giver and sustainer of life. In the days of my mother, Eurythemis, and in her mother’s, and in her mother’s before her, stretching back for longer than any living man or woman can remember, there was a festival sacred to the Goddess that was held every spring in this grove. Only the women of Laconia were permitted to participate. The men knew enough then to keep away, respecting our celebration. There was music and there was dancing and there was wine.”
My mother told me that my grandmother and all the women of her line were priestesses devoted to the Goddess just as she was, although Tyndareus had tried to put an end to the old ways a few years ago by destroying the temple, telling my mother that we would worship only the new gods from then on and that there was no room for the Goddess in Sparta.
I didn’t see what difference it made which gods people worshipped as long as believing in different ones didn’t make them fight the way I would hear my mother argue with Tyndareus. “And it’s so pretty here,” I said, dropping my voice to a whisper. My words disappeared in the rustling of leaves. The grove was deliciously fragrant, though I couldn’t identify the aroma. Not pine, not lemon, not olive. The breeze bore the scent like a gift to my nostrils.
My mother placed her right hand on the altar. I reached up and did the same. I’m amazed that I can still recall how cool the stone felt against my skin. She described the sacred relic—a woman’s torso sculpted from the wood of one of the pear trees near the grove—that once rested on a pedestal near the altar before an eternal flame. Snakes—another symbol of the Goddess’s power—were brought to the grove on festival days, borne by temple attendants skilled at handling them. Coiling and uncoiling in their wicker baskets, the serpents represented her energy: powerful, unpredictable, and at times fatal.
“Every year,” my mother began, “a woman was chosen to represent the Goddess at our festival. By tradition it would be the queen, who was also the chief priestess of the Goddess’s temple. But after I married Tyndareus, he forbade me to enact her role, so another woman was selected every year to take my place.” I remember how my mother’s voice seemed to alter as she recalled her own past. Her words floated like musical notes on the air. Her eyes, too, were not focused on me, but were directed inward.
I interrupted her. “Why do you always call father Tyndareus and not Father when you speak of him to me?”
“I’m telling you why,” my mother said, looking directly at me for the first time since she had begun her narrative. “There had been a terrible drought. The crops were dying and there wasn’t enough to harvest. People were rationing food, and many of them believed the Goddess was angry because we had begun to worship the new gods as well. They were sure she was offended that I, their queen, had forsaken her by substituting other women in my stead at her annual rites. As a mob of citizens seeking both answers and revenge, their collective voices rising as one to a fevered pitch, they laid at my feet the blame for the Goddess’s displeasure—which had brought drought to the people of Laconia. I had no choice but to submit my body once more or fall prey to the wrath of a hungry rabble unable to feed their children.
“Sacred to the Goddess is the image of the bird, and each year at the climax of the festival, her high priestess would be ceremonially mated with her bird-consort. I prepared to accept him, anointing my limbs with perfumed oil so that my body glistened as though I myself had stepped from the sea. My attendants oiled my hair until it shone like molten bronze, and they perfumed my throat and breasts with attar of roses. We drugged my husband’s wine so that he would fall asleep in his cups, and by torchlight I made my way to the sacred grove and entered the temple.
“The women played their flutes and tambourines and, possessed by her spirit, danced ecstatically around the altar after they had removed my flowing ceremonial robes and laid me upon it. They poured libations, then handed me the sacred goblet of wine mixed with the juice of poppies brought from the Hittite kingdom. I drained it in one draught, the warm liquid searing my throat.”
I found my mother’s story both beautiful and terrifying. “And then what happened?” I asked, my question a breathless whisper. As many times as she had represented the Goddess in the mating ritual, nothing could have prepared her for what occurred next, she replied. For it was Zeus himself, disguised in the body of a great white swan, who took her upon the altar. Leda remembered lying naked on the plinth surrounded by the feverishly dancing acolytes of the Goddess, when they were startled by the sound of beating wings. Down through the branches of the swaying poplars swooped a swan so massive that his wingspan obliterated most of the light from the burning torches. The women ducked to avoid being knocked to the ground, but my mother bravely accepted her fate and mated with the great bird.
It was said that Zeus had looked down from Mount Olympus on the rites below and was so enamored of Leda’s incomparable loveliness that he could not bear for her to yield her body to a mere facsimile of divinity. She must be his, and so she became. Spent and exhausted from their passionate coupling, Leda collapsed on the altar, awakening from a trancelike slumber to discover the great swan flown, the only evidence of his presence a long white feather—the same feather, Hermione, with which I now write this memoir on Egyptian papyrus. My mother kept the sacred talisman hidden in her jewel chest. I found it after her death and have treasured it ever since. I even took it with me to Troy, carefully stored among my jewels.
In time, my mother told me, she knew she was with child, and when I was born she considered attempting to convince Tyndareus that I was his daughter. But it was clear to both of them that even in my infancy, there was no resemblance. “You have your father’s neck,” she would say wistfully when I carried myself like a proper Spartan princess, spine as straight as a birch and as supple as a willow, head held high atop a long and graceful throat.
Forgive me, my daughter, for my temporary digressions. My memories intrude on me as I write, sometimes tumbling upon one another like water over the rocks in a stream, sometimes weaving together like the warp and weft of a tapestry.
We regarded the ruined temple, my mother and I, our right hands still resting on the cool plinth of the altar. “The day you were born and Tyndareus first looked at your perfect face and tiny form, he knew you were none of his blood. He is not a clever man, Helen, but he is not a stupid one either. Immediately, he ordered that the temple in the sacred grove be razed and no symbols of the Goddess permitted to remain. Not only that, but those who insisted on continuing to worship her would be punished. ‘I humored you, Leda,’ he told me, ‘but you have taken advantage of my tolerant nature.’ He told me that the only reason he would not order that you be taken to Mount Taygetos and left there to die, was that he feared the people’s wrath when they learned that their beloved queen’s tiny daughter had been abandoned on a mountaintop. I believe Tyndareus feared the wrath of your true father, but as a king he dared not confess it, for such an admission might connote weakness.”
I shivered to think of what might have been my fate. No wonder Tyndareus had never smiled kindly upon me. I always thought I had been guilty of some transgression that had made him cross. His withholding of affection punished both wife and child. I remember now how often I heard my mother weep in the silence of her rooms when she believed there was no one to witness her tears. One day, long before she brought me to the sacred grove, when I must have been no older than three summers, I broke away from my nurse to visit my mother at her loom. I supposed I missed her. Her bare foot was propped up on a special foot support, and her chiton was pulled up above her knees so that she could twist the loose wool around her leg before spinning it. A basket holding the finished yarn rested beside her chair. A thick strand of red wool dangled loosely from her fingers while Leda sat trancelike, her gazed fixed on her spindle as though she would impale her heart upon its point. A single tear ran down her cheek, and I followed its course until it dropped onto her lap and made a tiny stain.
As “Mitera!” escaped my lips, my nurse caught up to me, grabbing me by the hand at the exact moment my mother turned to look at me. Her exquisite face wore a mask of ceaseless sorrow, or so it seemed, with her downcast eyes and her generous mouth turned down as if to stifle a sob. And as I tried to break free of my nurse’s grasp and run to comfort her—oh, how I wanted to lay my head in her soft warm lap—I was tugged back, taken from her sight, and trotted down the corridor to the room we called the nursery.
I now remember many other times, when perhaps I was even younger, that I would hear Tyndareus’s voice raised in anger against my mother, calling her to account for her suspected infidelity in the sacred grove. Her own voice would answer in a soft, placating tone that would, as their quarrel escalated, be replaced with one of enmity, and finally by one of supplication. Each time she would ask Tyndareus to be pleased that Zeus saw fit to favor their household with his progeny and that the kingdom of Sparta would indeed be blessed by my presence.
His reply would invariably be the same, and it was not until that day when my mother brought me to the sacred grove and revealed the truth of my paternity that I understood what he meant when he would tell Leda, “The child’s beauty may be a blessing to her future husband, but every day I am reminded by it that she is no daughter of mine, and such a blessing becomes a curse on the House of Tyndareus.” The words faithless whore, which of course I didn’t understand the meaning of at the time, struck my mother across the face like a slap, and that much even a child of three can comprehend. Stung by her husband’s insults, she would retreat to the comfort and solace of her loom, no longer permitted to be a priestess, no longer wanted as a wife.
Tyndareus refused to forgive my mother for her infidelity. And the sky goddess, Hera—my true father’s wife—as jealous as any mortal woman, never pardoned Zeus for the indiscretion of becoming my father. But in this I was not unique. Zeus was notoriously profligate with his seed, for which Hera appeared to spend mortal lifetimes punishing him. Invariably, if one of Zeus’s demimortal offspring was faced with calamity, Hera employed all her wiles in order to prevent her husband’s intervention. So Zeus made but one appearance in my life and that was to create it. Trumpeting his animal lust for my mother, he descended to earth, soaring heavenward after he had slaked his passions.
Although Zeus never revisited me, other immortals of Mount Olympus saw fit to call at various times throughout my life. When I felt the shadow of their protection or the sting of their spite, I knew they were beside me. And as my body began to show the first signs of womanhood, I came to realize that my passions have been inherited honestly. My unabashed cravings for the blazing consummation that only two bodies can know—yes, Hermione, that was passed to me by immortal Zeus.
On the afternoon following my visit to the sacred grove, while my nurse was napping, I went looking for my mother to ask her a question. I think I must have wanted to know something more about the Goddess, what she looked like, I suppose. I remembered that Leda had mentioned the mask that the women used to hang from the tree by the temple. Was she beautiful, I wanted to know. Fearful to behold? My mother was not at her loom. The spindle had been thrust like a dagger into a hank of bloodred wool that rested in an osier basket beside her stool.
I don’t know why, but I remember feeling that something was wrong. And I knew, deep inside, that I had to return to the sacred grove. There was no guard at the palace gate then. Tyndareus never feared intruders. The plain was broader than I remembered it. Crossing it alone seemed to take so much longer. I had to shield my eyes from the sun to keep from squinting, and I tripped and stumbled on a rock, tumbling facedown into the dry grass. It scratched my cheeks, as though I were giving a dutiful kiss to Tyndareus through the prickles of his beard. When I reached the poplars, I tried to remember which path we had taken the day before to get to the little temple, then chose the one that looked most worn. The wind sang a sad song through the trees, which sighed their response and inclined their bodies in acknowledgment of the music. I came upon the ruins, but saw no sign of my mother. “Mitera!” I called, and when I received a reply, I looked up to seek its source. In the same instant that I realized that what I had heard was my own echoing voice, I glimpsed my mother’s sandal floating above my head.
A gasp broke unbidden from my lips as my eyes trailed the slender length of her body, past her long slim legs, her narrow waist, the breasts that gave me suck when the wet nurse refused to give her nipples to Leda’s bastard child, to the soft gray veil that formed a silken noose around her swanlike neck.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Amanda Elyot. Copyright © 2005 by Amanda Elyot. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.