To Capture Their Visage

The Barberini Hera. Currently on display at the Vatican Museums.

Oh, just come out already, will you?

No, none of that, please. You can’t fool me. At least not here, in my own workshop. This has been my den since before your mother’s eldest brother was born. For many a long year I have been keeping my ears clean and sharp, so I would be able to pick up the scuttling of mice and ants, who are so keen on breaking into my larder and picking apart that which is supposed to keep me full and warm through the winter. And you are far from the first brat to sneak inside.

Oh, do calm down, will you? I am not angry, and even if I was, I would tell nobody. Why? Well, because if I wanted neighbors to push their too curious noses and meddlesome fingers in my business, I would be living next to marketplace, and not here, behind the hill. Nor would I be able to stand to listen to your parents’ deep and profound apologies and promises that it will never happen again. Or their claims that they have no idea how you’d dare do such thing, when they did the same. Yes, yes, they did, both of them,  I swear to you on my teeth — those I have left, at least. But I advise you against raising the issue with them, lest you desire to be caned (never got the point of it, since it certainly didn’t make me behave better, only get better at not getting caught, but what do I know about parenting).

Ha! This is not me being nice, child. I am just being pragmatic. I see no point in punishing you, nor in earning further enmity and suspicion of the people whose eggs I buy. I am already an outsider, and have to be careful when I am picking cheese. Disturbing everyone’s day to drag you by your ear and demand recompense will  only cause me trouble down the line.

Besides, you haven’t stolen or broken anything,  so no harm done. And if you had, well I have my own ways of dealing with unwelcome visitors. No need to involve anybody else.

Oh! Hahaha! Oh, if you could see your face! No, not like that. I have no mystical ways to make you regret being born. I am no witch, I’ve never been to Thessaly. I can no more draw the Moon down from the sky nor curse your family’s  fortune than you can speak to dogs or walk on  air. No, I have nothing but good old-fashioned fisticuffs and a hammer to my name to defend myself.

Must be a disappointment, huh? Let me tell you kid, nine times out of ten each mystery will be like that. Don’t go looking for spectacle or wonder, where practical explanation will suffice. Much safer, and less likely to destroy your enthusiasm for life. Don’t put your stock in glamour and excitement, child. Trust me, happines is to be found in naps during spring afternoons and tasty olives. In having a steady income and not picking quarrels.

But don’t go spreading that, you hear? Rumours are very useful, as long as you know how to control them. Don’t feed them, but let people spread them. And keep ear on them. They can keep you safe, if you know how to use them (and it’s hard, for wrangling rumours is like wrestling with polecats). Especially when you are like me — an old, crazy woman who lives alone up in the hills, styling herself a sculptor. 

Heh. I know what they say about me, don’t worry. I am a witch and a tramp, the madwoman and cracked widow, aging Amazon and criminal’s daughter. I heard it all and I don’t care. As long as nobody throws stones through my window, I am content. I have come here to make statues for temples (and they know I am good), and ask for no money, but demand only food and materials.

Here. If you are not intruder, then you are the guest, and few things are as unholy and reprehensible as not treating a guest to good meal. I’ve got here the best cheese in the region, or so I am told and have no reason to doubt it. The fruits are pretty good too. Eat, eat. You could use to put on some weight. Look at you! You are basically a twig that learnt to walk!

I am afraid you won’t find much adventure here. Just an ornery old woman’s home, like any other back in your village. Well, except for the mice, who have started a colony here and seem to regard me as a contemptible housemate. I swear they look at me with bored eyes when I chase them with a broom. Perhaps the only interesting things you will find are heaps of the bronze I have laying around the workshop, though I doubt it.

I love it, don’t mistake my meaning. But it’s hard work, and can often be very boring and drawn-out. It takes time to beat metal into tridents and veils. Sometimes I wonder why I bothered with this when I could have just married some farmer who didn’t talk a lot. But the struggle is part of the enjoyment, too. And when I finish one, when I make a statue and put it in the temple, I know it is worth it all (even if I have to suffer through making busts and portraits of the rich, who are never satisfied).

Oh! Thank you! I am glad you like my work. I suppose it is in possession of some quality, as I  often get commissions from afar, for all that my reputation is that of a madwoman more akin to drunk swine than anything respectable. And for all I ramble and complain, I do like this place. The people aren’t warm, but they are permissive enough. Life is not like that in the city, you know. Too structured, and everybody is too noisy. People are much more permissive of abnormalities here in the countryside. And the temples!

Oh, they are grand indeed. But when you’ve got kings and generals milling around, it all goes to ruin. Too much politics and greed, not enough kindness and faith. You get bad eggs of priests here, too, the controlling bastards who want to hold authority over their neighbors, but their means are limited here, and most people join out of honest belief and devotion. Or because they don’t want husbands.

Ah, yes. I thought about it, being a priestess. Would be nice, but it isn’t really for me. I don’t do well with all those formalities, and have an awful memory. I would probably ruin any ritual I tried to lead. Plus I like to laze around, shout obscenities at owls, travel, and lose myself in sleeping and eating. It wouldn’t end good for anybody. It would stifle me and make festivals and other rites miserable . And worst of all, be inappropriate and unloyal towards the Gods. Half-assed rituals don’t count for eusebia, or reverence of any kind, I am sure of it. No matter how well intentioned you are.

Ah. But of course, that is what you want to know.

Have I had dealings with the Gods, you ask. Well, haven’t we all? They give us crops and dreams. They send us rain and locusts. We pray to Them and burn our offerings, They hear and smell it and send us Their protection and favour. Though we don’t see them, or hear them, we can love and respect them. And so they care for us, just as they care for the trees and the fishes, too. This is the core of kharis, the giving and receiving that forms our bond with Gods.

But … rumours have to start somewhere. I don’t have any powers, but I have earned some favours. I cannot control tides, but it is true that when I leave with the boatmen to catch fish alongside them, the results will be rich. I have no powers of poison or healing, but it is true that when the plague arrived in our village twenty years ago, I was not infected, though I tended to sick. I cannot call forth the dead, nor command wildlife, but it is true that when the butcher’s grandfather had died, I saw his shade and communicated his last messages to his family. That when I had just arrived in the village so many years ago, and had set about restoring the temple of Artemis Pheraea, a man stalked me, and deer and boar chased him away.

I admit. The stories are true. I have lain my eyes upon the faces of the Gods.

I have seen Poseidon, the Marine Lord, the Shaker of Earth, Who Secures Safe Voyages, arise on the shores upon which He is worshipped. And he was tall and terrible, and I could not look away, though I wanted to. Just as I could not move my eyes from the oncoming tidal wave, so gripped I was with fear. His hair and beard were as dark and flowing like a squid’s ink, and upon his head sat a crown of coral reefs. His eyes were like two oceans whose surfaces shifted to reflect a rosy-fingered dawn and gray, rolling storms. I felt as if I was choking upon the sea foam, and smiled.

I have seen Artemis, Friend of Young Girls, She of Wolves, of Broad Pastures, rising against the horizon like a mountain, as proud and unbowing as the eldest oak in the world. She was adorned with bones and branches, cloaked in feathers, furs, and hides of all that crawls or flies and races upon the world, and in skins of those long dead and those not yet born, the feathered lizards and woolen elephants, all of them arisen around her like elephants. And though she was so far away it would take me a month by foot to reach her, I knew she had seen me. I felt like a fox caught by a hound, and I rejoiced.

I have seen Apollo, the Leader of the Muses, the Foreseeing, the Averter of Evil, colossal and beautiful, a refined work of art I will forever be unable to match, crafted from onyx and silver and gold. I have felt as if an arrow was fired unto my right eye, and a venom of snake poured in my left, and I could not bear to part my eyes from Him. For never had I felt so healthy and young, as if some blessed melody lived within my skin, compelling me to dance and laugh and run.

That makes it much harder to sculpt Their statues, believe me. People think it would be easy, when you know what they look like. But faces? Faces aren’t the point, only the vehicle to get across impressions and feelings, even with sculptured humans. And when you see Them, when you meet Theoi, only then do you get how much different, how much more and bigger they are than us. They love and argue and desire and make mistakes and are bound to fate like us, but ….

But they don’t die, and that means they don’t live either. They don’t forget and can change their form, from a boy to old woman to bull to fern to mist, and they can speak with humans and ants equally well. They can raise kingdoms and bring down dynasties, send forth plague and harvest.  By them were the stars put in the sky and seasons created. It is they who allow us to have rain and sunlight, who make births possible and attend to our souls when we leave this world. To gaze upon them, to truly see them, is to be struck with that glory, as if you were laying your cheek against a forge-flame. You feel the fear of their greatness creep to the marrow of your bones and all you desire is to make an offering  of yourself.

That’s why it takes me so long to finish each sculpture. It isn’t only about bending bronze into flesh and fabric, or carving noses and necklaces out of it. It’s about fitting it into the temple. About finding a way to convey the power and generosity they wield, to inspire the awe and love that they awoke in me, so many years ago. The angle of their head, the arch of their eyebrows, the position of fingers, all those things must be considered. And do you know what is the hardest of it all?

I’m not doing this for the sake of places in which I live, or pride in my own  work. I’m doing this for Them. Our Gods aren’t greedy or unreasonable. They don’t demand impossible quality or untold riches, but simply ask us to give our best. They won’t demand the best wine in country or the chests full of pearls and garnets from a beggar, nor a dozen heifers from the widow with seven children. They ask for honesty and effort. To show them genuine appreciation by tapping into the resources and potential we possess. Offerings of honey and bread, though sparse, if given with genuine gratitude, isn’t much to ask in return for healing or luck in love or the end of a drought, no?

They have not demanded any service of me, nor called in any debt, nor bade me to swear the oath. I chose this calling myself, and thus I have duty towards myself, too. To achieve excellence in my work — as much as I am capable of. For it is the drive of all things, from the chimney to mice, to be effective in what they are doing. Such is the nature of arete.

How did it begin? Hmm, few have asked me that. Most want to know whether I earned my talent from them or whether I begged indulgence and favours. If asked them to avenge me, if i was the parent of demigod, or if I had brought strife upon my head and was now repenting. They assumed I was of royal blood, to engage in blood-feuds and wars, and demanding miracles and risking hubris, and not a peasant artist who only hopes to live in peace and make something beautiful, to eat good cheese and eggs and breathe fresh air and die in sleep, to be buried respectably, for somebody to put an obol on my tongue, so that Charon might ferry me to Fields of Asphodel.

I was running. That is all you need to know, for I won’t tell you from whom I was running, or exactly why, nor where I came from. It is an old, dead story, that is part of me like a scar scabbed over, which doesn’t hurt anymore and may not be noticed easily, but is still part of me. I won’t give that memory, or the people within, any power by repeating it, but will instead offer it to silence in this life, and to Lethe in next. All you need to know, child, is that there are some homes in which you either wither, like a flower buried in a cellar, or jump off the roof to free yourself.

They almost caught up with me, my pursuers, who should have cared for me and not sought to possess me, when I happened upon an old, abandoned sanctuary of Hera. I had fallen down onto the stones, and I could feel blood flow from the edge of my forehead. My feet and bones ached terribly, and I wept, for I felt them come closer. So close that I was sure I could feel their hot, putrid breath upon my neck. I hoped I would die, then and there.

And then, they were gone, and so was my pain, and there was a woman next to me.

She was the first God I had met, and perhaps it is because she is indeed the greatest or perhaps it’s because I’m biased, but I maintain that She is the most wonderful of them all. So powerful that I felt nothing could hurt me and I was filled with a dreadful joy that threatened to break my heart like a piece of cheap pottery. I can still recall every second of our meeting, short as it was. The memory of Her might and kindness remains imprinted in my mind, as if it was branded and carved unto me with a heated blade. When I am old and my body is failing me — when I have forgotten my own name and all that is left inside this thick skull is shadows and dusk — I will be able to recall each second of that moment with perfect clarity. For it is rooted in my soul as a mountain is rooted unto the Earth.

I saw Her. The Queen of queens, before whom we all, from worms to emperors, must bow. It was the first time I saw a God, and I understood, then and there, why we use epithets to describe them. Because they are too old and complex to be understood by us, their minds too great and tremendous to grasp. So we never meet them, not truly, but are only allowed to see slivers of Their true being and mind, the aspects of a much greater entity, a single trait that to our limited mind seems like a fully realized person. She was a Child and a Woman, the Maiden and the Wife. She was both Virgin and Mother, the Bride and the Widow. She was the Lady of Flowers and of Chariots, whose favour we seek in both peace and war. She was the Mistress of Heights and of Starry Heavens. She was the Queen of the Universe.

And she came to me. A nobody. I was not of heroic or noble blood. I was not bound by prophecy. I had never before thought to pray at the steps of her sanctuary.  She was uncalled and owed me nothing, but still she came. As Hera Alexandros, the Protector of Men.

She was the first and last God who didn’t appear to me as a tall, great temple pillar, as a tower, or as a mountain. She came to me in the form of a normal woman. Perhaps a little bit shorter than me. Such that I could grasp her hands in mine and lower my head on her shoulder as I wept. I think she did it to be kind, to help, to make sure I wouldn’t die of fright.

Heh. Didn’t help a lot. Like I said, the shape is next to unimportant. Her coming to me like that, I think it even produced a bit of an opposite effect. It was like …. Imagine if somebody swept up all the stars in the sky, and the sun and moon, too, and condensed them into a single sphere, as big as a pebble. She wasn’t really slender, or possessing graceful features, or any of the attractive features men will tell you of in their poetry or bawdy jokes. She was a well built, healthy woman of some forty or so years. She had circles under her eyes (which were so soft and warm and brown, like the soil upon which pomengranate and cabbages grew in my dead aunt’s garden), and smile lines around her lips, like women I saw at the marketplace each day. She was dressed in a simple peplos, dropping from her shoulder, made of undyed linen (and it was whiter than marble or ivory, white as the daisies I used to pick, white as the milk of the cow which fed my family, white as goat’s bones).

Her hair was so primly and properly put up that if I hadn’t see her braids, I would have thought her to have cropped her tresses. It was very gray, the kind of gray you get only when you pass the mark of ninety. Gray like stormclouds, but at same time a deeper colour than the roots of a basalt mountain, yet also brighter than silver. She wore no veil or diadem, as might be expected of such a high standing woman, but instead a bunch of hairpins and other ornaments, which were small and shimmered like the sunlight reflected off a golden drachma. They were in the shape of tiny houses and temples, and I could see down to the smallest detail, from a chipped threshold to a leaking roof (and now I know that this house was among them).

She carried no ornaments of luxury — no signs of her office save for a simple ceramic patera as a libation bowl, and a stick for a scepter. She didn’t need anything else. I would have known her in my sleep or even in death, for authority and power were as much a part of her as flesh or the ability to think are of you and me. She was my queen, the queen of world, the highest authority (alongside her husband) next to fate itself. The universe was a wheel, and she was it’s hub. She could demand anything and I would have torn my heart out of my chest with pride if that was the price of fulfilling her request.

And She, who was the first among the Gods worshipped at Samos, who was so much greater than me that standing in Her presence still feels like an undeserved honour, who could break the world in half with a thought, knelt down next to me and rocked me as I babbled and wept and let loose snot on Her garments. She kept me safe until I found peace. Three days and three nights She stayed with me. She filled my heart with courage and my mind with comfort and then promised me that my family would never find me (for she is the Goddess of families and knows how they should act, and, when necessary, protects those of us who are unlucky in that regards). She conjured food, money, knives and clothes for me, and told me which road to take. I believe, gave me blessing of safety while I was on it (though I had to learn to take care of myself, too, for we can’t expect the Gods to tend to our every need, but then and there I needed safety and kindness and aid, and She provided it, and for that I shall forever be grateful).

I could tell you of the things I encountered while on the road. I am not the type of person who will be remembered in myths, but I did have my brushes with legends. I could tell you how I attended a dryad’s wedding, where I was taught how to craft medicines against poisons. Or I could tell you how I met the shade of Tiresias the prophet, who was once a priestess of Hera, and who taught me why I should beware snakes. Or I could tell you of more mundane things, such as how I tricked an old, ornery man into taking me in as an apprentice sculptor or the first time I had to deal with bandits on the road.

But what matters the most is this: that when I was leaving, I turned back to look at my former home only once (terrified that my chance at freedom would be lost, as Orpheus lost the chance at reunion with his love, but I was young and still wounded in those days, and still ached for the people who had harmed me, though I knew I must leave them to survive). And I saw her there. She smiled and waved to me and I saw how the texture of Her flesh was as hard and inflexible as metal, and of the same shade and shine as bronze. I saw the ruins of her sanctuary, and her cracked altar, and how of her statue raised there only the feet remained. And I knew then what was to be the purpose of my life.

What am I doing here, but practicing for the day I shall craft my final work? My ultimate masterpiece, into which I shall pour all of my skill, devotion, and life. I shall not care whether I will be remembered, I’ll only be proud that I raised it while remaining aware that it shall rust and break one day. But She is eternal and will remember it and it’s form shall echo in the creations of those who will pray and seek shelter there. 

And I shall come back to that place that would have seen me broken, where I was born and from which I fled. To that sanctuary where She saved my life in so many ways. I will sing her hymns there with my croaking voice among those of children and crones. And with a smile on my face, I shall lay before the steps outside (for I wouldn’t like to bring the miasma of death into the temple).

I shall close my yes, and slip into Thanatos’s hold, dreaming of her glory and kindness. Of her bronze face and the wrinkles around her lips. I will recall the touch of her hand caressing my hair, and her caring words, as gentle as the tickling of cuckoo feathers on my mortal cheeks.

[Written by Sergej Pavlovic.]