THE MAGIC CIRCLE: Entering the Circle

Use of this excerpt from The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright 1998 by Katherine Neville. All Rights Reserved.
So [Jesus] told us to form a circle, holding one another's hands, and himself stood in the middle and said, "Answer Amen to me." So he began to sing and to say:

Dance, all of you...
To the universe belongs the dancer.
He who does not dance does not know what happens...

Now if you follow my dance, see yourself in me who am speaking,
And when you have seen what I do, keep silence about my mysteries.

I leaped: but do you understand the whole?

--Acts of John
New Testament Apocrypha

Early Spring, A.D. 32

Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar could see in the dark.

Now, as he stood in the black night on the parapet, a night without moon or stars, he could still see clearly the clean lines and veins of his own strong hands resting on the parapet wall. His large, dark eyes surveyed the sea; he could make out whitecaps all the way to the Bay of Napoli, where the coastline lay in inky darkness.

He had been able to do so practically since infancy, and was thus able to help his mother escape across meadows and mountains--through a raging forest fire that licked so close it singed her hair--when the troops of Gaius Octavian were pursuing her, trying to catch her so that Octavian could seduce her. Then Octavian became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. So Tiberius' mother divorced his father--a quaestor who had been commander of Julius Caesar's triumphant Alexandrian fleet. And she became Rome's first empress.

That was Livia, a remarkable woman--honored by the Vestal Virgins and thought of as a treasure by nearly everyone in the empire. Key sponsor of the pax Romana. Herod Antipas built a city named for her up in Galilee, and it had been proposed several times that she receive the status of an immortal, as had been decreed for Augustus.

But Livia, at last, was dead, and, thanks to her, Tiberius was emperor. To further her son's ambitions, she'd poisoned every legitimate heir standing between himself and the throne, including, it was widely believed, the divine Augustus. Or perhaps one should say, to further her ambitions, which had been plentiful. Tiberius wondered--wherever Livia happened to be now--whether she could see in the dark.

He remembered the night, only last year, when he'd stood here at this very spot through most of the night, awaiting the bonfires he'd arranged for them to light at Vesuvius on the mainland as soon as it was certain in Rome that Sejanus was dead.

He smiled to himself, a bitter smile, full of deep and unending hatred for the one who'd pretended to be his best and only friend. The one who had betrayed him in the end, just as all the others had done.

It seemed a thousand years ago that Tiberius had stood on that other parapet of his first self-imposed exile in Rhodes, where he'd fled from his slut of a wife Julia, Augustus' daughter, whom he'd been forced to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry. The week Augustus banished Julia and wrote to beg his son-in-law to return to Rome, an omen was seen: an eagle, a bird never previously sighted at Rhodes, perched on the roof of his house. The astrologer Thrasyllus correctly interpreted this to mean that Tiberius would succeed to the throne.

Tiberius believed that the world was ruled by fate, that destiny could be learned through astrology, omens, or the traditional methods of divination, reading bones or bowels. Since our destinies were foredrawn, any supplications to the gods, or appeasement by sacrifice or by the costly erection of public temples and monuments, were in vain.

To no avail were doctors, either. At the age of seventy-four, having received no treatment or medication since the age of thirty, Tiberius was as strong as a bull, well proportioned and handsome, with the skin tone of a young athlete. So strong were his hands that he could poke through a fresh, crisp apple with any finger of either hand. And it was claimed that in his military days in Germany he'd actually killed men that way. He had, indeed, been a great soldier and a statesman par excellence--at least at first.

But those days were over. The omens had altered, and not in his favor. He could never return to Rome. Only a year before the Sejanus affair Tiberius had attempted to sail up the Tiber--but his small pet snake, Claudia, whom he carried in his bosom and fed from his own hand, had been found one morning on the deck, half eaten by ants. And the omens said: "Beware the mob."

Now he stood each night on this high cliff of his palace, on the overgrown rock whose very history lay steeped in antiquity and mystery. It was named Capri: the goat. Some thought it was called so for Pan, half man, half goat, fathered by the god Hermes on a water nymph. Others believed it was named after the constellation of Capricorn, a goat that rose like a fish from the sea. And some, he was sure, said it was named after a goatlike emperor in rut, hoarding child concubines on an island, riddled with sexual depravity. He didn't care what they said--the stars that guided his destiny had still been the same at his birth. There was no changing that.

Though Tiberius had been a lawyer, soldier, statesman, and emperor, in his heart of hearts he was, like his nephew Claudius, a lover of history, especially the history of the gods, which most in these modern times regarded as myth. Best of all, he loved the tales of the Greeks.

And now, after all these years of exile on this pile of stones--years when he'd heard of little but tragedy and betrayal in the day-to-day affairs of the outside world--now, suddenly, a new myth had surfaced at the far edge of the Roman empire. It wasn't really a new tale, as Tiberius knew. Rather, it was a story of great antiquity--perhaps, indeed, the oldest myth in the world--and was found in each civilization since the dawn of recorded history. It was the myth of the "dying god," a god who makes the ultimate sacrifice: to become a mortal. A god who, through the sacrifice of his own life as a mortal being, brings about the destruction of an old order and the birth of a new one, a new aeon.

As Tiberius stood in darkness on the terrace at the cliff edge listening to the dark sea breaking against the rocks below, he looked across to the dim glowing outline of Vesuvius, where hot lava had churned and boiled from time immemorial, though it only erupted, so they said, at the end of each aeon, every two millennia.

But were they not entering a new age now? Was this not the new aeon the astrologers had been awaiting? Tiberius wondered if he himself would live to see the force of the vulcan god unleashed from the belly of the earth.

Just then, near the breakers at the mainland, he saw the flash of an oar, which must be the ship he was awaiting. He'd been watching half the night, and now, as it approached in the thinning darkness that spoke of imminent dawn, he gripped the wall before him. He knew it was the ship that was bringing the witness to him. The witness who had been present at the death of the god.

He was tall and slender, with olive skin, almond eyes, and hair like a raven's wing that hung in a straight glassy panel to his shoulders. He wore a white linen tunic, wrapped once and cinched loosely with a rope belt, and the bronze arm cuffs traditional with those from the south. Before him, across the terrace, Tiberius sat on his marble throne, on an elevated marble dais overlooking the sea. Behind him stood the imperial guard and the captain and crew who'd brought him there by sea. As he crossed the terrace and knelt on one knee before Tiberius, it was clear that he was afraid--but proud.

"Your name is Tammuz, an Egyptian name," said the emperor, bidding the other to rise from his knee. "And yet, they say you are the pilot of a merchant ship that bears between Judea and Rome." When the witness stood in silence, Tiberius added, "You may speak."

"It is just as your excellency--your imperial highness--states," Tammuz replied. "My master owns a fleet of merchant sailing ships. I pilot one of his ships that carries not only freight, but also many passengers."

"Tell me what you saw, in your own words. Take your time."

"It was late one night, after dinner," said the Egyptian, Tammuz. "No one was sleeping; most passengers were talking on deck and finishing their after-dinner wine. We were just along the coast of Roman Greece near the Echinades Isles. The wind had dropped, and the ship now drifted near the darkly forested outline of the camel-humped double isles of Paxi. Just then, a deep voice floated out across the waters--a voice from Paxi, calling my name."

"The name of Tammuz," murmured the emperor, as if recalling some half-forgotten melody.

"Yes, my lord," replied Tammuz. "At first, I was distracted, steering the ship, and did not realize at once that it was I who had been called. But upon the second call, I was surprised, for no living soul on that small Greek isle knew me; nor did the ship's passengers even know my name. By the third time my name was called, the passengers were looking about them, for ours was the only ship at all in this part of the dark sea. Upon the third call of my name, I replied to the hidden voice which called out to me across the waters."

"And what happened once you'd answered?" asked Tiberius, turning his face away from the first dawn light toward the shadow, so the sailors and guards standing nearby couldn't read his thoughts when he heard the Egyptian's reply.

Tammuz said, "The caller cried out: ‘Tammuz, when you come opposite to Palodes on the mainland, announce that Great Pan is dead!'"

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Tiberius leapt to his feet, his height towering over all, and he looked Tammuz in the eye.

"Pan?" he snapped. "Which Pan are you speaking of?"

"My lord, he is not one of the Egyptian deities, those in whom I was raised to believe. And though now, as a resident of the great Roman Empire, I have done with those old ideas, I fear that I'm not well-schooled in my newly adopted faith. But it is my understanding that this lord Pan is the half-divine son of a god named Hermes, whom in Egypt we call Thoth. And therefore, as a half divine, perhaps lord Pan is available to death. I hope I do not commit a sacrilege by saying so."

Available to death! thought Tiberius. The greatest god in seven thousand years? What kind of absurd tale is this? But with a masklike face, he rubbed his jaw as if nothing were unusual, resumed his seat and nodded for Tammuz to continue. He felt the first tingling presentiment of something that might be very, very wrong.

"The passengers and crew were as astounded and confused as I," Tammuz went on, as if nothing were amiss in his tale. "We debated among ourselves whether I should do as the voice had demanded, or whether I should refuse to be involved in this strange request. At last, I resolved the problem thus: If, when we passed Palodes, a breeze was blowing, we would sail on by and do nothing. But if the sea was smooth, with no wind, I'd announce aloud what I had been told. When at last we came opposite Palodes, there was no wind and a smooth sea--so I called out ‘Great Pan is dead!'"

"And then?" said Tiberius, leaning out from his shadow to look the pilot again in the eye.

"At once, there was an outcry from the mainland," said Tammuz. "Many voices, weeping, lamenting, and many loud wailings of amazement and astonishment. My lord, it seemed as if the whole coastline and the deep interior beyond were in mourning at some hideous family tragedy. They cried out that it was the end of the world: the sacred goat was dead!"

Impossible! Tiberius nearly screamed aloud, as he heard those phantom cries in the darkness echoing through his mind. It was completely mad! From the time of the first soothsayer, who prophesied the birth of Remus and Romulus, down to the present moment, no dark event such as this had ever been hinted at by anyone. Tiberius felt his skin go cold and clammy, despite the warmth of the morning sun.

Wasn't this era only the dawning of the Roman empire, which, after all, had only begun with Augustus? Everyone knew the "dying god" was a god in name only, for the gods themselves could never actually die. A surrogate was chosen: a new "god" to rejuvenate, regenerate the old myth. This time it was to be a poor shepherd, farmer, or fisherman--someone who drove a wagon or a plough--not one of the greatest, most ancient gods of Phrygia, Greece, and Rome. The great civilization of Rome, suckled at the teats of a she-wolf, would not be brought down by one old, heirless, hermit king, ending his days in exile on an isle named for a goat. No, it must be a lie, a trick launched by one of his many enemies: someone who aspired to drive him to the brink of bitter disappointment at playing midwife to the birth of a lie--rather than of a new aeon. Even the name of the pilot himself, Tammuz, smacked of myth, for this was the name of the oldest god who died--older than Orpheus, Adonis, or Osiris.

The emperor drew himself together, signaled for the guard to provide the pilot some silver for his trouble, and turned away to signify that the audience was ended. But as the money was given to Tammuz, Tiberius added: "Pilot, with so many passengers on your ship, there must be other witnesses available to confirm this strange story?"

"Indeed, my lord," agreed Tammuz, "there were many witnesses to what I heard and did." Deep in the unfathomable black eyes, Tiberius thought he saw a strange light. Tammuz took the coins, but Tiberius lingered against his will or better judgment. "Regardless of what we believe we know," Tammuz continued, "there is one witness alone who can tell us whether that Great Pan was a mortal or a god, and whether he is alive or dead. But that sole witness is only a voice--a voice calling across the waters...."

Tiberius waved him away impatiently, and departed for the isolated parapet--his prison. But as he watched the pilot led down the slope to the harbor, the emperor called his slave and handed him a gold coin, motioning toward the Egyptian on the trail below. On swift feet, the slave descended the trail and handed the coin to the pilot, who looked up to the terrace where Tiberius stood.

The emperor turned away without a sign and went into the empty palace. Once there, he poured aromatic oil into the amphora on his altar and set it alight in the service of the gods.

He knew he must find the voice--the voice crying in the wilderness. He must find it before he died, or Rome itself would be destroyed.

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